Weekend update, with zookeepers

A couple of years had passed since my last all-day volunteer update at the zoo, a situation remedied Saturday. Seventy volunteers emerged at 4 p.m. from the new blue Ocean Classroom into a suddenly snowy wonderland, our minds packed with a fresh arsenal of animal facts shared by a series of funny, articulate zookeepers. I’ll share as many fun facts as I can in the weeks ahead. But one revelation seemed especially time-sensitive: The Detroit Boys are splitting up.

Here are brothers Molniy and Vaska, previously of Detroit, in warmer times. It seems Vaska soon will be heading to Glen Oak Zoo in Peoria, Ill., to make way for two new female tigers. Elderly male tiger Sergei will be matched up with Anya, our young but procreation-challenged tiger, for companionship and optional cubs. Molniy will presumably get his pick of the new girls. My husband, who took some Russian classes in college and had tiger-stripe handlebars on a boyhood bike, claims Molniy is his favorite of the pair because “Molniya” means “lightning bolt.” I can’t always tell them apart, but this exceptionally handsome fellow snoozing below is one of them, as seen by me about a year ago. (And yes, there’s a window between us.)

Speaking of windows, the Ocean Classroom, a new addition last summer, was a charming but distracting place to learn about the Detroit Boys and everything else that’s new at the zoo. The new blue room, also used for children’s classes and certain meetings, sits across from the volunteer lounge in a corridor behind the penguin exhibit, also new last summer. The room’s curved penguin-viewing window offered an almost-continuous view of one to five birds as they slipped away from the public viewing area to see what all the talking and laughing and PowerPoint slides were about. I scored a seat with two other Thursday volunteers within 20 feet of the window. This nonThursday volunteer was one of several to approach during break time and beckon the birds.

Various penguins came and went from their Ocean Classroom mini-exhibit, swimming through this narrow passageway to rejoin the larger gang visible to zoo guests. We have about 30 penguins in all, including the dozen from Minot, N.D., who are camping out here while their flooded facility is repaired. Jimmy Pichner, the zoo’s always-entertaining bird guru, says the Minot birds might be with us for as long as a year, and that their keepers can usually tell one bird from another by their color pattern and personality. Of the birds who swam to our window, I noticed that one seemed a little hyperactive, while another pair seemed extremely interested in the series of zookeeper presentations.

Doesn’t this look like an impressionist’s painting of a penguin? (That’s what I keep telling myself as I figure out how to adapt my camera settings to the reflected light and constant movement swirling within this exhibit.) This is the penguin most fascinated by the zookeepers. Each time a new staffer’s voice came through the microphone and the lights went down so we could see the slides, this penguin came to a floating, bobbing halt, beak pointed toward the presenter. Sometimes his mate joined his side and gazed into the classroom, too. For the penguins’ sake as well as my own, I was relieved that the window’s curtain wasn’t drawn — a measure that can be taken, I suppose, when children in the classroom need to focus on the teacher. Yesterday, the zookeepers had some stiff competition for volunteers’ attention. Fortunately, though not quite as cute as the penguins, the keepers were even more interesting.

Coyote training: search and sniff

Midafternoon Thursday, I strolled into the Minnesota Lodge and saw a knot of volunteers clustering around zookeeper Adam. In rubber-gloved hands, he held a tray of snacks: frozen whole white mice (micicles, he called them) on a bed of raw meat chunks. When he explained that he was heading out to the Minnesota Trail to train the coyotes, four of us followed him. We were coatless in mid-50s temps, but we didn’t want to miss this.

Once Adam arrived, complete with volunteer entourage and a gathering crowd of guests, the four male coyotes seemed to know the drill. They fanned out across the exhibit as he entered. With his back to the viewing window, Adam pointed to each coyote in turn with a blue-gloved hand, established eye contact and tossed a mouse, which each coyote caught midair. He explained that this routine comes in handy when the coyotes need heartworm pills or other meds and the keeper wants to make sure that no single coyote is scarfing it all up. And mouse bones are a fine source of calcium for coyotes.

The meat chunks had a different purpose — enrichment, the mental stimulation created for zoo mammals who need something to hunt, or at least something to play with or think about. Adam went around the exhibit tucking pieces of meat into crevices and smearing bits of it on trees. Then he left the coyotes to find it all. They trotted about, lightfooted and curious, sniffing and probing and double-checking their home for the hidden treats.

One spectator, a little girl, expressed great concern about a large toad crouching at the exhibit’s edge, near the walkway. What if a coyote found it and ate it? Adam’s no-nonsense answer: “That’s nature in action!” (This made me remember the time my late, great golden retriever mouth-smuggled a toad into the house, leaving it battered but alive in the basement.) After Adam and most of the guests had left the scene, the coyotes continued to search and sniff as a couple of us lingered behind. One coyote’s probing muzzle came within two feet of the toad but either failed to detect it or just didn’t find it that interesting. His zookeeper session had left him sufficiently enriched for now, thank you very much.