Splash zone: the next generation

I’ve written before about how much our zoo dolphins like to splash people. Chinook, now residing at the Brookfield Zoo, liked to scoop water up in his lower jaw and dump it over the pool’s edge while a custodian tried to squeegee the floor dry. Semo, in the picture below, inspired kids to put up a raincoat hood and an umbrella when he got extra-feisty one day in May. And now his daughter Taijah, age 1 year and 1 month, has discovered the joy of dousing a human head.

It reportedly happened before the 10 a.m. training session yesterday, and I saw it firsthand before the noon session. A trainer had been working with Semo around 11:30, and as a line of children lengthened at the viewing window, Taijah also swam out into the show pool and cruised alongside the glass, returning her spectators’ gaze. As she turned to retrace her path in the opposite direction, her tail fluke flipped a light waterfall over the side of the tank. Kids squealed; a fresh batch of them advanced while others retreated; Taijah opened her jaws to show a sparkle of blunt little teeth, then did it a few more times. I wanted to take a picture in the worst way but was fully occupied talking to kids and making sure little hands stayed out of the pool. And Taijah’s too quick for my camera, anyway. But her kid-splashing routine was as big a crowd-pleaser as the training-session pose shown below. (That’s either Taijah’s mom Allie or her grandma April in a picture from last year, and Allie struck the pose yesterday, too.)

After the show, fellow volunteer Sharon and I speculated about the lure of the kid-heads. Sharon wondered if all the pink clothing attracted the dolphin’s eye, which led me to wonder if all the pink just happened to correlate with all the excited high-pitched girl-voices, another possible attraction. Sharon asked a trainer who was taking kids’ questions as they filed out of the stadium. The trainer told us that even though a dolphin’s eye contains rods and cones,  it’s hard to be sure how vividly they see color. I noted this trainer’s technique as she tailored her answers to the age of the asker — always important when sharing biology facts with children. She told a preschooler the dolphins eat three kinds of fish; when a grade-schooler asked for specifics, she gave fish names (the small ones are capelin, the medium ones sardines, the large ones herring — three varieties that our new penguins also eat). Besides fish, the dolphins also enjoy snatching up ice cubes that trainers toss into their pool. And for whatever reason, a chance to spray water on a squealing kid clearly counts as a big reward.

A tale of two Thursdays

No two zoo days are quite alike — not even my past two hot, sunny Thursdays on the Northern Trail. Week before last, the bears had grown so engrossed in digging a hole that they had to be taken off exhibit while workers with trucks filled it in. Meanwhile, a few exhibits away, the goitered gazelles ventured down toward the trail and then posed in a positively geometric pattern. (Last week, they were hiding up top again, prompting a human couple on the trail to say plaintively, “Come on down! We’re here.”)

Goitered gazelles don’t really have goiters, but the males do get goiter-like throat lumps during mating season. Websites describe the species as “ungazelle-like” because the females deliver twins and lack horns. Our Northern Trail group lives near animals also native to Mongolia: the Asian wild horses and Bactrian camels.

And speaking of Asian wild horses, another foal was born at the end of July and is seen here nursing out on exhibit last week. The Memorial Day foal, grazing at left, already looks rather adult.

Also last week, the grizzlies were back on exhibit. The previous week, I hung out by this viewing area explaining their absence as described by fellow volunteer Wally, who had fed them that morning as his reward for investing 1,000 hours as a volunteer. Wally tossed them melons from a walkway above the exhibit, and while Kenai and Haines gobbled them up, Sadie was totally engrossed in the hole she and the boys had been digging. The novelty of leftover buried construction materials, inedible though they were, trumped the lure of real fruit in Sadie’s mind. (Here we see her innocently napping with Haines, who’s on the left.)

And here’s the approximate site of the big hole, now filled in, just behind the small separate trout pool to the right of where Kenai, in particular, likes to swim. While explaining the bears’ hole-related absence week before last, I started chatting with a kid — as usual in these cases, a tween — whose keen interest in animals marked him as a future biologist or veterinarian. He mentioned his love of sea otters; I mentioned that we also have river otters, and he wanted to know where they were. I ran into him and his family a little later, at the adjacent sea-otter exhibit, and again at the Minnesota Lodge, where I confirmed that he was approaching the river otters on the Minnesota Trail. That’s always one of the zoo docent’s simple pleasures: the sudden exchange in which animal facts are shared, the volunteer gives advice on navigating the zoo, and the two of us maybe bump into each other again before going our separate ways for good, both sides enriched by the encounter.

