2021 “MAKING FRIENDS WITH ANIMALS” Calendar – January Story

Look at this sassy little coquette!!

You did it!!

I mean, let’s begin by not burying the lede, right? It’s 2021. If you are reading this, you have survived what very likely will be the most difficult year of your life – that dumpster fire we know as “2020.” Where every week felt like a month, every month felt like a decade, and you pretty much never knew what day it was – unless, of course, you had one of my calendars last year as well, so well done, you lot. There is a lot left to overcome, to be sure; as I write this, we’ve not even crested the dreaded Second Wave here in Canada and it’s very unlikely that the current Ontario lockdown will be allowed to expire on January 22 without an extension. I don’t know when I’m going to see my beloved animals at the Toronto Zoo and if I didn’t have the Brizicam project to keep me going this would be a lot tougher on me for sure. But we’ve turned a big page – the end of the year – and sometimes just the idea of things being different… being better… is enough to give us humans the strength to carry on until things are different and better. Besides, I happen to think this might be the best calendar I have produced yet, so you’re going to want to stick around for at least the next 12 months to see it all unfold on your wall.

So on with the show, this is it…

Same shoot, different ‘tude

I was not as happy with last year’s calendar as I usually am. I do think I chose good shots, but maybe for the wrong reasons. I have been writing blog posts to go along with the calendars since 2016 and I am getting to the point where I’ve used up most of my best stories and photos for some of the animals that I am beginning to repeat on the pages of my calendar. So, last year I decided to find the best shots for animals that I had not written about before, which turned out to be most of the animals in the Australasian Pavilion, for one reason or another. From a storyteller’s point of view, this worked out brilliantly; however, as my stories are really just “value added” for the people who purchase my calendars, this was an entirely backwards way to approach things and that’s what I think I found the most dissatisfying. I was going through the photos on Christmas Day with our Uncle Paul (who possesses a tremendous eye for interesting photos, especially ones that tell stories on their own) and, although some of the shots were better than I remembered them, there were a few that were good mainly because of the story that was behind them, which would be all well and good had this been a book with pictures in it and not a selection of photos for which the stories were found elsewhere. So I decided this year to return to my “roots”, calendar-wise, and chose the best 13 photos I could find to publish and sell. And here we are, on the very first day of the new year, and I’m already faced with an animal that I’ve written about three times already: in May 2016, and twice in 2018 – in January for the “Baby” calendar, and November for the “Adult” one. I recommend reading at least the 2016 post if you haven’t already in order to uncover where my lifelong love of penguins has come from.

2 1/2 months old – my first glimpses

So, long story short (I know, I know, far too late for that) I don’t have a ton of new photos nor stories about the penguin colony at the Toronto Zoo that I didn’t already share in one of those three previous blog posts. But not having a ton is not the same as having none, so I will work with what I have here. For example: Matilda here was hatched out of an egg produced by Chupa and, my favourite penguin, Ellie (Eldon), and then Shaker and Flap were given a chance to be surrogate parents for her. This was the third chick produced by Chupa and Ellie, the other two being Glen and Jagu with the latter also raised by surrogates (DJ and Ziggy). These three hold a special place in my heart on account of their lineage, and Matilda became even more special this year when she paired up with everyone’s favourite penguin, Sparkles, to build a nest together. If you are watching the penguin feed on the ZooLife Twitch channel, their nest box is directly below and left of the camera position. You can find the dedicated penguin stream here on Twitch TV. There are also occasional ZooLife Virtual Field Trips, hosted by a team of Volunteers (including yours truly) with a few Keeper Talks thrown in for good measure. You can find the live stream here and you can also check on that page for archived videos of previous talks. I do recommend you take a look – if only to see what hat I am wearing for any given chat!

