Weekend update, with zookeepers

A couple of years had passed since my last all-day volunteer update at the zoo, a situation remedied Saturday. Seventy volunteers emerged at 4 p.m. from the new blue Ocean Classroom into a suddenly snowy wonderland, our minds packed with a fresh arsenal of animal facts shared by a series of funny, articulate zookeepers. I’ll share as many fun facts as I can in the weeks ahead. But one revelation seemed especially time-sensitive: The Detroit Boys are splitting up.

Here are brothers Molniy and Vaska, previously of Detroit, in warmer times. It seems Vaska soon will be heading to Glen Oak Zoo in Peoria, Ill., to make way for two new female tigers. Elderly male tiger Sergei will be matched up with Anya, our young but procreation-challenged tiger, for companionship and optional cubs. Molniy will presumably get his pick of the new girls. My husband, who took some Russian classes in college and had tiger-stripe handlebars on a boyhood bike, claims Molniy is his favorite of the pair because “Molniya” means “lightning bolt.” I can’t always tell them apart, but this exceptionally handsome fellow snoozing below is one of them, as seen by me about a year ago. (And yes, there’s a window between us.)

Speaking of windows, the Ocean Classroom, a new addition last summer, was a charming but distracting place to learn about the Detroit Boys and everything else that’s new at the zoo. The new blue room, also used for children’s classes and certain meetings, sits across from the volunteer lounge in a corridor behind the penguin exhibit, also new last summer. The room’s curved penguin-viewing window offered an almost-continuous view of one to five birds as they slipped away from the public viewing area to see what all the talking and laughing and PowerPoint slides were about. I scored a seat with two other Thursday volunteers within 20 feet of the window. This nonThursday volunteer was one of several to approach during break time and beckon the birds.

Various penguins came and went from their Ocean Classroom mini-exhibit, swimming through this narrow passageway to rejoin the larger gang visible to zoo guests. We have about 30 penguins in all, including the dozen from Minot, N.D., who are camping out here while their flooded facility is repaired. Jimmy Pichner, the zoo’s always-entertaining bird guru, says the Minot birds might be with us for as long as a year, and that their keepers can usually tell one bird from another by their color pattern and personality. Of the birds who swam to our window, I noticed that one seemed a little hyperactive, while another pair seemed extremely interested in the series of zookeeper presentations.

Doesn’t this look like an impressionist’s painting of a penguin? (That’s what I keep telling myself as I figure out how to adapt my camera settings to the reflected light and constant movement swirling within this exhibit.) This is the penguin most fascinated by the zookeepers. Each time a new staffer’s voice came through the microphone and the lights went down so we could see the slides, this penguin came to a floating, bobbing halt, beak pointed toward the presenter. Sometimes his mate joined his side and gazed into the classroom, too. For the penguins’ sake as well as my own, I was relieved that the window’s curtain wasn’t drawn — a measure that can be taken, I suppose, when children in the classroom need to focus on the teacher. Yesterday, the zookeepers had some stiff competition for volunteers’ attention. Fortunately, though not quite as cute as the penguins, the keepers were even more interesting.

Black and white mischief

Who knew African penguins loved the taste of caulk? Not I, or not until last week, when I arrived at the zoo to find their exhibit briefly closed. The penguins had been diving down to strip away the pale goo that helps bind the front pane of glass to the rest of their exhibit.

By midday, as I passed by on my way to lunch, the exhibit had been repaired and reopened, with a fresh layer of fast-drying concrete to shield the new caulk from wayward beaks. During lunch in our lounge, volunteer coordinator Heidi — always a gold mine of animal information —  explained that consumption and digestion did little to alter the whitish goo, which meant some of it got reconsumed (eww!). The penguins were unharmed by their new short-term snack, but taking it off the table was obviously best for all concerned. Heidi also mentioned the penguins’ fascination with shiny objects, including zookeepers’ keys. One crouching keeper got a ring snatched off her belt at feeding time; a penguin dived to the bottom of the seven-foot pool with its metallic toy, which zoo staff promptly retrieved.

A different species of silliness was going on along the Minnesota Trail, where high in a tree, a chittering squirrel was taunting our silvery she-wolf. Once again, she cast off her aura of wild mystery and reminded me of my dog, gazing up into the branches with a slack, quivering lower jaw, then leaping to stretch her forepaws up past the lowest branch, a good five or six feet off the ground — all in vain. Watching alongside me, a guest said she was reminded of her husky at home.

