Monorail rider: a view from the top

It had been far too long since I’d ridden the monorail, two years at least. Last week’s conditions were perfect: full sun, with enough fallen leaves to uncloak ponds and meadows but plenty of color still clinging to trees. I hopped aboard for the 25-minute trek around the Northern Trail and beyond, into the zoo’s undeveloped woodlands.

This pond runs alongside the Northern Trail, next to the exhibit space where the camels often hang out and where two giraffes spend their days when we have them on temporary summer exhibit once every few years. On the opposite side of the trail and the train, I got a rare zoom-lens view of an animal that can be hard to see well from the walkway:

Pronghorn have several special traits. They’re the fastest land mammals in North America at 45-55 mph, sometimes covering 14 feet in a single leap. (Worldwide, only the cheetah is faster.) They’re native only to this continent, while many other species crossed over from Europe or Asia on the Bering Land Bridge. And they’re the only animals whose horns are pronged or branched, a quality usually associated with antlers. Females have horns, too, but just tiny spikes; the group above looks pretty girlish. Pronghorn are  a smallish prey animal, not much over 100 pounds and about three feet high at the shoulder. As prey, they have eyes on either side of their heads, not up front and close together like a predator’s eyes. Excellent eyesight gives pronghorn a long-range view of predators in their native prairie domain. As ruminants, they often lie around chewing their cuds. I’m not sure if they normally groom each other’s faces, or if the one in this photo just happened to feel kissy.

Sitting up front in the monorail’s only “quiet car” (no talking!), I could hear every word of the driver’s narration, and my ears perked up as we headed beyond animal exhibits into the wilds of Apple Valley. I knew that two-thirds of the zoo’s 500 acres was undeveloped, as she told us, but not that the acreage included twelve ponds. This one is Reflection Pond. I love its stillness and its carpet of lilypads.

I’m also quite fond of this half-hidden meadow. I wonder if it was once a wetland, or if it’s becoming one.

As we approached the end of our loop and returned to the zoo’s developed acres, I caught a backside view of the bridge from which I took all those swan photos a month ago. The two swans must have tucked themselves into some nook or cranny of shoreline.

And then we all enjoyed an aerial perspective on Central Plaza, just before the train slid back into the station and its riders came back down to earth.


Swine defined at the farm

As the outdoor crowds dwindle, the air grows cool-crisp and leaf colors catch fire,  I make my occasional trek out to the zoo’s family farm. In the past month, scheduled repeatedly for a full hour on the Northern Trail, I hiked out there twice: once in sun, once in cloud. I’m not normally much of a farm girl (for one thing, I’m allergic to hay), but I’m drawn to the pigs and the informative signs. These two signs nicely sum up the farm’s mission and niche within the zoo:

This sign’s final observation got me thinking about domestic pigs and their wild cousins. But first, a quick and fuzzy digression:

I don’t have a whole lot to say about sheep, except look how cute they are! As a teen and twentysomething, I built up quite a gift collection of fuzzy stuffed sheep toys. The last one I remember receiving was a Lamb Chop puppet my in-laws picked up at a garage sale en route to my house. I never thought of sheep as endangered, and most varieties aren’t. But Shetland sheep, like the zoo-farm residents in this photo, actually are.

But I digress. Let’s talk about pigs — or rather, swine.

On my cloudy-day farm visit in early October (see how green the trees are!), I stopped by the swine barn and was momentarily flattered when its crossbred domestic pigs lurched to their feet on my arrival. (Two zoo staffers who’d come to feed them were right behind me.) Here’s the most informative sign of all: a guide to swine terminology!

If anyone had asked me the difference between a gilt and a barrow before this, I couldn’t have told you. I’m not sure I realized “swine” was the most general term possible, embracing every type of pig, boar or hog, and it’s good to know that the pig vs. hog cutoff is 120 pounds. I must note, however, that while a “boar” can be a male domestic pig, “wild boars” comprise nondomestic swine of either gender, including these residents of Russia’s Grizzly Coast:

Wild boar live all over the planet and range from 90 to 700 pounds. The ones in Russia’s Far East tend to be large because they feast upon pine nuts. A fact that cracks me up for some reason: In Russia, they keep to the southern forests because their short legs prevent them from moving easily through snow. And a funnier fact: The bristly hairs on their necks were used in toothbrushes until synthetic alternatives were developed in the 1930s. In Minnesota, the DNR considers wild boar a potentially invasive species.

On the Tropics trail, we’ve got the handsome red river hogs (above), weighing 100-250 pounds and native to sub-Saharan Africa. And we’ve also got Visayan warty pigs, weighing 50 to 90 pounds, whose range has shrunk to two small islands in the Philippines. Far from being invasive, they’re one of the few endangered varieties. Because of their mohawk-like hairiness, zoo signage describes them as “punk rock pigs struggling to survive” — sort of the Lisbeth Salander of the swine world. Just one more thing to appreciate about zoo signs. And swine.

Red-ruffs and ring-tails: Lemur grrls rule

The zoo got lemurs in 2004, soon after I started volunteering and not long before the movie “Madagascar” came out. There are 38 surviving subspecies of this pointy-nosed primate on that African island, and two at the zoo. In the early weeks, a family of five ring-tailed lemurs could always be seen cuddling in the central trees, just like in the photo below, while a quartet of red-ruffed lemurs hid around the edges. Eventually, the red-ruffs ventured front and center, sometimes hanging upside down by their hind feet as if to prove that they, in fact, are the arboreal ones who live in the forest canopy and build nests for their young in the wild. (Ring-tails, also known as “cat lemurs” because they make a purring sound, are ground-dwellers by comparison, living farther south in Madagascar’s more desert-like terrain.)

The two varieties coexisted warily but calmly in our space for years, and perhaps they will again. But last year the group lost its only female red-ruff, Dorothy, who was born at the Los Angeles Zoo and enjoyed a maximum lemur lifespan of more than 20 years. Red-ruffs are a subspecies managed by matriarchs, and without Dorothy to keep them in line, the red-ruff males grew domineering toward the smaller ring-tails and herded them into the exhibit’s lower corner. These days, the two types take turns on exhibit, and you won’t see them mingled. (I don’t think I ever saw them closer together than in this photo.)

Twice in the past month, I’ve seen zookeeper and lemur expert Cathy (I think of her as the other Cathy, since that’s my name too) hanging out by the exhibit with clipboard in hand, watching and noting. She explained Dorothy’s protective role and said any female red-ruff would probably have the same civilizing effect on the boys. Red-ruffs are endangered in Madagascar but fairly common in zoos, so the other Cathy predicts we’ll get another one in time. I like the idea of just one female serving as connector and cushion between the two tribes, and I can’t wait to see how it all shakes out.