Lucky stripes

I hadn’t seen the zoo’s six-month-old tiger cubs in several weeks; my husband, who’s extra-fond of tigers, had never seen them; and we finally caught “Life of Pi” on the big screen Saturday, so the weekend already had a big-stripey-cat theme going on. So we made a Sunday zoo trip and were rewarded with this:

Minnesota Zoo tiger cubs playing

My dad is among the faithful followers of this blog, and nearly every week he exclaims in response to some photo or other, all of which feature animals caught in a well-timed act: “You’re so lucky!” I always reply that amid the constant visual awesomeness busting out all over the zoo, my camera misses nearly half the great moments that come my way. But at the Tiger Lair last weekend, I did feel exceptionally lucky.

Nadya and Sundari

Nadya and Sundari, born two weeks apart last summer and each about 60 pounds at their last publicized weigh-in, were frolicking at the window with considerable encouragement from guests and their gloves. Turns out a glove dropped by the window is a feline-attention magnet, as several guests proved. One little girl also lured them with her stuffed tiger toy. I’d never gotten a good shot of the tiger girls together, but luck smiled on me this time. I still know Sundari, the Minnesota-born tiger, by the dragonfly pattern on the back of her neck.
tiger cub gnaw hugWe came for the tigers but stayed for the dholes, who were having their own pair interactions a little farther along the Northern Trail. I still can’t bring myself to photograph animals mating, although one pair appeared to be doing just that. This is a seven-animal exhibit, though, and other pairs were bonding in other ways.

dhole chin restdhole pair restingdhole outside den
One of the seven reminded me that there’s a second rock-den in the exhibit by sitting sentinel-style at its doorway. If both adult females reproduce again this winter, both dens might get some use, and (purely in theory) the exhibit could gain up to 24 new youngsters. Last year’s total yield was three pups, though, so despite a female dhole’s ability to bear and nurse a dozen small mouths, a smaller batch of babies is more realistic.

caribou stuck

caribou unstuckIt was too cold to walk the entire trail, and by midafternoon the exhibits all were half-cloaked in shadow. But as we turned back, passing the caribou exhibit, my husband noticed a humorous dilemma within: The animal with the most spectacular antler formation, after rubbing it on branches (a common caribou activity when the antlers are ready to drop off), got one sizable branch stuck in there, like a rifle in its rack. Along with a gathering crowd, we watched him try to shake the branch loose, tipping his head this way and that. As a spectator sport, it made me feel a little guilty. But the caribou somehow succeeded in the end, freeing us to leave the zoo — as usual — with light and cheerful hearts.


Amur babies: spots and stripes

I went to an all-day volunteer update seminar a week ago, and my mind is still overflowing with new animal facts. In weeks to come I’ll share the countless things I learned, starting with this: The four-month-old Amur leopard cubs, who went on exhibit last month, have embraced their zookeeper training sessions. During her Northern Trail/Grizzly Coast portion of the all-day update, Northern Trail supervisor Diana Weinhardt told us they’re learning to “sit” and take meat off a stick on command. On exhibit, they just like to play.

They’re a brother and sister, and you can tell them apart from the distinct V-shaped pattern of spots on the male’s forehead. He also seems more inclined to pose, at least for me on my two treks out there so far. Here he is with mom Polina, whom keepers call “Lina” (Lena). Diana describes her as a “stellar mom,” and she does seem to radiate maternal pride and contentment, as much as a leopard can:

While mother and cubs occupy this central “maternity” viewing area, the cubs’ dad, Chobby, has been staying in a separate area to the viewer’s left, while his future paramour Okha (pronounced Oxxa) still prefers her hangout in a treetop to the right. Female Amur leopards are in heat for only one week a year, in January or February,  so everyone hopes Okha ventures down this winter.

