Social climber

So here’s a pop quiz, or perhaps a trick question: Can dogs climb trees?

Asian wild dog in treeA week ago, I went to an all-day seminar for zoo volunteers. In her part of the presentation, Northern Trail supervisor Diana Weinhardt told us several, or perhaps all seven, of the zoo’s Asian wild dogs — a highly social species also known as dholes — have been climbing a tree in their exhibit. We knew she wouldn’t lie to us, but I envisioned something short and shrubby. Thursday was finally warm enough to make the half-hour Northern Trail hike tolerable, and in the dhole-viewing gazebo, I gazed fondly at a pile of five napping Asian wild dogs before lifting my eyes and jumping half out of my skin. I mean, this tree is really pretty tall, is it not? The dhole looks as if it were photoshopped up there, but I swear it wasn’t.

Asian wild dog face in tree

My online exploration of canine tree-climbing led me to this excellent website on canids, which mentions more species of wild dog than I’d previously heard of and divides them into doglike vs. foxlike canids. There’s general agreement that only the gray fox, thanks to its curvy claws, can climb trees. But dholes, while their redness makes them look very foxlike, fall into the doglike category with wolves. Scientifically they have their own genus, Cuon. The preceding website says they’re so agile that they can pee while doing a handstand on their forelegs (not sure why they’d enjoy that). My zoo lit describes them as excellent jumpers, able to cover 10 feet in a single leap and 2o feet with a running start. Those two facts explain how the dhole got up in this tree, with its many thick, level branches, but I still wanted to see how he got down. And it took only another 10 minutes or so for that to happen.

Asian wild dog descendingThe dhole made a cautious, clumsy descent, paw-testing each branch to see if it would support about 40 pounds of dog-weight and glancing frequently at the service road behind the exhibit. (The tree made an excellent lookout post for passing vehicles, and the dhole was fascinated by one when I first saw him.) The process didn’t look like one that would necessarily end well, and I felt a little worried. But he wasn’t much lower than this when he made his graceful leap to the ground, landing as lightly and securely as an Olympic figure skater after a basic lutz jump. I resisted the urge to applaud before I moved on.

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.

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.

The meatball bridge

The Martin Luther King holiday dawned sunny and mild, with temperatures climbing briefly into the 30s. My husband had yesterday off work and, incredibly, hadn’t seen the zoo since last summer’s renovations. So I took him on a two-hour tour of all the new stuff. He got a good glimpse of the shy new dark-gray wolf, and we lucked out even more when we arrived at the dhole exhibit.

Blyger and Prosit, the two boys from Sweden, have joined Piri and Fanni, the two girls from Hungary. As soon as we stopped on the viewing platform, a zookeeper came by to a conduct a canine-training session with meatballs and a whistle. He said he was “building a bridge” — by summoning the pack with his soft whistle and then tossing meatballs, he was teaching the dholes to associate the sound with obedience and reward. (A primary training goal: to get them to come off exhibit into their holding area at night, which apparently has been a bit of challenge these first few weeks.) Our friendly zookeeper also explained that this kind of training (also used with coyotes on the Minnesota Trail) was never conducted with Mexican gray wolves, the dholes’ predecessors in this space, because of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service guidelines for their management — in a program geared toward eventual release into the wild, the wolves weren’t supposed to get too comfortable with people. These Asian canids don’t belong in the North American wild and would never be released there, so training helps them adjust to their permanent zoo home while keeping their minds active. Because they communicate with whistling sounds themselves, the zookeeper’s whistle must seem friendly and familiar to them. And for carnivores, it’s always more tempting to do as you’re asked when there’s a big juicy meatball waiting at the end.

New year’s dogs

I got a new camera for Christmas, the zoo just added a new species of wild dog on the Northern Trail, and now it’s a new year. The moment for my dhole post has arrived!

Two female Asian wild dogs, or dholes (rhymes with “holes”), came here from a zoo in Hungary and officially went public Friday in the former Mexican wolf exhibit. Unofficially, they were out there for a few hours Thursday, trotting around their new home, sniffing and making little squeaking noises. I hiked out to look at them — first from the cozy interior of the former wolf gazebo (now redesigned to resemble an Asian yurt), then from a new trailside viewing platform at the exhibit’s opposite edge.

Several guests stopped on the platform to check out the new canines. A child or two asked me if the dholes were foxes, which they clearly resemble. With their lean 45-pound frames and their springy gaits, these two girls remind me of my own petite female Belgian Malinois shepherd dog, who also weighs about 45 pounds, with a black and mahogany coat, and who frequently gets compared to a fox. But instead of the Malinois’ black face and ears, these canids have a bushy black tail– in fact, the puppies are entirely black at birth.

And puppies are part of the plan for this species, endangered throughout its range in Thailand, China, India and Russia. Two males are coming from a zoo in Sweden and will be introduced gradually to the girls, who turn 3 years old in the spring. Dholes have litters of up to 12 pups, so if even just one pair mates, family life in this exhibit could get very interesting.