Cygnet and foal

With nearly a week of spring technically left, the zoo still has fluffy spring babies to see. An Asian wild horse was born May 24, and over Memorial Day weekend, the trumpeter swans who live on our lake had cygnets. Last spring, I tried in vain to get a clear baby-swan shot. Last week, my luck improved.

The challenge was to get the adults’ faces in the picture, since swans spend so much time browsing for food with their heads underwater, tails pointing skyward. To maximize their reach in browsing, their necks are as long as their bodies: on average, nearly 60 inches each. At 20 to 30 pounds, trumpeters are the largest swan species. Now about three weeks old, this cygnet will be fully feathered at about two months old; a month after that, it will be able to fly. The zoo has released 165 swans into the wild, through its trumpeter swan restoration project participation. But some of them like the zoo’s sheltered lake so much, they eventually come home.

The newest member of the Asian wild horse exhibit is a few days older than the cygnets, but just as cute:

They’re also known as Przewalski’s horses (or in zoo shorthand, P-horses), after the Russian explorer (first name: Nicolai) who first informed the West of their existence in the late 1800s. (The Brookfield Zoo, which I recently visited, also has them, along with a helpful sign explaining the pronunciation: “Shevalski.”)

If not for captive-breeding programs in zoos, Asian wild horses would be extinct. In the mid-1960s, there were none left in the wild. But as with trumpeter swans in Minnesota, reintroduction efforts have restored a population to Mongolia, their last native stronghold. And as with many endangered species, humans have been their greatest threat: from hunters to farmers who (understandably) repurpose the land for crops or domestic grazing. In a nicely ironic twist, though, it’s also humans who’ve helped bring P-horses back from the brink.

The Lorax: He speaks for the trees

“Way back in the days when the grass was still green,
and the ponds were still wet, and the clouds were still clean…”
from “The Lorax” by Dr. Seuss

In my haste two Thursdays ago, as I rushed about photographing Seuss-inspired sculptures for my previous post, I missed this guy — the visiting bronze figure most relevant to the the zoo’s environmental mission. The placard below him quotes the rallying cry from the author’s 1971 not-just-for-children’s book: “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”

“It” and “nothing,” of course, refer to clear-cutting forests, with Truffula Trees (drawn by Seuss as tall, slender palms with soft neon fronds) logged with a “Super-Axe-Hacker” to make vaguely sweaterlike Thneeds  (“a Fine-Something-That-Everyone-Needs!”). Living in the trees’ shade are the vaguely mammalian Brown Bar-ba-loots (which eat Truffula fruit), Humming Fish and Swomee Swans. The Lorax tries to defend the trees against invasive industry, and this sculpture of him has found its perfect temporary home beside a pond that contains actual trumpeter swans. The book, like the zoo, emphasizes the connective threads that bind species to species, plant to animal; no creature exists in a vacuum, and removing one domino from the ecosystem can trigger a collapse.

This weekend I went out and bought “Six by Seuss,” a collection that includes “The Lorax” and “Yertle the Turtle” — also a visiting sculpture on  the zoo’s Lakeside Terrace, and also a morality tale. Where “The Lorax” takes aim at industry’s obsession with “biggering and biggering,” King Yertle feels compelled to rise higher and higher on the backs of more and more lowly turtles, to view more of what he considers his kingdom, until he’s toppled by a lowly turtle’s burp. Here’s the sculpture:

And showing the Seussian spirit, here’s fellow volunteer Marlene, a kind and faithful commenter on this blog, sporting one of the “Cat in the Hat” hats the zoo has on hand for volunteers to wear during this Seussian springtime. She graciously allowed me to photograph her when we crossed paths in the Tropics trail aviary.

I’ve learned a lot about Ted Geisel in the days since these sculptures arrived. He married twice (the second time as a widower) but had no children; he started writing for publication in his thirties; his first book was rejected by 30 or 40 publishers. He was born the same year as my maternal grandfather (1904); that first book (“And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street”) was published the year of my dad’s birth (1937); he died on my mom’s birthday in 1991. And he pondered the delicate relationship between humans and the natural world, with delightful results.


Seuss on the loose at the zoo

When I grew old enough to babysit my five-years-younger brother, our go-to bedtime story was “One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish,” which I never tired of reading aloud to him. Ten years later, my ultimate college roommate had the book on her shelf, and we recited stretches of it in unison, from memory: “Look what we found in the park, in the dark. We will take him home. We will call him Clark…” Years later, I bought the book for my brother’s two kids. So I’m all excited about the Dr. Seuss traveling sculpture garden whose zoo visit officially starts tomorrow and runs through July 4. Equally charming are the four Seuss-themed cutout-art displays placed strategically around the zoo, especially this “One Fish” -themed display titled Animals on Parade:

The five bronze character statues include the Cat in the Hat on the zoo’s upper plaza and Sam I Am (of “Green Eggs and Ham” fame) on the Lakeside Terrace. I squeezed in time to visit them yesterday as my weekly zoo shift ended:

Joining Sam I Am (see him below) on the Central Plaza and Lakeside Terrace are Yertle the Turtle, the Lorax and the Grinch.

