If the sharks and fish noticed an unusual animal in the South Pacific Aquarium, they didn’t let on.
In the steamy aquarium, on a December Tuesday when Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium was closed, two tamanduas were wandering past the Outer Reef, along the lagoon and over to stingray beach. It was Terra and her four-month-old baby Chiquita, out practicing before Chiquita’s public debut next spring.
And clearly, both were very curious about the new surroundings.
On Mom’s Back
“Come on!” encouraged Maureen O’Keefe, senior staff biologist at the Wild Wonders Outdoor Theater where the two tamanduas – plus dad Gonzo – live behind the scenes. Born in August, Chiquita was extremely small at first, needing round-the-clock bottle nursing from keeper “moms” as well as constant care from Terra.
Now, she’s a whopping 8.9 pounds and nearly Terra’s size – though that doesn’t stop her from clambering onto her mom’s back whenever she can, their stripy blond-and-brown fur nearly identical.
A type of South American anteater, tamanduas live in the rainforest, climbing trees to search for fruit and insects to eat. Babies are carried by their mothers until they can forage for themselves, using their sharp claws for gripping and long, prehensile tail for balancing on branches.
Encouraged by live waxworm treats from O’Keefe and fellow keeper Jessie Sutherland, Terra nosed her way up the stairs, with tropical fish swirling behind her in Day-Glo colors. Chiquita clung on with sharp claws, occasionally tumbling gently off as Terra rounded a corner, then climbing back on. Every so often the tamandua kit would explore a little on her own – including along one of the artificial trees at the edge of the stingray beach – before hustling back to mom.
“That’s exactly what would happen in the wild,” explained Sutherland. “They come back and ride on mom until they get the confidence to be on their own.”
Practicing for Close Encounters
While wandering around an aquarium isn’t your typical tamandua behavior, it’s excellent cold-weather practice for what’s coming next for Chiquita: her public debut. As a zoo ambassador animal, she’ll begin walking around the zoo for Close Encounters as soon as the weather is warm enough next spring. The Encounters give guests the chance to get up close to an amazing animal and be inspired to protect all wildlife.
One reason why walks need to be outside? Well, let’s just say that there’s a certain aroma that comes with being a tamandua.
“They’re sometimes called the skunks of the rainforest,” explains O’Keefe with a grin. “They’re a bit stinky – it’s a defense mechanism.”
Over by the stingrays, an aquarist nodded in wry agreement.
But it’s all part of the agile, curious and adorably fuzzy package of a baby tamandua – irresistible. Stay tuned for Chiquita’s debut.