Bearing up nicely

Last week I finally got to see the new American black bears on the Minnesota Trail. As with the Grizzly Coast grizzlies, or brown bears, we have three — as any fairy-tale fan should agree, the ideal number of bears in any given unit. The first thing you’ll notice here is that not all black bears are black, just as not all brown bears are brown.

So what’s the difference, then, you might ask? American black bears are much smaller than the Russian/Alaskan grizzlies (200 to 400 pounds, as opposed to 800 or 1,000), with shorter, less shaggy fur and no fatty hump between their shoulders. Their short, nonretractable claws make them excellent tree-climbers. To my eye, black bear ears seem pointier. For a comparison, here’s Sadie, the smallest of our grizzlies, scratching herself on a log last week:

Like the three grizzlies, all three black bears were rescued as baby orphans — but in northern Minnesota, up by Leech Lake, in early 2010. They likely have a few more inches to grow and quite a few more pounds to gain. Their names are drawn from the languages of various Indian tribes: Kuruk (which means bear) and Tiva (dance) are the two black ones; Tiva, the smaller female, has a bit of white on her chest. Syke (which means “sleeps” and is pronounced like “psych”) is the cinnamon-colored black bear, and though I certainly didn’t intend to pick favorites on my first viewing, I already have a soft spot for him, much as I do for Kenai among the grizzlies.

It might have been a one-morning fluke, or my personal bias, but Syke seemed like the most active, and interactive, bear in my first half-hour at the exhibit. He reared up briefly but repeatedly on his hind legs (a maneuver that helps bears sniff the air  — smell is their strongest sense), went nose-to-palm with this toddler, and presented his face for photography more often than his hindquarters. That said, the zoo’s information sheet identifies Kuruk as “the boldest one,” and this exhibit opened less than two weeks ago, so it’s early days yet.

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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.

A tale of two Thursdays

No two zoo days are quite alike — not even my past two hot, sunny Thursdays on the Northern Trail. Week before last, the bears had grown so engrossed in digging a hole that they had to be taken off exhibit while workers with trucks filled it in. Meanwhile, a few exhibits away, the goitered gazelles ventured down toward the trail and then posed in a positively geometric pattern. (Last week, they were hiding up top again, prompting a human couple on the trail to say plaintively, “Come on down! We’re here.”)

Goitered gazelles don’t really have goiters, but the males do get goiter-like throat lumps during mating season. Websites describe the species as “ungazelle-like” because the females deliver twins and lack horns. Our Northern Trail group lives near animals also native to Mongolia: the Asian wild horses and Bactrian camels.

And speaking of Asian wild horses, another foal was born at the end of July and is seen here nursing out on exhibit last week. The Memorial Day foal, grazing at left, already looks rather adult.

Also last week, the grizzlies were back on exhibit. The previous week, I hung out by this viewing area explaining their absence as described by fellow volunteer Wally, who had fed them that morning as his reward for investing 1,000 hours as a volunteer. Wally tossed them melons from a walkway above the exhibit, and while Kenai and Haines gobbled them up, Sadie was totally engrossed in the hole she and the boys had been digging. The novelty of leftover buried construction materials, inedible though they were, trumped the lure of real fruit in Sadie’s mind. (Here we see her innocently napping with Haines, who’s on the left.)

And here’s the approximate site of the big hole, now filled in, just behind the small separate trout pool to the right of where Kenai, in particular, likes to swim. While explaining the bears’ hole-related absence week before last, I started chatting with a kid — as usual in these cases, a tween — whose keen interest in animals marked him as a future biologist or veterinarian. He mentioned his love of sea otters; I mentioned that we also have river otters, and he wanted to know where they were. I ran into him and his family a little later, at the adjacent sea-otter exhibit, and again at the Minnesota Lodge, where I confirmed that he was approaching the river otters on the Minnesota Trail. That’s always one of the zoo docent’s simple pleasures: the sudden exchange in which animal facts are shared, the volunteer gives advice on navigating the zoo, and the two of us maybe bump into each other again before going our separate ways for good, both sides enriched by the encounter.

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.

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.

The first grizzly of spring

OK, it’s not nearly spring yet in Minnesota, whatever the calendar claims. But yesterday, a balmy slushy 30 degrees, I headed out to Grizzly Coast in a lightly lined zoo-volunteer jacket, my hands comfortably ungloved and my exposed ear-tips feeling only slightly raw. Around 11 a.m., I expected to see the usual wintertime pile of slumbering bears by the grizzly window. Instead, I saw Haines in the trout pool.

Year-round, Haines is the darkest of our three bears while Kenai and Sadie rotate through seasonal shades of brown and blond. But yesterday, with Haines alone in the pool, I nearly mistook him for Kenai because he was performing Kenai’s signature maneuver — trying to “catch” trout by stepping on them.

At the same time, he showed off his fearsome claws to a few little girls and their moms. While the zoo’s interior teemed with school groups, the great outdoors was relatively quiet, and I relished the chance to get this close to a bathing bear without standing in front of guests and blocking their view: conduct unbecoming a volunteer, to say the least.

Meanwhile, Kenai was napping alone in the spot all three bears shared all winter. But as other volunteers informed me, and as the texture of his fur shows, he had taken an earlier turn in the pool, where he succeeded in catching a trout.

Sadie rarely ventures into the water. I think of her as the shy one who avoids the camera’s glare. Even here, sitting remarkably close to the glass, she offered me only a profile shot. But see her gazing wistfully at Haines as he lumbers into view above, a few minutes after his exit from the trout pool. Their relationship  won’t result in baby bears; all three were “fixed”  in Alaska, where they were rescued as wild orphan cubs before arriving here as two-year-olds. Last weekend the zoo celebrated their approximate fifth birthdays. By now, it’s hard to imagine this place without them.

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