Amur babies: spots and stripes

I went to an all-day volunteer update seminar a week ago, and my mind is still overflowing with new animal facts. In weeks to come I’ll share the countless things I learned, starting with this: The four-month-old Amur leopard cubs, who went on exhibit last month, have embraced their zookeeper training sessions. During her Northern Trail/Grizzly Coast portion of the all-day update, Northern Trail supervisor Diana Weinhardt told us they’re learning to “sit” and take meat off a stick on command. On exhibit, they just like to play.

They’re a brother and sister, and you can tell them apart from the distinct V-shaped pattern of spots on the male’s forehead. He also seems more inclined to pose, at least for me on my two treks out there so far. Here he is with mom Polina, whom keepers call “Lina” (Lena). Diana describes her as a “stellar mom,” and she does seem to radiate maternal pride and contentment, as much as a leopard can:

While mother and cubs occupy this central “maternity” viewing area, the cubs’ dad, Chobby, has been staying in a separate area to the viewer’s left, while his future paramour Okha (pronounced Oxxa) still prefers her hangout in a treetop to the right. Female Amur leopards are in heat for only one week a year, in January or February,  so everyone hopes Okha ventures down this winter.

Meanwhile, the zoo’s Tiger Cam has gone offline since those two Amur cubs went into the tiger “holding” barn where the four adults (parents Molniy and Angara, along with female tigers Anya and Whirl) spend their nights. Yesterday, the cubs went on exhibit at the Tiger Lair on the Northern Trail. The cub who’s Molniy’s offspring will be his last, I learned at last week’s update. Since Molniy’s brother Vaska just sired four cubs at the Peoria Zoo, the “Detroit Boys” are both so “well represented” genetically — so many of their relatives are running around — that the Species Survival Plan for tigers wants to take those genes out of the pool, so to speak.

Here’s Vaska’s mate Kyra with her offspring in Illinois — thanks to my aunt Jeanette Kosier, a skilled photographer and Peoria resident, for sending me these! Despite being a first-time mom of four, Kyra embraced the mothering process at once. The Peoria Zoo has video of the cubs, including their birth.

I get to see our tiger cubs on exhibit tomorrow. (The zoo has them blogging about it, with a little typing assistance from Diana.) I expect the frolicking to be intense.

Letting off steam

This springtime has had its full share of rainy Thursdays. A few weeks ago, the zoo had a precautionary evacuation during a severe thunderstorm warning– which meant everyone came inside, not the reverse. On my latest zoo day, just over two weeks ago, I emerged from my car beneath a sheltering umbrella and gasped at the sheer number of school buses in the parking lot. The very thought of 3,000 schoolkids packed within zoo walls gave me pause. Knowing that only 1,600 people can squeeze into our twice-daily dolphin trainings (stadium capacity = 800) made me pause longer, since volunteers are responsible for crowd control and gate-closing up there. But as the rain slackened, intensified and then let up again throughout the day, quite a few brave souls ventured outside, relieving pressure on the inside.

After surviving the jam-packed noon dolphin show, and then decompressing over lunch, I went out to Grizzly Coast, where the cavelike bear and otter exhibits have overhead protection. The rain had lightened to a pleasing downward mist. The steam vents were steaming like crazy, and a woman stopped me by this one, midway between bear and otter, to ask why the bears liked them so much. I hadn’t yet reached the place where Haines the grizzly stood with his nose pointed into another billowing steam vent, but I explained that they’re just a geologic feature of Russia’s Far East, where the giant grizzlies happen to live. I also theorized that because the heavy rains had made the steam so much more dramatic, the bears were simply intrigued by this change in their environment.

Here’s a steam vent — the same one, I’m pretty sure — on a more placid day last summer. They’re a common sight on Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula, which our zoo lit describes as “Yellowstone National Park times 100.” Steam vents, or fumaroles, form where there’s a lot of damp, unsettled heat in the Earth’s crust. (The Minnesota Zoo, of course, created its own.) When covered by a thick layer of mud, the steam vent appears as a mud pot. Along with the steam vents, mud pots, geysers and (much smaller) grizzlies that Yellowstone also has, Kamchatka is studded with volcanoes, 29 of them still active. Zoo lit tells me the grizzlies don’t fear volcanic eruptions — like other animals, they can sense a disturbance coming in time to get out of its way — and sometimes bathe in the area’s sulfurous hot springs.

By the time I made it to the bears, to investigate Haines’ fascination with his steam vent, the rain was picking up again. I turned back to the main building, still packed with kids, and re-entered the fray just in time to avoid getting totally soaked.

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.

Sadie and the boys

I got to walk the Northern Trail yesterday under balmy conditions: my head comfortably bare, the sunshine slipping flirtatiously in and out from behind its cover of cloud. But I never expected to see the bears up and about. They spend most of the winter asleep in a furry pile, mimicking the deeper dormancy they’d experience in the wild. And year-round, they’re usually napping at noon. But heading into Grizzly Coat around 12:15, I was delighted to see Haines and Kenai wrassling in the pool, just like the old days. That’s usually the best thing you see at the bear exhibit, but yesterday it got even better.

Sadie, our lone girl bear, likes to stay dry; I’ve seen her in the pool just twice, on beastly hot summer days. Various outdated human female stereotypes apply to her: She’s shy and retiring and doesn’t like to roughhouse; unlike the boys, she doesn’t like to step on the scale, even though she weighed in last time at a svelte 530 pounds, or 300 pounds lighter than Haines. Here she’s pondering a dip, or just hoping Kenai chases a fish her way so she can catch it from land (fellow volunteers tell me this has happened before). Some human boys came by and started egging her on — “Go on, go in!” — but to no avail.

