The Year in Cute: 2009's 20 most adorable animals
Regular readers of L.A. Unleashed may be familiar with our addiction to adorableness and, in a related note, with our regular feature, Your Morning Adorable. (Naysayers and grumps may scoff, but we ask you: What better way is there to ensure a great day than by starting it off with a photo or video of an adorable animal? We can't think of one, and that's including coffee.) That being the case, we don't mind telling you that we've looked at a lot of adorable animals this year. We took this year-end opportunity to remember 20 of our top favorites; without further ado, here they are:
This little fellow, born at Germany's Aschersleben Zoo this past spring, might have a milk mustache -- but how could you tell?
Contrary to popular belief, white tigers (like those seen in magic shows protested by PETA) aren't albinos; instead, they have a genetic condition that affects the pigment in their fur, causing it to be light-colored rather than the typical orange.
White tigers do have stripes -- obvious ones, like those you see on this cub, or sometimes so light in color as to virtually disappear. But they're there; we promise. (A true albino tiger wouldn't have any stripes at all, but, if you'll pardon the pun, that's a horse of a different color.)
When a rhinoceros calf was born in Germany's Allwetter Zoo in September, it was viewed as great news by everyone except the calf's mother, Emmi. Concerned for the newborn's safety, zoo staff quickly separated the two.
As it turned out, what Emmi lacked in maternal drive, the calf's keepers had in spades. They bottle-fed her at two-hour increments around the clock -- no easy task, considering that a young rhino needs to consume about 12 gallons of milk per day! Oh, and did we mention that they taught her to play a new sport while they were at it?
The keepers even "spend the night next to the rhino because it is looking for the physical contact," Allwetter Zoo director Joerg Adler told the Associated Press.
After a two-year gestation period, a lot of waiting and hoping, and even some yoga-style prenatal exercises, Asian elephant Panang finally gave birth to a healthy calf at the Hellabrunn Zoo earlier this month.
For a number of reasons, including the fact that Panang had difficulty with previous pregnancies, the birth was a cause for celebration. It only made things better that the calf, a female the zoo named Jamuna Toni, is about the sweetest thing anyone has ever seen!
Jamuna Toni is already a big favorite with zoo staffers (despite her sort-of-inappropriate wandering trunk) and has taken the opportunity to get to know her keeper the best way we know how: with a big hug.
Back in January, Sydney's world-famous Taronga Zoo was in full celebration mode after the birth of two meerkat pups, the first of their species to be born at the zoo in nine years.
"I'm extremely thrilled, I'm over the moon, I've been waiting for this for quite a long time now," keeper Bobby-Jo Vial told the Sydney Morning Herald.
Within a month, the precocious babies -- whom zoo staff named Zanzibar and Nairobi -- were already exhibiting typical adult-meerkat behavior and eating solid food despite the fact that they were still small enough to easily fit into the palm of their keeper's hand.
Frostie, a 20-year-old little corella cockatoo, is best known for his self-choreographed and decidedly flappy dance routine to Ray Charles' "Shake A Tailfeather." But even a cursory glance at his YouTube profile should be enough to convince you that this bird has skills far beyond the dash of his signature number; his repertoire includes everything from KC and the Sunshine Band to "God Is Great," a religious song for children.
Frostie follows in the footsteps of Snowball, another famous dancing cockatoo before him. Snowball danced in such a rhythmic way to the Backstreet Boys' "Everybody (Backstreet's Back)" that it inspired Aniruddh Patel of San Diego's Neurosciences Institute to find out whether birds like him really could grasp the concept of "the beat." Anyone who's seen Frostie can guess the answer: Yes, he really does have rhythm. Well, duh!
Red pandas -- an endangered species native to Nepal, Myanmar and China -- are the victims of deforestation, and they need all the help they can get. That's why Australia's Taronga Zoo instituted a breeding program to help the species recover.
To date, more than 40 red pandas -- relatives of both the panda and the raccoon -- have been born at the zoo as a result of the program. One of those 40-plus red pandas is Pemba (his name means "Saturday" in Nepalese), who made his public debut at the zoo this past spring.
Pemba, like any panda worth his salt, enjoys bamboo -- but his favorite food is grapes, "which he sometimes takes right from our fingertips, a testament to the level of trust and the strong bond we have developed with him and his protective mother," according to zookeeper Megan Lewis.
Tiny kangaroo = mondo adorable.
Matschie's tree kangaroos, like this fellow pictured at right, weigh only about 15 to 25 pounds as adults, but like their larger and more well-known cousins, they can jump great distances. (A 30-foot jump through the forest canopy? That's nothing for these guys.)
Because of logging and hunting in their native Papua New Guinea, Matschie's tree kangaroos are in danger of extinction. To keep that terrible fate from happening, conservation biologists from Seattle's Woodland Park Zoo recently collaborated with Papua New Guinea villagers to create a 187,800-acre conservation area to protect the species, as well as other threatened and endangered species in the country.
During molting season -- when little penguins (a species, not just a description) lose their feathers, and with them, their waterproofness -- Australia's Taronga Zoo takes in a number of the birds from the area around Sydney.
