Jumping for joy?

When visiting the Minnesota Zoo with the grandkids the other day, I was fascinated with what was going on in the Dhole (pronounced with a silent “h”), or Asiatic wild dog pen. What I think might have been the male Dhole was doing a jump-dance step in one corner of his circuit around his pen.  It looked like this, but had no vocalization with it.

Dhole, Asian dog

Dhole, Asian dog

Dhole, Asian dog

Dhole, Asian dog

The jump-dance step was repeated several times, so it might have been part of a display for the female in the pen, or it might have been some type of aberrant displacement behavior, an artifact of being bored in its captive environment.

Dhole, Asian dog

Was he showing off for his mate?

Dhole (Cuon alpinus) are native to central, south, and Southeast Asia, but are not members of the familiar Canis genus that includes domesticated dogs, coyotes, wolves, African jackals, and even Australian dingoes.  They have shorter legs, different dentition, and differences in skull anatomy that distinguish them from members of the dog genus.

Dhole, Asian dog

Dhole are highly social animals, living in large clans of related individuals, but they lack the strong social hierarchy of wolves. They are typically diurnal hunters, going after medium and large-sized hoofed mammals and their young. Small groups of 3-5 individuals hunt cooperatively to bring down their much larger prey, much like African hunting dogs do. Although Dhole seem docile and non-aggressive in their clan in the wild, efforts to tame them have failed, as captive youngsters have remained shy or become vicious to handlers.  Dhole — an interesting dog “cousin”.


Wolves doing what they do best at the Minnesota Zoo…enhanced for dramatic effect with a little photo editing.

Gray wolf, Minnesota Zoo

My attempt to make this very handsome gray wolf in its semi-natural Zoo enclosure look every bit of the dominant animal that it is.

Gray wolves, Minnesota Zoo

Wolffish greeting. I didn’t realize that wolves have such long thin legs, more apparent in their summer fur.

Gray wolves, Minnesota Zoo

The social hierarchy seems to be well established in this small pack: subordinate animals lower their heads in the presence of more dominant animals.

Gray wolf, Minnesota Zoo

the “leader of the pack”…

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Walking with tigers… and bears and otters

The grandkids got up close and personal with some of the Minnesota Zoo animals that were feeling quite social on our last visit.

minnesota-zoo- amur tiger

The glass partition makes it seem like you really are walking with the tiger in this enclosure at the Minnesota Zoo.  Weight of this Amur Tiger – 300-400 pounds, body length – 6-9 feet; small grandchild, just a snack size for this largest species of the cat family.

Amur Tigers are the top predators in temperate forests of eastern Asia, but are threatened in their native habitat because of loss their wild hunting grounds, human competition for their favored prey (deer and boar), and removal due to their potential for predation of livestock.  The Minnesota Zoo has been instrumental in coordinating the Tiger Species Survival Plan and in rearing more than 40 tiger cubs.  Only about 360 of these tigers remain in the wild.

minnesota-zoo-Amur Tiger

Minnesota’s temperate forest and shrub environment is similar to the Amur Tiger’s native habitat, but instead of pacing this roomy enclosure in a zoo, wild tigers would roam over a 400 square mile home range.  You can see how the striped coat is good camouflage in the dappled light of a dense forest.

minnesota-zoo-Amur Tiger

Zoo environments are wonderful for conserving rare species and educating the public about conservation efforts, and they are also great places for animal photography.

minnesota-zoo-Brown Bear

You wouldn’t want to be this close without a thick pane of glass between you, but the Brown Bear must have been as curious about my granddaughter as she was about it.

minnesota-zoo-Brown Bear

A really big head and really big feet with really long claws make this Brown Bear (or Grizzly Bear) of the eastern Russian coast (Kamchatka) and Kenai peninsula of Alaska a fearsome predator.

The Zoo’s three Brown Bears were orphaned and rescued by Alaskan conservation personnel in 2006 and found a home at the Minnesota Zoo.  At full adult size they may stand up to 10 feet and weigh in excess of 1000 pounds, making them one of the largest land predators on earth (along with Polar Bears).  Once found throughout the northern hemisphere in both North America and EurAsia, their range is now limited to wild and protected areas on those continents, but they are not endangered.

minnesota-zoo-Brown Bear

Showing off and having a good soak before a nap.

minnesota-zoo-sea otters

A couple of sea otters were play-fighting with each other while the grandkids watched.

minnesota-zoo-sea otters

Sea Otters are playful but these two looked pretty serious about biting and wrestling with each other.

Sea Otters have recovered somewhat from overhunting in the early 1900s when their world population was down to a couple of thousand animals.  They thrive in the cold waters and kelp forests of the eastern Russian and northwestern U.S. coasts, where they might eat up to 30% of their body weight per day in shellfish and a variety of other invertebrates, as well as fish.


