COLUMBIA -- At least one set of human eyes is supposed to be on the giraffes at all times in the exhibit at Riverbanks Zoo.
But the latest addition to the Riverbanks menagerie proves those long, lanky critters can be stealthy.
Lewis, a baby giraffe born Feb. 9, was a surprise, or as much a surprise as a 5-foot-5, 126-pound newborn can be.
Zookeepers and volunteers who keep a watch at the outdoor giraffe exhibit didn't see Lewis' mother, Sharon, and his father, Charlie, mate. Males and females were kept in separate enclosures in the barn. But somewhere along the way, Sharon and Charlie got together.
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"Sometimes, they sneak around the back (of the exhibit)," said Andrea Mueller, senior hoofstock keeper.
The keepers weren't even sure the short, young Charlie was up to the task yet. So they were stunned when testing last January revealed Sharon was pregnant. Giraffes have a 15-month gestation period, but because keepers didn't know when the mating occurred, they didn't know when to expect the birth.
They put plywood over the drainage grates in the barn and laid down bedding material to prepare for a November birth.
"Then November came and went, and December came and went," Mueller said. "We didn't think she'd ever have that baby."
Finally, the morning of Feb. 9, Lewis arrived. Ninety minutes later, he took his first awkward steps. Eight days later, Lewis took his first wobble around the outdoor exhibit. By Thursday, he seemed at home.
"Look, there's a baby!" said Emily Lolar, a 6-year-old from Maine who was at Riverbanks with her family. "It's really little."
Lewis looks remarkably like his father, from the coloring, to the posture to even the crooked lip, Mueller said.
Sharon and Charlie came to Riverbanks in 2005 from the Sedgwick County Zoo in Wichita, Kan. Lewis is Sharon's first offspring and the first baby giraffe at Riverbanks since 2000, when Ginger and Krissy were born. Now those two share the exhibit with Lewis and his parents.
The youngster has had no trouble nursing on his mother and appears to be healthy, Mueller said. Just to be safe, he won't be allowed outdoors on exceptionally cold or rainy days for the next few weeks.
On sunny days, he'll be easy to spot. Even at 5-foot-5, he's a little baby in this tall group.