"They can't go in the water at that time," zoo spokeswoman Danielle McGill explained in an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald. "They have to find somewhere around the beach that is relatively quiet, where there are not a lot of people or dogs. As you can imagine, around the Sydney area that is a pretty rare find." That's where zoo staff come in -- they rescue little penguins in need and care for them until they're ready to return to the wild.
Back in March, two little penguins named North (pictured) and South were given their freedom, although North needed a bit of reassurance. Eventually, though, both birds were on their way!
It's the sort of problem that seems specific to our northernmost state: What do you do when a pack of dogs chases a frightened newborn moose into your yard? The Richards family of Big Lake, Alaska, did what many people would do: They tried to find its mother. Unfortunately, she was nowhere to be found, so the family called a state trooper to ask for advice.
The trooper's advice: Shoot it.
That wasn't good enough for the Richards family, so they decided to look for other options. A good one presented itself in the form of Wisconsin's Milwaukee County Zoo, which had recently requested two moose from the Alaska Zoo.
The Milwaukee County Zoo's application still needed to be approved -- a time-consuming process -- so the Alaska Zoo agreed to take the baby in the meantime. A fish and game department technician picked up the lucky little moose from the family and delivered it to the zoo; the rest is history!
When Colleen and Robert Nesseth discovered four orphaned kittens living in their barn, they quickly put them in a box and brought them into their home. The kittens, whose mother died after being struck by a car, were an immediate hit with the Nesseths' Australian shepherd, Lakota.
Before long, Lakota was caring for the kittens as if she'd given birth to them herself -- the Lesseths thought, although they couldn't be sure, that she might even be producing milk for them. (Just to be on the safe side, they bottle-fed the kittens as well.)
Lakota -- who once gave birth to her own litter of puppies and had even cared for another kitten in the past -- groomed her charges religiously and allowed them to suckle. "It just shows you don't have to give birth to be a mother," Colleen Nesseth told the Everett Herald.
The most famous animal face of the terrible bushfires that struck Australia in February is, of course, Sam the koala. (Sam, who appeared in an iconic photo taking a drink of water from a firefighter, survived her fire-related injuries but later succumbed to an all-too-common koala illness: urogenital chlamydiosis, which is estimated to affect more than half of Australia's koalas.) But countless other animals were affected by the fires -- including tortoises, ringtail possums and kangaroos like the fellow pictured at right.
Wildlife rehabilitator Annie Williams turned her home into a veritable wonderland for joeys orphaned as a result of the fires. With makeshift cloth "pouches" dangling from every available surface and a baby bottle firmly in hand, Williams helped a number of joeys survive; without human interference, they surely would have died. This little fellow certainly looks grateful!
This young Amur leopard cub is not only adorable -- she's also an important part of the effort to keep her species from extinction.
Amur leopards are an exceedingly rare leopard subspecies native to the decidedly difficult terrain of eastern Russia. They're solitary, nocturnal creatures who have one notable difference from their African relatives: a longer coat. (You'd want one, too, if you lived in eastern Russia.)
This cub -- a female born at the Serengeti Park in Hodenhagen, Germany, in November -- is one of only a few hundred members of her critically endangered species remaining in the world. (That total includes both wild Amur leopards -- of which there are only an estimated 40 remaining -- and those in zoos.)
Back in November, a tiny gray-and-white kitten had the YouTube-viewing world in its tiny paws, and a video depicting its reaction to being tickled by a human hand was described by The Huffington Post as "The Cutest Video Of All Time. Period."
After seeing the video, we couldn't disagree -- and while, if we're being honest, we consider ourselves more dog people than cat people, we almost wanted to bring home our own kitten when all was said and done. (A rescued kitten, of course.)
Since being uploaded in October, "Surprised Kitty" has racked up more than 14 million views. If you're keeping score, that's more than double the number of views garnered by that other famous YouTube cat, Keyboard Cat (also known as "charlie schmidt's 'cool cat'"). Not bad for a tiny kitten.
We'll be the first to admit it: We had never thought of sloths as particularly cute animals. (Sure, they have an "E.T."-like charm, but adorable? Certainly not.)
All that changed when we saw YouTube user BernieKnightRider's amazing video tour of the Aviarios Sloth Sanctuary in Costa Rica. (Our favorite of the creatures in the video: The scratchy fellow at left, who uses first his front and then his rear leg in an attempt to get to a pesky itchy spot.)
The Aviarios facility -- begun in 1992 when its founders were asked to care for an orphaned baby sloth they named Buttercup -- has helped more than 100 of the slow-moving orphans make it to maturity and many more adults recover from illness and injury.
Is there anything more precious than a 100-day-old giant panda cub? Do we even need to ask? Back in May, Thailand became one of the few countries outside China to successfully breed a healthy giant panda cub in captivity.
The Thai public was delighted, celebrating every panda milestone right along with her. When it came time to give the cub a name, more than 20 million votes were received in a naming contest. (The winning name, Lin Ping, honors the cub's mother, Lin Hui; references a river in Thailand, the Ping; and translates to "forest of ice" in Chinese.)
