Monday, August 1, 2016

2016 Connecting with Animals Calendar – August Story

Zohari trying to enjoy a mud bath, but...

As I've discussed previously on this blog, I love penguins. Since I've been Volunteering and working at the Toronto Zoo, I've come to be quite fond of the polar bears, too. And then, of course, there's my "Spirit Animal": the glorious Ashakiran, Indian rhino. I do not recall feeling particularly strongly either way about these mammoth, docile creatures just a few years ago; however, things have certainly changed. For instance, some of the proceeds from the 2016 Calendar went to the International Rhino Foundation; $511 CD was raised all told for this worthy cause. So obviously one of the months of this calendar was going to feature one or more of the rhinos at the Toronto Zoo. The question then became: which subspecies to choose this year. After much agonizing, I settled on the photo of Zohari (seen above), one of the four African white rhinos that call the Zoo's Savanna exhibit their home. She won out mainly on the strength of the expression on her face as she seems to be looking directly at me while enjoying a leisurely mud wallow in the heat of a July day. 

But, as usual, that's not the whole story here. 

Big sister Sabi checking on her sibling
Zohari came to the Zoo a few years ago along with her older half-sister, Sabi. They have remained fiercely protective of each other ever since arriving: I vividly recall taking an "observation" shift when they first went on exhibit and spending the better part of three hours "observing" them stand bum-to-bum in a "circle the wagons" sort of pose, ready to fend off all peril – real or imagined. Most of us find this tendency of theirs rather adorable; sadly, however, the perpetually befuddled and [*ahem*]-blocked Tom probably does not share this view. The girls cycle at different times but the sister who is not in oestrus spends most of her time "protecting" her sibling by warding off the attempted advances of the bull – often challenging him nose-to-nose. As you can see by the photo here (above left), Sabi is extremely interested in Zohari's, um....back end. She is trying to uncover whether her younger half-sister needs her to run interference and Zohari is seemingly looking to keep this secret to herself by heading to a mud-hole and submerged her nethers in it. But as this scene plays out – and I zoom in tightly on Zohari – Sabi grows frustrated ("Frustrated!" I can hear Tom exclaim. "Boy, let me tell you a little something about being frustrated..."), lowers her head, and begins to goose poor Zoey in the tender hindquarters. What you are in fact witnessing in the photo I used in the calendar is not a moment of blissful relaxation in the cool of a muddy wallow, but rather a startled rhino in the act of scrambling to her feet to avoid further indignities being inflicted on her by a persistent older sib. The shot is wonderful, I think, just not for the reasons you might expect.

As this brief slice of savanna life continued to play itself out, Zohari got out of the wallow and sashayed alluringly toward her would-be suitor, while Sabi now had the moment she had been waiting for to fully and unashamedly inspect Zohari's rear end for the tell-tale scents of oestrus, Once Sabi had the information she needed she went into action....

....aggressively and threateningly advancing on the hapless, outnumbered young bull, chasing him off the trail for the moment....

..and making good and sure he fled the scene completely, and didn't try an "end run", as it were. All of which goes a long way to explain why Nandu is the only rhino calf at the Zoo right now and the first one born in Toronto in 16 years.

As for the tragic hero of our story?

Oh, come on, He's a guy. Don't pretend you're surprised.

By the way, the African "white" rhinoceros is not actually white; the most popular theory on how it received its name is that it's a mistranslation of a Dutch or Afrikaans word "wyd" (spellings vary) referring to the animal's "wide", square mouth. This has not been proven, though. But it does seem that the "black" rhino – which is smaller but does not differ in colour – was named as such purely to differentiate it from the "white" rhino. Both African rhino species have two horns while the three that dwell in Asia – the Javan, the Sumatran, and the Indian (or greater one-horn) – possess only one. It is likely for this reason that the African rhinos are more frequently poached for their horns than the Asians: more "bang for your buck" with two horns versus one. Either way, they are all disappearing from the planet at an alarming rate because of the mistaken belief that their horns contain some magical medicinal properties. In point of fact their horns are made of keratin – a protein that makes up hair and fingernails in humans – and you would receive at least as much "magic" from simply biting your own nails. A tragedy for the ages. And as I write this post – on July 31st – it just happens to be World Ranger Day, celebrating the very brave and dedicated men and women currently on the front lines of a very real war against the ruthless and greedy poachers of the world. They are big, big heroes of mine.

