2021 “MAKING FRIENDS WITH ANIMALS” Calendar – May Story

I love this girl and this is the most beautiful I have ever seen her

After months away…eye-to-eye!

For most people, it probably wouldn’t be surprising to have only featured one hyena photo through seven years of calendars. But I am clearly not like most people, and Kanzi is quite definitely not like most hyenas. In any event, I did feature her once before – in March of 2017, exactly a year after I first met her – and I did a pretty thorough job there of laying out how we met and a few very important factoids about spotted hyenas. If you didn’t read it back then – or have no memory of it – please take a look if you’d like; we’ll be happy to wait for you right here. (Hum your favourite tune to yourself in the meantime.) Ok, ready? We’ll continue. During the first lockdown in 2020, the Zoo was closed to foot traffic for 105 days. In late May, a Drive-Through opened up which included most of the Savanna on its route, which meant we drove right past the hyena enclosure. You better believe I was watched that space intently as we passed it, looking for any sign of my girl. I did see her once or twice (and called out to her), but it would be many more weeks before we had a chance to commune. When guests could once again walk on Zoo grounds, the routes we were allowed to take were very rigidly enforced for a while, and the Savanna was not included as the Drive-Through was still continuing. Finally, I couldn’t take it any more and on July 8 I Volunteered for a shift standing by the cheetah exhibit to point them (and the zebras across the road) out to the people in the cars. I arrived early for my shift and took the “long way around” to the position, going counter-clockwise so I would be able to see where the lions were and have that info at hand for the guests. Well, at least that’s what I said was my intention; I deliberately walked past the hyena enclosure just in case Kanzi were on display that day.

And she was on display. And she heard me coming. And she got to her feet and raced over to the window to greet me. The photo above was the first one I was able to take during this encounter, and I’ll never forget the sight of her after so many months away. In fact, it’s the only photo I took that morning, although I did shoot a brief video of the meeting throughout which I can be heard blubbering away through my tears of joy, so I will not be sharing that with you here today. You’re welcome.

Always excited to see each other!

I have surprisingly few photos of Kanzi in my collection, all things considered. The main reason for this is because she’s almost always right up against the glass when I go to see her, purring away and trying to catch my scent. Most of the time I am far too focused on chatting with Kanzi to even think about taking a picture; besides, it’s too close to get a decent shot with my DSLR, but every now and then I manage to grab a quick snap of her with my phone. This one I took two weeks after the previous shot; at this point the access to the hyena exhibit was accessible to anyone on foot and it was much harder to get her to myself for any length of time. I actually have more photos taken of Kanzi from my car as we paused during the drive-by than I have from all my other visits in 2020 put together. But I did learn one thing last summer, and it became apparent to me on that first rendezvous in early July. We are quite often asked, when we’re leading tours of schoolkids, what our favourite animal is. My pat response is usually to say, “whichever one is in front of me at that moment.” If pressed, I will let on that I have loved penguins the most for the bulk of my life, but a lot of other animals at the Zoo have pretty much closed up the gap over my years of Volunteering – groups and individuals alike. I’ve gone on at length about my love for Ashakiran; Humphrey has meant a lot to me over the years; Kira, Rodney, Ellie, Stevie, and many others have all made a visit to their habitats just a joy. But, as much as I missed each and every animal at the Toronto Zoo during the long weeks of no access, the only one that made me burst into tears when I finally got to spend time with her again was Kanzi. On that day in July, it suddenly became very clear that I do, in fact, have a favourite animal at the Zoo. And now I just have to hope that the current, second lockdown (160 days and counting when this post goes live and will be well over half a year before there’s any chance for me to see her again) doesn’t put a serious dent in our relationship. I doubt it would; but it’s always there in the back of my mind.

Carnivore feed: I guess so!

Over the four years since my last Kanzi post, I have had many, many encounters with her, but a couple of special times stand out. In August 2017, we learned that she was going to have a special “carnivore feed,” so we began to get ourselves ready in front of the window close to half an hour before it was going to take place, to be sure we had a good angle for our shots. I took up a position that was several panes left of where I ordinarily stood to chat with Kanzi, and I wasn’t sure she’d even be aware of my presence. As the moment of truth approached, the area began to fill up with more and more eager spectators, until it was basically a throng three deep right across the viewing area at the front of the exhibit. One of the Keepers came out with a huge chunk of meat (which I think was a thigh or possibly hip of a large animal) in a bag that was full of blood. She took the meat out and placed it in front of Kanzi’s den, then slowly poured the blood out around the area to really give her scent glands a treat. She then retreated to the safety of the Keeper room and, a few moments later, Kanzi appeared on the gallop. She followed the trail of fresh blood all the way to her den, where she spotted the shank of meat and eagerly picked it up in her mouth. It was then that she looked up and saw the throngs of people watching her (a conservative guess: there had to have been at least 60-70 people at those windows) and her frenzy increased. Have a look at her eyes in this photo where she spotted me: they are huge. So she did the only sensible thing.

