Monday, May 21, 2012

More Bear than Bare

Maybe it’s because it’s my hometown zoo (although technically the late, lamented Belle Isle Zoo holds that distinction), but the Detroit Zoo has always had a special place in my heart. I think it’s a great place, and not only because it has an incredibly extensive collection of species. This is a zoo that has rethought and redesigned many of its exhibits and enclosures in order to make them both beautiful and appropriate for the animals they house, with enough space and “enrichment” activities to keep the animals engaged and enough hideouts to allow them to avoid prying eyes if they so choose.

[they also let the peacocks run free!
how great is that??]

One of their many very cool exhibits is the Arctic Ring of Life, an area with both a series of large outdoor enclosures and a below-ground-level space in which excited humans can peer into—or up at, in the tunnel—water in which, if you’re lucky, seals or polar bears swim. (But not together—they haven’t brought in that level of verisimilitude.)

When I visited the zoo in March with my parents and sister, we caught glimpses of arctic foxes adorably curled in little balls in their den, seals getting massages by positioning themselves in front of water jets, and polar bears...well, being kind of weird.

There are three polar bears roaming the Arctic exhibit, strolling around their vast terrain or sculling through the water, pausing occasionally to inspect the visitors under glass. Seeing a polar bear press its enormous paw against the plexi-glass arch of the underwater tunnel, you find yourself developing an instant respect for good architects—and cherishing a fervent hope that whoever designed this tunnel was one of them.

On this day, though, only one polar bear submerged itself, and only briefly. By the time we got back out to the outdoor exhibit, she was already out of the water and pacing, pausing occasionally to pose like a character in a Jack London novel.

And then she sauntered over to an area of scuffed-up gravel and dirt and, flopping herself down, proceeding to roll around for a good five minutes at least. This bear was really into her dust bath.

Or was it a dust bath?

When she was finished, she had turned a near-uniform brownish-grey and was hardly recognizable as a polar bear. In fact, visitors who arrived at the exhibit after her extended dust-roll were completely baffled.

[color of the dirt-disguised bear]

[color of another, normal polar bear,
also surprised by her transformation]

“They have a brown bear in there!” several people exclaimed. Another asked, “Is that a juvenile?”

“No, no,” we assured them, “it’s just a dirty polar bear.”

I’m not sure they believed us.

That may, in fact, have been the polar bear’s intention. I recognize that I’m anthropomorphizing like mad here, but the glee with which she rubbed herself in the concealing dirt was far greater than what could be explained by the pleasure of a simple dust bath. Instead, I’m pretty certain she was mischievously delighting in the confusion she knew she would cause zoo visitors.

Call me crazy if you like, but look at that grin and tell me I’m wrong.

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


biobabbler said...

Well, I'd certainly say that's a fine trick if you're in a place w/ exposed dirt and want to maintain your camouflage, but happen to be a bright white. Just dip into water, drop and roll upon said dirt, and voila! You match. Super cool. =)

Anca said...

Oh, I remember this well! Great posting, bringing all back in words and photos.

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