The shutdown and the “great good place”

Well, it happened. Minnesota’s governor and Legislature deadlocked over the state budget, time officially ran out at midnight, a government shutdown has taken effect, and I’m looking back at my partial day spent at the zoo yesterday — its last day open until further notice — without knowing when I’ll be allowed to go back. (A happy update: Two days later, a judge has ruled that the zoo may reopen right away, Sunday morning. Although it’s a state agency, 70 percent of its revenue comes from private sources like admissions and donations — enough to keep it afloat during the peak season.) A few core staffers were on the job during the two days of closure to care for the animals and keep the facility secure.

Being there on the last day pre-shutdown felt odd for another reason: It was about 50 degrees warmer than last Thursday, when temps hovered in the mid-50s and I shivered at the upper information booth with a zoo jacket buttoned up to my throat. But even in yesterday’s suffocating heat and humidity, I managed to spend an hour out at Grizzly Coast without melting, and here’s some of the cuteness I witnessed.

Volunteers are pretty sure this is Jasper, who likes to show off at the sea-otter viewing window (there’s some minor aggression among the three males, so we haven’t been seeing them all out together). Fellow volunteer Darlene and I ventured out into nature’s furnace after lunch; she bravely continued onward along the Northern Trail, while I settled into this shady cave and brought out the super-soft otter pelt for guests to touch. The hand in this photo belongs to fellow volunteer Ruth, who came along in time for an otter-training-and-enrichment session conducted by zookeepers. By then, I was ready to re-enter the wonderful world of air conditioning. But the bears were SO CLOSE, and so I wandered a little farther with Ruth instead, half-hoping to see something like this.

Sadie, the grizzly on the left, is our lone girl bear. I’ve seen her in the pool just once or twice in the three years she’s lived here, and I’ve never seen her roughhousing. But yesterday the heat drew her into the water, and it was a joy to watch her splashing around with Haines. Despite the fearsome fang near her eye at right, he seemed to play with Sadie so much more gently than he does with fellow boy bear Kenai.

I’ve been a little emotional about this shutdown; the political party-line divisions are scarily deep, and my husband (a state employee, but not for the zoo) is on indefinite layoff until this gets resolved. The threat of closure gave me a chance to ponder what makes the zoo so special to me; I love animals, of course, but my feelings for other zoos and aquariums are much more superficial. I thought of the zoo the first time I read about “third places” — happy hangouts and gathering spots beyond homes or workplaces, a concept explored in “The Great Good Place” by Ray Oldenburg. Volunteers have a unique relationship with the zoo as a third place: Unlike visitors and employees, we sidestep the issues of payment and necessity. Although we commit to 16 or 32 hours a month, give or take, on a particular day of the week, we can also pop in anytime, and although we follow a schedule on our chosen day, we range widely across the zoo, sampling everything in half-hour increments, conversing freely, bonding with guests and other volunteers, untethered from the worries and stresses that come with even the best “real” paying job (like the one I have the rest of the week). So while the government shutdown wears on, it’s good to know my favorite third place is still available to me.

Autumn awareness

Going back to school part-time cut deeply into my blogging hours last month, and at this very moment I should really be doing homework. But first, I have to comment on the beauty of this past week, which also happened to be Sea Otter Awareness Week: The sky overflowed with azure light. Fiery hints of sumac and maple glowed against a backdrop of still-verdant oak leaves. Whenever the sun started feeling a little too hot, a not-quite-chilly breeze came along.

Most camels and children agreed Thursday that “upper 60s and sunny” was no longer swimming weather, but as this photo indicates, the opinion wasn’t unanimous.  At the entrance to Russia’s Grizzly Coast, the “splash pad” fountains were still sprinkling, and while one young passerby insisted, “I don’t want to go in,” as if a parent would really shove him under the water, a group of siblings flirted with the spray a few hours later.

Beyond the splash pad with its skillfully carved bear statues, Sea Otter Awareness Week was in full swing at the otter exhibit. In a 15-minute morning session, trainers put Rocky, Jasper and Capers through their paces and shared otter facts with an appreciative crowd: They have up to a million hairs on every square inch of their bodies! They eat up a third of their body weight each day! Our three furry four-year-olds have reached the usual maximum weight for a male of their species, about 70 pounds. After the presentation, one of them swam back and forth across the exhibit for several minutes as a couple of boys, also about four years old, raced alongside the otter, giggling wildly. We adult onlookers couldn’t help giggling, too. For a mammal of any species, it was a glorious day to be outdoors and alive.

Sea otters on ice

A zoo fact sheet says sea otters in their native habitat — Pacific waters off the Russia, Alaska and California coasts — hardly ever venture onto shore; the one example given is females who’ve just mated (apparently a more arduous activity than giving birth, which happens in water).

But without any mating in the mix, all-male zoo otters Rocky, Jasper and Capers do lumber onto their exhibit’s rocky “shore” from time to time, especially if there’s a delectable ice treat like this one up there. Ice chunks, sometimes with seafood frozen inside them, are a favorite treat-toy combo for otters, which eat 25% of their body weight each day to fuel their high-energy lifestyle and whose active minds need the stimulation that “enrichment” items provide. This fellow didn’t stay on land long before jumping back into his pool with his otter buddies (see the other one’s head poking up among the rocks?).

Their zoo pool is kept about 62 degrees year-round — the warmest their ocean home would ever get in the wild. Surviving in icy winter seas with body temperatures of 100 degrees, these otters are the only marine mammals without a protective layer of blubber. Instead, their skin is shielded by an amazingly thick coat (up to a million hairs per inch) that they groom almost constantly. They’re not vain, but mats and gaps mean hypothermia — and for thousands of otters after the 1989 Exxon-Valdez oil spill, oil-clotted fur meant just that.

Zoo literature describes sea otters as “curious and charismatic,” which totally sums up the Bewhiskered One posing above, which I photographed at a different window and on a sunnier day than the ice-chomping fellow. They were also highly prized for that remarkable fur coat until killing them became illegal in 1911. They’re still on the threatened-species list, but with extinction averted, their charisma lives on.

Sea sledding

sea sleddingIn 2007, I fell in love with sea otters on California’s central coast, where the Bewhiskered Ones float on their backs, just off-shore, wolfing down whatever fishy treat is clutched between their forepaws. In 2008, the Minnesota Zoo put sea otters on display in its new Russia’s Grizzly Coast exhibit, where I could see them most weeks as part of my zoo volunteer gig — bliss! They’ve been here more than a year now, but they still surprise me. I’d never seen an otter floating on a sled, for instance, until the last time I strolled past this fellow (Capers? Rocky? Jasper? They’re all males, about 3 years old, and I still haven’t learned their distinguishing features). Two of the three were play-fighting like dogs and leaping like dolphins, energized by autumn. As baby orphans, they were rescued in Alaska; now, they’re surrounded by “enrichment items” (ice chunks, crab claws, the sled, an occasional dog toy) to keep their minds curious and limber — not to mention all the restaurant-quality seafood an otter could reasonably want. If they ever miss Alaska, it’s impossible to tell.