From China, with cuteness

In recent months, the zoo has welcomed a small batch of unusual warm-blooded fur-babies, including a binturong, or bearcat, not yet on exhibit and a tapir, now nine months old and looking like a smaller, feistier adult. But the latest one, a takin born Feb. 4, is the current show-stopper, especially since she went on public view after just three weeks and likes to do cute things like scamper around the exhibit, attempt to mountain-climb her dad’s belly while he’s trying to nap, and nuzzle her mom’s face.

takin calf nuzzling mom

The second time I saw her, last week, she was more than a month old and cavorting in a light snowfall (and yes, as we see here, nuzzling). Sichuan takins — it’s pronounced TAH-kin — are related to the mountain goat and musk ox. Adults weigh about 600 pounds on average. This little one’s name, I learned at last weekend’s volunteer update seminar, is Bing Leng, which fits the species’ Chinese heritage. Sichuan takins, the most common variety in zoos, hail from the country’s forested mountains. Like the giant panda, takins have been declared a national treasure worthy of protection in China, and the two species share an overlapping habitat in the wild. As large animals that live in herds at high elevations, they have few predators, but hunting and habitat loss mean they’re classified as threatened — a step down from endangered. In human care, they can live up to 20 years.

takin trio and trees

Bing Leng has been exploring the exhibit, and testing her climbing skills, under the supervision of her parents and a fourth, female takin named Mu Shi, who’s -a 3-year-old recent arrival from San Diego with breeding prospects of her own. Bing Leng’s transformation will continue as her hair lightens in the next few weeks and she starts sprouting horns at six months. As spring arrives on the Northern Trail, it will be increasingly fun to watch.





Fur-baby explosion

I’ve spent nearly a month of this summer away from the zoo, and what did I miss? Babies, mostly — home-grown Minnesota fur-babies, either born on site (lynx kittens) or rescued from the wild (moose calves). There’s a healthy batch of both: four kittens and six moose orphans that came our way via the DNR. Here are a couple of the kittens, who only recently started venturing into the exhibit (so maybe I didn’t miss that much after all). With all the high-speed scampering, getting all four and their mom in the same frame was out of the question. To see a previous generation of our lynx kittens attempting to navigate trees when they were a bit older than this, I refer you to my post from two birth cycles ago, An Epic Feline Frolic.

Minnesota Zoo lynx kitten in stream

lynx kittens and logs

The new lynx and moose are all somewhat more than three months old now, in late August, although the moose calves were born in separate batches over a period of nearly three weeks. Those calves have begun rotating in pairs through the outdoor exhibit, learning to nibble leaves from branches as they’re gradually weaned off bottle-feeding.

Minnesota Zoo moose calves

Northern Trail supervisor Diana, in the exhibit with the calves below, said this pair weighed about 180 pounds when I took these photos in early August. They’re coming along nicely since their discovery by DNR researchers as part of an ongoing study about declining moose populations in northeastern Minnesota.

moose calves and Diana

Minnesota Zoo moose artifactsA new volunteer feature this summer, besides our outdoor Big Bugs exhibit and the Conservation Carousel you walk by en route to Big Bugs, is the  “conservation cart” by the carousel. Inside, along with all the information about bees and other pollinators (a topic for another post) are moose “bench talk” artifacts: a section of antler rack, a piece of pelt, a jar of the “moose chow” that supplements the leaves and twigs in a zoo moose’s diet. My favorite moment so far with the antlers followed a question like the ones I explored in my previous post: “How did the moose die?” This gave me the perfect opening to talk about the temporary nature of antlers (shed naturally every December) compared with the more permanent nature of horns, and the lack of antlers in most deer species’ females (except caribou), and how antler growth is a response to hormone levels, which react to seasons and their varying hours of daylight. Moose are struggling in Minnesota, the southern tip of their geographic range, but nothing gives you hope for a species’ future like a big batch of thriving babies.

