elionwyr: (Default)
(..Pretend it's still Wednesday. Being sick this week has completely thrown me off schedule.)

Last week, I wrote about being thrown across a room by an alligator. (Not one of my finest moments.) And I mentioned that the experience inspired me to have more..fear? respect?..for alligators of a certain size and maturity. Which is mostly true.

Some lessons have to be learned twice before one really gets it, and Respect of the Gator was in that category for me. My only defense is that the large alligators we had were always so incredibly mellow. Or tiny. So while Dead, Snappy, and Mr Big were originally difficult simply because of their weight, Baby Gator was difficult because she was so small...maybe the length of my forearm.

Baby grew up to be a toothy force of nature all her own, and I'll tell that story next week. But for now, I want to jump ahead to a time when Baby Gator had earned herself a roomy tank all her own in the middle back of our reptile room.

I don't have photos of the room set-up - alas! - but each of our animal rooms at the mini zoo were fully visible to the public, with showcase cages in the front and webcams set up in select cages near the back so people could get a variety of views of who was living where. There was no view inside Baby Gator's tank, and it wouldn't surprise me at all to learn that the average person didn't think there was anything living inside the large black-sided container.

..Until the day I was feeding critters, and Baby Gator was on the list of critters being fed. I walked past her tank, dropped a dead rat in with her, and kept on going. This means I missed her literally fling the rat back at me.

As I headed back to the kitchen, passing through the public area, some wide-eyed visitors asked me what the hell was in that tank, and why was it throwing rats at me?


And people wonder why I loved that job so much.

(Not Baby Gator, but she was about this size when I first met her. This little guy is being handled by the man who trained me how to wrangle reptiles - Bar Carter, the best damn reptile keeper I know.)
elionwyr: (Default)
Once upon a time, I had no fear of alligators.

There were three very good reasons for this. Their names were Snappy, Mr Big, and Dead. They lived in a modestly sized tank and were remarkably mellow gators...which is, of course, how Dead earned his name. Mr Big was the largest, I believe, at close to 5' from one tip to the other, and I had no qualms about lunging into their tank to grab a gator by the armpits and pull it from its home.

For perspective, I stand at just over 5' 1". And I was fearless. Rawr. (I'd also never read this FAQ, which may also have contributed to my fearlessness.)

To this day, I have no idea whether Mr Big and Dead were male or female. Snappy, however, started feeling his oats a year or so after I became a zookeeper, transforming this calm quiet creature into Satan in a Box. Picture if you will looking into a high-walled darkened container and seeing a prehistoric creature with a whole lot of teeth making a deep rumbling noise that echoes off the sides of his enclosure as his eyes start to foam.

Satan in a Box, man.

So the boss decided to put Snappy into one of our mammal exercise rooms while we figured out what to do with him. I say 'rooms' but picture if you will one converted office, divided by a 4' brick wall and connected by a door to each other. Usually, there was one critter in each room and the process of passing from one room to the next wasn't a life threatening experience.

But now there was Snappy. Who wanted a woman. And not one of the bipedal kind.

Logic would have said to put Snappy in the second room. You may then imagine my surprise, that quiet Christmas day several years ago, when my volunteer and I opened the door and found myself looking at a thoroughly cranky Snappy instead of the bunny I'd anticipated being in that room.

I said words I shouldn't say in front of a volunteer.

Then, taking a deep breath, I said, "Ok. Here's how we're gonna do this. Go get the rabbit's food and fill an extra dish with water. I'm gonna run in there and grab the gator. You're gonna run past us, get into that other room, swap the bowls, and come back out." *pause* "Ok. Ready?"


I leapt like a terrified gazelle into the room, got behind Snappy, and scooped him up with my hands at his armpits, hands embracing his upper torso, avoiding the biting bits.

But that's not the only part to worry about when picking up an alligator.

An alligator's tail is impressively powerful - so much so that when you're handling a young gator, you don't want to hold them too tightly because they can whip their tail so hard they could actually break their own spine. Obviously at 3-1/2 feet long, Snappy was in no such danger of self-injury. But up until that point, I"d never really felt the full force of what that tail can do..which was 'throw me across the room and into a concrete wall.'

I'd like to say I held on because I'm brave and powerful. Truth is, I was a little stunned and couldn't think past 'oh crap keep holding on.' And so I did, hoping Snappy would eventually succumb to a loss of blood pressure to his brain and fall into the vague sort of faint that is the reason people take this critter from its preferred horizontal position to a vertical one.

