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JUST FOR KIDS : SANTA BARBARA ZOO : A Tall Story : A deformity in a giraffe's neck has become a leading attraction at the Santa Barbara Zoo.

June 21, 1990|JANE HULSE

You've heard the one about the giraffe with a sore throat? Try the one about the giraffe with a kink in her neck.

It's no joke to the people at the Santa Barbara Zoo. They're baffled by the very noticeable zigzag halfway up the neck of the 4-year-old female giraffe.

It's so striking that the gangly animal has become one of the newer attractions at the zoo. A sign at the giraffe enclosure even points out the bizarre deformity and assures observers the animal is in no pain and that zoo veterinarians are monitoring her.

"Our veterinarian contacted other giraffe keepers and no one had heard of anything like it," said Nancy Hollenbeck, assistant director of the zoo.

To find out conclusively what is wrong would require that the giraffe be anesthetized and X-rayed, she said. That poses a 30% to 50% risk of death, and zoo officials decided against it.

"She walks normally, she eats normally, and she shows no sign of pain," said Hollenbeck. The current theory is that it's a muscle contraction that grew progressively worse until last summer and now seems to have stabilized.

The giraffe's crooked neck isn't the only new oddity for visitors at the zoo. A pair of tapirs recently arrived from Central America to take up residence at the zoo. The giant hog-like animals with their long flexible snouts wallow in muddy water.

They're far from cute, but the male and female are starting to show an interest in each other, and that's good news to zoo officials. The tapirs, relatives of the rhinoceros, are an endangered species.

There's always something new to see at the Santa Barbara Zoo no matter how many times you've been there. Because it's a small, compact zoo, it's an easy place to take children. The entire 81-acre grounds can be covered in an afternoon.

Located on a hilltop overlooking the ocean, the Santa Ynez Mountains and the Clark Bird Refuge, it's more than a zoo. The garden-like grounds make it a horticultural paradise, especially with the addition of a new cactus garden.

Although it's small, the zoo is home to more than 150 kinds of animals--rare animals like the lesser panda, the black and white ruffed lemur, and the golden lion tamarin.

It has the usual sampling of elephants, lions, sea lions, monkeys, snakes, and a large collection of birds including the rare Bali mynah and a flock of flamingos.

One of the newest exhibits is the nocturnal hall, a dark setting for the animals of the night who sleep during the day. Special lighting reverses night and day for the animals and makes it possible to see the night monkey and Geoffroy's cat as they skitter around glassed-in enclosures that look like their natural habitats.

The spookiest exhibit in the nocturnal hall is the re-creation of an old mine shaft that is home to a swarm of bats that cling to the beams and flutter around as the sounds of the night are piped in.

For children, there's a lot to do at the zoo. A miniature train takes riders on a one-mile spin around the zoo grounds. A playground comes in handy when the kids need a break from the animals. Or, the children can buy crackers in the gift shop and feed the goats in the farmyard exhibit.

WHERE AND WHEN: The Santa Barbara Zoo is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and from June 11 through Sept. 3 (Labor Day) from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. The elephant training demonstrations are usually at 2 p.m. and the sea lions are generally fed at 4 p.m. Admission is $4 for adults, $2 for senior citizens and children 2 to 12 years, and free for those under 2 years. For more information call 962-5339.

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