Bye bye, butterfly

It’s been a spectacular Sunday on the razor’s edge between summer and fall: brilliant blue sky, mid-70s, cool dry breeze, surely the last weekend day of its kind before the coats come out. On Labor Day morning last week, I took my husband to the zoo to say a seasonal farewell to its butterfly garden on the more official “last day of summer.” This morning, in my own mini-butterfly garden (modeled on the zoo’s), I saw a late-season monarch stop by, perching for a minute or two on a stalk of my joe-pye weed before it was on its way.

tiger swallowtail and joe-pye weed

This is my joe-pye weed — a superb, hardy, pollinator-attracting plant I would not have tracked down for my yard if I hadn’t seen monarchs all over it a couple years back at the zoo. Just keep it watered, and it will spread on its own. That is not, of course, a monarch up there but an Eastern tiger swallowtail butterfly that hung out in my yard for two weeks straight in August. Last year I was a little sad that only bees were drawn to the tall plants — although this year at the zoo, as we focused on the importance of pollinators, I realized that bees need our help more than butterflies in that respect, with the added risk of colony collapse disorder and bees’ crucial role in providing not just honey, but essentials like chocolate and coffee as well, by spreading pollen from plant to plant as they sip nectar. This year, bees and the butterfly, which finally appeared in August, shared the joe-pye weed.

julia on trunk

julia butterfly

On Labor Day, the zoo’s butterfly garden’s last hurrah for the season, the most active and visible subspecies was this orange one, known as a julia.But even after that garden goes dark for nine months, the zoo keeps its hand in butterfly-conservation efforts — specifically, preserving the Dakota skipper and Powesheik skipperling, inhabitants of Minnesota’s ever-shrinking tall-grass prairie. (Skippers are a butterfly-moth hybrid explained here by the self-described Old Naturalist. And the key differences between butterflies and moths — butterflies have knobbier antennae and hold their wings closed while perching) are detailed here by the Lepidopterist’s Society.)

My tiger swallowtail (so reliably present for a couple of weeks that I dubbed it my “yard pet”) has moved on — either by migration or by virtue of a lifespan measured in weeks. There’s a sadness in the fleeting beauty, but still hope that careful perennial-planting choices can lure next year’s generation, too.




From zoo to shining sea

If the zoo is doing its job, its visitors and volunteers don’t think about it only when we’re there.  Ideally, we go out into the world looking for more examples of what we find at the zoo. I did this last month on a trip to the northern Oregon coast, home to tidepools with the same two primary inhabitants as the Discovery Bay tidepool back home in Minnesota.

Haystack RockThis is Haystack Rock, a 235-foot-tall sea stack near the tourist village of Cannon Beach, Ore. (And that’s my husband in the yellow shirt, for perspective.) At low tide, beachwalkers head out to the base of the rock and inspect the sea life exposed by the retreating waves.

tidepool rock, Oregon mountainsSubmerged at high tide just a few hours earlier, sea stars and anemones clung to these barnacled rocks.

sea anemones on Oregon coast tidepool rock close-upSome differences from the Discovery Bay pool: All the Haystack Rock anemones had grass-green tentacles (one of the few tentacle hues I hadn’t seen at the zoo), and some were partly submerged in sand. These Oregon tidepools also contained tiny crabs, which fled the shadow of my husband’s arm each time he pointed one out to me. The other occupants can move, too, if they’re so inclined, but much more slowly: A crawling sea star averages six inches per minute.

Discovery Bay tidepoolsea star replicaThe D-Bay tidepool mimics a similar Pacific coastal environment (northern California instead of northern Oregon), but one shared feature of sea stars and anemones is that they’re found at all depths in most of the world’s oceans (although anemones favor the warmer ones). Both species are invertebrates whose bodies radiate symmetrically from a central mouth — the reason we sticklers don’t say “starfish,” since fish have a backbone.  Both species anchor themselves against the pounding waves with sticky feet: Sea stars have a series of tube feet along each arm, which they also use to pull apart clamshells, while a sea anemone stands upon a single “pedal disc.” Both animals are carnivores; anemones capture tiny fish and shrimp in their tentacles. For zoo volunteers, the sea star replica above is a handy tool for describing this hardy animal’s eating habits and other features. Our travels are a less visual tool, but having seen our animals in their natural habitat adds texture to our descriptions, too.