Meanwhile, the zoo’s Tiger Cam has gone offline since those two Amur cubs went into the tiger “holding” barn where the four adults (parents Molniy and Angara, along with female tigers Anya and Whirl) spend their nights. Yesterday, the cubs went on exhibit at the Tiger Lair on the Northern Trail. The cub who’s Molniy’s offspring will be his last, I learned at last week’s update. Since Molniy’s brother Vaska just sired four cubs at the Peoria Zoo, the “Detroit Boys” are both so “well represented” genetically — so many of their relatives are running around — that the Species Survival Plan for tigers wants to take those genes out of the pool, so to speak.

Here’s Vaska’s mate Kyra with her offspring in Illinois — thanks to my aunt Jeanette Kosier, a skilled photographer and Peoria resident, for sending me these! Despite being a first-time mom of four, Kyra embraced the mothering process at once. The Peoria Zoo has video of the cubs, including their birth.

I get to see our tiger cubs on exhibit tomorrow. (The zoo has them blogging about it, with a little typing assistance from Diana.) I expect the frolicking to be intense.

Paddle and wing

Latest tiger-cub news: Joining the zoo’s tiny tiger cub is an even tinier cub, born July 1 at the St. Louis Zoo. Neither cub had a maternally inclined mother; now both can be seen on Tiger Cub Cam, sometimes together. Neither has an official name yet, but my Day Captain Extraordinaire, Rae Nan, has taken to calling “our” two-weeks-older cub “Dragonfly” because of the double-wing stripe formation on the back of her neck. I couldn’t even picture a dragonfly when she first mentioned this name, but then I went river kayaking and saw some in person.

It was two weekends ago — a two-hour float down the St. Croix River from Interstate Park near Taylor Falls, Minn., to Osceola, Wis. It was 90 degrees, and as soon as I started kicking water up onto my kayak to create a cooler resting spot for my outstretched legs, dragonflies started perching there, too. When I pulled over to rest for a minute in shoreline shade, this friendly fellow sat on my knee for a good two minutes until I pushed off and started paddling again. It never occurred to me to wonder if he’d bite me, but at least one good website (I like this one, eduwebs) confirms that dragonflies don’t bite people; they just devour mosquitoes. Tellingly, I didn’t come home with a single bug-bite of any kind.

I’d hoped to see wildlife on this adventure — and we did spot a pair of eagles soaring into the treetops — but I wasn’t paying attention to dragonflies until a kayaking companion mentioned a colleague’s recent tweet about them. The tweet marveled that dragonflies can live for several years, spending all but their final few weeks underwater as nymphs. Another fine website,, marvels at this tropical insect’s ability to thrive in the Upper Midwest. There are at least three major varieties of dragonfly: darners, skimmers and clubtails. Eduwebs says California has 60 species of dragonfly. I’m pretty sure the dragonflies I photographed were blue darners.

Part of the zoo’s mission is to remind visitors that there’s a vast blue-green world beyond cities and small towns, full of overlooked creatures, and to give us all a gentle prod outward into that world. Once we’re physically immersed in nature, we’re more likely to think, “Maybe we shouldn’t put condos on this, after all” or “We need to make sure this kind of animal never dies out.” Worked on me.

Tiger tech and pups in person

It’s hard to remember a world without webcams. In the past two weeks, my husband and I have become addicted to Tiger Cub Cam, which shows the cub slumbering round-the-clock, in an incubator by night and a crib by day, surrounded by a growing menagerie of stuffed toys. It’s her third week of life, and she’s spent much of it snuggled up with a Tigger toy that’s bigger than she is. Last night, she’d wriggled her entire body beneath Tigger, with just her paws and tail sticking out. On Thursday, I saw the pair of them — tiger and Tigger — facing off on this flatscreen at the Northern Trail’s Tiger Lair.

She’s a hilarious sleeper: punching the air with all paws, rolling around and struggling to hold her head up, twitching her tiny tail. Zoo lit tells me tiger eyes open a week after birth, but with all the sleeping, it’s hard to tell. Her ears, which at birth were like two shallow cups peeking out of her head, seem to be emerging and unfurling into the shape of recognizable cat-ears.. A human steward watches over her at all times; my husband, watching alone last week, said he saw a zoo staffer looming over with her with an iPhone –a video within a video? — then remembering to duck out of the webcam’s sightline. When a staffer takes her out for “care,” such as bottle-feeding, a pillow Post-It promises her quick return.