Inquisitive and friendly behavior, especially in the Zoo environment, makes them a crowd-pleaser.  Photo from the MN Zoo.

at the zoo

The grandkids always love a trip to the Minnesota Zoo, with its warm and humid tropics trail a key attraction on a cold winter or spring day.  Getting there early meant we had the place almost to ourselves, and as a result, saw some things we normally would not have seen.

aquarium-MN zoo-

A brilliant array of tropical fish swarmed in front of the kids, but the highlight was watching the sharks and rays get fed.

minnesota zoo animals-

Animals are far more active earlier in the morning, but the group of monkeys in this cage looked incredibly bored. DeBrazza’s Monkey (on the left in back) was looking around with heavy lidded eyes; the Black and White Colobus Monkey on the right stood in this pose for minutes, while others moved around it.

spotted whistling duck-MN Zoo-

A Spotted Whistling Duck took off from its lagoon and stopped for a visit with us on the observation area railing.

beaver family-MN Zoo-

The beaver family swam out of their underwater lodge entrance and made a guest appearance on their fake dam. Dark beaver pelts in bright sunlight and deep shade — could the photography get any more challenging?

cockroach-MN Zoo-

The grandkids screamed when they thought one of the Madagascar Hissing Cockroaches had escaped its cage — but it was just an ordinary cockroach on the wire of the Hornbill cage.

Apparently the zoo environment is so attractive, House Sparrows, mice, and cockroaches have invaded to find better homes in the winter.  The House Sparrows enjoy the food put out for the captive birds in the aviary, and nest in places the zoo staff can’t reach, so they are difficult to eradicate.

black bear - MN Zoo-

Some animals were a lot more active than usual on this visit. The tree-climbing black bear surprised us because it climbed so high and was such a big bear. It moved around like it was trying to figure out how to get down — we didn’t stick around to see it though.

I am not a great fan of captivity for wild animals, but of course, some of the zoo’s inhabitants have debilitating injuries or are simply unfit to be returned to the wild, so zoos are a good alternative existence for them.  Because there were so few other visitors around, zoo staff had time to talk with us about some of the success stories of captive breeding, rehabilitation, and even stress management programs that help promote healthier, long-lived zoo inhabitants.  The “ah/awe” factor can’t be discounted either — kids and adults alike were wowed by gigantic sharks and rays politely, but dramatically, taking their meals of herring.

More zoo faces

As long-time readers of this blog probably know, I am fond of photographing birds, and getting close enough for real bird portraits is easier in the zoo than just about anywhere.  The great thing about being first in line when the zoo opens is that the birds are still singing, and there is a complete absence of any noise from human crowds.  A couple of exotic species sang their trills withing 20 feet of me.

Black-naped Oriole

If you thought this looked like a type of oriole with its sharp, Blackbird-type beak, you would be right.  The Black-naped Oriole is native to parts of Asia, frequents gardens and plantations, and sings a sweet three-note song.

Black-naped Oriole

Not at all shy about singing quite close to me.

White-crested Laughingthrush

Laughingthrush — all one word — species have earned their own family distinction, but are related to Babblers from Africa and parts of Asia.  This is the appropriately named White-crested Laughingthrush, a high vocal and energetic little bird.

White-crested Laughingthrush

Pairs mate for life and communicate with each other via combinations of whistles and trills frequently as they move through dense forests in Southeast Asia.

Snowy Owl at the MN Zoo

Snowy Owls visit us occasionally in the winter, but I have never managed to get closer than a 1/4 mile away. Getting this close one can appreciate the dense plumage that protects this bird from extreme winter weather.

Eurasian Eagle Owl at the MN Zoo

Largest owl in the world, the Eurasian Eagle Owl, dwarfs our native Great-horned Owl. This one flew within an inch of the top of my head in the bird show at the MN Zoo.  Frayed feathers on the leading edges of their wings make their flight completely silent.

Eurasian Eagle Owl at the MN Zoo

Owls have such beautiful eyes, but they are rarely open in the daytime.

Australian Kookaburra

Kookaburras are the largest member of the kingfisher family and show some similarities in behavior and habits to our native Belted Kingfisher. But their “song” is a combination of kingfisher-type rattles, hoots, chirps, etc. and continues for lengthy periods. In fact, you might wonder how the bird can hold its breath for as long as it calls.

Click here to see a great video illustrating the variety of calls made by Kookaburras. They respond not only to each other, with recognition calls and to establish feeding territories, but to human imitations of kookaburra sounds.

Zoo faces

What do you do on a gloomy, cold, drizzly day when you need to get out of the house and you’re not sure you’ll be able to find any wildlife to photograph  — why, go to the zoo and see what’s happening there.

Needing a challenge to photograph animals that are usually much closer than the ones I see outdoors, I decided to focus on faces and see if I could capture some characteristic animal expressions.  This really was a challenge because the lighting inside the zoo was even darker than that outside, and the animals rarely sit still for portraits.  Result — grainy images, but hopefully a few good portraits among them.

Asian small-clawed otters are the smallest of the otter species. The small family group was very active in the early morning just as the zoo opened, but being the only person around, they were somewhat interested in my (or my lens) because they kept looking back at me to check whether I had anything to offer them.

Asian small-clawed otters are the smallest of the otter species.

