The family farm and a little girl lost

The spring day was gorgeous: brilliantly sunny but so comfortably cool and breezy that I decided to brave the crowds at the zoo’s family farm and check out the annual Spring Babies.

I went for the piglets but stayed for the goats, who were hamming it up for the camera in a big way. Two piglets were play-fighting in the shadowy recesses of the pig barn, and several piglets raced back and forth, in and outdoors, including this pair (“where’s the food?” they seem to wonder as they confront the empty trough). Meanwhile, guests were hand-feeding goats with pellets from the pellet-dispensers. To call the goats enthusiastic would be an understatement.

The goats were rearing up on their hind legs to peer over the fence-top and sticking their heads through the strategically cut-out gaps in fencing. Since the big white goat was claiming his fair share of attention and more, I put 50 cents into a pellet dispenser, fed this little gray guy and patted his surprisingly bristly forehead.

Before leaving the farm, I said hello to Prince and Duke, our venerable American Cream draft horses. Little did I know that in a few minutes, after returning to the Northern Trail, I’d be discussing them with a small and weepy human who reminded me that in juvenile mammals of any species, an extra fragility adds to the cuteness.

Five-year-old Sophia was sobbing on the Northern Trail, where she’d become separated from her school group. Reconnecting lost children with their grownups is part of a zoo volunteer’s regular duties: There’s an actual written procedure for doing it. But this was my first time one-on-one with a distraught pre-schooler, and I wasn’t carrying a walkie-talkie-style radio to alert Guest Services, which is part of the procedure. I told the concerned adults who’d flagged me down that I would walk Sophia back to the main building and, most likely, find a radio-toting volunteer on the way. As we walked, I assured this pint-sized weeping zoogoer that surely her bus hadn’t left without her (she was absolutely convinced that it had) and tried to distract her by asking which of our animals was her favorite. None was, but she’d calmed down enough to explain that her favorite animal was a unicorn. It emerged that she, too, had been out to the farm and seen the draft horses, whom she conceded were equine and white enough to resemble the “real” horned thing.

We did find a volunteer with a radio once we reached Russia’s Grizzly Coast and the bears, but in this case, the solution was to keep walking: As soon as we entered the courtyard that divides the trail and the main zoo building, a teacher came forward and Sophia dived into her arms. And I was done for the day, feeling the unique sense of satisfaction that comes from helping a child. I’ve always found those walkie-talkie radios cumbersome and annoying, but from now on, I’m going to carry one.

Swine defined at the farm

As the outdoor crowds dwindle, the air grows cool-crisp and leaf colors catch fire,  I make my occasional trek out to the zoo’s family farm. In the past month, scheduled repeatedly for a full hour on the Northern Trail, I hiked out there twice: once in sun, once in cloud. I’m not normally much of a farm girl (for one thing, I’m allergic to hay), but I’m drawn to the pigs and the informative signs. These two signs nicely sum up the farm’s mission and niche within the zoo:

This sign’s final observation got me thinking about domestic pigs and their wild cousins. But first, a quick and fuzzy digression:

I don’t have a whole lot to say about sheep, except look how cute they are! As a teen and twentysomething, I built up quite a gift collection of fuzzy stuffed sheep toys. The last one I remember receiving was a Lamb Chop puppet my in-laws picked up at a garage sale en route to my house. I never thought of sheep as endangered, and most varieties aren’t. But Shetland sheep, like the zoo-farm residents in this photo, actually are.

But I digress. Let’s talk about pigs — or rather, swine.

On my cloudy-day farm visit in early October (see how green the trees are!), I stopped by the swine barn and was momentarily flattered when its crossbred domestic pigs lurched to their feet on my arrival. (Two zoo staffers who’d come to feed them were right behind me.) Here’s the most informative sign of all: a guide to swine terminology!

If anyone had asked me the difference between a gilt and a barrow before this, I couldn’t have told you. I’m not sure I realized “swine” was the most general term possible, embracing every type of pig, boar or hog, and it’s good to know that the pig vs. hog cutoff is 120 pounds. I must note, however, that while a “boar” can be a male domestic pig, “wild boars” comprise nondomestic swine of either gender, including these residents of Russia’s Grizzly Coast:

Wild boar live all over the planet and range from 90 to 700 pounds. The ones in Russia’s Far East tend to be large because they feast upon pine nuts. A fact that cracks me up for some reason: In Russia, they keep to the southern forests because their short legs prevent them from moving easily through snow. And a funnier fact: The bristly hairs on their necks were used in toothbrushes until synthetic alternatives were developed in the 1930s. In Minnesota, the DNR considers wild boar a potentially invasive species.

On the Tropics trail, we’ve got the handsome red river hogs (above), weighing 100-250 pounds and native to sub-Saharan Africa. And we’ve also got Visayan warty pigs, weighing 50 to 90 pounds, whose range has shrunk to two small islands in the Philippines. Far from being invasive, they’re one of the few endangered varieties. Because of their mohawk-like hairiness, zoo signage describes them as “punk rock pigs struggling to survive” — sort of the Lisbeth Salander of the swine world. Just one more thing to appreciate about zoo signs. And swine.

Between seasons

I’ve always had mixed feelings about the zoo’s two summer-specific attractions, the butterfly garden and the Wells Fargo Family Farm. My mind tends to link them with heat and crowds. But now, in this back-to-school interlude of sudden quiet, nothing hides the charm of either place. Two weeks ago, before the garden’s annual Labor Day closure, I ducked in to bid the butterflies farewell. Then last week, while looping the Northern Trail, I finally veered off into farmland.

In its final week of the year, the butterfly garden was mostly about the greenery, with just a few fluttering inhabitants left — including the “queen” hiding amid the wildflowers above, orange and black but smaller than a monarch, with white polka dots sprinkled across her wings. No insect perched on the dishes of fruit set out to attract the butterflies. And it was raining, ever so lightly: a mere mist evaporating on my forearms. This pleased me as much as any so-called perfect summer day, and the smattering of zoo guests strolling the walkways seemed equally contented.

A week later, the garden had closed but the same caressing mist-rain fell gently on the farm — including Prince and Duke, the rare American Cream draft horses who’ve been here since the farm opened ten years ago. The farm has a longer season (April-October) than the butterfly garden, and that season tapers off more more gradually: spring and fall weekdays have no demos, petting or other “events,” but you can wander around unobstructed, collecting a leisurely eyeful of buildings and animals. The sheep and goats, in particular, will look back at you, extra-alert to humans in this calmer, cooler space and time.