Well, that escalated quickly. My apologies, but this is a subject quite near and dear to my heart. Let me raise the mood as I finish up by telling you that next month will feature the hilarious antics of one of my two favourite "Samsons" at the Toronto Zoo.

♫See yoooouuuu in Septeeeeemmmmbeeerrrrr....♫

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Be an Advocate for Your Own Health!

So, a quick Mental Health update. Ok, maybe not that "quick", but that's how it goes. :)

I've been having a lot of anxiety-related issues the past several months. No doubt they come across in the tone of some of my online postings, if you haven't witnessed them first-hand "in real life". I've felt quite irritable and out of control for much of the day since at least late January and I've tried very hard to isolate the issue. The tension in my body makes me tired, which makes me irritable, which makes me tense, which makes me anxious, which makes me worry about being anxious, which...well, you get the picture. No? Ok, here you go:

The only difference between the time this started and back when I was on the upswing is the fact that I am now being treated for ADHD (which I've had forever, but we're treating it as if it's adult onset). This has effected a couple of changes to my routine; notably, I now get up with Sarah every weekday morning and have coffee or tea and a chat before she gets ready for work. So I was worried that my sleep patterns had been disrupted, or my circadian rhythm thrown off, but those fears have been dispelled. Next, I looked at the possibility that my Cymbalta might have unmasked even more ADHD symptoms that might have been latent until then. That seemed to not be true. So then I looked at the only other thing that was new: I am taking Vyvanse (an amphetamine) for the ADHD, to help me focus.


First I didn't take it for a week or so, because my psychiatrist told me it had a very short half-life and I figured (with his blessing after the fact) that it would be obvious quite quickly if that were the problem. Since my tics and fidgeting and irritability and all the rest did not improve, I figured that wasn't the issue. Which he seemed to agree with. But still these problems persisted and I was becoming more and more frustrated with my inability to overcome them, even with the "Mindfulness" path that he suggested to me. So yesterday I saw my amazing GP again and let her know that something had to give. It was then she looked up interactions between Cymbalta (duloxetine, an SNRI) and Vyvanse (lisdexamfetamine) and showed me the result. Here are the "possible" side effects from combining these two drugs:

- jitteriness
- nervousness
- anxiety
- restlessness
- racing thoughts

And last, but certainly not least:

- serotonin syndrome (including symptoms such as confusion, hallucination, seizure, extreme changes in blood pressure, increased heart rate, fever, excessive sweating, shivering or shaking, blurred vision, muscle spasm or stiffness, tremor, incoordination, stomach cramp, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea, which could lead to a coma or even death)

WUT?? Yeah. Well, I definitely have a whole bunch of those symptoms. I have all of the ones listed above "serotonin syndrome" and a few (excessive sweating, blurred vision, muscle spasm, incoordination, some stomach issues) from that area, too.

So to sum up: even though I presented all of those symptoms to my psychiatrist in at least three separate visits, and even though I myself had openly wondered if it had anything whatsoever to do with the Vyvanse, and even though he had my medical history in front of him for every damn visit, not once did this come up even as a possibility. Not. One. Damn. Time.

So, obviously (I hope), I will be discontinuing the Vyvanse post-haste. And discontinuing my visits to him even poster-haster. Or something. In the meantime, my GP is going to try me on a different ADHD drug (Concerta) which has no known bad interactions with Cymbalta.

If there's anything to be taken away from the struggle I've outlined here, it's this: You are the best advocate for your own health. Never forget that.

And good luck to all of you. I'm here if you ever need me.

