Babies change everything!

There’s nothing like a new baby to shake up a group dynamic — and yes, I say this the day after Christmas.  The interspecies dynamic in “Faces of the African Forest,” six months after the exhibit opened on our Tropics trail, had settled into a cheerful coexistence: red river hogs, colobus monkeys, DeBrazza’s monkeys and rock hyraxes making gradual incursions into each other’s spaces and occasionally mixing it up a bit. The dynamic shifted a couple of weeks ago when the female DeBrazza’s surprised us all by giving birth. (They’re pregnant for five or six months.) Since then, the two monkey species have been rotating on and off exhibit on alternating days to ensure that the colobus monkeys leave the baby alone. So far, Thursday has been “colobus day,” so I haven’t seen Baby DeBrazza in person yet, but I’ve already noticed a couple of effects.

The first effect: Since the birth, the DeBrazzas’ names have become public knowledge — daddy is Otis, mom is Mashama. Here’s Daddy Otis in the foreground, before the birth and species-separation, with a colobus gazing pensively into the distance behind him.

And here’s the DeBrazza’s monkey formerly known as “the baby,” who now also has a known name — Dafu, which is Swahili for “coconut.” She’s about a year and a half old. Her default gender is female, but because our zookeepers avoid any unnecessary manhandling of wildlife, that’s just an educated guess. What’s certain is her playfulness, and how much she loves to pester the exhibit’s hyraxes when they emerge from their hiding places. There’s the birth’s other effect: With the DeBrazza clan off exhibit every other day, the hyraxes have emerged more decisively. On Thursday, I spotted three of the four — including this one, seen gazing down at the slumbering hogs below.

Hyraxes are difficult to explain. At 2-11 pounds apiece, they look like rodents — but they’re not. Their sticky paws and clawlike nails make them agile climbers in their African and Middle East habitats. Although they’re mammals, they have a reptile’s difficulty with thermoregulation and therefore need to sunbathe. When little Dafu was on exhibit every Thursday, she made a favorite diversion of chasing hyraxes and swatting at them. While it took me months to capture the half-decent DeBrazza’s photos above, I had an even harder time getting a hyrax shot. “Faces of Africa” poses a lot of challenges for the amateur photographer with a basic Canon PowerShot: iffy lighting, a large central panel of thick mesh and, on the DeBrazza/hyrax front, creatures obscured by lightning-quick motions and camouflage-friendly coloration. (The DeBrazza’s often duck their heads to hide the telltale orange patch on their foreheads.) But now that I’ve finally got my pictures of these two elusive species, an attempt to catch Baby DeBrazza in my lens can’t be too far in the future.


Canis lupus … or familiaris?

If you want to see two gray wolves not napping on the Minnesota Trail, we’ve hit the uncomfortably cold streak when they’re most active. The female, who’s still a youngster, seems to cover more ground than her venerable would-be mate.

To my zoo-gazing eye, only our Amur leopards outrank this silver-hued she-wolf in elegant beauty. I catch my breath a bit each time I see her in motion. Last week, however, my awe downshifted into amused affection when she started behaving exactly like my ultra-domesticated Belgian shepherd dog.

She found the perfect place beneath a tree.

She pointed her muzzle into a dirty patch of snow and gnawed the ground, loosening and spreading something that just had to smell bad.

She lowered one shoulder into her favored spot and rubbed it around, exactly the way my pooch Lena does when she finds a trace of something rodent-related in our back yard.

Then she flung herself down on her back and writhed in ecstasy, scratching and perfuming herself.

Any zoo volunteer, including this one, will warn you against confusing wild animals with tame pets. But the wolf/dog connection is undeniable.

Avian spectacle

As a winter of construction work envelops the zoo, our daily bird shows have no amphitheater: the fancy new one still in progress, the old one giving way to next summer’s penguin exhibit. In the interim, handheld “bird encounters” in Discovery Bay replace the free-flight theater shows, and I observed one yesterday from my assigned station at the dolphin window. The trainers began with a Harris hawk and moved on to a barn owl. When this unfamiliar fellow came out — an owl with the eyes of a spectacled bear — I had to cross the room for a closer look. Logically enough, he turned out to be a spectacled owl.

These are tropical rainforest owls found in Central and northern South America. Their bird-call is a knocking or tapping sound — or, for females, a shriek that reportedly sounds like a steam whistle. Websites say spectacled owls are unsociable, and delightful bird-trainer Rebecca — seen here taking questions after the encounter — says they’re still rather unusual in zoos. I always expect to see something I’ve never seen before in each shift at the zoo, but usually that’s just a new animal behavior. This time, it was a completely new animal.