Her spitting image?

The zoo’s two-week-old baby camel was all over the local news after he went on exhibit Wednesday, so I hoped to get a clear view of him Thursday. Luck had me scheduled on the Northern Trail first thing, and I raced out into the balmy sunshine to behold the leggy cuteness for myself.

At about 150 pounds, this still-unnamed fellow is roughly one-tenth the weight of his molting mama, Sybil. (With the recent unseasonable warmth here, she apparently decided that winter coat just had to go.) I hadn’t actually seen the little guy on TV and didn’t expect him to be gray. Lured in like me by the news reports and short-lived glorious weather, a crowd of camera-toting spectators had lined up alongside the camel group. A preteen male voice behind me stated, “They like to spit” (when they’re angry, yes, the word on the street is that camels do spit). Another child exclaimed, “That camel has eight legs!” when the baby stepped behind his mom, his head and body hidden behind her bulk. In a quintessential kids-at-the-zoo moment, an octet of third-graders screamed in horrified delight when Sybil took a sudden spontaneous potty break.

Most of the world’s remaining wild Bactrian camels live in Mongolia’s Gobi Desert, where their fat-filled humps and oval blood cells help this endangered species retain nourishment. (A memory device: The capital “B” has two humps, and so do Bactrians; dromedaries have one).

I’m not sure if that’s daddy Turk in the background of this photo, but Turk has fathered 16 calves to Sybil’s four. The zoo says Bactrian camels breed easily here — a happy example of exotic threatened creatures thriving in captivity.


The other Wolf Watch: underdog edition

Last week marked my fourth consecutive Thursday of Wolf Watch, but with a change of venue, subspecies and relationship issue. The focus shifted from possible Plains-wolf romance on the Minnesota Trail to male-on-male aggression among Mexican gray wolves on the Northern Trail. Wolves in any wild or captive pack use aggression to maintain hierarchy, and each pack has its underdog, or omega wolf. From time to time, volunteers take half-hour turns in the wolf gazebo and take notes on how everyone’s getting along.

Mexican gray wolves are a bit smaller (50-85 pounds), more colorful (with shades of cinnamon and pepper in their fur) and far more rare than their northern Minnesota cousins. In their heyday, before humans and habitat destruction pushed them to the edge of extinction in the 1970s, Mexican wolves ranged across much of the western U.S. By the 1990s, a Species Survival Program was overseeing the gradual, careful release of captive-born wolves into the mountains of Arizona.

In our Northern Trail exhibit, and from these three photos, it’s pretty easy to identify the underdog, especially compared to the confident, hard-eyed, alert-eared fellow posing at the top. I feel a twinge when I look at the omega wolf’s tattered left ear and tucked-under tail — it’s hard not to remember the cutthroat environment of middle school at such moments — but on Thursday the underdog trotted around the exhibit’s perimeter and stopped repeatedly atop the elevated rock to sniff the air, mimicking the other two wolves at a cautious distance. No obvious signs of aggression marred my half-hour in the gazebo.

Mexican wolves made Twin Cities news last month when three females (who spent a couple of years in this very exhibit a few years back) were released by vandals who struck the Wildlife Science Center in Forest Lake, Minn. Maybe the vandals thought they were staging their own “reintroduction” effort, but of course lifelong captive wolves have no skills to sustain themselves when abruptly set loose in the suburbs. Fortunately all three were recaptured without incident, although one wolf took longer to find than the other two and eventually had to be corned in a homeowner’s yard. An update as of March 19: The last wolf caught turned out to be the alpha, and her former underlings rejected her upon her return. The ex-alpha will be sent to another facility, where a possible male partner awaits her.

Perhaps the sight of any captive wild creature bothers some people the way the underdog unsettles me. It’s tempting to impose our human ideals on nature, to believe all wild creatures can or should be “free,” safe and equal. But nature has its own ideas.

Another update, as of November 2011: We no longer have Mexican wolves on exhibit, but in late December, Asian wild dogs, also known as dholes, will take over the wolves’ old space. I look forward to an entirely new view from the gazebo.