She didn’t obey them, but she bonded with them anyway. The fascination seemed mutual. When I told them she was a girl bear, one of the boys stroked the glass that divided him from her fur and murmured, “Good girl.”

Lots of human-to-human bonding happens at the bear exhibit, too.  Yesterday I got to talking with Jen, a visitor from Rhode Island who twice spoke the zoo-related words that warm volunteers’ hearts: “You have such a beautiful facility here!” Not only was she in town applying for an education job, but she had worked at the Alaska Sealife Center several years ago when our Grizzly Coast sea otter Capers was staying there as a newly rescued pup. I wished her luck in getting the job and hoped that if she did, she would join the volunteer ranks on weekends. There’s always room for another enthusiast.

Chobby makes his move

It’s been two years since I’ve written here about Chobby, the male Amur leopard from the Czech Republic who had just joined two females in Grizzly Coast as a potential kitty daddy for his nearly extinct species. It’s been all quiet on the Chobby front since then, until he recently shifted into closer proximity to fellow leopard Polina. Murmurings since then suggested that Chobby was not entirely motivated on the reproduction front. In his defense, female Amur leopards spend only a week in heat each year, in January or February. For Polina, that week was this week, and starting Tuesday, Chobby figured it out.

Yesterday was Day 3 of frequent brief breeding episodes, as I learned over lunch in the volunteer lounge. Hurrying out to the exhibit, I passed fellow volunteer Bob, who said he’d just witnessed three quick encounters. A few minutes after arriving, I witnessed another. I discreetly confined my photos to “before” and “after” for reasons both obvious and complex (I was the lone human at the window just then, and leopards surely have no sense of intimate privacy, and it’s all just part of nature, and yet…).  As anyone who’s seen cats mating can guess, this “immediately before” shot implies a tenderness that simply wasn’t there. About 10 seconds later, Chobby bared his teeth on Polina’s neck with a loud snarling growl, then stepped off and strutted away.

Here he is afterward at the smudged reflective window, looking mighty reflective himself. If this week’s activity pays off, Polina could give birth to 1 to 6 kittens after three months of gestation. It’s far too soon to know whether this will occur, of course.

While zoo felines were mating, two species of zoo canines were getting acquainted with future intended paramours during their own breeding season. Two male dholes from Sweden joined the females in the new Asian wild dog exhibit yesterday; one male trotted along the fence line with the two girls, approaching and retreating and, just once in my sight, flashing a momentary snarl. (Visually, the scene differed little from the photos in my previous post.) On the Minnesota Trail, a dark new male gray wolf from Canada joined our silvery female at the very back of their exhibit; through concealing trees, I caught glimpses of their contrasting fur as they circled and sniffed and frolicked a little. It was a day of record January warmth in some parts of Minnesota, and on these two zoo trails, the air felt warm with the possible promise of pups and cubs. But only time will tell.

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.

The shutdown and the “great good place”

Well, it happened. Minnesota’s governor and Legislature deadlocked over the state budget, time officially ran out at midnight, a government shutdown has taken effect, and I’m looking back at my partial day spent at the zoo yesterday — its last day open until further notice — without knowing when I’ll be allowed to go back. (A happy update: Two days later, a judge has ruled that the zoo may reopen right away, Sunday morning. Although it’s a state agency, 70 percent of its revenue comes from private sources like admissions and donations — enough to keep it afloat during the peak season.) A few core staffers were on the job during the two days of closure to care for the animals and keep the facility secure.

Being there on the last day pre-shutdown felt odd for another reason: It was about 50 degrees warmer than last Thursday, when temps hovered in the mid-50s and I shivered at the upper information booth with a zoo jacket buttoned up to my throat. But even in yesterday’s suffocating heat and humidity, I managed to spend an hour out at Grizzly Coast without melting, and here’s some of the cuteness I witnessed.

Volunteers are pretty sure this is Jasper, who likes to show off at the sea-otter viewing window (there’s some minor aggression among the three males, so we haven’t been seeing them all out together). Fellow volunteer Darlene and I ventured out into nature’s furnace after lunch; she bravely continued onward along the Northern Trail, while I settled into this shady cave and brought out the super-soft otter pelt for guests to touch. The hand in this photo belongs to fellow volunteer Ruth, who came along in time for an otter-training-and-enrichment session conducted by zookeepers. By then, I was ready to re-enter the wonderful world of air conditioning. But the bears were SO CLOSE, and so I wandered a little farther with Ruth instead, half-hoping to see something like this.

Sadie, the grizzly on the left, is our lone girl bear. I’ve seen her in the pool just once or twice in the three years she’s lived here, and I’ve never seen her roughhousing. But yesterday the heat drew her into the water, and it was a joy to watch her splashing around with Haines. Despite the fearsome fang near her eye at right, he seemed to play with Sadie so much more gently than he does with fellow boy bear Kenai.

I’ve been a little emotional about this shutdown; the political party-line divisions are scarily deep, and my husband (a state employee, but not for the zoo) is on indefinite layoff until this gets resolved. The threat of closure gave me a chance to ponder what makes the zoo so special to me; I love animals, of course, but my feelings for other zoos and aquariums are much more superficial. I thought of the zoo the first time I read about “third places” — happy hangouts and gathering spots beyond homes or workplaces, a concept explored in “The Great Good Place” by Ray Oldenburg. Volunteers have a unique relationship with the zoo as a third place: Unlike visitors and employees, we sidestep the issues of payment and necessity. Although we commit to 16 or 32 hours a month, give or take, on a particular day of the week, we can also pop in anytime, and although we follow a schedule on our chosen day, we range widely across the zoo, sampling everything in half-hour increments, conversing freely, bonding with guests and other volunteers, untethered from the worries and stresses that come with even the best “real” paying job (like the one I have the rest of the week). So while the government shutdown wears on, it’s good to know my favorite third place is still available to me.

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