Sea change

I’ve had a week and a day to adjust to the news that when our dolphin tank closes for repair this fall and Semo and Allie go off-site, they won’t be coming back — a decision zoo director Lee Ehmke explains on the zoo’s website. In a way, it’s less shocking for volunteers, who knew the closure meant an extended departure. Volunteers also know that in the U.S., for eco-friendly reasons, dolphins generally are no longer taken from their ocean homes but bred in their domestic ones, which means replacement dolphins must be born in human care. And calf mortality, in human care or the wild, remains high. I’m trying to focus on all the good stuff at the zoo, old and new, including the long-awaited renovation of another ocean exhibit. Sharks will never have dolphins’ affinity for humans or that perpetual smile, but they do have a certain mystique. And our Tropical Reef, now fully refurbished and repopulated, treats the eye to this sunlit coral glow.

As any owner of a saltwater fish tank can guess, repopulating the aquarium was a gradual, painstaking process. In this case, a couple of months passed while the refurbished tank was filled with water to test for leaks, the new coral was cleaned, salt was added, “good” bacteria built up and, finally, fish were added in small groups, the sturdiest species first.

Many favorite creatures have returned, including the zebra (or leopard) shark above, and the clown triggerfish below (the topmost middle fish with the spotted belly).

The replacement corals, still artificial but much more vibrantly colored than the old ones, were a feast for the eyes even before the fish joined them. The new aquarium is the same size as the old one — about 60 by 80 feet, with about 80,000 gallons of water within. It would be irresponsible to harvest so much live coral from the ocean, and too hard to maintain it afterward.

Someone had the brilliant idea of adding this aqua-hued multilevel bench, occupied here by fellow volunteer Sharon. (She’s serving as “dive-spotter” for the aquarists who are in the tank cleaning the coral.) Not only does it let more people take a load off at once, but the space behind it creates a distinct passageway for people trying to pass through to the next exhibit.

So yes, I’m sad about the departing dolphins, but they’ll be here until fall, when we’ll all have a chance to say goodbye. In the meantime, we’ll wait to see what kind of sea creature replaces them. It won’t be the same, but it’s sure to be interesting.

Glass actions and good intentions

It’s bear-wrestling season at the zoo, featuring Haines and Kenai! I never get tired of watching the boys play-fight, witnessing guests’ delight and offering explanations such as “He’s not really hurting him” — or, in response to this scene seen through water-smeared glass the week before last, “It’s not what it looks like.”

It’s true that the play-fighting gets a bit rough, and Haines sometimes does hurt the blonder, more submissive Kenai — a little, and probably not on purpose. Each weekend, volunteers receive an email report of goings-on among the animals, passed down from volunteer coordinator Heidi through our “day captains.” Two days after this vigorous session, Heidi’s email disclosed that Kenai (not for the first time) had received a bleeding facial scratch during the previous weekend’s frolics. She also disclosed that while zoo staffers were examining the scratch, Kenai snarfed down a whole package of dog food, suggesting a certain robustness of body and spirit. And as you can see in the photo below, taken four days after the scratch, he seemed ready to wrestle some more — and had every opportunity to get out of the water, where the wrestling always occurs.

There’s a world of difference between watching large predators through glass, where kids go nose-to-nose with furry beasts like these bears, and seeing them through bars or other barriers. I was reminded of this recently when a friend asked my opinion of a video that had gone viral: a baby in a zebra hoodie being “remotely” pawed and mouthed by the lion on the opposite side of a glass barrier at the Oregon Zoo. Enough Googling will show you a similar video from one zoo or another, year after year. The Cheyenne Mountain Zoo gave the best response I’ve seen about the protective power of laminated safety glass, and the furor over the zebra-hoodie child, in my opinion, had more to do with varying parenting styles than anything else. The child by the glass was clearly safe. Of those who frowned upon the video, though, some were more concerned about whether the lion was being taunted. Because lion and baby were both physically fine, it all boiled down to kindness and concern, or perceived lack thereof. The video’s joke, for those who found it funny, was that neither the baby nor the lion was in on the joke. And that same fact upset those who knew the baby was safe but still objected to the video.

As a volunteer at a zoo that has the utmost concern for creatures in its care, I’ve seen plenty of nose-to-nose moments through glass. Several appear elsewhere on this blog. Large mammals fascinate children, and vice-versa; the glass creates a weird, delightful intimacy that would never occur in the wild. If paws and mouths get involved, and grownups start laughing, and it all goes from Facebook to TV news site, we’ve seen that a minor controversy can erupt. But when those animal-child moments are quiet and private, with a spirit of reverent respect, then they’re golden.