Fur-baby explosion

I’ve spent nearly a month of this summer away from the zoo, and what did I miss? Babies, mostly — home-grown Minnesota fur-babies, either born on site (lynx kittens) or rescued from the wild (moose calves). There’s a healthy batch of both: four kittens and six moose orphans that came our way via the DNR. Here are a couple of the kittens, who only recently started venturing into the exhibit (so maybe I didn’t miss that much after all). With all the high-speed scampering, getting all four and their mom in the same frame was out of the question. To see a previous generation of our lynx kittens attempting to navigate trees when they were a bit older than this, I refer you to my post from two birth cycles ago, An Epic Feline Frolic.

Minnesota Zoo lynx kitten in stream

lynx kittens and logs

The new lynx and moose are all somewhat more than three months old now, in late August, although the moose calves were born in separate batches over a period of nearly three weeks. Those calves have begun rotating in pairs through the outdoor exhibit, learning to nibble leaves from branches as they’re gradually weaned off bottle-feeding.

Minnesota Zoo moose calves

Northern Trail supervisor Diana, in the exhibit with the calves below, said this pair weighed about 180 pounds when I took these photos in early August. They’re coming along nicely since their discovery by DNR researchers as part of an ongoing study about declining moose populations in northeastern Minnesota.

moose calves and Diana

Minnesota Zoo moose artifactsA new volunteer feature this summer, besides our outdoor Big Bugs exhibit and the Conservation Carousel you walk by en route to Big Bugs, is the  “conservation cart” by the carousel. Inside, along with all the information about bees and other pollinators (a topic for another post) are moose “bench talk” artifacts: a section of antler rack, a piece of pelt, a jar of the “moose chow” that supplements the leaves and twigs in a zoo moose’s diet. My favorite moment so far with the antlers followed a question like the ones I explored in my previous post: “How did the moose die?” This gave me the perfect opening to talk about the temporary nature of antlers (shed naturally every December) compared with the more permanent nature of horns, and the lack of antlers in most deer species’ females (except caribou), and how antler growth is a response to hormone levels, which react to seasons and their varying hours of daylight. Moose are struggling in Minnesota, the southern tip of their geographic range, but nothing gives you hope for a species’ future like a big batch of thriving babies.


Rocky’s a star

I’d heard fun things about the new moose-training sessions on the Northern Trail — part of the zoo’s new Close Encounters program — and last week a group of us volunteers went to check it out. The new moose on exhibit is Rocky (yes, Rocky, not Bullwinkle), and he did not disappoint.

Minnesota Zoo moose RockyRocky’s a 19-month-old adolescent who arrived several months ago from a Texas facility for eventual breeding with our newly adult 3-year-old moose Kathy, one of his keeper/trainers explained. (Zoo moose used to consist of orphan babies rescued from the wild, but as their populations decline and chronic wasting disease complicates the handling of all deer species, zoos focus more on making their own moose babies in-house.) While many of the zoo’s Close Encounters have keepers on the trails with animals you don’t normally see on exhibit, others — like this one — happen on a regular exhibit. A ringing bell and vocal calls from three female trainers brought Rocky down the hill toward his exhibit’s edge, and then across the exhibit to the opposite edge where the trainers awaited him. He knew food would accompany the training.

Rocky the moose being pettedWhy train a moose, you might ask? For large animals like Rocky, it’s all about easing their routine medical care. Like the dolphins when we had them, he learns to respond to a particular shape (that’s his yellow star on the ground above). Then he gets handfuls of lettuce, carrots and leaf-eater biscuits. As you can see, he gets his nose stroked, too — not just an affectionate act, but preparation for having a veterinarian eventually inspect his eyes and look into his mouth.

Rocky the moose turning

Rocky starThe trainers had Rocky do an “A to B,” or walk from the pair at right to a third trainer. He was already quite attuned to this trainer, swiveling his giant head toward her whenever she spoke. She had another yellow star and a big bunch of romaine lettuce for him.

Rocky the moose eating lettuceThe trainers told us that Rocky isn’t particular about what he eats — unlike Steve, another zoo moose who turns up his nose at anything but romaine.

Rocky the moose is spookedTrainers always want to end a session on a positive note, but this time, something spooked Rocky late in the game: a sound or scent undetectable to his human audience. He assumed a partial crouch and peed on his own hindlegs; when another volunteer asked, tentatively, whether this was “normal,” a trainer replied that it was a classic sign of anxiety. Rocky then retreated up the hill and kept gazing over at the caribou, who also were milling about hyperactively. We couldn’t figure out whether they spooked Rocky or whether a third, unseen animal spooked both species. We volunteers, cold and hungry at noon, left the scene before we saw how the session wrapped up. However it ended, Rocky’s obvious bond with his trainers seems to guarantee another good session next time.

