As we approach Mother’s Day and begin to reflect on the unconditional love mothers provide, the phrase, “Has a face only a mother could love,” immediately springs to mind when you see Inara for the first time.
Inara is the female anteater that was born at the Roger Williams Park Zoo on April 5 and, when it comes to pictures of adorable baby animals on the Internet, it may be never for Inara. She’s just not “Hang in there!” poster material, but that’s just fine with Melissa Ciccariello. She is the doting godmother of Inara (which, by the way, is from the Arabic and means “ray of light” or “heaven sent”).
“I think she’s adorable,” said Ciccariello. “I think there is nothing cuter than a baby anteater.”
Ciccariello is a veterinary technician, which is the equivalent of a nurse in human terms, and is the primary caretaker of Corndog, the mother of the baby girl, and Jo Hei, the father of Inara.
Corndog (which means “corndog” in English. Ciccariello’s in no way responsible for the name; it was the staff at the Fresno Chaffee Zoo in California) was expected to mate with Jo Hei and veterinarians were pleased to confirm Corndog’s pregnancy in January. They had been monitoring the baby’s development with weekly ultrasound exams since then. Inara was born in March and, other than an umbilical infection that seems under control, the maternity leave was a success.
“Mother and baby are doing very well,” Ciccariello reported Monday morning. “We are keeping them inside until the weather is warm enough for them in their yard.”
Corndog delivered her baby early on the morning of April 5. Veterinarians expected that Inara would be born in the middle of April, but being a bit early doesn’t seem to have presented any complications for the baby or the mother. The baby weighed 2.5 pounds the week after she was born and now weighs about 5 pounds.
The giant anteater is native to South America and is not yet on the endangered species list but it is close enough to cause concern. It is considered a threatened species in South America. They are protected legally, but the inevitable shrinking of all wild habitats in that part of the world has reduced giant anteater numbers to an estimated population of about 5,000 in the wild. Jo Hei, a male of a species known to be indifferent or hostile fathers to their offspring, was separated from Corndog in March and all three will be closely monitored in the coming months. Ciccariello said male adults are very territorial and Jo Hei could hurt the baby if the youngster gets separated from her mother.
“Babies are usually weaned at around six months,” said Ciccariello, “but they will ride on their mother’s back for as long as a year.”
Corndog herself was born in January 2006 at Fresno Chaffee and came to Roger Williams Park Zoo last year from the Potawatomi Zoo in South Bend, Ind. Jo Hei was born in 2006 at the San Diego Zoo and was the first resident in that Zoo’s giant anteater exhibit, which was completed in 2007. He also sired the female anteater, Tullah, who was born at that Zoo in 2010. Tullah’s mother died about eight weeks after giving birth and Tullah was hand-reared by zookeepers before she was sent to the zoo in Palm Beach, Fla. last spring. If all this moving around puzzles you, Ciccariello says it’s because they want a larger pool of genes for the captive anteaters to draw from.
“We are very careful about mating these animals because we have to avoid inbreeding,” said Ciccariello, who, like most animal lovers, is concerned that the species could be lost without zoos preserving them. She worries the zoos could lose their population if some undiscovered and deadly malady runs through a population without enough genetic diversity to resist it. The species demands the attention of their keepers, and the keepers tend to be attentive. They are always looking for ways to make the animals as comfortable as possible and that frequently requires attention to details that most pets do not enjoy.
“They are very sensitive animals,” said Ciccariello. “Their sense of smell is 40 times more sensitive than ours and we are careful not to wear things like perfumes and colognes that might affect their sense of smell. Most zoo keepers do that.”
On the other hand, the fact that the animal that can live in or next to a tropical hothouse kept at a moist 80 degrees is insurance enough that it will keep its super sensitive nose busy enough as it is. But, contrary to what their name implies, these anteaters are not fussy eaters.
“We feed them a well balanced diet of pelleted insects, crickets, mealworms and some fruit that they find on the ground,” said Ciccariello. “Corndog’s favorite is avocado; Jo Hei’s favorite is watermelon.”
Hearing almost constant warnings that loss of habitat is the biggest threat to certain species, it is particularly true of the giant anteater. In the wild, there are very few animals that want to take on a seven-foot, reared back, nearsighted foe with four-inch long claws that are strengthened by tearing apart termite mounds, which, by the way, are not loose lumps of dirt but solid, sun-hardened mud, similar to adobe.
“Their only real predator threat in the wild is the jaguar,” said Ciccariello. “They’re too big for smaller predators.”
They have very poor eyesight but their sense of smell makes up for that in the hunt for food. They are very good at locating underground ant colonies and termites.
“I bury things about a foot in the ground and Corndog has found them,” marveled Ciccariello.
Modern zoo keeping insists that maintaining as natural an environment as possible is best for the animals and for the people who come to see them, which is a vast improvement on the past, when animals were kept in small cages for the convenience of the people taking care of them. That made them easier to feed and control but it never made them happy. Ciccariello goes a step further for Corndog and Jo Hei.
“I bring old rotting logs to their pen,” she said. “We have plenty of them around the zoo itself and the park has even more. You just let nature take over, and insects move in, and the anteaters find them.”
As much as she loves her anteaters, Ciccariello has a healthy respect for her animals. Giant anteaters are, after all, wild animals and treating them like pets is not only morally wrong, it can be dangerous.
“I am very conscious of that and I do my best not to provoke or scare them,” she explained. “They have very poor eyesight and they can be very aggressive when they are frightened. I only know of one keeper who was killed by a giant anteater and that was in Argentina, and it was because she startled the animal and it lashed out.”
But Ciccariello has nothing but kind things to say about her small circle of anteater friends.
“Corndog is very mellow and easy-going,” she said, “but Jo Hei has territorial issues. He occasionally throws things around … but then, he’s supposed to. He is a wild animal.”
So, it looks like our adorable baby anteater is in good hands as she and her mother prepare for her debut.
“I love this job,” said Ciccariello. “You become very attached to the animals and you really care about them. It’s what helps me get up every day.”
Actually, that sounds a lot like being a mother. Kids who are planning something special for Mother’s Day might want to treat her to a trip to see Inara and Corndog, which makes you wonder what Jo Hei and Inara have planned for Corndog on Mother’s Day. Let’s hope they include Melissa Ciccariello.