The early days of a new school year always bring a welcome breath of quiet to the zoo. With summer crowds dissolving, I could take some decent underwater penguin photos without fear of blocking anyone’s view. Oddly, guests seem to approach volunteers with more questions after the crowds thin out; I answered at least half a dozen in four hours on Thursday. On autumn weekdays, zoogoers are no longer swept along in a crush of humanity; they have the physical and psychic space to pause, ponder, wonder, inquire. And if animals decide to act silly, then everyone gets a front-row view.

Penguins and people

My father-in-law likes to say he took his family to the zoo so the animals could see his kids. I remembered that yesterday at our new exhibit: The penguins went public just a few days ago, and they seem to find their human spectators riveting.

A few were in the water; most were on the rocks. This pair totally cracked me up. The exhibit was mobbed for most of the day, with kids clambering on boulders and smudging the glass to go nose-to-beak with the birds. But around noon, a sudden lull made it possible for ME to climb up there and do that.

The few swimmers were no less intrigued. Children massed at the viewing window, giggling and dancing and grabbing at the glass as penguins swept past, so much more graceful underwater than on land. Black-and-white heads swiveled; beaks pointed inquisitively toward the excited crowd. A little girl’s fingers brushed the patch of glass near a penguin’s passing flipper, as if to shake hands. A slightly larger girl jumped up and down several times, exclaiming “Cute!” each time she landed.  I still haven’t heard the “jackass”-style braying we were told to expect, but I’m sure that mating call will come once they settle in.










Lucky for me, I was scheduled for a half-hour at the new penguin interpretation booth, which you see above. It’s stationed by one of the exhibit’s two entrances and stocked with “artifacts” — a king penguin egg (much larger than any an African penguin would lay); a jar of tiny square feathers and a tupperware of long, slender black-and-white chicken feathers for comparison; a folding ruler to show the height of varying penguin species; and containers of sardines, a nutritious dietary staple. Eager though visitors were to go in and see the real thing, quite a few stopped to hear snippets from our fact sheets and play with the giant egg. My one unmet goal for the day was to photograph a swimming penguin without visual obstruction or blur — maybe after the crowds get a bit thinner. And that could take awhile.

Psyched for penguins

Now that the zoo can stay open despite a government shutdown, I can let myself get excited about African penguins! The new exhibit opens to the public Saturday, and all volunteers completed an hourlong shift of “penguin training” on their regularly scheduled day last month. An hour before the zoo opened for the day, we gathered in our new lounge, in a recently constructed wing that includes the zoo’s new entrance and the penguins’ holding area. We saw a few birds in holding, but most of the 18 were already on exhibit — a seven-foot-deep pool with a backdrop of boulders (much like our sea-otter exhibit) on the site of our old indoor theater. It was hard to take many photos while a zookeeper showered us with fun facts, so I’m indebted to fellow volunteer Sue Weaver for catching and sharing this view:

These are not the flightless waterfowl we remember from “March of the Penguins.” Those were emperor penguins, largest of the 17 species, as big as a human kindergartner and native to icy Antarctica. These are midsized penguins, standing about two feet tall and weighing five to nine pounds, and native to the southwestern tip of coastal Africa. It took my mind awhile to reconcile warmer weather with penguins, but it turns out they’re all over the Southern Hemisphere. Our exhibit is modeled after the Boulders Beach tourist area near Cape Town, South Africa, where a mating pair arrived in 1985 and spawned a colony now exceeding 2,000 birds. Still an endangered species, they’re rebounding after a 50-year, 80 percent plunge in population that started in the early 20th century. Their colonies are no longer raided for eggs or fertilizer (who knew penguin droppings could be useful to humans?), but fisheries and oil spills still affect their access to food and clean water.

During my few precious minutes at the exhibit, I didn’t hear any of the donkeylike mating-call “braying” that gives these birds the nickname “jackass penguins” — just an occasional low-pitched trilling vocalization as they massed on the boulders or swam past us behind glass. Back in the volunteer lounge, we watched a video about the new “artifacts” available for volunteers to discuss at the penguin interpretation booth. I’m sure my favorite will be the glass-encased feather, which we all got a chance to examine and pass around. Feathers on a penguin are like shingles on a roof: surprisingly small and rigid, overlapping each other for maximum protection, with about 70 feathers per square inch. About once a year — in the wild, around mating season — all the feathers are shed in a dramatic multi-week molt, replaced by tougher new feathers, while the penguin stays on land, looking scruffy and fasting. This will play out a little differently in captivity, and I can’t wait to watch it, photograph it, talk about it, write more about it. Soon.