Busy beaks and autumn antlers

After months of construction closure, the bridge from Lakeside Terrace to the Northern Trail has reopened! I strolled across it yesterday, a cool, blustery day of intermittent sunshine. On either side of the bridge, a trumpeter swan was furiously beak-grooming itself near the shoreline, as if this mating pair needed a break from each other.

I love crossing the lake bridge in any season, but early fall adds two special sensory features. Nasally, there’s a smell I’ve decided to call “leaf-crisping.” Earthy, dark and dry, the scent arrives with the first smattering of fallen yellow leaves. Visually, there’s the season’s first sprinkling of tree-bound leaf-color: yellow, orange and red highlights among the still-dominant green.

How quickly can you find the grooming swan amid this canopy of changing leaves?

Every 20 seconds or so, the busy beak arose from its chest-scratching activity long enough to grant me a swan-head view:

I met one fellow human on the bridge, an older gent visiting from his home on the Iowa-Illinois border; his girlfriend was spending the day at a management seminar. (As I mentioned last time, summer’s end is when the leisurely zoo conversations begin.) We watched the swan and talked animals for a while, and he told me about the time, in Alaska, when he saw a baby moose in the wild. His first thought: Where was the mama moose, who would certainly consider him a threat to her offspring? Once he spotted her, he slowly backed away, keeping her in sight until he’d removed himself from the scene. The anecdote proved prophetic; I finished crossing the bridge and passed the tigers to arrive at the liveliest moose scene I’ve ever seen.

Like every animal on the Northern Trail, moose tolerate the same broad range of temperatures we have in Minnesota. But they don’t thrive in heat, and not only does early fall bring a soothing coolness to these thousand-plus-pound mammals, but it happens to be their mating season. It’s rare to see a moose of each gender standing together in plain view; the male’s antlers were spectacular. (A rack can weigh up to 85 pounds.) The moose weren’t mating at the moment, but their behavior was still rather hilarious.

I’d never heard a moose make a noise before, but September-October is when the species gets vocal. Every time the male looked at the female or took a step in her direction, she let loose a quiet, low-pitched whining wail; whether that’s designed to be alluring, I couldn’t say. (A couple of teenage boys echoed it flawlessly as they walked by, making me a feel a bit bad for the she-moose.) As she stepped slowly across the exhibit on her long, slim legs, her mate applied his antlers to a tangled mass of twigs on the ground, head-butting them and grunting in a prolonged cadence that sounded like a dog’s growl.

I assumed it was some kind of rutting-season aggression thing, but after consulting my Big Binder of Zoo Facts back at home, I realized it was probably purely an antler thing. Like leaves, antlers sprout each spring and fall off by winter. In the fall, escalating male hormones cause the “velvet” (fur-covered skin) protecting the antlers to dry up, and a moose rubs off the velvet on trees and vegetation. (I wonder if the drying velvet itches; my Big Binder doesn’t say.) By winter, the hormonal decline is complete, the antlers fall off and the sexes become much harder to tell apart.

I took this boy-moose photo three years ago in later autumn, a year before I started this blog. (Note the big “bell,” or dewlap, dangling from his throat — a male’s bell is longer than a female’s, if you’re trying to tell boy from girl in the depths of an antlerless winter.) As this autumn’s color deepens, the photo ops will only improve. My camera and hiking boots are ready.

A refuge in water

For a certain type of person or animal, Thursday was the perfect day: humid, windy, sunny and edging into the upper eighties. For me, and the larger beasts of the Northern Trail, it was the kind of day you can enjoy for a few minutes, or even close to an hour, before demanding some form of relief. Fortunately, these beasts had nature’s air-conditioning — a pond — in their back yards.

Like every creature on the Northern Trail, these Bactrian camels can deal with temperatures of either extreme. Here, though, they’re keeping cool and holding still, aside from a swiveling head or two at the sound of my camera — in dramatic contrast to the moose a few exhibits farther along.

Most moose I’ve seen have a stately, regal bearing, but this female was playing in her pond like a kid in a swimming hole. She strode repeatedly back and forth from the hip-deep shallows to the neck-deep end, stopping here and there to shake water noisily off her shoulders like a dog after a bath. Along the way, she paused several times to rear back and slap the algae-green surface with her forefeet. Wild moose like to eat water plants and can dive deep to get them, but since our zoo moose feast on Purina moose chow, there was clearly more than hunger or heat going on here. This moose was making her own pre-holiday summer fun.