An Open Letter to Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo

To zoo-m it may concern;

I love Chicago. I’ve been visiting the Windy City on business a lot this year, and I’ve come to adopt the place as the Second City of My Heart, after New York, which is home. I eat Chicago’s pizza and hot dogs. I drink Goose Island and 312. I visit all the museums. At Wrigley Field, wearing a nifty Cubs hat that I gladly paid through the nose for, I jumped to my feet and cheered when the Cubbies beat the Cardinals in a dramatic bottom-of-the-ninth turnaround. And naturally, as my friends, family, colleagues, acquaintances, twitter followers, and tumblr readers should know or easily be able to guess, I’ve been to the Lincoln Park Zoo…several times.

I’m a lover of animals. In New York I’m a proud member of the Wildlife Conservation Society, and I visit the Bronx Zoo, the Central Park Zoo, the Prospect Park Zoo, and the New York Aquarium frequently. Seriously — FREQUENTLY. Watching animals gives me a sense of inner peace and contentment that little or even nothing else does. And of the mammals, I definitely have a favorite. Oh I MOST DEF HAVE A FAVORITE.

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I took that photo in the Bronx Zoo. It was an unbelievably cold winter day, the giraffes were in their indoor enclosure, and the zoo was virtually deserted. I spent two hours in that room, just me and the giraffes. One of the absolutely most joyful moments of my life? When I got them to play peek-a-boo.

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I love these massive animals. I love them, and I know practically everything about them. Ask me about their taxonomy: Animalia Chordata Mammalia Artiodactyla Giraffidae Giraffa camelopardalis. I can — and do — tell people about their fifteen-month pregnancies. Calves are born around six feet tall. They have ossicones, cartilage “horns” under their skin that are soft and mushed down flat in infancy to pass through the birth canal. Their even-toed hooves are the size of dinner plates, cushioned with rubbery padding at birth, again, to pass harmlessly. Despite the exaggerated length, their necks have the same number of cervical vertebrae ours do, seven. Their lips are prehensile, and their tongues are eighteen inches long.

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A twenty-five-pound heart, the size of a basketball, pumps blood through arteries that are equipped with valves to prevent fainting when they snap up their heads at any sign of danger. And super tight skin on their legs, a feature mimicked in fighter pilots’ G-suits, prevents blood from collecting in their feet under the immense pressure of such a tall fluid column. Speaking of their legs and of lowering and raising their heads, they can’t reach the ground, and have to spread their front legs gracelessly to drink.

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Their loping walk is extremely unusual, moving both legs on one side and then both on the other, rather than alternating legs as most quadrupeds do. Contrary to popular misconception, they do have vocal cords, although they rarely make a sound, or at least any sound that we can hear. It’s widely held now that they do make infrasound vocalizations, inaudible to us, for each other’s benefit. Their eyes are the size of golf balls, ringed by Revlon eyelashes…oh, man, their eyelashes.

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One would be hard-pressed to find a bigger fan of giraffes than me.

Me, or Lynn Sherr.

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Ms. Sherr, in her book Tall Blondes, said that to meet a giraffe up close is to fall in love for life, and that’s what happened to me. At age 20, working for a TV-newsmagazine production company in my hometown of San Juan, Puerto Rico, my boss and I drove to the west coast of the island to shoot a piece at Zoológico Dr. Juan A. Rivero, in Mayagüez. A vet there gave us the complete tour, including behind many of the scenes. In a back room we watched two hippos being fed from a huge trough, a spectacle not at all unlike a game of Hungry Hungry Hippos — with mangos, bunches of bananas, and whole watermelons for pellets.

The giraffes were not out for public view that day, but our guide brought us to their stables and let us in. I wasn’t prepared for the sight that awaited me; giraffes are MUCH bigger than the uninitiated would tend to imagine, and just craning my neck to look up at this roughly eighteen-foot-tall giraffe bull struck me with awe. At a loss for what to do, I put my hand on him, dumbly. He looked down at me.

In what I will always remember as slow motion, taking forever, I watched that insanely long neck arch down and that massive head descend toward me, until we were looking at each other eye to eye. I petted the back of his head with one hand and put the other in front of his snout, like you’d do with a dog or a horse, and he sniffed at it and licked my fingers. I was smitten.

Aside from that deeply personal animal encounter, why do I love them so much? I have no illusions about that. They alternate between being hilariously goofy and surprisingly elegant; they’re tall; they’re awkward; they’re gentle and placid; they can be very handsome, once you see past how weird and stupid they appear. In short…they remind me of me.

I identify with them. I see myself in them. You feel me, giraffe? Because I feel you, boo.

I don’t believe in spirit animals, but whoa, man; these are my spirit animal if ever there was one.

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I go to zoos in different cities and visit all their animals, and above all their giraffes, every time I can. Here’s a photo I took earlier this year at the Bronx Zoo.

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Here’s an older Bronx Zoo shot of a giraffe eyeballing an ostrich.

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This giraffe lives in Cincinnati, Ohio.

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And, just because: here’s a drawing my friend Rickey Purdin made for me, of Robocop riding a giraffe.

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All of which brings me to my point — FINALLY, am I right?!

I spent a wonderful half-day visiting your zoo earlier this week, Lincoln Park Zoo. True to form, I paid the giraffes a visit. I even tweeted this:

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And I did see your giraffes. There were two, housed in an indoor enclosure due to the chilly weather. Here’s one of them, a female, or cow.

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And the other one.

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So much did I tweet about the many animals I was seeing, that you noticed, and followed me on twitter. Prompting me to post:

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You already know that story, now that I’ve told it to you. And much to my surprise, Lincoln Park Zoo, you responded!

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Not happy to take no for an answer in this vital cause, I pled my case.

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And this is indeed true. I have quite a few pictures of giraffes on my phone. I look at them sometimes when I’m feeling anxious or harried. They calm me and make me feel at ease again. Like this one.

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And this one.

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And this one.

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And this one.

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Lincoln Park Zoo: Your facilities are excellent. Your animals are fine specimens. Your bucolic grounds provide the perfect setting in which to spend a beautiful day. And by being open to the public free of charge, the children and adults of Chicago’s entire population, as well as visitors like me, can discover the joy of animals and the critical importance of conservation and biodiversity. You have my admiration and my affection, Lincoln Park Zoo, and when you followed me on twitter, I felt truly flattered and touched.

So here’s my wish, Lincoln Park Zoo. I’ll be back in Chicago on Tuesday, November 6 — Election Day. I hope that you’ll “ELECT” to reconsider, and open your doors for me to visit your two giraffes. I want to learn their names. I want to coo at them. I’ll wear my Cubs hat, and I’ll tweet and tumbl and talk for ages after about the great boon you were kind enough to gift me.

I won’t try to throw my weight around by claiming to have a lot of followers on twitter. I have fewer than you. Just about five thousand fewer than you, in fact. But it’s still a respectable number of followers, and they all know how much I love the gangly giraffe. There are even quite a few Chicagoans in there. Wouldn’t it be nice to tell them what a great zoo you are? Don’t you think you’d have fun meeting me? What do I need to do to convince you, Lincoln Park Zoo?

Name it.

Thank you for your attention in this vital matter.

Best regards,

Alejandro Arbona