What kept us going: A year of conservation, care and cuteness

December 30, 2020 - 4:39pm

The wildlife wins and awww-inspiring moments that helped get us through 2020

From free-flying California condors to blissed-out black bears to pouncy red pandas, 2020 was a big year for conservation, animal welfare and general adorableness at the Oregon Zoo. Here's a look back at 10 of the most memorable zoo moments in a year when we truly needed something to smile about.

Black Bear Takoda Takes A Splashy Bath

Bath time when the world is too much to bear

In May, a stretch of sunny spring weather settled around Portland, and 10-year-old Takoda did what many youngsters do on warm afternoons: headed for his wading pool to splash around with toys. This 10-year-old, though, was a 400-pound black bear, and his "wading pool" a sturdy 300-gallon tub that Oregon Zoo caregivers filled with cool water for the four furry denizens of Black Bear Ridge. What happened once Takoda hopped in and started splashing around is the kind of stuff the internet was made for — especially in times like 2020.

Red Panda Pabu Ambushes, Pounces On Mom

Rascally red panda cub perfects the sneak attack

In June, red panda Mei Mei gave birth to a cub named Pabu. Red panda cubs are born blind, their eyes only opening after a few weeks, and they typically don't leave their maternity den for a few months. Come fall though, this young rascal was out and quickly gaining a reputation for his playful sneak-attack pounces. Red pandas are endangered, with populations declining by around 50% in the past 20 years. Some estimates indicate as few as 2,500 may be left in the wild. In addition to habitat loss and fragmentation, red pandas also face threats from poaching and the illegal wildlife trade.

Porcupine Nolina Takes a Field Trip

Morning walks help aging porcupine stay sharp

Folks looking to improve their fitness could take some pointers from Nolina, an African crested porcupine with an admirable workout routine. When the normally spry porcupine began to show signs of aging this year — moving more slowly and taking longer to get up in the morning — zoo veterinary staff recommended a brisk daily walk. Keepers now lead Nolina, and sometimes her porcupine pal Sharpie, on power walks around the zoo, passing flamingos, giraffes and other animals along the way. Care staff say the activity has the aging porcupine feeling fit and looking sharp.

Rescued Sea Otters Play In A Tub Of Balls

Rescued sea otters play in ball pit

Rescued sea otters Juno, Lincoln and Uni Sushi had a blast when keepers turned a behind-the-scenes tub into a brightly colored ball pit full of fishy treats. Keepers set up this multisensory enrichment game to challenge the otters to find their food. (Sea otters use their front paws and whiskers to find prey underwater.) Once abundant along the Oregon coast, sea otters were hunted to extinction here in the early 1900s and have not established permanent residence in the state for more than a century. They are considered a keystone species in the Pacific Coast marine ecosystem, promoting healthy kelp forests, which in turn support thousands of organisms.

Zoo and Partners Return Endangered Turtles to the Wild

Tiny turtles return to wild in Columbia Gorge

In July, the zoo returned 23 western pond turtles to the Columbia River Gorge. Each year, conservationists "head-start" newly hatched turtles gathered from wild sites, nurturing them at the zoo until they're large enough to have a fighting chance in the wild. This year's release also included three turtles that hatched at the zoo. The western pond turtle is listed as an endangered species in Washington. Two decades ago, they were on the verge of completely dying out in the state, with fewer than 100 left. Since then, more than 1,500 zoo-reared turtles have been released.

Elephant Smash Giant Pumpkins

Pachyderms pulverize ginormous pumpkins

With the COVID-19 pandemic limiting our ability to gather in large groups, the zoo couldn't invite visitors to its annual Squishing of the Squash in October — but the elephants still had tons of fun. The tradition, in which some of the world's largest land animals demolish some of the area's largest pumpkins, goes back to 1999, when Hoffman's Dairy Garden of Canby dropped off a prize-winning 828-pound pumpkin for the zoo's elephant family to enjoy. This year's pumpkins were provided by Pacific Giant Vegetable Growers Club members Larry Nelson and Jim Paino.

Penguins Nacho And Goat Go Hiking

Penguin buddies take a woodland waddle

While the zoo was closed, it wasn't unusual to see Humboldt penguin pals Nacho and Goat exploring the grounds with their care staff. The adventurous pair visited harbor seals, river otters, flamingos, and — for the full Northwest experience — even hiked through a forested area. In March, the zoo welcomed the newest member of its penguin colony. The fluffy, pint-sized new arrival — which was small enough to fit in the palm of your hand — was the 191st Humboldt chick to hatch at the zoo since it began breeding the threatened species in the 1980s.

Baby Dino is So Baby

Baby 'dino' grows up

A newly hatched southern ground hornbill charmed the internet in March, putting us all in mind of a baby dinosaur. Maybelline — named by keepers for her amazing eyelashes — grew up fast, making herself right at home in the zoo's Africa Savanna area. She spends most of her time in a mixed-species habitat with giraffes and Speke's gazelle, but also enjoyed some walks around the zoo this summer, checking out the harbor seals and other animals. Native to South Africa, southern ground hornbills are listed as IUCN vulnerable, which means they are likely to become endangered if conditions don't improve.

Beavers Maple And Filbert Collab On A Dam

'Branch manager' Filbert gets a new coworker

Filbert the beaver has many fans on the zoo's social media channels, where his industrious wood-gathering activities have earned him the title "branch manager." In March, he welcomed a new coworker when 3-year-old Maple moved in. The toothy twosome now share a lodge and go on dam-building adventures together. Metro, the regional government that manages the zoo, has preserved and restored more than 90 miles of river and stream banks through its voter-supported natural area programs, helping to provide healthy ecosystems for beavers and other wildlife in the region.

Four Oregon Zoo-Hatched Condors Released In Arizona

Zoo-raised condors soar into open Arizona skies

In the fall, four California condors hatched and raised at the Oregon Zoo's Jonsson Center for Wildlife Conservation were released to the open skies of Arizona, joining a growing population of free-flying condors there. Seven more squawking chicks hatched at the center during its spring breeding season — each one vitally important for a species bouncing back from the brink of extinction. Thanks to recovery programs like the Oregon Zoo's, the world's California condor population now totals around 500 birds, most of which are flying free. The program overcame a big scare in September, as wildfires threatened the offsite center and 44 of the critically endangered birds were temporarily evacuated.

As part of the Metro family, the Oregon Zoo helps make greater Portland a great place to call home. Committed to conservation, the zoo is currently working to save endangered California condors, Oregon silverspot butterflies, Taylor's checkerspot butterflies, western pond turtles and northern leopard frogs.