Friday, July 1, 2016

2016 Connecting with Animals Calendar – July Story

That one perfect moment. (L-R: Twiga, Kiko, Mstari)

I've often referred to my method of taking pictures of animals as "brute force photography". I'm not a true practitioner of the art, per se: I don't pay that much attention to lighting, location, time of day, filters, etc., etc., etc. What I do is show up where there's an animal I want to try to get a photo of, choose a spot with a relatively clean view (and as devoid of other people as possible), set up there, and wait for my subject to do something interesting – which sometimes means simply showing up at all. I will wait a very long time for an opportunity (I spent over four hours on one morning in May to get some photos of our lynx kittens) and, far more often than not, I am rewarded for my patience. I shoot in bursts and refine the best captures in "post-production"; I also seem to have a bit of a knack for predicting the moves of an animal and zeroing in on facial expressions or unusual moments, which helps quite a bit. Most of my best pictures are a result of this method, but every now and then I will stumble upon a scene which I recognize as an instant "classic" – as was the case with my photo for February of this year. Sometimes, too, it all comes down to simply being in the right place at the right time and being ready to shoot.

Which is what happened when I captured the above photo for July, 2016.

My first glimpse of Kiko on exhibit
Kiko came to the Toronto Zoo from the Greenville Zoo in South Carolina in late May of 2015. His mandatory 30-day quarantine period was timed to end at the end of June, which should have put Kiko on exhibit by Canada Day – or July 4, at the very latest. But Kiko was stubborn and gave the vets and keepers a very hard time when they tried to get enough blood drawn to end the quarantine, causing his myriad fans (who watched his birth live on the Zoo's giraffe cam) to grow a little concerned by a delay in his appearance which ultimately exceeded two months beyond the anticipated 30 days. Nevertheless, on the very last day of August the Toronto keepers were finally given the green light and began to allow Kiko access to the outside paddock – should he choose to accept it, that is. He balked at this opportunity for a couple of days, finally walking back out into the sunlight on September 2nd because that was the one day that week I could not be at the Zoo. Seriously, it's downright astounding how often that very thing happens to me. But I digress. The following day – September 3 – I came early and took a few photos of the new hunky star settling in nicely to his surroundings. He seemed to get along swimmingly with both Mstari and her mom, Twiga, from the very beginning.

My very first glimpse of Mstari – 1 week old!
Mstari, on the other hand, has a very interesting claim to fame at the Toronto Zoo. On October 22, 2013 the remaining three African elephants in the Zoo's collection departed for their very controversial long drive to California, where they were being transferred. As keepers and vets and other staff and volunteers gathered that morning to lend support to the elephant keepers and their charges, a call came over the radio. Twiga, the younger of the two female Masai giraffes remaining at the Zoo, was in the process of giving birth and help was immediately requested at the giraffe paddock and house. From several accounts, it seems to me that this was a not entirely expected event. As I followed the elephant saga from home on Twitter (I couldn't bring myself to show up at the Zoo), I saw in a reporter's feed that was "some good news to report: a baby giraffe" and thought to myself, "Sure, in San Diego, maybe... but what did that have to do with Toronto?" You see, there was no male giraffe at that time, Stripes having passed away the previous fall. As the day went on, however, I read that news a few more times on Twitter (with the same confusion) until I eventually became aware of an account that was less than a week old: @TOZookeepers. I wasn't immediately convinced that this was a "real" account, until I took a look at who was following them. This new account also tweeted out the giraffe news, but confirmed that the birth was at the Toronto Zoo. Then it finally clicked: Masai giraffes have a gestation period of 14-15 months. Stripes had been gone for, I think, about 13 months when Mstari was born – going out with a "bang", apparently! On that day of sorrow and angst, we had a new giraffe baby...which was pretty incredible. For the first little while, the not-so-tiny one had the nickname "Elly" (although I'm not positive how it was spelled) in honour of the departed pachyderms, but eventually that became too heavy a reminder and she was officially named "Mstari" in honour of her late father. The story that went around (and perpetuates today) is that mstari means "stripes" in Swahili; this is not, technically, 100% correct. The closest translation of "stripes" in Swahili is "kupigwa" (which I think would have been so cool, because I absolutely would shorten that to "kupi" and probably pronounce it "kewpie"!); "mstari" means "band" or "row" or "line" more accurately. Moreover, for it to be plural, it would have to be spelled "mistari". Since her dad was named after the American flag (I cannot confirm this, but I have been told that he and another giraffe were born at the Cleveland Zoo quite close together in late June of 1991 and they were called "Stars" and "Stripes" because of course they were), "bands" or "lines" actually makes some sense. Still, though, the spelling could have been better. No matter: her mom was named "Twiga" which actually means "giraffe". So Mstari is better off than that!

