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26 july 2011

I'm a bit preoccupied these days, and my usual desultory reading habits have become hectic, if not frantic. So it's not remarkable that my response to books is a little swayed by my moods; such is perhaps the lot of even the most professional reviewer, and I am distinctly one of the most amateur. From Edgar Williams's Giraffe, I took away mostly the sense that giraffes are really, really nice.

Unexpectedly nice, if you think about it. Though giraffes are not closely related to camels, they probably resemble camels more than any other animal. Their normal gait is a swaying pace, they have big adorable eyes, and they're overall weird-looking. But camels are notoriously disagreeable; while giraffes, apparently, make excellent pets.

Of course, the reason that giraffes are rarely kept as pets is that you have to be royalty to afford a household giraffe. Giraffes burst onto the Western European scene in the 1820s as the indulgences of George IV of the UK and Charles X of France. Williams prints cartoons of George IV paying more attention to his mistress Lady Conyngham and their pet giraffe than to matters of state.

Giraffes are also kosher, but several websites on kashrut offer a succinct explanation of why Jews don't eat them. Here's Rabbi Aubrey Hersh:

Myth: Although the giraffe is a kosher animal, it is not slaughtered because it is not known where on the neck to perform the shechitah (ritual slaughter).

Fact: The reason giraffe isn't on the menu in your local restaurant is purely practical: it would be very expensive!!

Tractable, companionable, and delicious, giraffes would appear to be prime candidates for domestication. But we keep coming back to the problem, in one form or another, of their being the tallest living creatures. Man may have drawn leviathan out with a hook, and filled his skin with barbed irons, but wrangling giraffes is beyond the limits of practicality.

The giraffe is a creature of extremes. Her blood pressure would kill a drill sergeant, and though she always looks like she's fixing to trip over her own front feet, she can outgallop a racehorse. Her height remains an evolutionary mystery of sorts: it seems so out of place in a biota shaped by natural selection that some theorists are drawn to neo-Lamarckian explanations for the length of the giraffe neck: perhaps, Williams suggests, epigenetic explanations for the workings of the giraffe genome must be invoked.

I still just want a giraffe.

Williams, Edgar. Giraffe. London: Reaktion, 2010.