An epic feline frolic

This one’s all about the cat photos, folks. I ducked out of the Minnesota Lodge yesterday, coatless, for a few minutes before my bullsnake demo to see if the lynx were out. And I hit the jackpot. Sadly, not another human soul was right there, right then to savor the live performance.

I hadn’t seen the two lynx kittens in quite awhile, and since they must be at least ten months old now, I wasn’t sure how kittenish they’d still be. The answer: very, very kittenish. In describing their high-octane antics, I can’t resist narrating events from the kittens’ perspective. I may have taken creative liberties with the order of events as well.

“It started near the cave. See our mom lurking back there in the shadows? See me licking my own nose in the foreground?”

“I salute you…”

“… and you swipe at me!”

“I chase you from the cave…”

“Hey, mom! We found a tree!”

“I dare you to climb up here. Go on, try.”

“I might be losing control here, a little.”

“Ack! Someone get me down!”

“I think this tree is safer.”

A death in the family

A week ago yesterday, the zoo’s three female dolphins — baby Taijah with her mom and grandma — swam a series of laps through their three connected pools, united as a pod, hard to photograph as ever but still a pleasure to watch. The grandma dolphin, April, is the slender adult in the middle; after seven months, Allie still carries some baby weight around her midriff.

One week later, the scene had changed —¬† a lot. Yesterday was the zoo’s annual Spanish Day, when a swarm of high-school students sets up informative Spanish-language booths devoted to various species. Live music with a Mexican theme floats through the air on Spanish Day, and the entire zoo hums with adolescent energy. But the hour I spent at the dolphin viewing window included quieter exchanges and somber moments with guests who’d heard the Monday news that Grandma April was no longer with us.

If you’re not the trainer or feeder, it’s almost impossible to notice when a creature who never stops swimming is sick. As one guest observed yesterday, a dolphin can’t just curl up in a corner like a dog. It’s also hard to gauge the depth of surviving relatives’ grief within the pod: They’re social mammals, so of course they realize and care that a family member is gone, but we can never know exactly what they feel — the dilemma we face with any animal, including the ones who live in our homes and sleep at the foot of our beds. What we do know for sure is that April, at 44, had lived a remarkably long life for a dolphin, and she got a chance to swim laps with her granddaughter.

Growing old, growing up

Every so often, intriguing new tasks for volunteers pop up at the zoo. Last week, it was keeping an eye on the video camera pointed at the wolverine exhibit.

Our wolverine group is a lively bunch in general. A few weeks ago, I saw one pair’s play-fighting escalate until one wolverine had his jaws clamped on the other’s loose neck-skin and was swinging the “clampee” around himself in circles. (The “swung” wolverine seemed fine afterward, if you were wondering.) But as volunteer coordinator Heidi explained, one furry resident of the Minnesota Trail — the one sitting in this oddly human pose, looking quite vulnerable and cuddly for a wolverine — is now an astonishing 18 years old, and he’s arthritic. (In the wild, a 12-year-old wolverine would be considered ancient.) Zoo staff want to monitor his movements for an hour per day as they consider changes to his exhibit and how much time he spends outdoors.

One such change, already made, is the slanted bridge above. Wolverines are natural climbers, but staff added these “steps” to help the old guy reach the upper rocks more easily. Ten hours of outdoor VCR action should wrap up this week, Heidi tells me. Vets and keepers will watch the footage, along with additional footage recorded in the indoor¬† “holding” area, to help decide what other modifications can keep this guy’s life as painless, yet mobile, as possible.

Same day, opposite end of the age spectrum: In the warmth of the Tropics, I got a decent photo of Baby DeBrazza sooner than expected.

The DeBrazza monkey-mom in our Faces of Africa exhibit is striking a fine balance between letting Baby cling to her underside and letting him/her explore a little, as is happening here. S/he’s about two months old now. (Those are fake figs in the foreground, by the way — purely decorative in this exhibit, but a major food source for DeBrazza’s monkeys and many other African creatures in the wild.) Baby DeBrazza’s 18-month-old sister, I noticed Thursday, is developing an orange forehead patch that looks much more distinct and adult these days — a reminder that while life is winding down in one place, it’s surely picking up speed somewhere else.