Journeys No. 17: The Animal Kingdom

A photo essay with a very simple goal: to make you smile, aww and forget your troubles.

For the Love of Baby Animals 

Even from Kenya I feel a weariness setting in for many of us, a sort of exhaustion of ever-changing restrictions and rules, loss, monotony, sadness, isolation and disappointment. Each and every day, travel in the manner to which we’re accustomed seems further and further off. It’s tough to see the light. Opinions—expressed feverishly—differ dramatically on just about everything relating to our collective and individual futures, even on topics as benign as mask wearing (come on, people!). But if there’s one topic on which almost all humans can likely find common ground it’s how adorable baby anything is. 

Newborn people, certainly, are irresistible, as I know firsthand here with my almost six-week-old nephew, Atlas. A two-year-old neighbor named Amelia practically hyperventilates from enthusiasm each time we cross paths on our morning walks as she squeezes her little fists and squats up and down squealing, “baby, baby, baby!! BABY!!!!!” (Admittedly, I do it on the inside, too, every time I look at Atlas.)    

Even more universally beloved, however, are baby animals. It’s nearly impossible to deny the joy derived from a puppy or kitten. And as majestic as we find elephants, the miniature version is infinitely more exciting. The same goes for virtually everything in the African bush: giraffes, zebras, lions, leopards and gorillas, all so fluffy and cuddly in their infancy, even if they’re not exactly small. I remember a safari drive in Uganda’s Murchison Falls National Park during which we spied litters of pocket-sized warthog piglets, so teeny we’d have missed them without antenna-like tails giving away their location in the tall grass. In the ocean—which I dearly miss, by the way—I always thrill at the sight of a little dolphin swimming among the adults past my surfboard, dorsal fin noticeably petite as it surfaces. And I was happily close to tears the first time I released newborn sea turtles at Careyes on Mexico’s bucolic Pacific coast.   

Every few days from my sister’s backyard in Nairobi I’m lucky to encounter baby vervet monkeys clinging to their mamas through adventures around the neighborhood’s FernGully-like flora, and fuzzy Egyptian goose goslings catching rides on their mom’s back in the lake. I know for me, these little critters—alongside Atlas, of course, who is sweetly sleeping beside me as I write this—have brought much-needed lightness to my days. As silly as it may sound, it’s like they scamper away with my stress and worries. Now it seems, life has an asterisk beside it. The fact of impermanence has never been so obvious. For the first time in years, I can’t say when I’ll be traveling again (much less when you will). But images can be quite transportive, and I have quite the archive. This is my go at a mood board meant to induce—even momentarily—a happier outlook through a feel-good collection of baby animals at their cutest. Here goes! 

The greatest reward after trekking through Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable National Park was spending an hour with this three-month-old baby boy mountain gorilla, sucking his thumb and playfully climbing about in the clutch of his mama

On the beaches of Careyes—a dreamy enclave on the Pacific Coast of Mexico in Jalisco— thousands of sea turtles now lay their eggs each year. (When the Sea Turtle Protection & Conservation Center opened in 1983 there were just 10 doing so.) Staffers patrol and keep the eggs safe until they hatch, just before sunset, at which point sea turtle enthusiasts—like myself!—can help unleash them onto rosy sand and watch them scoot to the sea.

Watching an elephant mom and her baby cross a rushing river in Zambia was completely nerve-racking. The water level was well over the little one’s head, but fortunately trunks double as little snorkels! And talk about intelligent—mama stays upstream to ensure her mass keeps him from getting washed away.    

Anyone who’s been to Morocco knows it’s heaven for (stray) cat lovers. This box of kittens in the darling blue and white beach town of Essaouira was too sweet to pass by.

I won’t deny that a voluminously maned male lion is a very cool sight, but my fascination always lies with the cubs. When we spotted these three siblings in Magashi Camp’s private concession inside Rwanda’s Akagera National Park (where I slept cocooned in romantic rose-colored mosquito netting) I was overjoyed, since we had them all to ourselves for their leisurely romp through the savanna.

I hardly slept my last night at Botswana’s Abu Camp, in the prolific Okavango Delta—and not only because I was sad about my imminent departure. I was kept awake by the loudest hippo party ever happening just beyond my tent, or at least that’s what I thought until the sun began to rise and I spied this newborn being protectively watched over by its mother. I was terrified it wasn’t moving, and ran for my guide. By the time we returned, happily, baby was moving and breathing visibly. Appropriately enough, a flock of storks flew overhead a bit later.

Rule of thumb in the bush: The fuzzier something is, the newer. Botswana, so lush and green in the off-season, was ripe with infants of all species—to my delight. Baby zebra fur, I learned, starts off brown and white, and darkens as they age into that slick, iconic motif.

In Time + Tide Miavana’s candy-striped helicopter we landed at Daraina on the mainland of Madagascar, seeking lemurs—and adventure. We got both when we came across a conspiracy (yep, that’s the name for a group of lemurs!) of golden-crowned sifakas, with this little one in tow. The plush critter’s most striking feature was most definitely its long legs, which helped it cling to mom, scratch an itch, and fly from tree to tree.

While on an otherworldly journey through Namibia I was so fortunate to meet Hope, the largest 10-day-old I’ve ever seen. This big baby was a white rhinoceros whose mother had died. Fortunately the N/a’an ku sê Wildlife Sanctuary took her in, and thanks to special access from Edenic safari camp Omaanda next door, I was one of her first visitors. She squeezed her hornless head through the enclosure and sucked on my fingers, an intense gummy sort of vacuum I hadn’t felt again until Atlas got ahold of my pinkie one late night.

One windy day in Maasai Mara National Reserve! Hairy horn-like ossicones aside, you probably wouldn’t recognize this giraffe as a baby unless you knew they drop to the earth feet first (after 15 months in utero) already standing a towering six feet tall and weighing around 150 pounds. Incredible, huh?

You know you’ve been somewhere too long when you can tell wild animals apart as they traipse through your garden, steal your guavas and treat your roof like a trampoline. Over the last couple months in Nairobi, this particular baby vervet monkey captured me with its constantly startled expressions and kangaroo-like hop.