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The Observer June 16

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The Observer has been a devotee of the naked mole rat since reading about them some years back in the Wall Street Journal, and so we are happy to be able to go to our own zoo and see them in the (naked) flesh. Twenty-three mole rats arrived at the zoo in April, a gift from a Virginia zoo, and took up residence in what amounts to a giant antfarm, a glass case in which rooms and tunnels set in plastic mimic their underground habitat in East Africa. Naked mole rats are the kind of animal that people either fawn over or turn away from in disgust. On Saturday, some visitors exclaimed “cute!” at the sight of these 3-inch-long creatures — their hairless skin wrinkling over a fat-free body, their eyes tiny and surely quite nearsighted, their flat-ended long incisors meeting over a frowning mouth. These very same characteristics drew many an “ooh, gross” as well. Different strokes for different primates, but we think had the latter searched their hearts a little longer, they would have found love for the little guys. A teen-ager next to us did. Watching a mole rat frantically trying to dig a hole in the plastic floor it found itself on, she told the little guy in a reassuring voice, “I love you.” She was clearly sad to see a 2-ounce rodent — the planet’s only hairless land mammal save for a bat in India and probably not very bright — engaged in such a hopeless pursuit. How could you not love such a helpless creature, see-through and pink though he is? Plus, they move backwards. Cute! It was a happier scene in the colony’s bedroom, where a pile of mole rats were catching 40 winks. One would wiggle in its sleep, setting off a chain reaction among its brethren and sistern. Most of us mammals are thigmotactic — we like to cuddle — but we’d guess naked mole rats, since they have no coats, are especially prone to snuggling. Like bees and termites, mole rat colonies include a queen (who may chomp at competing females) and a few select males who produce the young; the rest are workers or soldiers. The queen’s supremacy wasn’t immediately obvious; we couldn’t see a mole rat that looked bigger or more royal than the rest. But we can guess one thing: In her permanently naked state, she’s got to be jealous of her cousin, the chinchilla. Before leaving the zoo, The Observer got to get up close and personal with a few other animals, thanks to enthusiasts who spend 90-degree Saturdays carrying creepy things around to delight little kids. We held a ball constrictor, first applying a disinfectant so we wouldn’t hurt the snake. (Afterward use, too, is suggested.) The snake was quite calm, having been raised at the zoo by people and innocent of snake customs in the wild. It should have been squeezing the hell out of us, but instead it just curled up in our hands, an amazingly heavy chunk of serpent. Another cheery docent handed us Charlotte, a South American tarantula about the size of a softball. She was lovely. We declined to play with the Australian prickly sticks (the down-under walking stick, apparently) crawling all over the guy in surprising number. Finally, we looked down at the silverback Rocky, the mountain gorilla who looks straight back up into the eyes of his not very distant cousins. This great ape has animal magnetism out the wazoo. He’s as sexy as it gets. Different strokes for different primates. The Observer’s child, who pretends indifference to any interest The Observer might have, inadvertently revealed that there is a song called the “Naked Mole Rat Rap.” With Father’s Day coming up, this verse seemed particularly apt: “I heard Smarty Mart was havin’ a sale on a hairless pink rodent with a long skinny tail. It seemed that this could be a solution, the perfect pet for my dad’s sensitive constitution. So the manager came to open the cage. “He said, ‘You know this pet’s hairless?’ I said I couldn’t care less. “He handed him to me, he said, ‘Be careful, don’t drop it, And do you want this cage?’ “No, I keep him in my pocket.” Cute.

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