A very doting mother
 Twiga was a great mom. I don't recall where I looked this up, but somewhere I came up with the information that she and Stripes had seven babies together (if anyone knows differently, please let me know). And she and Mstari formed a very strong bond, particularly after auntie Ginetta passed away in early 2014 at 30 years of age – which was quite an achievement. If she had one small "failing" (which is too strong a word), it was that whenever Mstari tried to get a few nibbles during Keeper Talks, Twiga would always try to eat the food before Mstari could get her tongue around it. However, these were just "snacks" and Mstari certainly had no issue in trying to thrive overall. And when Kiko came to town and was finally able to go on exhibit with the two ladies, Twiga gave him a very thorough looking over for the first couple of days before she permitted Mstari to get too close to him on her own. Fortunately for me, though – especially in terms of this month's photo – all three got along pretty well right off the bat. Kiko did seem to prefer the company of Twiga in the early days – likely because he was very young himself and missing his own mother – but eventually spent more and more time with Mstari as time went on. Twiga must have been hanging on to be sure that her last child was going to be well taken care of, because on October 24 of last year, shortly after all three of them had celebrated birthdays, Twiga collapsed on exhibit and had to be euthanized. She was 25 years old. The two youngsters seemed to be quite shaken by this turn of events and it's taken them until this summer to really start to come around again. However, all of that trauma was still well in the future when I turned up on the afternoon of September 14th to see how the new family was getting on.

Alison feeding Kiko (front) and Twiga
It was a gorgeous day but there were not very many people at the Zoo as it was rapidly approaching closing time. Keeper Alison had just fed the three of them some treats from just behind the giraffe house and I had taken up a position to shoot from a good angle to capture that. The few other visitors in the area seemed to all have come there specifically to get pictures of the newest arrival and were scattered about along the wall overlooking the giraffe enclosure. When Alison disappeared back inside, the giraffes restlessly shuffled off in different directions and most of the other folks took that opportunity to check out their own equipment or change their positions to get a better vantage point on Kiko, the star. I, however, came armed with quite a bit of prior experience in the circling patterns of these giraffes and the knowledge that, when they had even a slight idea that food may still be forthcoming, they tended not to shuffle off too far before returning to where they might expect to see more treats.

(L-R) Kiko, Mstari and Twiga circling the wagons
And so it was that the two gals, veteran residents of the Toronto Zoo that they were, almost immediately made their way back to the fence from where they could watch the door to the barn very carefully for any signs of Alison's return. They positioned themselves a few feet apart and stared intently at the building. Kiko – new to the exhibit – wandered off much further afield, causing every other photographer in attendance to train their lenses on only him which, in turn, meant they failed to notice the actions of the other two giraffes. I, however, stayed put, keeping one eye on mother and daughter and the other on the arc of Kiko, now sweeping widely back towards the outdoor yard. As he narrowed the distance to this yard, it became rapidly apparent to me that there was a very good chance he would at some point perfectly fit the gap Mstari and Twiga had left between them. I raised my camera and focused on that gap, awaiting the imminent arrival of Kiko into the edge of my frame. It began to dawn on the other visitors what was about to transpire and I heard from behind me quite a rustle as they all attempted to get into a good position for the shot...but they had left it far too late. Kiko appeared, I held down the shutter release, and shot off a whole series of photos in rapid succession as he strolled into the position you see above. There was an audible sigh and outtake of breath from behind me and we all knew what I had managed to capture. If you look closely at the resulting photo, you will see that Twiga has lifted her right foreleg in preparation for beginning to circle away once again, meaning the timing of this one perfect shot had to be absolutely precise.

So yes, this was a case of "right place, right time"; however, I created that possibility through anticipation of the animals I knew so well and it came to fruition by the actions of the one unknown: Kiko. For all the technical aspects of photography that I am light years behind in, I am very pleased with my ability to recognize patterns and habits of the creatures that I spend so much of my days with. They have rewarded my patience and powers of observation time and time again and that is why I still return with my camera on so many days where I do not have a scheduled shift at the Zoo. I hope – oh, do I hope – that I never lose that passion. With subjects like these, could I, really?

