The cruelest month?

April always brings hordes of people to the zoo —  last Sunday, just a week ago, more than 7,000 stopped by. Each year they come to see the family farm, newly reopened for the season, with its fresh crop of spring babies (the piglets are my favorite). They come in the form of school groups or families finishing up their spring vacations. The zoo is so crowded in these last two months of the school year, it can be challenging to take a step or hear a word. On Thursday morning, though, the zoo was practically empty as a winter storm struck the Twin Cities. By noon, 75 guests had shown up — one person for every hundred in attendance four days earlier. It was eerie and, to me, wonderful.

snowy Northern TrailHere’s the Northern Trail around 10 a.m. Thursday. The roads were a chaotic mess out there in the real world, but in here, alone and on foot, I was enveloped by silent order and snowy peace.

snowy tiger girlsI must have been the day’s first passerby at the Tiger Lair. The cubs — or at 10 months, they’re practically young ladies now — seemed surprised to see me, or anyone.

snowy zoo moose

snowy zoo robinThe lone moose on exhibit appeared to be slurping a slushy from a tree branch, and robins were hopping about as if the landscape wasn’t a version of frozen tundra. A fellow volunteer told me later that at least one robin has been occupying the stretch between the Tiger Lair and the Central Plaza all winter. That’s where I saw this one as I headed out and again after doubling back. He was quite shy, and it took a good 20 attempts to capture him in my frame.

Back inside,  the Tropical Reef was a warmer oasis of quiet, though I had the company of several volunteers and three aquarists there.

zebra shark pair

One aquarist, Diver Dan, kept peeking around the corner to see if he should put on his gear and do the 10:30 dive show. In 30 minutes, just one woman and her toddler came by, so the dive show didn’t happen — the fish were fed from above. We volunteers pretended to insist he should go in there just for us, and Dan pretended to demand $20 in payment for doing so. Meanwhile, we admired the new male zebra shark — the lighter one on the right — that has recently joined the female. Could there be shark pups soon?

zebra sharks cuddling?Can sharks cuddle? Is that what’s happening here? I’m not sure I want to think about it. One thing I noticed about the new male shark: his tiny blue eye. Another thing I learned about our female: Not only is she eyeless, but she was likely born that way; she was wild-caught from the ocean, so nobody’s sure.

upside-down zebra sharkNobody’s quite sure what this upside-down business is all about, either, or at least I’m not. She was swimming with vigor before and after striking this pose. It reminded me of my dog demanding a belly-rub.

Mini Satin rabbitI finished my zoo-day an hour early; because of the weather, the volunteers were free to go after lunch. My last gig was at the chicks-and-bunnies station, holding this Mini Satin rabbit for kids to touch. Bunny handling makes me nervous, because the bunnies themselves are often very nervous; we take care not to handle them too much, or let the kids touch them TOO much, and you always have to strike a balance between letting one escape and squeezing its delicate little bones too hard. This bunny, however, was a portrait of calm, and holding him or her for about 20 minutes was a total delight. The few children who stopped by were gentle and obedient when told to stroke the bunny with just a couple of fingers, one child at at time, only on the back (the ears are such a tempting target!). After the bunny, and after lunch, I left for my “real” job feeling as satisfied as if I’d spent an entire day among the animals. The relentless grip of winter is driving Minnesota crazy right now, but for one morning in zoo-land,  it provided a comforting retreat.