An elusive rodent of unusual size

Hurrying back indoors to warm up after a third consecutive Thursday of Wolf Watch (more about that in a minute), I passed the beaver exhibit and saw an unexpected sight — a beaver perched beside the upper-level pool. The largest species of North American rodent (20-80 pounds full-grown) gazed down a rocky slope toward the lower-level pool (a more typical site of occasional beaver sightings) as if contemplating a plunge.With or without a visible beaver, this exhibit has tremendous natural charm. The downward-flowing water burbles noisily and emanates the clean-seaweed smell of a healthy lake. Colorful ducks float on both the upper and lower pools, and an underwater-viewing window offers a potential view of beavers swimming beneath their dam. In summer, even before the Minnesota Trail’s dramatic redesign in 2007, this exhibit was a shady oasis of shifting light patterns and birdsong on a hot day.

Besides all that, the beaver has the best “bench talk” at the zoo. In a typical bench talk, a volunteer uses either a real animal pelt or a skull replica as a jumping-off point to talk about that animal’s unique features. The large plastic beaver box holds a furry pelt (guard hairs act almost as a raincoat to shield the beaver’s skin), a preserved, paddle-like beaver tail (for steering, grooming and slapping the water in warning), a beaver’s skull with teeth (which grow throughout a rodent’s life and must be filed down by chewing on wood), a beaver-skin hat, and a large picture book with informative captions. On a cold day with no live beaver in sight, a volunteer can sit by the roaring fire in the Minnesota Lodge, within 10 or 15 steps of the actual exhibit, and entertain a group of kids with this smorgasbord of beaver facts and imagery. And just when you stop expecting to see a live beaver, one appears.

So before I saw the beaver, nothing much happened with the wolves beyond last week’s post — they playfully bumped their open jaws together twice, and he eagerly sniffed, pawed and marked the patch of snow she’d left yellow. I caught her napping in the sun after that, and despite my inability to get an unobstructed view of her face, there’s something fitting about this image: It reminds me of the zoo’s logo, a tiger face with a leaf draped across one eye. Every mammal deserves a sheltering tree.

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Wolf Watch: Will they or won’t they?

Semi-endangered species reproduction alert: The Minnesota Trail’s two largest canids are on Wolf Watch this month. In lay terms, this means it’s their breeding season, and volunteers take half-hour turns with a clipboard, a chair and an electric blanket (the trail’s walkway and wolf-viewing room are semi-enclosed but chilly), watching this pair to see if they show any interest in each other at all. We take notes, and in the event of a “tie” — wolves standing back-to-back, hindquarter-to-hindquarter — we are to alert zookeepers by radio at once.

Last week, our male and female pleased everyone by trotting around and showing off their gorgeousness: he, massive-necked and multicolored; she, slender and silvery. Both were out of sight when I heard yipping and howling; leaving the wolf-viewing room to follow the sound, I found the female at her exhibit’s edge, muzzle pointed skyward (moments before this photo was taken), howling — presumably at the four male coyotes next door, whom she must have glimpsed through the foliage before sitting down to howl at them with her back turned.

At 12 years old, this fellow could be considered a wee bit old for the 2-year-old female whose pups he’s supposed to sire. When I saw them interact, he was usually chasing her, and barely getting close enough to sniff the tip of her tail. In one fleeting shared moment, they bumped noses, and he curled his lip as if considering, then reconsidering, a snarl. When I explained the situation to husband-wife visitors who wondered why I had a clipboard, the husband put a human slant on the elderly he-wolf’s reticence: “Maybe he doesn’t want to go to jail.”

Neither wolf showed their summertime affinity for napping, but this one took a few minutes to find some high ground and bask in the sun. Amid all the pressure to be productive — and, in these wolves’ case, reproductive — her restful moments reminded her admirers that sometimes, it’s more than enough just to be.

Hungering for summer

I’ve never loved summer the way a midwesterner should. Humidity, blistering heat and wayward insects get in my way, and I resent feeling guilty for occasionally lounging indoors on a sunny weekend. Last summer had a few unique qualities, though: Sandwiched between two especially long, brutal winters, it offered blossoming greenery and butterflies without breaking 90 degrees more than once or twice. And then there were the giraffes, whom I’ve been missing as much as the gentle breezes and garden aromas of that bygone season.

The zoo’s first temporary outdoor Africa exhibit brought Sweta and Zawadi from Colorado to Minnesota for a hot, sticky interlude in 2006. As of last summer’s return engagement, the Mn Zoo owned both young male giraffes, although they still spend most of their time at my childhood zoo (Henry Vilas) in Madison, Wis., which has an indoor cold-weather home for them. Like a lot of people last summer, I never grew tired of watching their odd, graceful movements or feeding them rye crackers. Up close, their huge, long-lashed eyes, warm breath and gently dipping heads made these leaf-eaters seem totally benign. Still, a giraffe can kill a lion with one well-placed kick (their hooves are as big as dinner plates), and one day a zookeeper sported a bruise on her arm from a giraffe’s sudden head-swing. These gentle-giant contradictions intensified their charm for me, and so did the cool, lovely summer that enveloped them. The Northern Trail has a severe winter beauty, but it’s hard to hike past the snowy expanse where the giraffes ate their crackers without getting a lump in my throat. Next summer’s Africa exhibit will be indoors and permanent, with crocodiles and monkeys, and there’s no firm return date for Sweta and Zawadi. Until that date comes, though, it helps to know they’re just down the highway in Madison, biding their time.