I was hoping in vain.

Snappy managed to throw me across the room one more time before my assistant scampered past me with an empty bowl in each hand, allowing me to put Snappy down, pointy side facing well away from me and the door so I could make my own hasty retreat.

Shortly after this incident, Snappy was moved into a huge tank of his own, and several of the male zookeepers saw it as a point of macho pride to be able to pick Snappy up from that enclosure.

Me? Well, I can't say it was my last scary alligator experience, but it surely did inspire me to inform my boss that I'd never again pick up a gator that was over three feet long.

That said..videos like this still make me laugh. So some of my bravado remains intact.

elionwyr: (Default)
Before I was married and had family to keep me occupied, I usually offered to work December 25th at the zoo because - secretly - it was one of my most favourite days to be there. No public. Generally no other staff. Just the critters and me, in the basement of the museum, sheltered from the cold and the chaos of the holiday.

I went digging through my photos and couldn't find copies of the ones I know we took over the years...an opossum sitting sweetly in Santa's lap...a Burmese python posed in a coil with a Santa hat perched on his head. Alas. But! Christmastime at traditional zoos is sorta magical. Definitely unique. Go ye and indulge!

elionwyr: (instinct)
People react to fear in varied, fascinating ways. Some folks scream. Some punch. Some run away. Some freeze. Some retreat into denial, or bravado; others go into 'protect everyone else' mode.

Panic is much the same thing.

When I was still living in Philadelphia, I chipped in with some friends to buy my ex husband a pet savannah monitor lizard. I use the word 'pet' loosely, as these critters are by no means domesticated, and normally I would say buying a pet for someone as a gift was a Very Bad Idea. But I was a zookeeper and he had a strong interest in reptiles, both as living beasties and as something vaguely akin to dinosaurs. (Vaguely.)

Wolfgang was interesting and intelligent and powerful, and from watching his antics, my own love of monitor lizards was born. I have a strong belief that no cage is actually large enough for any animal, so while Jason was away at a conference, I obtained and customized a much larger enclosure for Wolfgang to inhabit. The tank was several yards long, perhaps 2 yards high and deep, and was frankly a monster to maneuver into a suitable position in our dining room.

But even that tank was, apparently, not quite large enough.

One evening, I walked into the house with my housemate, Daniel, and my coworker, Linda. As we walked towards the darkened dining room, I was slow to process the fact that the cage lid was no longer on the tank and instead of a 2-1/2 foot lizard, the tank now housed a heating lamp swinging forlornly by its cord.

My reaction? Instant denial. I don't really see that.

Linda's reaction was instant amusement. She pointed at the tank and started laughing.

Daniel, being the token male, did not have the response I would have preferred. he chose instant panic, literally armflailing, yelping, "OHMYGODOHMYGODOHMYGOD!"

His hysteria broke my shock. "Daniel? Stop." He did. "Linda? Let's find the bastard."

The household cats actually helped just as much as Daniel and Linda did, as we found the cats staring with a combination of terror and intrigue at a spot under a radiator. Time would prove that this was always the best way to find any missing critter - just wait for the cats' OMGWTF reaction.

With Wolfgang safely deposited into his home and the lid of the tank very securely fastened, I turned to my companions.

"Jason never needs to know, right?"

They both started laughing. "Darn right he does!"


This does not mean I've ceased to want a monitor lizard of my own.

elionwyr: (instinct)
My sweetheart has proposed that instead of stuff-giving for $WINTERHOLIDAY, people should give experiences. His (rather sound) theory is that when you think of things that have mattered, experiences are what come to mind rather than trinkets.

I admit to having a great childish love of presents. But perhaps he has a point.

Several years ago, someone gifted me with a lovely suede purse. The front was decorated with a Celtic knotwork deer, beautifully crafted, and I would never have put that much money out for something for myself...but oh heavens, was it worth every penny.

It became my carrying vessel of choice, regardless of the occasion. And when I was hired to assist with a promotional event at a local mall, I grabbed my vaguely expensive bag on the way out the door.

Which sounds appropriate, until you consider that the event consisted of handling varied wild animals.