Next month: another huge animal, and a photo taken not too far from where I stood to snap the one for July. I hope, this time, I have it ready for the first of the month!

Sunday, June 12, 2016

2016 Connecting with Animals Calendar – June Story

Samson asking for a treat

First of all, let me apologize most profusely for the lateness of this post. The tragedy at the Cincinnati Zoo at the very end of May knocked me for a bit of a loop and – perhaps even more importantly – the backstory of this month's photo seemed woefully inappropriate to share on the heels of that incident. Within a few days, the month just kind of got away from me as the Education Department at the Zoo has become more and more busy with the end of school looming. Maybe I'll learn from this and have the rest of the year's posts "in the can" long before the first of each month.

Ha ha ha!! Yeah, I just read that out loud. So...probably not. But I do hope to have them ready for the turning of the next six pages, at least!

So, this is Samson. I had suspected it was all along, but I wasn't 100% sure and I only managed to check with his #1 fan – keeper Alison – after the calendar first went to press, so I left his name off of the June page. (I managed to add it for later editions, though.) I took this photo in 2014 – ironically enough on May 31, or precisely two years to the day before I should have had this post uploaded – and at that time I didn't know one hippo from another, so I never tagged this picture appropriately. In the meantime, I've learned several ways to tell the three siblings apart; in the case of Samson, the easiest way is to know that he always goes on exhibit alone.

Perky (2nd) and Petal
Samson's two sisters, on the other hand – Petal and Perky – are ordinarily found together in the exhibit. I am fairly certain that Perky is the one with the tooth sticking out; however, for some reason I cannot seem to commit that 100% to memory. If I find out otherwise, I will edit this post. Perky recently turned 25 years old while Petal will turn 30 in July. All three are magnificent creatures, but Samson (who will be 43 also in July) is on a whole other level, Sarah and I were extremely fortunate to have a visit with him (and his sisters) a few months ago, and he is absolutely huge. Spectacularly huge. Overwhelmingly huge. The thing is, the Zoo's elephants (when they were in Toronto) and giraffes and rhinos and other enormous beasts have all been viewable at one time or another from a position of relative equality with respect to ground level. That is to say: Zoo guests have been able to stand at the same level as these animals, allowing us to gain an appreciation for their bulk. The river hippos, on the other hand, have always been in an exhibit that is situated below the ground that visitors stand on, diminishing the effect of their massive size. So when Sarah and I encountered Samson for the first time from a "level playing field" it was positively exhilarating. When he opened his enormous mouth to ask for a treat I found myself looking up at his lower jaw. It absolutely took my breath away to finally understand just how incredibly mammoth these animals are, And now I believe I can better appreciate just how it is that hippos have become the most dangerous land animal (to humans) on the African savanna.

An "Itzakadoozie" frozen treat
On the day I took this month's photo, Samson had recently had his scheduled public feeding. The keeper (no recollection of whom) had moved on to other duties and the great beast was idly floating around in his pond, probably searching for morsels of yummy treats that had previously escaped his giant jaws. As I watched him leisurely move about in the water, I happened to notice a little girl of perhaps three years old in her father's arms near the corner of the pond. He wasn't holding her over the water in any way, nor was she perched on the rocks; nonetheless, the "Itzakadoozie" she was clutching in her wee hands was clearly visible from the pond itself. Ultimately, the bright colours attracted the attention of Samson – at least, that's what I presume happened – and he slowly manoeuvered himself into a position just below the girl and her dad.

And then he opened his massive mouth.

Hippo in Belgrade enjoying a watermelon
He didn't open it enough for it to be a sign of aggression, in my opinion. In fact, Samson did not open it any wider than what you can see in the calendar photo. Judging from the photo at left (not mine) it seems to me that he was looking for another treat. Perhaps he mistook the popsicle-like goody for a carrot. Or a squash. Or a watermelon; I don't believe hippos are particularly known for outstanding eyesight. Whatever he thought he might be about to receive, he sure looked eager to accept it. And as impressive as the image was from my angle, I can't even begin to imagine how it must have looked from the vantage point of daughter and dad. But I know one thing: I'd sure loved to have been in their shoes at that moment. Maybe somewhere down the road. Come to think of it, I imagine the best thing for me to do would be to get to a future Keeper Talk early, position myself behind where the feeding would be taking place, and shoot a few frames over her shoulder. Watch for the results in a future calendar – or, at the very least, a Facebook and Instagram post.

