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.

Cygnet and foal

With nearly a week of spring technically left, the zoo still has fluffy spring babies to see. An Asian wild horse was born May 24, and over Memorial Day weekend, the trumpeter swans who live on our lake had cygnets. Last spring, I tried in vain to get a clear baby-swan shot. Last week, my luck improved.

The challenge was to get the adults’ faces in the picture, since swans spend so much time browsing for food with their heads underwater, tails pointing skyward. To maximize their reach in browsing, their necks are as long as their bodies: on average, nearly 60 inches each. At 20 to 30 pounds, trumpeters are the largest swan species. Now about three weeks old, this cygnet will be fully feathered at about two months old; a month after that, it will be able to fly. The zoo has released 165 swans into the wild, through its trumpeter swan restoration project participation. But some of them like the zoo’s sheltered lake so much, they eventually come home.

The newest member of the Asian wild horse exhibit is a few days older than the cygnets, but just as cute:

They’re also known as Przewalski’s horses (or in zoo shorthand, P-horses), after the Russian explorer (first name: Nicolai) who first informed the West of their existence in the late 1800s. (The Brookfield Zoo, which I recently visited, also has them, along with a helpful sign explaining the pronunciation: “Shevalski.”)

If not for captive-breeding programs in zoos, Asian wild horses would be extinct. In the mid-1960s, there were none left in the wild. But as with trumpeter swans in Minnesota, reintroduction efforts have restored a population to Mongolia, their last native stronghold. And as with many endangered species, humans have been their greatest threat: from hunters to farmers who (understandably) repurpose the land for crops or domestic grazing. In a nicely ironic twist, though, it’s also humans who’ve helped bring P-horses back from the brink.

Between seasons

I’ve always had mixed feelings about the zoo’s two summer-specific attractions, the butterfly garden and the Wells Fargo Family Farm. My mind tends to link them with heat and crowds. But now, in this back-to-school interlude of sudden quiet, nothing hides the charm of either place. Two weeks ago, before the garden’s annual Labor Day closure, I ducked in to bid the butterflies farewell. Then last week, while looping the Northern Trail, I finally veered off into farmland.

In its final week of the year, the butterfly garden was mostly about the greenery, with just a few fluttering inhabitants left — including the “queen” hiding amid the wildflowers above, orange and black but smaller than a monarch, with white polka dots sprinkled across her wings. No insect perched on the dishes of fruit set out to attract the butterflies. And it was raining, ever so lightly: a mere mist evaporating on my forearms. This pleased me as much as any so-called perfect summer day, and the smattering of zoo guests strolling the walkways seemed equally contented.

A week later, the garden had closed but the same caressing mist-rain fell gently on the farm — including Prince and Duke, the rare American Cream draft horses who’ve been here since the farm opened ten years ago. The farm has a longer season (April-October) than the butterfly garden, and that season tapers off more more gradually: spring and fall weekdays have no demos, petting or other “events,” but you can wander around unobstructed, collecting a leisurely eyeful of buildings and animals. The sheep and goats, in particular, will look back at you, extra-alert to humans in this calmer, cooler space and time.