She took off for a remote corner of the exhibit with her treasure, a place where she saw her Keepers waiting and watching.

Taking her treasure to safety away from the teeming masses

This was disappointing, but understandable. The sheer numbers of people there, coupled with the frenzy of a “fresh kill,” spooked her enough to want to hide and enjoy her meal in peace, where it couldn’t be stolen from her. A few people wandered off, others moved down towards that end of the exhibit to see if they could get a better angle on her tearing into the meat. Being in the front row, there really wasn’t anywhere I could go so I just stayed at my spot and waited to see what would happen next. I figured there was a decent chance she would come back to where she first smelled the blood and perhaps bring some of the carcass with her to devour in her den. And she did come back, but I was unprepared for how…and why.

She came past the windows full of strangers with a huge piece of the meat in her mouth and brought it directly to me.

Coming back to me with her special treat

I was absolutely blown away by this. I was far from the only person she would have recognized there that day, but she picked me out of the crowd nonetheless. And she braved the crowd that had already caused her some concern to deliberately bring me a piece of her feast – but for what? Was she offering it to me? Was she proudly displaying her treasure? I’ll never know for sure; all I saw was her putting it down for a moment and looking right into my eyes, then picking it up again and carrying it away to eat it in relatively safety back in the long grass. I have to say, I’m darned lucky to have any shots of this occurrence at all, because I was absolutely stunned by this gesture. Whatever I thought I had known about the nature of our relationship before that day, I found our bond was exponentially stronger than I had dared hope. It was an incredibly moving experience and solidified our connection forever.

Part of her enrichment party

The other story I want to tell here is of a similar nature, and it happened a couple of summers after the carnivore feed, a period of time during which I grew more and more sure of our special connection. In early September of 2019, several enrichment opportunities for various animals took place over a weekend. When I found out one of them was going to be for Kanzi, I headed over to her exhibit and waited for her – this time at the other viewing window, along the south side of the enclosure and at a 90-degree angle to the main one where I stood for the feeding. If memory serves, I chose this spot mostly because the other area was quite crowded already and I knew I could get my shots from the “secondary location,” in part because the enrichment items (boxes and other things with goodies inside) were placed all about the exhibit. When Kanzi came out, she noted the crowd at the main window and began to head towards them, when she suddenly spied me out of the corner of her eye, made a right turn, and galloped straight to where I was standing, completely ignoring all of the enrichment boxes along the way. This brought quite a chuckle from the crowd, and I found myself in the odd situation of instructing a fierce carnivore to turn away from me and, for goodness sake, go find the meat!! She went to the first box and broke it open, but before she spent any time at all finding out what was in it, she turned and came back to the window again. I again told her to go play, and again she did as I suggested. This happened over and over again – so many times, in fact, that I lost count. She would go and open a box or nose around the contents of a broken one (which often contained tasty morsels such as frozen chicks or strips of meat), and sometimes she would pause long enough to swallow some of the treats, and sometimes she would come back to me without even doing that. Eventually, when I had finally managed to convince her to go to the centre of the exhibit (where the airplane in this photo was hanging), I reluctantly walked away from the window so that everybody else who had shown up to see her tear into her “gifts” would at last get the show they were waiting for. It did the trick, but even then I could see her looking back at the window where I had been standing to see if I had come back. Bearing in mind that I’ve only ever been inside the Hyena House twice and am not responsible in any way for her care or feeding, the connection between us is absolutely incredible and I find myself excited every single time I see her, as if it’s the very first time she has come over to see me, instead of a number in triple digits.

I’m going to tack on a few odds and sods here about spotted hyenas, and Kanzi in particular, before ending with a very special video that is only tangentially connected to Kanzi. I’ll explain that later. First up: it was “International Hyena Day” on April 27th and our illustrious Volunteer Co-ordinator and fearless leader of Team Brizi (we call her Captain K) put together an email of facts for us to use on that day during our chats on Twitch. She even made a cool “poster” for which she used a few of my photos! Here’s that mosaic for your enjoyment.

These are not all of Kanzi: can you believe it?

