“After-summer” at the zoo

In my previous post, I said goodbye to the giraffes (and butterflies and mechanical dinosaurs), knowing their seasonal exhibits were closing down. Whatever the calendar claims about the 21st or 22nd of the month and solstices and such, we all know Labor Day marks the formal end of the party known as summer. So imagine my delight three days ago to walk the Northern Trail and see this reverse image of my last giraffe photo:

giraffe bending overOK, this wasn’t my first glimpse of the giraffes, whom a fellow volunteer already told me were STILL OUT THERE. I suspected they might not be trucked off to Ohio the very day after the hype surrounding their exhibit — African music, zookeepers brandishing tree branches, staffers selling crackers to the public — stopped. My first glimpse was actually Zawadi (I’m sure it was him, since he’s always the food-  and attention hound) standing at the empty feeding station — and for that first fleeting second, it almost broke my heart! But the giraffes are certainly getting fed the same volume of leaves in their overnight barns, and Zawadi was just checking in; he wandered off soon enough and could be soon be seen doing this (or perhaps it was Sweta. Either way, the giraffe nibbling his tail in both photos below is the same giraffe):

giraffe chewing on tailThere were no feeding opportunities, and the group of guests observing Africa (only the guineafowl and ostriches had returned to their owners; the antelope and wildebeest remained) was smaller and less diverse than the summer crowd. On the third day of school for most of Minnesota, the zoo belonged to retired couples, parents (mostly moms) with strollers and, of course, us volunteers.

giraffe biting tailThe vibe across the entire zoo Thursday morning made me think of an after-party: fewer bodies and longer, more intimate conversations than the crowded, keep-working-the-room, cocktail-party hustle of July and August. Almost every Northern Trail bench had an older couple resting on it — none looking fatigued or overheated,  just pausing long enough to look around and drink in the sunny warmth and greenery all around. It was so quiet that I noticed every little formerly forgotten waterfall in passing.  But it was still a humid, sunny 78 degrees with cicadas’ hum as background music — a classic late-summer kind of morning — and guests felt like chatting with volunteers.

bear clawOne of my best chats happened with a 4-year-old girl at the black bear exhibit on the Minnesota Trail. She was one of those dyed-in-the-wool extroverts who was JUST SO HAPPY to meet a new person that her little face glowed every time I served up a new fact (the fingers and claws on that handlike paw help the bear climb trees and open human food jars; the bears like to feast on acorns this time of year). She had lots of acorns in HER yard, she proclaimed! You could see that her parents were ready for the next exhibit, but because this wasn’t Zoo Camp or a school group on a rigorous schedule with an absolute checklist, and because they could see engagement and education happening, they waited patiently for her attention span to reach its end. And then, because it was the after-party bridge between summer and official autumn, when life outside school hasn’t quite ramped up yet — only then, at a leisurely pace, did they move on.

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Bittersweet goodbye

Summer’s end always comes fast in Minnesota, but as a lover of autumn I never really mind — except that this time, it means saying goodbye to these guys for good.

interns meet giraffes In this case, “these guys” means Sweta and Zawadi as well as the two interns I brought from my workplace to the zoo last month to cap off their summer in Minnesota. The giraffes’ last day is today; they’ll be moving on to a permanent home at the Columbus Zoo, which currently has no giraffes but is opening a new Africa exhibit in the spring. Year-round giraffes are in the Minnesota Zoo’s master plan, but we’ve got some hurdles left to clear before that happens.

giraffe neck stretchSo I’m a little sad even knowing that I made the most of this long-necked summer: guiding guests in and out of the feeding station as a volunteer, bringing my Aussie friend Howard to feed them on his last day visiting the U.S., witnessing the interns’ delight as their colleague and tour guide and, last week, helping corral a Zoo Camp class of 3- to 6-year-olds on their own feeding adventure. There were educational moments along the way: An intern and I got to talking about how meeting these giants in person is a far more visceral experience than just looking at photos; a 5-year-old asked about the “baby giraffe” after Sweta wandered away from the feeding station, looking small in the distance.  Now that it’s Labor Day, everyone’s heading back for more structured education, and two other zoo attractions are ending their seasonal run today:

Minnesota Zoo butterfly gardenI made only a couple of trips to the butterfly garden this summer, but both times I absorbed enough of its peace and beauty to carry with me for the rest of the day.

Rex the dinosaurAs noted last summer, I’ve never been much of a dinosaur girl, and I don’t feel too sad about their departure this week. I was scheduled out at dinos only twice this summer, but I was somewhat amused by a common toddler reaction upon glimpsing the huge animatronic forms and hearing the distant roars: often a variation on “nooo! Take me back!” Parents were generally skilled at reassurances (one dad counseled, “Just roar back!”) and by the time everyone reached “Rex’s Bones,” at Dino Village — a dinosaur you can partly take apart and reassemble — even the littlest guests were dry-eyed and serene.

bending giraffe with guinea fowlBut zoo-wise, for me, the summer was all about our two 16-foot-tall guests, back for the last time after a four-year hiatus.  Here’s Sweta or Zawadi demonstrating how vulnerable a drinking giraffe would be in Africa, where herd-mates would look out for lions on his behalf. (This one just has to worry about a flock of helmeted guineafowl.) Giraffes don’t, and shouldn’t, spend much time leaning over this far or lying down, which is why their travel to Columbus will involve an extra-tall trailer, probably with a movable roof, and a route that avoids overpasses. (The Brookfield Zoo describes giraffe transport here; just scroll down past the part about the walrus.) I wish these two brothers an easy ride, and I’ll miss them a lot.

