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Zoo Boise Welcomes Giant Rodents, Armadillos, Exotic Birds

New South America exhibit opens Sunday, June 14


Zoo Boise is now home to a rodent so tall it can lick a zookeepers' knees. Three rodents, actually. The trio of 1-year-old capybaras, which will grow to be 125 pounds each, arrived at Zoo Boise a few weeks ago and will be ready to meet the public on Zoo Daze, set for Sunday, June 14.

The capybaras are only one element of Zoo Boise's new South America exhibit, which also features mustached Inca tern seabirds, a small flock of blue-gray tanagers, red-capped cardinals and three new armadillos. Zoo staff has worked hard to get the exhibit open by Zoo Daze.

"We've remodeled the penguin exhibit, moved the coatis over into a huge new home and got five new South American species," said Zoo Boise spokeswoman Liz Littman. "It's amazing, I don't think the public knows how many moving parts there are to getting new animals."

The penguin pool house underwent a paint job that added a vivid mural of mountains to the backdrop. A new enclosure was built for the coatis—South America's equivalent to the raccoon—full of sticks and branches for the critters to climb. The zoo collaborated with Boise State University Theatre Arts Department to decorate the walking paths and exhibits with Aztec-themed art and brightly colored paint.

Painting the penguin exhibit wasn't exactly easy during the birds' nesting season. While sitting on their eggs, penguins become defensive and aggressive, and didn't trust the strangers armed with paint brushes.

"We had to block the penguins from the back beach so they wouldn't get into the paint or come up to the painters," said Zoo Boise Curator Lindsay Ruffner. "We put up a board and our tallest penguin, Jimmy, spent the whole time with his head peering over the board. I noticed there was a foot of the wall towards Jimmy that hadn't been painted yet. I think the painters were scared."

Finding armadillos also posed a challenge.

"Steve [Burns, Zoo Boise director] literally said to me, 'Call every state from Texas to Florida,'" Ruffner said. "So I contacted every AZA-accredited zoo and said I was looking for nine-banded armadillos—obviously we don't have them in Idaho."

She said most zoos only had one or two and weren't willing to part with them. She called rehabilitation centers, looking for injured or orphaned armadillos. Nothing. Finally, she got in touch with Arkansas Fish and Game, which put her in touch with a professor from the University of the Ozarks. He has a permit to trap and study armadillos amd agreed to sell Zoo Boise three of them. According to Littman, "It's rare for zoos to take animals trapped from the wild."

They introduced the male armadillo to his new exhibit at the end of May and watched how he used it. He developed the unfortunate habit of burrowing in the corners.

Ruffner wants him to be visible to the public, so she blocked off the corners and had a nest box built for him. His two female companions will join him after a month-long quarantine period.

He's not alone in his exhibit, though. Overhead, a handful of blue-gray tanagers and red-capped cardinals fly from perch to perch.

Littman said this is a shift in the way Zoo Boise designs exhibits. Now the goal is to create more multi-species exhibits when possible. While the coatis will be on their own in their upgraded home, the penguins will share their pool area with the Inca terns. Littman expects that the terns will fly around the top, occupying the airspace of the exhibit, while the penguins will stick to the ground. Both birds will play in the water.

The world's largest rodents will share their space with the world's second largest rodents— the much-smaller Patagonian cavies. Because they're both docile species, introducing the new roommates should be pretty simple, Ruffner said.

"We'll put the cavies in first, then introduce the capybaras 24 or 48 hours later," she said. "Then it will really just be about doing observations and making adjustments as we need to. Staff will be available to intervene if they need to break up a fight, but that probably won't take more than walking into the exhibit or making a little noise."

Zoo Boise received the capybaras as a donation from the San Diego Zoo and, since then, the zookeepers have been carefully observing them and getting to know the animals.

"The staff really needs to spend time to get to know these guys," Ruffner said. "They learn what the animals can and can't tolerate, what you can and can't do around them. The most challenging part of this was getting so many new species at once."

When the capybaras make their debut on June 14, the public will get a chance to name them through a raffle drawing.

Zoo Daze is Sunday from 10 a.m.-5 p.m., and includes face painting, games, photo-ops with the zoo's special characters and other events throughout the day. The walk-through butterfly exhibit is open now through Labor Day as well.