Animal Moments

January 16, 2010

A Winter Walkaround at the Zoo


On my way to my docenting shift with the rhinos today, I took a different route than my usual one so that I could see what animals might be out on this grey, melting day. The temperature was in the mid thirties, and the paths were mainly clear, well salted, but still slippery in spots. I didn't have my camera with me--but here's what I would have photographed.

Red pandas (Ailurus fulgens)

As I approached, I noticed fresh green foliage on the old snow inside the Red panda exhibit--the keeper had just spread two piles of bamboo. I looked up and saw a Red panda descending from the very top of a tree. Headfirst, he descended without difficulty. I couldn't tell whether his ankles swiveled the way a squirrel's do to allow him to sink his claws into the bark, but he seemed to grip the trunk with his front feet as he climbed down.

The panda approached one of the piles and began to eat, sometimes holding a stem in his paw while he munched, and sometimes browsing the leaves directly into his mouth.

I looked up again and saw two more Red pandas high in another tree. First one and then the other descended and approached the other pile of bamboo. Soon all three were eating eagerly. The keeper told me that these were a mama, papa, and baby, the latter already almost as large as his parents but still wearing some of his baby fuzz.

The Red pandas are very hard to see in the summer because they are sluggish and tend to stay in the treetops, hidden by the foliage. But in the winter, when they are more active and the leaves are off the trees, they can be more seen more easily. These three looked very prosperous with their thick heavy dark red and black coats, long luxurious striped tails, and delicately marked white and reddish-brown faces.

Amur tigers (Panthera tigris altaica)

The sight of a tiger in the snow is always impressive. When I walked by the tiger exhibit, the male was patrolling the habitat, following the tracks the animals have trod through the snow. There's no mistaking the male's sex--his testacles are so big they actually lift the base of his tail. I noticed that the tiger's feet occasionally slipped as he stepped onto ice, but it didn't disturb his pace. I was struck, as I always am, by how thick and heavy his legs and feet are. After parading for me, he descended into the trench for some privacy.

In the meantime, the tigress was lying in the back of the exhibit, watching the male while taking her ease in the cool snow.

Pea fowl (Pavo cristatus)

As I approached the lion exhibit, a long file of pea fowl came marching from around the back of the building and into my path. There were about a dozen birds, which at first I took to be all females. But then I saw that the very last bird was a cock--he had the characteristic bright blue neck, and he was displaying, rather comically, since he had only his short brown tail feathers to open and spread; the longer, lavishly colored train feathers will grow in only  when spring--and breeding time--comes.

As I walked among the birds, I saw that most of them had quite a bit of green in their necks, something I had never noticed before.  I later read that the peahens show green in their necks during the non-breeding season.  I wondered whether these were young birds--they all had very fluffy bellies--or whether I was just seeing their winter plumage fluffed out for warmth.

Lions (Panthera leo)

I watched as three lions, a male and two females, exited their building into the habitat. The two rangy females went right and left, while the male came straight to the front and center of the habitat, turned sideways, crouched, and shuffled his rear feet. Perhaps he was marking. This lion had a mane that grew over his shoulders and sides and halfway down his belly. These may have been the lions the zoo rescued from a junkyard in the midwest, where they had been kept in appallingly bad conditions. The lionesses still look too thin, but their health has improved greatly since being moved to the zoo.

Snow monkeys (Macaca fuscata), Greater flamingos (Phoenicopterus roseus), Fallow deer (Dama dama)

Three Snow monkeys (also called Japanese macaques) were perched in the very top of a dead pine tree. Another two were crouched next to their hot tub, grooming one another as the steam rose behind them. Still others bounced around on the rocks and logs, chasing, grooming, and playing.

Across from the Snow monkeys, I heard and then saw the Greater  flamingo flock, all squawking at once as they stood around in their pen next to the bird holding building. In the same yard I watched a graceful Fallow doe hurry by and then stop abruptly,  reach her head around, and nibble at an itch on her side.

White rhinoceroses (Ceratotherium simum) and little grey birds (unidentified)

Finally I reached the rhino building and entered quietly so as not to startle Jasiri and Tamba. Both were lying down, one in a stall in full view and the other in the central stall, which is shielded from public view by a palisade. Neither animal was asleep. I watched Tamba for a long time as he lay, resting with his huge mouth pressed to the floor, eyes open, and ears rotating as I spoke to him. Several dozen birds (mainly sparrows) also inhabit the rhino building. They fly around, nest in high corners, and find food in the rhino stalls, often leftover seeds of hay fallen into the drainage channels in the concrete floors. Sometimes a bird will perch for a few moments on a rhino's back, just as they do in the wild.The contrast between the tiny bird and the huge bulk of the rhino is remarkable.

Near noon the keeper came in and gave each rhino a flake of hay. I watched Tamba eating his hungrily, taking the long hay into his mouth just like somebody slurping up spaghetti. When he had finished his hay, he walked into the next-door stall and found something to eat under one of the rubber mats. Then he went back into the first stall and had a long drink from the water tank, before turning back to stand on his mat in a doze. How awkward rhinos look with their great spreading feet and thinnish legs, but they are not in any way awkward when they move.

Jasiri came out of the privacy stall only once while I was there. After eating his hay, he walked purposefully into the next-door stall and took a long sniff at the pile of rhino poop in the corner. Then he turned around, backed into the corner, lifted his tail, and dropped a load onto the pile. Then he kicked his back legs a bit, and walked back into the central stall. How neat and orderly it all was!

Grevy's zebras (Equus grevyi)

On the way back from the rhinos, I walked by the zebra yard and was surprised to see three of them out in the snow. I stopped to watch as they delicately picked their way along. One zebra stopped, right across the wall, and turned her head to look at me. She stood regarding me for several minutes, and, as I talked to her, her big eyes were fixed on my face and her round ears were turned toward my voice. Finally I said, "OK, I have to go," and she stepped away as I did, stopping once and looking back just when I turned my head to give her a last glance.

Polar bears (Ursus maritimus) and Canadian geese (Branta canadensis)

As I skirted the Arctic Ring of Life, I spotted one of the enormous Polar bears lying on his side in the snow and licking his gigantic front paws. At that moment, about a dozen geese flew low and silently over my head.

Guanacos (Lama guacacoe)

Before I left the park I saw about a dozen guanacos  gathered around  some logs as though warming themselves at a fire. When I walked by, one of the males suddenly started running friskily after one of the females.

It's only January, but there is already a tinge of spring on the breeze.