A howl before mating

It’s Wolf Watch mating season again, when volunteers bundle up for a few weeks to spy on the zoo’s two gray wolves in half-hour shifts and tell staff if we witness a butt-to-butt “tie.” (Two months after that, pups are probable.) There’s been a bit of grumbling the past two weeks, as zero-ish temperatures collided with a general lack of activity in the exhibit. (This Tumblr by an anonymous fellow volunteer about sums it up, while confirming the wolves’ names as I’d jotted them down once — she’s Wazi, he’s Kaska.) But on Thursday, I got a bigger eyeful than expected.

wolf watch- Wazi play bowFor the first 15 minutes, I saw only the tips of Kaska’s black ears as he lay near the exhibit’s edge and I sat huddled under an electric blanket in the glass-enclosed wolf-viewing room. But then he stood up, executed a deep stretchy “play bow” followed by a shimmying body-shake, and walked over to the “coyote side” of his area. A few minutes later, Wazi the she-wolf, whose white fur blends so well with snow that I hadn’t seen her, also stood up, performed an identical set of maneuvers and followed him. (Here she is doing another stretchy play bow at the coyote side.)

wolf watch- howlI was debating whether to leave my chair and blanket and follow them when I heard such a ruckus that I leaped up and ran toward it. Both wolves were howling through the fence at all four coyotes, who were yipping back. Here’s Kaska in full-thr0ated howl mode. (The wolves appear to be butt-to-butt here, but I don’t believe anything actually happened.) Only a few intrepid guests appeared on the Minnesota Trail that bone-chilling midday, and I had this particular scene completely to myself.

wolf watch- coyote watch

She maintained her interest in the coyotes longer than he did.

wolf watch- Kaska close-upKaska and I had a moment together at the coyote-side window, and when he faced me head-on, I had to lower the camera for a second and gaze directly into those amber eyes, appreciating the unmediated wildness of our encounter. (My husband later said Kaska was imagining how I’d taste with steak sauce, which was probably close to the truth.) These animals, so similar in some ways to our house pets, have such a fierce untamed elegance that I never take this kind of proximity for granted. It makes braving the bitter cold worthwhile.

The new guy: shades of gray

So yes, as I mentioned in last week’s post, a dark new gray wolf has come from Canada to live with the silver girl on the Minnesota Trail. I heard he was skittish and shy after barely a week in his new home, but I headed out in yesterday’s sudden shocking cold (from 50 degrees down to 10, in 48 hours) on the off-chance I might get a good look. Let’s see if I had any luck.

In that spacious exhibit with all those concealing trees, he was right by the window! I saw him before he saw me, and I edged slowly around the corner from the cabin-like viewing room to improve my vantage point. When our eyes first met, he showed his skittishness by leaping sideways and back a few paces. But then he staked out a spot and returned my gaze — until the silver girl came even closer and he transferred his serious gaze to her.

In the 1940s, wolves were so endangered that northern Minnesota was their only wild habitat in the lower 48 states. Last month, they made news again by coming off the threatened species list. (The Minnesota DNR details their return from federal to state management.) Of course, the world still needs wolf pups, and wolf-breeding season (late January to early March) is nearly upon us. I wrote all about Wolf Watch two years ago, when the silver girl was a 2-year-old living with a 12-year-old, and volunteers camped out with clipboards in the cabin-like viewing room, watching in half-hour shifts for signs of a May-December romance. That handsome old fellow has retired to a Michigan zoo, and the new dad-in-waiting is less than 2 years old himself. Like the silver girl in 2010, he might still be too young this year. But Wolf Watch resumes three days from now, and soon we’ll see if jet-black and silver-white shades of gray meet somewhere in the middle.

Black and white mischief

Who knew African penguins loved the taste of caulk? Not I, or not until last week, when I arrived at the zoo to find their exhibit briefly closed. The penguins had been diving down to strip away the pale goo that helps bind the front pane of glass to the rest of their exhibit.

By midday, as I passed by on my way to lunch, the exhibit had been repaired and reopened, with a fresh layer of fast-drying concrete to shield the new caulk from wayward beaks. During lunch in our lounge, volunteer coordinator Heidi — always a gold mine of animal information —  explained that consumption and digestion did little to alter the whitish goo, which meant some of it got reconsumed (eww!). The penguins were unharmed by their new short-term snack, but taking it off the table was obviously best for all concerned. Heidi also mentioned the penguins’ fascination with shiny objects, including zookeepers’ keys. One crouching keeper got a ring snatched off her belt at feeding time; a penguin dived to the bottom of the seven-foot pool with its metallic toy, which zoo staff promptly retrieved.

A different species of silliness was going on along the Minnesota Trail, where high in a tree, a chittering squirrel was taunting our silvery she-wolf. Once again, she cast off her aura of wild mystery and reminded me of my dog, gazing up into the branches with a slack, quivering lower jaw, then leaping to stretch her forepaws up past the lowest branch, a good five or six feet off the ground — all in vain. Watching alongside me, a guest said she was reminded of her husky at home.

The early days of a new school year always bring a welcome breath of quiet to the zoo. With summer crowds dissolving, I could take some decent underwater penguin photos without fear of blocking anyone’s view. Oddly, guests seem to approach volunteers with more questions after the crowds thin out; I answered at least half a dozen in four hours on Thursday. On autumn weekdays, zoogoers are no longer swept along in a crush of humanity; they have the physical and psychic space to pause, ponder, wonder, inquire. And if animals decide to act silly, then everyone gets a front-row view.

