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Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Primate-cy: Electric Boogaloo at the MIlwaukee Zoo

It was more than 2 years ago that M and I last ventured to the Milwaukee County Zoo and lost our headgear to wiley moose.

That trip was auspicious for me, because it marked the first time that I actually got to see bonobos, after multiple attempts to do so. In retrospect, it's a bittersweet trip, because it was also the first—and very sadly, the last—time I'd get to see Mitch Hedberg perform. Although I almost never reread anything I've ever written, I peeked into that entry and I'm sad that I wrote so little about his performance. His appearance that night was both a surprise and a real treat. Given how much of Mitch permeates conversations at Telecommuniculturey, he's someone that M and I really do miss on almost a daily basis.

Anyway, it's a long time since it was all happenin' at the Milwaukee County Zoo. Given that my baby brother has just matched at the Medical College of Wisconsin and will be looking for a house, most likely in the zoo's 'hood, it seems unlikely that it'll be that long before our next visit, and that's a good thing.

The holdings of the Milwaukee County Zoo are, somewhat unfortunately, superior to its facilities. And I'm not just talking about the slim pickings in the way of junk food. (Although, as it happens, only the Santa Barbara Zoo, with its repulsively healthy, avocado-featuring offerings, ranks lower.) Their signage is pretty tragic, both in terms of content and literacy (someone had added a much-needed sharpie apostrophe to "It's" on one sign, but I lacked a sharpie to remove one elsewhere; and let us never speak of the mote/moat problem). A lot of the "interactive" signs (you know, where a question is asked and you lift a flap, slide a lever, or push a button to get the answer) are in bad repair. And nothing appears to have been updated in the 2.5 years since we've been there.

In perusing their website, I see that the problems also penetrate that. For example, the Great Apes and many of the Primates are in the same house, so their organization on their list is not simply location based. Leaving aside the fact that Great Apes are a subset of Primates, making the location-based list confusing even if it were accurate, you then have the Orangutan (hint: it's a Great Ape) lumped in with the Primates. And the term "Pygmy Chimpanzee" has no place on any materials that hope to be educational.
These kinds of problems irk me but don't really have much of an effect on what I get out of a visit. For the most part.

After grabbing a bite for breakfast, we made a false start down the wrong path to the house with Great Apes and other Primates and had to backtrack to it. It was quite cold, so all the primates were indoors. There were two gorillas chilling in the indoor habitat, quite possibly the same two brothers we saw the lsat time, but I'm not sure. They weren't doing much, so we moved on to the bonobos.

The first thing that caught my eye was a nearly hairless male bonobo who sat stock still, keeping himself apart from the rest of the group. He was incredibly muscular, a feature emphasized by not being especially hirsute. He just looked out over the rest of the group so calmly the whole time that we took to calling him "The Cooler."

The second thing I noticed was that there were three bonobos as high as they could possibly get in the habitat. Two of these were adults (one male and one female, as it would turn out), and the third was a youngster. The little one was on the move, clearly wanting to get down on the floor where the rest of the action was. The adult male was hot on his/her heels and in fact sped past to cradle him/her on the rest of the way down. The female caught up with the two and elbowed the male out of the way to take charge of the little one. It gradually became clear that she'd lagged behind because she had extremely limited control of her lower limbs, and seemingly none over her feet.

We're going with the assumption that the female was Linda, the oldest of their bonobos and one who suffers from diabetes, and that she is the mother of the little guy/gal was quite possibly the little baby we saw back in '03. Unfortunately, none of the information delineating the individuals had been updated since our last visit, so this is just a guess. The identity of the male remains unknown, although I suspect he might have been the one actively pursuing the mother of the baby in '03. That guess is based on the fact that he was obsessed with both the mother and the little one, and the mother didn't seem especially pleased with or interested in his bonobo-y attentions to either herself or her offspring (and yeah, the adult male went there with the little guy, 'cause that's how bonbos roll). And just to complicate things, any and all of these bets may be completely off based on the fact that the female was sporting a truly giant estrus swelling (and seemed to have actual intercourse with at least two males), which seems out of step with the age of the little one.

So you can see that information—any information at all—on identity, relationships, health status, etc., would have been a real asset. But our confusion was probably nothing to that of the student who was parked on the floor by the habitat, clearly making notes for a school project. She was a bit surly to someone who asked her a question, snapping that she didn't work for the zoo, but we'll right (in fairness to the Milwaukee zoo, I leave my think-o intact, here. WRITE, damnit!) that off to quite understandable frustration.

