The Toronto Zoo has a pair of beavers living in (or just outside of) the Americas Pavilion. Their names, brilliantly, are Ward and June (think Leave it to Beaver) and I had always assumed they were a breeding pair until I happened to notice one day that they shared a birthday: June 21, 2004. So it turns out they’re siblings. Which makes their names perhaps a little creepy. But it is what it is. Now these two rather large rodents – the biggest native to Canada, in fact – are crepuscular creatures and therefore not often active (or even awake) when you drop by to see them, unless you’re very lucky indeed. On September 16, 2015 my friends Karen, Tom, and I were just that lucky and happened upon a rather industrious Ward, out in his pond area, enthusiastically going to town on a fresh log that the Keepers had put in the exhibit for him and/or his sister.
Well, to be perfectly honest: Ward wasn’t yet industrious when we first encountered him. He had barely begun to work on the fresh timber when he suddenly decided to go for a swim, which we found a bit unusual for such a chilly Autumn day. In fact, everything about this situation was a bit unusual, coming as it did in the very early afternoon and several hours before dusk. I assumed (and still do) that the smell of the new wood – there were quite a few logs and boughs scattered about, but only one actually “mounted” as if still standing – brought him out of the den to explore a bit that day. We watched him swim for a couple of minutes and then, as it seemed he had already lost interest in his work, we moved away briefly to check out the barn owl, newly arrived to the exhibit right next door. We returned to the pond, however, when we noticed that Ward had climbed out and begun his attack on the erstwhile “tree”.
Now before I continue with my own photos, I must share with you a quintessential piece of Canadiana on this, Canada’s 150th birthday: the Hinterland Who’s Who television PSA about the beaver which was one of a series of spots that were a staple of my afternoon viewing as a boy.
Well why not, indeed? I always got such a kick out of not only the hilariously cute washing and chewing sounds the beaver makes near the end of the video, but also the line “For a more complete story of the beaver…”, coming as it does after about 20 seconds of absolutely no narration whatsoever. I don’t know exactly why, but that has always tickled my fancy. “More” complete? Could it be less complete? Hee hee – ah, what a simple time that was to be alive in this country! I urge you to treat yourself by checking out the HWW link I included above, along with their Wikipedia entry “for a more complete story” of their past brilliance and the permanent place it has in the fabric of our nation.
On this cloudy, crisp September day, we didn’t hear all of the adorable sounds evident in that video, but we certainly were able to hear every bite Ward took out of that “tree”. I was fascinated by the process – having never actually come across a beaver in the wild actively bringing down a tree – so I spent quite a bit of time snapping off several shots of our little rodent buddy hard at work. He took occasional short breaks, at which times he most often turned to see if he still had an audience (and every now and then returning to the water’s edge to wash either his front paws or his incisors, depending on what was needed). I could have just stood there and watched this procedure for hours, but as I wasn’t alone I thought it prudent to move on to other animals. I didn’t expect Karen and Tom to share my enthusiasm for remaining at this particular scene. We had just begun to take our leave when Ward did something that caught our attention and changed our minds. Well, my mind, but my friends graciously stuck it out with me.
He knocked the log right out of its holder, thereby “felling” the tree. We stopped to see what he would do next, no doubt assuming he would then cart away his prize and deposit it in the pond. But that’s not what he did.
No, Ward was not fooled by the fake tree-felling. He could tell his handiwork still had a long way to go, so he resumed gnawing exactly where he had been before the log toppled. In retrospect this makes a lot of sense: one of the reasons beavers have such a compunction and singularity of purpose to their tree-chewing is that their huge incisors grow at an incredible rate and, as in virtually all rodents, do not stop doing so throughout the course of their life. Ward had to continue filing down his teeth on that wood no matter whether it was perpendicular or parallel to the ground. So file he did and similarly, therefore, watch him did I, for now it became a matter of not leaving the exhibit until he had completely split that log into two pieces.
And so it was that three idiots – ok, one idiot and two incredibly supportive buddies – spend over 50 minutes in that dim September chill watching a beaver work his slow, methodical way through a previously-cut tree that was also, in any event, already lying on the ground. Yet, as much as that probably sound like as much fun as watching paint dry to many people, I found it absolutely fascinating and would not even have noticed the time passing – were it not, that is, for the occasional stamping of feet and mumbling of the two fine people standing with me. Ward’s chewing noises; his constant repositioning of his teeth on the arc of the cut; his occasional breathers to wash or simply take in his gallery; his clear attention to detail and devotion to his craft: all of these – along with the uncertainty of whether he’d actually complete the job – were sufficient to keep me riveted to my spot for as long as it might take.
He got closer
to breaking the wood in half, but he seemed to lose interest at the very last possible minute and our hearts kind of sank. But then, all of a sudden: renewed energy, and…..
Thank goodness he finished that job; I’m sure I’d neither have gotten over it nor lived it down had he left that log ever so slightly attached. In fact, I’d probably still be there now, waiting for him to take that final chomp. Well done, Ward. Well done, indeed.
I don’t have photos to contribute to this one last bit of information, so you’re going to have to just picture this for yourself. Sorry! The beavers share their exhibit with a few snapping turtles and fish. Their lodge was created in such a way that visitors could look into it through a window inside the Americas Pavilion, enabling a viewing of the adorable rodents when they were in their home – which is about 99% of the time that the Zoo is open, it seems. In the winter, similar windows into the pond itself allow guests to watch the snappers begin to slow their metabolism and, in most winters, enter full hibernation – usually right next to the glass. All except for one snapper, that is. For some reason I have yet to figure out or have explained, this one particular turtle has realized he (or she) does not need to sleep through the winter in the frozen pond, because there is a warm and cozy beaver lodge just metres away with access to food and replete with two warm, fluffy pillows. So most winter days, if you go to the Toronto Zoo and visit the beaver exhibit from inside the pavilion, you will be able to spot three friends happily snoring away in their shelter – two with long, soft fur, and one with hard scutes. This never fails to make me smile whenever I check into the lodge and see them taking turns lying on top of each other.
That’s it for July and one of the most iconic Canadian animals in honour of Canada 150! Next month features an animal that certainly seems to be a staple of my annual calendar, and not without reason. Hope you can join me for that story! Thanks for reading and Happy Canada Day – and Independence Day this week for my American friends!