Thursday, September 30, 2010

One Good Shot

The silverback gorilla is huge and careful; one recognizes immediately his immense strength and prudence. Each time I see him I’m awed by his grave dignity. That may be anthropomorphizing, but in this case I don’t have any problem with attributing those characteristics to him.

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Wednesday, September 29, 2010

A Conversation

“Gee, Clem, it was so nice of those zookeepers to give us this lovely tank all to ourselves.”

“I know, Marge; it makes me feel really special.”

“And it’s just so big! What’ll we do with all of this room?”

“We could get a living-room set, or maybe a sectional? Or a plasma TV! –I don’t know. It’s hard to believe we have all this space all to ourselves, isn’t it?”

“It is, a little…


“We are alone in here, aren’t we?”

“Of course, Marge. Why do you ask?”

“Oh…no reason…”

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Tuesday, September 28, 2010

I've Got My Eye On You

And that's all I have to say.

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Monday, September 27, 2010

The Small-Mammal House Revisited

Once I established that the malodorous haze I’d associated with the small-mammal house was an artifact of either winter or my first visit, I’ve visited the exhibit a number of times. In most of these visits my interest has been focused on a few specific species: the elephant shrew, with its impossible nose; the meerkats, because they pose so well; and the small primates, because they look at once so like and unlike us. (And also because the golden lion tamarins have such lovely auburn fur.)

I love the tamarins’ clever hands, agile movements, gorgeous fur, and funny expressive faces reminiscent of Animal from The Muppets.

Within moments they can look wise and pensive,

then cute and curious,

then languid and dreamy as a pre-Raphaelite figure.

I also really like the red-ruffed lemurs’ wide, round green eyes that make them appear perpetually surprised—even shocked—by the world around them.

[Has this lemur heard about the success
of the “Tea Party” candidate
in the Delaware primary?]

But my newest Fascinating Primates are the pale-faced saki monkeys, who look remarkably like my vision of medieval monks (at least, the pale-face males with their suggestion of a tonsure do).

The females, interestingly enough, are not pale-faced. In fact, I took a picture of one without reading its identifying placard and was convinced that it was a member of a different species entirely. I was also kind of convinced that it was really one of the monkey-gods I’d read about in a long-ago children’s book (one that was based extremely loosely on Chinese stories and myths).

There’s something about her look and movements that reminds me of fairy-tale creatures, the ones that eat magic herbs and transform themselves or who give the heroine a walnut out of whose shell bursts a glittering ball-gown.

Although a small part of me feels it’s disrespectful to the animals to create stories about them that are so clearly not about them, most of me is thrilled at the possibilities these muses open up for me in terms of tales of magical women, shaggy-haired and dressed in long hooded robes, who travel the mountains dispensing advice and help in exchange for kind thoughts and exotic fruits.

Since I’m still working on my novel (one unrelated to monkeys of any kind), it’s unlikely that I’ll get past the brainstorming stage with this idea. But I don’t know; these small mammals have turned out to be more inspiring than I thought. Maybe another couple of visits will provide me with the plot for an entire story about these mountain-dwelling monkey-women. (And of course, any suggestions would be appreciated.)

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Sunday, September 26, 2010

It Always Begins with One

The other day I happened to look up from my work and, glancing at the window, saw this bug crawling along the outside of the pane. Not one to pass up a photographic opportunity, I made use of my camera’s close-up function and, pressing the lens to the glass, took a number of pictures before the bug seemed to be alarmed by the attention (“The paparazzi again! Will I never escape them and live a private life??”) and scuttled away. I was intrigued but not alarmed.

But perhaps I should have been. The next day the Post had an article on the influx of stink bugs in the DC area; I’m not sure if there are more in the district generally than there have been in the past, or if they’re just coming inside people’s homes to stay for the winter in larger number than usual. Either way, there are apparently a lot of them hoping to hole up inside, and if they’re startled, or stepped on, they emit a smell quite similar to that of unwashed feet.