In the meantime, Sarah has fashioned a stencil in the shape of a hippo in order that Alison can have Samson create a masterpiece using....wait for it....flying poo. Yes, that's correct. So watch for that at a future fundraising event. I'm assuming you'll be able to bid on it only in increments of the Number Two. Bahahahahaha....I'll show myself out.

Next month: the story behind what is quite possibly the most visually striking shot of all thirteen (including the cover) in this year's calendar. Hmm. Perhaps I should start that one the moment I post this one.

Yeah. Like that will happen.

(Post has been edited to include the word "land" in the phrase, "...most dangerous [land] animal...". The most dangerous animal in Africa? The mosquito.)

Sunday, May 1, 2016

2016 Connecting with Animals Calendar – May Story

Scout (L) and Lafawnduh

Penguins!! This month's featured animals are a pair of young African penguins who are part of the colony of 23 currently residing at the Toronto Zoo. And why does that make me excited enough to put the first word in bold and italics with two (2) exclamation points, you may ask? Well, it's because....ha ha ha, oh come on. Is there really anyone reading this who is legitimately asking that question? "The Grumpy Penguin", "Wandering Penguin", "pengo_steve...", penguin costume, penguin collectibles, Mario Lemieux sweater....the list goes on and on. Penguins have long lived atop my list of favourite animals – although these days they are certainly being pushed hard for that honour, if they've not actually been caught. But I don't expect they will ever finish out of the running, not after this many years.

Biff! Squish those sno-bees!
I can't be 100% sure when my affinity for penguins actually began, but I have an excellent idea of when it took a firm hold in the consciousnesses of all of my friends and family. In 1982 Sega released an arcade game called "Pengo" where the player controls a little red penguin with a joystick and single button. The object of the game is to run around a maze of ice blocks, avoiding and squishing (with those blocks) the evil "sno-bees", while also trying to line up the three blocks marked with diamonds before the round ends. (An incomplete screen shot is shown at left.) In 1983-84, after a crushing relationship failure, I spent very likely weeks of my life at the Innis College pub at U of T, playing a tabletop version of this game either solo or with various friends, the most common being Brett MacMillan and Steve Palmer. I developed a tendency to exclaim "biff!" when I squished one of the nasty little blobs between ice blocks; to my horror, Brett decided that "Biff" should become my nickname. Even before the Back to the Future series had begun, I knew I was not going to be happy with this moniker unless we "dressed it up" a little. Between the two of us, we worked out that it needed to be spelled with only one "f"...but also a silent "3" for some reason which I am certain was the Funniest. Thing. Ever. ™ at the time of its creation. But even that wasn't "special" enough. No, we decided to make the "3" a superscript. And capitalize the "F". Thus, my nickname for the remainder of my 20s and a good chunk of my 30s was "Bi³F". This appeared in salutations, on invitations, on the backs of hockey sweaters, on a set of personalized licence plates, and even engraved on my bowling ball, complete with superscript. Yes, folks, we were that nerdy. Yes, I said "were". Ok, shut up. Now you're all just being mean.

If you see this bird, do not approach it!
In any event, the die was cast. From then on – continuing even through the present time – whenever anyone was looking for a gift for me and didn't know exactly what to get, they defaulted to something with a penguin on it. Over time I collected and received enough knick-knacks to fill a small room, with the majority of them being stuffed penguins of one kind or another. Obviously this has been just fine with me – I mean, I named my business after the animal – and as far as I am concerned it can go on forever. But from time-to-time (especially just before our move in 2014) I have had to jettison a large quantity of the items before they take over our lives completely. I have often wondered what goes through the mind of Value Village workers when they open up several blue recycling bags filled to overflowing with penguin stuffies. But even after several purges of various degrees of ruthlessness, I still have many lovely and meaningful penguins in my possession. And I'm ok with that.

