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.

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Holiday fishes — and jellies

Christmas fish ornamentEvery Christmas season, Minnesota zoo volunteers design, craft and sell an animal ornament as a fundraiser, available for purchase at the zoo’s Minnesota Lodge desk and the penguin booth. Hanging on my tree right now are a flat wooden penguin, crocodile, snowy owl, ring-tailed lemur and seahorse from previous seasons. This year’s addition: a rounded white and yellow fish, casually described by some as a puffer. I haven’t tracked down anyone from the committee that makes these ornaments happen, but to me, the yellow squareness makes it look more like more like a boxfish such as the longhorned cowfish, my latest favorite in Discovery Bay. **

puffer fish

cowfish side view

Animal World points out that puffers (that’s our Tropical Reef puffer directly to the left) and boxfish are closely related, so I’m probably splitting hairs here. The website says the cowfish, Lactoria cornutus (that’s our D-Bay cowfish at lower left), has been getting quite popular: They’ll eat just about anything, and they look rather hilarious. With squared-off edges, a pouty mouth and pointy horns, they swim with a motion that alternates scooting with hovering, unlike the shimmying glide of most fish. The caudal (tail) fin is a collapsible fan — compressed into a stick until they want to execute a turn.

cowfish with jellycowfish tail fanThis website has more to say about cowfish locomotion, their comical looks and their (lack of) suitability for home aquariums, despite their increasing popularity. They’re not a good species to mingle with lots of faster-moving fish, partly because they release toxins when stressed, and their flesh is poisonous. In D-Bay, their primary tankmates don’t move much at all. You can see one such cohabitant clinging to the wall above — an upside-down jellyfish (or as purists call them, jellies, since they’re technically not fish).

upside-down jellyfish close-upIn the wild, and often in their D-Bay tank, these jellies (rarely more than 2 inches in diameter) rest with their bell (or head) on the sandy bottom, legs pointing upward to catch plankton and absorb light, which feeds the algae inside them. As aquarist Becky noted ruefully at a recent volunteer update, the jellies were supposed to be this small aquarium’s chief draw, until the cowfish took center stage. Still, once we remember to look for them, these translucent jellies should remind us that motionless, faceless life forms hold their own intrigue.

**Update!! As of today (Jan. 3), this D-Bay tank has neither cowfish nor jellies, since the former began eating the latter. Fortunately, we have more jellies waiting to be deployed into the tank, and after a quarantine period the cowfish will relocate into the Tropical Reef tank.

Diving for fish facts

My occasional new hourlong zoo gig is “dive show microphone” — announcing that an aquarist is about to start the daily 10:30 dive show at the Tropical Reef. I also tell people where it’s OK to stand or sit — on “the beach,” which is the tan floor up front by the glass. The blue floor-stripe winding behind the bench is “the river,” which needs to be kept clear for “stroller-boat” traffic. (Thanks to “tamarin whisperer” Michele, identified in my previous post, for helping me develop this second metaphor.) After the aquarist — usually Diver Dan, in my experience so far — finishes his underwater talk, I walk the microphone over to kids who’ve raised their hands so they can ask him questions.

Surrounded by fish, Dan (or the diver du jour) dispenses chunks of gel diet, which is ground-up seaweed, fish and vitamins, baked in zoo ovens and cubed. Through his own underwater microphone, he also shares facts about the aquatic diners. This tank contains six kinds of sharks; zebra, epaulette and brown-banded bamboo are the ones I recall off the top of my head. There are about 350 fish in the 80,000-gallon tank, spanning 80 species — all of them native to the Indo-Pacific ocean waters that hug the equator.

I’ve done the dive-show microphone gig three times in the past two months, and it looks like Diver Dan might be the world’s most patient human. When small children get the mike, they often ask him to repeat his original talking points, but he always finds a slightly different way to address the same point, and his voice never shows the least hint of exasperation — even that time he was still raspy-voiced from a cold. Sometimes the kids are school-aged and full of good questions; other times, they’re just adorable pre-schoolers who fall silent when presented with the microphone. Like everything else at the zoo, the dive show is an ever-fresh experience.