Gemina, the Giraffe With a Mysteriously Crooked Neck

via Wikimedia Commons
via Wikimedia Commons / via Wikimedia Commons

The long, spotted necks of giraffes are distinctive and eye-catching, but Gemina the giraffe’s neck was striking for an entirely different reason. Born in 1986 at the San Diego Wild Animal Park, Gemina moved north to live at the Santa Barbara Zoo before she was a year old. At the time, she appeared to have completely normal neck vertebrae, but then around age 3, her neck started jutting out oddly.

Zookeepers couldn’t determine what was causing her neck to bend. Although Gemina took a tumble at age two, X-rays didn’t indicate that she was injured in any way. X-rays did reveal, however, that two vertebrae in her neck (her C3 and C4 vertebrae) were fused. Veterinarians couldn’t figure out why her vertebrae had seemingly spontaneously fused together—and this phenomenon hadn't been documented in a giraffe since 1902—but the result was a severe bend that became more and more pronounced each year until it there was almost a 90-degree crook in her neck.

Gemina's case stood out because her neck deformity was highly unusual in giraffes whose necks were not broken. There is a more recent video of an adult male giraffe in Botswana with a crooked neck, and although it’s not as severely bent as Gemina’s, people speculated that his neck could have been bent due to a birth defect or being in a fight. (Fighting—called "necking"—can often be a cause of broken necks for giraffes, though they don't usually die from such consequences of aggression. This adult male giraffe in Tanzania is another such example.)

Despite her neck, Gemina lived a relatively normal life at the Santa Barbara Zoo. She grew to be 13.5 feet tall, and her unusual appearance attracted visitors from all over. Although her neck was sharply bent, zoologists said that she was not in any pain or discomfort, and the other giraffes didn’t treat her differently. Her peripheral vision, however, was slightly limited, and her tongue was shorter than other giraffes', so she was fed separately. At five years old, in 1991, she gave birth to a baby giraffe that later died of pneumonia.

The Santa Barbara Zoo’s director of animal programs and conservation called Gemina the “most famous individual we had.” In 2006, she appeared on TV in an episode of The Miracle Workers, serving as a role model for a young boy with scoliosis. The following year, Santa Barbara residents voted Gemina number one in a radio station poll called "Seven Wonders of Santa Barbara."

Gemina died of old age in 2008 when she was 21. She was immortalized in a book, Gemina: The Crooked-Neck Giraffe, with proceeds going to support the zoo she called home for most of her life. The zoo now features a plaque honoring her memory.