Admiring Monet

Any zoo demo is a fun zoo demo, but of the half-dozen animals I demonstrate routinely, I have my favorites and less-favorites, as do all volunteers. Snakes are the best in my book; salamanders are, well, a lot less active and interactive (and can’t be touched because as amphibians, they absorb substances too easily through their skin). The painted turtle usually falls somewhere in between, but last week he had a stellar outing with a handful of kids who somehow knew how to bond with him.

painted turtle with kidsThis is Monet, a male painted turtle. We don’t always let him run loose on this cart, but my fellow volunteer Darlene (who’s attached to that hand) put the sides up, and although the zoo was once again swarming with school groups, most of the kids were behaving well enough and agreeing not to touch him. We’ve demo’d Monet many times before, but I don’t remember this level of mutual fascination between him and his audience.

painted turtle, boy's headPainted turtles are common in Minnesota lakes, and my husband says he often swam with them as a boy at his extended family’s summer cabin. My favorite facts to share with kids: the males (like Monet) have smaller bodies but longer claws and tails than the females; they live in wet places and sunbathe on logs to rid themselves of leeches and absorb vitamin D through their shells; their average lifespan is 25 years; the warmer the place where they lay their eggs, the more females will develop and hatch. And of course painted turtles have that pretty orange underside, almost worthy of the painter himself.

I don’t do demos every week, so I was glad to do one on my last day at the zoo before a monthlong hiatus. I won’t be volunteering or blogging for the rest of May, as I finish up a part-time grad-school program, but I’ll be back with a vengeance in June. By then, the zoo will have a summer Africa exhibit (giraffes again, at last!) and another temporary dinosaur exhibit. I can hardly wait to check it all out.

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Out of the box

I’m on vacation at home this week, which allowed me to spend six full hours at the zoo today and write about it tonight, while it’s all still fresh in my mind. Many things distinguished the day: the glorious pre-autumn weather, the intelligent curiosity of children, the box turtle that tried to untie my shoelace and nibbled my sock …

I try to keep blurry photos off this blog unless they’re arty or surprising or proof of rare, fleeting events. The last two exemptions apply here. Before the first of my two animal demos, I strolled into the room where a hedgehog was waiting and saw a turtle on the floor. Two young female interns were supervising it. Within two minutes, all three of us had had a close shoe-related encounter with the reptile. One intern playfully scooted away from it, but despite its name, “Pokey” also picked up the pace in pursuit of her foot. Eager for a photo op, I offered mine instead.

I’ve demo’d painted turtles, which are common near Minnesota lakes, but not the common or Eastern box turtle, which comes no closer than southern Wisconsin. They’re four to eight inches long, with domed shells. (I wear a size 7 sneaker, if that helps put Pokey in perspective.) In the wild, they have a taste for mushrooms, including some that are poisonous to people. When I described my experience over lunch an hour later, a veteran volunteer said the turtle might be mistaking shoelaces for worms.

I can’t wait to describe my encounter to Darlene, a fellow volunteer who got a box turtle as a pet for her daughter — about 30 years ago. The daughter has been an adult for two decades, but Sally the turtle (eventually discovered to be male) still resides in what sounds like bucolic indoor/outdoor comfort at Darlene’s place. Box turtles generally live at least 50 years, sometimes 100, and Wikipedia says they don’t mix well with larger pets or very small children — two things to consider before acquiring one.

Two weeks later, I saw Pokey being demo’d in his public arena — a clear plastic box on the Minnesota Lodge desk. Not only could I get a blur-free photo under these circumstances, but I could figure out his gender — even if a notecard hadn’t proclaimed it, I could see he had red eyes, a masculine box turtle’s calling card.

The turtle-shoe Thursday was packed with potential blog entries: a smart kid’s curiosity, the semi-destructive tendencies of grizzly bears, the gracefulness of goitered gazelles on the Northern Trail. And, of course, temporary reptilian footwear.

Sea turtle reborn

Ten minutes before leaving the zoo yesterday, I was chatting with a fellow volunteer in Discovery Bay when a distant flash of movement caught my eye. Across the room, in the shark tank, one of our two injured sea turtles was swimming. I dashed over to see which one, and it was Mardi, the Kemps Ridley turtle who almost never dips below the water’s surface.

