Washington Malaika, the National Zoo's latest debutante, acted like the coy young female she is: She batted her thick eyelashes, she swayed her long, sinuous neck, and she preened about in her plush, cinnamon-colored coat with its white striped accents.
This isn't just any young lady: She's a 12-foot-tall, 1,100-pound, 28-month-old reticulated giraffe that arrived at the zoo Dec. 12. Satisfied that the giraffe had become accustomed to her surroundings in the Elephant House, zoo officials opened the building Friday for the first time since her arrival and let Malaika meet the public eye to eye. Or, more accurately, human eye to Malaika's knobby knees.
"She's acting pretty cool," said Emily Martin, 11, of Milwaukee. "I think most people would run around if they were stuck in a cage for the first time."
Emily's grandfather, Will Martin of Orlando, agreed.
"This is her coming-out party, and she's being very graceful about it," Martin said. "She's as cute as a button."
Malaika (whose name, zoo officials said, means "angel" in Swahili and is pronounced Mah-LIE-Ka) arrived Dec. 12 at the National Zoo from Disney's Animal Kingdom in Orlando. She was brought here, officials said, to be company for the zoo's other female giraffe, Jana, who will be 2 years old next month. Jana's mother, Griff, 19, who died in September, and Jana's father, Ryma, 17, who died in February, both succumbed to age-related digestive problems, officials have said.
Giraffes, the tallest terrestrial animals, are timid and alert by nature and are not as clannish as elephants, which live in tightknit social groups. In the wild, they travel in loose, open herds, and they like fellowship, said animal keeper Lisa Belitz.
"We wanted Jana to have company," she said.
The young female giraffes have been separated inside the Elephant House by a low-rise, green mesh net fence, but they eventually will be allowed in the same space and to be outside together. The two seem to be getting along quite well. Just before the public was let into the Elephant House Friday for Malaika's coming out, she and Jana engaged in some nice "affiliative social contact" -- that is, rubbing necks, said Benjamin Beck, the National Zoo's associate director.
"It's like necking," he said. "It's a nice way of saying 'I like you.' ... We're absolutely sure when we put them together, they'll get along just fine."