All I Wanted for Christmas Was My Giraffe Restored!

March 8, 2001
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Giraffes, zebras, wildebeests, oh my! Ruth Travis tackles African beasts following their long, and moldy journey.



While away on business in mid-December, my secretary scheduled an appointment with a loyal customer to “check out” several animal skins that were damaged in shipping, and to determine if they could be cleaned. As an IICRC Master Cleaner/Restorer with 15-years experience, and having attended courses on leather cleaning, I felt confident about making the service call.

To my surprise, I found the skins to be from a zebra, wildebeest, antelope, and a giraffe—head and tail included! They had arrived from Africa the previous week in a container that had become wet during transit. When my customer opened the container, she found the skins with “a little mildew on them.”

I went by her house and inspected the skins in her dimly lit garage. After returning to my office, I called and suggested that she wrap them in old sheets and plastic and bring them to my office for more thorough inspecting and testing. What a shock I had when I unrolled the plastic and stretched the hides out on my rug-cleaning platform! Both sides of all the skins were covered in active, green mold. The giraffe, which had been on the bottom of the container, was the most severely affected. The odor was horrendous!

I should have folded the plastic back around the skins, called my customer and refused the job. But of course, the challenge was too much! After talking with her, I knew how important these “momentos” of her safari were. And being an animal lover, I couldn’t stand the thought of those animals being wasted. So, I called several “expert” friends in the industry for advice.

It was no surprise that everyone I spoke with had never experienced anything like this, and very few had suggestions. At that point, I knew I was on my own.

I decided to follow IICRC-recommended cleaning principles and procedures. First step? Vacuum, right? So, I donned a respirator and rubber gloves, got down on my hands and knees and after adding a hose to my portable carpet-cleaning machine that exhausted outside, I began dry vacuuming. I spent an hour on the zebra, wildebeest and antelope, and more than four hours on the giraffe. Although vacuuming removed most of the surface mold on the zebra, wildebeest and antelope, there was a lot of “green residue” left on both the hide and fur sides of the giraffe.

My priority before leaving the office that Friday evening was to “attempt” to arrest mold growth on the giraffe skin. So with an aching back, I mixed an ammonium chloride biocide solution in a sprayer. I misted the entire skin side of the giraffe, turned on my ozone machine to eliminate the stench, turned off the light, shut the door to my rug cleaning room, and headed home for a double dose of Advilâ.

I had no idea what to expect the next day when I checked the hide.

To my delight the odor was gone and the hide was dry. Unfortunately, there still was considerable green residue from the mold. Moreover, it was as “stiff as a board.” As the skin was destined to become a floor covering, I knew that beyond mold remediation and cleaning, my next concern was reconditioning the hide. More testing!

Next, I mixed up more biocide solution in a bucket and used a 2" x 6" sponge to create a foamy disinfectant cleaner. I hand-scrubbed a 2-foot wide by 3-foot high test area on one of the giraffe’s thighs with great results. Once the area was dry, I generously “slathered” a leather conditioner. I left for the day hoping the hide would become suppler over time. It did!

Meanwhile, I had received a call from my customer’s husband who had a few questions on how much I was going to charge and how long it would take. Being the week before Christmas, he and his wife had scheduled two parties for the weekend, and they wanted to “show off” their prizes. I gave him a ballpark figure, and because he was insured, he didn’t have much concern about the price. I told him that I could have the zebra done by the end of the week. The giraffe was going to take a lot more time and effort. A whole lot!

The zebra was backed with felt, so I was concerned only with the fur side. As mentioned earlier, it was not as badly effected by the mold. I hand-cleaned the fur (working with the nap) using a neutral cleaner misted onto a terry cloth towel. I repeated the process until no more soil or green moldy residue transferred to the towel. I paid special attention to the face, ears and mane. The whole process took about two hours. The zebra was returned in time for the weekend parties.

Now, back to the giraffe. Excluding the 51/2-foot-long head and neck, it measured 8 feet wide and 10 feet high, so I knew my pint bottle of leather conditioner wasn’t going to go very far. I needed more, a lot more! I ordered another gallon on Monday morning.

The cleaning and conditioning process was back breaking and tedious. It seemed that the more I cleaned, the bigger the hide became. I even had to clean inside his head and ears where mold had grown. About 15 later, I finished cleaning and conditioning the skin side.

Now, it was time to flip the giraffe over and begin restoring the fur side. Fortunately, the mold residue was not as severe as the skin. I followed the same procedure as I had used on the zebra.

After six more hours, I was through with the cleaning process. However, visible green stains remained in the white areas of the hide. For this, I dabbed the fur lightly with a 3% peroxide solution on a terrycloth towel. All done!

After three weeks, the skins were returned to their delighted owners. The invoice is in the mail, my back is on the mend and I have a great story to tell my friends about the time I “cleaned” a giraffe. Sometimes Christmas in the cleaning business can be challenging and fun!

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