Canine + feline: The predators emerge

Observing large carnivores in zoos is often a trade-off: A large, leafy enclosure makes for a healthier, more well-adjusted animal that’s frequently harder to find. Patience and persistence pay off, though, and make the eventual sighting more exciting. And cooler autumn days persuade many outdoor-dwelling beasts to cut back on their nap time. One chilly, gloomy day last month, I made my usual stop on the Minnesota Trail to see what our gray-wolf pair was up to, and — Check it out! The silvery she-wolf was RIGHT THERE looking at me through the mesh, closer than I’d ever seen her. On another gray October day, on the all-outdoor Northern Trail, a predator five times the she-wolf’s weight was on the move. You’re pretty much guaranteed a good view of Siberian stripes at the Tiger Lair, but this guy was too fast for my camera — until I tracked him up to the exhibit’s river-moat and caught him taking a sip there. It’s my second-favorite moment at that moat; the steamy summer day when a tiger was swimming laps in the moat, only her head above water, gazing steadily at a throng of enthralled guests as she paddled past them, was the best.

A dainty little reptile

Bita the hognoseI’ve never been afraid of snakes (though terrified of spiders), but until I got certified to do animal encounters at the Mn Zoo, I never realized that I actually LIKE legless reptiles. Last week my fellow volunteer Sue and I were assigned to demo a Western hognose snake named Bita, seen here in Sue’s capable hands. Found in western Minnesota and throughout the central Plains states, the hognose is a complicated creature: Its slightly upturned nose, which helps the snake burrow into prairie soil, conceals a pair of fangs for puncturing toads — even species of toad that are poisonous to other animals. Bita, we learned, has her own personality: While I’ve had a hognose rest its little head in the hollow between thumb and forefinger during a demo, Bita is not that hognose. She hissed vigorously inside the pillowcase that encloses her while she’s carried to her demo cart near the entrance to the Minnesota Trail. She also hissed at any abrupt movement nearby, but like any good demo animal, she let children and adults touch her scaly back and her amazingly smooth underside during her 15 minutes on public display. Less than two feet long, she is delicate, light and surprisingly soft to the touch. Sue and I joked about her potentially intimidating name, but as zoo staff assured us, Bita is harmless behind her posturing hiss. Unless you’re a toad, of course.

Feeding Semo

lined up for breakfastWhen you rack up 1,000 hours of volunteer time at the Minnesota Zoo, you get to choose from a range of close encounters with various animals. I chose a dolphin encounter, and for 20 endorphin-filled minutes this morning, I got to feed and touch Semo. He’s a wild-caught Atlantic bottlenose dolphin in his mid-40s, which makes him an active, healthy senior citizen, and he weighs well over 500 pounds. Like all the zoo’s dolphins, he responds to hand signals and fish (30 pounds a day), and under the direction of his trainer Robyn, I gave him both. With a bucket of herring and Jell-O squares (to keep him well-hydrated) between us, Robyn and I took turns placing whole fish in Semo’s open mouth and stroking his firm, rubbery flanks. She taught me the signals that either sent him gliding past us on his side, or made him stand upright before us with fins outstretched, or brought forth the signature crazy-laugh sound from his blowhole. I threw him ice chunks and his favorite small beach ball, which he swims out to catch and then bounces basketball-style across the pool, catching it in his mouth between bounces. He lay on his back while we touched and examined his cartilaginous tail fin — Robyn noted that this would help prepare him for a veterinary visit and blood-draw later this week. And we sweet-talked him as if he were a pet dog and a boyfriend all rolled into one. Robyn kissed him twice on the tip of his nose. After admiring Semo from a respectful distance for six years, I was delighted to come into his world, meet him face-to-face, and be part of his breakfast routine.