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Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Adios To The "Crooked-Necked Giraffe"

By Silvia Uribe

Gemina was her name, although I didn’t know it until she died. However, come to think about it, I clearly remember the first time I saw her. It was 1993, and my daughters then, 9 and 3 and I went to the zoo for the first time, just a few weeks after moving to Santa Barbara, from our Aztec land. She was rather far away from us in the beginning, but we saw her immediately, and noticed her unusual neck. With curiosity, we approached her enclosure a little more to take a better peek. We confirmed it, she was different! Our first reaction was to pity her, “pobrecita!” (poor little thing!), we said and we started guessing what the “problem” with her neck was. Then we tried figuring out if she had any difficulties moving around. We observed her intently as we, at the same time, compared her with her peers. Their movements were pretty much the same, but our conclusion was that she was ill, and maybe in pain or at least uncomfortable with that protuberance on her neck. We also noticed that she kept to herself, for the most part, while the other two visible giraffes hung around together (could her condition be contagious, and they could feel it? – I wondered.) At some point she approached the area where we were watching her, to eat some leaves. We looked at her from up close trying to catch any strange movement, sound or whatever it was that would confirm our theories. Nothing! Still, we continued assuming any number of things, following our pre-conceived ideas (even my three year old had them) of what a “normal” giraffe was.

I had never stopped to think about these memories. Moreover, I didn’t know I had them. It was when I heard that Gemina had died that I realized the assumptions, the pre-conceived ideas, and the conclusions that we reached, just because she was different. Another thing that I had not consciously realized, until then, was the fact that most everyone in Santa Barbara knew about her. Her particularity distinguished her and made her stand out from the rest of the animals, giraffes and otherwise. She was the “celebrity” of the zoo precisely because she was different. Since we as a society tend to admire celebrities so much, and almost idolize them, I thought we could probably learn a few lessons from Gemina’s life. 1) She behaved with dignity, as she was not trying to hide her crookedness 2) She didn’t care about what others said, wondered or assumed. 3) Her sole presence brought the Santa Barbara Zoo to the media’s attention (her uniqueness, as well as her death were reported on various newspapers, nationally.) 4) Due to her different appearance, she was able to demonstrate that being different is ok, and change the perspective of a three year old boy with severe scoliosis who appeared on an ABC medical reality show who saw her, and with a smile on his face said “she has a bump like me”.

Another lesson to be learned was that of Tolerance and Respect. We embraced Gemina, but frequently we feel that those who are different are bad, weird, and somehow not trustworthy. Many times we do not take the time to accept, and appreciate our differences in appearance, customs, cultures, religions, political views or taste. Constantly, we confuse tolerance and respect with letting people be “as weird as they want”, as long as “they don’t come next to us”. In reality, that’s anything but... It sounds more like judgment and isolation of the different. As spectators, and human beings, this attitude takes away from us the opportunity of learning and growing. On the other hand, if we try to conform to “the norm” all the time, we tame our individual greatness, and take away the joy of being able to leave our personal mark in the world with humility which to me, is the last lesson to learn from Gemina. She was always one more in the herd, notwithstanding her “celebrity” status.

I wonder, how is it possible that non-rational beings can give so many lessons to us, the rational ones? Food for thought.

Silvia Uribe is a freelance writer with a Latino perspective.

Cross-posted at