“Gertrude the Penguin”

The shot in the previous paragraph was taken on my birthday last year, in May. I had gone to the Zoo for an entirely different purpose when I happened on Matilda in the indoor pool by herself, either just before or just after she had been given access to the outdoor pool for the very first time. She was having an awesome time cavorting about and grooming herself and I stayed for quite a while with her. But then I continued on with my “other purpose,” which was to walk around the entire Zoo and take photos of the amazing sculptures that were making their Canadian debut that day, an installation by the Washed Ashore project. Washed Ashore is a non-profit community art project based in Bandon, Oregon which was founded by the amazing Angela Haseltine Pozzi, artist and educator, in 2010. I urge you to check out the above link for a more complete story on this remarkable project; for now I will tell you that every sculpture is constructed from plastic refuse that has washed up just on the beaches of Oregon. Nothing has been painted; every piece that is added was found in the colour you see. They have created dozens of enormous marine animals over the past ten years and there is enough plastic waste in the bins at their storage facility to increase their inventory fourfold. As I mentioned, this was the first time an exhibition of their art has ever been shown in Canada, and one sculpture actually made its global debut here: Sylvia the Silvertip Shark. Additionally, our own exhibit design team created a companion sculpture from plastic gathered from around the Rouge Valley, which they named “Poly Bear” and who still resides at the Toronto Zoo when Longo’s (who commissioned her) does not need her to travel to a convention or similar event. The show ran for almost exactly six months in 2019 and was incredibly well-received; it left in November in time for construction to start on the Terra Lumina exhibition.

Sunflower leading the charge

In July of 2019 I was watching a Keeper talk at the African penguin exhibit, and they pulled out a wand and some bubble mix as enrichment for the colony. Now, I had seen this tried before with mixed results at best, but on this particular day their interest was very much piqued as they chased the shimmering orbs all over the poolside area. At least, most of them did. There were one or two going through their annual catastrophic moult, and they were seeking out shade away from the water that they were unable to swim in at any rate. And there was Matilda, still getting used to the loud, raucous sounds of the colony and preferring to do things at a slightly different pace. When the feeding was taking place, she kind of hung back a little, keeping close to Kim who was doling out the fish, but generally trying to stay in the background. I imagine she was just beginning to be able to digest whole fish – rather than the slurry her surrogate folks and the Keepers had been feeding her – as she didn’t seem to quite get the hang of it when Kim presented a nice, fresh smelt (I’m guessing) for her enjoyment. She eventually managed to slide it down her throat, and it seemed to easier on the next attempt. But she was having none of the teeming mass of penguinity (I hope that new word catches on) waddling about frantically in pursuit of the drifting bubbles. So Heidi and Amanda decided to go to her, to see if she would play if she were the only one. Still nope. This is one independent little soul, Matilda is. A short collage of Matilda on that day:

Matilda’s beau, Sparkles

Here is a shot of Sparkles I took in the summer of 2019. When the weather co-operates, the Keepers like to do a “Close Encounter” with one penguin after the Keeper Talk and feeding, and they’ll pick up one of the willing little guys or gals and bring them out to a fenced-in area on the approach to the exhibit. Even though there are 28 penguins in our colony, Sparky will be the one chosen the vast majority of the time for many reasons, not the least of which is he heads straight for the Keepers when he knows what’s going on. All of the male penguins at the Toronto Zoo have a band or bands and beads on their left wing which is colour-coded in order to better tell them apart (females are banded on their left wings). If you could see Sparkles’ bands, you would see that they are fuschia and orange; however, the next time you are at the Zoo see if you can spot the one penguin with bands on both wings. Last summer, for Pride, Sparkles (who is the most likely to come out to meet people) was given a band for his right wing which holds several beads in rainbow colours. Matilda, for her part, has on her right wing a yellow band with brown and black beads on it. In all the photos I have included in this post, she did not yet have that band as she hadn’t received her adult feathers and markings yet. You can start to see the beginning of her distinctive spot pattern evolving on her chest in the later shots (each African penguin has a unique pattern) but the colouration is still that of a juvenile. And remember the original photo, the one I chose for January’s Calendar Shot? Take another look at that… and then at my shot of Sparkles just above here… and you will quickly see that they are a match made in heaven.

As I close there are six hours left in this awful year here in North America. I’m going to be waiting with bated breath for each of those agonizing hours to pass before I will truly feel we’re rid of its foulness. By the time you are reading this, it will be 2021 and, even though nothing will really be different, at the same time everything will be different. I hope the New Year has found you safe, healthy, and still in possession of most of your brain cells. Next month features an animal which is a perennial favourite in my calendars, and a truly bittersweet story surrounding last year’s photo of one of his cousins. I hope you’ll join me again then. And I hope I’ll be once again visiting with my sweet animals by then, but time will tell.

Thank you for your continued support! See you in February!