But enough of my own personal back story. This post was supposed to be about the penguins at the Toronto Zoo. 

Right? Best shop name ever.
I was thrilled to see the return of the penguins to the Zoo in 2011. I don't recall for sure if Sarah and I went to see them on opening weekend, but it was absolutely within the first week they were on exhibit. Sometimes called "jackass penguins" because of their braying call (although it's certainly not unique to their species), African penguins are exactly in the middle of the size range of the 17 different species of penguin. They don't live in Antarctica, so they are never outside at the Zoo in the winter, much to the surprise of a healthy percentage of our visitors. In point of fact, they sometimes have to stay indoors through part of the summer as well, because they need a very temperate clime to survive – which I hope they do for a long time; however, their future is, sadly, quite grim at the moment due to overfishing (among other issues). The penguins at the Zoo are thriving right now, though, having increased their numbers from an original 12 to the current 23 (at last count). And even though it long ago closed up and moved away from their exhibit, the shop that opened up upon their arrival had quite likely the greatest shop name I have ever seen. 

Scooby (Doo), the clear favourite of at least one keeper
For those of you who received my 2016 Calendar from the first printing, I apologize: I did not print the names of the penguins in the May photo because I simply did not know which ones they were at the time it went to press. I have since found out (Scout and Lafawnduh, as I labeled at the top of this piece) and have also established the identity of the animal in a later photo, which I will divulge when the time comes. (I'll give you a hint: it's next month.) I showed the photo to one of the penguin keepers and they instantly were able to tell me who was who, because each of our penguins wears a different colour (and style) band on one flipper. This is especially essential at feeding time, which I was fortunate enough to help out with back in December while I was a "Keeper for a Day", something I had purchased through a silent auction on Vulture Awareness Day earlier in 2015. I held the clipboard and recorded each fish that each penguin received during the feedings (which I took part in twice!) and was thrilled to be able to interact with a couple of the more inquisitive birds, especially Wolfgang. The penguin in this photo is Scooby, who is a bit of a miracle bird because he probably shouldn't have survived into adulthood. He is noticeably thinner than the rest and because of his....wait for it...."pluck".... (yeah, sorry)... he is the particular favourite of keeper Kim. He is kind of adorable, for sure, but my own favourite will likely always be Eldon, who was the first one born at the Zoo a couple of years ago, and had no siblings (but had to watch the twins Chupa and Matata cavort in the pen right next door) so I took every opportunity to drop by the nursery and play with him through the glass (finger wiggling, light flashing, shadows, that sort of thing). And even though I say "him", it turned out much later that Eldon is a girl, but only after "he" laid an unexpected egg!

Ashley and Squeak. (Squeak is the penguin!)
Two years ago, I was thrilled to discover the Zoo was trying something new. Every day during the summer there is a penguin talk and feeding at 12:30. In 2014, this was followed daily (weather permitting) by a close encounter with one of the juveniles, which two of the keepers would carry out to a fenced-off area near the entrance to the exhibit, put down on the grass, and let run around for a bit while they answered questions or just interacted with the cute little creatures. This has been one of the highlights of my time at the Zoo and I made sure I dropped by the 1:00 "meet and greet" every chance I had. I am pretty sure I ended up with photos of every penguin in this program except for one, as I showed up a couple of dozen times at the very least. Last year they suspended the idea for the summer due to the concern over the avian flu, which invaded Ontario in the spring and caused myriad concerns for the Zoo. Every outdoor bird was late to appear on exhibit if they appeared at all; the peacocks who roam the grounds – a long-time staple of summers at the Toronto Zoo – never came out of their holding at any time. I knew I missed them (although the chipmunks, free of competition, certainly thrived) but had really no idea how much until I heard one of them call out for the first time a couple of weeks ago. It's not just the sight of them that really means summer at the Zoo, but the sound. In any event, I take the return of the peacocks as a very good sign. Perhaps we'll again have the chance to get up close and personal with my favourite little waddlers this summer. 

Next month: another "missing" name revealed, along with a really cool backstory to the photo. In the meantime, I'll leave you with this video which proves, once and for all, that penguins really can fly. Just not in the air.


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