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.

Pelted with questions

Every year, I forget that May is a crazy whirlwind of school groups at the zoo — and every year, I’m reminded. Volunteers are encouraged to stroll or sit with animal pelts, or skins, year-round, and for families who visit the zoo often, those skins are a familiar sight. But last month also reminded me that for the many children from families that don’t visit the zoo — or hunt, for that matter — they’re a disorienting  sight that demands context. So the questions come pouring out, repeatedly, in high-pitched voices: “Is it dead?” “Did you kill that?” And sometimes, softly, “Oh, sad.”

Sharon Bob puma lynx

That’s when fellow volunteers like Sharon and Tom (seen here with the lynx and puma pelt, respectively) jump in with the context: We never kill an animal for its pelt at the zoo. For the highly endangered sea otter, for instance, it’s not just “sad” but illegal to do so. But in previous centuries, in a world without retail stores, the ability to hunt wasn’t recreational: It kept humans from freezing as well as starving. (A standout phrase from our bison “bench talk” is “SuperTarget of the Great Plains” — Native Americans used every part of the animal as food, shelter or tool.)

Our zoo pelts come from animals who died of natural causes; many come via the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, a partner in lots of zoo projects. Death is sad but also natural, and the pelts give us a chance to talk about varying lifespans, special adaptations (the lynx, my favorite pelt, has big furry feet for pursuing its prey, the snowshoe hare, across snowdrifts) and the animal’s native climate. It’s also a chance for the animal to “live on” and a chance for kids to “pet” a wild animal they would never touch otherwise. The hair or fur often feels rougher or softer than you’d expect just from looking. And my momentary discomfort at a high-pitched “Did you kill that?” (I can’t begin to imagine killing an animal) reminds me that the squealed question is just another opportunity to educate.

Obsessed with owls

owl salt-and-pepper shakersThey’ve been taking up long-term residence in my subconscious and my Facebook feed for the past couple of months; I’ve been holding the door partway closed because that’s my knee-jerk response to popular things. But once I decide there’s a good reason for the popularity — in this case, gorgeousness blending with oddness and a hint of mystery — I tend to succumb. I bought these owl-shaped salt-and-pepper shakers. I started following The Owl Pages on Facebook, where at least a couple of striking new owl photos get delivered to my eyes each day. (The Owl Pages website breaks down owls by subspecies.) Then the zoo’s education department and volunteer corps, in its continuing “animal per month” interpretation focus, declared January to be “for the birds.” Technically, owls are raptors, with their talons and their sharp hooked beaks, but they’re frequent players in the zoo’s bird show, and their fact sheets are in the information booth we volunteers are staffing at the Tropics trailhead this month. (The Tropics aviary is the best place to see birds at the zoo this time of year.) Beyond the bird show, the place to see an owl at the zoo is in the Minnesota Trail’s porcupine exhibit.

snowy owl wing

snowy owlMy fellow Thursday volunteer Joel Hillyer took these three photos and graciously gave me permission to share them.  This snowy owl spent a few weeks in the porcupine exhibit in our Minnesota Trail before rejoining the bird show. (From a recent bird show, I learned that snowy owls are the largest owl by weight in Minnesota at just over 3 pounds. The state’s largest owl by surface area is the great gray owl, who’s about 2 feet long.)

great horned owl on Minnesota TrailOur usual on-exhibit resident is a great horned owl — also the type of owl I periodically hear hooting in my yard in winter, their mating season. Found throughout North America, everywhere from dense forests to city parks, they’re the largest North American owl with ear tufts and eat a variety of rodents and other animals — even skunks!

owl artifacts, bench talkCementing my obsession was the discovery of an owl-themed “bench talk” among the other Minnesota Trail boxes. Owls have feathers all the way down to their talons, as you can see here. If our eyes were as proportionately large in our face as an owl’s, we’d have eyes the size of oranges. Owls can’t shift their eyes from side to side, but they can swivel their heads at least two-thirds of the way around to see what’s behind them. And female owls are quite a bit bigger than male owls. These are just a few of the owl facts I’ve filed in my brain so far.

owl sounds on Minnesota TrailEven if you can’t see the great horned owl on the Minnesota Trail, you can hear the different calls made by different species using this handy trailside display. Besides the whoo-ing of my occasional “yard owl,” I still have to memorize more of their calls — just one more detail I plan to absorb about this species as my fascination continues to unfold.

Teachable weekend

Every October, I’m reminded that the four-day MEA weekend provides my most intellectually rewarding volunteer Thursday of the year. MEA is an outdated term that lots of us can’t stop using, even after the Minnesota Educators Association  merged with other groups to become Education Minnesota. Whatever the state teachers union calls itself, its annual conference still means the zoo is filled with families, liberated from school but still looking to learn. Unlike other busy days when summer crowds and school groups are rushing from Point A to Point B, and I’m mainly telling guests where the bathrooms and the IMAX theater are, the MEA crowd is especially receptive to bench talks — a chance for volunteers to sit down with furry pelts, “bone-clone” skulls and other artifacts and have spontaneous, sometimes lengthy conversations about animals and their place in the world.

%22Coral Reefs%22 by Gail Gibbons

Ever since I discovered the “coral box” in Discovery Bay’s  Cove Booth last month, coral is my new favorite bench talk.  I pull out “Coral Reefs,” a colorful children’s book by Gail Gibbons explaining all about hard and soft corals, how they eat and spawn and how reefs grow, along with some bleached coral skeletons and photos that show their colors while still alive. I’ve learned that this can be a hard sell for small children, with their short attention spans and their tendency to focus on animals that move and have faces. Just explaining that corals are in fact animals, and not rocks or plants, might be as far as I get. But stereotypes exist to be broken, and on MEA Thursday I got a girl who couldn’t have been past kindergarten — barely tall enough to see the book and corals on the cove booth’s little table — who was fascinated and full of questions.

brain coral, brain worm coral

I got questions whose answers gave me pause, though I’ve since looked them up: How do corals eat? (Either via photosynthesis, thanks to algae that live on corals, or by sucking up the tiny plants and animals known as phytoplankton). When I took the shark and stingray jaw clones over by the shark reef (where, again, they attracted more interest than usual this week), I got the unexpected but obvious follow-up to my sound bite “Of the 400-plus shark species, only about one in 10 species are dangerous to humans.” — “Which ones?” (The sand tigers in our shark tank and the obvious great white were all that leaped to mind at first. Rounding out the top five are hammerhead, tiger, bull and white-tip sharks.)

brain coral and clownfish

When the coral book reminded me that anemones are a similarly structured relative, minus the chalky external skeleton, I downscaled my bench talk and took it on the move: With an anemone-like, tentacled koosh ball in one hand and a brain coral skeleton in the other, I hung out by the gorgeous live-coral tank and pointed out the living brain coral to the guests already basking in its color. (That’s a purple and green “closed brain” coral, nestled within a button polyp coral, just beneath the clownfish.) Then I pointed out all the individual polyps that built themselves into the larger structure, and how their shape mimicked the anemone’s.  At the zoo, or any place that’s part of a weekly routine, it’s easy to fall into rigid habits: the same talking points for the same few animals on any given trail. But something about the four-day weekend encouraged new connections: between volunteer and child, between child and animal, between facts and ways to express them. I’m not a teacher (although most of my relatives are), but I’m glad to piggy-back on their weekend of self-improvement and renewal.