Thailand was suddenly so panda-crazy that Thai elephant keepers staged a protest, painting their pachyderm charges to resemble giant pandas in order to draw attention to the elephants' plight as the public's interest shifted toward the famous panda cub.
Since the 1970s, the Kenya-based David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust has worked on behalf of Africa's animals, particularly elephants and rhinos.
The organization's work has rarely been more important than it has been this year, when a terrible drought struck Kenya and caused much of the elephants' food source to wither and die.
Fortunately for baby elephants (like the little guy pictured at left) who have been orphaned as a result of the drought, the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust has pitched in to care for them. The organization's chairperson, Dame Daphne Sheldrick, is well-known for her contributions to the field of wildlife rescue. She's successfully hand-raised more than 80 needy African elephant calves like this one, many of which have been able to return to the wild after reaping the benefits of her expert care.
The ear-to-head-size ratio is preposterous -- but that's just what nature intended for these fennec fox kits, born in March at Tokyo's Sunshine International Aquarium.
Fennec foxes -- the world's smallest fox species -- are native to the North African desert. As you might imagine, it can get pretty hot there, so these little guys have evolved some interesting adaptations in order to cope with the extremes of their native habitat.
Among those adaptations are those giant ears (and we do mean giant -- it's not unusual for a fennec's ears to measure more than half its total body length), which help to dissipate heat. Also helpful for these desert animals: They're nocturnal, so they're most active when the sun is least active.
If you thought the animated stars of "The Fox and the Hound" were an unlikely pair, may we present a real-life odd couple that, in our humble opinion, is even stranger?
Meet Bea, a 3-year-old giraffe, and Wilma, a 10-year-old ostrich, both residents of the Serengeti Plain exhibit at Busch Gardens in Tampa, Fla. Keepers for Bea and Wilma report that the duo have become inseparable. "Bea likes to use her tongue to explore her surroundings, and Wilma isn't fazed by those very close encounters," the park's assistant curator, Jason Green, told People Pets.
And before you start thinking that close quarters brought about this strange friendship, know this: Bea's and Wilma's exhibit spans 65 acres (so they could easily put some distance between each other if they wanted to).
Things got real adorable real quick when staff at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, looking to devise a fun and unique enrichment activity for an Asian small-clawed otter named Dua, decided to give the little guy his own Yamaha keyboard.
Asian small-clawed otters are known for their impressive manual dexterity -- in the wild, this helps them to grab prey like mussels, crabs and snails -- so teaching Dua to play the keyboard wasn't really that much of a stretch.
He's no Liberace yet, but Dua took to the instrument with zest (we suspect it helps that he gets a treat for successfully playing). Even better: Following Dua's musical success, aquarium staff taught two other small-clawed otters, Tiga and Empat, to play a duet!
Two words we never expected to write in the same sentence: "adorable" and "squid." But write them we did in July, when we first saw this close-up of a rarely-photographed undersea creature called the piglet squid.
This unusually cute squid (who's approximately the size of an avocado) was discovered during during a twice-yearly class conducted by the Cabrillo Marine Aquarium, in which members of the public are allowed to participate in an undersea trawl conducted by aquarium scientists.
The appearance of a bright smile is just an illusion; the colorful splotches that line up to resemble a mouth are actually pigment-containing, light-reflecting cells called chromatophores. What looks like bushy eyebrows are really eight tentacles and two "arms," and its bright eyes are the result of two light-emitting organs called photophores, which are located behind each of its eyes.
Learn more about the piglet squid in our July 27 installment of Your Morning Adorable. And be sure to check out all the adorable animals that are sure to await us in the new year here at Unleashed!
-- Lindsay Barnett
Photos, from top: White tiger cub: Jens Schlueter / AFP/Getty Images. Rhinoceros calf: Lennart Preiss / AFP/Getty Images. Asian elephant calf: Alexandra Beier / Getty Images. Meerkat pups: Rick Stevens / Associated Press. Dancing cockatoo: Screenshot from YouTube video by OnePickieChickie. Red panda: Mark Baker / Associated Press. Tree kangaroo: Wong Maye-E / Associated Press. Little penguin: Brendon Thorne / Getty Images. Moose calf: Robert DeBerry / Associated Press. Australian shepherd and kittens: Dan Bates / Associated Press. Kangaroo joey: Robert Cianflone / Getty Images. Amur leopard cub: Nigel Treblin / AFP/Getty Images. Surprised kitten: Screenshot of YouTube video by rozzzafly. Baby sloth: Screenshot from YouTube video by BernieKnightRider. Giant panda cub: Pongmanat Tasiri / European Pressphoto Agency. African elephant calf: Stephen Morrison / European Pressphoto Agency. Fennec foxes: Junko Kimura / Getty Images. Giraffe and ostrich: Matt Marriott / Associated Press. Asian small-clawed otter: Screenshot from YouTube video by Monterey Bay Aquarium. Piglet squid: Gary Florin / Cabrillo Marine Aquarium.