The penguins receive painted rocks to present to their mates and to build nests with.

The penguins receive painted rocks to present to their mates and to build nests with.

Photos by Erin Sanchez


Valentine’s Day zoo event warms visitors’ hearts

By: Sarah Wojcik | Royal Oak Review | Published February 13, 2018

 Suren, the Detroit Zoo’s female breeding camel, discovers a frozen treat during Heart Fest.

Suren, the Detroit Zoo’s female breeding camel, discovers a frozen treat during Heart Fest.

Photo by Erin Sanchez

 An otter enjoys a treat-filled  frozen valentine during the Heart Fest event at the Detroit Zoo Feb. 7.

An otter enjoys a treat-filled frozen valentine during the Heart Fest event at the Detroit Zoo Feb. 7.

ROYAL OAK — On Feb. 7, zookeepers distributed Valentine’s Day-themed treats to “coupled” animals and discussed behind-the-scenes information during a Heart Fest event at the Detroit Zoo.

The event drew a small crowd of visitors who followed a schedule that included penguins, otters, camels, polar bears, seals and wolves.

“The zookeepers here are always working with the animals to provide them fun opportunities and interesting things to do throughout their day, whether it’s providing them with food or smells or anything that helps them use their natural behaviors and live a life that’s really dynamic,” said Elizabeth Arbaugh, the zoo’s mammal curator. “On certain days, like now, it’s close to Valentine’s Day, we’ll put it on our schedule for our guests.”

The penguins received rocks — painted by visitors during a recent program — to use as fodder for their nests. Bonnie Von Dam, the zoo’s associate curator of birds, said the zoo’s newly added gentoo penguins showed early signs of breeding, so staff wanted to provide the rocks to facilitate the natural behavior.

Most of the penguins ignored the rocks poured out by a zookeeper, but a few sidled over, nudged them with their beaks and trod on them.

The otters, Lucius and Whisker, eagerly anticipated their treats, frozen in heart-shaped ice, by racing around their habitat and following the zookeeper’s moves.

They dove for, swam with, pawed at and gnawed on their prizes, swimming in circles around their pool to the delight of children and adults.

Lisa Tope-Claspell, of Troy, brought her twin daughters, Paige and Rose Claspell, 5, to the event after she found out about it on Facebook. She said they attended the Heart Fest event last year and loved it.

“When we went last year, the polar bear was sitting over our head, and we thought it was so awesome that we thought we’d come see it again,” Tope-Claspell said.

The camels, Rusty and Suren, meandered directly to the viewing area of their habitat at the prospect of treats, but did not seem to immediately enjoy the frozen barrier between themselves and the ice-encased goodies.

Friends Adam O’Connor, of Hazel Park, and Jessica Sanches, of Bloomfield Hills, said they come for most of the zoo’s special events, thanks to Sanches’ yearly zoo pass. She joked that the camels seem to know O’Connor, and that they often come directly to him.

This time was no different. The pair produced photographic evidence.

“It seems unorthodox, but you get the most action in the off times,” Sanches said. “If there’s no precipitation, just bundle up and you’re good to go.”

The next stop, the Arctic Ring of Life, elicited widespread amusement and awe.

Male polar bear Nuka tread along and sat upon the underwater walkway above guests’ heads in his pursuit of treats, and female Talini appeared later, gracefully swimming through their pool.

“The natural behavior with polar bears in the wild is to be stalking their prey and stalking their food,” Arbaugh said. “We set up scenarios (where they can do so) and then pounce on it and tear it up using their strong claws.”

Seals Kiinaq and Georgie also spiraled for their fishy, frozen treats. Arbaugh said their section of the Arctic Ring of Life is divided from the polar bears by see-through dividers. 

Lastly, wolves Kaska and Wazi received piñatas full of chicken breast, ground beef, spices and ice treats. The pair transported their respective piñatas to separate locations and promptly ripped them apart, opting for the meat first.

“I think we’ve had a lot of wonderful guests here today who have been able to react to the animals and have great times talking to our keepers,” Arbaugh said. “It’s chilly, but it’s sunny, and there are a lot of animals this time of year that are really active.”

The Detroit Zoo is located at 8450 W. 10 Mile Road in Royal Oak. For more information about the zoo, call (248) 541-5717 or visit www.detroitzoo.org.