Lucky stripes

I hadn’t seen the zoo’s six-month-old tiger cubs in several weeks; my husband, who’s extra-fond of tigers, had never seen them; and we finally caught “Life of Pi” on the big screen Saturday, so the weekend already had a big-stripey-cat theme going on. So we made a Sunday zoo trip and were rewarded with this:

Minnesota Zoo tiger cubs playing

My dad is among the faithful followers of this blog, and nearly every week he exclaims in response to some photo or other, all of which feature animals caught in a well-timed act: “You’re so lucky!” I always reply that amid the constant visual awesomeness busting out all over the zoo, my camera misses nearly half the great moments that come my way. But at the Tiger Lair last weekend, I did feel exceptionally lucky.

Nadya and Sundari

Nadya and Sundari, born two weeks apart last summer and each about 60 pounds at their last publicized weigh-in, were frolicking at the window with considerable encouragement from guests and their gloves. Turns out a glove dropped by the window is a feline-attention magnet, as several guests proved. One little girl also lured them with her stuffed tiger toy. I’d never gotten a good shot of the tiger girls together, but luck smiled on me this time. I still know Sundari, the Minnesota-born tiger, by the dragonfly pattern on the back of her neck.
tiger cub gnaw hugWe came for the tigers but stayed for the dholes, who were having their own pair interactions a little farther along the Northern Trail. I still can’t bring myself to photograph animals mating, although one pair appeared to be doing just that. This is a seven-animal exhibit, though, and other pairs were bonding in other ways.

dhole chin restdhole pair restingdhole outside den
One of the seven reminded me that there’s a second rock-den in the exhibit by sitting sentinel-style at its doorway. If both adult females reproduce again this winter, both dens might get some use, and (purely in theory) the exhibit could gain up to 24 new youngsters. Last year’s total yield was three pups, though, so despite a female dhole’s ability to bear and nurse a dozen small mouths, a smaller batch of babies is more realistic.

caribou stuck

caribou unstuckIt was too cold to walk the entire trail, and by midafternoon the exhibits all were half-cloaked in shadow. But as we turned back, passing the caribou exhibit, my husband noticed a humorous dilemma within: The animal with the most spectacular antler formation, after rubbing it on branches (a common caribou activity when the antlers are ready to drop off), got one sizable branch stuck in there, like a rifle in its rack. Along with a gathering crowd, we watched him try to shake the branch loose, tipping his head this way and that. As a spectator sport, it made me feel a little guilty. But the caribou somehow succeeded in the end, freeing us to leave the zoo — as usual — with light and cheerful hearts.

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Heavy is the crown (for now)

We’re all getting a little sick of snowfall here in Minnesota, but the giant storybook flakes floating through the air Thursday made me want to hit the Northern Trail, where I haven’t ventured for weeks. I half-hoped to repeat my Mystical Moose Experience of December 2003, in which I stood gazing into the eyes of a Northern Trail moose for several minutes — no other human in sight and no sound but the whisper of snowflakes — before I started moving along, only to have the moose follow me to the edge of its exhibit.

The moose exhibit appeared empty this time, but across the way, their cousins the caribou were lounging (as cud-chewing ruminants often do), and the male was sporting a spectacular head of antlers at their seasonal peak.

Female woodland caribou have antlers, too. (Even the babies, starting at three months or so, develop mini-antlers, or “spikes.”) But the seasonal patterns and purpose of antlers vary by gender: The males’ headgear peaks in mating season, October and November, and is shed in winter — meaning this guy’s crown won’t stay this dramatic much longer. Females keep their own, smaller antlers into spring, using them to forage for food beneath the snow. In either case, the equal-opportunity headgear lacks the permanence of horns.

As a species, woodland caribou themselves lack permanence: Their numbers whittled by wolves, human hunters and deforestation, they’ve dwindled in Canada and vanished in northern Minnesota. Like many threatened species, though, they’ll always have a refuge right here.