Exotic calves

At last week’s giraffe feeding, during a lull, the lad selling crackers wondered aloud, “Do the other animals feel like they’re being ignored?” He meant the five other African species sharing the same exhibit: ostriches, guineafowl, wildebeests and two species of antelope. The first kind, bongo, have gotten at least some attention by having a couple of calves last month. And bongo babies, it must be said, are extremely cute.  Just look at the size of those ears!

bongo mom and baby

Bongos are a nocturnal, shade-seeking, mud-wallowing antelope formerly widespread in Africa but threatened by deforestation in their native habitat. Their tongues are said to be long and mobile for leaf-plucking purposes, much like the giraffe’s. Their pregnancies are a couple weeks longer than humans’. They don’t get giraffe-level attention, it’s true, but intrigued guests often ask what they are.

addax herd

The most frequent question I get while hanging out at Africa — “What are those white ones?” — points to our other antelope species, the addax. Like the wildebeests, they seem to stay just out of easy photographic range. Unlike the bongo, they’re desert dwellers, but with similarly striking horns that spiral up to 3 feet high. They have no calves at the moment, though — which brings us to the recent triumph on the Tropics trail.

tapir parents

From this picture of Bertie and Jon-hi, can there be any doubt that together they’d make the zoo’s first tapir calf in 20 years? At 419 days (why, yes, that’s well over a year), a tapir gestation makes human and bongo pregnancies seem like nothing at all. The currently week-old calf is not on exhibit, so I haven’t seen her in person yet; she needs to get better at nursing and swimming, since this exhibit has a pool. In the meantime, though, Zooborns posted her photo, and you can see her on our zoo’s tapir cam until  she’s ready to brave the exhibit. I’m sure we all agree that day can’t come soon enough!

Kittens, trees and ear-tufts

Yesterday’s good zoo-news: It was not only my zoo day, but our latest Canada lynx kitten’s first day on exhibit! He’s only out in the mornings, and I had the good luck to be scheduled on the Minnesota Trail at 10:30, so I could see sights like this:

I hadn’t seen lynx kittens trying to navigate trees since the Epic Feline Frolic two winters ago. This particular kitten is about three months old, and this particular treetop moment is deceptively graceful. In the fifteen minutes I spent watching him, there were far more moments like this:

He was all over his new habitat, exploring and sometimes hiding amid the foliage. Keeping visual track of him required a little effort:

Other times, his giant paws and tufted ears were plain as day:

The little guy’s mom was out and about, too, but giving him plenty of “me space.”

A guest and his daughter gave me the perfect chance to use some of my “interpretive” skills when they asked if these were bobcats. At nearly 30 pounds, the largest lynx is twice the size of the largest bobcat, with larger ear-tufts and less-variegated fur. And you generally won’t see lynx living in the wild this far south, or anyplace that doesn’t offer a buffet of its favorite food, snowshoe hare. You might not even see this little lynx unless you come early and watch very closely, in which case you’ll be richly rewarded.

Tiger tech and pups in person

It’s hard to remember a world without webcams. In the past two weeks, my husband and I have become addicted to Tiger Cub Cam, which shows the cub slumbering round-the-clock, in an incubator by night and a crib by day, surrounded by a growing menagerie of stuffed toys. It’s her third week of life, and she’s spent much of it snuggled up with a Tigger toy that’s bigger than she is. Last night, she’d wriggled her entire body beneath Tigger, with just her paws and tail sticking out. On Thursday, I saw the pair of them — tiger and Tigger — facing off on this flatscreen at the Northern Trail’s Tiger Lair.

She’s a hilarious sleeper: punching the air with all paws, rolling around and struggling to hold her head up, twitching her tiny tail. Zoo lit tells me tiger eyes open a week after birth, but with all the sleeping, it’s hard to tell. Her ears, which at birth were like two shallow cups peeking out of her head, seem to be emerging and unfurling into the shape of recognizable cat-ears.. A human steward watches over her at all times; my husband, watching alone last week, said he saw a zoo staffer looming over with her with an iPhone –a video within a video? — then remembering to duck out of the webcam’s sightline. When a staffer takes her out for “care,” such as bottle-feeding, a pillow Post-It promises her quick return.