Rattles and rosettes

Week before last, when it was finally warm enough to walk the Northern Trail and enjoy it, I was just passing the Amur leopard exhibit when a school group came running and squealing “Cheetah! CHEE-TAH!” I just had to turn back and gently clear things up (“That’s actually a leopard, and his name is Chobby!”) One thing you learn as a zoo volunteer who’s not a biologist, though, is to anticipate the likely follow-up question to any statement and make sure you can answer it, and I left the exhibit thinking, “Good thing none of them asked me how to tell the difference. Better look that up.”

leopard mom and kitten This is our leopard Polina and one of her cubs (now full-grown and living at another zoo in hopes of making still MORE cubs, since their species is nearly extinct in the wild). As I learned from The Wildcat Sanctuary  (whose website features types of wild cats I’d never even heard of) and Tiger Tribe, cheetahs have a different shape, befitting their status as the world’s fastest land mammal. About 30 pounds lighter than leopards on average, cheetahs are greyhound-shaped, with long legs, deep chests, narrow flanks, small heads and more doglike snouts compared with the classic “cat shape” of the leopard. And the cheetah’s spots are basically just polka-dots, while leopards have rosettes, or elaborate blotches that may or may not have spots at their center.

banana leafThe zoo is mainly about animals, yes, but March and early April brought reminders that it’s also about plants. We’ve spent recent weeks talking about them at the Tropics trailhead, the site of January’s bird talks and February’s frog talks. We had a variety of options and artifacts, but my two favorites were bananas and coconuts. (Other volunteers focused on orchids or bamboo. All four can be found along the Tropics trail.) Someone made this lovely fabric banana leaf, which isn’t even as large as some of the real ones can get — up to 9 feet long and 2 feet wide. I have learned to stop saying “banana tree” — bananas grow on plants, which despite the huge leaves do not have woody trunks. Tropics dwellers cooking over open fires may wrap their food in banana leaves, making them “nature’s aluminum foil.”

shark rattleMy second-favorite plant artifact: the shark rattle. It’s made of coconut shells, and Pacific Islander fishermen use it to attract sharks: Dangle one over the side of a boat, shake it, and wait for the vibrations to mimic a school of fish (at least in the shark’s mind). Kids like to take it and shake it themselves. Then I tell them to look for the coconut palm across from the top of the tropical reef. If I can use an artifact to make a guest see a familiar object in a new way, or notice a feature of the zoo they’d otherwise pass without a glance, then I’ve achieved one of my main goals as a volunteer.


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  past years’ ornaments, too — a nice way to bring the zoo into my house as the days grow short and the year winds down.

“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.

Exotic calves

At last week’s giraffe feeding, during a lull, the lad selling crackers wondered aloud, “Do the other animals feel like they’re being ignored?” He meant the five other African species sharing the same exhibit: ostriches, guineafowl, wildebeests and two species of antelope. The first kind, bongo, have gotten at least some attention by having a couple of calves last month. And bongo babies, it must be said, are extremely cute.  Just look at the size of those ears!

bongo mom and baby

Bongos are a nocturnal, shade-seeking, mud-wallowing antelope formerly widespread in Africa but threatened by deforestation in their native habitat. Their tongues are said to be long and mobile for leaf-plucking purposes, much like the giraffe’s. Their pregnancies are a couple weeks longer than humans’. They don’t get giraffe-level attention, it’s true, but intrigued guests often ask what they are.

addax herd

The most frequent question I get while hanging out at Africa — “What are those white ones?” — points to our other antelope species, the addax. Like the wildebeests, they seem to stay just out of easy photographic range. Unlike the bongo, they’re desert dwellers, but with similarly striking horns that spiral up to 3 feet high. They have no calves at the moment, though — which brings us to the recent triumph on the Tropics trail.

tapir parents

From this picture of Bertie and Jon-hi, can there be any doubt that together they’d make the zoo’s first tapir calf in 20 years? At 419 days (why, yes, that’s well over a year), a tapir gestation makes human and bongo pregnancies seem like nothing at all. The currently week-old calf is not on exhibit, so I haven’t seen her in person yet; she needs to get better at nursing and swimming, since this exhibit has a pool. In the meantime, though, Zooborns posted her photo, and you can see her on our zoo’s tapir cam until  she’s ready to brave the exhibit. I’m sure we all agree that day can’t come soon enough!