From the bonobos, we powered past some cuddling mandrills and fairly sedate spider monkeys. The Goeldi's monkeys were completely uninterested in showing us their tiny baby. The two orangutans were kind of canoodling, but with their backs to us. The black-and-white colobus monkeys were looking glum, as they have every right to, and the Diana monkeys were quite huffy at my having mistaken them, based only on a very brief glimpse, for the B&W colobus monkeys.

But the siamang were all up for being entertaining. The group comprised a family: adult female, adult male, and a little one just over a year old. When we first got there, the mother was sitting on the floor, looking despondent, as the little one performed a vaudeville routine. He was trying to walk on the floor, but kept slipping all over the place. This seemed to irritate him, driving him to climb some of the vines hanging over his dear old mum so that he could kick at her head and shoulders in the universal, cross-species dance of toddler frustration. He was so bad at walking bipedally on the floor that I entertained two possible explanations: (1) He was somehow developmentally delayed and not yet strong enough, leg wise, to "walk"; (2) some particularly cruel keeper had actually crisco-ed the floor.

While mother and child were enacting this tender scene, the adult male was at the back of the habitat, looking through the grate into the interior, out-of-public space. At some point, the mother and kiddo moved back to sit near him. He seemed annoyed by the kid and, at some point, seemed to be trying to make some connection (not necessarily a bonobo connection) with the adult female, who whipped around and smacked him, once, twice, upside the head. Although her reasoning was not obvious at the time, when the whole group later moved closer to the glass, his hand appeared to be entirely covered with shit, which might explain some things.

We finally peeled ourselves away from the primates and headed off to see some reptiles and fish. I appreciate herpetological creatures in general, and M is, of course, an a fish person (and pisces), but there was not much that was particularly exciting in here. M reaffirmed his position that poisonous snakes are cheater cheater pumpkin eaters, and we reminisced about the crazy rattlesnake at the St. Louis Zoo. I was then roundly mocked for wanting to know (a) whether said crazy rattler was abnormal neurologically or otherwise and (b) just how much craziness is out there in the snake population waiting to be selected for.

We next hit the small mammal house where river otters did their cute river otter thing, which is just a smidge less cute than the sea otter thing. Most of the monkeys, including the pygmy marmoset, were completely uninterested in being seen by us. The icky, horrible bats, in contrast, were all too happy to make their presence known (and I'm still having nightmares about the one that was loping across the ceiling while upside down). The wild kitty had just been given a treat ball and was being hilariously house-cat like. The bush baby remained cute, although he did not engage in any particularly spectacular locomotive feats this time around.

Our outdoor tour was rather brisk due both to the cold and the fact that we learned our lesson about sudden Wisconsin wind last time. The short list to the outdoors:

  • The peacock that was really really bummed about the closed snack bar and perpetually screamed about it.
  • Australia was a bust because it was under construction and being painted, which might explain the sacked out roos.
  • Giraffes look totally ridiculous indoors, but being that close, you can see them swallow, which is pretty freakin' cool. Also, their skulls are quite alien looking.
  • The wussy polar bears went back inside almost as soon as we showed up.
  • The black bears we saw look surprisingly like the hound, despite the fact that the hound is quite equine.
  • The "Farm" is generally pretty lame, but we did see:

    • A very twitchy bird of prey being trained and demanding food about every 5 seconds (reason for presence on farm unclear).
    • A cow that trotted in for its lunch when called.

  • The timber wolves that they have are just completely beautiful. They also very pointedly walked to the glass as we walked away, watching us for as long as they could see us with a look that clearly said "We don't want your kind 'round here, two legs."

After some lunch, we swung around the opposite side of the apes/primates to check out Macaque Island where the so-called "snow monkeys" were looking pretty miserable in the cold. Well, most were looking pretty miserable. There was one who was sitting with his legs splayed wide, his erect penis making a jaunty arch and resting on the rock between them like the proverbial third leg.

It was closing in on closing time by then, so we made one more swing through the primate house. This was quite fortunate, because we learned that the adult male orangutan "Tommy" (if that is his real name), suddenly seemed to be in possession of a bucket. We also got to witness all the bonobos going completely mental: They'd run into a deep, out of sight portion at the back of the habitat. For several minutes it would seem as if they had gone inside for the night, but moments later, they'd emerge, as if from a clown car, screaming. Over and over again they did this. Comical, yet mysterious, that's our bonobos.

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