The photos in the paper looking disturbingly like the bug I’d cheerfully photographed on my window. Now I’m less sure that it was a simple visitor and more worried that it was an advanced scout.

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Saturday, September 25, 2010

Impressionistic Invertebrates

I did; I stopped by the Invertebrate House this past week, even though the light in the exhibits is not very good for photography and even though I’m always tempted to correct people—even more so than in the rest of the zoo—when they relay inaccurate invertebrate information to their offspring. But it turned out to be a good day; the light was just right for a few clear shots and a number of semi-impressionistic images—and the people were not unduly uninformed.

I saw an interesting orgy of ophiuroids—not a real orgy, I don’t think, but it was definitely a big seething mass of brittle stars writhing their arms over one another. Brittle stars are related to (but different from!) starfish; their arms are connected to a central disc but are much longer and more flexible than those of starfish, hence their name: “ophios” means “snake” in ancient Greek, and their limbs do have that sinuous quality. I don’t know what they were so excited about the other day, but there was plenty of twisting around going on.

By the echinoderms (urchins, brittle stars, starfish, etc.) I made sure to take a picture of one of my favorite characteristics of that phylum, their tube feet. These are used in starfish and other echinoderms in order to move around (among other things); they’re connected to the starfish’s water vascular system and expand when water is forced into them. (They can also provide a suction force, as when a starfish is trying to pry open a scallop so that it can evert its stomach and ingest the hapless bivalve.)

I also tried to take pictures of a number of crustaceans, but I’m only happy with my images of the giant freshwater prawn, the slipper lobster, and the enormous hermit crab.

And then there was the octopus, Octavius, who was unusually active today (probably because it was nearly his feeding time) and kept “pacing” the tank, crawling along the wall with all suckers moving or stretching out over the rocks, his beautiful, immensely flexible and muscular flesh swooping over and draping onto the surface like a cape settling.

The pictures, of course, can’t do him justice, but I hope they can suggest something of the magical beauty of his movements.

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Friday, September 24, 2010

Flamingo Friday: Don’t You Get Beaky with Me

Sometimes I worry that, by not regularly posting photos of certain kinds of behaviors, I give you, The Reader, the impression that they don’t happen very often. I’m trying to rectify that by taking and showing more photos of the flamingos’ semi-aggressive billing-at-one-another behavior—which happens all the time. I say “semi-aggressive” because, although there’s a clear element of snappishness about it (usually brought on by one flamingo’s bumping into another or otherwise invading what it considers its personal space), it really seems like a knee-jerk reaction, without a lot of passion behind it. It’s sort of like a Manhattan pedestrian automatically cursing out the driver of a cab that’s cut them off—not really mad about what happened, just annoyed enough to spew forth some invective.

In some ways, the billing-at-each-other seems like a social activity, too, since it often involves a number of different birds, all of whom were perfectly calm until one started honking and waving its beak around. Then all of a sudden four or more of them will be waving their beaks and making belligerent squawk-honks (clearly Flamingo for “I’ll tell you what you can do with your ‘personal food pellets’!”). Then, responding to a signal that’s unclear to me, they’ll all calm down again and go back to preening or sleeping or feeding as if nothing ever happened.

Sometimes it’s a two-flamingo affair, though, and I’m not sure if those situations stem from more serious grievances or if the injured parties’ neighbors just aren’t in the mood to join in. But even in those cases, the worse that will happen is that one flamingo will beat a quick retreat to another part of the enclosure, somewhere out of neck’s reach.

Usually, though, it doesn’t even come to that: they fight their fight—or whatever it is they’re doing—and move on. Figuratively, that is. Otherwise, they stay right where they are.

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Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Portrait of the Gorilla as a Young Ape

(Okay, so it doesn’t scan perfectly. They can’t all be gems.)