Reticulated splendor

Hello there! After way too many weeks, I’m back– and so are the giraffes, after several years away at their year-round home in Madison, Wis.

Sweta and Zawadi

That’s Sweta, at left, and Zawadi avidly accepting box elder leaves from two zookeepers Thursday morning. These two reticulated giraffes are 12- and 11-year-old brothers, respectively. (There are about nine  giraffe subspecies; “reticulated” refers to the white netlike stripe pattern.) Sweta and Zawadi are just part of our summer Africa exhibit, but they’re the part on which I’ve been fixated this month — especially since I learned that an Ohio zoo is set to acquire them, and this will be their last occasional summer in Minnesota.

Zawadi giraffe tongue

So until Labor Day, I will treasure my half-hour shifts at the rope line, helping visitors exit the feeding station and watching their astonishment at the length and color of a giraffe’s tongue flicking toward the crackers available for giraffe-feeding purchase. These tongues are a foot and a half long, roughly textured and flexible enough to strip leaves from branches. As a keeper pointed out last week, the tongues are dark to avoid sunburn, since in Africa, the giraffes spend most of their day browsing, their tongues outstretched and exposed to the light. In Africa, they browse acacia trees, which are full of ants. Thanks to extra-thick eyelashes and nostrils that close, giraffes can deal with this, though the ants do deter them from stripping a tree entirely bare. Their faces are extra-sensitive, though — zoo guests are counseled not to touch them, because a giraffe’s sudden head-swing can be overly dramatic and a giraffe’s sudden retreat would be disappointing.

Zawadi with baby

Still, Sweta and Zawadi seem to like people — Zawadi, the giraffe in both photos above, alternates between swooping his six- or seven-foot-long neck down to sniff a human feeder and lifting it high to peer at the more distant crowd. Quite a few toddlers recoiled in shock from the massive tongue, dropping their crackers, but this baby seemed unfazed.

giraffe luringI’ve been back volunteering — and stopping by the giraffe station — for the past three weeks, but like my return to blogging, the giraffes’ return to the feeding station just seemed to take awhile. Twice a day — usually around 10 and 2 –staffers arrive with branches, wait for Sweta and Zawadi to stroll over, and feed them (and help visitors who buy crackers feed them) until the giraffes get full or otherwise lose interest and stroll away again. Three weeks ago, I spent nearly half an hour watching the giraffes refuse to be lured until a couple of keepers took their branches down into the exhibit and gradually got some traction that way. The giraffes’ likely excuse was the month of torrential rain that made them more comfortable in or near their holding barn; I really have no such excuse. But now that we’re all finally back, browsing and blogging — and I know that their time with the zoo, unlike mine, has a definite end date — I appreciate them all the more.

The cruelest month?

April always brings hordes of people to the zoo —  last Sunday, just a week ago, more than 7,000 stopped by. Each year they come to see the family farm, newly reopened for the season, with its fresh crop of spring babies (the piglets are my favorite). They come in the form of school groups or families finishing up their spring vacations. The zoo is so crowded in these last two months of the school year, it can be challenging to take a step or hear a word. On Thursday morning, though, the zoo was practically empty as a winter storm struck the Twin Cities. By noon, 75 guests had shown up — one person for every hundred in attendance four days earlier. It was eerie and, to me, wonderful.

snowy Northern TrailHere’s the Northern Trail around 10 a.m. Thursday. The roads were a chaotic mess out there in the real world, but in here, alone and on foot, I was enveloped by silent order and snowy peace.

snowy tiger girlsI must have been the day’s first passerby at the Tiger Lair. The cubs — or at 10 months, they’re practically young ladies now — seemed surprised to see me, or anyone.

snowy zoo moose

snowy zoo robinThe lone moose on exhibit appeared to be slurping a slushy from a tree branch, and robins were hopping about as if the landscape wasn’t a version of frozen tundra. A fellow volunteer told me later that at least one robin has been occupying the stretch between the Tiger Lair and the Central Plaza all winter. That’s where I saw this one as I headed out and again after doubling back. He was quite shy, and it took a good 20 attempts to capture him in my frame.