Since that first “open house”  two weeks ago, we’ve all had to settle for enjoying the cub at a virtual distance. But last week I finally caught my first glimpse of dhole pups, who are nearly three months old now. They’re another Asian animal, also highly endangered, just a short distance from the tigers on the Northern Trail. But their “babyhood” has been completely different from the tiger’s. Our two dhole moms have been nurturing two litters of unknown size, both born in mid-April, in this rock-den. An estimated four to seven puppies are in there; these two emerged for just two or three minutes Thursday. Soon after the birth, the two male dholes were reportedly carrying food into the den for the two moms. At birth, dhole pups look almost like bear cubs: dark brown with small rounded ears, not the distinctive pointy headgear these two pups are already sporting. Baby animals are always fun, but it’s meaningful fun with two species like tigers and dholes, when you know those species run the risk of disappearing.

Tiny, tiny tiger

I woke up yesterday feeling oddly, biologically sad — not a rare morning situation for a night owl like me, and I knew my zoo day would perk me up fast. I didn’t know how fast until I came into the lounge and heard the news — an Amur tiger cub to go with the two Amur leopard cubs! And more news: We could meet the cub at a two-hour “open house” for staff and volunteers, though we couldn’t take pictures. And once I arrived at the holding area, MORE news: We could take pictures after all, since the cub was already featured on the zoo’s Facebook page. So I turned off my flash and went into a sort of photographic trance, while Northern Trail staffer Fred patiently cradled the baby on the other side of a glass-paned door and tried not to get his fingers nibbled off.

In these pictures, she’s four days old (born June 17) and three pounds, with eyes still unopened. She almost never stopped wiggling, so I’m glad these photos turned out as well as they did. Her parents are Molniy, one of the “Detroit boys,” and Angara, who came here when the other Detroit boy left, in a mating exchange that clearly paid off. This cub was the second and larger of two delivered by Angara; the first did not survive. About two-thirds of tigers survive the first 30 days.

Zoo staff usually take a hands-off approach to animal infants, letting moms be moms. But after a few days of watching Angara and the cub, zoo staff decided to hand-rear the tiny tiger. As one staffer mentioned as we gathered at the window with our cameras, tiger mothers have been known to eat their young. And Angara didn’t seem to be getting the hang of the whole nurturing thing. So some lucky humans have round-the-clock cub duty for the near future. While the general public won’t get its own open house, the zoo has a tiger webcam set up, as well as a leopard webcam where you can see the other Amur cubs with their mom. The baby leopards, born May 29, won’t be on public display for some time.

As if the day didn’t have enough baby-fresh goodness already, the trumpeter swan family was paddling alongside the newly reopened lake bridge (previously closed as part of black-bear-exhibit construction). I’d seen cygnets before, but not near enough to appreciate just how fuzzy they are. Last year’s cygnet pair didn’t make it to adulthood, possibly because of an extreme extended heatwave early last summer. I hope this quartet fares better.

Yesterday was great for weather (70 and sunny), cute animal babies and cute remarks by junior humans. As we watched the swans, a little girl on the bridge kept exclaiming, “Trumpet swans!” I gently corrected her, maintaining a “not-that-it-really-matters” vibe, and she repeated forcefully: “Trumpet swans!”

As I strolled the rest of the Northern Trail, just past the camel-ride site, I overheard this conversational snippet from an eight-to-10-year old boy and his mom just ahead of me:

Boy: “I wish I could live here.”
Mom (obviously amused): “You wish you could LIVE here?”
Boy: “Yes.”

Understandable, really.

The family farm and a little girl lost

The spring day was gorgeous: brilliantly sunny but so comfortably cool and breezy that I decided to brave the crowds at the zoo’s family farm and check out the annual Spring Babies.

I went for the piglets but stayed for the goats, who were hamming it up for the camera in a big way. Two piglets were play-fighting in the shadowy recesses of the pig barn, and several piglets raced back and forth, in and outdoors, including this pair (“where’s the food?” they seem to wonder as they confront the empty trough). Meanwhile, guests were hand-feeding goats with pellets from the pellet-dispensers. To call the goats enthusiastic would be an understatement.

The goats were rearing up on their hind legs to peer over the fence-top and sticking their heads through the strategically cut-out gaps in fencing. Since the big white goat was claiming his fair share of attention and more, I put 50 cents into a pellet dispenser, fed this little gray guy and patted his surprisingly bristly forehead.