Out of the box

I’m on vacation at home this week, which allowed me to spend six full hours at the zoo today and write about it tonight, while it’s all still fresh in my mind. Many things distinguished the day: the glorious pre-autumn weather, the intelligent curiosity of children, the box turtle that tried to untie my shoelace and nibbled my sock …

I try to keep blurry photos off this blog unless they’re arty or surprising or proof of rare, fleeting events. The last two exemptions apply here. Before the first of my two animal demos, I strolled into the room where a hedgehog was waiting and saw a turtle on the floor. Two young female interns were supervising it. Within two minutes, all three of us had had a close shoe-related encounter with the reptile. One intern playfully scooted away from it, but despite its name, “Pokey” also picked up the pace in pursuit of her foot. Eager for a photo op, I offered mine instead.

I’ve demo’d painted turtles, which are common near Minnesota lakes, but not the common or Eastern box turtle, which comes no closer than southern Wisconsin. They’re four to eight inches long, with domed shells. (I wear a size 7 sneaker, if that helps put Pokey in perspective.) In the wild, they have a taste for mushrooms, including some that are poisonous to people. When I described my experience over lunch an hour later, a veteran volunteer said the turtle might be mistaking shoelaces for worms.

I can’t wait to describe my encounter to Darlene, a fellow volunteer who got a box turtle as a pet for her daughter — about 30 years ago. The daughter has been an adult for two decades, but Sally the turtle (eventually discovered to be male) still resides in what sounds like bucolic indoor/outdoor comfort at Darlene’s place. Box turtles generally live at least 50 years, sometimes 100, and Wikipedia says they don’t mix well with larger pets or very small children — two things to consider before acquiring one.

Two weeks later, I saw Pokey being demo’d in his public arena — a clear plastic box on the Minnesota Lodge desk. Not only could I get a blur-free photo under these circumstances, but I could figure out his gender — even if a notecard hadn’t proclaimed it, I could see he had red eyes, a masculine box turtle’s calling card.

The turtle-shoe Thursday was packed with potential blog entries: a smart kid’s curiosity, the semi-destructive tendencies of grizzly bears, the gracefulness of goitered gazelles on the Northern Trail. And, of course, temporary reptilian footwear.


With Shark Week nearing its tail end yesterday, I had a notion to photograph all the zoo’s toothy finned predators: the sand-tiger sharks and white-tip reef shark of the Discovery Bay shark tank; the small leopard and horn sharks of D-Bay’s estuary; the big zebra shark (aka the other leopard shark) and the small epaulet and brown-banded bamboo sharks of the Tropics trail’s coral reef. It didn’t quite work out that way, though. As usual, the reef was photo-friendliest — especially on a sunny afternoon, with natural buttery light bathing the artificial coral. (At 60 feet long, the tank’s sheer size makes real coral impractical in there.) I wound up parked on a comfy bench, watching little boys marvel at the big zebra (or leopard) shark. (September update: The reef has closed for renovations, to reopen in February 2012 before the zoo’s annual Tropical Beach Party.)

It’s tempting to call this toothy guy a leopard shark because of his spots. And we would, except for the inevitable confusion with D-Bay’s smaller estuary dwellers of the same name, which live in water 20 degrees cooler off the California coast. This tropical zebra shark starts life as a pup with vertical yellow stripes and stays that way until the stripes dissolve into spots when he reaches a length of two or three feet. And like most sealife in this exhibit, he hails from IndoPacific waters. (So does the white-tip reef shark, but because he was a little too predatory in here, that sleek gray shark now lives with larger Atlantic-Caribbean creatures in Discovery Bay.)

My favorite thing to say about sharks is that of the 450 species, only about 10 are dangerous to humans. (My favorite shark-related phrase: “nictitating membrane,” a protective transparent third eyelid.) Though large, this zebra shark is not an aggressive species, though it’s said to bite quite painfully in the wild if threatened or provoked. This species is a nocturnal bottom-feeder, so it was a treat to see him circling at or above eye level yesterday, showing off his spots from various angles.

The shark question we volunteers get asked the most: Why don’t the sharks eat the other fish in the tank? The short answer: gel diet. A new zoo shark is kept in temporary solitude and fed its new mealtime staple, a cubed mixture of seaweed, ground-up seafood and vitamins, until it realizes there’s no need to “hunt.” Zookeepers sit on the rocks above the reef at 3 p.m. daily and feed the sharks cubes of gel diet on spears. It’s fun to watch the sharks’ sucking mouths approach the water’s surface, seeking their midafternoon lunch.

Even on an extra-crowded zoo day like yesterday, the coral reef is a reliable refuge: a place to take a load off and chat with a fellow volunteer while background music plays and children cry “Dory!” each time the blue palette tang from “Finding Nemo” swims into view. And here, a large circling shark can be seen as an educational diversion, not a threat. And in February, it will be again. Until then: