Rattles and rosettes

Week before last, when it was finally warm enough to walk the Northern Trail and enjoy it, I was just passing the Amur leopard exhibit when a school group came running and squealing “Cheetah! CHEE-TAH!” I just had to turn back and gently clear things up (“That’s actually a leopard, and his name is Chobby!”) One thing you learn as a zoo volunteer who’s not a biologist, though, is to anticipate the likely follow-up question to any statement and make sure you can answer it, and I left the exhibit thinking, “Good thing none of them asked me how to tell the difference. Better look that up.”

leopard mom and kitten This is our leopard Polina and one of her cubs (now full-grown and living at another zoo in hopes of making still MORE cubs, since their species is nearly extinct in the wild). As I learned from The Wildcat Sanctuary  (whose website features types of wild cats I’d never even heard of) and Tiger Tribe, cheetahs have a different shape, befitting their status as the world’s fastest land mammal. About 30 pounds lighter than leopards on average, cheetahs are greyhound-shaped, with long legs, deep chests, narrow flanks, small heads and more doglike snouts compared with the classic “cat shape” of the leopard. And the cheetah’s spots are basically just polka-dots, while leopards have rosettes, or elaborate blotches that may or may not have spots at their center.

banana leafThe zoo is mainly about animals, yes, but March and early April brought reminders that it’s also about plants. We’ve spent recent weeks talking about them at the Tropics trailhead, the site of January’s bird talks and February’s frog talks. We had a variety of options and artifacts, but my two favorites were bananas and coconuts. (Other volunteers focused on orchids or bamboo. All four can be found along the Tropics trail.) Someone made this lovely fabric banana leaf, which isn’t even as large as some of the real ones can get — up to 9 feet long and 2 feet wide. I have learned to stop saying “banana tree” — bananas grow on plants, which despite the huge leaves do not have woody trunks. Tropics dwellers cooking over open fires may wrap their food in banana leaves, making them “nature’s aluminum foil.”

shark rattleMy second-favorite plant artifact: the shark rattle. It’s made of coconut shells, and Pacific Islander fishermen use it to attract sharks: Dangle one over the side of a boat, shake it, and wait for the vibrations to mimic a school of fish (at least in the shark’s mind). Kids like to take it and shake it themselves. Then I tell them to look for the coconut palm across from the top of the tropical reef. If I can use an artifact to make a guest see a familiar object in a new way, or notice a feature of the zoo they’d otherwise pass without a glance, then I’ve achieved one of my main goals as a volunteer.


Amur babies: spots and stripes

I went to an all-day volunteer update seminar a week ago, and my mind is still overflowing with new animal facts. In weeks to come I’ll share the countless things I learned, starting with this: The four-month-old Amur leopard cubs, who went on exhibit last month, have embraced their zookeeper training sessions. During her Northern Trail/Grizzly Coast portion of the all-day update, Northern Trail supervisor Diana Weinhardt told us they’re learning to “sit” and take meat off a stick on command. On exhibit, they just like to play.

They’re a brother and sister, and you can tell them apart from the distinct V-shaped pattern of spots on the male’s forehead. He also seems more inclined to pose, at least for me on my two treks out there so far. Here he is with mom Polina, whom keepers call “Lina” (Lena). Diana describes her as a “stellar mom,” and she does seem to radiate maternal pride and contentment, as much as a leopard can:

While mother and cubs occupy this central “maternity” viewing area, the cubs’ dad, Chobby, has been staying in a separate area to the viewer’s left, while his future paramour Okha (pronounced Oxxa) still prefers her hangout in a treetop to the right. Female Amur leopards are in heat for only one week a year, in January or February,  so everyone hopes Okha ventures down this winter.

Meanwhile, the zoo’s Tiger Cam has gone offline since those two Amur cubs went into the tiger “holding” barn where the four adults (parents Molniy and Angara, along with female tigers Anya and Whirl) spend their nights. Yesterday, the cubs went on exhibit at the Tiger Lair on the Northern Trail. The cub who’s Molniy’s offspring will be his last, I learned at last week’s update. Since Molniy’s brother Vaska just sired four cubs at the Peoria Zoo, the “Detroit Boys” are both so “well represented” genetically — so many of their relatives are running around — that the Species Survival Plan for tigers wants to take those genes out of the pool, so to speak.

