Cougar on the move

It’s a noisy construction season at the zoo, which is building a new indoor amphitheater (the current one is expected to hold penguins a year from now). The cougar exhibit lies well within earshot, and our brother-sister pumas are reacting differently. She’s lounging on the rock shelf atop the exhibit, where both of them usually hang out. He’s pacing the perimeter, obviously more vigilant than usual.

The zoo acquired these cougars (or mountain lions or pumas, if you prefer) from the DNR as orphans whose mother, believed to be an ill-advised “pet” puma, was shot by the owner of a threatened dog. They represent the largest species of cat in the U.S. — up to 225 pounds for males, 130 for females. Their paws, as disproportionately big as a puppy’s (note the female’s big feet in her close-up), help wild cougars bring down deer and other large animals. While endangered like all big cats, they reside near the top of their food chain, outranked only by wolves. A young boy watching these two, alongside his parents and me, seemed fully aware of this fact. When his dad theorized that the pacing male was “looking for some vittles,” the son replied, “I think WE’RE the vittles, Daddy!”

Foxy the fennec: all ears

I got to do a hands-on animal demo last week, and that meant a trip into the Zoomobile room to pick up Sylvia the milksnake. Besides demo animals, that room also holds the Zoomobile critters that staffers take to visit schools and other public places. Each time I return my snake or lizard after the allotted 15 to 20 minutes, I pause to admire my favorite of those critters, Foxy the fennec. And last week, in a first for me, she came out to play.

Foxy, a tiny North African canid, lives in an enclosure the size of a walk-in closet, which contains a cozy den for her to hide in and toys to amuse her. Whenever volunteers approach, entranced by her giant ears, this shy foxlet makes a noise that falls somewhere between a bird’s tweet and a woman’s shriek. This time, Zoomobile staffer Chris indulged us greatly, unasked, by bringing Foxy out for a cuddle. Fennecs are one-person animals, and Chris said her colleagues handle Foxy with gloves on, or not at all. But the fennec burrowed her nose into Chris’s neck, and we volunteers were allowed to touch the furry little back.

Foxy is eight years old (12 is a typical lifespan) and used to be someone’s pet — but like all exotic pets, fennecs aren’t legal everywhere, and not all veterinarians will treat them. They’re also nocturnal, which should make any would-be owner hesitate. Chris said Foxy is shy about going out to public places, but she seemed to love being held by Chris. Returned to her enclosure, she reacted surprisingly, at least to me — racing around while tweet-shrieking. Was she happy to be back in a safe space? Sad to be separated from Chris? We who aren’t fennecs can only imagine.

A refuge in water

For a certain type of person or animal, Thursday was the perfect day: humid, windy, sunny and edging into the upper eighties. For me, and the larger beasts of the Northern Trail, it was the kind of day you can enjoy for a few minutes, or even close to an hour, before demanding some form of relief. Fortunately, these beasts had nature’s air-conditioning — a pond — in their back yards.

Like every creature on the Northern Trail, these Bactrian camels can deal with temperatures of either extreme. Here, though, they’re keeping cool and holding still, aside from a swiveling head or two at the sound of my camera — in dramatic contrast to the moose a few exhibits farther along.

Most moose I’ve seen have a stately, regal bearing, but this female was playing in her pond like a kid in a swimming hole. She strode repeatedly back and forth from the hip-deep shallows to the neck-deep end, stopping here and there to shake water noisily off her shoulders like a dog after a bath. Along the way, she paused several times to rear back and slap the algae-green surface with her forefeet. Wild moose like to eat water plants and can dive deep to get them, but since our zoo moose feast on Purina moose chow, there was clearly more than hunger or heat going on here. This moose was making her own pre-holiday summer fun.