Chiropractor works on giraffe, is nuzzled: ‘Giraffes are just giant dogs?’

When you’re a chiropractor and you get a call about a 16-foot giraffe that might need help, you jump in your car.

That’s how Oklahoma chiropractor Joren Whitley ended up driving about two hours to a ranch in Ardmore, Okla., to examine Gerry the giraffe and give him an adjustment.

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Whitley, who recorded himself and Gerry during the exam, assessed Gerry’s neck and jaw because the giraffe’s owner said he had been chewing oddly, though did not seem to be in pain. Whitley applied pressure in spots around Gerry’s jaw and neck to help restore motion to his joints.

“His jaw was not moving to the left,” Whitley says in the video as he works on Gerry.

What happened next might be why three quick videos Whitley posted on TikTok of the exam have been watched collectively more than 48 million times: Gerry leaned over and nuzzled Whitley, seemingly thanking him.

“So let me get this straight … giraffes are just giant dogs??” one person commented.

“A giraffe snuggle would heal me,” wrote another on a video from the March 21 exam.

In an interview with The Washington Post, Whitley explained: “Gerry’s jaw had great range of motion moving one direction, but it did not have the same range of motion on the other side.”

He said he also found minor problems in Gerry’s upper and lower neck, which he addressed.

“Working on a giraffe’s neck is a chiropractor’s dream,” Whitley said. “It’s the longest neck in the world.”

Gerry’s owner, Missy Nowell, a longhorn cattle rancher, said the adjustments appear to have worked because he is chewing normally again.

“I would describe it as an immediate positive response,” she said.

Nowell joked that Gerry is in fact a 2,500-pound dog. School groups often take field trips to see him.

“Gerry loves everybody - he’s a dog in a very large body,” she said.

“The only time he has an issue is if you’re not paying him any attention,” Nowell said.

Whitley said he appreciated Gerry’s reaction to the adjustments.

“When I made the adjustments, he rubbed his head all over me like ‘You’re my best friend,’” he said.

People on TikTok were charmed by the unusual sight, and many asked how they could get a job working on a giraffe.

“Giraffe chiropractor was not an option at career day,” someone commented.

“Okay … well now I need to know how to get this job. I never knew how badly I wanted to be thanked by a giraffe,” another person wrote.

For Whitley, 34, helping long-necked creatures seemed like a natural progression after working on horses, dogs, cats, skunks, chickens, snakes and bats. In seven years as a chiropractor for both humans and animals, he said he’s treated three other giraffes.

Nowell met Whitley at a giraffe conservancy gathering last year, and reached out to him when she noticed Gerry’s chewing was off.

She purchased Gerry five years ago from a Texas wildlife safari park when Gerry was two months old after his mother had rejected him, she said. Giraffes in the wild generally stay with their young for more than a year.

Nowell had a barn and enclosure built for Gerry and she fed him with a bottle for his first two years. “He’s now spoiled rotten,” she said.

In Oklahoma, it is legal to own a giraffe, though in some other states, it is illegal to keep them.

In Africa, where their populations are under threat by drought and human conflict, there are an estimated 117,000 giraffes left in the wild.

Nowell also has a zebra and three camels, including one named Chloe that is good friends with Gerry. She bought the animals, she said, because she enjoys caring for them and learning about them.

She said she has taken classes and attended seminars held by zoos and giraffe conservancy groups to educate herself about the world’s tallest creatures.

Whitley, who graduated in 2016 from Parker University in Dallas with a chiropractic doctoral degree, now has a clinic that treats people on one side and animals on the other.

“It’s not very common, but I had this desire to help both,” he said. “A human can say, ‘I have this problem - this is what hurts,’ but an animal can’t.”

He said he set up his practice in Oklahoma because the state’s laws aren’t as restrictive regarding chiropractors treating animals.

Licensed chiropractic physicians in the state can treat animals with a referral from a veterinarian, while those who are certified by the Oklahoma Board of Chiropractic Examiners like Whitley don’t need referrals to work on animals.

Chiropractic therapy has long been controversial, with the American Medical Association forming a Committee on Quackery in the 1960s in an attempt to eliminate chiropractic services.

A lawsuit against the AMA resulted in a win for chiropractors in 1990, but the debate continues, with some doctors asserting that chiropractic therapy is unsafe and isn’t based on solid science. About 35 million Americans visit chiropractors every year, according to a recent study.

Whitley said that when he is confronted by skeptics, he enjoys talking about his work.

“When someone brings their dog in, they often tell me it’s their last hope,” he said.

He tells them that adjustments made to a pet’s spinal column, joints and other vertebrae can help alleviate pain and allow the animal more movement.

While he has treated football players and ballet dancers in Oklahoma, it’s his animal care - including an appointment to examine a chicken - that draws the most attention.

Whitley first worked on a giraffe in 2022 when an animal conservationist invited him to come to South Africa for three weeks to share his experiences with veterinary students.

“They were relocating some wild animals to other wilderness areas, and while they were under sedation, I had the opportunity to check them,” Whitley said, adding that he made joint adjustments to a Cape buffalo with a hip problem, as well as the neck of a giraffe.

Back home, Whitley has been called to help animals at the Oklahoma City Zoo several times, he said, including a bear, a chimpanzee and an African lioness named Tia.

“Tia was a geriatric animal and had a debilitating spinal condition that was causing loss of mobility in her back legs,” said the zoo’s chief animal program officer, Jennifer D’Agostino.

“Dr. Whitley performed an adjustment on Tia and we were thrilled that the treatment provided her some temporary relief,” said D’Agostino, adding that the lion was ultimately euthanized due to the progression of her disease.

With large animals that are not sedated, like Gerry, Whitley said he waits until they feel comfortable around him before touching them.

“Giraffes are obviously very large animals, and they can be dangerous, even though they look docile,” he said, explaining that they are strong and can cause damage with their hoofs or their ossicones.

Whitley said he’s learned from Gerry and other giraffes that their tongues are long and slimy, and their hair is extremely bristly. He said he’s still in awe he’s had the opportunity to work on them.

“It was a privilege,” he said.

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