Archive for June, 2011

What’s going on?

Dear Backyard Zoologist readers,

You’ve probably noticed a huge drop off in posts recently and I wanted to let you know what’s going on. In all honesty, I began this blog over a year ago because I enjoy sharing information and pictures of awesome wildlife. I still do, but at the moment I have a lot of cool but time consuming things going on and creating these posts on a regular schedule is starting to become more of a chore than something I do for fun. So, I’ve decided to only write new posts when the spirit moves me instead of on a regular schedule, to eliminate the dreaded deadline of Monday and Friday. Still, I hope you’ll check in periodically to see what’s new or better yet, sign up for e-mail notifications to let you know when I do post something new.

I still have lots to share…for example, did you know that this animal:


A giant green Anemone. Image taken at Fitzgerald Marine Reserve tidepools in California.

is used as a vertebrate heart stimulant? Or that this animal:


A 9 banded armadillo. Image taken at the San Francisco Zoo.

always gives birth to identical quadruplets? And naturally grows the bacteria responsible for leprosy on its feet? Scientists couldn’t cultivate this bacteria in a lab, so they brought in live armadillos to collect the bacteria to work with.

Or that this animal:

tree shrew

A tree shrew. Image taken at the Oregon Zoo.

Is very smart and has a larger brain size to body mass than humans do?

Or that this animal:


California kingsnake, Kali, my personal companion.

Is called a kingsnake because it eats other snakes, including rattlesnakes and is immune to rattlesnake venom?

Or that these animals:

rock doves

Rock doves, a.k.a. pigeons. Image taken in San Francisco.

are one of the few birds that feed their young a type of milk?

Or that this animal:

marine toad

A marine toad. Image taken at the San Francisco Zoo.

is one of the only toads that will sometimes eat vegetation and dead things? While other frogs and toads want to eat only moving things, this toad is even attracted by dog and cat food left in yards.

Or that this animal:


A lionfish. Image taken at the California Academy of Sciences.

is covered in highly venomous barbs and that dolphins will sometimes grab these fish by their tummies and use them as weapons to catch fish hiding in crevices?


Unanana and the Elephant


An elephant at the Oakland Zoo.

Many, many years ago there was a woman called Unanana who had two beautiful children. They lived in a hut near the roadside and people passing by would often stop when they saw the children, exclaiming at the roundness of their limbs, the smoothness of their skin and the brightness of their eyes.

Early one morning, Unanana went into the bush to collect firewood and left her two children playing with a little cousin who was living with them. The children shouted happily, seeing who could jump the furthest, and when they were tired they sat on the dusty ground outside the hut, playing a game with pebbles.

Suddenly they heard a rustle in the nearby grasses, and seated on a rock they saw a puzzled-looking baboon.


A baboon being groomed. Image taken at the Oakland Zoo.

‘Whose children are those?’ he asked the little cousin.

‘They belong to Unanana,’ she replied.

‘Well, well, well!’ exclaimed the baboon in his deep voice. ‘Never have I seen such beautiful children before.’

Then he disappeared and the children went on with their game.

A little later they heard the faint crack of a twig and looking up they saw the big, brown eyes of a gazelle staring at them from beside a bush.

addra gazelle

An addra gazelle sunning. Image taken at the Oakland Zoo.

‘Whose children are those?’ she asked the cousin.

‘They belong to Unanana,’ she replied.

‘Well, well, well!’ exclaimed the gazelle in her soft smooth voice. ‘Never have I seen such beautiful children before,’ and with a graceful bound she disappeared into the bush.

The children grew tired of their game, and taking a small gourd they dipped it in turn into the big pot full of water which stood at the door of their hut, and drank their fill.

A sharp bark made the cousin drop her gourd in fear when she looked up and saw the spotted body and treacherous eyes of a leopard, who had crept silently out of the bush.


Leopard stares at us. Image taken in Bandon, Oregon.

‘Whose children are those?’ he demanded.

‘They belong to Unanana,’ she replied in a shaky voice, slowly backing towards the door of the hut in case the leopard should spring at her. But he was not interested in a meal just then.

‘Never have I seen such beautiful children before,’ he exclaimed, and with a flick of his tail he melted away into the bush.

The children were afraid of all these animals who kept asking questions and called loudly to Unanana to return, but instead of their mother, a huge elephant with only one tusk lumbered out of the bush and stood staring at the three children, who were too frightened to move.

‘Whose children are those?’ he bellowed at the little cousin, waving his trunk in the direction of the two beautiful children who were trying to hide behind a large stone.

‘They…they belong to Una…Unanana,’ faltered the little girl.

The elephant took a step forward.

‘Never have I seen such beautiful children before,’ he boomed. ‘I will take them away with me,’ and opening wide his mouth he swallowed both children at a gulp.

The little cousin screamed in terror and dashed into the hut, and from the gloom and safety inside it she heard the elephant’s heavy footsteps growing fainter and fainter as he went back into the bush.

It was not until much later that Unanana returned, carrying a large bundle of wood on her head. The little girl rushed out of the house in a dreadful state and it was some time before Unanana could get the whole story from her.

