2021 “MAKING FRIENDS WITH ANIMALS” Calendar – March Story

One very happy sun-worshipper

Solomon and buddy scoping out the terrain

When I began my Volunteer training in the fall of 2012, the imminent arrival and five-year residency of a pair of giant pandas was a huge news item and it had necessitated the temporary closure of the Eurasia walkthrough while the area was adapted to handle the expected huge crowds. Having not really explored the area very much in the past as a guest (Sarah, on the other hand, has extremely fond memories of the Eurasia part of the Zoo) I didn’t really miss the animals that were there. I concentrated on the species that were accessible to the public and figured I’d wait for the chance to expand my knowledge once it reopened. There was a special event (Red Panda Day) in September of 2014 which allowed visitors to enter at least as far as that exhibit but the official opening wasn’t until Christmastime of the same year. When we could finally walk its closed loop (which was much shorter than it once had been), the very first exhibit encountered housed a small herd of reindeer for a short time. However, all but one of them died off rather quickly due to an unknown virus of some kind, and the cause was only discovered by accident by an amazing vet tech, but it was in time to save Snowy, the last of her original herd. As this exhibit featured far too large an area to house only one animal, she was moved over to the Tundra Trek to populate the “caribou” exhibit next to the polar bears, eventually to be joined a couple of years later by a large group of females from Dryden, Ontario. It took a while for the signage to be replaced, causing quite a few puzzled expressions on the faces of Zoo guests as they passed the “reindeer” exhibit and saw two different species of sheep inhabiting it. I can only imagine that more than a few of them now think the animals were a funny kind of “Canadian reindeer,” and I doubt it would be very easy to shift that thought.

Male Barbary sheep

But sheep they were. At first the exhibit held both male and female Barbary sheep (both sexes have horns) and female (hornless) mouflon, the latter of which are thought to be the progenitor of all current domestic sheep species. A couple of years later, the male group of Barbary sheep – which had made their home with the yaks and Przewalski horses on the Eurasia drive-through – suffered the predation of half their number one night. As a result, the remaining two males were neutered and placed with the females in their large Eurasia exhibit. It can be a little more difficult to tell the boy mouflon apart from the boy Barbary sheep (the girls of the latter have much thinner and shorter horns) but once you see them together it becomes a lot easier. I will see that it is nice to be able to see the magnificent mouflon horns at any time without having to hope they’re visible from the Zoomobile; however, they were replaced by the “intact” west Caucasian tur boys in the drive-through region and I have to say I really miss those glorious beasts in their normal exhibit. I imagine the theory behind putting the turs there is that they are substantially bigger (and greater in number), so presumably they are more able to defend themselves against nighttime invaders, but I’ve never actually asked about it.

Stunning winter coat on the mouflon

Although the reason for the mouflon boys to be moved to the “General Population” is horrific, there was at least one small benefit for visitors to the Zoo. The Zoomobile does not operate in the winter months (look for that to hopefully change next winter when we expect to finally have the winterized models able to carry passengers), so I’d only ever been able to see the sheep in their summer coats. Well, it turns out their winter coats are absolutely stunning (see my November, 2019 post about the Himalayan tahrs for a similar issue of winter inaccessibility) and I visited them quite often the first winter they were on display at the top of the loop. Obviously, any chance of confusing them with Barbary sheep males is a seasonal thing; those white stripes and white bums are striking and there is no way of mistaking these guys for literally any other animal at the Toronto Zoo in the winter. I realize I’m a little biased – being particularly fond of most ovine species, although not nearly as much as my partner, Sarah – but these spectacular coats and the stocky animals they belong to are some of the most beautiful I have ever seen.

