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Among its many attractions, Vienna is home to the oldest zoo in the world. When it was built in 1752, the zoo was a menagerie for the emperor’s private collection of animals in the grounds of his Schönbrunn summer palace. A little over 25 years later, it opened to the public on Sunday afternoons and was an immediate hit.
By the 1820s, the zoo boasted an impressive collection including elephants, wolves, polar bears, big cats, hyenas and kangaroos. The popularity of these animals, however, was nothing compared to the frenzy that accompanied the arrival of Vienna’s first giraffe.
In the summer of 1828, the entire city rolled out the red carpet for its new arrival. The mania that gripped the capital was so extreme that 1828 is remembered as the year of Giraffe Fever.
Unlike the other animals in the zoo, Vienna’s giraffe wasn’t brought back by an Austrian expedition. Instead, it was a gift from Egypt. At this time, Egypt had had no choice but to send troops to the Ottoman empire to help keep a rebellious Greece in line. Unfortunately for Egypt, they risked alienating themselves from the majority of Europe who would have liked to have had Greece back.
In the interests of diplomacy, Egypt caught three giraffe calves in the Nubian desert (today’s Sudan) and sent them by camel, river and sea to the most important cities in Europe. Having crossed the Mediterranean, all of the giraffes made the rest of their journeys by hoof. Unfortunately for Vienna’s giraffe, that meant trekking over the mountains from Venice.
Spoiler alert: giraffes should not traverse alps, even if you do give them special shoes.
The giraffe was a celebrity long before he arrived. This was a time when so little was known about giraffes that it was still popularly believed that they were a cross between a leopard and a camel. The prospect of seeing one in the flesh was enough to send the middle classes in the city wild.
Knowing that their giraffe was on the way, Vienna had been preparing for months.
In the Leopoldstädter Theatre, they had watched the play ‘Die Giraffen in Wien.’ The composers Henri Herz and Wenzel Plachy were busy writing special dances in honour of the city’s newest, longest-necked resident.
Meanwhile, at the zoo, a new giraffe house was being built. Given that the house was deemed fit for use by the Schönbrunn giraffes until 2014, we can only imagine how spacious and luxurious it must have seemed 190 years ago.
Finally, the giraffe reached the capital. As he settled in, there was a grand ‘Giraffenfest’ ball at Penzing, close to the zoo. The giraffe’s keeper was the guest of honour. At the party, the newly composed Giraffe Gallop and the Giraffe Rondeau dances were performed. We assume that the dances looked like this:
In the coming weeks, there were record numbers of visitors to the zoo, and giraffe mania did not abate. In fact, as the public got to know their new neighbour, the obsession only became stranger.
The upright harpsichord, a tall, space-saving yet striking addition to any drawing room, became known as the giraffe piano. One engineered to more closely resemble the profile of the giraffe can be seen at Vienna’s Technical Museum. In fairness, how else are were you supposed to really commit to playing a giraffe waltz?
Shops sold giraffe inspired clothing, taking their lead from the colours of the animal.
Giraffe print gloves and jewellery were also widely available.
Homes were decorated with giraffe wallpaper.
People rolled cigarettes from giraffe tobacco pouches and stubbed them out in giraffe ash trays.
They sent each other giraffe greetings cards.
They drank from giraffe china cups.
Women began to elaborately roll their hair into two piles on the tops of their heads in a style meant to resemble the giraffe’s horns.
And for the most dedicated fans of the new attraction, the perfume ‘Esprit à la Girafe’ was sold at a shop in the very centre of Vienna.
Even the food the Viennese put in their mouths wasn’t safe from the Giraffe Fever. In the famous coffee houses, today bastions of tradition which positively scorn the latest Instagram trends of drip cakes and galaxy glazes, pastry chefs created a special Giraffentorte. And on the side of this torte? What better accompaniment than coffee à la Girafe, a double espresso topped with milk to emulate giraffe print. Presumably this was a precursor to the latte art of today.
Smaller bakeries also baked ‘Giraffeln’, simpler cakes created by dropping alternate spoons of almond and chocolate batter into the cake tin to create the giraffe print pattern. In fact, these cakes were so well loved that they long outlasted the giraffe mania of 1828 and were popular in Vienna all the way up until the First World War.
The giraffe phenomenon was not confined to Austria. In Paris, their giraffe, a young female called Zarafa, was also a celebrity. In fact, on her journey from Marseilles to Paris, she had crowds of up to 30,000 turn out to catch a glimpse of her in major towns. Parisian women also styled their hair and their dresses and their accessories after Zarafa, and no doubt the patisseries in Paris had as much fun with the concept as the Viennese. In London, King George IV became very protective of his giraffe. Unfortunately, the giraffe’s health declined in time with his political popularity, something that was ruthlessly parodied by cartoonists. Nevertheless, the British, whether artists, naturalists or members the public, weren’t too cool to get excited about their giraffe too.
Sadly, both London and Vienna lost their giraffes in 1829. In the case of the Vienna giraffe, it is believed that his legs had been injured on his journey over the mountains and he never fully recovered.
Over the next 150 years, giraffes at Schönbrunn zoo continued to have a bumpy ride. There were highs. In the 1850s, the zoo celebrated the first birth of a baby giraffe in Europe. When three new giraffes arrived in 1901, the original enclosure was expanded to make space for them. But, tragically, the giraffes were casualties in both world wars, first of supply shortages and then of the bombing which badly damaged the zoo in February 1945.
In 2017, the giraffe house at the zoo reopened after a three-year renovation project. Now Sophie, Fleur and Obi are very happy in their top of the range enclosure. The zoo’s original giraffes, Kimbar, Carla, and her daughter, Rita, weren’t moved back into the new giraffe house. The decision was taken to allow Kimbar, who is now 26, to live out his retirement with his friends without going through the stress of another move. They continue to be cared for by the zookeepers behind the scenes.
It may have been nothing in comparison to 1828, but the reopening of the giraffe house did spark a mini giraffe fever in Vienna for a time. Sadly, Giraffentorte has not yet been resurrected, but we can only continue to be thankful that the zoo gift shop chose not to reintroduce giraffe perfume.