Since that first “open house”  two weeks ago, we’ve all had to settle for enjoying the cub at a virtual distance. But last week I finally caught my first glimpse of dhole pups, who are nearly three months old now. They’re another Asian animal, also highly endangered, just a short distance from the tigers on the Northern Trail. But their “babyhood” has been completely different from the tiger’s. Our two dhole moms have been nurturing two litters of unknown size, both born in mid-April, in this rock-den. An estimated four to seven puppies are in there; these two emerged for just two or three minutes Thursday. Soon after the birth, the two male dholes were reportedly carrying food into the den for the two moms. At birth, dhole pups look almost like bear cubs: dark brown with small rounded ears, not the distinctive pointy headgear these two pups are already sporting. Baby animals are always fun, but it’s meaningful fun with two species like tigers and dholes, when you know those species run the risk of disappearing.

Tiny, tiny tiger

I woke up yesterday feeling oddly, biologically sad — not a rare morning situation for a night owl like me, and I knew my zoo day would perk me up fast. I didn’t know how fast until I came into the lounge and heard the news — an Amur tiger cub to go with the two Amur leopard cubs! And more news: We could meet the cub at a two-hour “open house” for staff and volunteers, though we couldn’t take pictures. And once I arrived at the holding area, MORE news: We could take pictures after all, since the cub was already featured on the zoo’s Facebook page. So I turned off my flash and went into a sort of photographic trance, while Northern Trail staffer Fred patiently cradled the baby on the other side of a glass-paned door and tried not to get his fingers nibbled off.

In these pictures, she’s four days old (born June 17) and three pounds, with eyes still unopened. She almost never stopped wiggling, so I’m glad these photos turned out as well as they did. Her parents are Molniy, one of the “Detroit boys,” and Angara, who came here when the other Detroit boy left, in a mating exchange that clearly paid off. This cub was the second and larger of two delivered by Angara; the first did not survive. About two-thirds of tigers survive the first 30 days.

Zoo staff usually take a hands-off approach to animal infants, letting moms be moms. But after a few days of watching Angara and the cub, zoo staff decided to hand-rear the tiny tiger. As one staffer mentioned as we gathered at the window with our cameras, tiger mothers have been known to eat their young. And Angara didn’t seem to be getting the hang of the whole nurturing thing. So some lucky humans have round-the-clock cub duty for the near future. While the general public won’t get its own open house, the zoo has a tiger webcam set up, as well as a leopard webcam where you can see the other Amur cubs with their mom. The baby leopards, born May 29, won’t be on public display for some time.

As if the day didn’t have enough baby-fresh goodness already, the trumpeter swan family was paddling alongside the newly reopened lake bridge (previously closed as part of black-bear-exhibit construction). I’d seen cygnets before, but not near enough to appreciate just how fuzzy they are. Last year’s cygnet pair didn’t make it to adulthood, possibly because of an extreme extended heatwave early last summer. I hope this quartet fares better.

Yesterday was great for weather (70 and sunny), cute animal babies and cute remarks by junior humans. As we watched the swans, a little girl on the bridge kept exclaiming, “Trumpet swans!” I gently corrected her, maintaining a “not-that-it-really-matters” vibe, and she repeated forcefully: “Trumpet swans!”

As I strolled the rest of the Northern Trail, just past the camel-ride site, I overheard this conversational snippet from an eight-to-10-year old boy and his mom just ahead of me:

Boy: “I wish I could live here.”
Mom (obviously amused): “You wish you could LIVE here?”
Boy: “Yes.”

Understandable, really.

Weekend update, with zookeepers

A couple of years had passed since my last all-day volunteer update at the zoo, a situation remedied Saturday. Seventy volunteers emerged at 4 p.m. from the new blue Ocean Classroom into a suddenly snowy wonderland, our minds packed with a fresh arsenal of animal facts shared by a series of funny, articulate zookeepers. I’ll share as many fun facts as I can in the weeks ahead. But one revelation seemed especially time-sensitive: The Detroit Boys are splitting up.

