Rocky’s a star

I’d heard fun things about the new moose-training sessions on the Northern Trail — part of the zoo’s new Close Encounters program — and last week a group of us volunteers went to check it out. The new moose on exhibit is Rocky (yes, Rocky, not Bullwinkle), and he did not disappoint.

Minnesota Zoo moose RockyRocky’s a 19-month-old adolescent who arrived several months ago from a Texas facility for eventual breeding with our newly adult 3-year-old moose Kathy, one of his keeper/trainers explained. (Zoo moose used to consist of orphan babies rescued from the wild, but as their populations decline and chronic wasting disease complicates the handling of all deer species, zoos focus more on making their own moose babies in-house.) While many of the zoo’s Close Encounters have keepers on the trails with animals you don’t normally see on exhibit, others — like this one — happen on a regular exhibit. A ringing bell and vocal calls from three female trainers brought Rocky down the hill toward his exhibit’s edge, and then across the exhibit to the opposite edge where the trainers awaited him. He knew food would accompany the training.

Rocky the moose being pettedWhy train a moose, you might ask? For large animals like Rocky, it’s all about easing their routine medical care. Like the dolphins when we had them, he learns to respond to a particular shape (that’s his yellow star on the ground above). Then he gets handfuls of lettuce, carrots and leaf-eater biscuits. As you can see, he gets his nose stroked, too — not just an affectionate act, but preparation for having a veterinarian eventually inspect his eyes and look into his mouth.

Rocky the moose turning

Rocky starThe trainers had Rocky do an “A to B,” or walk from the pair at right to a third trainer. He was already quite attuned to this trainer, swiveling his giant head toward her whenever she spoke. She had another yellow star and a big bunch of romaine lettuce for him.

Rocky the moose eating lettuceThe trainers told us that Rocky isn’t particular about what he eats — unlike Steve, another zoo moose who turns up his nose at anything but romaine.

Rocky the moose is spookedTrainers always want to end a session on a positive note, but this time, something spooked Rocky late in the game: a sound or scent undetectable to his human audience. He assumed a partial crouch and peed on his own hindlegs; when another volunteer asked, tentatively, whether this was “normal,” a trainer replied that it was a classic sign of anxiety. Rocky then retreated up the hill and kept gazing over at the caribou, who also were milling about hyperactively. We couldn’t figure out whether they spooked Rocky or whether a third, unseen animal spooked both species. We volunteers, cold and hungry at noon, left the scene before we saw how the session wrapped up. However it ended, Rocky’s obvious bond with his trainers seems to guarantee another good session next time.

Lucky stripes

I hadn’t seen the zoo’s six-month-old tiger cubs in several weeks; my husband, who’s extra-fond of tigers, had never seen them; and we finally caught “Life of Pi” on the big screen Saturday, so the weekend already had a big-stripey-cat theme going on. So we made a Sunday zoo trip and were rewarded with this:

Minnesota Zoo tiger cubs playing

My dad is among the faithful followers of this blog, and nearly every week he exclaims in response to some photo or other, all of which feature animals caught in a well-timed act: “You’re so lucky!” I always reply that amid the constant visual awesomeness busting out all over the zoo, my camera misses nearly half the great moments that come my way. But at the Tiger Lair last weekend, I did feel exceptionally lucky.

Nadya and Sundari

Nadya and Sundari, born two weeks apart last summer and each about 60 pounds at their last publicized weigh-in, were frolicking at the window with considerable encouragement from guests and their gloves. Turns out a glove dropped by the window is a feline-attention magnet, as several guests proved. One little girl also lured them with her stuffed tiger toy. I’d never gotten a good shot of the tiger girls together, but luck smiled on me this time. I still know Sundari, the Minnesota-born tiger, by the dragonfly pattern on the back of her neck.
tiger cub gnaw hugWe came for the tigers but stayed for the dholes, who were having their own pair interactions a little farther along the Northern Trail. I still can’t bring myself to photograph animals mating, although one pair appeared to be doing just that. This is a seven-animal exhibit, though, and other pairs were bonding in other ways.

dhole chin restdhole pair restingdhole outside den
One of the seven reminded me that there’s a second rock-den in the exhibit by sitting sentinel-style at its doorway. If both adult females reproduce again this winter, both dens might get some use, and (purely in theory) the exhibit could gain up to 24 new youngsters. Last year’s total yield was three pups, though, so despite a female dhole’s ability to bear and nurse a dozen small mouths, a smaller batch of babies is more realistic.

caribou stuck

caribou unstuckIt was too cold to walk the entire trail, and by midafternoon the exhibits all were half-cloaked in shadow. But as we turned back, passing the caribou exhibit, my husband noticed a humorous dilemma within: The animal with the most spectacular antler formation, after rubbing it on branches (a common caribou activity when the antlers are ready to drop off), got one sizable branch stuck in there, like a rifle in its rack. Along with a gathering crowd, we watched him try to shake the branch loose, tipping his head this way and that. As a spectator sport, it made me feel a little guilty. But the caribou somehow succeeded in the end, freeing us to leave the zoo — as usual — with light and cheerful hearts.