About That Giraffe and the Dying Zoo Worker: Your Questions, Answered

Image for article titled About That Giraffe and the Dying Zoo Worker: Your Questions, Answered

By now you've probably seen news articles showing a giraffe in a Dutch zoo sharing a tender moment with a terminally ill zoo worker. Do the claims that this giraffe was kissing its human friend goodbye hold up to scientific scrutiny? Let me break it down for you.


On Gawker:

Animals: they're just like us. Mario Eijs, a dying zoo worker at Rotterdam's Diergaarde Blijdorp Zoo, fulfilled his dying wish to be brought within the zoo's giraffe enclosure, where he had been working for 25 years. The giraffes then nuzzled and kissed him goodbye as if this story weren't sad enough.

Eijs has terminal cancer.

The visit was organized by the Ambulance Wish Foundation, which offers free transport to terminally ill patients.

Wijs was wheeled around the zoo in his hospital bed and several giraffes became curious when he was brought to their inside enclosure.

Eijs reportedly was "beaming" after the exchange, and also had an opportunity to say goodbye to his coworkers.

If you're curious as to whether the reports that breathlessly claim that the animals somehow "knew" that the man was dying, you've come to the right place.

Q: Is it adorable?
A: Yes.

Q: Does the giraffe actually understand something about the health of the zoo worker?
A: Maaaaaybe, but probably not. As this isn't a controlled experiment, we can't really know. There is evidence that giraffes recognize death in their own species - whether that would extend to our species is a question for which we don't yet have a good answer.

Q: Does the giraffe recognize that particular worker in the first place?
A: Possibly. According to the original news article in Dutch, helpfully translated by a Reddit user, the man routinely cleaned the giraffe enclosure. If that's the case, then the giraffe certainly knew the man. However, according to a translation of the article written by the non-profit organization itself, the man's job was to clean the zoo's aquarium; he simply enjoyed watching the giraffes. If he visited often enough, it is possible that the giraffes still recognized him.

A 2002 paper on facial recognition published in Science showed that extensive experience with another species is required to use memory to visually distinguish among multiple individuals. We humans find it trivial to distinguish among other humans, but it takes lots of practice to distinguish among a group of giraffes. Zoo giraffes certainly have extensive experience with our species. It is indeed plausible that the giraffe knew who Mario Eijs was.


Q: Are there other explanations for the behavior?
A: Of course. A far simpler explanation would be that the giraffe was naturally curious about the strange object with a person on it that suddenly appeared near the enclosure. Giraffes have no experience with hospital beds, and the giraffe could simply have been inspecting it. A reaction to a novel object would also explain the behavior.

Q: This man clearly had a relationship with this giraffe. Why are you trying to take that away?
A: Research published earlier this year found that just because people love their dogs, does not mean that their dogs necessarily love them back. Which is of course true for relationships among humans, too. That means that owner-dog relationships are actually far richer, more layered, and more complex than we may think! The same would apply to human-giraffe relationships as well. That this dying man received his wish to bid farewell to his favorite animals at the zoo is a beautiful thing. But we don't need to appeal to fantastical anthropomorphism in order to find beauty and awe in nature.


[Image via Ambulance Wish Foundation]



As far as "facial recognition across species" goes, I recall a study they did with wild birds outside in a particular area, and they demonstrated the birds could easily distinguish between different humans and would use danger calls to warn off other birds when they saw "the bad human".