Back inside,  the Tropical Reef was a warmer oasis of quiet, though I had the company of several volunteers and three aquarists there.

zebra shark pair

One aquarist, Diver Dan, kept peeking around the corner to see if he should put on his gear and do the 10:30 dive show. In 30 minutes, just one woman and her toddler came by, so the dive show didn’t happen — the fish were fed from above. We volunteers pretended to insist he should go in there just for us, and Dan pretended to demand $20 in payment for doing so. Meanwhile, we admired the new male zebra shark — the lighter one on the right — that has recently joined the female. Could there be shark pups soon?

zebra sharks cuddling?Can sharks cuddle? Is that what’s happening here? I’m not sure I want to think about it. One thing I noticed about the new male shark: his tiny blue eye. Another thing I learned about our female: Not only is she eyeless, but she was likely born that way; she was wild-caught from the ocean, so nobody’s sure.

upside-down zebra sharkNobody’s quite sure what this upside-down business is all about, either, or at least I’m not. She was swimming with vigor before and after striking this pose. It reminded me of my dog demanding a belly-rub.

Mini Satin rabbitI finished my zoo-day an hour early; because of the weather, the volunteers were free to go after lunch. My last gig was at the chicks-and-bunnies station, holding this Mini Satin rabbit for kids to touch. Bunny handling makes me nervous, because the bunnies themselves are often very nervous; we take care not to handle them too much, or let the kids touch them TOO much, and you always have to strike a balance between letting one escape and squeezing its delicate little bones too hard. This bunny, however, was a portrait of calm, and holding him or her for about 20 minutes was a total delight. The few children who stopped by were gentle and obedient when told to stroke the bunny with just a couple of fingers, one child at at time, only on the back (the ears are such a tempting target!). After the bunny, and after lunch, I left for my “real” job feeling as satisfied as if I’d spent an entire day among the animals. The relentless grip of winter is driving Minnesota crazy right now, but for one morning in zoo-land,  it provided a comforting retreat.

Social climber

So here’s a pop quiz, or perhaps a trick question: Can dogs climb trees?

Asian wild dog in treeA week ago, I went to an all-day seminar for zoo volunteers. In her part of the presentation, Northern Trail supervisor Diana Weinhardt told us several, or perhaps all seven, of the zoo’s Asian wild dogs — a highly social species also known as dholes — have been climbing a tree in their exhibit. We knew she wouldn’t lie to us, but I envisioned something short and shrubby. Thursday was finally warm enough to make the half-hour Northern Trail hike tolerable, and in the dhole-viewing gazebo, I gazed fondly at a pile of five napping Asian wild dogs before lifting my eyes and jumping half out of my skin. I mean, this tree is really pretty tall, is it not? The dhole looks as if it were photoshopped up there, but I swear it wasn’t.

Asian wild dog face in tree

My online exploration of canine tree-climbing led me to this excellent website on canids, which mentions more species of wild dog than I’d previously heard of and divides them into doglike vs. foxlike canids. There’s general agreement that only the gray fox, thanks to its curvy claws, can climb trees. But dholes, while their redness makes them look very foxlike, fall into the doglike category with wolves. Scientifically they have their own genus, Cuon. The preceding website says they’re so agile that they can pee while doing a handstand on their forelegs (not sure why they’d enjoy that). My zoo lit describes them as excellent jumpers, able to cover 10 feet in a single leap and 2o feet with a running start. Those two facts explain how the dhole got up in this tree, with its many thick, level branches, but I still wanted to see how he got down. And it took only another 10 minutes or so for that to happen.

Asian wild dog descendingThe dhole made a cautious, clumsy descent, paw-testing each branch to see if it would support about 40 pounds of dog-weight and glancing frequently at the service road behind the exhibit. (The tree made an excellent lookout post for passing vehicles, and the dhole was fascinated by one when I first saw him.) The process didn’t look like one that would necessarily end well, and I felt a little worried. But he wasn’t much lower than this when he made his graceful leap to the ground, landing as lightly and securely as an Olympic figure skater after a basic lutz jump. I resisted the urge to applaud before I moved on.

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