Paddle and wing

Latest tiger-cub news: Joining the zoo’s tiny tiger cub is an even tinier cub, born July 1 at the St. Louis Zoo. Neither cub had a maternally inclined mother; now both can be seen on Tiger Cub Cam, sometimes together. Neither has an official name yet, but my Day Captain Extraordinaire, Rae Nan, has taken to calling “our” two-weeks-older cub “Dragonfly” because of the double-wing stripe formation on the back of her neck. I couldn’t even picture a dragonfly when she first mentioned this name, but then I went river kayaking and saw some in person.

It was two weekends ago — a two-hour float down the St. Croix River from Interstate Park near Taylor Falls, Minn., to Osceola, Wis. It was 90 degrees, and as soon as I started kicking water up onto my kayak to create a cooler resting spot for my outstretched legs, dragonflies started perching there, too. When I pulled over to rest for a minute in shoreline shade, this friendly fellow sat on my knee for a good two minutes until I pushed off and started paddling again. It never occurred to me to wonder if he’d bite me, but at least one good website (I like this one, eduwebs) confirms that dragonflies don’t bite people; they just devour mosquitoes. Tellingly, I didn’t come home with a single bug-bite of any kind.

I’d hoped to see wildlife on this adventure — and we did spot a pair of eagles soaring into the treetops — but I wasn’t paying attention to dragonflies until a kayaking companion mentioned a colleague’s recent tweet about them. The tweet marveled that dragonflies can live for several years, spending all but their final few weeks underwater as nymphs. Another fine website,, marvels at this tropical insect’s ability to thrive in the Upper Midwest. There are at least three major varieties of dragonfly: darners, skimmers and clubtails. Eduwebs says California has 60 species of dragonfly. I’m pretty sure the dragonflies I photographed were blue darners.

Part of the zoo’s mission is to remind visitors that there’s a vast blue-green world beyond cities and small towns, full of overlooked creatures, and to give us all a gentle prod outward into that world. Once we’re physically immersed in nature, we’re more likely to think, “Maybe we shouldn’t put condos on this, after all” or “We need to make sure this kind of animal never dies out.” Worked on me.

And then the rains came

“The obsession with putting ourselves at the centre of everything is the bane not only of theologians but also of zoologists.”

— Yann Martel, Life of Pi

Three weeks ago today, I was vacationing on Lake Superior’s North Shore about 30 miles north of Duluth, Minn. I sat by the rocky shore reading “Life of Pi.”  Maybe because I started going to church again about the same time I started zoo-volunteering, I love the quote above and the novel’s graceful intertwining of religion and zoos — not two topics most people would link. With today’s news that the Duluth zoo flooded in the wee hours — a few animals temporarily escaped, and a few others died — the trip and the novel are front of mind again.

Our week of torrential rains began Thursday — once again, on my zoo day, although I wasn’t there last week. The Twin Cities, 150 miles south of Duluth, have had power outages and fallen branches and are generally soaked through, even without the world’s largest freshwater lake on our doorstep. Even as I sit here writing this, it’s thundering again.

The plight of the Lake Superior Zoo, which contains an overspilled creek, is detailed in this Q&A by Minnesota Public Radio. For anyone inclined to attack zoos, the incident raises the criticism that Martel, obviously a fan of zoos, deflects so skillfully in Pi. His quote above attacks the belief that animals must treasure “freedom” because that’s what humans want for ourselves. On Page 20 of the edition I’ve photographed here, he writes: “Animals in the wild lead lives of compulsion and necessity within an unforgiving social hierarchy in an environment where the supply of fear is high and the supply of food is low and where territory must constantly be defended…” He goes on to give examples of animals trying to escape zoos — always trying to flee a sudden freak stressor in their environment, like the Duluth flooding. Does a totally risk-free environment exist anywhere, for any creature? Do zoos have limitations? No and yes, but Minnesota’s zoos in Apple Valley and Duluth care deeply about our animals, and 150 miles south of Superior’s shore, we’re thinking of the Lake Superior Zoo’s animals and their caretakers and passing along our deepest sympathies.

Glass actions and good intentions

It’s bear-wrestling season at the zoo, featuring Haines and Kenai! I never get tired of watching the boys play-fight, witnessing guests’ delight and offering explanations such as “He’s not really hurting him” — or, in response to this scene seen through water-smeared glass the week before last, “It’s not what it looks like.”

