The meatball bridge

The Martin Luther King holiday dawned sunny and mild, with temperatures climbing briefly into the 30s. My husband had yesterday off work and, incredibly, hadn’t seen the zoo since last summer’s renovations. So I took him on a two-hour tour of all the new stuff. He got a good glimpse of the shy new dark-gray wolf, and we lucked out even more when we arrived at the dhole exhibit.

Blyger and Prosit, the two boys from Sweden, have joined Piri and Fanni, the two girls from Hungary. As soon as we stopped on the viewing platform, a zookeeper came by to a conduct a canine-training session with meatballs and a whistle. He said he was “building a bridge” — by summoning the pack with his soft whistle and then tossing meatballs, he was teaching the dholes to associate the sound with obedience and reward. (A primary training goal: to get them to come off exhibit into their holding area at night, which apparently has been a bit of challenge these first few weeks.) Our friendly zookeeper also explained that this kind of training (also used with coyotes on the Minnesota Trail) was never conducted with Mexican gray wolves, the dholes’ predecessors in this space, because of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service guidelines for their management — in a program geared toward eventual release into the wild, the wolves weren’t supposed to get too comfortable with people. These Asian canids don’t belong in the North American wild and would never be released there, so training helps them adjust to their permanent zoo home while keeping their minds active. Because they communicate with whistling sounds themselves, the zookeeper’s whistle must seem friendly and familiar to them. And for carnivores, it’s always more tempting to do as you’re asked when there’s a big juicy meatball waiting at the end.

The new guy: shades of gray

So yes, as I mentioned in last week’s post, a dark new gray wolf has come from Canada to live with the silver girl on the Minnesota Trail. I heard he was skittish and shy after barely a week in his new home, but I headed out in yesterday’s sudden shocking cold (from 50 degrees down to 10, in 48 hours) on the off-chance I might get a good look. Let’s see if I had any luck.

In that spacious exhibit with all those concealing trees, he was right by the window! I saw him before he saw me, and I edged slowly around the corner from the cabin-like viewing room to improve my vantage point. When our eyes first met, he showed his skittishness by leaping sideways and back a few paces. But then he staked out a spot and returned my gaze — until the silver girl came even closer and he transferred his serious gaze to her.

In the 1940s, wolves were so endangered that northern Minnesota was their only wild habitat in the lower 48 states. Last month, they made news again by coming off the threatened species list. (The Minnesota DNR details their return from federal to state management.) Of course, the world still needs wolf pups, and wolf-breeding season (late January to early March) is nearly upon us. I wrote all about Wolf Watch two years ago, when the silver girl was a 2-year-old living with a 12-year-old, and volunteers camped out with clipboards in the cabin-like viewing room, watching in half-hour shifts for signs of a May-December romance. That handsome old fellow has retired to a Michigan zoo, and the new dad-in-waiting is less than 2 years old himself. Like the silver girl in 2010, he might still be too young this year. But Wolf Watch resumes three days from now, and soon we’ll see if jet-black and silver-white shades of gray meet somewhere in the middle.

Chobby makes his move

It’s been two years since I’ve written here about Chobby, the male Amur leopard from the Czech Republic who had just joined two females in Grizzly Coast as a potential kitty daddy for his nearly extinct species. It’s been all quiet on the Chobby front since then, until he recently shifted into closer proximity to fellow leopard Polina. Murmurings since then suggested that Chobby was not entirely motivated on the reproduction front. In his defense, female Amur leopards spend only a week in heat each year, in January or February. For Polina, that week was this week, and starting Tuesday, Chobby figured it out.

Yesterday was Day 3 of frequent brief breeding episodes, as I learned over lunch in the volunteer lounge. Hurrying out to the exhibit, I passed fellow volunteer Bob, who said he’d just witnessed three quick encounters. A few minutes after arriving, I witnessed another. I discreetly confined my photos to “before” and “after” for reasons both obvious and complex (I was the lone human at the window just then, and leopards surely have no sense of intimate privacy, and it’s all just part of nature, and yet…).  As anyone who’s seen cats mating can guess, this “immediately before” shot implies a tenderness that simply wasn’t there. About 10 seconds later, Chobby bared his teeth on Polina’s neck with a loud snarling growl, then stepped off and strutted away.

Here he is afterward at the smudged reflective window, looking mighty reflective himself. If this week’s activity pays off, Polina could give birth to 1 to 6 kittens after three months of gestation. It’s far too soon to know whether this will occur, of course.

While zoo felines were mating, two species of zoo canines were getting acquainted with future intended paramours during their own breeding season. Two male dholes from Sweden joined the females in the new Asian wild dog exhibit yesterday; one male trotted along the fence line with the two girls, approaching and retreating and, just once in my sight, flashing a momentary snarl. (Visually, the scene differed little from the photos in my previous post.) On the Minnesota Trail, a dark new male gray wolf from Canada joined our silvery female at the very back of their exhibit; through concealing trees, I caught glimpses of their contrasting fur as they circled and sniffed and frolicked a little. It was a day of record January warmth in some parts of Minnesota, and on these two zoo trails, the air felt warm with the possible promise of pups and cubs. But only time will tell.

New year’s dogs

I got a new camera for Christmas, the zoo just added a new species of wild dog on the Northern Trail, and now it’s a new year. The moment for my dhole post has arrived!

Two female Asian wild dogs, or dholes (rhymes with “holes”), came here from a zoo in Hungary and officially went public Friday in the former Mexican wolf exhibit. Unofficially, they were out there for a few hours Thursday, trotting around their new home, sniffing and making little squeaking noises. I hiked out to look at them — first from the cozy interior of the former wolf gazebo (now redesigned to resemble an Asian yurt), then from a new trailside viewing platform at the exhibit’s opposite edge.

Several guests stopped on the platform to check out the new canines. A child or two asked me if the dholes were foxes, which they clearly resemble. With their lean 45-pound frames and their springy gaits, these two girls remind me of my own petite female Belgian Malinois shepherd dog, who also weighs about 45 pounds, with a black and mahogany coat, and who frequently gets compared to a fox. But instead of the Malinois’ black face and ears, these canids have a bushy black tail– in fact, the puppies are entirely black at birth.

And puppies are part of the plan for this species, endangered throughout its range in Thailand, China, India and Russia. Two males are coming from a zoo in Sweden and will be introduced gradually to the girls, who turn 3 years old in the spring. Dholes have litters of up to 12 pups, so if even just one pair mates, family life in this exhibit could get very interesting.