The giraffe lady of Wantagh

Local woman builds a collection, connects with others

Renée Susman, 63, of Wantagh, has collected more than 500 giraffe-themed items.
Renée Susman, 63, of Wantagh, has collected more than 500 giraffe-themed items.
Julie Mansmann/Herald

Renée Susman’s Richard Lane home is covered in giraffes — 579, to be exact. 

Two thin, bronze and blue statues, which are nearly as tall as the 63-year-old North Wantagh resident, stand beside the front door. To the left of the entryway, three colorful puzzles depicting safari scenes, held together with crafting glue, are hung on a white wall. In the center of the room, Susman packed a breakfront with a small fraction of her giraffe figurines, key chains, bright yellow baby toys, wine bottle holders, ornaments, and dozens and dozens of stuffed dolls.

A few shelves hold blue and white dishware and wind chimes — the only evidence of another collection. Since Susman started exclusively collecting giraffe memorabilia five years ago, she said, the distinct brown-and-yellow pattern of the creatures’ coats has “taken over the universe.”

“I feel that you need to reinvent yourself over and over again,” she explained. “It just makes me happy.”

Although Susman said it all started as a joke, she noted that collecting giraffe knick-knacks, jewelry, artwork and more has brought her closer to her family and her students at East Lake Elementary School, in Massapequa Park. A librarian who likened herself to Ms. Frizzle, the eccentric teacher from “The Magic School Bus” book and television series, Susman said that the animal is bold and unique — “just like I am.”

Making the best of it

Susman’s daughter, Rebecca, 30, is a prolific collector in her own right, she said. Since childhood, Rebecca has gathered everything from horses to dragons to zebras to “pink stuff,” Renée explained.

Rebecca gave her mother a giraffe from her Beanie Baby collection, and Renée plopped the miniature doll on her car dashboard. Her husband, Harvey, referred to the toy as a “stubby” because it had short, floppy legs.

The Susmans began to notice more stubbies in grocery and department stores, at crafts fairs and in local shops in Europe and different parts of the United States when they were on family vacations. They started buying them for laughs, and Renée said that she didn’t notice that things had “really started to get crazy” until her 60th birthday.

“I’m a librarian — that’s what we do,” she said. “We collect things. Everything has a story, and that’s how we make connections.”

Her voice grows louder and more excited whenever she remembers how she found her giraffes, which are placed in sections with distinct themes in every room of her house. “Look at that,” she exclaimed when describing hand-blown, multi-colored glass statues on a crowded shelf full of small figurines, bracelets and chains in her basement last month.

“Here’s another baby stuff area,” she said, eyes scanning each item as she decided whether its back story was worth telling. “I’m always in the baby aisle, and we don’t have any babies.”

But Renée’s youngest child partly inspired her collection. Rebecca has Dubowitz syndrome — a rare genetic and developmental disorder that causes physical and mental disabilities. When she was born, there were only 38 known cases worldwide.

Rebecca’s handicaps haven’t slowed her down, her parents said. Renée noted that, in addition to building her own collections, she learned to ride a horse, — even though she has trouble walking and standing — play guitar and clarinet, and act.

Renée concluded that her own health also motivated her to expand her giraffe collection, which she joked is only one of her mid-life crises. She was diagnosed with lupus when she was 40, and nearly died.

“I’ve had several mid-lives,” she said, laughing. “I turned and looked and I said, ‘I need to live each day to the fullest.’ You need something to jump-start you and to have a passion and a purpose for.

“Look at this odd-shaped thing,” she continued, pointing to a giraffe height chart on her basement wall, its long neck lined with measurements. “They make the best of it.”

Becoming the giraffe lady

Renée said that she has three sets of children: Rebecca and her son, Benjamin, 33; the giraffes; and her students at East Lake. The youngsters all know that she’s a crazy giraffe lady, she said, and will often bring her treasures.

More than two dozen of her giraffes are kept in the East Lake Library. They’re duplicates of toys and dolls that she already has at home, but she said she would never throw them away because they were gifts. And the children have brought her unusual pieces, she noted. One boy gave her Mickey Mouse ears with giraffe print on them when he came back from a family trip to Disney World.

“That’s not about me,” she said. “That’s about the connection that I made with a kid. Nobody who’s met me can look at a giraffe without thinking of me.”

On Halloween or on East Lake’s Pajama Day, Renée will wear one of her giraffe onesies. She doesn’t have many articles of clothing featuring the animal because “that can get a little freaky,” she said. “There’s a fine line between being eccentric and creepy.”

Harvey said he tries to surprise his wife with new giraffes for holidays, but added that it’s becoming difficult to find collectibles that she doesn’t already own. The two buy each other eight giraffes for Hanukkah, many of which now surround Renée’s exercise bike in their basement, their bed and a drum set in a spare room.

“It isn’t easy hiding them from her,” Harvey said of his hunt for new additions. “Whatever she does, she is 100 percent devoted to it.”

The Susmans also got involved in giraffe conservation efforts. They have donated to the Giraffe Conservation Foundation, even sponsoring a giraffe that lives in Namibia.

A plaque describing the animal — Kaoko, a female with long eyelashes who “moves with grace and poise” — sits on a shelf cluttered with giraffe coffee cups. On the next shelf, Renée lined up a pile of pink giraffe plushies.

“How can you not laugh?” she shouted, grabbing one of the dolls. “They’re wild creatures that are just breathtakingly beautiful. They don’t do anything bad, and there’s so much negativity in the world. They make me so happy.”