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Collateral Wildlife

Sunday, January 31, 2010


Whenever I visit zoos, I like to look for the incidental animals; the animals and birds and fish that are there because they have moved in unbidden, because a zoo is a nice place to live, even when you have a choice. I like to see how the local wildlife, native or not, exploits the zoo environment. Maybe there's a scruffy little gang of house sparrows stealing food out of a fox's dish or picking grain out of zebra dung. Maybe there's a complex of Norway rat tunnels running under the tiger's pen.

Maybe there's a cottontail rabbit, hiding under the shrubbery that screens the chimp compound.

Maybe there's a giant Canada goose, product of an aggressive stocking program and now an overabundant resident year-round throughout much of the U.S., hoping for a handout.

Maybe there's a shadow under a mallard, that shadow resolving into a huge carp.

The mallard, a native species that gladly exploits easy resources, is here because people throw food around at zoos.
The carp, a European exotic that has invaded virtually every slow-moving waterway in North America, is here because it's hoping the mallards will miss the bread people are bound to throw to them. We have come to an uneasy peace with this big, mud-plain fish. There's no getting rid of it now.
The carp beseech me for food. There's no question in my mind that they're looking right into my eyes, begging. I have lived with their gaudy cultivars, the koi, long enough to know that look. It's pretty darned effective, for a fish.

I think about the giant Asian carp, a different and even more damaging species, now trying to make a beachhead in Lake Michigan, about the frantic efforts to turn them away from this precious, as yet Asian carp-free inland sea. Lawsuits are being brought by Ohio, Minnesota and Michigan to close a Chicago lock system that will, no matter how much we shock or poison it, inevitably allow them entry into the Great Lakes. These huge fish leap en masse from the water when a boat passes by, and have killed people unfortunate enough to be hit by their giant bodies. They make deserts of lakes and rivers by vacuuming up all the plankton and collapsing the food chain. They make sure that nothing survives but Asian carp, wherever they occur. Chicago is going to have to figure out how to transport goods by land, it seems. The environmental cost of having an open passage between Illinois' Asian carp-infested waters and Lake Michigan is simply tremendous, and entirely unacceptable. I wish my state luck in bringing pressure to bear on Chicago to close the locks before it's too late. I do not want to see Lake Erie seething with Asian carp, and no one else does, too. But this is the nature of aquatic exotics: they are incorrigible, unstoppable. The least we can do is seal off the obvious points of entry. And hope there's no one stupid or sick enough to introduce them on purpose.

These are European carp, but you get the point.

A ring-billed gull also waits for a handout. Populations of this little native gull exploded with the inception of landfills and shopping centers, strip malls, fast-food places and open Dumpsters. And it's almost single-handedly cleaned out native nesting piping plovers in the Great Lakes.

Lovely bird, just doing its job.

Outside the zoo gates, a low-paid person in a dog suit shills for Petland, hoping to lure people in to buy the tragic output of puppy mills.

Sometimes I wish I could stop thinking about connections, about collateral damage. Why can't I just look at the pretty birds, the big fish, the cute puppies? Why must I see the clumsy hand of man laid so heavily on the animal kingdom wherever I look?

What's that on the Chinese Christmas light string on the Japanese birches near the Asian elephant compound?

Why, it's a ruby-crowned kinglet. A native migrant, passing through Columbus as it flees the Canadian winter and fetching up for a few days at the zoo.

Oh, I needed that. Thank you. I love flamingos and gorillas and elephants, but you're something else again. It's so good to see you here. What a silly perch for a pretty bird.

Gorillas-The Buff Vegetarians

Thursday, January 28, 2010


I find beauty in the great apes, in their thoughtful faces and in their great power. This is Anakka, who turns 25 in June. And he's a redhead, too! See the red hair? This magnificent silverback in his prime has three females in his social group. One is Toni, who is 38 years old and the youngest and only surviving first generation offspring of Colo, the famous elderly female gorilla I spoke about in the last post.

