Creepy, crawly and stinky

Outdoors, Thursday was unexpectedly sunny, lovely and calm after an early-spring blast of snow and sleet; I strolled the Northern Trail for half an hour, camera in hand, with an eye to updating my blog banner. Indoors, my day got a little more down and dirty: I did a roach-and-millipede demo, then saw and sniffed the voodoo lily. This cousin of the corpse flower has been attracting tons of local publicity since it was planted Tuesday in the Tropics trail.

A hilarious guide to the smelly plant was posted in the volunteer lounge, including a frank definition of “Amorphophallus” (its Latin name) for any volunteer who needed help translating that. When fully unfurled, the flower’s rotting-flesh aroma is said to permeate a five-foot radius; at this early stage, I had to stand within a foot of it, downwind, to catch the scent. Crowds milled around the proud purple spire, across the aisle from the Komodo dragon (which like the voodoo lily itself can be found in Indonesia). A single fly buzzed around the expanding bud, as if browsing a garbage pit.

By then, I was already somewhat desensitized to ick, thanks to my earlier bug demo. I rarely get assigned to present the giant African millipede and the Madagascar hissing cockroach to zoo guests, and I always have to gather my courage a bit beforehand. Last time, I had a male demo partner who was happy to hold the millipede.

This time, fellow volunteer Belva and I had a large terra-cotta planter-saucer to contain the crawly critters, although the millipede kept trying to escape, and I had to keep nudging it back within bounds with a tentative finger.

Surprisingly, most of the many kids who stopped by were willing, even eager, to touch the millipede (the roach was a bit too skittish). For some reason, the zoo’s docile, nonvenomous snakes seem to scare people more. And these bugs are fun to talk about. They live on the floor of the African rainforest, nibbling away at the decaying plant matter that might otherwise pile up to unmanageable heights. Of the 3,500 roach species, the hissing cockroach (not “kissing,” as one girl initially misheard it), is one of the few with wings. Millipedes (about 8,000 species worldwide, 800 in the U.S.) give me the excuse to use an awesome word, “diplosegment,” and explain the unusual way they grow: Each segment has two legs per side (centipedes have one), and the total number of legs depends on the millipede’s length, or how many segments it has grown. Unlike centipedes, these guys don’t move fast, and Belva likened this one to a “railroad train” chugging along. The more you know about such a creature, the more fascinating it becomes, and the less power the “ick” factor holds.


Shape shifting

St. Patrick’s Day at the zoo: Nothing too unusual happened until I spent a scheduled hour at the dolphin window in Discovery Bay. All three dolphins have been gravitating to the two smaller pools behind the show pool — especially mama Allie, who has shunned the spotlight a bit since her own mother, April, died last month. A feeding/training session around noon is the norm, but this time the trainers added a twist: They came downstairs from the stadium and coaxed the dolphins to the viewing window. And instead of an enticing bucket of fish, the trainers wielded colorful cutout shapes: a rectangle for daddy Semo, a star for Allie, a circle for eight-month-old Taijah.

I’ve seen shape training used a lot with the zoo’s other marine-mammal rock stars, the otters and bears of Russia’s Grizzly Coast. But I’d never seen it used with dolphins. Fellow volunteer Henry and I each took a side of the window and held back the gathering crowd as the dolphins came forward. Here is trainer Robyn with Semo; a year and a half ago, when this blog was just a baby, I spent a delirious 20 minutes with the two of them up in the stadium while she showed me how to feed him fish and taught me dolphin-friendly hand signals.

And here comes Allie, who’s been leery of this section of the show pool. Somehow she must associate her star with good things. Or maybe she just likes Robyn.

Taijah has come a long way since emerging into the world as a 30-pounder on a stormy Saturday night in July. (I was descending in a wind-tossed plane toward a Twin Cities runway that night, so I remember that thunderstorm and the next day’s newborn news.) From the looks of this photo, she might outweigh Robyn, though she’s nowhere near her mama Allie’s likely weight of 350-400 pounds. Before she came to the window, Taijah was playing with a ball at the water’s surface, clasping it between her pectoral fins and nudging it with her bottlenose rostrum. Here she’s treating us to a bubble stream through her blowhole, apparently on command. The baby, her elderly dad and her mom are still not giving “shows,” per se — just training sessions — but I still count this mini-event as a special treat.

The first grizzly of spring

OK, it’s not nearly spring yet in Minnesota, whatever the calendar claims. But yesterday, a balmy slushy 30 degrees, I headed out to Grizzly Coast in a lightly lined zoo-volunteer jacket, my hands comfortably ungloved and my exposed ear-tips feeling only slightly raw. Around 11 a.m., I expected to see the usual wintertime pile of slumbering bears by the grizzly window. Instead, I saw Haines in the trout pool.

Year-round, Haines is the darkest of our three bears while Kenai and Sadie rotate through seasonal shades of brown and blond. But yesterday, with Haines alone in the pool, I nearly mistook him for Kenai because he was performing Kenai’s signature maneuver — trying to “catch” trout by stepping on them.

At the same time, he showed off his fearsome claws to a few little girls and their moms. While the zoo’s interior teemed with school groups, the great outdoors was relatively quiet, and I relished the chance to get this close to a bathing bear without standing in front of guests and blocking their view: conduct unbecoming a volunteer, to say the least.

Meanwhile, Kenai was napping alone in the spot all three bears shared all winter. But as other volunteers informed me, and as the texture of his fur shows, he had taken an earlier turn in the pool, where he succeeded in catching a trout.

Sadie rarely ventures into the water. I think of her as the shy one who avoids the camera’s glare. Even here, sitting remarkably close to the glass, she offered me only a profile shot. But see her gazing wistfully at Haines as he lumbers into view above, a few minutes after his exit from the trout pool. Their relationship¬† won’t result in baby bears; all three were “fixed”¬† in Alaska, where they were rescued as wild orphan cubs before arriving here as two-year-olds. Last weekend the zoo celebrated their approximate fifth birthdays. By now, it’s hard to imagine this place without them.