I’ve already discussed my ambivalence about seeing great apes in captivity and using them as photographic subjects (see my earlier post on the topic)—not that this really stops me. It does make me feel a little bad, though, and a little intrusive, and I try not to take too many pictures of them—or, to be more accurate, I try to lower my camera regularly and give the apes the respect of watching them with my own eyes, seeing them as actual beings and not just as an opportunity for a good shot. Given these mixed emotions and background level of guilt, I most enjoy taking pictures of the baby gorilla, Kibibi (who’s about a year and nine months old), since she’s the only one of the apes who doesn’t seem to care about being photographed or observed. And also, of course, she’s really cute.

The young gorilla occupies her time in a number of different ways. She spends a lot of her time looking for food and eating.

She also spends a lot of time examining dry leaves and bits of grass (and sometimes eating those, too, or at least giving them a try).

But sometimes those activities pale, and she gets bored. She can deal with this in a couple of ways; one is sitting or lying around dejectedly:

And the other is taking action. She can roll around waving a leaf:

Or even run around waving a branch:

Usually, these acts seem to satisfy her, and she goes back to eating, playing, or lounging—or eating her feet—in what looks to me like a contented manner. And the best part is that while she, and I, are always under the watchful eyes of the adult gorillas, she seems happily oblivious of both their gaze and mine.

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Monday, September 20, 2010


My father has an aversion to stripes. Maybe that’s too strong a word; he just won’t wear them, finding them, I believe, almost offensively boring.

One of our good friends who visited recently knows my father and his opinion on stripes. As we walked through the zoo, it occurred to my friend to ask me what my father thought of zebras. I felt intrigued and a little guilty: I didn’t know. Was he against them? Was he against their stripes? Or would he just be against wearing a zebra himself?

So I emailed my father about it, and felt a little better about my ignorance when he admitted that he’d never really thought about it either. But, he said, “I have always liked zebras, so obviously their stripes don't bother me.” He also pointed out that zebra stripes aren’t exactly “STRIPEY stripes”—which, given their uneven thickness and wavy patterns, is a pretty fair observation.

I was glad that zebras received my father’s seal of approval—since, aesthetically speaking, I think they should meet with everyone’s approval. I don’t know much about their behavior or life histories (though I do know first-hand that they’re capable of making incredible braying noises, sounding like a cross between a donkey and a bear), but, man, they are good-looking.

It’s also pretty hypnotic to see them standing near one another, when all of their patterns of stripes align and overlap and separate, making you wonder where one ends and the other begins.

They’re sufficiently interesting to look at that I’m starting to become motivated to learn more about them as animals, not just models. Well, I’m contemplating actually learning about them… For the moment, though, I’m still content just to watch and take pictures of them, happy in the knowledge that everyone, including my father, can enjoy them.

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Sunday, September 19, 2010

Wild Wildlife: Small Worlds

[a goldfinch preening]

Even when walking through the zoo I’ve been trying to pay more attention to the unofficial flora and fauna around me, from the starlings trilling in the trees to the flowers and plants beaded with water glittering in the light.

When some good friends I haven’t seen in years came to visit, I had more opportunities to observe and enjoy non-zoo wildlife, since we visited several little gardens around the National Mall. We admired the odd flowers in the Ripley Garden, like a waterfall of petals that sprouted into little yellow firework flowers:

I noticed the decaying leaves covered in droplets of water, beautiful in their death:

And we goggled at a plant whose leaves were covered with sharp, stiff thorns:

Looking more closely at one of these leaves, I noticed a strange and interesting arthropod traversing its surface. It wasn’t an insect: we counted eight legs. And yet a couple of these “legs” looked a lot more like claws—as if this insect were some kind of pseudo-scorpion.

I took a couple of close-up shots, and I would have taken more, but the potential scorpion approached the camera and raised its claws very aggressively, so I backed away and went back to admiring the flowers.

{A note: I do write all text and take all pictures. Please do not reproduce either without my permission.}
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