CAN YOU DIGS IT?!
DIGS! (Celebraci-n de los Dignatarios)
When: 5-10 p.m. Thursday
Where: Santa Barbara Zoo
Tickets: $125 (through July 31); $150 (Aug. 1); $99/each (groups of 50 or more)
As the genetically most important giraffe in North America, Michael has one, simple job — keep producing offspring.
And, over the course of the past eight years, the Santa Barbara Zoo’s only male giraffe has done just that, to the tune of seven calves, now sprinkled all across the United States.
This time next year, that number will grow to nine — as the zoo’s two female Masai giraffes, Adia and Audrey, are both pregnant by Michael.
“We’ve had a lot of heartbreak at the zoo over the past year, so this is something to celebrate and very welcomed news,” said Dr. Julie Barnes, the zoo’s vice president of animal care and health.
The announcement comes three weeks after the International Union for Conservation of Nature classified the Masai giraffe as endangered, with an estimated 35,000 living in the wild in Africa, a fall of nearly 50 percent over the past three decades.
While extinction status is a ways off, Dr. Barnes looks at the Masai giraffes in managed care as the assurance that the species could survive long-term.
“That’s why we manage the animals so carefully in human care, so that they can be an insurance population,” Dr. Barnes said. “We hope it never comes to that.”
Genetics play a big role in managing proper growth, something that happens naturally in the wild.
Giraffes that are born in zoos are separated from their mothers after about two years, assuring that there is no inbreeding, finding optimal pairs around the country.
Adia came from the Cleveland Zoo in December 2017 with the goal of her breeding with Michael, while this will be Audrey’s fifth calf by the male giraffe who came to Santa Barbara in 2011.
To the naked eye, neither female will show the pregnancy, a natural adaptation that stems from the wild, where the giraffes do not want to be a target by predators.
This makes it difficult for mammal keepers to know when a giraffe is pregnant, although Cassie Moews, a senior mammal keeper at the Santa Barbara Zoo, says there are signs.
Ms. Moews explains that Michael is the first indication, as his behaviors dictate how aggressively he is looking to mate.
Michael will test the female’s ability to get pregnant by waiting for them to urinate, then tasting that urine, which triggers a specialized organ that he has that tells him if they are ready to conceive.
If they are within their two-week cycle, he still has to make sure he finds the specific 48-hour period that the female can actually conceive.
“He has to be spot on when to catch them,” Ms. Moews said. “It’s what he was put on this Earth to do, so he can get a little aggressive. He’ll chase them around. Sometimes we have to do a little timeout for him, so the females can have a break.
“As soon as he knows they’re pregnant, he goes back to his sweet self. And then he waits for that calf to come and he can do it all over again.”
The mammal keepers test fecal matter on a daily basis for months, sending the material to an outside lab that will let them know whether the females are pregnant. It’s with this data that a due date can be estimated, with giraffe gestation periods anywhere from 14 to 16 months.
Adia is due in April 2020, and Audrey in July 2020.
The pregnancy announcement comes just two days before one of the biggest events of the year at the zoo — DIGS! (or Celebraci-n de los Dignatarios).
In one of the more unique partnerships surrounding Old Spanish Days’ Fiesta, the zoo will shut its doors at 5 p.m. Thursday to the general public for an all-inclusive 21-and-older bash that includes nearly 40 vendors, mariachis, live music from DJ Hecktik and the opportunity to visit with the animals.
The event usually draws up to 1,300 Fiesta revelers.
Zoo Director Nancy McToldridge says that not only does the event raise money — between $40,000 and $50,000 annually — it also showcases the zoo as a fun place to visit, even if you don’t have a 5-year-old in tow.
Considering that the partnership allows vendors to get a space for free to showcase their food, alcohol concoctions or business, the focus is squarely put on engaging the community and being a steward for fun and growth.
“There’s definitely a new energy (since the rebrand to DIGS),” Ms. McToldridge said. “There was nothing wrong with the old one — was just time for change. And I like that, because it stimulates creativity.
“It has created awareness that the zoo is a fun place to be.”
And Fiesta La Presidenta Barbara Carroll said the event now appeals to a broader audience.
“It has given us a new way to rejuvenate the crowd. People aren’t thinking it’s just an event for public officials and senior citizens,” Ms. Carroll said. “We wanted to make it more accessible to people, for people to come out and enjoy the grounds of the zoo and a Fiesta party.”
Ms. Carroll, who worked on the DIGS committee for many years, looks at the night as key to being able to provide the community with free entertainment all week, as it is the single biggest fundraiser for Old Spanish Days outside of corporate sponsorships.
“We are in the middle of a very expensive week, there’s lots of expenses,” Ms. Carroll said. “It’s very important to Old Spanish Days that we maintain how accessible it is to everyone.
“Everyone is welcome, and the zoo is so large that we can accommodate so many people that are simply looking to enjoy a party. This is truly a situation where ‘mi casa es su casa.’ “
And it’s a house about to get a little bit larger, thanks to the most important giraffe in the world.