‘Alas! Alas!’ said the mother. ‘Did he swallow them whole? Do you think they might still be alive inside the elephant’s stomach?’

‘I cannot tell,’ said the child, and she began to cry even louder than before.

‘Well,’ said unanana sensibly, ‘there’s only one thing to do. I must go into the bush and ask all the animals whether they have seen an elephant with only one tusk. But first of all I must make preparations.’

She took a pot and cooked a lot of beans in it until they were soft and ready to eat. Then seizing her large knife and putting the pot of the food on her head, she told her little niece to look after the hut until she returned, and set off into the bush to search for the elephant.

Unanana soon found the tracks of the huge beast and followed them for some distance, but the elephant himself was nowhere to be seen. Presently, as she passed through some tall, shady trees, she met the baboon.

‘O baboon! Do help me!’ she begged. ‘Have you seen an elephant with only one tusk? He has eaten both my children and I must find him.’

‘Go straight along this track until you come to a place where there are high trees and white stones. There you will find the elephant,’ said the baboon.

So the woman went on along the dusty track for a very long time but she saw no sign of the elephant.

Suddenly she noticed a gazelle leaping across her path.

‘O gazelle! Do help me! Have you seen an elephant with only one tusk?’ she asked. ‘He has eaten both my children and I must find him.’

‘Go straight along this track until you come to a place where there are high trees and white stones. There you will find the elephant,’ said the gazelle, as she bounded away.

‘O dear!’ sighed Unanana. ‘It seems a very long way and I am so tired and hungry.’

But she did not eat the food she carried, since that was for her children when she found them.

On and on she went, until rounding a bend in the track she saw a leopard sitting outside of his cave-home, washing himself with his tongue.

‘O leopard!’ she exclaimed in a tired void. ‘Do help me! Have you seen an elephant with only one tusk? He has eaten both my children and I must find him.’

‘Go straight along this track until you come to a place where there are high trees and white stones. There you will find the elephant,’ replied the leopard, as he bent his head and continued his toilet.

‘Alas!’ gasped Unanana to herself. ‘If I do not find this place soon, my legs will carry me no further.’

She staggered on a little further until suddenly, ahead of her, she saw some high trees with large white stones spread about on the ground below them.

‘At last!’ she exclaimed, and hurrying forward she found a huge elephant lying contentedly in the shade of the trees. One glance was enough to show her that he had only one tusk, so going up as close as she dared, she shouted angrily:

‘Elephant! Elephant! Are you the one that has eaten my children?’

‘oh no!’ he replied lazily. ‘Go straight along this track until you come to a place where there are high trees and white stones. There you will find the elephant.’

But the woman was sure this was the elephant she sought and stamping her foot, she screamed at him again:

‘Elephant! Elephant! Are you the one that has eaten my children?’

‘O no! Go straight along this track—-‘ began the elephant again, but he was cut short by Unanana who rushed up to him waving her knife and yelling:

‘Where are my children? Where are they?’

The elephant opened his mouth and without even troubling to stand up, he swallowed Unanana with the cooking-pot and her knife in one gulp. And this was just what Unanana had hoped for.

Down, down, down she went in the darkness, until she reached the elephant’s stomach. What a sight met her eyes! The walls of the elephant’s stomach were like a range of hills and camped among these hills were little groups of people, many dogs and goats and cows, and her two beautiful children.


Bosco the dog, finally tired out-for two minutes. Image taken at Golden Gate Park, San Francisco.


A goat at the Oregon Zoo.


A grazing cow. Image taken in Peru, near Cuzco.

‘Mother! Mother!’ they cried when they saw her. ‘How did you get here? Oh, we are so hungry.’

Unanana took the cooking-pot off her head and began to feed her children with the beans, which they ate ravenously. All of the other people crowded round, begging for just a small portion of the food, so Unanana said to them scornfully: ‘Why do you not roast meat for yourselves, seeing that you are surrounded by it?’

She took her knife and cut large pieces of flesh from the elephant and roasted them over the fire she built in the middle of the elephant’s stomach, and soon everyone, including the dogs and goats and cattle, was feasting on elephant-meat very happily.

But the groans of the poor elephant could be heard all over the bush, and he said to those animals who came along to find out the cause of his unhappiness:

‘I don’t know why it is, but ever since I swallowed that woman called Unanana, I have felt most uncomfortable and unsettled inside.’

The pain got worse and worse, until with a final grunt the elephant dropped dead. Then Unanana seized her knife again and hacked a doorway between the elephant’s rips through which soon streamed a ling of dogs, goats, cows, men, women and children, all blinking their eyes in the strong sunlight and shouting for joy at being free once more.

The animals barked, bleated or mooed their thanks, while the human beings gave Unanana all kinds of presents in gratitude to her for setting them free, so that when Unanana and her two children reached home, they were no longer poor.

The little cousin was delighted to see them, for she had thought they were all dead, and that night they had a feast. Can you guess what they ate? Yes, roasted elephant-meat.

This is a South African story taken from the book “African Myths and Legends,” retold by Kathleen Arnott. If you liked it, check out the book, because there’s plenty more where that came from!