Reticulated splendor

Hello there! After way too many weeks, I’m back– and so are the giraffes, after several years away at their year-round home in Madison, Wis.

Sweta and Zawadi

That’s Sweta, at left, and Zawadi avidly accepting box elder leaves from two zookeepers Thursday morning. These two reticulated giraffes are 12- and 11-year-old brothers, respectively. (There are about nine  giraffe subspecies; “reticulated” refers to the white netlike stripe pattern.) Sweta and Zawadi are just part of our summer Africa exhibit, but they’re the part on which I’ve been fixated this month — especially since I learned that an Ohio zoo is set to acquire them, and this will be their last occasional summer in Minnesota.

Zawadi giraffe tongue

So until Labor Day, I will treasure my half-hour shifts at the rope line, helping visitors exit the feeding station and watching their astonishment at the length and color of a giraffe’s tongue flicking toward the crackers available for giraffe-feeding purchase. These tongues are a foot and a half long, roughly textured and flexible enough to strip leaves from branches. As a keeper pointed out last week, the tongues are dark to avoid sunburn, since in Africa, the giraffes spend most of their day browsing, their tongues outstretched and exposed to the light. In Africa, they browse acacia trees, which are full of ants. Thanks to extra-thick eyelashes and nostrils that close, giraffes can deal with this, though the ants do deter them from stripping a tree entirely bare. Their faces are extra-sensitive, though — zoo guests are counseled not to touch them, because a giraffe’s sudden head-swing can be overly dramatic and a giraffe’s sudden retreat would be disappointing.

Zawadi with baby

Still, Sweta and Zawadi seem to like people — Zawadi, the giraffe in both photos above, alternates between swooping his six- or seven-foot-long neck down to sniff a human feeder and lifting it high to peer at the more distant crowd. Quite a few toddlers recoiled in shock from the massive tongue, dropping their crackers, but this baby seemed unfazed.

giraffe luringI’ve been back volunteering — and stopping by the giraffe station — for the past three weeks, but like my return to blogging, the giraffes’ return to the feeding station just seemed to take awhile. Twice a day — usually around 10 and 2 –staffers arrive with branches, wait for Sweta and Zawadi to stroll over, and feed them (and help visitors who buy crackers feed them) until the giraffes get full or otherwise lose interest and stroll away again. Three weeks ago, I spent nearly half an hour watching the giraffes refuse to be lured until a couple of keepers took their branches down into the exhibit and gradually got some traction that way. The giraffes’ likely excuse was the month of torrential rain that made them more comfortable in or near their holding barn; I really have no such excuse. But now that we’re all finally back, browsing and blogging — and I know that their time with the zoo, unlike mine, has a definite end date — I appreciate them all the more.

Hungering for summer

I’ve never loved summer the way a midwesterner should. Humidity, blistering heat and wayward insects get in my way, and I resent feeling guilty for occasionally lounging indoors on a sunny weekend. Last summer had a few unique qualities, though: Sandwiched between two especially long, brutal winters, it offered blossoming greenery and butterflies without breaking 90 degrees more than once or twice. And then there were the giraffes, whom I’ve been missing as much as the gentle breezes and garden aromas of that bygone season.

The zoo’s first temporary outdoor Africa exhibit brought Sweta and Zawadi from Colorado to Minnesota for a hot, sticky interlude in 2006. As of last summer’s return engagement, the Mn Zoo owned both young male giraffes, although they still spend most of their time at my childhood zoo (Henry Vilas) in Madison, Wis., which has an indoor cold-weather home for them. Like a lot of people last summer, I never grew tired of watching their odd, graceful movements or feeding them rye crackers. Up close, their huge, long-lashed eyes, warm breath and gently dipping heads made these leaf-eaters seem totally benign. Still, a giraffe can kill a lion with one well-placed kick (their hooves are as big as dinner plates), and one day a zookeeper sported a bruise on her arm from a giraffe’s sudden head-swing. These gentle-giant contradictions intensified their charm for me, and so did the cool, lovely summer that enveloped them. The Northern Trail has a severe winter beauty, but it’s hard to hike past the snowy expanse where the giraffes ate their crackers without getting a lump in my throat. Next summer’s Africa exhibit will be indoors and permanent, with crocodiles and monkeys, and there’s no firm return date for Sweta and Zawadi. Until that date comes, though, it helps to know they’re just down the highway in Madison, biding their time.