The cruelest month?

April always brings hordes of people to the zoo —  last Sunday, just a week ago, more than 7,000 stopped by. Each year they come to see the family farm, newly reopened for the season, with its fresh crop of spring babies (the piglets are my favorite). They come in the form of school groups or families finishing up their spring vacations. The zoo is so crowded in these last two months of the school year, it can be challenging to take a step or hear a word. On Thursday morning, though, the zoo was practically empty as a winter storm struck the Twin Cities. By noon, 75 guests had shown up — one person for every hundred in attendance four days earlier. It was eerie and, to me, wonderful.

snowy Northern TrailHere’s the Northern Trail around 10 a.m. Thursday. The roads were a chaotic mess out there in the real world, but in here, alone and on foot, I was enveloped by silent order and snowy peace.

snowy tiger girlsI must have been the day’s first passerby at the Tiger Lair. The cubs — or at 10 months, they’re practically young ladies now — seemed surprised to see me, or anyone.

snowy zoo moose

snowy zoo robinThe lone moose on exhibit appeared to be slurping a slushy from a tree branch, and robins were hopping about as if the landscape wasn’t a version of frozen tundra. A fellow volunteer told me later that at least one robin has been occupying the stretch between the Tiger Lair and the Central Plaza all winter. That’s where I saw this one as I headed out and again after doubling back. He was quite shy, and it took a good 20 attempts to capture him in my frame.

Back inside,  the Tropical Reef was a warmer oasis of quiet, though I had the company of several volunteers and three aquarists there.

zebra shark pair

One aquarist, Diver Dan, kept peeking around the corner to see if he should put on his gear and do the 10:30 dive show. In 30 minutes, just one woman and her toddler came by, so the dive show didn’t happen — the fish were fed from above. We volunteers pretended to insist he should go in there just for us, and Dan pretended to demand $20 in payment for doing so. Meanwhile, we admired the new male zebra shark — the lighter one on the right — that has recently joined the female. Could there be shark pups soon?

zebra sharks cuddling?Can sharks cuddle? Is that what’s happening here? I’m not sure I want to think about it. One thing I noticed about the new male shark: his tiny blue eye. Another thing I learned about our female: Not only is she eyeless, but she was likely born that way; she was wild-caught from the ocean, so nobody’s sure.

upside-down zebra sharkNobody’s quite sure what this upside-down business is all about, either, or at least I’m not. She was swimming with vigor before and after striking this pose. It reminded me of my dog demanding a belly-rub.

Mini Satin rabbitI finished my zoo-day an hour early; because of the weather, the volunteers were free to go after lunch. My last gig was at the chicks-and-bunnies station, holding this Mini Satin rabbit for kids to touch. Bunny handling makes me nervous, because the bunnies themselves are often very nervous; we take care not to handle them too much, or let the kids touch them TOO much, and you always have to strike a balance between letting one escape and squeezing its delicate little bones too hard. This bunny, however, was a portrait of calm, and holding him or her for about 20 minutes was a total delight. The few children who stopped by were gentle and obedient when told to stroke the bunny with just a couple of fingers, one child at at time, only on the back (the ears are such a tempting target!). After the bunny, and after lunch, I left for my “real” job feeling as satisfied as if I’d spent an entire day among the animals. The relentless grip of winter is driving Minnesota crazy right now, but for one morning in zoo-land,  it provided a comforting retreat.

Diving for fish facts

My occasional new hourlong zoo gig is “dive show microphone” — announcing that an aquarist is about to start the daily 10:30 dive show at the Tropical Reef. I also tell people where it’s OK to stand or sit — on “the beach,” which is the tan floor up front by the glass. The blue floor-stripe winding behind the bench is “the river,” which needs to be kept clear for “stroller-boat” traffic. (Thanks to “tamarin whisperer” Michele, identified in my previous post, for helping me develop this second metaphor.) After the aquarist — usually Diver Dan, in my experience so far — finishes his underwater talk, I walk the microphone over to kids who’ve raised their hands so they can ask him questions.

Surrounded by fish, Dan (or the diver du jour) dispenses chunks of gel diet, which is ground-up seaweed, fish and vitamins, baked in zoo ovens and cubed. Through his own underwater microphone, he also shares facts about the aquatic diners. This tank contains six kinds of sharks; zebra, epaulette and brown-banded bamboo are the ones I recall off the top of my head. There are about 350 fish in the 80,000-gallon tank, spanning 80 species — all of them native to the Indo-Pacific ocean waters that hug the equator.

I’ve done the dive-show microphone gig three times in the past two months, and it looks like Diver Dan might be the world’s most patient human. When small children get the mike, they often ask him to repeat his original talking points, but he always finds a slightly different way to address the same point, and his voice never shows the least hint of exasperation — even that time he was still raspy-voiced from a cold. Sometimes the kids are school-aged and full of good questions; other times, they’re just adorable pre-schoolers who fall silent when presented with the microphone. Like everything else at the zoo, the dive show is an ever-fresh experience.

