August 21, 2009

a visit to nashville

As of this summer, there were just over 100 giant anteaters living in captivity in 43 zoos and nature parks in the United States. In early August, I had the pleasure of visiting the largest collection of giant anteaters in the United States—and the second largest in the world—at the Nashville Zoo at Grassmere.

In its present location, the Nashville Zoo is only 12 years old, yet it has clearly committed to the study and care of giant anteaters. They currently have five males and six females, including a three-month old baby. They also have another little one on the way, as one of the females is set to give birth this fall.

As zoo representative Jim Bartoo whisked me by golf cart through the winding, wooded back areas of the facility, he explained that in addition to resident zoo keepers, the anteaters are visited and studied by veterinarians and doctoral students in animal husbandry. I knew we were getting close to the anteater housing facility, which is kept separate from the main zoo, when I spied an "Anteaters at Play" yield sign. The anteater area was surrounded by a grass-covered fence that shields the noise and spectacle of carts and cars whizzing past. Apparently giant anteaters are easy to startle!

At the habitat entrance was a sign asking visitors to put on a mask if they had flu symptoms. As I had found out shortly before my trip, the Nashville Zoo was the site of a recent discovery about a strain of flu related to the one that has been in the news this year. Specifically, the zoo's giant anteaters were found to have gotten sick with the a strain of H1N1 influenza that also affected humans. I'll be doing another blog post on this soon, but suffice it to say, all precautions were taken to ensure that no visitors passed an illness to the anteaters inside!

We were greeted by head anteater keeper Dawn Rouse, who escorted us inside and proceeded to tell us all about her charges. Most anteaters had a small room to themselves and a door to the outside enclosure. They were free to come and go as they pleased between their room and outside area. Many of the anteaters stuck their snouts through the bars to greet us, and we offered the backs of our hands for them to sniff. There was one room that contained a male and female, who actually mated while we were there! Across the way there was also a mother, Tiana, and her three-month-old baby, Pana, who was riding her mom's back, as baby giant anteaters are wont to do.

I talked with Dawn at some length about this instinct of babies to crawl onto their mothers' backs—in particular, about the uncanny ability of baby anteaters to sit on the exact spot so that the dark stripe on both mother and baby line up perfectly. She told me that there are no definitive answers just yet as to how this happens, but various possibilities, from visual to scent cues, are being considered. Dawn also showed me this adorable video of Pana's very first attempt to climb onto her mom's back!

Next came a discussion about the anteaters' diet. Jim mentioned that one student working with Nashville's anteaters has been investigating how a lack of chitin, a hard substance that wild anteaters regularly digest when they process ant and termite exoskeletons, affects the digestion of anteaters living in captivity. The main food that the Nashville anteaters chow on is a mix of two types of meal, one traditionally fed to primates and the other traditionally fed to felines. They're treated with water and mashed up to make squishy pellets, which get doled out in precise amounts to each of the zoo's giant anteaters.

Aside from this high-protein meal, the anteaters also get occasional treats, like the blueberry yogurt that Dawn fed one of the males while I was there. It was both hilarious and exhilarating to see him lap the yogurt up, as I'd never really internalized how long, bendy, and agile giant anteaters' tongues are!

I eventually said goodbye to Dawn and the anteater center, and Jim took me on a quick tour of the rest of the zoo so that we could see the two giant anteaters on display for the general public. These anteaters live outside in a nice wooded enclosure with some cool spots in which to hang out away from the hot sun. They also have heated shelters under which they can take refuge on cooler days. I learned that it was one of the anteaters living here, a female named Priam, who is due to have a baby next month! When we stopped by, one of the two—we couldn't tell which—was taking a stroll, and made a few of the visitors happy (myself included, of course!) by posing for a snapshot.

And that was my visit! I want to thank Dawn Rouse and Jim Bartoo for hosting me and teaching me more about these fascinating creatures. I also want to encourage readers to visit the Nashville Zoo if you get a chance because it's absolutely lovely. Much of the land was originally natural woods, so the feeling you get is truly one of being out in nature among animals in what feels very close to their natural habitat—not something you can say for every zoo out there. Until next time! •>~