2020 “HANGING OUT WITH ANIMALS” Calendar – December Story

A very handsome boy

The last time I saw Tempête

In an unbelievably difficult, tragic, and seemingly interminable years such as this has been, it seems to me particularly fitting that the last animal I featured in my 2020 calendar did not survive the year. One might have supposed that I should have learned my lesson the only other time I featured an Arctic fox (in point of fact, two Arctic foxes) in my calendar, as neither of them was around by the time that month arrived, either. When I wrote that blog post, in April of 2016, I had been at the Zoo for about 3 1/2 years and four different foxes had lived and died there in the interim. In that post, I touched on how unusual that was even for such an ordinarily short-lived animal, and how I hoped the Tundra Trek would soon be vibrant once again as there were very few animals to be found there at that time.

Orage (à l’arrière) et Tempête

Well, it took a couple of years, but it certainly did come alive again. By the beginning of 2018 we had a new snowy owl, a new trio of Arctic wolves who would soon bless us with six cubs, the return of some beloved polar bears, a new herd of caribou on the horizon, and the addition of two adorable young lads from Parc Safari in Quebec: Orage (Thunder) and Tempête (Storm). They arrived in Toronto in late November of 2017; the photo here was taken on the first day I saw them on exhibit, January 24 or 2018. Interestingly, the colour disparity resembled that of Venus and Jupiter from a few years earlier, but for an entirely different reason: Orage was an Arctic blue fox and never went entirely white. It was more difficult to tell them apart in the summer, but only if Tempête were facing to our left (as he is in this month’s cover photo), because he had a cauliflower ear on the right side of his head. They were litter mates and 2 1/2 years old when they came to the Toronto Zoo.

Tempête in the summer

It was wonderful to have such charismatic animals back on the Tundra Trek and their exhibit was a great place to hang out for a while when the Arctic wolf cubs were sleeping; as I visited the cubs many, many times during the spring and summer of 2018, I had lots of opportunity to spend time with the lads, whom our exceedingly English-speaking Keepers had taken to calling “Thunder” and “Storm.” Honestly, I don’t think the foxes even noticed, as I tried to speak French to them on numerous occasions and it was met with the same lack of response as anything I said to them in English.

The beautiful Elsa

The following winter the lads were joined on exhibit by another Parc Safari recruit: lovely Elsa. She was two years younger than they, but I believe she was a full sister (same parents, but a much later litter); in any event, once this news made its way around, any initial excitement over the possibility of tiny baby foxes oh my goodness… ahem, sorry… quickly fizzled out. The brothers were neutered and the three of them shared the exhibit together, with the precocious young girl very quickly asserting herself as an adorable force to be reckoned with. She was a fully-white fox in the winter, but there was no confusing her with Tempête for many reasons, including that crazy ear of his.

Here are shots of the three beauties, each of which was among my very favourites (think back on how to tell them apart and see if you can work out who’s who):

Orage between seasons

The first inclination I had that there was trouble in the Paradise of the fox exhibit was in late September, 2019 when I read a report that Orage had been taken to the Wildlife Health Centre for a check-up, and then returned to his family. A couple of days later, he returned to the WHC for an MRI; this time he was sent to the small animal ward. Less than a month later, his condition had worsened so much and his prognosis for recovery was so poor, that he was humanely euthanized. He was 4 1/2 years old, which certainly isn’t unheard of for an Arctic fox in captivity, but with the history of that exhibit, I was quite concerned. Everything remained status quo through the winter and the 15-week lockdown, but just before Labour Day this year Tempête went to the WHC for a checkup and had some complications. The last report I saw of his condition was on September 1, when he was returned to the Tundra but kept off of exhibit. Three days later word reached the Volunteers that Elsa had been humanely euthanized, and that she was the last Arctic fox currently at the Toronto Zoo. This was all announced on the Toronto Zoo Facebook page on September 4, 2020:

Storm (foreground) and Thunder

So, by my count: seven different Arctic foxes have lived and died here since I began Volunteer training at the end of 2012. This has been, I believe, an incredibly frustrating and very sad period of time for all the Keepers involved, and it remains to be seen if it can be established whether there is something amiss in the exhibit, or if this has been a genetic issue with the foxes that have been acquired through this past decade. Hopefully an answer can be found and we may once again see these special little creatures at the Toronto Zoo someday soon. In the meantime, two of the snow geese (Janis and Misti) have made that exhibit their home, as was the case last time we were “between foxes.” I’m not going to try to convince anyone that they are a perfect replacement for such overpowering cuteness; but I will say this: they’re not bad – once you learn their language:

I’m not sure if those are the same two who now live in the fox exhibit; this video was shot a couple of years ago in their other exhibit which has not been inhabited since the cut-through path to the Mayan Temple Ruins part of the Zoo was installed just beside it. All I do know is whoever populated the fox exhibit before Orage and Tempête arrived taught me how to speak snow goose and I’m forever in their debt.

Crimson (L) and Clover

All right. I had originally intended not to go into so much detail regarding the sad times the fox Keepers have had – especially this fall – and instead thought I might relate a story about some of the foxes I met at Soper Creek Wildlife Rescue when I Volunteered there for a few months in the spring of 2019. In particular I wanted to tell one story about how I found a wandering fox with the help of a couple of amazing New Guinea singing dogs but, much like the rest of this year, things didn’t quite pan out as I expected. I will save that story for another time, but I promise to tell it one day, as it is an excellent story and one that really underscores the importance of using all of your tools for a difficult job. But I really don’t want to finish this year on the sourest of all notes: the deaths of beloved animals. So what I will do instead is post this video of a very happy marble fox named Takota (who also lives at Soper Creek), as I give him a tummy rub before proceeding with some clicker training. NOTE: be sure you have your sound on for this one. Trust me.

Well. That was a year, wasn’t it? My goodness. Thank you for joining me on another trip through my stories of the amazing animals at the Toronto Zoo (and elsewhere), and I hope to see you back here in the shiny new year. Please, please, please: stay safe; stay healthy; stay smart; and we’ll get through this pandemic and out into the New World on the other side.

I can’t wait to start next year’s Grumpy Penguin calendar. I really think it’s my best one yet.

Happy holidays, and Happy New Year, wherever you are.