The Average Giraffe
The Average Giraffe
Ungali ungah pumbah awky gawky
The Average Giraffe has a tongue seventeen inches long.
The Average Giraffe when he speaks hardly utters a sound.
The Average Giraffe looks a lot like the other giraffes.
The Average Giraffe leads a life that we cannot discuss.
So be glad, my friend, and be grateful no end
- The Four Lads (circa 1955)
* * * *
As old and crustified as I am, I’m not old enough to have heard this song by The Four Lads, a Toronto-based group of crooners, the first time around. No, I never would have experienced The Average Giraffe if it wasn’t for a college roommate back in the Dark Ages when Carl Yastrzemski was still a name people could pronounce confidently even if they couldn’t spell it. For some reason, the song fit his rather wry sense of humor, and, as I remember, he liked to play it on the day of exams.
I remembered the song vividly, for more than forty years, so I decided, being the strange, non-average bird that I am, to try to find out more about it. There’s nothing to be found on the Web (other than the album it is from). No lyrics, no composer, no information. I bought the CD (actually a two-CD set featuring Istanbul, not Constantinople), painstakingly transcribed the lyrics above (and then promptly resold the CDs to somebody in Japan!).
But I wanted to know more. Since the group still exists, I tracked down their publicity agent. After all, as the song says, “The Average Giraffe leads a life that we cannot discuss./For further details send a card or a letter to us.” An email would have to do.
The publicity agent in turn sent it on to the last living member of the original group Frank Buseri (the baritone), who still performs at about eighty years old. (He started singing with what was to become The Four Lads at seventeen.) Frank wrote me back. He doesn’t remember who wrote the song. He doesn’t remember when the song was first performed. He doesn’t remember what prompted the song’s composition, or why it was written.
Well, I can answer the last one. It was written for me.
* * * *
The Average Giraffe sleeps 4.6 hours a day.
Believe it or not, I had reason to ask this question while I was traveling in rural western India (where there have never been any giraffe spottings as far as I am aware.) So I did what any good, red-blooded, well-schooled American would do: I looked it up on the Internet. All sites say the same thing, “Giraffes sleep 4.6 hours a day.” I imagine that students writing high school or college papers on mammalian behavior will find this in their textbooks (those that care to cite this factoid); seventh graders asked to write essays about their favorite animals will get extra credit for including this factoid.
We know it’s true: It can be found in that pinnacle of all received
wisdom, Wikipedia. But the homeschooler in me soon kicked in – I
wanted to get to the source. As it turns out, the font of this Wikipedian
wisdom is exactly one study, published in the Journal of Sleep
Research in March 1996, “Behavioral sleep in the giraffe (Giraffa
camelopardalis) in a zoological garden.” I am now holding a
copy of the study in my hand. The authors of the article studied
exactly eight giraffes – five adults, two immature, and one juvenile.
Only the adults were included in the findings, based on recording
of their sleep patterns for 152 nights, and the researchers seem
to have utilized some kind of device with transmitters attached
to the giraffes’ heads to register brainwaves. It was also found
that giraffe “sleep was redistributed on nights following a day
when the giraffes spent a few hours in an outdoor enclosure.” (They
were never allowed out for more than two to six hours, and that
was relatively rare.) In other words, they were studying not only
a small number of giraffes in the zoo, but indoor giraffes (who,
it is true, on occasional, though rare days were allowed a few hours
So instead of learning that the Average Giraffe sleeps 4.6 hours a day, what the study actually says is, “Five adult giraffes of unspecified age, removed far from their native habitats and exposure to the natural elements, kept in captivity almost entirely indoors and allowed limited outdoor exposure, required to associate themselves with other giraffes not of their own choosing during both waking and sleeping hours, not provided the opportunity to seek out their own food or companionship, with transmitters attached to their heads and being videotaped twenty-four hours a day for 152 days straight, averaged 4.6 hours of sleep in a twenty-four-hour period.” (I might add we know nothing about the type of giraffe studied – there are at least five different subspecies – and whether the various subspecies get along, where they came from, how long each had been held in captivity, or what kind of trauma or neurological damage each might have suffered in being captured and transported to the zoo.)
If you think you know anything generally speaking about child development, the reality is that virtually all the studies are based on Western children who have been involuntarily confined in their boxes thirty-plus hours a week plus virtual boxes for many, many hours more, taught and brought up and studied by others who spent (and still spend) the better part of their lives confined to similar boxes (who, it is true, on occasional though rare days are allowed a few hours of recess). In other words, it is based on the study of indoor giraffes.
If you believe you know anything about what children are capable of doing at various ages or stages of physical or social or cognitive development, it is likely based on the study of indoor giraffes.
If you think you know anything about children’s and youth’s so-called addiction to television or video games, it is likely based on the study of indoor giraffes.
If you believe you know anything about adolescent rebellion, or teen use of alcohol or drugs, or teen sex, it is likely based on the study of indoor giraffes.
If you think you know anything about Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, Oppositional Defiance Disorder, childhood obesity, or an entire panoply of real or fabricated afflictions ostensibly suffered by young people, it is likely based on the study of indoor giraffes.
If you believe you know anything about the impact of praise, prizes, gold stars, punishments, or rewards, it is likely based on the study of indoor giraffes.