Toni has such a lovely face; she looks like her mother, Colo. Toni has given birth to seven babies. She was born in Columbus but spent about a dozen years at the Detroit Zoo. Zoo animals need to travel so that their precious genes can be spread around. When she came back to Columbus, her mother Colo barely acknowledged her--she clearly knew her, but because Toni had been taken away from Colo for hand-raising, the mother-daughter bond was not as strong as it might have been. However Toni's first baby, Jumoke, and Colo were very close. When Jumoke had her first gorilla child, great-grandma Colo practically raised that baby herself, as Jumoke was very young and didn't know what to do. Even though Colo was the brains behind the operation, Jumoke goes down as the first third-generation captive-bred gorilla to raise her own young.

When gorillas are kept in social groups, they teach each other, and the protocol of having zoo staff artificially raise their infants is falling by the wayside as we finally allow these animals to live as they are meant to--in closely bonded family groups, where culture and knowledge can be handed down from mother to daughter to great-granddaughter.

Sexy beast! Here's the back view of Anakka. I look at that musculature and wonder why a gentle vegetarian needs to be so very buff.

Here's a theory, and it's only the Science Chimp, ruminating. har har... If you're going to eat little else but raw stems and leaves, you need a capacious stomach, a rumen, almost, with which to digest such low-protein fare. So you have this huge belly, this vital digestive apparatus, to haul around, which is continually full of a great deal of vegetation. If you're going to sleep in trees so you don't get killed by a leopard in the night, you have to have some seriously massive muscles to pull yourself into the canopy to build your nest.

All this makes you mighty and ferocious-looking and impressive, even if you don't really need to be and rarely use it. A buff vegetarian. It was this fearsome appearance that gave rise to the old wives' tales about gorilla ferocity that in turn spawned movies like King Kong and Mighty Joe Young. Researchers like Dian Fossey showed us gorillas as they really are: meek, retiring, slightly lazy, peaceable. Jane Goodall showed us chimpanzees as they really are, and their reality is a good bit scarier to me than that of gorillas--organized hunting expeditions to rob mother baboons of their babies, infanticide, even planned inter-troop warfare...behavior not seen in gorillas. Good thing the huge ape is the peaceable one.

I am indebted to Sue Allison Roberts, Columbus Zoo docent since 2004, for the family history here. Don't blame her for my harebrained theorizing. Sue told me so many tidbits about the Columbus gorillas, but my favorite one was this. A number of years ago, Dian Fossey came to the Columbus Zoo to give a lecture. Sue said she seemed ill at ease, nervous, awkward among the admiring crowds who attended--a portrait that is borne out by biographers. They closed off the gorilla exhibit and let Dian be there with the animals. She talked to them in the grunts and belches of their kind; she spent several hours observing and being observed by them. And when she came out, she said, and I paraphrase here: "I see a lot of gorillas as I go around and give lectures at zoos. And your gorillas aren't crazy. Good job."

Speaking of not crazy, I am deliriously happy to be painting again, tackling work after work without procrastination or its evil mother, fear. The only way to paint is just to do it, not to think about it endlessly. Having been away from it for so long, I think I need to prove something to myself. I keep tackling more and more challenging subjects. I hope that urge will dissipate. But there's always a walk through fire when I switch brain hemispheres. Now the writer in me is yelling to be let out of her garret. Sometimes I wish I could split like a hydra. Instead, I wind up scribbling notes for my next essay down the margins of whatever I'm painting. So glad it's cruel old winter for awhile longer. Holing up and producing is just what I need to do. I'm not ready for the woodcock's dance just yet.

“I arise torn between a desire to save the world and a desire to savor the world. It makes it hard to plan the day.”

E. B. White

Beautiful Colo

Sunday, January 24, 2010


How I wish I could know what she's thinking.

Colo the western lowland gorilla is a gorilla of firsts. She was the first gorilla to be born in captivity, anywhere in the world. Her parents, Millie and Baron Macombo, were wild caught by "Gorilla Bill" Said of Bexley, Ohio, in what was then French Cameroon. They arrived in New York on December 22, 1950, and the Columbus Zoo agreed to take them on since they had no planned destination. It was an historic decision. Six years later, on December 22, 1956, Millie gave birth to Colo (short for Columbus), starting a string of "firsts" in the captive breeding of gorillas. Before Colo's birth, we didn't even know the gestation period of gorillas, which turns out to be about 250 days.