There’s a Ted-Talk-type discussion about hyenas entitled, “Everything You Know About Hyenas Is Wrong,” which is excellent and you should definitely check it out.

Here are a couple of extremely cool YouTube videos from a wonderful site called “Minute Earth.” These deal with why female hyenas have pseudo-penises and why it sucks to be a male hyena.

Here is an excellent piece from the Smithsonian Channel, featuring the “Lion Whisperer,” Kevin Richardson, who is every bit as in love with his hyenas as he is with his lions.

A short collection of some of the spotted hyenas’ amazing sounds.

For comparison, here are a couple of videos I shot during two visits to the girl of the month.

And now that very special video with the tangential connection. April 18-24 of this year was National Volunteer Week and a few Zoo Staffers uploaded some shout-outs to the Volunteer team on a special YouTube channel. One in particular stood out from the crowd, and it’s the one you will see next. It was prepared by Brian Oliveira, who is an Animal Care Supervisor at the Zoo. Fun fact: if you visited the Drive-Through last summer and played the special podcast while doing so, you would have heard him providing the narration. What does this have to do with Kanzi? Well, I’m glad you asked.

Brian was the very first Keeper I ever met while I was training to be a Volunteer back in the late fall of 2012. At the time he was working in the polar bear exhibit and he willingly answered my questions as he was finishing up preparations for putting the bears out. He was also the second Keeper I saw the following Friday; oddly, though, I encountered him in the white rhino exhibit, which is almost as far from the polar bears as you can get at the Toronto Zoo. I asked him (once I established it was, in fact, Brian and not a twin or anything) if the Keepers worked all over the Zoo, and he laughed and told me he had been transferred from the Tundra to the Inner Savanna just a few days before our second meeting (in retrospect, this was likely because he became the Lead Keeper up there after “levelling up”). So he was patient and friendly once again and his subtle encouragement allowed me to befriend numerous other amazing Keepers along the way. I’ve had many opportunities to talk to Brian over the years; not recently, of course, because not only has the Zoo been closed for more than half of the past 14 months, but also because he’s not nearly as accessible as a Supervisor, spender more time with Administration duties and very little time with the actual animals.

But he was still Lead Keeper of the Savanna on March 7, 2016, when I walked up there hoping to see the white lion cubs – who had been born the previous fall – out on the main exhibit for the first time. I saw Brian at the hyena exhibit and asked about the boys; he said they weren’t out that day and, since he was off the next day, the most likely first viewing of them would be Wednesday morning. I thanked him and I imagine I was about to leave the area when something made me stop. I asked him what he was doing there, if he wasn’t out to monitor the cubs (in the exhibit right next to the hyenas). He explained to me that we had a new three-year-old hyena (she would turn four later that month) who had arrived earlier in the year from the Buffalo Zoo, had finished her quarantine, and was exploring the exhibit for the very first time. He wanted to watch her to see how she was adjusting; because he’s an awesome person, when I asked if I could kind of hang out with them as well, he readily said, “sure!” I spent the better part of an hour with Brian and Kanzi, and by the time I pulled myself away I was already absolutely smitten with the sociable, chatty, gorgeous young hyena. So Brian has a very special place in my heart and always will. Fun fact II: there is a penguin at the Zoo who is named Jagu. The Keepers in the area really wanted to name one of the four new chicks that spring after Brian, whom they all adored; he asked that they name the lone female after his wife instead.

Here, then, is the incredible video Brian put together (on behalf of the Wildlife Care Team) to honour the Volunteers at the Zoo, whom he clearly has been missing. If you’re a regular visitor to the Toronto Zoo, see how many animals you recognize. And try not to shed a tear or two at the very end. I do, every time I watch this.

Well. I cannot imagine what I haven’t covered, but I’m sure I’ve left something out somewhere. That’s cool, though: that way I can feature another hyena someday and have something left to talk about. Next month brings an animal who is celebrating a very important, milestone birthday this month (but May is my month so Kanzi was always going to be the one featured) and by then there might even be one or two more things to talk about concerning her and her “little” family. And maybe I will even have been back to the Zoo by then. Maybe.

For now, thank you as always for coming along for the ride, and for being supporters of these calendars for all this time. If you get a chance, please check out our channel on ZooLife TV where five of us have the fantastic responsibility of delivering Q & As a few times a week concerning our Zoo and the animals in it. It’s kept me going through this winter, in all honesty.

I’ll leave you with a parting shot of our eldest female hyena, Pinduli, enjoying some unexpectedly balmy weather in the very late winter of 2018. See you in June!

Clearly a tummy in need of a good rubbing

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