To be specific, our zoo had been tapped by Disney to provide critters for a TV personality to use during local appearances geared towards promoting his new television show. This was a great opportunity (as well as a novel one) and I was, frankly, thrilled to be a part of it.

The TV personality in question would do half hour shows, followed by a break of an hour or so. We would retreat to an unused store front, where our critters were being kept in varied carriers, until our next scheduled collective appearance. To reduce stress on the exotic animals we'd brought, we made sure no one was used twice in a row, and took advantage of those breaks to do spot cleaning as needed, or to give selective beasties a chance to get out of their carriers and exercise a little.

During one of those breaks, I succumbed to the siren call of the mall and asked my coworker if she minded me ducking out for a few minutes. "No problem," she replied, as she proceeded to open the door of a carrier containing an armadillo. "I'm just gonna let Armie stretch her legs."

"Sounds good!" I grabbed my wallet and stashed my much-loved purse in a corner of the room.

Perhaps you have not been up close and personal with an armadillo. She is a difficult creature with whom to have a warm fuzzy relationship. She's a prehistoric creature - apparently Evolution took one look at the armadillo and said, "Yeeah..I got nuffin." She has very little hair on her body, relying instead on her hard armor-like skin for protection. She doesn't see very well. She has less than impressive teeth. She has very sharp hard claws with which she tears apart whatever is keeping her from her chosen meal of bug, and she relies on her sense of smell more than sight to help her find her way. She has an odd vaguely musky sort of scent.

She's also lactose intolerant. Which, um, the zookeeping community didn't realize at the time this story took place. Which means milk products were a part of her daily diet.

(Yes, this is relevant.)

So Armie - a schnuffly, jumpy, powerful older lady - was given the run of the room for *just* long enough to decide that she needed to..well..do something secret.

In my suede purse.

I returned after a 15 minute absence to find a panic-stricken co-worker hiding something behind her back.
"Um. Hi. So...what did I miss?"

"I didn't know I didn't see what she was doing oh my God I'm so sorry I couldn't stop her maybe we can clean it I'm so so sorry..."

And she handed me my purse, artfully filled with something that is never, NEVER going to come out of suede.

So, Gentle Readers, yes, my very wise boyfriend has a point. When it comes to the things that have long-term value in our lives, it may indeed be that the experiences we give each other are more long-lasting, are worth more than the gifts we purchase and exchange (and may lose) with our loved ones.

elionwyr: (Default)
(posted for [livejournal.com profile] emo_snal, who has a fascinating LJ that you should be reading if you're not already)

"Here." Jason handed me a chunk of black rock. "I think there might be some fossil in there, but I'm not sure. See what you can do with it."

The rock was lignite, which is a poor quality form of coal. Usually when you're doing fossil prep, the easiest way to progress is to dig through the rock matrix until you hit something harder than the rock, and then follow that line. And, generally speaking, there's a colour difference that also helps you figure out where the rock ends and the fossil begins.

(I am, of course, speaking in VERY general terms.)

With lignite, the fossil and the matrix are the same colour, so you depend entirely on density. I was using an air scribe, which is like a tiny air-powered jackhammer, and sure enough, I found something buried in the black rock. But it wasn't acting like a bone. It had some really odd curves to it that frankly didn't make a whole lot of sense to me.

I finally surrendered and called Jason over. "I have no idea what this is."

He studied the shapes I was finding. "It looks to me like you have two scutes, one wedged inside the other." (A scute is basically a bony scale - think of the bumps on the back of an alligator. I knew they could actually get sharp enough to cut a person, but it hadn't occurred to me that they could also fossilize.)

And - alas! - it was decided that my skill set wasn't advanced enough to continue prepping this fossil, so it was given to someone with more experience.

(...I'm still a little sad about that.)

I also want to say that you'd be surprised at how much fossil preparation happens in the hands of volunteers - a great number of them are women - rather than trained scientists. There is, frankly, so much fossil material in the US waiting to be freed from the stone surrounding them that fossil prep labs are always pretty happy to take on more help. As a fossil preparator, you are very often the first person to actually see the fossil. The field crew sees just enough of their find to know that yup, it's a fossil. They will then try to take as much of the surrounding rock matrix as they can to keep their find secure and (hopefully) safe from breaking, they'll wrap it in a burlap and plaster, and then send it off to their respective museum or lab.

That's pretty exciting stuff.