If you have acquired a notion about when teen brains mature (I believe it is around forty-five; we – especially males – raised indoors, and subject to testosterone poisoning, shouldn’t be trusted until then, or afterwards either, as dementia sets in), or about electrical impulses in the brain or brainwave activity, it is likely based on the study of indoor giraffes.
And as indoor giraffes grow, the world closes in around them, and their necks are permanently disfigured, as their heads bump up against increasingly oppressive ceilings. Even after all the studies are completed, they are, still but rarely, allowed outside for recess. And they are in a permanent state of hurt and, with crooked necks, have difficulty ever seeing straight.
Who knows what giraffes might be like if freed outdoors again, able to stretch their necks as high or as far as they choose and seeing as far as their eyes choose to see, reaching up into the highest branches, feeding on stomach foods and nourished by brain foods of their own choosing, once again experiencing the world as Great Nature intended? Who is willing to express any doubt that, in the proper environment, and with the proper food, and with mentoring by, and living examples of, those raised up outside of the box, giraffes can, and will, inevitably and most definitely, fly?
(After all, elephants do.)
* * * *
Okay, enough of giraffes. Let’s talk about wolves!
So, at the age of six, my daughter Aliyah started working at Wolf Haven International, a renowned wolf sanctuary for captive wolves who could not be released to the wild. It’s a story I have told and retold over the years, and was featured in my first homeschooling book And the Skylark Sings with Me. Aliyah studied everything she could get her hands on to learn everything there was to know about wolves. She went to lectures and films on wolf behavior ecology, scoured the Web (which wasn’t nearly as big in the old days), and listened carefully to Wolf Haven’s education director, to whom she was apprenticed. She honed her spiel to a fine story, supposedly scientific in its details, but childlike (what would you expect?) in the telling.
The supposed science was that wolves live in a dog-eat-dog (wolf-eat-wolf?) world. So, in order to maintain social cohesion and hunt effectively and produce the best possible offspring, there were careful gradations of leader and followers. The alpha wolves (males) get and defend the right to mate with the alpha females (and they are the only ones who get to reproduce), and together they got to chow down on the best food (liver! ugh!), sleep in the best cribs, and generally lord it over everyone else. Other wolves bow and scrape before them even when not directly intimidated, and array themselves in pecking (or biting) order – betas, gammas, deltas, etc. all the way down to the omegas, the scapegoats (scapewolves?), who get picked on by everyone, which is important as a “tension reliever” for the group as a whole, and promotes “group solidarity.” If there isn’t enough food, the scapegoat goes. Occasionally, there may be a challenge to the alpha wolf’s place in the hierarchy, with the loser going off to lick his wounds, and perhaps to wait for another day.
This is the vaunted dominance hierarchy, the supposedly signature social and behavioral characteristic of this unique member of the wild kingdom. It sounds so perfect. A cross between Corporate America and World Wrestling Entertainment and a Los Angeles street gang.
“Everyone” can relate – we see ourselves, and are confirmed that things are as they should be. It turns out that the world of wolves, left to its own devices, isn’t like this in the least. The description above is true of captive wolves, unrelated, haphazardly thrown together, and forced to get along, often in territories too small for all of them to peacefully coexist without some extraordinary behaviors that violate their natural way of being. In other words, more like a state pen (or Andersonville!) for wolves. Thrown in together, they develop a fear-based culture, a mode for reducing conflict, and a series of conformist behaviors which, if not comfortable, at least lowers the tension and allows them to get along. Unless one is the scapewolf.
When not stressed by drought or overpopulation, or compressed into a fixed space, we now know that wolves will behave like a benevolent family. There is a breeding pair, a mother and a father, the pack progenitors, and their offspring. The children don’t challenge the father, and don’t try to breed with their mothers. The pack will adopt other young wolves on occasion, sharing their food and conviviality. When ready, the wolves go off and form other breeding pairs, the so-called deltas and scapewolves just as often as the so-called higher ranking members. The ostensibly submissive stance of the younger wolves turns out to be a behavior designed to get another family member, usually the wolf’s father, to regurgitate food.
But what happens when you cram a bunch of unrelated wolves into a smaller space, make it impossible for them to hunt for their food and otherwise control their food intake and their ability to seek out new habitat, and then observe them all the time? They pick on each other; they fight. The less strong slink away, and essentially try to hide, except when they think they can get food scraps. The males try to have sex constantly, with the stronger males fighting off the weaker ones. The pack develops a pecking order, and the timid, low-ranking wolves don’t breed at all. The social hierarchy leaves every one of its members – from top to bottom – under threat.
One scholar who spent thirteen years researching wolf behavior in the wild calls studying wolves in captivity to understand their social structure is “analogous to trying to draw inferences about human family dynamics by studying humans in refugee camps.”
Or, I might have added, schools.
David Albert is a homeschooling father, writer, and speaker. He is the author of “And the Skylark Sings with Me,” “Homeschooling and the Voyage of Self-Discovery,” “Have Fun. Learn Stuff. Grow. Homeschooling and the Curriculum of Love,” and “What Really Matters” (with Joyce Reed), among other books. He lives, works, and writes in Olympia, Washington. When not learning with and from children, writing, or making music, he is raising funds for community development projects in South India and other good works like his foundation Friendly Water for the World (FWFW), which promotes the international use of biosand water filters.