Colo's daughter Emmy was the first second-generation captive bred gorilla in the world, and her granddaughter Cora was the first third-generation captive bred gorilla. Colo was also grandmother to the first gorilla twins ever born in the western hemisphere, and the first surviving gorilla to be conceived by artificial insemination was also a grandchild of Colo's.

The Columbus Zoo has paved the way for other zoos in creating naturalistic habitats for their gorillas, including a huge outdoor play area rife with climbing equipment, swings and ropes. Here, the animals blossom and relate to each other much as they would in the wild, in family groups.

Colo is the oldest gorilla in the world. On December 22, 2009, she celebrated her 53rd birthday. It doesn't seem all that old to me, but gorillas age differently from humans. So little genetic distance between us, and yet we're so different. Colo's got some pretty bad arthritis to deal with, something a wild gorilla might not live long enough to develop. She takes an arthritis drug approved for humans each day.

I know. Every time I eat something, I have to dig part of it back out, too, Colo. Comes with the territory for primates of a certain age.

I became curious about the glass that separates the gorillas from people, so I asked zoo docent Sue Roberts whether they could see us as well as we can see them. "Oh yes!" she replied. And she went on to say that they love watching people--it's a kind of enrichment for them to have someone to observe. Colo seemed very contemplative, but her eyes moved around as she took note of our behavior.
Our kids were rapt, watching her watch them.
And very respectful of this old lady, this gorilla of many firsts. And it's all happened right here in Ohio.

Here's Sue's snapshot of Colo after she finished opening her last present at her 53rd birthday party last December 22. Tuckered out and full of cake.

photo by Sue Allison Roberts

For a lovely video of Colo's 53rd birthday celebration, click here.

Thanks again to Sue Roberts for helping open the world of Columbus' gorillas to me.

I'm spending part of this rainy Sunday canning blog preserves, including a step-by-step series on a complex watercolor of battling prairie chickens. I'm putting the finishing touches on the painting as I write. Not sure why each painting I start is more challenging than the last, but I'm choosing to take it as a positive sign. It feels great to be painting again. Thanks for your understanding.

Liam and the Silverback

Thursday, January 21, 2010

People sometimes ask me what my favorite bird or animal might be. I can't ever say. It's like asking me which of my kids is my favorite. Can't do it. I have no trouble telling you my favorite breed of dog (Shih-Tzu, of course)
but the favoritism stops there.

I will say that as a young kid, younger than Liam, I was completely obsessed with great apes. I acted like a chimpanzee and had an incredibly convincing pant-hoot and set of mannerisms, including knuckle-walking. It was part of my obsession with Jane Goodall's work, the incredible things we learned about these creatures thanks to her diligence and love.

And to this day, I linger longest in the great ape house at any zoo. I will never forget being privileged to stay after hours to watch the Columbus gorillas prepare their night nests. The kids and Bill and I huddled quietly, feeling as if we were intruding in a boudoir. And we were, but the gorillas were gracious about it.

I think much of the fascination for me as an artist is watching the human/animal line blur and dissolve as I watch the great apes. We are so very close in genetic makeup, and yet worlds and civilizations apart from them.
Mumbah the silverback western lowland gorilla was enjoying some epic nose-picking up close to the glass. Naturally, Liam was fascinated. We began to sing a little song: "Everybody's doin' it, doin' it, doin' it, Pickin' their nose and...

It wasn't a very polite song. Mumbah didn't mind. He kept on mining.

Liam watched, rapt. Just the thing for an inveterate Captain Underpants fan, aged 10. And suddenly Mumbah turned his great head and acknowledged this snowy little ape.

Liam tilted his head, and their eyes met for a long and delicious moment.

It is rare for any of the gorillas to acknowledge a visitor, we learned from the Columbus Zoo's wonderful docent, Sue Allison Roberts. But Mumbah has a special liking for young boys. There is a boy who comes to the zoo frequently to draw quietly and be near the gorillas, and Mumbah comes over to stay with him, just a pane of glass away. Sue saw him put his great black palm against the glass to touch the boy's palm one day.

