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Laura J. Gardner | The Journal Gazette
Elvis and Pugsley, back, a pair of kunekune pigs from New Zealand, are new additions to the Indiana Family Farm area at the Fort Wayne Children's Zoo.

Returning prairie dogs join new residents at zoo

The Fort Wayne's Children's Zoo opened for its 48th season last weekend and there's much to discover, even for inveterate animalphiles.

After a four-year absence, the prairie dogs have returned to the zoo.

Spokeswoman Cheryl Piropato says the momentary lack of prairie dogs came about as the result of the construction of the new zoo entrance. The zoo's entryway renewal plan called for the razing of the prairie dogs' old neighborhood.

The former residents (or remarkable facsimiles of them) have been relocated to the suburbs, which in this case are in the area that used to have giant fake eggs in it.

Those giant fake eggs, which my kids always assumed to be the former homes of dinosaur embryos, have been relocated to the African Village.

This would seem to call into question the common consensus that humans and dinosaurs did not coexist. But Piropato says the cracked ovoids that have been such a beloved photo op for years are meant to represent bird eggs, albeit improbably large ones.

Last November, a new male giraffe named Ezeji was moved from the Indianapolis Zoo to the Fort Wayne Children's Zoo by the only tradesperson who could reasonably be entrusted with the task of moving a giraffe: a professional giraffe mover.

Piropato says there are only three or four such businesses across the country.

Moving a giraffe requires a special tractor-trailer rig that rides lower to the ground than other trucks and has a roof that can be raised and lowered with a crank.

"You wouldn't want to crack a giraffe's head on an overpass," Piropato says.

A new northern tree shrew exhibit was supposed to open at Dr. Diversity's Rain Forest Research Station last weekend, but it has been indefinitely delayed, Piropato says.

"Sometimes you put an animal into an exhibit and it doesn't go as planned," she says. "You do your research and talk to other zoos, and it still doesn't work out."

Piropato says the zoo staff is still hopeful that this exhibit can be made to work, but there is no timetable for such a thing.

The Australian Adventure is teeming with baby animals, some of which will not resemble baby animals for long.

Dingoes Mattie and Naya gave birth to a litter of seven pups in January and seven female kangaroos have produced seven "joeys" since May of last year.

Seven dingo pups are an exceptionally large litter, Piropato says. The average size of a litter is three to four, Piropato says.

If you are devotee of puppies at the peak of adorability, don't dawdle. "They're full grown in eight months' time and they're already three months old," Piropato says. "We're telling people who are fans of puppy behavior to try to visit the zoo as soon as they can."

A couple of the puppies may be trained to go out on educational field trips, Piropato says. Most of them will eventually be traded to other zoos, she says.

As for the joeys, they started making their presence known a few months after a male kangaroo named Mako arrived in March of last year.

Some male kangaroos need to be encouraged to breed but not Mako.

"He got right to work immediately," says Marian Powers, keeper of the dingoes and kangaroos.

Female kangaroos are only pregnant for a month, but it is not uncommon for a joey to still be stuffing his gangly frame into his mother's pouch a year later.

For people who aren't too sensitive to Aussie puns, the phrase "boomerang child" can be readily applied here.

The locally raised pigs in the Indiana Family Farm area have been replaced this year by two kunekune pigs, which are native to New Zealand.

Piropatosays the local pigs grew quickly and had to be frequently replaced.

The zoo's 30-day quarantine on new mammals meant that there were lulls in the porcine action.

The kunekune pigs, named Elvis and Pugsley, will be permanent zoo residents.

Like their forbears in housebreaking, the pot-bellied pig, kunekune pigs are frequently kept as pets these days. It is easy to see why.

Elvis and Pugsley have hair like an Irish setter or a cocker spaniel, spots like various breeds of cow, and outlandishly cute faces like Wilbur from "Charlotte's Web."

They are also unusually loquacious for pigs, making soft grunts almost constantly.

Piropato says two areas of the zoo were totally refurbished over the winter break.

The habitats of the black-footed penguins and Aldabra giant tortoises received makeovers, partly to make them more authentic and partly to frustrate escapees.

A penguin named Hugh and a giant tortoise named Norbert both learned how to scale the walls or fences of their former enclosures in recent years.

Hugh, aka "Hughdini," traveled farther than Norbert before being captured, but the 500-pound tortoise proved to be more troublesome of the two.

"It takes eight people to lift him," Piropato says.

Steve Penhollow is an arts and entertainment writer for The Journal Gazette. His column appears Sundays. He appears Fridays on WPTA-TV, Channel 21, WISE-TV, Channel 33, and WBYR, 98.9 FM to talk about area happenings. Email him at spen@jg.net. A Facebook page for “Rants & Raves” can be accessed at www.facebook.com/pages.

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