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Tommy the Tapir

Sunday, March 8, 2009

I'm home from Honduras as of Friday afternoon. Moving slowly through the house, tossing and filing a month's worth of spoiled food and clutter, scrubbing away the domestic snarge, wearing my Life is Crap T-shirt, a gift from Liz and Jeff.  Two thousand exposures made in Honduras await editing. Taxes await finishing. There's a woodcock singing in the meadow at dawn and dusk and I am pulled in a hundred directions on the sweet rack of springtime. Shall I plant the peas or scrub the sink, crouch in thrall to the peepers or tally expenses? Yeah, yeah, I know what I should do. 


Thank goodness I canned some Guyana posts before leaving for Honduras. Even some Cute Animal Posts. I bring you Tommy the Lowland Tapir.

A new mammal--the lowland tapir Tapirus terrestris, awaited me at Rockview Lodge's modest zoo. I would not be lucky enough to see one in the wild, but Tommy's fame preceded him. He's been living as a pet at Rockview for twenty years or more; tapirs may live past thirty.

Tapirs are weird, weird animals. There are only four species worldwide; three of them are in Central and South America (the Baird's, lowland and mountain tapirs), where they're the largest land mammals. A fourth, the largest, is the Malayan tapir--the black one with the big white band around its middle.

The lowland tapir is slightly smaller than the Baird's tapir, which ranges through Central America. Lowlands take over in South America, and are characterized by a little mane and nuchal (neck) crest. They grow up to six feet long, 550 pounds. That's a lot of tapir.

Something like a horse, something like a pig, nothing like either, the tapir has a dense, muscular body and an extremely tough hide, which helps protect it from jaguar and puma attacks. Its main defense strategy is to run like hell, hoping to bash its attacker off against a tree in the process. It swims readily and well, and often spends hot days (are there any other kind in Guyana?) almost wholly submerged, when its prehensile snout comes in handy as a snorkel. They probably get pretty pruny.

Tapirs look completely prehistoric to me; they look like a reconstructed ancient weird mammal come to life. Like they were put together before evolution really had its act together. Like their name should be Uintatherium.

In the wild, tapirs subsist on fruits and leaves, traveling from fruiting tree to tree, looking for dropped treasures. They're a great disperser of many different kinds of seeds, being large enough to pass them whole.

Baby tapirs are striped and speckled like baby hogs or watermelons, the same kind of dappling that helps hide fawns when their mothers leave them alone in the forest. I loved Tommy's front feet--four-toed and --there's that word again--prehistoric, the kind of feet Eohippus had. You can see remnants of his baby spotting on his lower legs and feet, even though Tommy is a very old tapir.
Get a load of the underside of his foot. Ooh, paddy.

It takes a whole lot of mangoes to keep Tommy happy. Good thing there are enormous mango trees, each covering the square footage of your average American house, shading the grounds of Rockview Lodge. It makes feeding slobbery Tommy a lot easier.
He rooted around happily in his salad, looking first for the ripe mangoes. He'd finish the rest later.
Tommy was extremely sweet, and obviously enjoyed the attention my friend Erica and I heaped on his leathery hide. His lickiness was  familiar and comforting to a Chet-starved Zick, who needs to be covered in some kind of animal slobber at all times to feel whole.

Erica and I were very well-matched as traveling companions--it was a dead heat as to which of us was more animal crazy. Here, she meets Tommy for the first time.

Later, Erica got to go in the pen with Tommy and give him proper tapir huggin'. 

I was out after nighthawks and cloud formations at that point, but man, I would have loved to put a big hug on Tommy. He is a fine and handsome gent, a good ambassador for an endangered species. Meet a tapir, and you'd hate to see them poached for food or hide. But the killing goes on, and all four species of tapirs worldwide are now endangered. It is as if they are from another time, a wilder, gentler time than ours.
Prehistoric, tapir time.


I've never seen a Tapir so up close and personal. Tommy is cute in a Tapir kind of way.

I know something about tapirs, something that a Science Chimp might like to know, but I don't think I should post it on a public blog, where sensitive young people might be lurking. Tell you later!


PS: I met Liz this weekend!

I think "in a Tapir kind of way" is probably the operative phrase here. Hope you're getting your fair share of 'animal slobber'/ terrier drooool) at home now.

Ah, KatDoc, I have a photo of the feature I believe you are referring to. Tommy on occasion has been accused of having five legs...
Isn't Lizzard a gas? She the one done gave me my Life is Crap shirt, and the one I invoke in the "Calling Kali" chapter of Letters from Eden.

Oh, gee. This is why I can't wait to come here every day. I NEVER know what's in store...

Hugging a prehistoric looking Tapir creature thing that licks like a dog unless it's mouth is full of ripe mango.

Love it.

Prehistoric, indeed! That last picture made me think of an armadillo.

I've always loved tapirs, but from afar. I find the babies particularly cute, since they do look like ambulatory watermelons. I think you're right -- that is one very prehistoric-looking face (but in the nicest possible way).

(Has Baker recovered from his "ohthankgodyou're HOME!!!!!" performance piece? I'm sure enough wiggling ensued to warrant a trip to the chiropractor -- and he probably needed to go, too.)

We have a Malayan tapir at the Toronto Zoo and every time we go there, I spend an inordinate amount of time just hanging out near him. I'm really drawn to that animal.

Do you know the Jane Siberry song "Everything Reminds me of my Dog?" It must have been written for you.

Great post about a beautiful but mysterious creature.

Such a sweet looking animal. Bet it's breath is sweet too - the smell of ripe mangoes. Don't understand why people would want to poach them. Sigh.

Thanks for posting more from your trip to Guyana.

I am sitting here looking out on Seattle snowfall and musing on the mental health benefits of tapir mango-slobber. Aren't blogs wonderful! I love your posts on Guyana - especially this nice piece on Tommy Tapir. I'm so glad you gave him some love. I must admit to having a very hard time dealing with wild animals in cages like the little zoo at Rockview - it's gotta get lonely in there. But Tommy seems contented and I do hope it does some good when people see up close these wonderful creatures that need protection.

Yeah, you got it, Zick. And, it touches his NOSE!

~Kathi, with eyes in a great big "O"

There's just something really very cute about that Taper schnoz! :c)

Very cool! I've never seen a tapir outside of zoos, and I've certainly never seen one this clearly. Fascinating beasts (I was going to say "fascinating little beasts" but KatDoc's comments made me realize that would be a misnomer...).

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