A new and lovely monkey

“Faces of the African Forest,” the zoo’s new six-species exhibit on the Tropics Trail, doesn’t officially open until tomorrow. But evening preview events have been going on this week, and yesterday I got a good look at several species: the red river hogs, the West African dwarf crocodiles and, most especially, the black-and-white colobus monkeys.

These guys are gorgeous, with white “capes” and long, fluffy white tails — so gorgeous, in fact, that their fur was used to trim Europeans’ coats in the mid-1800s. (Fortunately, these adaptable leaf-eaters are not endangered.) Their facial structure conveys a perpetual worried frown, just as dolphins always appear to be smiling. Because they have three-chambered “ruminant” stomachs, colobus (pronounced CAHL-a-bus) typically spend most of their day lounging and digesting, but the zoo’s trio still seem intrigued by their new home in the former sun bear exhibit — especially this hollowed-out tunnel log.

In a burst of design brilliance, the log was fashioned so that small humans can crawl through it, with a glassed-in gap in the wood through which the kids and monkeys can see each other. It’s a safe way for children to feel they’re entering the exhibit, even though they’re not. As of yesterday, the monkeys still found this fascinating; at one point, the brothers and their female companion were all leaning over the side of the log to investigate this other species tunneling beneath them.

The monkeys also explored the rear of their exhibit, jumping from tree to tree, capes and tails billowing whitely behind them. (They don’t brachiate with those arms; in fact, “colobus” derives from the Greek word for “mutilated,” meaning these monkeys have ineffective stumps for thumbs.) Also at the rear of the exhibit were our pair of De Brazza’s monkeys and their baby, which I glimpsed only briefly. Smaller and more active than the colobus, the De Brazza’s are expected to become the more entertaining monkey in time. I’ll be waiting to see.

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Wolverine ascending

Thursday’s chilly rain seems long ago and far away, but the near-unprecedented zoo-day downpour, combined with the huge glut of year-end school groups confined indoors, made the day memorable. Instead of getting soaked on the way out to Grizzly Coast, I did two or three laps of the Minnesota Trail, where the crowds were manageable and had a roof overhead. The animals, on the other hand (and on the other side of the glass), braved the damp in their different ways. The coyotes trotted nervously around their exhibit, the river otters withdrew into their cave-like tunnels with only their tails protruding, and the wolverines climbed their trees and postured in a way I hadn’t seen before.

It wasn’t just one rogue climber, either; multiple wolverines in their side-by-side exhibits seemed to feel the need to go skyward, and to strike a series of attitudes once they reached the highest branch. They drew a crowd, and comments ranged from an adult’s “Yeah, they look kind of mean, don’t they?” to children’s exclamations: “He looks like a bear” and “He’s posing! … He’s posing again!” The “mean” comment sent me back to my zoo literature in search of supporting evidence. “Fearless” and “strongest mammal for their size” might have been euphemisms, but the real clue was that wolverines have vanished from most of their ranges in Europe, Canada and the U.S. (including the northern half of Minnesota), with seemingly minimal public outcry — partly trapped for their fur, partly eliminated by farmers and ranchers who believed these wily climbers were poaching their livestock. Zoo lit also describes these fierce and furry creatures as “mainly terrestrial” but able to scale trees with skill and speed. So we’ve noticed.

Haines vs. Kenai: a feisty bromance

According to my fellow volunteer Sharon, the two boy bears of Grizzly Coast play-fought for 45 minutes straight yesterday. I wandered onto the scene halfway through and became rooted there, mesmerized by a spectacle that professional choreography couldn’t have improved upon.

They play the way my late, great golden retriever and a friend’s German shepherd used to: locking jaws, gripping each other’s shoulders, rearing and jumping. A couple of equally mesmerized guests asked, “They ARE playing, right?” (Given all the hugging and mouthing, a third guest, understandably, assumed one bear must be female.) Both are 4-year-olds, but Haines, the dark one, is dominant and seemed to be winning the match; twice, he fastened his teeth onto a patch of fur above Kenai’s eye, letting go at his leisure. (That’s Kenai’s left ear between Haines’ snout and claw in the smaller photo.) But both bears took turns lumbering out of the pool, then leaping onto the other’s back from the rocks above.

Besides the absence of snarling or blood, you could tell the fight was just a game by the voluntary breaks they took. Haines was fascinated by a little girl on the other side of the glass, and here’s Kenai taking a private moment in a shot that makes me pleased, proud and grateful — like so many good photos, it was just pure luck. I love the complicated texture of his damp fur: soft yet spiky between his ears, long and billowy on his submerged legs. There’s also something just a little poignant about Kenai in general: Zookeepers say that he’s subordinate not only to Haines but also to smaller female bear Sadie (who’s a little less enamored of the water than the boys are) and that he’s the bear most eager to please his human tenders. If you see a brown bear floating sideways across the exhibit pool, trying to catch trout by stepping on them, it’s probably Kenai. I guess I just realized he’s my favorite.

Sea otters on ice

A zoo fact sheet says sea otters in their native habitat — Pacific waters off the Russia, Alaska and California coasts — hardly ever venture onto shore; the one example given is females who’ve just mated (apparently a more arduous activity than giving birth, which happens in water).

But without any mating in the mix, all-male zoo otters Rocky, Jasper and Capers do lumber onto their exhibit’s rocky “shore” from time to time, especially if there’s a delectable ice treat like this one up there. Ice chunks, sometimes with seafood frozen inside them, are a favorite treat-toy combo for otters, which eat 25% of their body weight each day to fuel their high-energy lifestyle and whose active minds need the stimulation that “enrichment” items provide. This fellow didn’t stay on land long before jumping back into his pool with his otter buddies (see the other one’s head poking up among the rocks?).

Their zoo pool is kept about 62 degrees year-round — the warmest their ocean home would ever get in the wild. Surviving in icy winter seas with body temperatures of 100 degrees, these otters are the only marine mammals without a protective layer of blubber. Instead, their skin is shielded by an amazingly thick coat (up to a million hairs per inch) that they groom almost constantly. They’re not vain, but mats and gaps mean hypothermia — and for thousands of otters after the 1989 Exxon-Valdez oil spill, oil-clotted fur meant just that.

Zoo literature describes sea otters as “curious and charismatic,” which totally sums up the Bewhiskered One posing above, which I photographed at a different window and on a sunnier day than the ice-chomping fellow. They were also highly prized for that remarkable fur coat until killing them became illegal in 1911. They’re still on the threatened-species list, but with extinction averted, their charisma lives on.