Holidays at the zoo

As I sit writing on another bitterly cold day in the Twin Cities, Halloween and green grass seem like relics from another lifetime — one I’d like to revisit now! This year’s spooky holiday fell on my volunteer day, Thursday, and we volunteers were encouraged to come in costume. Besides my usual zoo clothes, I just wore a tall pair of bunny ears (I called myself “a snowshoe hare, prey of the lynx” to make the ears align with volunteer talking points). My bunny-head-on-human-body seemed to fascinate this tiger, who followed me from the “lair” viewing area up to the moat, where she crouched to pounce and fixed her laser-beam eyes on my headgear. Thanks to the most recent volunteer update, I know this “cub” (now 18 months and not so much a cub at all) is Nadya and not the two-weeks-older Sundari, thanks to the upside-down V stripe pattern between her eyes.

Nadya the stalking tiger

molting bisonA brand-new, lesser-known holiday followed two days later: National Bison Day. Bison have been in the zoo’s spotlight since its partnership with Blue Mounds State Park to purify their bloodlines after generations of interbreeding with cattle. This summer alone, two calves were born at the zoo. (This molting, cooling-off bison of summer seems like a relic from an even more ancient time that I’m even more eager to revisit.)

turkey tailWe volunteers were encouraged to tell guests all about bison that day (before they were hunted to the brink of extinction, they were once the SuperTarget of the Plains, with 20 or 30 hides required to make a teepee; in 1900, a conservation herd at the Bronx Zoo launched their comeback), just as we were encouraged to talk turkey in the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving. This turkey tail was available to us at the lower information booth, where we could discuss turkeys’ preference for running (up to 19 mph!) over flying, along with other facts. And now, with Christmas almost upon us, a set of antlers has replaced the tail in the booth — headgear worn by both male and female caribou, the wild version of reindeer.

Minnesota Zoo caribou herd

Minnesota Zoo flamingo ornamentBesides antlers, our key talking point about caribou is the tendon that shifts over bone and clicks in their legs when they walk, audible from a distance of 30 feet. This helps animals within a herd keep track of each other in the dark during winter’s shortest days.

There’s nothing wintry about flamingoes, except that they were the choice for this year’s volunteer-designed Christmas ornament. We sell these at various booths in the zoo this time of year ($6 apiece); all proceeds go to support volunteer programs. My tree is full of ┬ápast years’ ornaments, too — a nice way to bring the zoo into my house as the days grow short and the year winds down.