Tuesday, September 8, 2015

What You Didn’t Know About Giraffes!


Back in the ‘80s, a friend of mine tried to set me up with his girlfriend’s sister.  I thought the whole double-dating thing was kind of corny, plus it didn’t seem like this girl was the sharpest tool in the shed.  For example, she wrote a report for school on the topic of goats; it was basically a list of goat-related facts.  (I know, I know ... what grade-school kid hasn’t taken this approach?  But this was a high school junior!)  I enjoyed watching her friend try to help:  “Shouldn’t you have a thesis?” To which she replied, “It is a thesis!”

Well, I probably should have dated her, because I now realize that a well-defined thesis actually limits you intellectually.  Had she declared something specific—e.g., “goats are assholes”—then she’d have had to ignore all the great things about goats when conducting her research.

With that in mind, I’m not going to try to reach some neat conclusion as I pursue the topic of giraffes.  What I will say is this:  though there are many neat things to learn about giraffes, some of the most fascinating things are curiously—perhaps suspiciously—obscure.

Some amazing facts about giraffes

The giraffe is the tallest animal in the world.  Newborn giraffes are taller than most humans. 

A giraffe can stand up within half an hour of being born.  NASA has studied this to help understand how to strengthen astronauts’ leg veins.

A giraffe can gallop along at 35 mph.

A giraffe’s kick can actually decapitate a predator.

A giraffe’s tongue is 20 inches long, and prehensile.  The giraffe can and does pick its nose with this amazing tongue.

Giraffes have very high blood pressure:  at about 300/200, it’s twice that of humans.  A giraffe’s pulse rate, at around 170, is also twice ours.

A female giraffe can only mate for two weeks out of the year, and indicates her readiness by urinating in the male’s mouth.  This odd practice is called flehmen and is related to that weird smelling thing cats do.

Can giraffes be evil?

Of course it’s silly to assign moral responsibility to animals, but when an animal exhibits a behavior that’s sufficiently dastardly, it’s tempting to call that animal evil.  Consider the abominable practice of eating one’s young.

“But wait,” you protest, “giraffes are herbivores!”  Well, yes, mainly.  But they are also known to eat the bones of dead animals, and even carcasses.  Is it a stretch to assert that they also eat their own young?  Probably not.  Try this:  go to Google, and type in “do giraffes eat.”  Google’s auto-fill feature immediately suggests obvious search strings, like “do giraffes eat apples.”  Fourth on the list:  “do giraffes eat their young.” 

Now, the responses you’ll see are of course quite varied.  There are more than 1.5 million hits on this search, and I for one do not have time to chase them all down.  Bottom line:  there’s probably something to this, and I think it’s deplorable.

Giraffes are also known to lay their eggs in other animals’ nests, in a move called “brood parasitism.”  What’s more, the baby giraffe, once hatched, will push the other animal’s eggs out of the nest, to get all the food to itself!  Watch this video if you don’t believe me.

Okay, I just realized I screwed up.  I somehow confused cuckoo birds with giraffes.  I guess giraffes don’t technically engage in brood parasitism, which should have been obvious because of course giraffes don’t lay eggs.  I could go delete the previous paragraph, but any attempt to “revise the past” can get you into legal trouble.  It just makes you look guilty.  And with the Wayback Machine, of course I’d get caught.

More on evil in giraffes

I’m not the first person to explore the notion of evil in giraffes.  Eddie Izzard, who in addition to being a zoologist and historian does some stand-up comedy, pursued this question when pondering, onstage, why (in the Noah’s Ark tale) so many animals had to endure the great flood that God brought about to punish evil in the world.  Among other animals, Izzard investigates the giraffe
What in fact is an evil giraffe?  How do they ... [here he mimics a giraffe voice and pantomimes chewing:]  “I will eat all the leaves on this tree.  I will eat more leaves than I should.  And then other giraffes may die.  Ha ha ha!  I am an evil herbivore.”
You should talk about this with your children.  Share with them your best rendition of Izzard’s monologue.  Use it as a jumping-off point to discuss the nature of good and evil.

Did giraffes ruin poetry?

Of course I won’t be so absurd as to assert that giraffes have done anything deliberate—whether acting collectively or individually—to ruin poetry.  But it’s an unfortunate fact that their very name has caused poets no end of grief, with many critics convinced that poetry itself has suffered.

The problem stems, oddly enough, from the simple fact that almost nothing rhymes with “giraffe.”  Of course the modern reader thinks nothing of this, since rhyme has all but disappeared from modern verse—but that’s actually the point.  For most of poetry’s history, rhyme did matter.  It was actually this animal—or rather, its name—that started the trouble.

Believe it or not, no prominent poet had managed to rhyme on “giraffe” until T.S. Eliot, in 1920, wrote “Sweeny Among the Nightingales.”  It opens thus: 
Apeneck Sweeney spreads his knees
Letting his arms hang down to laugh,      
The zebra stripes along his jaw    
Swelling to maculate giraffe.
Critics immediately noted two things:  one, Eliot rhymed on just one syllable, which doesn’t really count and is fairly weak for a poet of his caliber; and two, “maculate giraffe” is kind of a stretch.  As a verb, “maculate” means “to mark with spots or stain” and is a transitive verb.  The poem takes place in a restaurant so obviously there’s no giraffe around.  (That would turn the whole poem into a weak joke, like the one where a panda strides into a bar and shoots the piano player.)  So “maculate” must be an adjective, meaning “spotted or stained.” 