Canis lupus … or familiaris?

If you want to see two gray wolves not napping on the Minnesota Trail, we’ve hit the uncomfortably cold streak when they’re most active. The female, who’s still a youngster, seems to cover more ground than her venerable would-be mate.

To my zoo-gazing eye, only our Amur leopards outrank this silver-hued she-wolf in elegant beauty. I catch my breath a bit each time I see her in motion. Last week, however, my awe downshifted into amused affection when she started behaving exactly like my ultra-domesticated Belgian shepherd dog.

She found the perfect place beneath a tree.

She pointed her muzzle into a dirty patch of snow and gnawed the ground, loosening and spreading something that just had to smell bad.

She lowered one shoulder into her favored spot and rubbed it around, exactly the way my pooch Lena does when she finds a trace of something rodent-related in our back yard.

Then she flung herself down on her back and writhed in ecstasy, scratching and perfuming herself.

Any zoo volunteer, including this one, will warn you against confusing wild animals with tame pets. But the wolf/dog connection is undeniable.

The other Wolf Watch: underdog edition

Last week marked my fourth consecutive Thursday of Wolf Watch, but with a change of venue, subspecies and relationship issue. The focus shifted from possible Plains-wolf romance on the Minnesota Trail to male-on-male aggression among Mexican gray wolves on the Northern Trail. Wolves in any wild or captive pack use aggression to maintain hierarchy, and each pack has its underdog, or omega wolf. From time to time, volunteers take half-hour turns in the wolf gazebo and take notes on how everyone’s getting along.

Mexican gray wolves are a bit smaller (50-85 pounds), more colorful (with shades of cinnamon and pepper in their fur) and far more rare than their northern Minnesota cousins. In their heyday, before humans and habitat destruction pushed them to the edge of extinction in the 1970s, Mexican wolves ranged across much of the western U.S. By the 1990s, a Species Survival Program was overseeing the gradual, careful release of captive-born wolves into the mountains of Arizona.

In our Northern Trail exhibit, and from these three photos, it’s pretty easy to identify the underdog, especially compared to the confident, hard-eyed, alert-eared fellow posing at the top. I feel a twinge when I look at the omega wolf’s tattered left ear and tucked-under tail — it’s hard not to remember the cutthroat environment of middle school at such moments — but on Thursday the underdog trotted around the exhibit’s perimeter and stopped repeatedly atop the elevated rock to sniff the air, mimicking the other two wolves at a cautious distance. No obvious signs of aggression marred my half-hour in the gazebo.

Mexican wolves made Twin Cities news last month when three females (who spent a couple of years in this very exhibit a few years back) were released by vandals who struck the Wildlife Science Center in Forest Lake, Minn. Maybe the vandals thought they were staging their own “reintroduction” effort, but of course lifelong captive wolves have no skills to sustain themselves when abruptly set loose in the suburbs. Fortunately all three were recaptured without incident, although one wolf took longer to find than the other two and eventually had to be corned in a homeowner’s yard. An update as of March 19: The last wolf caught turned out to be the alpha, and her former underlings rejected her upon her return. The ex-alpha will be sent to another facility, where a possible male partner awaits her.

Perhaps the sight of any captive wild creature bothers some people the way the underdog unsettles me. It’s tempting to impose our human ideals on nature, to believe all wild creatures can or should be “free,” safe and equal. But nature has its own ideas.

Another update, as of November 2011: We no longer have Mexican wolves on exhibit, but in late December, Asian wild dogs, also known as dholes, will take over the wolves’ old space. I look forward to an entirely new view from the gazebo.

Wolf Watch: Will they or won’t they?

Semi-endangered species reproduction alert: The Minnesota Trail’s two largest canids are on Wolf Watch this month. In lay terms, this means it’s their breeding season, and volunteers take half-hour turns with a clipboard, a chair and an electric blanket (the trail’s walkway and wolf-viewing room are semi-enclosed but chilly), watching this pair to see if they show any interest in each other at all. We take notes, and in the event of a “tie” — wolves standing back-to-back, hindquarter-to-hindquarter — we are to alert zookeepers by radio at once.

Last week, our male and female pleased everyone by trotting around and showing off their gorgeousness: he, massive-necked and multicolored; she, slender and silvery. Both were out of sight when I heard yipping and howling; leaving the wolf-viewing room to follow the sound, I found the female at her exhibit’s edge, muzzle pointed skyward (moments before this photo was taken), howling — presumably at the four male coyotes next door, whom she must have glimpsed through the foliage before sitting down to howl at them with her back turned.

At 12 years old, this fellow could be considered a wee bit old for the 2-year-old female whose pups he’s supposed to sire. When I saw them interact, he was usually chasing her, and barely getting close enough to sniff the tip of her tail. In one fleeting shared moment, they bumped noses, and he curled his lip as if considering, then reconsidering, a snarl. When I explained the situation to husband-wife visitors who wondered why I had a clipboard, the husband put a human slant on the elderly he-wolf’s reticence: “Maybe he doesn’t want to go to jail.”

Neither wolf showed their summertime affinity for napping, but this one took a few minutes to find some high ground and bask in the sun. Amid all the pressure to be productive — and, in these wolves’ case, reproductive — her restful moments reminded her admirers that sometimes, it’s more than enough just to be.