13 July 2008

Don't Judge an Animal by Its Hide

One of my very favorite places in the whole world is ZooAtlanta. I was a volunteer docent there for four years in the early '00s. Even now, a day at the zoo is, for me, a great way to relax. I am a panda fanatic, so Lun Lun, Yang Yang, and Mei Lan are always a major draw for me. But I've also learned over the years to love some of the other animals, too. And I've learned that standing and quietly watching can be very much worth the time.

I needed to relax on Friday, so I made it a point to go visit. This spring the zoo welcomed several baby critters, including Argus pheasants, black-&-white-ruffed lemurs, a red kangaroo, and three African lions. But the one I really went to see was the baby warthog, who has already been named Georgia P. I don't know if the "P" is short for "peach" or "pig" or something else entirely.

Her parents are Verne and Shirley, and they arrived at the zoo just last year. The names are easy to remember -- either think of Laverne and Shirley from the old '70s sitcom or, if you live in Atlanta, think of Dekalb CEO Vernon Jones and Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin. I once heard that the Zoo considered naming a gorilla in her honor, but she declined. I don't know how she feels about the warthog instead. In all fairness, I think the pair actually came already named to Atlanta.

When I attended the sneak preview for warthogs and meerkats in June 2007, I was really surprised by Verne and Shirley. Although they are not conventionally beautiful, their interactions with each other can be quite tender and charming. They rub snouts and foreheads. They play together. They enjoy a good mud hole together. In the spring, I saw Verne cantor about the yard and even sort of jump. It was almost as if he were some warthog Fred Astaire, dancing about to impress his sweetie. In the picture of Shirley (right), you can see how warthogs seem to be walking in high heels. Although their bodies are a bit unwieldy, they can appear almost elegant through the legs.

The picture at top shows Verne and Georgia P taking a morning nap. I arrived at the zoo before 9:30 AM, and hung out at the warthog exhibit for about half an hour. Friday was a cool overcast morning that gave way to searing sun in the afternoon. So the animals were still pretty happy and active before 10 AM. There were a couple branches with leaves on them that must either be part of the warthog diet or maybe just enrichment. Georgia P would pick up a branch in her mouth and shake it about. And she'd trot over to her daddy and try to get him to play with her and the branch. Eventually, Verne decided to settle himself down in the mud. (There is no grass in their yard anymore. It is only dirt and mud, depending on how much water is available. I'd guess the warthogs like their home that way very much.) Georgia P put down the branch and came over. She rubbed against Verne and snuggled up against him, and then settled herself down next to him. The interaction was all the more tender because of the size difference between the two of them.

So, just because somebody is covered in mud, has tusks, bony protuberances on the face, and wiry stiff hair do not think that a warm, wonderful heart isn't beating below. Sometimes going to the zoo requires time to observe the behaviors, rather than just the aesthetics.

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