“After-summer” at the zoo

In my previous post, I said goodbye to the giraffes (and butterflies and mechanical dinosaurs), knowing their seasonal exhibits were closing down. Whatever the calendar claims about the 21st or 22nd of the month and solstices and such, we all know Labor Day marks the formal end of the party known as summer. So imagine my delight three days ago to walk the Northern Trail and see this reverse image of my last giraffe photo:

giraffe bending overOK, this wasn’t my first glimpse of the giraffes, whom a fellow volunteer already told me were STILL OUT THERE. I suspected they might not be trucked off to Ohio the very day after the hype surrounding their exhibit — African music, zookeepers brandishing tree branches, staffers selling crackers to the public — stopped. My first glimpse was actually Zawadi (I’m sure it was him, since he’s always the food-  and attention hound) standing at the empty feeding station — and for that first fleeting second, it almost broke my heart! But the giraffes are certainly getting fed the same volume of leaves in their overnight barns, and Zawadi was just checking in; he wandered off soon enough and could be soon be seen doing this (or perhaps it was Sweta. Either way, the giraffe nibbling his tail in both photos below is the same giraffe):

giraffe chewing on tailThere were no feeding opportunities, and the group of guests observing Africa (only the guineafowl and ostriches had returned to their owners; the antelope and wildebeest remained) was smaller and less diverse than the summer crowd. On the third day of school for most of Minnesota, the zoo belonged to retired couples, parents (mostly moms) with strollers and, of course, us volunteers.

giraffe biting tailThe vibe across the entire zoo Thursday morning made me think of an after-party: fewer bodies and longer, more intimate conversations than the crowded, keep-working-the-room, cocktail-party hustle of July and August. Almost every Northern Trail bench had an older couple resting on it — none looking fatigued or overheated,  just pausing long enough to look around and drink in the sunny warmth and greenery all around. It was so quiet that I noticed every little formerly forgotten waterfall in passing.  But it was still a humid, sunny 78 degrees with cicadas’ hum as background music — a classic late-summer kind of morning — and guests felt like chatting with volunteers.

bear clawOne of my best chats happened with a 4-year-old girl at the black bear exhibit on the Minnesota Trail. She was one of those dyed-in-the-wool extroverts who was JUST SO HAPPY to meet a new person that her little face glowed every time I served up a new fact (the fingers and claws on that handlike paw help the bear climb trees and open human food jars; the bears like to feast on acorns this time of year). She had lots of acorns in HER yard, she proclaimed! You could see that her parents were ready for the next exhibit, but because this wasn’t Zoo Camp or a school group on a rigorous schedule with an absolute checklist, and because they could see engagement and education happening, they waited patiently for her attention span to reach its end. And then, because it was the after-party bridge between summer and official autumn, when life outside school hasn’t quite ramped up yet — only then, at a leisurely pace, did they move on.

Bittersweet goodbye

Summer’s end always comes fast in Minnesota, but as a lover of autumn I never really mind — except that this time, it means saying goodbye to these guys for good.

interns meet giraffes In this case, “these guys” means Sweta and Zawadi as well as the two interns I brought from my workplace to the zoo last month to cap off their summer in Minnesota. The giraffes’ last day is today; they’ll be moving on to a permanent home at the Columbus Zoo, which currently has no giraffes but is opening a new Africa exhibit in the spring. Year-round giraffes are in the Minnesota Zoo’s master plan, but we’ve got some hurdles left to clear before that happens.

giraffe neck stretchSo I’m a little sad even knowing that I made the most of this long-necked summer: guiding guests in and out of the feeding station as a volunteer, bringing my Aussie friend Howard to feed them on his last day visiting the U.S., witnessing the interns’ delight as their colleague and tour guide and, last week, helping corral a Zoo Camp class of 3- to 6-year-olds on their own feeding adventure. There were educational moments along the way: An intern and I got to talking about how meeting these giants in person is a far more visceral experience than just looking at photos; a 5-year-old asked about the “baby giraffe” after Sweta wandered away from the feeding station, looking small in the distance.  Now that it’s Labor Day, everyone’s heading back for more structured education, and two other zoo attractions are ending their seasonal run today:

Minnesota Zoo butterfly gardenI made only a couple of trips to the butterfly garden this summer, but both times I absorbed enough of its peace and beauty to carry with me for the rest of the day.

Rex the dinosaurAs noted last summer, I’ve never been much of a dinosaur girl, and I don’t feel too sad about their departure this week. I was scheduled out at dinos only twice this summer, but I was somewhat amused by a common toddler reaction upon glimpsing the huge animatronic forms and hearing the distant roars: often a variation on “nooo! Take me back!” Parents were generally skilled at reassurances (one dad counseled, “Just roar back!”) and by the time everyone reached “Rex’s Bones,” at Dino Village — a dinosaur you can partly take apart and reassemble — even the littlest guests were dry-eyed and serene.

bending giraffe with guinea fowlBut zoo-wise, for me, the summer was all about our two 16-foot-tall guests, back for the last time after a four-year hiatus.  Here’s Sweta or Zawadi demonstrating how vulnerable a drinking giraffe would be in Africa, where herd-mates would look out for lions on his behalf. (This one just has to worry about a flock of helmeted guineafowl.) Giraffes don’t, and shouldn’t, spend much time leaning over this far or lying down, which is why their travel to Columbus will involve an extra-tall trailer, probably with a movable roof, and a route that avoids overpasses. (The Brookfield Zoo describes giraffe transport here; just scroll down past the part about the walrus.) I wish these two brothers an easy ride, and I’ll miss them a lot.