Perhaps Mumbah picked up the artistic bent in Liam. Perhaps it was Liam's special gentleness that attracted him. Maybe he thought our song was funny. We'll never know. But Liam was electrified by this contact.
And Mumbah went back to his toilette.
All photos of Liam and Mumbah in this post are by Bill of the Birds

who had the right lens to catch the moment.

Animals, animals... day after day they save me from unbroken gray skies and days of solitude. I had an out-of-body experience the other night as the kids and I sat on the couch, switching between reruns of "The Office" and the inane, inordinately painful auditions for "American Idol." Don't ask why we watch it. We don't know. It's a bonding experience for me and the kids.

There I was, a kid on either side, their legs draped across mine. In each kid's fist was a sleepy Chinese dwarf hamster. On my knee was Charlie the 23-year-old macaw, adding his voluble commentary to the auditions, laughing, gasping and imitating my hacking cough to perfection. On the back of the couch, acting as a warm, jerky neck pillow, was Chet Baker, his paws wrapped around a Nylabone. Crounchcrounchcrounchcrounch. It is our peaceable kingdom, a raucous, hilarious place, and having kids and animals around to love and care for gets me through.


Sunday, January 17, 2010

The elegant American flamingo--immortalized in plastic the world over, little known and understood.

The Columbus Zoo's little colony of American (or Caribbean) flamingos bears evidence to their breeding success. It's dotted with dusky, particolored young birds.

Yaay! Breeding flamingos in Ohio seems like a little miracle to me, like growing some ridiculous orchid on my bedroom windowsill. But miracles can be done, given love and attention.

Captive flamingos won't breed unless there's a critical mass of birds. In the wild, breeding is irregular, and linked to water levels and rainfall. Flamingos the world over live in incredibly harsh environments, often on scorching alkaline lakes and pans where little else than the tiny crustaceans and shrimp they eat can survive. I have a searing memory of a National Geographic article from my childhood about people saving flamingo chicks from certain death by breaking off heavy anklets of soda that had formed on their legs. All these things fed into my desire to help birds...thanks, Dad, for faithfully subscribing to NG and feeding the flame (and filling the vast heavy boxes of past issues in the attic, which I revisited frequently).

Flamingos build a cool little volcano of mud, the only material at hand, to raise their single egg above the hot flat (and make it easier for the gangly birds to settle on the nest).

As an example of why you really can't trust the Internet for information, here's a bit from the Wikipedia writeup:

Like all flamingos, it lays a single chalky white egg on a mud mound, between May and August; incubation until hatching takes from 28 to 32 days; both parents brood the young for a period of up to 6 years when they reach sexual maturity. Their life expectancy of 40 years is one of the longest in birds.

Wow. Who knew that the adult flamingos sat on their chicks until they reach sexual maturity six years later? I sure didn't. Not sure what they mean by "brood," but in ornithoparlance, it means to sit on your young. Maybe they "brood over their young" until they reach sexual maturity. I certainly can get behind that.

Given that flamingos are able to feed themselves at two months of age, swinging their bent bills upside down and filtering crustaceans out of mud, being sat upon for six years seems excessive. Maybe everything you see in print ain't so. And about that life expectancy: Yes, flamingos can live 50 years in captivity, but wild life expectancy is not a lot past 25. Any bird that lays a single egg, whose reproductive success hinges on rainfall and water levels, had better live a long time in order to replace itself. And 25 years is a long time in the wild. With the Internet in general, and Wikipedia in particular, you get the information you pay for. Caveat emptor! Except, of course, on this blog. You can trust the Science Chimp. And if you catch her out, good for you. Leave a comment and she'll pant-hoot for a few minutes, fling things around, and then fix it.

Everything you read about flamingos states that their pink coloration derives from carotenoids in the shrimp and crustaceans they eat. In zoos, a simple food additive takes care of the problem. Avicultural nutrition has come a long way since my childhood, when zoo flamingos and spoonbills were whitish, and even the vivid scarlet ibis was a pallid salmon-pink. The Columbus flock is gloriously colorful, enhanced by the grayish youngsters that indicate its reproductive success.I love looking at the kinked vertebrae in those amazing necks.

