Growing old, growing up

Every so often, intriguing new tasks for volunteers pop up at the zoo. Last week, it was keeping an eye on the video camera pointed at the wolverine exhibit.

Our wolverine group is a lively bunch in general. A few weeks ago, I saw one pair’s play-fighting escalate until one wolverine had his jaws clamped on the other’s loose neck-skin and was swinging the “clampee” around himself in circles. (The “swung” wolverine seemed fine afterward, if you were wondering.) But as volunteer coordinator Heidi explained, one furry resident of the Minnesota Trail — the one sitting in this oddly human pose, looking quite vulnerable and cuddly for a wolverine — is now an astonishing 18 years old, and he’s arthritic. (In the wild, a 12-year-old wolverine would be considered ancient.) Zoo staff want to monitor his movements for an hour per day as they consider changes to his exhibit and how much time he spends outdoors.

One such change, already made, is the slanted bridge above. Wolverines are natural climbers, but staff added these “steps” to help the old guy reach the upper rocks more easily. Ten hours of outdoor VCR action should wrap up this week, Heidi tells me. Vets and keepers will watch the footage, along with additional footage recorded in the indoor  “holding” area, to help decide what other modifications can keep this guy’s life as painless, yet mobile, as possible.

Same day, opposite end of the age spectrum: In the warmth of the Tropics, I got a decent photo of Baby DeBrazza sooner than expected.

The DeBrazza monkey-mom in our Faces of Africa exhibit is striking a fine balance between letting Baby cling to her underside and letting him/her explore a little, as is happening here. S/he’s about two months old now. (Those are fake figs in the foreground, by the way — purely decorative in this exhibit, but a major food source for DeBrazza’s monkeys and many other African creatures in the wild.) Baby DeBrazza’s 18-month-old sister, I noticed Thursday, is developing an orange forehead patch that looks much more distinct and adult these days — a reminder that while life is winding down in one place, it’s surely picking up speed somewhere else.

Wolverine ascending

Thursday’s chilly rain seems long ago and far away, but the near-unprecedented zoo-day downpour, combined with the huge glut of year-end school groups confined indoors, made the day memorable. Instead of getting soaked on the way out to Grizzly Coast, I did two or three laps of the Minnesota Trail, where the crowds were manageable and had a roof overhead. The animals, on the other hand (and on the other side of the glass), braved the damp in their different ways. The coyotes trotted nervously around their exhibit, the river otters withdrew into their cave-like tunnels with only their tails protruding, and the wolverines climbed their trees and postured in a way I hadn’t seen before.

It wasn’t just one rogue climber, either; multiple wolverines in their side-by-side exhibits seemed to feel the need to go skyward, and to strike a series of attitudes once they reached the highest branch. They drew a crowd, and comments ranged from an adult’s “Yeah, they look kind of mean, don’t they?” to children’s exclamations: “He looks like a bear” and “He’s posing! … He’s posing again!” The “mean” comment sent me back to my zoo literature in search of supporting evidence. “Fearless” and “strongest mammal for their size” might have been euphemisms, but the real clue was that wolverines have vanished from most of their ranges in Europe, Canada and the U.S. (including the northern half of Minnesota), with seemingly minimal public outcry — partly trapped for their fur, partly eliminated by farmers and ranchers who believed these wily climbers were poaching their livestock. Zoo lit also describes these fierce and furry creatures as “mainly terrestrial” but able to scale trees with skill and speed. So we’ve noticed.