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.



Letting off steam

This springtime has had its full share of rainy Thursdays. A few weeks ago, the zoo had a precautionary evacuation during a severe thunderstorm warning– which meant everyone came inside, not the reverse. On my latest zoo day, just over two weeks ago, I emerged from my car beneath a sheltering umbrella and gasped at the sheer number of school buses in the parking lot. The very thought of 3,000 schoolkids packed within zoo walls gave me pause. Knowing that only 1,600 people can squeeze into our twice-daily dolphin trainings (stadium capacity = 800) made me pause longer, since volunteers are responsible for crowd control and gate-closing up there. But as the rain slackened, intensified and then let up again throughout the day, quite a few brave souls ventured outside, relieving pressure on the inside.

After surviving the jam-packed noon dolphin show, and then decompressing over lunch, I went out to Grizzly Coast, where the cavelike bear and otter exhibits have overhead protection. The rain had lightened to a pleasing downward mist. The steam vents were steaming like crazy, and a woman stopped me by this one, midway between bear and otter, to ask why the bears liked them so much. I hadn’t yet reached the place where Haines the grizzly stood with his nose pointed into another billowing steam vent, but I explained that they’re just a geologic feature of Russia’s Far East, where the giant grizzlies happen to live. I also theorized that because the heavy rains had made the steam so much more dramatic, the bears were simply intrigued by this change in their environment.

Here’s a steam vent — the same one, I’m pretty sure — on a more placid day last summer. They’re a common sight on Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula, which our zoo lit describes as “Yellowstone National Park times 100.” Steam vents, or fumaroles, form where there’s a lot of damp, unsettled heat in the Earth’s crust. (The Minnesota Zoo, of course, created its own.) When covered by a thick layer of mud, the steam vent appears as a mud pot. Along with the steam vents, mud pots, geysers and (much smaller) grizzlies that Yellowstone also has, Kamchatka is studded with volcanoes, 29 of them still active. Zoo lit tells me the grizzlies don’t fear volcanic eruptions — like other animals, they can sense a disturbance coming in time to get out of its way — and sometimes bathe in the area’s sulfurous hot springs.

By the time I made it to the bears, to investigate Haines’ fascination with his steam vent, the rain was picking up again. I turned back to the main building, still packed with kids, and re-entered the fray just in time to avoid getting totally soaked.