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Here & Now

I hope you had a great summer. I sure did. It was the summer I fell in love. The new guy in my life is tall and athletic, with huge, liquid brown George Clooney eyes, fringed by lush, mink-black lashes. And I can’t take my eyes off his ears. They stick out. I mean really, really stick out. Which is good, because my new love, Jumanji, is a giraffe. He’s one of the new kids on the block at the Naples Zoo at Caribbean Gardens. If you’ve never been face to face, lashes to lashes with a giraffe, that’s really sad. They have the cutest freckles on their big round noses, and sweet, crinkly eyebrows. And of course, those magnificent ears that positively emote. 

When David Tetzlaff, director of the Naples Zoo, confided to me last year that he had his eye on Jumanji and two other giraffe babies over in West Palm Beach, I found a picture of the newborn cuddling with his mother at www.zooborns.com. (Type Jumanji in the search box.) He was barely taller than I am, with sweet little black tufts on his horns. I popped in the other day to see how he’s getting along in his new Naples home, and the “baby” is now more than 15 feet tall. 

Zoo curator Kelly Tetzlaff let me climb to the top of the keepers’ platform for a closer look. There are five young males in the newly formed herd: Jumanji, Jigsaw and Zuri from West Palm; Timber from Denver; and Nicholas from San Francisco. Three of them were hanging out beneath some tall palms, but only one approached the platform to see what was going on. Jumanji! For a second or two, he inspected me, but suddenly, those big ears were twitching and rolling, as if by remote control. Something was up.

He glided toward the end of the platform, trying to stretch his chin over the railing. Wedged in a corner below, Kelly and I saw what Jumanji couldn’t: two carrot sticks left over from an earlier feeding. This required the giraffe’s secret navigation aid—a 20-inch-long, purple-black tongue with amazing muscle tone. For the next five minutes, that tongue rolled and snaked along the wood plank, and the ears splayed out at attention like antennae. Finally: contact! But that crazy tongue flipped the first carrot too hard, and it rolled off the platform. Macho guy that he is, Jumanji was not ready to give up, but Kelly thought he deserved a bit of help for his effort. One last flick of the tongue, and the carrot was his.

If the $2 million fundraising campaign goes as planned, by 2012 you and I will be able to feed special treats to Jumanji and his herd-mates, face to face, from a giraffe-high platform at the Naples Zoo at Caribbean Gardens. It will be one of North America’s most state-of-the-art giraffe habitats. Meanwhile, sneak peeks are available in their temporary habitat for a few hours each day. 

October is a great time to enjoy this and some of the other unique experiences we take for granted in our own backyard. You know how it is: We live here. We could do it any time. Maybe tomorrow …

This is the last month to walk the beach early one morning to find the tiny tracks of loggerhead turtle hatchlings making their way to the sea. You can visit the Conservancy of Southwest Florida in Naples, where a hatchling snatched from the jaws of death last year has graduated from the baby tank to the juvenile aquarium, growing strong for her eventual return to the Gulf of Mexico.

And that’s not all, by far. That otherworldly night howling you may hear coming from somewhere to the east of Naples is not another movie production of Twilight. It’s the inhabitants of the Shy Wolf Sanctuary, doing what they were born to do. There are full-blooded wolves, wolf-dogs and other exotic animals bred and sold in captivity, then abandoned when the novelty wore off. Nancy J. Smith, who as a child grew up swimming with dolphins in their natural habitat and later started Collier County Animal Control, has been quietly providing safe haven for orphaned and horribly abused animals for more than 17 years.

Among the wolves and wolf dogs, there’s Julie: the perfect star of a TV animal show, abandoned afterward by the producers. Cree was rescued from a heroin addict. There are sweet, lovable Buddy and his lady friend, Amaya, who are healthy and ready for adoption, and Indy, who still lurks deep in her forest habitat, wishing, but not quite ready, to trust humans again. All the animals, brought to the shelter sick, starving or severely injured, have improved in the care of sanctuary volunteers, who range from college students to corporate executives.

Wolves are naturally shy, says board member/volunteer Mark Scarola. There’s never been a documented attack on humans in the continental United States. A visit with these soulful creatures is guaranteed to change your attitude about scary wolfmen and the Big Bad Wolf that eats grandmothers.

Visitors can get private tours by appointment. There’s no admission, but donations keep the sanctuary operating. There’s a new family of wolf pups in residence, and other rescued creatures include foxes, cougars, a black Asian leopard and a prairie dog colony.

Back at the Naples Zoo, Jumanji will be two years old Nov. 14. Stop by and wish him a happy birthday. Go howl with the wolves. Get out there and be a tourist before the tourists get here. I promise—you’ll savor every moment.





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