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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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25 Benefits of Adopting a Rescue Dog
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According to the ASPCA, 3.3 million dogs enter shelters each year in the United States. Although that number has gone down since 2011 (from 3.9 million) there are still millions of dogs waiting in shelters for a forever home. October is Adopt a Shelter Dog Month; here are 25 benefits of adopting a shelter dog.

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Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 37.406E
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Art
New Smithsonian Exhibit Explains Why Felines Were the Cat's Meow in Ancient Egypt
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Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 37.406E

From bi-coastal cat cafes to celebrity pets like Lil Bub, felines are currently enjoying a peak moment in popular culture. That’s part of the reason why curators at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery—which will re-open to visitors on Saturday, October 14, following a 3-month closure—decided to dedicate a new exhibition to ancient Egypt’s relationship with the animals.

Divine Felines: Cats of Ancient Egypt” looks at the cultural and religious importance of cats, which the Egyptians appreciated long before YouTube was a thing and #caturday was a hashtag. It's based on a traveling exhibition that began at the Brooklyn Museum in New York City. On view until January 15, 2018, it's one of several exhibits that will kick off the grand reopening of the Smithsonian’s Freer and Sackler galleries, the conjoined national museums of Asian and Middle Eastern Art.

The Freer has been closed since January 2016 for major renovations, and the Sackler since July 2016 for minor ones. The upgraded institutions will make their public debut on October 14, and be feted by a free two-day festival on the National Mall.

Featuring 80 artworks and relics, ranging from figurines of leonine deities to the tiny coffins of beloved pets, "Divine Felines" even has a cat mummy on loan from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. These objects span from the Middle Kingdom (2008 to 1630 BCE) to the Byzantine period (395 to 642 CE).

An ancient Egyptian metal weight shaped like a cat, dating back to 305 to 30 BCE, on view at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery
Weight in Form of a Cat, 305 to 30 BCE, Bronze, silver, lead
Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 36.114

The term “cat” is used loosely, as the Egyptians celebrated domestic mousers and fearsome predators alike.

“The Egyptians were close observers of nature, so they were observing cat behaviors,” Antonietta Catanzariti, the exhibition's in-house curator, tells Mental Floss. “They noticed that cats and lions— in general, felines—have aggressive and protective aspects, so they associated those attributes to deities.”

The ancient Egyptians viewed their gods as humans, animals, or mixed forms. Several of these pantheon members were both associated with and depicted as cats, including Bastet, the goddess of motherhood, fertility, and protection; and Sakhmet, the goddess of war and—when appeased—healing. She typically has a lion head, but in some myths she appears as a pacified cat.

A limestone sculptor's model of a walking lion, on display at the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.
Sculptor's Model of a Walking Lion, ca. 664 to 630 BCE, limestone
Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 33.190

While Bastet was a nurturer, Sakhmet—whose name means “The Powerful One”—could use her mighty force to either slay or safeguard humanity. These characterizations are typical of the ancient Egyptian worldview, which perceived the universe in dualistic terms. “There’s always a positive and a negative,” Catanzariti explains.

Contrary to popular belief, however, ancient Egyptians did not view cats themselves as gods. “The goddess Sakhmet does have the features as a lion, or in some cases as a cat, but that doesn’t mean that the Egyptians were worshipping cats or lions,” Catanzariti says. Instead, they were simply noting and admiring her feline traits. This practice, to an extent, also extended to royalty. Kings were associated with lions and other large cats, as they were the powerful protectors of ancient Egypt’s borders.

These myriad associations prompted Egyptians to adorn palaces, temples, protective amulets, ceremonial vessels, and accessories with cat images. Depending on their context, these renderings symbolized everything from protection and power to beauty and sexuality. A king’s throne might have a lion-shaped support, for example, whereas a woman’s cosmetics case might be emblazoned with a cat-headed female goddess of motherhood and fertility.

An ancient Egyptian figurine of a standing lion-headed goddess, on display at the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.
Figurine of a Standing Lion-Headed Goddess, 664 to 630 BCE, Faience
Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 37.943E

While cats were linked with heavenly figures and kings, they were also popular domestic pets. Their ability to catch vermin made them an important addition to households, and owners loved and anthropomorphized their pets just like we do today.

Egyptians often named, or nicknamed, their children after animals; Miit (cat) was a popular moniker for girls. It's said that entire households shaved their eyebrows in mourning if a house cat died a natural death. Some also believe that cats received special legal protection. (Not all cats were this lucky, however, as some temples bred kittens specifically to offer their mummified forms to the gods.) If a favorite cat died, the Egyptians would bury them in special decorated coffins, containers, and boxes. King Tutankhamen, for example, had a stone sarcophagus constructed just for his pet feline.

An ancient Egyptian bronze cat head adorned with gold jewelry, on display at the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.
Cat's Head, 30 BCE. to third century CE, bronze, gold
Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 36.114

“Divine Felines” breaks down these facts, and more, into five thematic sections, including “Cats and Kings"; “Cats and Gods”; “Cats and Death”; “Cats and Protection”; and “Dogs as Guardians and Hunters.” Yes, there’s also an exhibition section for dog lovers—“a small one,” Catanzariti laughs, that explains why canines were associated with figures like Anubis, the jackal-headed god of mummification and the afterlife.

Did the ancient Egyptians prefer cats to dogs? “I would say that both of them had different roles,” Catanzariti says, as dogs were valued as hunters, scavengers, and guards. “They were appreciated in different ways for their ability to protect or be useful for the Egyptian culture.” In this way, "Divine Felines" is targeted to ailurophiles and canophiliacs alike, even if it's packaged with pointed ears and whiskers.

An ancient Egyptian cat coffin, on display at the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.
Coffin for a Cat, 664 to 332 BCE, or later, Wood, gesso, paint, animal remains
Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 37.1944Ea-b

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