Twiga chews on braided willow branches Wednesday at Niabi Zoo.

COAL VALLEY — Illinois summers may not be as hot as those on the African savanna, but it helps to have a little shade. 

A crowd gathered Wednesday morning at the giraffe exhibit at Niabi Zoo, 13010 Niabi Zoo Road, to witness the ribbon-cutting and official unveiling of a new shade structure that will help keep the sun off the zoo's largest animals, a pair of giraffes.

Rock Island County Forest Preserve Commission President Kai Swanson introduced the guests of honor, Kenya, a 13-year-old male reticulated giraffe and Twiga, a 13-year-old female northern giraffe, who had just been let outside from their barn enclosure. 

"This is a very exciting day that many of us have been looking forward to for a very long time," Swanson said. "I want to offer very special thanks to the Ontiveros family. You can see what an obvious improvement it is from the other structure. This is possible because of the generosity of Bob and Blenda Ontiveros. We are very grateful they made this possible."

The new shade structure was built with the help of a $40,000 grant from Bob and Blenda Ontiveros, who announced the gift in Nov. 2017. The old shade structure, similar to a tall, but a small, hut-style umbrella, will remain in the habitat. 

The Ontiveroses could not attend, but their son, Chris Ontiveros and his daughter, Maria Ontiveros, spoke on their behalf. 

"Thank you to Kai (Swanson) and the staff of Niabi Zoo and your continued leadership at this incredible amenity here in the Quad-Cities," Maria Ontiveros said. "The Quad-Cities is so fortunate to have a zoo that provides the public with opportunities to see these incredible animals up close and personal, and that's why my grandparents support the zoo."

But a traditional ribbon-cutting it was not. A "ribbon" of braided willow branches was draped across the railing of the feeding deck at the giraffe enclosure. The plan was for Kenya and Twiga to chew through the delicious ribbon to the delight of the crowd and provide media-worthy photos and footage at the same time. 

The crowd, however, had spooked the giraffes, who were hesitant to approach the feeding deck and take a bite out of the edible swag. They kept their distance.

In Pavlov fashion, Primary Hoofstock Keeper Kristina Stump rang a triangle bell — the giraffe's cue for a meal — in an attempt to lure them closer. Stump leaned over the railing, holding out a Romaine lettuce leaf, as Twiga slowly approached and then turned away. 

"We practiced with the willow branches yesterday, and now they're full," Swanson said, prompting laughter from the crowd. 

The new 20-foot shade structure stands in front of the feeding deck and has three large, red and yellow sails that will provide shade to both giraffes and guests during daily feedings. 

Assistant Zoo Director Tammy Schmidt said the shade structure materials arrived in December, and the structure was built within one day. 

Chris Ontiveros presented zoo staff with a vintage red-and-black Toys-R-Us "enter" sign with a picture of Geoffrey, the iconic Toys-R-Us mascot giraffe.

As the event concluded, most of the attendees left the feeding platform and Zookeeper Penny Hillier removed the edible willow-branch ribbon from the railing.

Twiga, seeing an opportunity, approached quickly and seized the rope of branches from Hillier's hands, and trotted away, as the prize hung from her mouth. Kenya followed closely behind, hoping his mate would share with him.

Twiga and Kenya obviously wanted a piece of the willow-branch ribbon, just without the crowd. 

Swanson said the purpose of the Rock Island County Forest Preserve Commission is to preserve, educate and recreate. 

"Our battle cry is to restore, conserve, learn and play," Swanson said. "It requires the support of a community that believes in those principles. That's what we do in all of our preserves."

Niabi Zoo is one of several facilities and parks within the forest preserve. 

The zoo is open every day from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., with last entry at 4 p.m. For more information, visit Niabizoo.com



Sarah is a reporter for the Dispatch-Argus-QCOnline.com.

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