There was a fair amount of posturing and honking going on when we visited. Male flamingos tower over females, reaching almost five feet in height. Yet that huge bird weighs in at around six pounds, all feathers and hollow bones. Yes, your sofa pillow of a kitty cat weighs more than a five-foot bull flamingo. Aren't birds the berries?

It's really a shame that most of us know flamingos only from captivity. Bill and I took a trip to the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico in 2005 that stands out in my mind as one of the last trips we took together just for its own sake. It wasn't a press trip; we both got to go together; our itinerary was our own, and we did it up right, driving from hotspot to hotspot, having some really singular experiences at Maya temples and coastal flats. We paid attention to the birds, the landscape, and to each other, nothing and no one else on the agenda. We ticked off endemic birds and ate tiny popcorn shrimp in heavenly ceviche right out from under the flamingos at Celestun. I wish we could travel like that again someday.

Shooting with a tiny pocket Olympus camera, I got these images:What a flight profile, like a flying pool cue.

And we waited for the flamingos to come into their roost at sunset, and it was absolutely unbelievable to see these crazy icons of the tropics alive and flapping and honking right overhead.

With the 300 mm. telephoto I've got now, I doubtless could have had some frame-filling shots. I'm thankful to be able to go to Columbus and see flamingos, but I'll never forget seeing them where they really belong.

Whenever you can, try to see birds and animals where they really belong. Seeing them where they don't belong is lovely, but seeing them free and open and wild changes your life.

Elephants, Sublime and Ridiculous

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Any zoo loves having baby animals to draw in visitors. The Columbus Zoo boasts Beco, child of mother Phoebe, 22, and father Coco, 38, Asian elephants in their collection. Phoebe's captive-born, while Coco was taken from the wild in Thailand in 1971. Imagine what his life has been like since. He's lucky to have ended up here.

Phoebe was pregnant with Beco for 655 days. Oh, my. 270 days was plenty enough for me. Imagine being pregnant for almost two years! With a baby elephant! He was born on March 27, 2009. So he's about 8 months old in these photos.

But there's more. Phoebe's pair of lovely and anthropomorphically-placed breasts (yes, you're seeing elephant cleavage!) produce three gallons of milk each day. Ye gods. She'll nurse Beco for two years. That, at least, is in line with expectations for humans...

I will never forget my encounters with wild African elephants in Kruger National Park in South Africa. The first I ever saw was a huge bull in musth (rutting condition) which charged our mini van (which at that moment felt entirely too mini) while one of our party was snapping photos. "I must move the van! He's coming on!" our guide Peter Lawson warned. "Wait! Wait! I need this shot!" shouted the photographer in our group (That was before my own incurable lensmania came on). Peter waited until the last moment to stomp the petrol and send our van shooting out of harm's way. Yiiiikes. Waay too close for comfort. We were all mad at the photographer, even as I now have come to understand that particular mania for the perfect shot.

Well, you seldom get the perfect shot, but you try and try.

But the very best moment I had with a wild African elephant came one night when I heard a cracking sound outside the little hut where I had been sleeping. It was a dark, moonless night and black as the inside of a cow. I stepped out on the tiny front porch of the straw-thatched hut and saw nothing, though I heard something very large breathing and sighing and rocking very close by. I strained my eyes, leaning forward into the blackness. And very gradually became aware that the reason I could see nothing but black was that my entire field of view was taken up by the bulk of an elephant which was eating a small tree planted inches from my porch. I was literally two feet from its face. One swing of its trunk could have sent me flying into next Sunday. Its huge and gentle eye materialized before me, fringed by long lashes.

I looked directly into that fist-sized eye and the elephant blinked languidly, like a whale might, acknowledging me without fanfare. I made out the rest of it by starlight and stood perfectly still, smelling its rich manurey aroma, as it finished demolishing the newly-planted tree, then walked soundlessly into the center of the compound to drink from a fountain: slurrrrppp, pattersplash, suuuuck, ahhhhhhhhhhhgggg. A deep elephant sigh of satiety. I felt blessed beyond all measure and comprehension to have been so close, to have been acknowledged, left unharmed and trembling with delight in my thin white nightshirt.

