Animal Kingdoms - Olivia Stren

Animal Kingdoms

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National Geographic Traveler

Animal KingdomAcacia trees spread across the horizon like parasols. Laura, a young giraffe, lingers in the shade with the grace of a Henry James heroine at a garden party. Her seven-foot-tall, eight month-old son, Gordon, glides through blond grasses, while weaver birds career through jacarandas like winged lemons.


At six p.m. sharp, Cosmos Mutinda, a staffer at Giraffe Manor—an inviting fig-bearded baronial pile near Nairobi, Kenya—calls to the animals: It’s snack time. Lynn, Mac, and Annie appear with ears cocked from behind a tangle of olive trees. They join Laura and her baby and wander to the windows, sticking their necks in for their nightly nibble.With a G&T in one hand, giraffe kibble in the other, and Lynn gazing at me through movie-star lashes, I suddenly feel like I’m in some fantasy land between the Chronicles of Narnia and Gosford Park, half expecting the giraffes to ask me for a tipple of brandy.


The manor serves as a sanctuary for these Rothschild giraffes—an endangered subspecies characterized by their horns (the male has five) and coat (they don’t have any spots below their knees). Places like Giraffe Manor entice travelers seeking encounters with animals without the bump of a four-wheel and the obstruction of a zoom lens. Giraffe Manor was built as a country estate in 1932 by Scottish toffee magnate David Duncan. Some four decades later, Betty Leslie-Melville (a former model from Baltimore) and husband Jock Leslie-Melville snapped up the property. The couple then made it their mission to save Kenya’s Rothschilds and started by bottle-raising a couple of baby giraffes, playing with them on their front lawn like they would any other pets. After Jock died, in 1984, Betty decided to turn her home into a six-room “girafferie” for travelers—a fundraising tool for her work with animals. Giraffe Manor’s Karen Blixen Suite, named after the Out of Africa author who lived a few miles away, sports the writer’s Danish-pine furniture; walls are decorated with illustrations by Blixen’s cook, Kamante.


Breakfast and cocktails come with giraffe visits. Guests also can go on guided strolls through the sanctuary, home, too, to antelope, warthogs, and some 180 species of birds. Betty died last year, leaving the property to son Rick and his wife, Bryony. “It’s almost as though the house was designed for giraffes,” says Bryony as her two Jack Russell terriers trot about her feet, their five puppies close behind. There are now ten giraffes in residence here. “Each giraffe has its own personality,” Bryony says. “Laura is shy. Jock [the 19-year-old dominant male in this matriarchal society] is gentle, and Lynn’s greedy. We’d make excuses for her—she’s growing, she’s a teenager, she’s pregnant—but we finally realized that she’s just greedy.”


After Lynn indulges in one more handful of kibble, the sun sinks behind the Ngong Hills. The giraffes glide away into the night. But they’ll sashay back tomorrow morning for their breakfast, ever the lords and ladies of the manor.

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Olivia Stren

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