The sleepy season

I’d normally be at the zoo today, but a sore throat, a bitter windchill and some concern about my dog’s gastrointestinal health are keeping me home. January’s charms are wearing out their welcome, but I’m still appreciating the seasonal excuse to curl in on myself and get extra rest with minimal guilt. (I’m especially aware of the post-holiday reprieve this January, a month of mental leisure between my first two semesters of grad school.)  Zoo animals don’t need the reprieve or the excuse, but after an initial burst of heightened activity when the weather first turned cold, the large furry creatures who prowl our outdoor trails are giving in and curling up for a good long snooze, too. (Winter or summer, they all get to sleep in the shelter of indoor enclosures at night. And with a 40-below windchill expected by morning, most of them were probably kept inside today.)

The four male coyotes on the Minnesota Trail have a history of sparring — possibly the reason why this guy didn’t want to close his eyes and let his guard all the way down while catching a dog-nap a couple of weeks ago.

Next door to the coyotes, I’ve rarely seen the boy-girl gray-wolf duo this close together for any length of time. I couldn’t watch them too long before my own eyelids started to droop and thoughts of the Caribou Coffee shop just outside the Minnesota Lodge started to entice me.

Here’s Katya or Polina, one of two females in the  Amur leopard exhibit, where the Northern Trail blends into Russia’s Grizzly Coast. When I stopped by last week, their male consort Chobby was awake but yawning broadly.

And then there’s our bear trio. Even in the wild, this subspecies doesn’t hibernate, but wild grizzlies do enter a state of winter dormancy (sleep that’s light enough for outer stimuli to disturb). And our bears spend most of the winter curled up in this friendly fur-pile by the viewing window.

You might not think it’s entertaining to watch bears sleep, but it can be: They stretch and stir, and you never know when someone’s foot will push up into someone else’s face. As of last week, a bench had been placed before the window, inviting an audience to the silent show. Even then, it was too cold to linger long, and after I’d moved on to the sea-otter window, shivering, a guest said to me, “You must have the worst job at the zoo!” I told him I was outside voluntarily, and thought to myself, “Nope, more like the best.”


Heavy is the crown (for now)

We’re all getting a little sick of snowfall here in Minnesota, but the giant storybook flakes floating through the air Thursday made me want to hit the Northern Trail, where I haven’t ventured for weeks. I half-hoped to repeat my Mystical Moose Experience of December 2003, in which I stood gazing into the eyes of a Northern Trail moose for several minutes — no other human in sight and no sound but the whisper of snowflakes — before I started moving along, only to have the moose follow me to the edge of its exhibit.

The moose exhibit appeared empty this time, but across the way, their cousins the caribou were lounging (as cud-chewing ruminants often do), and the male was sporting a spectacular head of antlers at their seasonal peak.

Female woodland caribou have antlers, too. (Even the babies, starting at three months or so, develop mini-antlers, or “spikes.”) But the seasonal patterns and purpose of antlers vary by gender: The males’ headgear peaks in mating season, October and November, and is shed in winter — meaning this guy’s crown won’t stay this dramatic much longer. Females keep their own, smaller antlers into spring, using them to forage for food beneath the snow. In either case, the equal-opportunity headgear lacks the permanence of horns.

As a species, woodland caribou themselves lack permanence: Their numbers whittled by wolves, human hunters and deforestation, they’ve dwindled in Canada and vanished in northern Minnesota. Like many threatened species, though, they’ll always have a refuge right here.

When Bertie met Johnny

I took two or three laps around the Tropics trail yesterday — partly to bask in greenery, warmth and birdsong on an icy gray day and partly to keep tabs on the romantic alliance unfolding in our tapir exhibit.

Bertie the tapir (the one on the right in all three photos) has held the fort alone for many months since the death of a female companion, but her life is perking up with the recent addition of a love interest from Omaha. Malayan tapirs, which weigh at least 500 pounds and are native to Southeast Asia, live about 30 years; Bertie’s about four years old, and her new guy, Jon-hi, is a whippersnapper at about 18 months. As I watched them eat from bowls with foreheads pressed together, an informative intern stopped by (how convenient!) to answer my questions. Jon-hi (which he pronounced Johnny) won’t be sexually mature until he’s nearly Bertie’s age, but in the meantime they seem to enjoy each other’s company. When Jon-hi laid his head across Bertie’s back or sniffed her a little intrusively, she made a birdlike squealing noise. Both tapirs sniffed the air dramatically, lifting their elongated snouts skyward and baring their teeth — the standard tapir response to the scent of a potential mate, the informative intern told me.

Nothing looks quite like a tapir, a creature related to rhinos and horses but not to pigs or elephants. That elongated snout can serve as a snorkel while a tapir strolls a lakebed browsing for aquatic plants. Normally they do this at night, and before Jon-hi’s arrival, any Tropics trail tapir sighted in daylight was usually a sleeping tapir. Clearly, the excitement of a new companion is enough to disrupt anyone’s regular schedule.