(It's also pretty terrifying stuff. "AUGH I BROKE THE FOSSIL!" But that's a whole other story.)

So. If you have a natural history museum around you that has dinosaurs, and you have an interest, you should ask if they need volunteers. You'd be amazed at the possibilities available to you.
elionwyr: (write hard)
"This is a tooth from a carkano..um.."


I shot a look at my coworker. "I will never be able to say that. Spell it? Sure."

"And I probably couldn't spell it," he answered with a grin, referring to his profound dyslexia.

We were staffing a table at an event advertising varied local museums, their collections, and their programs. Most of my experience was with animals when they were still stinky. Fossils? Not even close to my strong point. But Jason had invited me to help out for the day, and I was always looking for one more opportunity to make some money.

I just hadn't thought through that would mean (a) talking to the public and (b) trying to pronounce 'kar-kara-daunt-o-saurus' all day.

"This is the tooth of a dinosaur whose name means 'shark-toothed dinosaur!" I announced to the next child to walk past our table.

Jason snickered.

"Fine. I give up. Where's the coprolite?"

Without making eye contact, he handed me an oval shaped rock. Fossilized poop has never stopped being a strange thing to me. Bones..claws..teeth..scutes..the possibility of those bits of once-living critters going through the alchemic process of becoming rock makes a mystical kind of sense to me. But..poop?

We live on a very strange planet.

"Can I make kids sniff it?"



I turned the coprolite over in my hand. This one was cylindrically shaped. I have no idea how anyone could have spotted this rock and said, "Why look, honey, it's dino poo!" But the analysis of coprolites reveals paleo diet. As the scientific world has undergone its own transformation from trophy hunting to a quest to understand environments that used to be, the question of who was eating what has gotten more complicated.

As a zookeeper, I frankly couldn't have cared less about dinosaurs..until I held that piece of coprolite in my hand and thought about what it really signified. Once Upon a Time, an impossibly large plant-eating animal devoured grasses we have never had a hope of seeing. That food fueled ancient life. And that body passed this waste onto a landscape long since resculpted into the world we know today.

This stone, that tooth, the cast of a skull grinning back at me from the table...this had been life. This had all been roaring, stinky, consuming life.

I touched the tooth again.

"Tell me again how to say it?"
elionwyr: (write hard)
I am a PASSIONATE believer in the lack of necessity of using live animals in haunted attractions.

I've been preaching this opinion for years.

I've heard all kinds of reasons given as to why some haunt owners feel it's important to use living critters. Their customers expect it. They're more impressive than fake animals. It's a cheap way to get a scare.

Let me tell you about Grisly's "rat hall."

This was, hands-down, the scariest area of our haunt. People screamed. They froze in place. We frequently had to have people ready to get behind groups and push them through just to get them the heck out of there.

And what caused that terror in this more-or-less S-shaped length of maze?

1. A series of plastic tubings run through pieces of 2X4s and screwed to the walls at about ankle level.

2. Sporadically placed fake-fur-covered blocks of wood, screwed to the wall.

3. A recording of rats squeaking and scraping.

4. Absolutely no light.

That's it.

No actors. No animals. No special effects. No animations.

As silly as it sounds? It was, without fail, the best darn scare we did.

If you can get the mind to buy the fantasy of what you're creating? You don't need lots of money and you sure as heck don't need to torture animals to make a few bucks.

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elionwyr: (write hard)
So as I've said, Burmese pythons are susceptible to respiratory infections.

Ours was no exception.

At some point, the female was shipped off to Reptiland, after she'd laid a clutch of 34 eggs and we kept a few of them to raise and include in our collection; and the male (if my vaguely sleepy memory serves) was moved into a healthier-for-him enclosure in our reptile room.

He was struggling with respiratory ick, and we were instructed to medicate him. Part of his health care regime involved his getting sub-cutaneous fluids.

Allow me to share the following illustration with you:

Check out those lungs and other organ placements.

Giving any kind of a shot to a snake? Friggin' SUCKS.

Again, this snake weighed over 100lbs. Giving him fluids was a multiple person operation. One keeper had to restrain him; at least one had to be in charge of the bag of liquid and the needle; and one had to hold the tail up so that we could get that needle into the right position on the snake's body.

The snake was less than grateful, but was - generally speaking - fairly docile for this operation, which went relatively quickly.