Here’s Vaska’s mate Kyra with her offspring in Illinois — thanks to my aunt Jeanette Kosier, a skilled photographer and Peoria resident, for sending me these! Despite being a first-time mom of four, Kyra embraced the mothering process at once. The Peoria Zoo has video of the cubs, including their birth.

I get to see our tiger cubs on exhibit tomorrow. (The zoo has them blogging about it, with a little typing assistance from Diana.) I expect the frolicking to be intense.

Chobby makes his move

It’s been two years since I’ve written here about Chobby, the male Amur leopard from the Czech Republic who had just joined two females in Grizzly Coast as a potential kitty daddy for his nearly extinct species. It’s been all quiet on the Chobby front since then, until he recently shifted into closer proximity to fellow leopard Polina. Murmurings since then suggested that Chobby was not entirely motivated on the reproduction front. In his defense, female Amur leopards spend only a week in heat each year, in January or February. For Polina, that week was this week, and starting Tuesday, Chobby figured it out.

Yesterday was Day 3 of frequent brief breeding episodes, as I learned over lunch in the volunteer lounge. Hurrying out to the exhibit, I passed fellow volunteer Bob, who said he’d just witnessed three quick encounters. A few minutes after arriving, I witnessed another. I discreetly confined my photos to “before” and “after” for reasons both obvious and complex (I was the lone human at the window just then, and leopards surely have no sense of intimate privacy, and it’s all just part of nature, and yet…).  As anyone who’s seen cats mating can guess, this “immediately before” shot implies a tenderness that simply wasn’t there. About 10 seconds later, Chobby bared his teeth on Polina’s neck with a loud snarling growl, then stepped off and strutted away.

Here he is afterward at the smudged reflective window, looking mighty reflective himself. If this week’s activity pays off, Polina could give birth to 1 to 6 kittens after three months of gestation. It’s far too soon to know whether this will occur, of course.

While zoo felines were mating, two species of zoo canines were getting acquainted with future intended paramours during their own breeding season. Two male dholes from Sweden joined the females in the new Asian wild dog exhibit yesterday; one male trotted along the fence line with the two girls, approaching and retreating and, just once in my sight, flashing a momentary snarl. (Visually, the scene differed little from the photos in my previous post.) On the Minnesota Trail, a dark new male gray wolf from Canada joined our silvery female at the very back of their exhibit; through concealing trees, I caught glimpses of their contrasting fur as they circled and sniffed and frolicked a little. It was a day of record January warmth in some parts of Minnesota, and on these two zoo trails, the air felt warm with the possible promise of pups and cubs. But only time will tell.

Chobby and Company

It’s the first week of serious cold and lasting snow-dust around here, and yesterday the zoo was a sleepy place punctuated by bursts of activity: The occasional group of school kids went racing past, and on an otherwise deserted Grizzly Coast, a lively group of young adults was admiring the Amur leopards. When Grizzly Coast opened 18 months ago, Katya and Polina — spotted sisters from a New Orleans facility — were usually hiding in foliage at the back of their exhibit. Before long, they lost their shyness and started hanging out by the glass; once I saw and heard one hissing, housecat-style, at someone or something on the visitors’ walkway. And then, a few months ago, came a welcome infusion of testosterone: Chobby, the new guy from the Czech Republic. (Zoo volunteers love to say “Chobby,” which may mean something else in Czech but, according to urbandictionary.com, means “ultimate coolness.”) Chobby, the thick-necked fellow curled up by the glass here, is extra-important because Amur leopards are so critically endangered: 30 remain in the wild. The zoo’s talking point on this is to imagine a school bus half-filled with children: for each child, one leopard. The wild ones all are clustered at the intersection of Russia, Korea and China, the countries through which the Amur River runs. Amur leopards like to climb rocks or just lounge on them, as one of the girls is doing here, showing off the luxurious length of her beautiful tail. No official word on what she thinks of Chobby, but if she likes him enough, these cats will take one more tiny step back from the brink of extinction. (No pressure, Chobby.)