Both Mardi and our green sea turtle, Bay, are “boatstrike” turtles whose injuries limit their buoyancy and mobility. A bunch of lettuce anchored to the tank’s floor has been known to lure Bay down into view at feeding time, but I’d never seen Mardi swoop across this landscape of coral and fishes before; I was excited enough to spot him up at the surface last summer, and I wrote about him then, too.  At the viewing window yesterday, I found a couple of aquarium staffers who explained that Mardi, who likely took a boat’s propeller to the head in his native waters off the shore of Louisiana, had seemed almost brain-damaged ever since he came to the zoo by way of a North Carolina rescue facility several years ago. But on the advice of turtle experts elsewhere, Mardi has been taking “supplements” in his diet lately, including milk thistle, and as of Tuesday he had recovered his appetite and was behaving almost normally.

I couldn’t help thinking of the rare patient who emerges from years of coma or that 1990 movie “Awakenings” with Robin Williams and Robert DeNiro, where a miracle cure brings patients out of a stupor — for a while. It’s too soon to know whether Mardi has become a new turtle, or if this sudden burst of energy is just a random blip on the radar. What’s certain is that sea turtles and motorboats don’t mix well, and that zoos and aquariums serve as a valuable refuge when these large and lovely reptiles survive the collision.

Above the sea

I hit the ground running on “zoo day” last week, giving first- and-second-graders a ten-minute frog talk and moving on to a bullsnake demo with William, the largest and calmest snake I’ve ever held. My zoo day ended quietly, though, with a rare dive-spotting shift in Discovery Bay. Although the word “soporific” comes to mind, there are worse ways to spend half an hour than sitting poolside with a walkie-talkie, alone at the top of the shark tank, keeping an eye on a pair of aquarium staffers as they clean the tank’s interior. The smell of fish, the bubbles rising from the divers’ oxygen tanks and the occasional squeaking of the dolphins next door had nearly lulled me into a stupor (my eyes still fixed on the divers’ shapes in case of a highly unlikely crisis) when an unexpected sight jarred me into full-alert mode. Appearing out of nowhere, the Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle swam by.

When I started at the zoo in late 2003, the shark tank included three giant green sea turtles that drew excited gasps from guests whenever they swam into view. Achieving the goal for most sea turtles in aquariums, they eventually were released into their native waters (which for that trio, meant a return to Hawaii). Our two current sea turtles — a green one and this Kemp’s Ridley — arrived later from the Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue & Rehabilitation Center in Topsail Beach, N.C. Both were “boat-strike” turtles whose injuries left them with permanent buoyancy problems — in other words, difficulty diving, which makes them too vulnerable for ocean life. During daily shark feedings, the green sea turtle is sometimes lured down into view with a bunch of weighted lettuce. But our Kemp’s Ridley is harder to spot, and even from my perch on high, it was only within my camera’s scope for a minute or so. Of the eight species of sea turtle, the Kemp’s Ridley is the smallest, weighing less than 100 pounds full-grown. And this one is more fragile than most, thanks to its close encounter with a boat propeller. It may be hard for visitors to see, but at least it has found a safe, permanent haven among our sharks, rays and eels.

The spiny softshell shuffle

I’ve been missing the zoo after three weeks away. On my last volunteer visit, I was treated to a glimpse of this guy (or gal?) in the turtle tank that divides the Minnesota and Tropics trail entrance areas. (This photo was taken from the Tropics side, but the turtle tank was added as part of the new Minnesota Lodge, and the view from that side is equally fine.) Like a Minnesotan burrowing under winter blankets, this spiny softshell turtle tends to bury itself in the sand — flat and invisible until it extends its neck a startling length, periscope-style, to check out its world. Zoo staffers say it can breathe under the sand for 30 minutes if it holds very still, but only five minutes if it’s been active. It’s considered the fastest swimmer of Minnesota turtles, and sometimes it joins the painted turtles in paddling around the tank. But I’ve yet to see it sunbathing on logs with the other turtle species, and this was the first time I’d ever seen the spiny softshell dancing, however awkwardly, to navigate its way into a corner. Even in a reptile, the awkwardness was oddly touching.

Update: This appears to be one of my more commonly clicked-upon posts, so I’m adding a larger new picture and a link to more information about the spiny softshell. Here she is actually sunbathing after all on the “lower deck,” seen from the Minnesota Trail side, with a view of lunchers in the Tropics. I’m fairly sure she’s female because of her size, which strikes me as at least 9″ (the usual maximum for the always-smaller male spiny softshells).

Turtles sunbathe for a couple of practical reasons: to absorb Vitamin D through their shells and, in the wild, to bake off leeches. The Twin Cities-area Warner Nature Center has a lovely Web page about spiny softshells. And if you’re curious about smooth softshells, the Minnesota DNR goes into greater depth on that subspecies.