Here are brothers Molniy and Vaska, previously of Detroit, in warmer times. It seems Vaska soon will be heading to Glen Oak Zoo in Peoria, Ill., to make way for two new female tigers. Elderly male tiger Sergei will be matched up with Anya, our young but procreation-challenged tiger, for companionship and optional cubs. Molniy will presumably get his pick of the new girls. My husband, who took some Russian classes in college and had tiger-stripe handlebars on a boyhood bike, claims Molniy is his favorite of the pair because “Molniya” means “lightning bolt.” I can’t always tell them apart, but this exceptionally handsome fellow snoozing below is one of them, as seen by me about a year ago. (And yes, there’s a window between us.)

Speaking of windows, the Ocean Classroom, a new addition last summer, was a charming but distracting place to learn about the Detroit Boys and everything else that’s new at the zoo. The new blue room, also used for children’s classes and certain meetings, sits across from the volunteer lounge in a corridor behind the penguin exhibit, also new last summer. The room’s curved penguin-viewing window offered an almost-continuous view of one to five birds as they slipped away from the public viewing area to see what all the talking and laughing and PowerPoint slides were about. I scored a seat with two other Thursday volunteers within 20 feet of the window. This nonThursday volunteer was one of several to approach during break time and beckon the birds.

Various penguins came and went from their Ocean Classroom mini-exhibit, swimming through this narrow passageway to rejoin the larger gang visible to zoo guests. We have about 30 penguins in all, including the dozen from Minot, N.D., who are camping out here while their flooded facility is repaired. Jimmy Pichner, the zoo’s always-entertaining bird guru, says the Minot birds might be with us for as long as a year, and that their keepers can usually tell one bird from another by their color pattern and personality. Of the birds who swam to our window, I noticed that one seemed a little hyperactive, while another pair seemed extremely interested in the series of zookeeper presentations.

Doesn’t this look like an impressionist’s painting of a penguin? (That’s what I keep telling myself as I figure out how to adapt my camera settings to the reflected light and constant movement swirling within this exhibit.) This is the penguin most fascinated by the zookeepers. Each time a new staffer’s voice came through the microphone and the lights went down so we could see the slides, this penguin came to a floating, bobbing halt, beak pointed toward the presenter. Sometimes his mate joined his side and gazed into the classroom, too. For the penguins’ sake as well as my own, I was relieved that the window’s curtain wasn’t drawn — a measure that can be taken, I suppose, when children in the classroom need to focus on the teacher. Yesterday, the zookeepers had some stiff competition for volunteers’ attention. Fortunately, though not quite as cute as the penguins, the keepers were even more interesting.

The Detroit boys

Tigers are solitary by nature, but for long or short periods of their lives — estrus, youth — they may share a space contentedly with mates or siblings. A little more than six years ago, I was still a zoo-volunteer newbie when sisters Nika and Lana — then chubby kittens –went enchantingly on view in the Northern Trail’s Tiger Lair. (The Tiger Base Camp, our other striped-cat exhibit over by Russia’s Grizzly Coast, tends to be a one-tiger acreage.) The sisters have since gone elsewhere for breeding purposes, as part of the Species Survival Program in which the zoo participates. Now a pair of brothers, known fondly as the Detroit boys (after the zoo whence they came to us), are holding down the lair. Here they lounge, in poses both serious and silly.

At 10 years old, Molniy (Russian for lightning) and Vaska are technically no longer boys, although Amur (Siberian) tigers often live into their late teens in captivity. Nor are they new to the zoo, having arrived more than a year ahead of me in 2002. According to the zoo, Vaska is “more outgoing” than his brother and has a “C-shaped stripe” under one eye. As far as I can tell from these photos, that makes him the yawner on the left, while Molniy is the slurper on the right. Napping or pacing, yawning or slurping, they never fail to fascinate.