A small family group of otters was very active in the early morning just as the zoo opened, but being the only person around, they were somewhat interested in me (or my lens) because they kept looking back to check whether I had anything to offer them.  Like many of the captive animals at the MN Zoo, this is an endangered species, threatened by habitat destruction and pollution in its native Asia Pacific island habitat.

Malayan tapir mother and young

The Malayan Tapir calf was born this July, after a 13 month gestation period!  I was too close to the tapirs with my long telephoto lens, and it was a challenge to get both mom and offspring in the same shot.

Interestingly, Tapirs evolved originally in North America, along with their odd-toed (that is odd number of toes, not strange-looking toes) horse relatives.  They spread to South America and Eurasia and southern Asia, where tapir species can still be found, but the Malayan Tapir is one of the most endangered animals in Southeast Asia due to loss of their forest habitat.  According to Zoo literature, there are fewer Malayan tapirs than tigers in the wild.

Female White-cheeked Gibbon, MN Zoo

Another resident of Southeast Asia — the White-cheeked Gibbon — is also threatened by logging, and by poaching young animals for the wildlife trade. Their name is appropriate to describe the all black male with his distinctive white cheeks; females are buff colored, although they too are dark-furred before they mature sexually.

Gibbons put on an amazing vocal display early in the morning, loud enough to make me want a pair of earplugs.  This early morning duet by the mated pair is usually associated with a territorial claim on a feeding area.  You can hear a good example of the contribution by male (high-pitched hooting) and female (reverberating yells) in the video below (female yells start at about 1:00 min in the video).


Leaving the Tropics Trail, I was among the first to walk through the Minnesota Trail, where the big carnivores were still actively chowing down on breakfast delicacies.

Coyote -- MN zoo

A coyote looked up at me, in between bites.

Timber Wolf - MN Zoo

One of a pack of 5 Timber Wolves housed next door to the coyotes, Even though they had their own meat scraps to feast on, they were all fixated on staring at the coyotes next door. Probably not because they had better food, but because wolves don’t tolerate coyotes and will kill them if they can.

This “pack” of wolves was brought to the zoo about two years ago as 6 month old pups.  They had been rescued from a forest fire in Alaska.  Being the young, healthy animals they are, they put on quite a show of run and chase, dashing at full speed all around their large pen for several minutes.

canada Lynx - MN Zoo

Mama Lynx had four kittens with her the last time I visited the zoo. Today there were only two with her — the others may have been sent to other zoos.

Tomorrow — bird faces at the zoo.

What zoos do

I am more and more impressed with the mission of the local zoos to act as refuges for species that face extirpation in their native habitats, while providing educational information as well as entertainment.

hyacinth macaw at MN Zoo

This looks a lot like “Blu” from the movie Rio, but Blu was a Spix’s Macaw which is possibly extinct in the wild, and only exists in captivity (zoos and the like). This Hyacinth Macaw has become a popular part of the bird show at the Minnesota Zoo, which gives handlers an opportunity to explain how zoos assist in the conservation of endangered parrots.

hyacinth macaw at the bird show at the MN Zoo

Nothing impresses the kids quite as much as birds flying overhead into the bird show at the MN Zoo

amur leopard at the MN Zoo

The Amur Leopard faces extinction in its native northeastern Asia because of habitat loss and human population expansion.

Clear glass exhibits like these at the MN Zoo help kids get "up close and personal" with these charismatic and threatened species.

Clear glass exhibits like these at the MN Zoo help kids get “up close and personal” with these charismatic and threatened species.

moose calves at the MN Zoo

Several pairs of orphaned moose calves have been adopted and raised at the MN zoo this year.  A warming climate combined with exposure to cattle and deer diseases has reduced the adult moose population substantially in Minnesota over the past decade.

moose calf

These youngsters are probably too tame to be released to the wild, but could be used in a captive breeding program for reintroduction of moose to their native habitat in future years.

Dhole-asian-wild-dog at the MN Zoo

Native to southeastern Asia in a wide variety of forest to scrub habitats, the Asian wild dog (Dhole) is an intelligent carnivore that hunts in packs. Their status is listed as endangered but with shrinking habitat and exposure to dog and cat diseases, they are vulnerable to extinction.

kids on a model of a Dhole dog

The grandkids thought riding a Dhole wild dog would be fun.

Animal faces

I have always wondered whether zoo animals are as frustrated with their confinement as we would be if we were stuck in a small room.  The Minnesota Zoo does have spacious, well landscaped enclosures for many of their exhibits, but still, this is what you see.

Northern White-cheeked Gibbon stares back at onlookers.

Puma or Cougar or Mountain Lion or Catamount or Panther resting in the shade.

Snow Monkey or Japanese Macaque contemplating its next meal.

Female White-cheeked Gibbon munches thoughtfully on a stem (or perhaps she is cleaning her teeth).

Asian Wild Dog or Dhole resting on a slab of granite.

A Fisher (large member of the weasel family) peers down at the bottom of his enclosure.

Canada Lynx stares off into space.

A 6 foot Komodo Dragon doesn’t appear too threatening.

Do they seem a bit glassy-eyed and ho-hum about their zoo life?