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11 Adorable (And Essential) Animal Development Milestones

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Getty Images

As breeding programs blossom at various zoos across the world, many institutions are tasked with more than just breeding and birthing little ones. They’re also expected to make sure their tiniest new residents are developing appropriately and at the right rate. Parenthood—it’s never easy!

When should a baby panda first learn to walk? How early is too early for otters to start swimming? When can infant tigers try out their skills in the water? Zoos know. Here are the milestones zoo babies must hit before crowds get a peek.

1. Tigers Get Tested on Their Swimming

While learning how to swim might not be the most important thing a wild tiger can learn (we’re betting that running, hunting, and patrolling probably come first), it’s a little different for tigers that live in zoos. Many tiger habitats include deep pond portions in their exhibits for maximum tiger fun time (as well as visitor safety). The Smithsonian’s National Zoo took their baby twin tigers, Bandar and Sukacita, for a swim last month, testing to make sure the cubs, born in August, could hold their own and start hanging out safely in the zoo’s tiger exhibit. The pair were expected to keep their heads above water, swim to the shallow end of the exhibit’s moat, and jump on to dry land. While they didn’t seem too excited when they first hit the water, they both passed with flying colors! Now the dynamic duo can hang out in the exhibit with their mom, Damai.

2. Panda Learning to Walk

The National Zoo’s tiger twins aren’t the only little ones making big strides lately—the infant Giant Panda cub is currently learning how to walk! The three-month old (which was just named Bao Bao) weighs in at a very healthy 10 pounds, which may have made maneuvering a bit rolly-polly, at least for now. Most pandas start walking between 2.5 and 3 months, so the zoo’s newest black and white is right on track.

3. Otter Being Taught to Swim

Though it seems a bit counterintuitive, baby river otters are not born knowing how to swim—they have to be taught. The Oregon Zoo’s baby otter Molalla learned how to paddle back in April, thanks to the patient instruction of his mom, Tilly. Mo’s first swim lesson might look a bit, well, intense, what with Tilly grabbing him in her mouth and dunking him right under the water, but it’s essential for his learning curve. Also—not to worry, Mo can float.

4. Giraffe Learning How to Stand Up

Plenty of wild animals learn to stand up soon after birth, but that doesn’t mean that the first time it happens it’s not still entirely eye-opening. Over at Connecticut’s LEO Zoological Conservation Center, the facility welcomed its first live Rothschild giraffe birth back in March. Intent on standing up, she struggles for a bit, faithfully encouraged by her mother, and soon the rest of the curious herd. It may take a few attempts—hey, you try standing up in sawdust—but she soon succeeds, and is rewarded with kisses and a solid cleaning from her mom.

5. Pygmy Hippo Learning How to Swim

Sure, watching baby animals learn how to do just about anything is pretty cute, but there’s something extremely special about seeing the Taronga Park Zoo’s baby pygmy hippopotamus Monifa taking her first swim with a zookeeper. She’s so small! So willing! So happy! The little hippo is a real natural, and that’s a good thing—hippos spend most of their lives in the water.

6. Elephant Learning What a Trunk Is

Just because something is an actual part of your body doesn’t mean that it doesn’t take getting used to—and that’s the case with this baby elephant at the Whipsnade Zoo. The newborn is still a bit unsteady on his feet and, combined with the wonder that is a wrinkly, slinky trunk, it’s amazing that he hasn’t just fallen over already. Don’t worry, though, he’ll soon master the use of his trunk, as it’s fit for a large range of tasks—from lifting to digging to taking in water.

7. Meerkats Emerging from Burrow

Meerkat babies are born underground in one of their close-knit family’s many burrows, so it’s a big deal when they first emerge. It’s not only a treat for zoo patrons, but for the entire meerkat clan, all of whom make it their business to make sure that the little ones are OK. Meerkat pups will emerge from the burrow when they're around three weeks old, but the protection doesn’t stop after their first entrance to the aboveground world—they’ll be under the watchful eyes of babysitters for at least another week.

8. Andean Bear Takes First Steps

Much like their panda cousins, Andean Bears participate in a lot of chubby stumbling before mastering walking. At the Phoenix Zoo, their new baby boy took his first steps back in April, partially thanks to his mother, Rio, who began letting her little one explore on his own when he was just a bit over three months old. Staying limber is a good thing for Andean Bears, who are also skilled climbers (that will come later for Rio’s cub).

9. Rhino Learning How to Run

Back in April of 2011, the Dublin Zoo let its newest little one take his first run after five days of hanging out in the nursery with his mom. He’s a quick little guy, but that doesn’t mean that his mother doesn’t feel the need to stay pretty close by, especially because his eyesight isn’t fully developed just yet. He’s certainly off to a solid start—which is good, because most rhinos can gallop at speeds up to 30 miles per hour once they’re full grown.

