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Gemina

Gemina, the Giraffe With the Crooked Neck

Tomorrow, I will take Martine to one of our favorite places, the Santa Barbara Zoo. Martine will probably leave me at some point in the next two or three weeks, so I want to spend some of that time revisiting places we love.

Although Los Angeles has a bigger zoo, it is so crowded and so constricted by constant construction that visitors have a hard time negotiating the paths without getting run over by harassed parents pushing strollers. As their website says, the SB Zoo has 500 animals and only 30 acres. That’s just about our speed, and tomorrow promises to be a nice day.

The most remarkable animal we have seen at the Zoo is the late Gemina, the giraffe with the crooked neck. The following long quote is a release from the zoo that I thought I’d like to pass on to you:

If you visited the Zoo between 1990 and 2008, you probably saw an unusual giraffe. Her name was Gemina and she had a crook in her neck.

Born at the San Diego Wild Animal Park (now San Diego Safari Park) in 1986, Gemina was a Baringo (or Rothschild’s) giraffe, and joined the Santa Barbara Zoo’s giraffe herd when she was just about a year old.

Her neck seemed normal until a bump appeared when she was around three years old. Slowly, over time, it sharpened into a distinctive “V”, which interrupted the graceful curve of her neck.

Though she was examined by veterinarians, a cause for the crook could not be determined. The good news? In spite of her appearance, she didn’t exhibit any signs of being in pain.

In fact, the crook didn’t hamper Gemina’s life at the Zoo. She received normal treatment by zookeepers, ate normally, gave birth to a calf, and was an accepted member of the Zoo’s giraffe herd. She was beloved by our guests, locals and visitors alike.

Long before I came to work here as the Zoo’s publicist, management had decided not to sensationalize Gemina. We could have emblazoned her image on t-shirts and made banners with her silhouette, but that’s not our style. She was a member of the giraffe herd, and not to be exploited. We responded to media requests, but didn’t push out the story.

But Gemina became an icon in spite of our low-key approach. In its second season (2004), “The Bachelor” filmed a sunset dinner at the giraffe exhibit, and the couple met Gemina. In the 2005 television show “Miracle Workers,” she was the source of inspiration for a young boy with severe scoliosis. In 2007, she was voted Number One of the “Seven Wonders of Santa Barbara” in a local radio station poll.

Martine at the Santa Barbara Zoo in 2007 … in Happier Times

By then, she was 20 years old, which is elderly for a giraffe in captivity. We threw a party for her 21st birthday, knowing that her time was nearing an end. Many of us had tears in our eyes when Zoo Campers, wearing self-made giraffe hats, sang “Happy Birthday.”

She lived another five months, before she stopped eating and her health declined. Gemina was humanely euthanized on January 9, 2008. It was a sad day at the Zoo.

But her memory lives on. Gemina is still the most asked-about animal at the Zoo, even eight years later. A children’s book, “Gemina the Crooked-Neck Giraffe,” written and illustrated by Karen B. Winnick, was released in 2013, and is still for sale in the Zoo Gift Store (all proceeds benefit the Zoo).

Now, her fans can again visit Gemina. Her distinctive top six vertebrae, skull, and jawbone have been preserved and rearticulated, and are now on view in a display case as part of the Zoo’s “Animals…Inside Out” art exhibit in the Discovery Pavilion’s Volentine Gallery.

It’s free, with admission, to view Gemina and the exhibit of cool animal x-rays. Gemina’s skeleton is on view 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. weekdays, and 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. on weekends.

Thanks goes to Skulls Unlimited for her skeletal work, and to TruPart, a Ventura company, for building the display case free of charge.

Gemina reminds us all that being different is just fine. She’s a reminder to me not to blithely feed the media’s appetite for the odd and outrageous. That we can tell a quieter story, about being accepted in a herd of your peers and loved by a generation of visitors. That one giraffe can still stand tall, even with a crooked neck.