My first zoo: back to the giraffes

Instead of volunteering at my Minnesota Zoo last week, I spent a long weekend in my original hometown of Madison, Wis., and went back to my childhood zoo with my husband and parents. Thanks, Mom and Dad!

Henry Vilas Zoo is a cozy urban facility in the style of St. Paul’s Como Zoo — nestled up against Madison’s Lake Wingra, with exhibits conveniently close together and minimal walking required. I especially wanted to visit the Minnesota Zoo’s giraffes, Sweta and Zawadi, who’ve spent two summers “up north” but live mostly at Vilas, which has an indoor space for them. We saw three males together, and I couldn’t tell which of the two were ours. It felt strange to see giraffes contained by walls and a ceiling, but they seemed happy enough, and despite the previous night’s freezing temperatures, their outdoor season is close at hand.

This guy got a lot of laughs for finding the wall so tasty. A watching teenager marveled, “I’m shorter than one of his legs!”

None of us had been in the aviary building, where I saw the day’s loveliest sight: a blue-crowned motmot, above. Also quite handsome: the blue and gold macaws. The day’s cutest sight, for me, was an animal I’d never heard of: the Geoffroy’s marmoset.

That black spot is in the middle of his forehead, by the way; the pinkness below is his nose.

Vilas has plenty of animals that the Minnesota Zoo doesn’t, including the marmoset. Still, marmosets and tamarins share many traits as some of the tiniest primates, and Minnesota has two types of tamarins. Likewise, Minnesota doesn’t have alpacas like that sweet-faced white one, but both zoos have Bactrian camels, and as my husband noted, camels and alpacas are close relatives (along with llamas).

Other animals I saw Saturday that aren’t at my “adulthood” zoo: harbor seals, polar bear and spectacled bear (just a glimpse of those two), emu. We both have river otters; watching their antics Saturday, we heard a very little girl exclaim repeatedly, “They’re trying out for the Olympics!”

And we both have Amur tigers. The Vilas tiger reclined majestically in his living room of leaves, releasing one giant sneeze (my husband joked that he felt the spray on his face).

Here’s our exit view, with sailboat-friendly Lake Wingra in the background — a little slice of natural delight in the heart of my childhood city.

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The family farm and a little girl lost

The spring day was gorgeous: brilliantly sunny but so comfortably cool and breezy that I decided to brave the crowds at the zoo’s family farm and check out the annual Spring Babies.

I went for the piglets but stayed for the goats, who were hamming it up for the camera in a big way. Two piglets were play-fighting in the shadowy recesses of the pig barn, and several piglets raced back and forth, in and outdoors, including this pair (“where’s the food?” they seem to wonder as they confront the empty trough). Meanwhile, guests were hand-feeding goats with pellets from the pellet-dispensers. To call the goats enthusiastic would be an understatement.

The goats were rearing up on their hind legs to peer over the fence-top and sticking their heads through the strategically cut-out gaps in fencing. Since the big white goat was claiming his fair share of attention and more, I put 50 cents into a pellet dispenser, fed this little gray guy and patted his surprisingly bristly forehead.

Before leaving the farm, I said hello to Prince and Duke, our venerable American Cream draft horses. Little did I know that in a few minutes, after returning to the Northern Trail, I’d be discussing them with a small and weepy human who reminded me that in juvenile mammals of any species, an extra fragility adds to the cuteness.

Five-year-old Sophia was sobbing on the Northern Trail, where she’d become separated from her school group. Reconnecting lost children with their grownups is part of a zoo volunteer’s regular duties: There’s an actual written procedure for doing it. But this was my first time one-on-one with a distraught pre-schooler, and I wasn’t carrying a walkie-talkie-style radio to alert Guest Services, which is part of the procedure. I told the concerned adults who’d flagged me down that I would walk Sophia back to the main building and, most likely, find a radio-toting volunteer on the way. As we walked, I assured this pint-sized weeping zoogoer that surely her bus hadn’t left without her (she was absolutely convinced that it had) and tried to distract her by asking which of our animals was her favorite. None was, but she’d calmed down enough to explain that her favorite animal was a unicorn. It emerged that she, too, had been out to the farm and seen the draft horses, whom she conceded were equine and white enough to resemble the “real” horned thing.

We did find a volunteer with a radio once we reached Russia’s Grizzly Coast and the bears, but in this case, the solution was to keep walking: As soon as we entered the courtyard that divides the trail and the main zoo building, a teacher came forward and Sophia dived into her arms. And I was done for the day, feeling the unique sense of satisfaction that comes from helping a child. I’ve always found those walkie-talkie radios cumbersome and annoying, but from now on, I’m going to carry one.