Benito the giraffe arrives at his new home in central Mexico

Jan 23, 2024, 6:30 PM

Workers prepare Benito the giraffe for transport at the city-run Central Park Zoo in Ciudad Juarez,...

Workers prepare Benito the giraffe for transport at the city-run Central Park Zoo in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, Sunday, Jan. 21, 2024. After a campaign by environmentalists, Benito left Mexico's northern border and its extreme weather conditions Sunday night and headed for a conservation park in central Mexico, where the climate is more akin to his natural habitat and already a home to other giraffes. (AP Photo/Christian Chavez)

(AP Photo/Christian Chavez)

PUEBLA, Mexico (AP) — A four-year-old giraffe named Benito arrived Tuesday at his new home in a large animal park in central Mexico. Now starts the hard part for the gangly post-adolescent: fitting in with the crowd of seven giraffes in his new neighborhood.

The 7.5-acre (3-hectare) enclosure at the Africam Safari park in central Puebla state already holds seven giraffes, including three females.

Benito, who was transferred following pressure from animal advocates, has spent the last year totally alone at a dusty city park in the northern border city of Ciudad Juarez. As he enters adulthood, as with many species, he may have to quickly develop some social skills.

He currently is being held in a tall-roofed medical evaluation room at the park, after his 2,000 kilometer (1,200 mile) trip from Ciudad Juarez in a crate on the back of a flat-bed truck. The park wants to move him out to meet the rest of the herd as soon as possible, possibly within a couple of days.

“He has been alone for a long time, and it is going to take us a few days to introduce him to the rest of the herd,” said Frank Carlos Camacho, the director of the Africam Safari park. “But even so, we believe this is a very stable herd and that they will accept him.”

“It all depends on Benito, how he interacts with the herd,” he added.

Benito was seen on video sniffing around his new home and accepting a carrot from a park staff member Tuesday.

His new surroundings are a radical change.

In Ciudad Juarez, across the border from El Paso, Texas, Benito had little to do in his half-acre (0.2 hectare) enclosure; he ate a lot of alfalfa, a fodder usually given to cows.

In the border area’s blazing hot summer, Benito had little shade, Photos showed him crouching to fit under a small, circular shade canopy. In the winter, ice sometimes formed in his enclosure’s pond. There were few trees for him to munch on.

At the Africam park, Benito will start eating leaves from the acacia tree, one of the favorite foods of giraffes in their native habitat in Africa.

“Benito is going to be introduced to foods that are new to him, which are the ones his cousins in Africa eat,” said Camacho. “Even though Benito is not familiar with them, he’s going to like them.”

Giraffes reach sexual maturity around four years — Benito’s age, when many males separate from the herd and go looking for a mate — and can live to around 25.

“I am very pleased that Benito will be the next stud at Africam,” Camacho said.

The trip to the Africam Safari park, which started late Sunday, took around 30 hours, less than originally expected. The specially-designed crate Benito was carried in was accompanied by a convoy of police, National Guard and press vehicles.

His transfer was achieved following a campaign by animal rights activists in Ciudad Juarez, where temperatures reached as low as 39 degrees F (4 degrees C) Sunday. They said the winter cold and summer sun, the small enclosure, diet and solitude just weren’t fair for Benito.

Ana Félix, one of the leaders of the movement to get Benito a new home, said Benito’s move was a victory that “we are going to continue celebrating for the next few days.”

But Félix notes that the job of animal activists isn’t over: She wants to win a new home for Ely, an elderly former circus elephant held largely alone at a cement-ringed Mexico City zoo enclosure. The animal’s strange, repetitive behaviors and downcast demeanor have earned earned her the informal title of ‘the saddest elephant in the world.’

“We’re going for Ely,” Félix said. “Let’s support the activists, so that Ely can also get out of the confinement she is in now.”

Despite all his difficulties, Benito won many people’s hearts in Ciudad Juarez.

“We’re a little sad that he’s leaving. but it also gives us great pleasure … The weather conditions are not suitable for him,” said Flor Ortega, a 23-year-old who said she had spent her entire life visiting Modesto, another giraffe who was at the zoo for two decades before dying in 2022. Benito arrived there last May.

Benito originally came from a zoo in the much more temperate climate of Sinaloa, a state on Mexico’s northern Pacific coast. Benito couldn’t stay with the two other giraffes there because they were a couple, and zookeepers feared the male would become territorial and attack the younger Benito. So he was donated to Ciudad Juarez.

At the Africam Safari park, the giraffes live in a much larger space that more closely resembles their natural habitat. Visitors travel through the park in all-terrain vehicles to observe animals as if they were on safari.

At his new home, it will be almost like life will begin again for him, Camacho said. “He’s ready to be a giraffe,” he said. “He will reproduce soon, and contribute to the conservation of this wonderful species.”

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Benito the giraffe arrives at his new home in central Mexico