Before leaving the farm, I said hello to Prince and Duke, our venerable American Cream draft horses. Little did I know that in a few minutes, after returning to the Northern Trail, I’d be discussing them with a small and weepy human who reminded me that in juvenile mammals of any species, an extra fragility adds to the cuteness.

Five-year-old Sophia was sobbing on the Northern Trail, where she’d become separated from her school group. Reconnecting lost children with their grownups is part of a zoo volunteer’s regular duties: There’s an actual written procedure for doing it. But this was my first time one-on-one with a distraught pre-schooler, and I wasn’t carrying a walkie-talkie-style radio to alert Guest Services, which is part of the procedure. I told the concerned adults who’d flagged me down that I would walk Sophia back to the main building and, most likely, find a radio-toting volunteer on the way. As we walked, I assured this pint-sized weeping zoogoer that surely her bus hadn’t left without her (she was absolutely convinced that it had) and tried to distract her by asking which of our animals was her favorite. None was, but she’d calmed down enough to explain that her favorite animal was a unicorn. It emerged that she, too, had been out to the farm and seen the draft horses, whom she conceded were equine and white enough to resemble the “real” horned thing.

We did find a volunteer with a radio once we reached Russia’s Grizzly Coast and the bears, but in this case, the solution was to keep walking: As soon as we entered the courtyard that divides the trail and the main zoo building, a teacher came forward and Sophia dived into her arms. And I was done for the day, feeling the unique sense of satisfaction that comes from helping a child. I’ve always found those walkie-talkie radios cumbersome and annoying, but from now on, I’m going to carry one.

Here, kitty, kitty

Big zoo news last week: The five-month-old lynx kittens are now out on exhibit! An e-mail from the zoo warned that these two sisters were very shy and hanging toward the back of the exhibit, but apparently the situation is evolving rapidly. My first stop at lynx-land revealed no cats at all (their exhibit is roomy and leafy and ideal for hiding in), but 45 minutes later I came back, just in case, and saw this:

The group of us oohing and aahing at the window included a hard-core cat lover who was pretty much beside herself with joy. One kitten must have heard her, or at least liked the warmth of her facial expression, leading to this little tableau:

Even as adults, lynx have oversized paw pads (though not as disproportionate as this youngster’s) to help them track their chief prey, snowshoe hares, across snowdrifts. They’re known for their ambush tactics, rather than chasing prowess, in catching their prey, and where no snowshoe hares live, you’re unlikely to see lynx, either. Some who think they see lynx, which max out around 30 pounds, are really seeing bobcats, which are only half as big and have smaller ear tufts, too. These kittens, while no longer tiny, are not quite bobcat-sized — perhaps only 10 pounds. For comparison purposes, here’s the adult male lynx seen pacing last summer:

The difference of shape strikes me more than the difference in size: He just LOOKS OLDER, somehow. At least for now, this fellow is out on view in the afternoon and the kittens and their mom are out in the morning. Come see them soon, Twin Citians: They grow up too fast.

Her spitting image?

The zoo’s two-week-old baby camel was all over the local news after he went on exhibit Wednesday, so I hoped to get a clear view of him Thursday. Luck had me scheduled on the Northern Trail first thing, and I raced out into the balmy sunshine to behold the leggy cuteness for myself.

At about 150 pounds, this still-unnamed fellow is roughly one-tenth the weight of his molting mama, Sybil. (With the recent unseasonable warmth here, she apparently decided that winter coat just had to go.) I hadn’t actually seen the little guy on TV and didn’t expect him to be gray. Lured in like me by the news reports and short-lived glorious weather, a crowd of camera-toting spectators had lined up alongside the camel group. A preteen male voice behind me stated, “They like to spit” (when they’re angry, yes, the word on the street is that camels do spit). Another child exclaimed, “That camel has eight legs!” when the baby stepped behind his mom, his head and body hidden behind her bulk. In a quintessential kids-at-the-zoo moment, an octet of third-graders screamed in horrified delight when Sybil took a sudden spontaneous potty break.

Most of the world’s remaining wild Bactrian camels live in Mongolia’s Gobi Desert, where their fat-filled humps and oval blood cells help this endangered species retain nourishment. (A memory device: The capital “B” has two humps, and so do Bactrians; dromedaries have one).

I’m not sure if that’s daddy Turk in the background of this photo, but Turk has fathered 16 calves to Sybil’s four. The zoo says Bactrian camels breed easily here — a happy example of exotic threatened creatures thriving in captivity.