Speaking of delight...I am great fun at a zoo if you want a barrage of encyclopedic information and appreciative gusto right at hand. I am a terrible person with whom to go to the zoo if you're prudish or easily embarrassed. I revert right back to about age 4, consumed with curiosity and unabashedly enthusiastic about seeing my first pile of red panda poop or the bits of animals that get Photoshopped out of many magazine photos. So kids love to go to the zoo with me; some adults, not so much. Oh well. There's no keeping a good Science Chimp down.

After getting his little foots wet, Beco had an urge.

and Zick cranked up the 300 mm. telephoto for the perfect shot. Ahhhh. The pause that refreshes.

Hey Beco, if it's nice out, leave it out.

Duuude. You are too cute for words.

Tiger, Burning Bright

Sunday, January 10, 2010


Hangin' in there, in our endless winter idyll in snowbound Whipple. Everyone else is well now. I plan to cough for oh, another week, then abruptly stop this tiresome pursuit of stuffing all my pockets with Puffs against the time when I will need to gag up another particolored bit of lung. Remains to be seen whether the kids will go back to school on Monday. Why break tradition?

Illness aside, we have had a wonderful time with our big bunch of friends, watching movies and hurtling down the snowy cowpasture abyss on plastic sleds. We've tested ten different sled types and the $6.00 neon-green plastic toboggan from K-mart wins over the saucers and inflatables and even the $120 fancy foam one with the Gore-tex handles. We could do a Consumer Reports on toboggans. We have found that spraying the undersides with cooking oil makes for a lot more screaming. And we've all gotten good at bailing before we hit the bobwire at the bottom of the Bowl. Bbbbbb. But enough about us and how we have passed our schoolless days. On to Siberia!

Surely one of the most beautiful animals on earth is the tiger. On this crisp winter day, the Columbus Zoo's endangered Amur tiger (also known as the Siberian tiger) was feeling frisky. It seemed that the weather suited him fine. I would imagine that Amur tigers are not huge fans of our close, humid Ohio summers. Native to far eastern Russia, Amur tigers are no strangers to cold.

It has always seemed odd to me that such a colorful, exotic-looking cat should live in snowy, wintry climes amidst pine, oak and spruce; prey on red deer, elk, moose and wild boar, but they do. This is a cold-adapted animal. The Amur is the largest tiger, and thus the largest felid, in the world. Still, you'd think they'd evolve away from that gaudy orange coat, turn industrial gray or something, to live in Siberia. Just another thing to be thankful for.

I pictured myself standing before a ledge that was above my head, arms stretched out. Could I leap to the top? Could I do anything but look around for help? Nope. Enh. Enh.

Imagine the power it takes to hoist 380 pounds to above head height from a standing start.

Not a problem for this spring-loaded beast.

He padded around his rocky enclosure, seemingly looking for something.

We drank in his beauty

and delighted to see him flop down right below us.

Who scrawled such patterns on his cheeks, dipping the brush in ink, flattening it, pulling up for a thin line, dropping a dot?

Who decided where the dits and dashes go?

What hand, what eye made this perfect animal?

The best human efforts, a crude imitation of his elegance.

Zoos are the keepers of rare animals, rare genes. We need them for so many reasons. With perhaps 500 Amur tigers surviving in Siberia, each one is as precious as a Faberge egg.

There are 421 Amur tigers in captivity.

The genetic diversity of wild Amur tigers has been so reduced by their dwindling numbers that the captive population actually has greater genetic diversity than does the wild group. In fact, the Amur tiger's genetic diversity is so low that it has an effective wild population of only 35. (This is a slightly complex concept; I encourage you to read more at this link). Selective breeding for rare genotypes is ongoing in captive situations, with the possibility of introducing animals with these genes back into wild populations in the future. Man has hunted and poached the Amur tiger almost out of existence, feeding the sick and indefensible animal-parts trade in the Far East. And zoos hold the key to the Amur tiger's genetic health going forward. It's us, destroying; us, rebuilding.

Still hate zoos? Think again.

Tiger, tiger, still, somehow, burning bright.
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