The tamarin whisperer

Doing my usual loop of the Tropics trail last week, I crossed paths with fellow volunteer Michele at the South American end, by the tamarin exhibits. She was on the cotton-top side (across from the golden lion tamarins), gazing up into the treetops where these white-crested mini-monkeys usually perch. Instead of the usual pair, there was just the female “widow,” whose mate died of cancer quite recently. The female cotton-top might be lonely, but at this moment, Michele seemed to be filling the gap. She was making a series of cooing and whistling noises, and the tamarin was squeaking back at her (zoo lit says cotton-tops have more than 30 different vocalizations), hopping back and forth on its branch, occasionally leaning over to rub a furry shoulder against the bark — obviously intrigued and possibly even enamored.

This imperfect photo is probably the clearest shot I could ever hope to get of this tamarin and her complicated little face, bathed in the red glow of heat lamps. Our cotton-tops stay high in the trees, as they would in their native rainforest canopy in northwestern Colombia. In the wild, they lick rain off leaves and suck sap from trees after biting the bark off. They avoid descending into range of earthbound predators such as cats. These 1-pound monkeys were declared an endangered species in 1973, and fewer than 3,000 remain in the wild. Besides squeaking at volunteers, they’re said to express emotion by flicking their tongues and, when alarmed, raising the shock of white hair on their heads. A former fellow volunteer, also snowy-haired, once told me laughingly that a child said to her, pointing at a cotton-top tamarin: “It looks just like you!”

Whether it was Michele’s long blond hair or the way she was softly cooing and even meowing, this tamarin’s fascination with my current fellow volunteer was so intense that I dubbed her “the tamarin whisperer” on the spot. After Michele proceeded along the trail, I lingered a few moments to observe the reaction and to try a little cooing of my own. I got a very minimal response. Here’s the tamarin gazing after the no-longer-visible Michele — disconsolately, I suspect.

We’re told that the Species Survival Program for tamarins is on the lookout for a new male, which ideally can be shipped here before it gets too cold for such a tiny tropical creature to travel this far north. Wild tamarins live in groups of three to 15 members; they are not solitary by nature, and clearly, this one is ready for some companionship.

Off-duty docent

For my sister-in-law Barb, a rarely seen beaver cavorted in the pool. For my college roommate Tracy, the tiger and leopard cubs frolicked extra-hard. Each of the past two weekends, as a nonvolunteering “civilian,” I’ve taken a friend to the zoo. Both Tracy and Barb spontaneously bought me coffee at the Penguin Cafe, but otherwise the two outings — though equally delightful — could not have been more different.

Here’s Barb two weeks ago with one of the Minnesota Trail’s most elusive residents. It’s as if this furry rodent knew that Barb was a former Brookfield Zookeeper in Chicago, that she was in town just briefly from another state, that she frequented the Minnesota Zoo in its early years and that one special appearance deserved another.

We had a little less luck with the zoo’s trio of young cat species: the lynx kitten goes off-exhibit after lunch, the leopard cubs were hanging out near the back of their space, and the tiger-cub launch was still two days ahead. But it was the perfect day for hiking the Northern Trail, with head coverings and large coffees to take the edge of the sunny chill. And the dholes, which can be hard to spot in their roomy woodland home, graced us with an eyeful. Since this month’s volunteer update, I know all their names (though I don’t know which adult this is, at left): females Piri and Fanni,  males Blyger and Prosit (who’s chubbier) and three female pups: Astrid (reportedly the smallest and boldest), Csilla (pronouned Chee-yah) and Janka.

A week later, for Tracy’s visit, everything had changed: gray skies dropped a warm drizzle, the beaver had returned to invisibility, the Northern Trail was too wet to walk in full — but all the baby cats were out in force. The lynx kitten kept to the top of his exhibit, but you could still see his cuteness. I’d heard the tiger cubs might go back inside if it rained, but there they were — just a headless wrestling blurry ball whenever Tracy and I pointed our cameras at them, but distinct enough when they ventured out from beneath their umbrella of trees. They’re prowling alongside the window less often now, but I think the cub below was drawn to a visitor’s neon sneakers.

Tracy describes me as a docent in my zoo life, which of course is what I am, though at the zoo we tend to call ourselves interpretive volunteers instead. (We do have a sense of kinship with the Association of Zoo and Aquarium Docents, or AZAD, however.) These past two weekends, I was a partly-off-duty docent, free of any scheduled commitments but still irrepressibly shouting out animal information, asked-for or not. Force of habit guarantees that when I’m in my “natural habitat,” as I like to call the zoo, animal-fact eruptions happen. Bringing friends into that habitat just makes it feel even more natural.

Amur babies: spots and stripes

I went to an all-day volunteer update seminar a week ago, and my mind is still overflowing with new animal facts. In weeks to come I’ll share the countless things I learned, starting with this: The four-month-old Amur leopard cubs, who went on exhibit last month, have embraced their zookeeper training sessions. During her Northern Trail/Grizzly Coast portion of the all-day update, Northern Trail supervisor Diana Weinhardt told us they’re learning to “sit” and take meat off a stick on command. On exhibit, they just like to play.

They’re a brother and sister, and you can tell them apart from the distinct V-shaped pattern of spots on the male’s forehead. He also seems more inclined to pose, at least for me on my two treks out there so far. Here he is with mom Polina, whom keepers call “Lina” (Lena). Diana describes her as a “stellar mom,” and she does seem to radiate maternal pride and contentment, as much as a leopard can:

While mother and cubs occupy this central “maternity” viewing area, the cubs’ dad, Chobby, has been staying in a separate area to the viewer’s left, while his future paramour Okha (pronounced Oxxa) still prefers her hangout in a treetop to the right. Female Amur leopards are in heat for only one week a year, in January or February,  so everyone hopes Okha ventures down this winter.

Meanwhile, the zoo’s Tiger Cam has gone offline since those two Amur cubs went into the tiger “holding” barn where the four adults (parents Molniy and Angara, along with female tigers Anya and Whirl) spend their nights. Yesterday, the cubs went on exhibit at the Tiger Lair on the Northern Trail. The cub who’s Molniy’s offspring will be his last, I learned at last week’s update. Since Molniy’s brother Vaska just sired four cubs at the Peoria Zoo, the “Detroit Boys” are both so “well represented” genetically — so many of their relatives are running around — that the Species Survival Plan for tigers wants to take those genes out of the pool, so to speak.

Here’s Vaska’s mate Kyra with her offspring in Illinois — thanks to my aunt Jeanette Kosier, a skilled photographer and Peoria resident, for sending me these! Despite being a first-time mom of four, Kyra embraced the mothering process at once. The Peoria Zoo has video of the cubs, including their birth.

I get to see our tiger cubs on exhibit tomorrow. (The zoo has them blogging about it, with a little typing assistance from Diana.) I expect the frolicking to be intense.