Macaque bath

A confession: I rarely pause to notice our snow monkeys. When I pass them, I’m usually in a rush to get from the Discovery Bay end of the zoo to the Tropics/Minnesota Trail end, or vice-versa. And when I started at the zoo, it was understood that all our macaques were old, sedate and no longer reproductive. But then, out of nowhere a few years back, a baby emerged. And another. And so on, at least once or twice a year. There’s a lively group of adolescents in there now, and last week three of them were playing in their pool before a delighted indoor/outdoor human audience.

Japanese macaques are mid-sized monkeys, weighing no more than 50 pounds (these juveniles look about half-grown). My Big Binder of Zoo Facts also states that they have “complex communications, with more than 30 vocal sounds and a wide range of facial and body expressions” (emphasis mine). Here’s a wee example from last week’s pool-play session:

Japanese macaques live in the coldest climate of any nonhuman primate, where snow may get up to five feet deep. So it’s not surprising that these guys wanted to cool off underwater, especially when the sun peeked through clouds:

Half the fun of watching zoo animals frolic is hearing the exclamations from guests. One monkey seemed to be searching for something at the pool’s bottom, and one guest wondered repeatedly what it was. Another cried out, “This is so entertaining!” as the monkeys took turns chasing each other from the pool to the trees and back again.

The juveniles like to run up the branches of this fallen dead tree. The more ponderous adults also venture up there sometimes, but in the wild, Macaca fuscata is a fairly terrestrial species, with a strict dominance hierarchy to help protect groups of 25-plus on the ground. It’s a matriarchal society, with the choice of alpha-male depending on his mom. Juveniles occupy the middle of that totem pole, above the lesser males. In the wild, juvenile males spend a lot of time playing and rough-housing. The same seems true in zoos.

Cygnet and foal

With nearly a week of spring technically left, the zoo still has fluffy spring babies to see. An Asian wild horse was born May 24, and over Memorial Day weekend, the trumpeter swans who live on our lake had cygnets. Last spring, I tried in vain to get a clear baby-swan shot. Last week, my luck improved.

The challenge was to get the adults’ faces in the picture, since swans spend so much time browsing for food with their heads underwater, tails pointing skyward. To maximize their reach in browsing, their necks are as long as their bodies: on average, nearly 60 inches each. At 20 to 30 pounds, trumpeters are the largest swan species. Now about three weeks old, this cygnet will be fully feathered at about two months old; a month after that, it will be able to fly. The zoo has released 165 swans into the wild, through its trumpeter swan restoration project participation. But some of them like the zoo’s sheltered lake so much, they eventually come home.

The newest member of the Asian wild horse exhibit is a few days older than the cygnets, but just as cute:

They’re also known as Przewalski’s horses (or in zoo shorthand, P-horses), after the Russian explorer (first name: Nicolai) who first informed the West of their existence in the late 1800s. (The Brookfield Zoo, which I recently visited, also has them, along with a helpful sign explaining the pronunciation: “Shevalski.”)

If not for captive-breeding programs in zoos, Asian wild horses would be extinct. In the mid-1960s, there were none left in the wild. But as with trumpeter swans in Minnesota, reintroduction efforts have restored a population to Mongolia, their last native stronghold. And as with many endangered species, humans have been their greatest threat: from hunters to farmers who (understandably) repurpose the land for crops or domestic grazing. In a nicely ironic twist, though, it’s also humans who’ve helped bring P-horses back from the brink.

Brookfield Zoo: our dolphin connection

For several years, I’ve had a yen to see the Brookfield Zoo near Chicago. Long ago, my husband’s oldest sister was a zookeeper there; more recently, dolphins have flowed back and forth between our two zoos, based on the best breeding prospects and who gets along with whom. Last week on vacation, after visiting family in Illinois, my husband and I made a detour to check out the whole zoo, and especially its marine mammals.

Of this seven-member pod, five are my old buddies. Potential breeder Chinook went back to Brookfield after an uneasy stint in Discovery Bay with our male Semo, who claimed all baby-daddy privileges anyway. Tapeko and her young daughters Noelani and Allison (that oh-so-human name always made us volunteers smile) spent a few months with us last year while the pool you see above was being revamped. Spree, now an eight-year-old, got along with that trio so swimmingly that she left with them when they returned to Chicago. The last I heard, Brookfield had plans to set her up with Chinook.

Brookfield’s underwater viewing area is a lot like ours. Watching the seven bottlenose friends do pre-show laps together, I picked out Spree easily based on her underbelly tooth-rake marks. (Those marks are a normal sign of dolphin-to-dolphin social conflict; Spree got along less well with our current Minnesota dolphins than she does with these guys.)

I’m not sure if that’s Spree with a trainer above, but that’s definitely Chinook on the right with trainer Mark. Each trainer paired up with the same dolphin for the duration of the 20-minute twice-daily show, which has been a staple for the zoo’s 50-year history.

The grizzly side of Brookfield’s Bear Wilderness (across from the polar-bear side)  is a lot like our grizzly exhibit, too, but with a two-tiered viewing area, a deeper pool and a smaller, Yellowstone Park-like species of brown bear. Rather than play-fight with a friend like our massive Alaskan/Russian species, the one grizzly we saw last week captivated the crowd by floating around on his back, with just his nose and paws above water. (Our prime ursine swimmer Kenai, on the other hand, always amuses the crowd by fastidiously keeping his ears dry.)

It would take me weeks to tell you everything I saw in a day at Brookfield, but this plaque sums it up well with a quote by naturalist John Muir. In a sprawling zoo the size of a small town, I still got that feeling of interconnectedness: plant to animal, animal to human, weaving a web of mutual sustenance, shelter and education. Our zoos share dolphins and a message, too.