Remembering Waffles, a giraffe who was a friend and a best man at a wedding

Justin Jouvenal

THE WASHINGTON POST – The zookeeper said the call came about 5.30pm on a Thursday: A barn that housed the Roer’s Zoofari’s star attraction, Waffles the giraffe, and a new companion, was ablaze.

Three cheetahs and about 20 chinchillas, ferrets and tropical birds were also inside.

Vanessa Roer asked the zoo’s chief operating officer to go to the scene because he was closer. When Mike Kerr arrived, Roer said he raced inside and freed the cheetahs and smaller animals from a part of the barn that was filling with smoke.

Roer credited Kerr with a “heroic” effort, but Waffles and the other giraffe perished in the flames that engulfed the two-story barn.

In the days since, Waffles’s death has produced an outpouring of grief from hundreds who were touched – and sometimes slobbered on – by the giraffe.

The zoo’s Facebook page has been flooded with tributes.

The cause of the blaze remains under investigation.

“Obviously, Waffles is not our pet, but in one way Waffles is the pet of so many children in northern Virginia,” said Gillian Giannetti, who had taken her 5-year-old daughter, Fiona, to see Waffles as many as 50 times.

“It seems like a whole community of people have been touched by him.” Giannetti said she was dreading telling Fiona about the giraffe’s death. The girl had a giraffe stuffed animal that was her favorite, and it was always the one she selected when she went on trips.

Giannetti lamented that it was one more blow for children who shad spent a year away from school and have been unable to hug grandparents or other loved ones because of the coronavirus.

Rachel Rozner said she and her husband were devastated.

After the Herndon couple’s wedding was delayed by the pandemic last year, they decided to hold it at the zoo and include Waffles as their best man. Rozner said that her then-fiance had become “obsessed” with the giraffe after meeting him at an event and that they thought it would be silly and fun to make him part of the wedding party. The zoo obliged.

On the big day, Rozner said, Waffles munched on the flowers on their wedding canopy and slobbered on the officiant, but all in all, everyone had a blast.

In one photo, Waffles is pushing his nose underneath the wedding canopy from his pen next door.

“It was 2020, and everybody had been in the pandemic so long, we wanted people to feel something different,” Rozner said. “Everyone left feeling so good that day.”

Waffles, who suffered a fall and jaw injury before being acquired by the zoo in 2016, had a condition where his tongue lolled out of his mouth, Roer said.

Zookeepers regularly coated it with ointment during the winter to keep the skin from cracking.

Roer said another young girl with a giraffe toy had told her mother that the tongue “wasn’t right.” Roer said the girl’s family affixed a new tongue to match the way Waffles’s hung out of his mouth.

Another day, Roer said she was watching the zoo’s security cameras when she became concerned about a teenager’s interactions with Waffles. She was worried that the giraffe was being abused, but when she went to check, she realised something very different was going on.

The boy, 14, was nonverbal and autistic. He was rubbing Waffles’s horns, known as ossicones.

“He had made this connection with Waffles,” Roer said. “It was really remarkable to see.”

Fairfax County fire officials said recently that they were trying to determine what caused the blaze, but Roer said it may have started with a heater used to warm the animals in the barn on chilly nights.

She said the fire began in the portion of the barn that housed the giraffes.

Fire crews responded to the scene and fought the blaze for about 45 minutes before it was under control. Fire officials and Roer said they did not have an estimate for the damage, but the barn was nearly destroyed.

In 2016, Roer and her husband acquired Zoofari, formerly known as the Reston Zoo. Under previous ownership, the zoo had a troubled history that included a former zookeeper being convicted of animal abuse. The most recent available federal inspection of Roer’s Zoofari, which was from 2019, shows no issues.

Roer said Waffles was a five-year-old reticulated giraffe, the kind with a distinctive pattern of large brownish spots.

The zoo closed for a few days, and Roer said she made a grief counsellor available to the staff.

Roer said the zoo had been searching for a companion for Waffles for years, before finding one in recent weeks.

They had yet to name the other male, but in the days before his death Waffles got to run in the yard with the other giraffe.