Tiny, tiny tiger

I woke up yesterday feeling oddly, biologically sad — not a rare morning situation for a night owl like me, and I knew my zoo day would perk me up fast. I didn’t know how fast until I came into the lounge and heard the news — an Amur tiger cub to go with the two Amur leopard cubs! And more news: We could meet the cub at a two-hour “open house” for staff and volunteers, though we couldn’t take pictures. And once I arrived at the holding area, MORE news: We could take pictures after all, since the cub was already featured on the zoo’s Facebook page. So I turned off my flash and went into a sort of photographic trance, while Northern Trail staffer Fred patiently cradled the baby on the other side of a glass-paned door and tried not to get his fingers nibbled off.

In these pictures, she’s four days old (born June 17) and three pounds, with eyes still unopened. She almost never stopped wiggling, so I’m glad these photos turned out as well as they did. Her parents are Molniy, one of the “Detroit boys,” and Angara, who came here when the other Detroit boy left, in a mating exchange that clearly paid off. This cub was the second and larger of two delivered by Angara; the first did not survive. About two-thirds of tigers survive the first 30 days.

Zoo staff usually take a hands-off approach to animal infants, letting moms be moms. But after a few days of watching Angara and the cub, zoo staff decided to hand-rear the tiny tiger. As one staffer mentioned as we gathered at the window with our cameras, tiger mothers have been known to eat their young. And Angara didn’t seem to be getting the hang of the whole nurturing thing. So some lucky humans have round-the-clock cub duty for the near future. While the general public won’t get its own open house, the zoo has a tiger webcam set up, as well as a leopard webcam where you can see the other Amur cubs with their mom. The baby leopards, born May 29, won’t be on public display for some time.

As if the day didn’t have enough baby-fresh goodness already, the trumpeter swan family was paddling alongside the newly reopened lake bridge (previously closed as part of black-bear-exhibit construction). I’d seen cygnets before, but not near enough to appreciate just how fuzzy they are. Last year’s cygnet pair didn’t make it to adulthood, possibly because of an extreme extended heatwave early last summer. I hope this quartet fares better.

Yesterday was great for weather (70 and sunny), cute animal babies and cute remarks by junior humans. As we watched the swans, a little girl on the bridge kept exclaiming, “Trumpet swans!” I gently corrected her, maintaining a “not-that-it-really-matters” vibe, and she repeated forcefully: “Trumpet swans!”

As I strolled the rest of the Northern Trail, just past the camel-ride site, I overheard this conversational snippet from an eight-to-10-year old boy and his mom just ahead of me:

Boy: “I wish I could live here.”
Mom (obviously amused): “You wish you could LIVE here?”
Boy: “Yes.”

Understandable, really.

And then the rains came

“The obsession with putting ourselves at the centre of everything is the bane not only of theologians but also of zoologists.”

— Yann Martel, Life of Pi

Three weeks ago today, I was vacationing on Lake Superior’s North Shore about 30 miles north of Duluth, Minn. I sat by the rocky shore reading “Life of Pi.”  Maybe because I started going to church again about the same time I started zoo-volunteering, I love the quote above and the novel’s graceful intertwining of religion and zoos — not two topics most people would link. With today’s news that the Duluth zoo flooded in the wee hours — a few animals temporarily escaped, and a few others died — the trip and the novel are front of mind again.

Our week of torrential rains began Thursday — once again, on my zoo day, although I wasn’t there last week. The Twin Cities, 150 miles south of Duluth, have had power outages and fallen branches and are generally soaked through, even without the world’s largest freshwater lake on our doorstep. Even as I sit here writing this, it’s thundering again.

The plight of the Lake Superior Zoo, which contains an overspilled creek, is detailed in this Q&A by Minnesota Public Radio. For anyone inclined to attack zoos, the incident raises the criticism that Martel, obviously a fan of zoos, deflects so skillfully in Pi. His quote above attacks the belief that animals must treasure “freedom” because that’s what humans want for ourselves. On Page 20 of the edition I’ve photographed here, he writes: “Animals in the wild lead lives of compulsion and necessity within an unforgiving social hierarchy in an environment where the supply of fear is high and the supply of food is low and where territory must constantly be defended…” He goes on to give examples of animals trying to escape zoos — always trying to flee a sudden freak stressor in their environment, like the Duluth flooding. Does a totally risk-free environment exist anywhere, for any creature? Do zoos have limitations? No and yes, but Minnesota’s zoos in Apple Valley and Duluth care deeply about our animals, and 150 miles south of Superior’s shore, we’re thinking of the Lake Superior Zoo’s animals and their caretakers and passing along our deepest sympathies.

