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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, February 26, 2006

Zoo babies ready to charm you away from panda

By Joe Heim
Washington Post

Above: Although the National Zoo's baby panda has garnered most of the spotlight, this prehensile-tailed porcupine is among other cute baby animals at the Washington zoo. Below: This kiwi chick hatched in an incubator on Feb. 13, the first hatched at the zoo since 1975. Kiwi keeper Kathy Brader describes them as "the coolest birds in the world," with lousy eyesight but a dog-like sense of smell.

Phot0s by JESSICA COHEN | Smithsonian Institute

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WASHINGTON They won't come right out and say it, but the whispers at the National Zoo about panda baby Tai Shan have grown louder over the winter.

"He's spoiled," one whined.

"He's had a free ride," snipped another.

And that was just the animals.

Oh, relax, Tai Shan. Panda fever has gripped the region, so it would be hard to blame the other animals for feeling overshadowed. After all, no one is scalping naked-mole-rat-viewing tickets on eBay. And they don't offer king vulture handbags at the zoo's gift shop.

We think it's time to give some of the lesser-known youngsters at the zoo their due. So, here are some other new arrivals you can visit without having to elbow past the pandarazzi.

PREHENSILE-TAILED PORCUPINE: It's hard to believe this baby porcupine doesn't have Tai Shan's star power. Who wouldn't wait in line to see an animal this adorable? Born on Feb. 8, this porcupette (seriously, that's what you call a baby porcupine) is already on public view.

"They definitely have a high cute quotient," says David Kessler, a biologist for small mammals at the zoo, who describes the porcupines as CMVs ("charismatic mini vertebrates") The nocturnal creatures, native to South America, are technically rodents, which may be why they're not one of the zoo's superstars.

Whenever a baby porcupine is born, Kessler says, the question he hears most often is whether the delivery is, um, painful. Fret not. According to the zoo, babies are born with quills, but the quills are soft during delivery and harden in less than an hour following birth.

The as-yet-unnamed critter, whose sex will be known when DNA from one of its quills is tested, is on exhibit in the zoo's Small Mammal House with its parents and older sister, born last April.

NORTH ISLAND BROWN KIWI: On Feb. 13, a kiwi chick hatched in an incubator. It won't be on display for a month or two, but our zoo sources tell us a kiwi cam could be in operation soon.

"They are the coolest birds in the world," says keeper Kathy Brader. Most birds can't smell, but have extraordinary vision. For the kiwi, the opposite is true. With nostrils at the end of its long beak, it relies on smell for direction. Its sight, on the other hand, is lousy it's estimated that the kiwi can only see two feet ahead during the day and six feet at night.

The nocturnal flightless bird, a national symbol of New Zealand, is protected, but its numbers are shrinking. Though the species is estimated to be 39 million years old, the estimated 25,000 left in the wild are declining by up to 5 percent a year.

PANAMANIAN GOLDEN FROGS: These tiny and beautifully colored leapers are in such danger that an international effort, Project Golden Frog (www.ranadorada.org), has been launched to protect them. Deforestation and runoff of agrochemicals in their habitat have made life hazardous for the frogs, which have been beset by a fatal skin disease. The frogs also are endangered because they're believed to bring good luck, and Panamanians have been collecting them as talismans.

The adult and juvenile frogs will go on public display some time in the next few weeks in the Reptile Discovery Center.

EVERGLADES RAT SNAKES: Imagine having the rat snake's image problem. As if being called a snake wasn't bad enough, someone had to go and add "rat" to the mix. But these youngsters, born last year, are a fascinating bunch to observe. Now a mere foot long, they will mature to anywhere from 3 1/2 to 6 feet long with a 1 1/2-inch diameter.

Nonpoisonous, the snakes survive on a diet of small rodents such as mice and rats (hence the name), and in the wild, they may eat chipmunks and moles as well.

The baby rat snakes are on display in the Reptile Discovery Center. Though you might be tempted to toss them a hamster as a treat, the zoo would certainly frown on such behavior.