The first Seuss art I saw yesterday was this McElligot’s Pool cutout display by a shark-tank window in Discovery Bay:

I’d never heard of “McElligot’s Pool,” a very early Seuss book described in a review at as “a single poetic variation on the theme of adult skepticism that’s no match for childhood faith and daydreaming.” I really didn’t know that much about the author; this mini-biography of Theodor Seuss Geisel is a good quick read for others in the same boat.

The zoo is serving up Seuss story times, costumed characters and a scavenger hunt during the next several weeks. It will be sad to see the statues go in July, but that’s when the penguin exhibit opens and the permanent new excitement begins.

Water, glass & goofballs

Yesterday was Day 1 of the Minnesota educators’ annual four-day weekend, a Day 1 that always feels like a holiday at the zoo. Combine that with our baby dolphin’s third day of access to the show pool, and you’ve got a holiday on steroids. Off-duty teachers and their inquisitive kids filled the stadium and swarmed in Discovery Bay, and I spouted baby-dolphin facts until my voice started to fail: She’s three months old and four feet long; her grandma is the one with the tiny eyes and the notched dorsal fin; daddy Semo is gated alone in a smaller pool because he might be aggressive toward the baby; the contest to name her is under way on the zoo’s website and Facebook page. I glimpsed her twice as she swam briefly from the holding pool to the big, scary show pool, but there was no time to photograph her or anything else yesterday. Fortunately, she’s not the zoo’s only frolicking aquatic mammal, and I’ve been holding onto these goofier, furrier images until the time is right. I think it’s right now.

Whenever I stroll through Russia’s Grizzly Coast, this is what I hope to see: Kenai all wet and slightly awkward, fur billowing, in pursuit of trout and a good time. What I never expect to see on the Minnesota Trail (or anywhere else), and did see just once in late August, is this:

It’s a special treat to behold our beavers in the water (or out of it), and I’ll never know what got into this one, but he scrabbled at the glass while delighted boys pressed up close and laughed. Just that one time.

Walking the Northern Trail two weeks ago, I kept reminding myself that THIS surely must be my last gorgeous day of Autumn 2010 at the zoo, and I did my best to immortalize the color with my camera. (Little did I know that last Thursday and even yesterday, despite the increasing chill, would be beautiful too.)

Here’s a lone stallion grazing peacefully in the Asian wild horse exhibit, plus a view of rosy foliage (baby maple? overgrown sumac?) on the Lakeside Terrace. I have to skip the zoo next week, and by November the last trace of color will surely be gone. But it’s been the longest, most lovely October in recent Minnesota memory, and I shouldn’t mourn its passing too much.

Avian April

April is Farm Babies month at the zoo, but for those who don’t want to hike all the way out to the Family Farm on a weekday (trams run part of the way Friday through Sunday), we’ve got bunnies and chicks in the main building.

Besides a group of six-week-old New Zealand white rabbits (their inner ears rosily aglow), there’s this nice little mob of Rhode Island Red and Americauna chicks, which were mostly about two weeks old as of Thursday. (Zoo staff keep swapping out the big chicks and introducing younger ones, so that age range shouldn’t change much.) Kids were fascinated and the chicks reciprocated, rushing en masse to one side of their enclosure to inspect a little girl’s floppy pink hat, then to the other to check out a little boy’s green-frog finger ring. A couple of guests were concerned that one of the smaller chicks was getting picked on by the others (pecking order, anyone?), but by the time a staffer stopped by to assess the situation, all the fuzzy orbs were milling around randomly again.

Meanwhile out on the Central Plaza, the morning was rain-washed and smelled of worms, and two trumpeter swans were hanging out on the pond. Thanks in part to the zoo’s captive-breeding program, these guys are off the Minnesota endangered-species list, and my fellow volunteer Wally theorized that the one resting on land just flew in from the wild to take shelter here, given its lack of a visible zoo tag. Sneaking back outside after lunch, after the sky cleared and the worm-smell dissipated, I became obsessed with following the swan pictured at right (zoo tag not quite visible here) as it glided around the pond’s edges, dunking its head to eat aquatic plants with tail feathers pointed skyward and, for one spectacular moment, stretching upward to show off its 7-foot wingspan. Both swans were shy about showing me their faces, but I was just happy to see them gracefully situated in a shallow, sheltered body of water so nicely tailored to their needs.