Since when is it okay for a noun to modify an adjective (i.e., for “giraffe” to modify “maculate,” since what is being described is not a giraffe but the way that Sweeney’s sideburns are spotty)?  This line really makes no sense.  If you ask me, the mental effort of rhyming with “giraffe,” even on one measly syllable, simply threw Eliot off his game.

(The difficulty of rhyming with “giraffe,” by way, is related to where the stress falls in this word.  Most English words are trochaic—that is, the stress, or emphasis, falls on the first syllable; e.g., “zebra,” “swelling,” “letting.”  The word “giraffe” is iambic, meaning the stress is on the second syllable.  This is very common with French words, but a French poet runs into the problem of two different words for “giraffe”:  “la girafe” (feminine) and “le girafeau” (masculine).  How can the poet choose which form of this word to use, when the sex of a giraffe is so hard to determine?)

That Eliot’s “Sweeney Among the Nightingales” was well received really irritated another poet of the era, a certain E.E. Cummings.  Cummings attended Harvard shortly after Eliot, and it’s widely known he disliked living in the older poet’s shadow.  So he set out to write a poem of his own that would not only rhyme with “giraffe” on two syllables, but would actually make sense.

The only problem was, he couldn’t do it.  The only obvious two-syllable rhyme, “carafe,” was off the table, because it was too obvious.  A popular knickknack of the day was a carafe actually shaped like a giraffe, which made the association far too twee for a sophisticated poet.  (If you’re lucky you can still come across a vintage giraffe carafe at a thrift store.)

Countless crumpled-up drafts of Cummings’ giraffe poetry efforts were found by historians, but none still exist (they were destroyed in a fire, which some say was arson).  We know through accounts from Cummings’ friends that, for weeks at a time, he would convince himself that words like “agrafe,” “piaffe,” and even “Luftwaffe” counted as proper “giraffe” rhymes; each time, he eventually acknowledged he was only slipping into self-delusion.  This effort almost drove him insane, and finally he abandoned traditional poetry altogether, not only eschewing rhythm, rhyme, and spelling, but most other poetic conventions as well.  He would never write traditional poems again.

While E.E. Cummings continues to be a household name, many critics dismiss the actual quality of his work.  But whether or not he was any good, his influence cannot be denied.  To this day, most poetry lacks rhyme (along with meter, etc.).  It’s not fair to scapegoat Cummings for this ... the problem was with “giraffe” all along.  Sure, other words are hard to rhyme with too, but they aren’t attached to creatures as compelling as giraffes, which practically cry out to be celebrated in verse.

Are giraffes political?

Many primates are known to build complex political structures within their communities.  But do giraffes?  Not exactly, but once again, something about these strange animals seems to inspire humans.  If we ever manage to put together a credible third political party, don’t be surprised if its symbol is the giraffe.

The use of the giraffe in pictorial political metaphor is as old as the metaphor itself.  The giraffe first makes its appearance, oddly enough, in the first cartoon that represented the Republican party as an elephant.  I’m talking about Thomas Nast’s drawing, “The Third-Term Panic,” which ran in Harper’s Weekly in 1874:

I think political cartoons have gotten simpler over the last 140 years.  It’s worth pointing out here that the donkey doesn’t actually represent the Democratic party (as has been reported elsewhere):  its collar reads “N.Y. Herald.”  The Democratic Party is represented in this cartoon by the raccoon, which retreats from the chasm of chaos even as the elephant flees the lion.  Almost every other animal flees the lion as well.  Notable exceptions are the owl, whose meaning I can’t grasp; the ostrich, predictably burying its head; and the giraffe.

It’s impossible to overstate the importance of this cartoon in establishing the elephant as the symbol of the Republican party.  Likewise, other Nash cartoons cemented the relationship between the donkey and the Democrats (even though this one didn’t).  Nash didn’t follow up on the giraffe theme—but other cartoonists did.  Check this out:

The big problem with the giraffe’s ascendance in political cartoons is that the giraffe isn’t yet symbolic of anything specific (“independent” being something less than a political party with specific values).  Consider the following pair of pictures:

The caption of the first cartoon translates, “April goes as it entered, the end will be the beginning.”  The second, near as I can figure, is something about a wind farmer being pissed about a June hailstorm.  I don’t grasp the point of either cartoon, and I’m no expert on German politics, but since Merkel and Beck represent opposing political parties, the giraffe cannot be thought to symbolize either one of them.

If you’re about to ask “so what?” I will ask you to pause and reflect on something:  isn’t it possible that the failure of a viable third party to emerge is actually the giraffe’s fault?  Think about it.  The donkey first came to symbolize the Democrats because Andrew Jackson’s opponents called him a jackass, and he embraced the symbol because it represents stubbornness.  Nash characterized the Republican party as an elephant because this party was too big, he felt, to cower in fear, even when confronted by a lion.  Stubbornness and fearlessness are sound characteristics on which to base a party’s mascot.  But what are giraffes?

Giraffes, alas, are just kind of weird.  What party wants to be associated with weirdness?  But this timidity is the whole problem.  If you’re going to take on the big established parties, you’re going to have to embrace your uniqueness.  Figure out how to tune your metaphor to include a strong heart, a clever tongue, and a strong kick, and you’ll be on your way.  (Needless to say, it’s best if you leave out the bit about urinating into your mate’s mouth.)

For the record

As I hope you’ve gathered, all that stuff about Cummings and Eliot was pure malarkey (though I suppose it’s possible I unknowingly stumbled on some truth there).  Everything else in this essay, however, is completely true(-ish).

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