Friday, April 1, 2016

2016 Connecting with Animals Calendar – April Story

Jupiter (L) and Venus during an enrichment session

Dora. Or maybe Vera. Hmm. 
One of the biomes at the Toronto Zoo is the "Tundra". The path through it – known as the "Tundra Trek" – is probably about a kilometre or so long as it meanders past animals of the far north of our country and offers insights into the lodgings and medicines and overall lifestyles of the hardy aboriginals (the Inuit) who co-inhabit this harsh habitat with those animals; It's quite a nice little stroll even now, but it has recently become sadly quite lacking in quantity (if not quality) of the animals on display. As you begin the "Trek" counter-clockwise from next to the Tundra zip line ride, you first encounter the domain of the Arctic wolves. For the better part of 15 years this area was populated by a rather large pack; as age took its toll they began to die off until there was one solitary male left named Loki. At that time, Loki was "retired" down to the Canadian Domain and we brought up a young triumverate of Chinook (male) and Dora and Vera (females who, I believe, are sisters) in the hopes that they will breed and begin their own large pack. For now there are just the three, but they are quite spry and lively and really very beautiful.

Juno showing a stick what's what
At the next stop on your tour you will find what is easily the signature animal of the tundra: the polar bear. At the moment the huge enclosure houses four bears: Aurora and Nikita, twin sisters who came to the Zoo as orphans 15 years ago; Inukshuk, who also arrived as an orphan but two years after the girls; and Juno, the newest creation of the Inukshuk-Aurora pairing, who was born on November 11 of last year (hence her name). Juno has two full brothers – Hudson and Humphrey – who are now living it up in a gorgeous exhibit called "The Journey to Churchill" at the Assiniboine Park Zoo in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Juno is the first female polar bear cub at the Toronto Zoo since her mom and aunt arrived in early 2001. She is every bit as full of life as her two older siblings and, after a slow start, has nearly caught up to them in size and agility. She's pretty adorable, all in all.

But from there the pickings become rather slim.We have one snowy owl who has been on his own for quite some time now. There is one caribou left from the herd that was formerly split up to populate both the Tundra and Eurasia walkthroughs. There is nothing where the snow geese used to be and the geese themselves have been moved to a location farther along the trail. They now inhabit the last exhibit before you reach the end. The exhibit that used to display the Arctic foxes. Because we have none left, at the moment. And that makes me quite sad.

When I first started at the Zoo there were two Arctic foxes, one male and one female. The male (pictured here) was Cody; I don't recall the female's name but she wasn't around for long after I came on board. Some time in late 2013, we acquired two very young females to be companions for Cody, but he had already begun a steep decline himself and passed away that winter. The girls – Jupiter and Venus – occupied the exhibit together for a while after that, but you might notice something a bit "off" about the photo at the top of this page. I took that shot in late July of 2014 when both girls should have been the cookie-brown that Jupiter is displaying; for some reason, Venus never molted to the point where she fully changed colour that spring. Arctic foxes are not at the top of their food chain, so they need to rely somewhat on camouflage for protection against predators. In the winter they are the whitest white you will ever see, matching the snow-covered environment around them. When the snow melts in the brief Arctic summer, the foxes change to a brown-and-white combination (heavy on the brown) to blend in with the sedge and shrub coverage of the landscape. Wolves don't need to use this trick, so they just shed their thick winter coat but remain white all year round. So by the thickest heat of a Toronto summer, both Venus and Jupiter should have had very little white fur remaining. The fact that Venus still had most of hers was cause for concern. However, it makes for a pretty incredible (and rare) photo: two Arctic foxes, side-by-side, coloured completely differently from each other. That's the main reason I chose this photo for the 2016 calendar, even though neither girl is still with us. Something is amiss in that exhibit, it seems, and I can't get a clear answer as to what that is. It's possible it hasn't even been figured out yet. One thing seems certain, though: it's doubtful we'll see any more of this adorable species on our Tundra Trek until we can be sure they'll not suffer the same fate as the last three (at least).

The day I captured the image of Jupiter and Venus and that red ball was during "Zookeeper Week" and the foxes were receiving a special enrichment session that particular day. The ball was full of crickets! There were also several of the chirping bugs scattered about the tall grass of the exhibit and I managed to take some other really cute photos of the girls. Here is the "Bonus Material" for April. I hope you enjoy it!!

S-T-R-E-E-E-E-T-C-H!! Venus is awake!

Jupiter does a target session

Venus hears a cricket....

....and POUNCES!!

Listening for more snacks

Venus attentively watching her keeper leave

I hope that, in the near future, the Tundra Trek becomes a fulfilling and worthwhile walk again. When it was full of life – wolves, bears, owls, caribous, geese, foxes – it was just about my favourite place to hang out in the whole Zoo. In the meantime, I am exceedingly grateful I happened to be there with friends on the day these two gorgeous creatures got some special treats. I will always treasure these photos. 

Tune in again next month for some Fun with Flightless Feathered Friends! 


  1. This was so much fun to read! Arctic animals amaze me for their ability to adapt to such harsh conditions.


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