Terrible lizards

To be honest, I haven’t been all that excited about the prospect of a traveling dinosaur exhibit coming to spend the summer at “my” zoo. There’s certainly nothing wrong with animatronic dinos, but they seem like kids’ stuff. In my zoo life, I just prefer natural living things. The exhibit opened the Saturday before Memorial Day, and since I was away on vacation that whole first week, I was late to the party anyway.

But the volunteer schedule had out there for an hour Thursday, and I must admit a couple of things caught my imagination in the land of dinosaurs, or “terrible lizards.”

First, the entrance and the placement of the dinos. On a day that started cool and semi-sunny, then turned gradually humid and glaringly bright, I appreciated having a dinosaur’s mouth spray water in my direction as soon as I approached the archway. All the dinos were tucked into thick greenery, which heightened the sense of authenticity. And while I glanced at  T-rex and the long-necked brachiosaurus with a “yeah, those guys” eye, I found myself gawking in front of a couple of creatures I’d never seen or heard of.

Here’s Pachycephalosaurus, the weirdest-looking one of the bunch and the one that gets talked about in the volunteer lunchroom. His name translates logically to “thick-headed lizard” — that helmet goes 10 inches deep. “Pachy” was 26 feet long and weighed about two tons, but zoo lit also tells us that his head-plates were “porous and fragile” and his teeth were such delicate little things that he probably had to nibble on leaves, seeds, fruit and bugs. He likely defended himself with his powerful tail. And based on fossil findings, he likely did that about 70 million years ago in the region we now know as Montana, South Dakota and Wyoming.

This guy, Quetzalcoatlus, wasn’t technically a dinosaur but rather a “flying reptile” that coexisted with the terrible lizards and weighed about 400 pounds. I think he’s my favorite, with that giant pelican beak. He’s named after Quetzalcoatl, a feathered serpent god in Aztec lore. A toothless carnivore, he swallowed his dinners whole and was probably the largest creature ever to fly, with a wingspan of 32 feet. His fossils have been found in Texas. When I imagine him soaring overhead, I feel some of that Cretaceous-era childhood fascination after all.

Letting off steam

This springtime has had its full share of rainy Thursdays. A few weeks ago, the zoo had a precautionary evacuation during a severe thunderstorm warning– which meant everyone came inside, not the reverse. On my latest zoo day, just over two weeks ago, I emerged from my car beneath a sheltering umbrella and gasped at the sheer number of school buses in the parking lot. The very thought of 3,000 schoolkids packed within zoo walls gave me pause. Knowing that only 1,600 people can squeeze into our twice-daily dolphin trainings (stadium capacity = 800) made me pause longer, since volunteers are responsible for crowd control and gate-closing up there. But as the rain slackened, intensified and then let up again throughout the day, quite a few brave souls ventured outside, relieving pressure on the inside.

After surviving the jam-packed noon dolphin show, and then decompressing over lunch, I went out to Grizzly Coast, where the cavelike bear and otter exhibits have overhead protection. The rain had lightened to a pleasing downward mist. The steam vents were steaming like crazy, and a woman stopped me by this one, midway between bear and otter, to ask why the bears liked them so much. I hadn’t yet reached the place where Haines the grizzly stood with his nose pointed into another billowing steam vent, but I explained that they’re just a geologic feature of Russia’s Far East, where the giant grizzlies happen to live. I also theorized that because the heavy rains had made the steam so much more dramatic, the bears were simply intrigued by this change in their environment.

Here’s a steam vent — the same one, I’m pretty sure — on a more placid day last summer. They’re a common sight on Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula, which our zoo lit describes as “Yellowstone National Park times 100.” Steam vents, or fumaroles, form where there’s a lot of damp, unsettled heat in the Earth’s crust. (The Minnesota Zoo, of course, created its own.) When covered by a thick layer of mud, the steam vent appears as a mud pot. Along with the steam vents, mud pots, geysers and (much smaller) grizzlies that Yellowstone also has, Kamchatka is studded with volcanoes, 29 of them still active. Zoo lit tells me the grizzlies don’t fear volcanic eruptions — like other animals, they can sense a disturbance coming in time to get out of its way — and sometimes bathe in the area’s sulfurous hot springs.

By the time I made it to the bears, to investigate Haines’ fascination with his steam vent, the rain was picking up again. I turned back to the main building, still packed with kids, and re-entered the fray just in time to avoid getting totally soaked.