Earlier this year I was invited to spend some time with the giant anteaters at our National Zoo in Washington D.C. I'd been to the zoo many times before; in fact, my earliest encounter with a giant anteater took place there when I was seven years old! So I didn't need convincing when I was offered a behind-the-scenes look at the zoo's anteater barn.
I met Marie Magnuson and Leigh Pitsko, staff animal keepers, outside the great cats exhibit area, where they were attending to an errant sock that had somehow made its way over a sizable moat and into the resident tiger's front yard. Before we went to catch up with the zoo's anteaters, I got a chance to say hello to seven young lions, who were hanging out deep inside the bowels of the great cats holding area. Let me tell you right now: lion cubs, though they might weigh as much as a large dog just a few months after birth, are all pussycat when it comes to behavior! But I digress...
After briefly visiting the keepers' office opposite the cubs, we wandered over to the anteater barn, where the zoo's three giant anteaters overnight and overwinter. I was especially excited to be meeting the zoo's newest anteater, a young male pup born a couple of months prior. As you can read in a previous post, this guy had quite a scare in his first week of life, but he'd recovered just fine and had grown to be only a little larger than your average house cat.
I was introduced first to Dante, the pup's father, who was curled up in his straw-lined crate. I'd known that giant anteaters' long fluffy tails are used as a blanket in the wild (Marie added that they work as umbrellas, too), but I'd never seen an anteater actually sleeping before. If Marie hadn't woken him up, I would have sworn he was a miniature Cousin It—all hair and no discernible features. But he finally poked his snout out to see what all the commotion was. Dante was born in the wild, so he's a more cautious anteater, and zookeepers need to be extra careful around him lest he lash out unexpectedly with his formidable front claws. Giant anteaters are mostly gentle giants, but they've got some serious protective weapons, so humans have to respect that and exercise great care around them, especially if they haven't been reared around people.
Next we turned to Maripi, the female, and her as-yet-unnamed pup! Marie lovingly swept the little guy into her arms and brought him out into the hall for a meet-and-greet. This is Maripi's third pup, and I was told that aside from his initial scare, he's been a very easy-going baby. He's apparently comfortable being away from his mom more than other pups, who might yelp if they fall off their mother's back. He seemed quite at home being held by a human, and he certainly didn't shy away from the attention! Marie made a point of showing me his growing claws, which were already approaching two inches long. Next, she prepared a peanut butter treat for Maripi inside something that resembled a hollowed out rubber dog toy. While Maripi noshed, her pup climbed onto her fur and put on a little show for his visitors. As you can see in the short video up top, he actually sat side-saddle on Maripi's back for a few minutes, which is apparently quite rare for anteater babies!
Soon after the snack, it was time to take leave of my long-snouted friends. I asked Marie when the pup would finally be named, and she mentioned that the zoo was planning a naming contest in which the public could participate. Online voting between five contending names—Pablo, Termito, Demetrio, Fausto, and Valerio—ended this past week, but the decision still awaits a certain anteater's input! The zoo has decided that mom Maripi will have the final say in the name of her baby. She'll choose next week, on April 7th, between the three top vote-getters based on "enrichment objects" placed in the anteater yard!
I want to thank the National Zoo for allowing me a "backstage tour," and in particular Marie Magnuson for showing me around. Whether you live in the DC area or are just passing through, the National Zoo is definitely worth a visit, especially in the warmer spring and summer months, when the anteaters are more likely to be on display. And I highly recommend heading down there while the current pup is young and adorable! •>~
Update: Maripi has made her call: Pablo it is!