CINCINNATI — The giraffe approaches the balcony for a square cracker.
Up close, each spot along its head is clear. Its round black eyes half closed, it reaches out its long purple tongue. Almost as quickly as its tongue appears, it snaps back into the giraffe's mouth, taking the cracker with it.
Not many people get to have a face-to-face encounter with the tall beasts, much less hand-feed them. But that's an experience visitors to the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden may enjoy from the zoo's newly expanded Giraffe Deck, which now features a covered treehouse reaching into the giraffe yard.
Five Maasai giraffes wander the yard freely, and most are not shy about greeting people on the deck, especially if they have crackers.
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The cracker is all-natural and healthy for the giraffe, says Val Nastold, senior elephant and giraffe keeper.
"Its just a basic cracker, like the ones you and I eat," Nastold said.
The view from the wooden deck reveals the giraffe yard; pale brown sand, bushes and trees almost as tall as the giraffes mimic the savannah of East Africa. It is part of phases one through three of the mostly completed Africa exhibit, which is geared toward providing visitors with an African savannah experience.
The exhibit, which opened less than two weeks ago, includes a savannah yard, two new African lions, a new cheetah exhibit and the expanded treetop deck for the giraffes. There are two more phases to come.
Phases one and two of Africa were completed in 2010 and focused on building the giraffe and cheetah encounters. The latter is where visitors may see the zoo's six cheetahs run during shows conducted twice a day from Friday through Tuesday through Sept. 3.
One of the zoo's cheetahs, Sarah, is the fastest cheetah in the United States.
Called the greenest zoo in America, Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden tops the charts for energy efficiency with the completion of its Base Camp Café restaurant, named the greenest restaurant in America by the Green Restaurant Association.
Everything from the parking lot to the riding carts is electric or solar-powered.
"It's beautiful and it will be even more beautiful once the whole thing is finished," Nastold said.
The remaining phases of the exhibit will be under construction before all of Africa officially opens.
"We are in the midst of a capital campaign to raise the funds — looking for donors," Cincinnati Zoo public relations manager Tiffany Barnes said. "We need $12 million to complete the project."
The final phases, four and five, will bring hippos, zebra, gazelles and exotic birds from Africa to the exhibit.
IF YOU GO'Africa'
What: Africa exhibit featuring giraffe, lion and cheetah exhibits among other s, encounters and restaurants.
When: 9 a.m.-6 p.m. daily through Sept. 3; closes at 5 p.m. after that
Where: Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden, 3400 Vine St., Cincinnati
Tickets: $15 adults, $10 ages 2-12, free for children younger than 2. Additional charge for parking.
Learn more: Cincinnatizoo.org