Bearing up nicely

Last week I finally got to see the new American black bears on the Minnesota Trail. As with the Grizzly Coast grizzlies, or brown bears, we have three — as any fairy-tale fan should agree, the ideal number of bears in any given unit. The first thing you’ll notice here is that not all black bears are black, just as not all brown bears are brown.

So what’s the difference, then, you might ask? American black bears are much smaller than the Russian/Alaskan grizzlies (200 to 400 pounds, as opposed to 800 or 1,000), with shorter, less shaggy fur and no fatty hump between their shoulders. Their short, nonretractable claws make them excellent tree-climbers. To my eye, black bear ears seem pointier. For a comparison, here’s Sadie, the smallest of our grizzlies, scratching herself on a log last week:

Like the three grizzlies, all three black bears were rescued as baby orphans — but in northern Minnesota, up by Leech Lake, in early 2010. They likely have a few more inches to grow and quite a few more pounds to gain. Their names are drawn from the languages of various Indian tribes: Kuruk (which means bear) and Tiva (dance) are the two black ones; Tiva, the smaller female, has a bit of white on her chest. Syke (which means “sleeps” and is pronounced like “psych”) is the cinnamon-colored black bear, and though I certainly didn’t intend to pick favorites on my first viewing, I already have a soft spot for him, much as I do for Kenai among the grizzlies.

It might have been a one-morning fluke, or my personal bias, but Syke seemed like the most active, and interactive, bear in my first half-hour at the exhibit. He reared up briefly but repeatedly on his hind legs (a maneuver that helps bears sniff the airĀ  — smell is their strongest sense), went nose-to-palm with this toddler, and presented his face for photography more often than his hindquarters. That said, the zoo’s information sheet identifies Kuruk as “the boldest one,” and this exhibit opened less than two weeks ago, so it’s early days yet.

Goodbye, dolphins

My last volunteer day with dolphins was quiet and uneventful, except for one heart-stopping moment. I was sitting in the stadium Thursday with fellow volunteer (and much-appreciated frequent blog commenter) Marlene, just a couple of steps up from the bottom, when I realized that Allie, who almost never comes into the show pool unless lured by trainers with fish, was RIGHT THERE at the window, checking us out. I ripped my camera out of its zippered case, without a spare moment to switch my settings from landscape to portrait, and barely caught this image in the 10 or 15 seconds before she returned to the back pool she prefers.

As a child, I was a source of frustration to teachers and youth group leaders who found me way too reticent and shy. I resented their “Act like someone else!” edict, but thanks to Allie the dolphin, I kind of understand their frustration now. Allie’s reluctance to present herself voluntarily in the show pool always made me wonder why. If I could have talked to her, I would have said, “There’s nothing dangerous here, and you’re free to retreat from any stimulus that bothers you. Please just let us see you!” Trainers could have used gates to keep her out front, but they didn’t; the animal’s welfare, mental and physical, comes first here, which is part of what makes the zoo special. The dolphins won’t return after their yearlong pool renovation, and their welfare is driving that decision, too. They need more-varied social groups, and elderly Semo should not be moved from zoo to zoo any more than necessary.

Of course, Semo (above, in my last good look at him) is the dolphin I’ll miss most. He’s been there since my first volunteer day nearly nine years ago, and I devoted my second-ever blog post to Feeding Semo as my thousand-hour volunteer reward. To other volunteers and people who fully understand that I’m joking, I describe him as bionic and/or immortal; to some guests, I say this nearly 50-year-old dolphin is like a 95-year-old human who lives in a single-family home and still drives. In other words, he’s rare and amazing and makes you think he might go on forever, especially when he poses as charmingly as he’s doing below. Perhaps he will, but somewhere else.

I got my amazing glimpse of Allie shortly after noon, when she ordinarily would have been in the show pool for a training session. Because it was their last week on exhibit, sessions weren’t happening on their regular schedule — but Allie’s internal clock seemed to be telling her that she belonged in the show pool at that hour. After making her retreat, she swam around the back pool at top speed and did a couple of spontaneous jumps. I wonder if she knows she’ll soon be off to a new family and a new adventure. I hope she enjoys it. I bet she will.

Dolphin destination update: In early October, the dolphins arrived at their new homes: Allie returned to her previous Chicago residence, the Brookfield Zoo, and Semo now lives at Six Flags Discovery Kingdom in Vallejo, Calif., between San Francisco and Sacramento. He’s joining 14 other dolphins, and there’s hope that this big daddy will become a daddy there once more. Even at his advanced age, the odds seem excellent.

Last days of the cuttlefish

After this Dolphin Farewell Week ends (still a difficult thing to think about), my favorite creature in Discovery Bay will officially be the cuttlefish. This cousin of the octopus is a little crazy-looking, which is part of his fascination. The other part, for an interpretive volunteer like me, is the constellation of intriguing facts that apply to him. Like his fellow cephalopods, he can release ink, although that’s escape-level behavior I’ve never seen at the zoo. He can change color, from dark brown to nearly white. He can float aloft, his wraparound fin oscillating to help keep him buoyant. He has three hearts, two of which pump blue-green blood directly to his gills. He can change the shape of his eyeballs. These days, his eyes are a pale milky blue, which means he’s grown quite elderly at more than a year old, and the end may be near.

Like the octopus, he has eight arms — plus two tentacles, all clustered around his head. When I took the photo above, just over a week ago, a boy theorized that this was a female ready to mate, based on a video seen at another zoo and the upraised tentacles (“Hey look, I’m over here!” they seem to say). But when an aquarist stopped by with a serving of shrimp, she confirmed that this guy is male as well as old. The natural lifespan of a European cuttlefish, however well cared for, is six to 18 months; octopuses live about three years.

Some guests come to this tank completely uninitiated (“Is it a squid?” “It’s related to squid.”). Others arrive as experts, like the recent college graduate who’d written a term paper on cuttlefish. My favorite exchange, a couple months ago, involved a little boy and his older, school-age sister. After the three of us had discussed the cuttlefish for several minutes, the boy asked me solemnly, “Does he have feelings?” I hid my smile, paused to think for a minute, then replied that we can’t really know what goes on in the mind (heart? SOUL?) of a cold-blooded invertebrate, but based on his color changes alone, we know that he has simple moods like fear, aggression and hunger. Anything deeper or more complex, such as love or envy or regret, is unlikely, I explained. Children’s animal questions never fail to surprise and entertain me.

In my nearly nine years of zoo-volunteering, we’ve nearly always had a cuttlefish in this tank. They come to us from a Florida aquarium breeder, and when they first go on exhibit, they’re about as big as two human thumbs pressed together. When they get to be more than half a foot long, you know they’re adults and their days are numbered. (Females rarely live long after laying eggs, at any age.) So these days, my first stop in Discovery Bay is always at the cuttlefish tank, to see if he’s still in there. Their lives pass so quickly and so often, it’s hard to say I actually mourn. But soon the tank will be disappointingly empty, for a while, until the cycle starts anew.