My first zoo: back to the giraffes

Instead of volunteering at my Minnesota Zoo last week, I spent a long weekend in my original hometown of Madison, Wis., and went back to my childhood zoo with my husband and parents. Thanks, Mom and Dad!

Henry Vilas Zoo is a cozy urban facility in the style of St. Paul’s Como Zoo — nestled up against Madison’s Lake Wingra, with exhibits conveniently close together and minimal walking required. I especially wanted to visit the Minnesota Zoo’s giraffes, Sweta and Zawadi, who’ve spent two summers “up north” but live mostly at Vilas, which has an indoor space for them. We saw three males together, and I couldn’t tell which of the two were ours. It felt strange to see giraffes contained by walls and a ceiling, but they seemed happy enough, and despite the previous night’s freezing temperatures, their outdoor season is close at hand.

This guy got a lot of laughs for finding the wall so tasty. A watching teenager marveled, “I’m shorter than one of his legs!”

None of us had been in the aviary building, where I saw the day’s loveliest sight: a blue-crowned motmot, above. Also quite handsome: the blue and gold macaws. The day’s cutest sight, for me, was an animal I’d never heard of: the Geoffroy’s marmoset.

That black spot is in the middle of his forehead, by the way; the pinkness below is his nose.

Vilas has plenty of animals that the Minnesota Zoo doesn’t, including the marmoset. Still, marmosets and tamarins share many traits as some of the tiniest primates, and Minnesota has two types of tamarins. Likewise, Minnesota doesn’t have alpacas like that sweet-faced white one, but both zoos have Bactrian camels, and as my husband noted, camels and alpacas are close relatives (along with llamas).

Other animals I saw Saturday that aren’t at my “adulthood” zoo: harbor seals, polar bear and spectacled bear (just a glimpse of those two), emu. We both have river otters; watching their antics Saturday, we heard a very little girl exclaim repeatedly, “They’re trying out for the Olympics!”

And we both have Amur tigers. The Vilas tiger reclined majestically in his living room of leaves, releasing one giant sneeze (my husband joked that he felt the spray on his face).

Here’s our exit view, with sailboat-friendly Lake Wingra in the background — a little slice of natural delight in the heart of my childhood city.

Brookfield Zoo: our dolphin connection

For several years, I’ve had a yen to see the Brookfield Zoo near Chicago. Long ago, my husband’s oldest sister was a zookeeper there; more recently, dolphins have flowed back and forth between our two zoos, based on the best breeding prospects and who gets along with whom. Last week on vacation, after visiting family in Illinois, my husband and I made a detour to check out the whole zoo, and especially its marine mammals.

Of this seven-member pod, five are my old buddies. Potential breeder Chinook went back to Brookfield after an uneasy stint in Discovery Bay with our male Semo, who claimed all baby-daddy privileges anyway. Tapeko and her young daughters Noelani and Allison (that oh-so-human name always made us volunteers smile) spent a few months with us last year while the pool you see above was being revamped. Spree, now an eight-year-old, got along with that trio so swimmingly that she left with them when they returned to Chicago. The last I heard, Brookfield had plans to set her up with Chinook.

Brookfield’s underwater viewing area is a lot like ours. Watching the seven bottlenose friends do pre-show laps together, I picked out Spree easily based on her underbelly tooth-rake marks. (Those marks are a normal sign of dolphin-to-dolphin social conflict; Spree got along less well with our current Minnesota dolphins than she does with these guys.)

I’m not sure if that’s Spree with a trainer above, but that’s definitely Chinook on the right with trainer Mark. Each trainer paired up with the same dolphin for the duration of the 20-minute twice-daily show, which has been a staple for the zoo’s 50-year history.

The grizzly side of Brookfield’s Bear Wilderness (across from the polar-bear side)  is a lot like our grizzly exhibit, too, but with a two-tiered viewing area, a deeper pool and a smaller, Yellowstone Park-like species of brown bear. Rather than play-fight with a friend like our massive Alaskan/Russian species, the one grizzly we saw last week captivated the crowd by floating around on his back, with just his nose and paws above water. (Our prime ursine swimmer Kenai, on the other hand, always amuses the crowd by fastidiously keeping his ears dry.)

It would take me weeks to tell you everything I saw in a day at Brookfield, but this plaque sums it up well with a quote by naturalist John Muir. In a sprawling zoo the size of a small town, I still got that feeling of interconnectedness: plant to animal, animal to human, weaving a web of mutual sustenance, shelter and education. Our zoos share dolphins and a message, too.