Sea change

I’ve had a week and a day to adjust to the news that when our dolphin tank closes for repair this fall and Semo and Allie go off-site, they won’t be coming back — a decision zoo director Lee Ehmke explains on the zoo’s website. In a way, it’s less shocking for volunteers, who knew the closure meant an extended departure. Volunteers also know that in the U.S., for eco-friendly reasons, dolphins generally are no longer taken from their ocean homes but bred in their domestic ones, which means replacement dolphins must be born in human care. And calf mortality, in human care or the wild, remains high. I’m trying to focus on all the good stuff at the zoo, old and new, including the long-awaited renovation of another ocean exhibit. Sharks will never have dolphins’ affinity for humans or that perpetual smile, but they do have a certain mystique. And our Tropical Reef, now fully refurbished and repopulated, treats the eye to this sunlit coral glow.

As any owner of a saltwater fish tank can guess, repopulating the aquarium was a gradual, painstaking process. In this case, a couple of months passed while the refurbished tank was filled with water to test for leaks, the new coral was cleaned, salt was added, “good” bacteria built up and, finally, fish were added in small groups, the sturdiest species first.

Many favorite creatures have returned, including the zebra (or leopard) shark above, and the clown triggerfish below (the topmost middle fish with the spotted belly).

The replacement corals, still artificial but much more vibrantly colored than the old ones, were a feast for the eyes even before the fish joined them. The new aquarium is the same size as the old one — about 60 by 80 feet, with about 80,000 gallons of water within. It would be irresponsible to harvest so much live coral from the ocean, and too hard to maintain it afterward.

Someone had the brilliant idea of adding this aqua-hued multilevel bench, occupied here by fellow volunteer Sharon. (She’s serving as “dive-spotter” for the aquarists who are in the tank cleaning the coral.) Not only does it let more people take a load off at once, but the space behind it creates a distinct passageway for people trying to pass through to the next exhibit.

So yes, I’m sad about the departing dolphins, but they’ll be here until fall, when we’ll all have a chance to say goodbye. In the meantime, we’ll wait to see what kind of sea creature replaces them. It won’t be the same, but it’s sure to be interesting.

Shark-spotting

With Shark Week nearing its tail end yesterday, I had a notion to photograph all the zoo’s toothy finned predators: the sand-tiger sharks and white-tip reef shark of the Discovery Bay shark tank; the small leopard and horn sharks of D-Bay’s estuary; the big zebra shark (aka the other leopard shark) and the small epaulet and brown-banded bamboo sharks of the Tropics trail’s coral reef. It didn’t quite work out that way, though. As usual, the reef was photo-friendliest — especially on a sunny afternoon, with natural buttery light bathing the artificial coral. (At 60 feet long, the tank’s sheer size makes real coral impractical in there.) I wound up parked on a comfy bench, watching little boys marvel at the big zebra (or leopard) shark. (September update: The reef has closed for renovations, to reopen in February 2012 before the zoo’s annual Tropical Beach Party.)

It’s tempting to call this toothy guy a leopard shark because of his spots. And we would, except for the inevitable confusion with D-Bay’s smaller estuary dwellers of the same name, which live in water 20 degrees cooler off the California coast. This tropical zebra shark starts life as a pup with vertical yellow stripes and stays that way until the stripes dissolve into spots when he reaches a length of two or three feet. And like most sealife in this exhibit, he hails from IndoPacific waters. (So does the white-tip reef shark, but because he was a little too predatory in here, that sleek gray shark now lives with larger Atlantic-Caribbean creatures in Discovery Bay.)

My favorite thing to say about sharks is that of the 450 species, only about 10 are dangerous to humans. (My favorite shark-related phrase: “nictitating membrane,” a protective transparent third eyelid.) Though large, this zebra shark is not an aggressive species, though it’s said to bite quite painfully in the wild if threatened or provoked. This species is a nocturnal bottom-feeder, so it was a treat to see him circling at or above eye level yesterday, showing off his spots from various angles.

The shark question we volunteers get asked the most: Why don’t the sharks eat the other fish in the tank? The short answer: gel diet. A new zoo shark is kept in temporary solitude and fed its new mealtime staple, a cubed mixture of seaweed, ground-up seafood and vitamins, until it realizes there’s no need to “hunt.” Zookeepers sit on the rocks above the reef at 3 p.m. daily and feed the sharks cubes of gel diet on spears. It’s fun to watch the sharks’ sucking mouths approach the water’s surface, seeking their midafternoon lunch.

Even on an extra-crowded zoo day like yesterday, the coral reef is a reliable refuge: a place to take a load off and chat with a fellow volunteer while background music plays and children cry “Dory!” each time the blue palette tang from “Finding Nemo” swims into view. And here, a large circling shark can be seen as an educational diversion, not a threat. And in February, it will be again. Until then: