PHOENIX—Years of controversy were finally settled Monday after DNA tests conclusively proved that Duane Panovich, an attraction at the Phoenix Zoo for the past 11 years, was indeed a human being, and not a reticulated giraffe from southwestern Kenya.
"This is truly a day of jubilation and vindication," said Panovich's attorney, Frank Hablis, who successfully argued in a federal court in June that the zoo should permit a DNA test to determine whether Panovich was genetically closer to a Homo sapiens or a Giraffa camelopardalis. "We're deeply grateful that science has advanced enough over the years to finally uncover the truth and clear his name of the allegations of giraffehood that have been such a burden to him and his family."
Shortly after the findings were revealed, Phoenix Zoo staff tranquilized, crated, and transported Panovich by helicopter to his Mesa, AZ home, where he was released into his front yard and reintroduced to his mate and two young.
"It's good to finally be home, but more than anything I'm looking forward to wearing clothes again," a still-groggy Panovich told reporters as an oxpecker bird sat on his shoulder and fed on ticks.
Panovich, a 42-year-old electrical engineer who stands approximately 5-feet-11-inches tall, was known during his years at the zoo as Wekesa, the Swahili word for "shimmering lily."
As Wekesa, Panovich was among the Phoenix Zoo's most beloved attractions. His image was reproduced on hot-selling T-shirts and coffee mugs, and he even inspired a Wekesa beanbag stuffed animal.
Though the zoo eventually bowed to demands from human-rights activists to return Panovich to his natural habitat, resentment lingers over his release.
"Wekesa will be back, mark my words," said Reggie Martin, the attendant who looked after Panovich for more than a decade. "He'll break loose and be eating out of someone's flower box when we pick him up again."
In July 1996, Panovich and his wife Claire were visiting the zoo with their then- preschool-age children when several zoo employees believed they had spotted a loose giraffe wandering near the baboon exhibit. Quickly cordoning off the area, they lassoed Panovich, tranquilized him, and placed him in the giraffe pen. Although it was discovered a few days later that the zoo had one more giraffe than usual, no owner stepped forward to claim Panovich, and a decision was made to keep him.
However, zoo officials began to sense trouble with their new giraffe a year later when they attempted to breed him with several of the zoo's female giraffes. Panovich sired no calves and showed virtually no interest in the opposite sex.
"That was a big disappointment," Martin said. "He had the ability to rut year-round, which is very unique for a giraffe. But when we'd spray him with female giraffe urine so he'd become aroused by the pheromones, he'd try to kick me with his hooves."
Although zoo captivity offered him such comforts as free veterinary care, a fully heated winter enclosure, and fresh acacia leaves imported at considerable expense, Panovich could only think of freedom.
"I so wanted to escape," said Panovich as he fought back tears. "But I was worried I'd fall and break my leg trying to jump the concrete moat, and then they would be forced to put me down."
He added that the hardest part of his long ordeal was not being around to see his children grow up, except for rare occasions when they came to visit with their classes on field trips.
"Wekesa often told me that he didn't belong in here," Martin said. "But everybody says that."
Through the years, Claire Panovich repeatedly petitioned the zoo to release her husband, arguing that his markings, lack of horns, and bipedal gait were not consistent with that of a giraffe. She was forcibly removed by zoo security on several occasions, most notably in 2002 for throwing a box of his favorite Hostess snack cakes into his pen.
In a statement following Panovich's release, the zoo said it will appeal the court's decision regarding its former giraffe. In spite of this, Panovich's story has spurred new interest in the case of Ernesto, a scarlet ibis that claims to be a contractor hired to remodel the aviary at the Houston Zoo.