Saturday, August 14, 2010

The Small-Mammal House

I don’t know if I got there on a bad day in January or if there’s just less ventilation in winter, but for many months I was convinced that to enter the small-mammal house was to become enveloped in a fug of mammal-stink; not entirely offensive, but certainly pungent and overwhelming. I don’t know if we mammals, full of musk-glands and chemical-tasting vomerosnasal organs, are simply smellier than other animals (even the aviary wasn’t quite like this) or if we’re just more attuned to the smells of other mammals, but wandering through the small-mammal house was an olfactory experience I had not anticipated.

When I visited last week with my partner and our friend from out of town, though—after warning them to brace themselves for our entrance—the small-mammal house was entirely odor-neutral. And I visited it again the other day, just to check it out (and get more pictures of tamarins), and once again it was a smell-free environment.

I’d recommend visiting it in any case, but I do think my current summertime experiences were a little more pleasant, even if the house itself was more crowded with vacationing visitors.

The small-mammal house is an interesting place; I think it, more than any of the other indoor exhibits, at least, has the highest number of exclamations of “Look how cuuuuuute!” (Even in the panda house the exclamations of oh-how-adorable are often tempered or reduced by a sudden awareness, in these close quarters, of just how big the bears are.) There’s a certain…pet-store feeling to the place—not because of anything the zoo has done to make it feel that way, but because so many of these animals, especially the rodent-y ones, look a lot like what we’re used to seeing running in little metal wheels or curled up in a pile of woodchips. And even the ones that don’t resemble the animals available in pet-stores, like the tamarins, are little and agile and brightly colored and have tiny faces that are cute in a wizened sort of way.

[a golden-headed lion tamarin]

It is very pleasant to see a bunch of animals that resemble plush toys (though with a disconcerting habit of licking or relieving themselves that most stuffed toys do not exhibit) or favorite characters from Animal Planet “miniseries,” to watch them with a sense of almost proprietary pleasure and amusement. It’s very…cozy.

But I find I have to work harder to really appreciate the animals for what they are—wild creatures with all kinds of fascinating behaviors and adaptations that I know very little about. The sense of familiarity with these small mammals can make us—or me, at least—forget that they deserve to be approached with the same degree of wonder as do the gavials and pythons, the tragopans and kiwis. (Of course, the invertebrates—the cephalopods in particular—deserve more wonderment, but they’re an obvious exception.)

[a sloth-in-the-box]

It’s easy to take a quick look at a black-and-rufous elephant shrew running about its enclosure, smile at it, and then dismiss it—but if you did, you would miss seeing just how very weird its elongated nose is, and how it can move the end of it in all directions, including upwards, in a way that doesn’t resemble an elephant’s trunk or an anteater’s nose or anything else you might otherwise compare it to.

[I know it's not a great shot,
but you try taking a picture
of an animal with that kind
of metabolism.]

It’s easy to look quickly at the banded mongoose—perhaps, if you had certain kinds of children’s books, naming it Rikki-Tikki-Tavi in your mind—and move one without reading the informational placard, which tells you that these animals take care of both their young and the elderly, grooming and finding food for old adults. (I can’t remember if the placard also mentions the horrible damage mongooses have done to ground-nesting bird populations in places like Hawaii where they [mongooses] have been introduced. Not that it’s the animals’ fault, but it’s worth knowing.)

I admit that I haven’t spent as much time as I should in the small-mammal house to observe and appreciate these animals’ behaviors, but I’ve made start, I think, and I hope to do more.

Especially during the times of year when the place is less…redolent of mammal-ness.


Anca said...

The shot of the lion tamarin makes it look quite majestic. Your comments--very thoughtful and informative.

pattinase (abbott) said...

You nearly have a book here. Such great pictures and the great narrative.

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