Watermelon afloat

Now that she’s completed her series of swimming lessons, the zoo’s first baby tapir in 20 years — born about a month ago and described whimsically by the zoo as a fuzzy watermelon with legs — has landed on exhibit with her mom and the big pool. Before that, the zoo volunteer lounge kept her visible on webcam, and here she is trying out the baby pool back in her holding area (with her mom Bertie’s feet in the background).

baby tapir in pooltapir feetBefore we could see the baby on exhibit (which happened a couple of weeks ago, so yes, I’m playing catch-up here), her feet served as a screensaver in a computer in our lounge. An adult tapir’s weight may range from 500 to 900 pounds, but newborns weigh 11 to 20 pounds, so those feet are not as big as they look! Tapirs have four toes on their front feet but only three per foot in back. By the time our new girl is six or eight months old, those spots will fade and she’ll have the two-toned black-and-white appearance of an adult.

blurry baby tapir walkingAnd here she is on exhibit in one of my “impressionist” photos, as I call the blurry ones where the animal and I are both in motion. It was her first morning on public view, and quite a crowd had gathered, so we volunteers caught sight of her in quick bursts while trying not to block visitors’ view. She’s a perpetual motion machine with a funny, bouncy way of walking — almost like a horse (her distant relative) trotting. We all look forward to watching her grow up.

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Exotic calves

At last week’s giraffe feeding, during a lull, the lad selling crackers wondered aloud, “Do the other animals feel like they’re being ignored?” He meant the five other African species sharing the same exhibit: ostriches, guineafowl, wildebeests and two species of antelope. The first kind, bongo, have gotten at least some attention by having a couple of calves last month. And bongo babies, it must be said, are extremely cute.  Just look at the size of those ears!

bongo mom and baby

Bongos are a nocturnal, shade-seeking, mud-wallowing antelope formerly widespread in Africa but threatened by deforestation in their native habitat. Their tongues are said to be long and mobile for leaf-plucking purposes, much like the giraffe’s. Their pregnancies are a couple weeks longer than humans’. They don’t get giraffe-level attention, it’s true, but intrigued guests often ask what they are.

addax herd

The most frequent question I get while hanging out at Africa — “What are those white ones?” — points to our other antelope species, the addax. Like the wildebeests, they seem to stay just out of easy photographic range. Unlike the bongo, they’re desert dwellers, but with similarly striking horns that spiral up to 3 feet high. They have no calves at the moment, though — which brings us to the recent triumph on the Tropics trail.

tapir parents

From this picture of Bertie and Jon-hi, can there be any doubt that together they’d make the zoo’s first tapir calf in 20 years? At 419 days (why, yes, that’s well over a year), a tapir gestation makes human and bongo pregnancies seem like nothing at all. The currently week-old calf is not on exhibit, so I haven’t seen her in person yet; she needs to get better at nursing and swimming, since this exhibit has a pool. In the meantime, though, Zooborns posted her photo, and you can see her on our zoo’s tapir cam until  she’s ready to brave the exhibit. I’m sure we all agree that day can’t come soon enough!

When Bertie met Johnny

I took two or three laps around the Tropics trail yesterday — partly to bask in greenery, warmth and birdsong on an icy gray day and partly to keep tabs on the romantic alliance unfolding in our tapir exhibit.

Bertie the tapir (the one on the right in all three photos) has held the fort alone for many months since the death of a female companion, but her life is perking up with the recent addition of a love interest from Omaha. Malayan tapirs, which weigh at least 500 pounds and are native to Southeast Asia, live about 30 years; Bertie’s about four years old, and her new guy, Jon-hi, is a whippersnapper at about 18 months. As I watched them eat from bowls with foreheads pressed together, an informative intern stopped by (how convenient!) to answer my questions. Jon-hi (which he pronounced Johnny) won’t be sexually mature until he’s nearly Bertie’s age, but in the meantime they seem to enjoy each other’s company. When Jon-hi laid his head across Bertie’s back or sniffed her a little intrusively, she made a birdlike squealing noise. Both tapirs sniffed the air dramatically, lifting their elongated snouts skyward and baring their teeth — the standard tapir response to the scent of a potential mate, the informative intern told me.

Nothing looks quite like a tapir, a creature related to rhinos and horses but not to pigs or elephants. That elongated snout can serve as a snorkel while a tapir strolls a lakebed browsing for aquatic plants. Normally they do this at night, and before Jon-hi’s arrival, any Tropics trail tapir sighted in daylight was usually a sleeping tapir. Clearly, the excitement of a new companion is enough to disrupt anyone’s regular schedule.