Mouflon baby and mom at High Park Zoo

Because the boys have been neutered, we won’t be seeing any baby sheep at the Toronto Zoo any time soon (although we did bring in one youngster from a shuttered Zoo in Quebec late in 2019, but that’s a different story). However, there is another Zoo in Toronto that also has mouflon and this tiny herd has been allowed to breed: the High Park Zoo. In April of 2017 I visited them because there had been a litter of capybara babies born that spring and I really wanted to see them while they were still tiny. While I was there I saw quite a few other babies and it was a thoroughly entertaining trip, all in all. As for other Zoos I have recently visited: while there is an impressive assortment of animals in the safari portion of Parc Safari in Quebec, there are neither mouflons nor Barbary sheep housed there. However, before the Toronto Zoo finally opened to foot traffic last summer after the spring lockdown, the Twin Valley Zoo in Brantford opened up and I headed down there with a good friend and her daughter for an awesome day in some brilliant sunshine. They had mouflon there – the second animals in from the front gate, in fact – and there was a very young member of their herd, as well.

Young mouflon at Brantford’s Twin Valley Zoo

Barbary sheep looking for a treat

There are couple of things that set sheep apart from goats, but an easy one to spot is whether their tails stand up or hang down (check out the photo above to see which applies to sheep). But something they have in common are amazing, rectangular pupils. They enable these prey animals to have excellent peripheral vision – very helpful when you’re spending the bulk of your day grazing with your head down – but one notable drawback is they really cannot see above or below them without moving their entire head. Note the shot here at left: the boy here has his heart set on something yummy among the leaves of the overhanging tree (which is a bit odd for a grazer: seeing them attempting to go for some browse) and has to throw his head well back to be able to fix his gaze on it. Those horns that curve back to a sharp point just above his spine can’t make it easy for him, either. But I can tell you he did persevere and eventually came back down to all four feet on the ground munching on some tasty greenery. It was certainly fun to watch how graceful he was on just his back two feet, considering it’s not a “natural” stance for them to be in, and also considering the day I shot this was the first time I had ever seen any of them attempt this. However, the success of this manoeuvre obviously filtered down to the rest of the herd, because I have seen more than one of them on their back legs under a tree in the months and years since. Did they all see him do this? Was it somehow communicated in another way? I’d love to find out what the impetus has been.

Boys and girls enjoying a bright and sunny winter’s day out on the exhbit

Sunny day, happy sheep

I have made one kind of strange observation over the past year, however. Before the pandemic and the subsequent 15-week lockdown, the inhabitants of this exhibit were quite skittish. No matter how many times I went past them, no matter how I modulated my voice, no matter how much time had passed without incident, both species were very reluctant to let me approach the fence without backing up to put more space between us, even if they weren’t right at the edge of the exhibit to begin with. This used to make it very difficult to capture them in cute or interesting positions and I had to be extremely quiet and calm in acquiring a decent spot from which to shoot. As anyone who has followed my posts here or on social media for any length of time will realize: this is very unusual for the “Animal Whisperer” that I seem to be, and I have been quite stubborn about trying to change this on every visit. The obvious expectation, therefore, would be that they would be even more nervous after people once again began to visit them in the early summer of last year. However, nothing could have been further from the truth; in fact, they began to approach me when I came by to call out to them, and I was blown away by this change in attitude. It goes a long way to strengthen the idea that, even though a lot of empathetic people surmised that the animals got a “break” while the Zoo was closed, in actuality far more of them missed the daily enrichment a lot more than might have been suspected. I guess we’ll see if this continues – or even intensifies – if an when we’re ever allowed to visit them again.

It was really nice to write about a species for the first time in this blog post without feeling like I was forcing the issue by choosing a photo for specifically that reason. In fact, a great many of people who bought my calendar for this year have reached out to let me know that this may be their favourite shot of all of them – and I can understand why, given our current situation. It’s a lovely treat to witness a beautiful animal clearly elated by the simplest of things: a chance to just lie in the sun, absolutely carefree. It’s very motivating, I think, and I wish all of you the chance to experience exactly this at some point in the spring of 2021 while we’re all still waiting for things to settle down. Next month: more of the same on all accounts. I expect it will be just as welcome in April as it has been in March. See you then and, as always, thanks so much for reading along and for your continued support. Stay well!