It’s true that the play-fighting gets a bit rough, and Haines sometimes does hurt the blonder, more submissive Kenai — a little, and probably not on purpose. Each weekend, volunteers receive an email report of goings-on among the animals, passed down from volunteer coordinator Heidi through our “day captains.” Two days after this vigorous session, Heidi’s email disclosed that Kenai (not for the first time) had received a bleeding facial scratch during the previous weekend’s frolics. She also disclosed that while zoo staffers were examining the scratch, Kenai snarfed down a whole package of dog food, suggesting a certain robustness of body and spirit. And as you can see in the photo below, taken four days after the scratch, he seemed ready to wrestle some more — and had every opportunity to get out of the water, where the wrestling always occurs.

There’s a world of difference between watching large predators through glass, where kids go nose-to-nose with furry beasts like these bears, and seeing them through bars or other barriers. I was reminded of this recently when a friend asked my opinion of a video that had gone viral: a baby in a zebra hoodie being “remotely” pawed and mouthed by the lion on the opposite side of a glass barrier at the Oregon Zoo. Enough Googling will show you a similar video from one zoo or another, year after year. The Cheyenne Mountain Zoo gave the best response I’ve seen about the protective power of laminated safety glass, and the furor over the zebra-hoodie child, in my opinion, had more to do with varying parenting styles than anything else. The child by the glass was clearly safe. Of those who frowned upon the video, though, some were more concerned about whether the lion was being taunted. Because lion and baby were both physically fine, it all boiled down to kindness and concern, or perceived lack thereof. The video’s joke, for those who found it funny, was that neither the baby nor the lion was in on the joke. And that same fact upset those who knew the baby was safe but still objected to the video.

As a volunteer at a zoo that has the utmost concern for creatures in its care, I’ve seen plenty of nose-to-nose moments through glass. Several appear elsewhere on this blog. Large mammals fascinate children, and vice-versa; the glass creates a weird, delightful intimacy that would never occur in the wild. If paws and mouths get involved, and grownups start laughing, and it all goes from Facebook to TV news site, we’ve seen that a minor controversy can erupt. But when those animal-child moments are quiet and private, with a spirit of reverent respect, then they’re golden.

Brookfield Zoo: our dolphin connection

For several years, I’ve had a yen to see the Brookfield Zoo near Chicago. Long ago, my husband’s oldest sister was a zookeeper there; more recently, dolphins have flowed back and forth between our two zoos, based on the best breeding prospects and who gets along with whom. Last week on vacation, after visiting family in Illinois, my husband and I made a detour to check out the whole zoo, and especially its marine mammals.

Of this seven-member pod, five are my old buddies. Potential breeder Chinook went back to Brookfield after an uneasy stint in Discovery Bay with our male Semo, who claimed all baby-daddy privileges anyway. Tapeko and her young daughters Noelani and Allison (that oh-so-human name always made us volunteers smile) spent a few months with us last year while the pool you see above was being revamped. Spree, now an eight-year-old, got along with that trio so swimmingly that she left with them when they returned to Chicago. The last I heard, Brookfield had plans to set her up with Chinook.

Brookfield’s underwater viewing area is a lot like ours. Watching the seven bottlenose friends do pre-show laps together, I picked out Spree easily based on her underbelly tooth-rake marks. (Those marks are a normal sign of dolphin-to-dolphin social conflict; Spree got along less well with our current Minnesota dolphins than she does with these guys.)

I’m not sure if that’s Spree with a trainer above, but that’s definitely Chinook on the right with trainer Mark. Each trainer paired up with the same dolphin for the duration of the 20-minute twice-daily show, which has been a staple for the zoo’s 50-year history.

The grizzly side of Brookfield’s Bear Wilderness (across from the polar-bear side)  is a lot like our grizzly exhibit, too, but with a two-tiered viewing area, a deeper pool and a smaller, Yellowstone Park-like species of brown bear. Rather than play-fight with a friend like our massive Alaskan/Russian species, the one grizzly we saw last week captivated the crowd by floating around on his back, with just his nose and paws above water. (Our prime ursine swimmer Kenai, on the other hand, always amuses the crowd by fastidiously keeping his ears dry.)

It would take me weeks to tell you everything I saw in a day at Brookfield, but this plaque sums it up well with a quote by naturalist John Muir. In a sprawling zoo the size of a small town, I still got that feeling of interconnectedness: plant to animal, animal to human, weaving a web of mutual sustenance, shelter and education. Our zoos share dolphins and a message, too.