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11 Adorable (And Essential) Animal Development Milestones

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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.

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Bleat Along to Classic Holiday Tunes With This Goat Christmas Album
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Feeling a little Grinchy this month? The Sweden branch of ActionAid, an international charity dedicated to fighting global poverty, wants to goat—errr ... goad—you into the Christmas spirit with their animal-focused holiday album: All I Want for Christmas is a Goat.

Fittingly, it features the shriek-filled vocal stylings of a group of festive farm animals bleating out classics like “Jingle Bells,” “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” and “O Come All Ye Faithful.” The recording may sound like a silly novelty release, but there's a serious cause behind it: It’s intended to remind listeners how the animals benefit impoverished communities. Goats can live in arid nations that are too dry for farming, and they provide their owners with milk and wool. In fact, the only thing they can't seem to do is, well, sing. 

You can purchase All I Want for Christmas is a Goat on iTunes and Spotify, or listen to a few songs from its eight-track selection below.

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Animals
If You Want Your Cat to Poop Out More Hairballs, Try Feeding It Beets
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Have you ever wondered if there’s a way to get your cat to poop out its hairballs instead of hacking them up? If so, you’re likely a seasoned cat owner whose tolerance for gross stuff has reached the point of no return. Luckily, there may be an easy way to get your cat to dispose of hairballs in the litter box instead of on your carpet, according to one study.

The paper, published in the Journal of Physiology and Animal Nutrition, followed the diets of 18 mixed-breed short-haired cats over a month. Some cats were fed straight kibble, while others were given helpings of beet pulp along with their regular meals. The researchers suspected that beets, a good source of fiber, would help move any ingested hair through the cats’ digestive systems, thus preventing it from coming back up the way it went in. Following the experiment, they found that the cats with the beet diet did indeed poop more.

The scientists didn’t measure how many hairballs the cats were coughing up during this period, so it's possible that pooping out more of them didn’t stop cats from puking them up at the same rate. But considering hairballs are a matter of digestive health, more regular bowel movements likely reduced the chance that cats would barf them up. The cat body is equipped to process large amounts of hair: According to experts, healthy cats should only be hacking hairballs once or twice a year.

If you find them around your home more frequently than that, it's a good idea to up your cat's fiber intake. Raw beet pulp is just one way to introduce fiber into your pet's diet; certain supplements for cats work just as well and actually contain beet pulp as a fiber source. Stephanie Liff, a veterinarian at Pure Paws Veterinary Care in New York, recommends psyllium powder to her patients. Another option for dealing with hairballs is the vegetable-oil based digestive lubricant Laxatone: According to Dr. Liff, this can "help to move hairballs in the correct direction."

[h/t Discover]

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