10. Zebra Exploring Habitats

Another young buck took his first trip into his habitat back in September of 2009 at the Cincinnati Zoo, when a baby Grevy’s zebra cut loose at his home exhibit. While still a bit unsteady on those skinny legs, his exploration efforts are essential to his growth, both mental and physical. The zebras are big grazers when it comes to eating, so a curious spirit (and a quick gait!) are very good things.

11. Penguins Learning How to Swim

Penguins might seem naturally adept at swimming, flipping, sliding, and diving, but even those chicks need a little in-water training before mastering their instincts. Earlier this year, the Dublin Zoo took one of its adorable penguin chicks, Joey, for his first swim. The hand-reared chick took to the wet stuff incredibly well, quickly exhibiting some observed behaviors he’s seen the big guys play at—like feather-cleaning and head-dunking.

11 Fuzzy Facts About Pandas

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8 Pro Tips for Taking Incredible Pictures of Your Pets

Thanks to the internet, owning a photogenic pet is now a viable career option. Just ask Theron Humphrey, dog-dad to Maddie the coonhound and the photographer behind the Instagram account This Wild Idea. He gained online fame by traveling across the country and sharing photographs of his dog along the way. But Maddie’s impressive modeling skills aren’t the only key to his success; Humphrey has also mastered some essential photography tricks that even the most casual smartphone photographer can use to make their pet look like a social media star.


Based on her Instagram presence, you’d guess Maddie is either in the middle of a road trip or a scenic hike at any given time. That’s no accident: At a pet photography workshop hosted by Adobe, Humphrey said he often goes out of his way to get that perfect shot. “You need to keep situating yourself in circumstances to continue making great work,” he said, “even if that means burning a tank of gas and going someplace you’ve never been.”


Dog and owner on a couch.

That being said, it’s important to know your pet’s limits. Is your dog afraid of flying? Then leave him with a pet sitter when you vacation abroad. Does your cat hate the water? Resist the temptation to bring her into the kayak with you on your next camping trip, even if it would make for an adorable photo opportunity. “One thing I think is important with animals is to operate within the parameters they exist in,” Humphrey said. “Don’t go too far outside their comfort zone.”


Not every winning pet photo is the result of a hefty travel budget. You can take professional-looking pictures of your pet at home, as long as you know how to work with the space you’re in. Humphrey recommends looking at every element of the scene you’re shooting in and asking what can be changed. Don’t be shy about moving furniture, adjusting the blinds to achieve the perfect lighting, or changing into a weird outfit that will make your pup’s eyes pop.


Two dogs in outfits.

Ella and Coconut Bean.

Trying to capture glamorous photos of a moving, barking target is a hard job. It’s much easier when you have a human companion to assist you. Another set of hands can hold the camera when you want to be in the picture with your pet, or hold a toy or treat to get your dog’s attention. At the very least, they can take your pet away for a 10-minute play session when you need a break.


The advent of digital cameras, including the kind in your smartphone, was a game-changer for pet photographers. Gone are the days when you needed to be picky about your shots to conserve film. Just set your shutter to burst mode and let your camera do the work capturing every subtle blep and mlem your pet makes. Chances are you’ll have plenty of standout shots on your camera roll from which to choose. From there, your hardest job will be “culling” them, as Humphrey says. He recommends uploading them to a photo organizing app like Adobe Lightroom and reviewing your work in two rounds: The first is for flagging any photo that catches your eye, and the second is for narrowing down that pool into an even smaller group of photos you want to publish. Even then, deciding between two shots taken a fraction of a second apart can be tricky. “When photos are too similar, check the focus,” he said. “That’s often the deciding factor.”


When it comes to capturing the perfect pet photo, an expensive camera is often less important than your cat’s favorite feather toy. The most memorable images often include pets that are engaging with the camera. In order to get your pet to look where you want it to, make sure you're holding something your pet will find interesting in your free hand. If your pet perks up at anything that makes noise, find a squeaky toy. If they’re motivated by food, use their favorite treat to get their attention. Don’t forget to reward them with the treat or the toy after they sit for the photo—that way they’ll know to repeat the behavior next time.


Person with hat taking photo of dog and dog food.

According to Humphrey, your pet’s eye should be the focus of most shots you take. In some cases, you may need to do more to make your pet the focal point of the image, even if that means removing your face from the frame altogether. “If there’s a human in the photo, you want to make them anonymous,” Humphrey said. That means incorporating your hands, legs, or torso into a shot without making yourself the star.


This is the mantra Theron Humphrey repeated throughout his workshop. You can scout out the perfect location and find the perfect accessories, but when you’re shooting with animals you have no choice but to leave room for flexibility. “You have to learn to roll with the mistakes,” Humphrey said. What feels like a hyperactive dog ruining your shot in the moment might turn out to be social media gold when it ends up online.


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