From Oz to the Zoo - Taking Care of the World’s Most Famous Giraffe
Posted on Wednesday, April 5, 2017
The sun has just risen on a cold winter’s morning in New York’s southern tier, and SUNY Oswego zoology alumna Allysa Swilley ’15 is strapping on her boots, braiding her hair and preparing for a long day ahead taking care of April, the world’s most famous giraffe.
Over the past month millions of onlookers have been patiently waiting for April the giraffe to give birth to her fourth calf at the Animal Adventure Park in Harpursville, N.Y, watching via a live webcam that has been installed in her pen. While April is certainly the celebrity and the star of the show, an unlikely hero has emerged, April’s keeper and companion Swilley.
Each day insatiable fans stream the “April Cam” through You Tube as part of their daily schedule. The special relationship between trainer and animal has radiated through the 24-hour stream and has touched the hearts of many. Though the duties of a trainer are not always glamorous, the love and dedication Swilley has for her animals has captured the attention of onlookers from around the world who tell their stories daily through social media.
“I'm sure you've heard this a million times, but you are a true inspiration. My 9 year old has dreams of being a zoologist - or ‘zoo vet’ as he calls it.”
“One of my favorite things about watching is when Allysa is in with April. I love to see her interact with April. You can tell how much she loves her. It is so sweet to see her kissing April and her tummy. Thank you Allysa for bringing joy to us and for caring so much for your furry friends.”
Little did Swilley know that her unconditional love and dedication for her animals would inspire so many and provide her a platform to educate and promote animal conservation.
Swilley started her career at SUNY Oswego in 2011 and graduated in 2015 with a bachelor’s degree in zoology/animal biology. She has always had a passion for animals, and giraffes are not her only love. During her time at SUNY Oswego she spent three months at Transfrontier Africa in Balule Nature Reserve, South Africa, working with white rhinos and promoting conservation of African wildlife. She also has had numerous internships, including two at the Wildlife Survival Sanctuary tending to large cats.
We were fortunate enough to have the opportunity to sit down with the very busy Swilley and get a glimpse into her now not-so-private life….
Why SUNY Oswego zoology?
I knew I wanted zoology as my major, and when I visited schools, I absolutely fell in love with Oswego.
Best memory of SUNY Oswego?
Fall semester, senior year. My capstone research partner and I were driving out to Rice Creek Field Station to collect data in the pouring rain at 7 a.m. and were in no mood to be doing so. So instead of being down about it, we cranked up Brad Paisley’s “Ticks” (because that was the focus of our research) and jammed out. We found our first tick that morning. I’ll never forget how excited we were about a tick.
Craziest thing that has happened to you during all of this media attention?
I have parents telling me that their daughters will not leave their house without their hair being in a braid just like mine is.
People have asked for autographed photos of me. In reality, it’s not that crazy, but to me it’s absolutely insane.
I didn’t have my hair in my signature braid one night and my boss texted me saying, “What are you doing?! Where is your braid?! You can’t take that out! You’re like Katniss Everdeen!”
What is the hardest, not-so-glamorous part of your job? I see people saying they wish they had your job. What’s the part they don’t know about?
I don’t have much time to myself. Even before the “giraffe hysteria.” I am responsible for over 200 lives. I worry about them when it’s hot, when it’s cold, when there are storm warnings. I miss birthdays and holidays because those 200 lives don’t take a day off. I wouldn't change my job for anything though.
Where do you go from here after so much media attention?
Are you looking forward to things settling down and getting back to “normal life”?
I never asked for this. I never asked for the fame or for thousands of followers on my social media pages, but I’m going to use it. I have so many people following me now that I have a platform to talk about animals both at the park and around the world. I have the opportunity to give a voice to giraffes and hopefully other species in an effort to conserve them. Would I love for my life to be nice and quiet again? Absolutely! However, these animals and our world are far more important than me having a quiet life.
How do you relax after long day?
Before I leave work for the day I’ll take some “me time” with the animals. Spending a couple minutes just hanging out with them always calms my mind. After I get home, it’s anything from beers on the porch with friends to a good yoga session. Depends on why that day was “long.”
How does it feel to be under the watchful eye of millions while doing your work? Does it affect how you do your job? Does it make you self-conscious?
Being watched by so many people was overwhelming to start. I do my job just like I always have. The way you see me on camera is the way I’ve worked with her every day since the day she came. When I’m on camera, I just focus on them. I focus on April and Oliver and everything else just melts away.
I read that one of your animals tries to take off your tattoos.
How many tattoos do you have and of what? Do you have one or plan to get one of a giraffe?
Oh yes. I raised an orphaned patas monkey. He didn't understand the concept of tattoos and tried to pull them off of my skin. Once he figured out he couldn't get them off, he just liked to touch them.
I have a total of seven tattoos. Three of the seven are animal related. I have the print of the first leopard that I worked with and fell head over heels for. He was the animal that confirmed that this is what I want to do for the rest of my life. My biggest piece is a tribute to my time spent in South Africa working in rhino conservation. It features a rhino, hyena, elephant and two giraffes. The original tattoo only had one giraffe, but I added the second after April arrived at the park to represent both April and Oliver. The last animal-related tattoo is a basic outline of both a kangaroo and a wallaby. I have the privilege of raising young animals at the park. Hutch, the kangaroo, and Pinky, the wallaby, were my first ever babies so I had to have something for them. You can bet a new tattoo is in the works for this baby giraffe.
Favorite animal and why?
Asking that is like asking me to choose my favorite child. I have worked with so many different animals and species now that it’s honestly impossible to choose.
What’s your typical day like? Up at what time? Done at what time etc.?
Really, it depends on the day and what extra tasks or special events we have going on. On an average in-season day, I am at the park by 7:15 a.m. and I don’t leave until about 6:30 p.m. I do everything from shoveling poop, to feeding, to interacting with guests, to medical care for the animals. All in a day’s work.
Parting words, you now have a worldwide platform. What would you like the world to know?
Your voice can be heard. Pick something, anything. It doesn't have to be giraffes or even an animal. Pick something you love and educate yourself, then educate others. We are the Loraxes. We have to speak for the trees. We have to speak for our planet. Whether you’re sitting at dinner with your friends or standing in front of the world’s most famous giraffe, your voice means something.
Matt Cummins | 4/5/2017