Sadie and the boys

I got to walk the Northern Trail yesterday under balmy conditions: my head comfortably bare, the sunshine slipping flirtatiously in and out from behind its cover of cloud. But I never expected to see the bears up and about. They spend most of the winter asleep in a furry pile, mimicking the deeper dormancy they’d experience in the wild. And year-round, they’re usually napping at noon. But heading into Grizzly Coat around 12:15, I was delighted to see Haines and Kenai wrassling in the pool, just like the old days. That’s usually the best thing you see at the bear exhibit, but yesterday it got even better.

Sadie, our lone girl bear, likes to stay dry; I’ve seen her in the pool just twice, on beastly hot summer days. Various outdated human female stereotypes apply to her: She’s shy and retiring and doesn’t like to roughhouse; unlike the boys, she doesn’t like to step on the scale, even though she weighed in last time at a svelte 530 pounds, or 300 pounds lighter than Haines. Here she’s pondering a dip, or just hoping Kenai chases a fish her way so she can catch it from land (fellow volunteers tell me this has happened before). Some human boys came by and started egging her on — “Go on, go in!” — but to no avail.

She didn’t obey them, but she bonded with them anyway. The fascination seemed mutual. When I told them she was a girl bear, one of the boys stroked the glass that divided him from her fur and murmured, “Good girl.”

Lots of human-to-human bonding happens at the bear exhibit, too.¬† Yesterday I got to talking with Jen, a visitor from Rhode Island who twice spoke the zoo-related words that warm volunteers’ hearts: “You have such a beautiful facility here!” Not only was she in town applying for an education job, but she had worked at the Alaska Sealife Center several years ago when our Grizzly Coast sea otter Capers was staying there as a newly rescued pup. I wished her luck in getting the job and hoped that if she did, she would join the volunteer ranks on weekends. There’s always room for another enthusiast.

Remembering Taijah

Atlantic bottlenose dolphins can occasionally live 50 years but have an average lifespan of 25. Just half of all calves reach their first birthday, in aquariums and oceans alike. At the Minnesota Zoo, where dolphin Semo is cruising toward the 50-year mark with astonishing verve, his daughter Taijah made it to 18 months. Despite the odds, her death from a sudden illness Monday night shocked everyone who knew her. I hesitate to write about it here; local media have covered it thoroughly, and I like to keep this blog a happy place. But leaving it out feels dishonest. And while part of me felt anxious about coming to the zoo yesterday — I worried I might cry a little if a guest asked me about the death — the day turned out to have a surprising amount of light in it.

Here’s Taijah with trainer Robyn nearly a year ago, in a shape-training session I wrote about at the time. (And if this scene doesn’t prove that dolphins and humans should know each other, nothing does.) I have a soft spot for Robyn, who gently guided and supervised my hands-on encounter with Semo a year before that. I’ve been trying not to imagine the magnitude of the trainers’ hurt this week. Yesterday, I wondered whether it was appropriate to reach out to a trainer if I happened to see one. I did not see one, though; the dolphin stadium remained temporarily closed, shielding Semo and Allie and their trainers from the world, while life continued to surge all around it. The day was warmish (for February) and brilliantly sunny. Discovery Bay teemed with rambunctious school groups. When I moved on to Tropics, the sun filtered through the skylights and brightened the foliage. Surprisingly, a service dog accompanied two women on the trail — only the second or third “civilian” canine I’ve ever seen at the zoo. She was a magnificent long-coated German shepherd who, I’m told, greatly intrigued the DeBrazza’s monkeys when they saw her through their exhibit window. For some reason, a young girl insisted on taking my picture by the gibbon exhibit. Farther along, the tapirs were licking each other’s long snouts before they decided to go for a swim together. And I was happy at the zoo, as I nearly always am, even as my heart continued to ache a little. I won’t forget Taijah, and I’m sorry we lost her so soon.

Bearcat fever

After witnessing eight years of various annual language days at the zoo, I’ve concluded that Chinese Day is more subdued than Spanish Day, though just as fun. (And the fun continues: French and German days are coming up next week.) Yesterday, the usual packs of high-schoolers came to the zoo, setting up species-specific booths along the trails and sharing animal facts in Chinese. The Tropics trail, still primarily a home for Asian animals with some African and South American exhibits in the mix, was especially fertile ground for the teens. They set up booths by the lemur and Komodo dragon exhibits, and informative Chinese lettering showed up other places, too.

Farther along the trail, I saw the most amazing Asian sight of all: not one but two binturongs, or Asian bearcats, prowling around the tapir exhibit — yet another newish pair of potential breeding mammals this season.

This exhibit has always had at least one binturong, but in eight years I’ve only seen him or her curled up in a fuzzy blackish ball, usually in a tree, which is how they spend their days in the Southeast Asian wild. About a year ago, one of our bearcats surprised everyone by attempting an arboreal escape, which resulted in some tree-trimming. For a week or two afterward, a volunteer was scheduled to watch the animal’s movements, but those movements were few and far between, and I continued to consider the creature window-dressing for the tapir exhibit. Yesterday, even Bertie the tapir seemed intrigued by the sight of a binturong prowling so close to her head.

Related to civets, Asian bearcats weigh 20 to 30 pounds, with prehensile tails that are roughly as long as their bodies. The tails help them climb trees, and while they’re off-exhibit at the zoo, keepers sometimes encourage the bearcats to paint with their tails. (The bears of Russia’s Grizzly Coast also make modern art with watercolors provided by their keepers.) Aside from mating, binturongs prefer a solitary life , and my Big Binder of Zoo Facts calls them “very retiring” as well as nocturnal. At one point yesterday, when these two weren’t nose-to-nose or wandering along separately, one of them lifted a paw and lightly punched the other one in the face, two or three times. Whether this bodes well for breeding, I really couldn’t say.