On the day of which I write, I was one of the few, the proud, the terrified that were giving the python his fluids...a process suddenly interrupted by the very obvious signs that he was about to defecate.

*insert sounds of screams and running feet*

And then we realized that the fellow holding the tail? He hadn't left his post.


Man, it looked like a green poop-volcano.

..I'm sure the smell came out of his clothing eventually...

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elionwyr: (Default)
The zoo I worked at is located in a very old museum. For many years, there was an exhibit on one floor that housed two rather large Burmese pythons.

One of my interests in zookeeping is in learning about the roots of husbandry and all the things good-intentioned people did not knowing they were doing things very very wrong.

Oo! These snakes are from warm climates! We'll put blankets into their cages to keep them warm!

..Oh. They're cold-blooded.

.....Oh. They ate the blankets.

In the case of these Burmese pythons, who were ZOMG huge - moving the male meant gathering up 5 people to lift his 125lb+ body, hold on tight, and keep on walking no matter how much the snake decided, "No, really..I want to go over THERE! *wriggle*" - blankets weren't the issue. Proper heat and humidity were. They tended to have a lot of upper respiratory issues, which isn't that unusual. And when it came time to feed these guys - well, ok, they were a mated pair, but you get the idea - you really didn't want to go in to feed them alone.

Because if a snake bites you? It sucks. It sucks a lot. I know one keeper who was bitten by one of these snakes. Basically, she was handfeeding the snake and it went for her hand. And swallowed her up past her elbow, if my memory serves me correctly. The trick is - as that link above shows - you can't just pull your hand back out of the snake's mouth. The teeth curve backwards. You really have to wait - or encourage - the snake to decide to release you.

So there used to be a hammer kept by the door to the Burmese enclosure, and one day I asked what was for.

"Well...if you're up here alone and one of those snakes bites you? Hit it on the head with that hammer until it lets go."

This is not a zookeeping trick I can actually document. But I swear it's what was told to me.

(Needless to say, I neither did this or needed to do this. And by the time I was a fully trained keeper, we had much more civilized ways of dealing with this potential problem, which was to spray a nasty-tasting liquid into the snake's mouth so that it would decide you were a very bad tasting dinner and would then release its bite.)

Lesson learned: Anyone who has a huge damn snake and lets their little kids play on and around said snake is a dumb ass.

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elionwyr: (i heard that)
A large part of our job at the zoo involved talking to the public and educating them about our animals - why we had them, what their stories were, what kind of natural behavior they were demonstrating.

"Oh, look! The coyote wants to play with my child!"

"No, ma'am. The coyote is hunting your child."

Some of the questions we were asked were not the type of questions you'd expect to hear.

"Can I pay you $5 to let my child go into the coyote cage to have his picture taken?"

"Ma'am, that animal is a predator. If he were a tiger, would you make the same request?"

*blank stare*

"The answer, ma'am, is no, we can't do that."

As an animal handler - a person hired to bring animals out into public spaces during after-hour parties and functions and walk amongst the guests with a wild animal, I'd like to say I learned diplomacy.

What I mostly learned was that the reason I liked being a zookeeper was that I really didn't want to talk to people.

My friend Dave shared a rather dramatic example one day of what it could be like to talk to the public. He was handling a snake in a public space and was approached by a visitor.

"Excuse me, could you answer a question for me?"


"How do you kill a rattlesnake?"

"How do you...what?"

"Well, we were out west and we caught a rattlesnake. We still have it in a bag. And we want to kill it but we're not sure how."

(I don't think Dave ran screaming. Nor do I think he did the woman a violent mischief. But we've both managed to forget what exactly he *did* do, more's the pity.)

When our zoo was moved into a more public space, we eventually incorporated the use of outside microphones and inside headsets to communicate with the museum visitors. The system was only on for a hours a day, but those few hours could be a bit...shall we say challenging. Some of the animals thought those headsets would make dang good toys. We had to learn to censor ourselves. A lot.

"NO DUCKIE DON'T EAT THAT YOU CROW-KILLI- Oh. Hi, folks! Do you have any questions?"

Sometimes the challenge was simply to think quickly enough to come up with a family-safe answer to what the visitors were observing.

"Hey lady! What are those tortoises doing?"

"Ask your mother! Goingtolunchguysseeyabye!" *click*

Actually, running away from a visitor was..well..one of my better tricks.

When a child runs into an exhibit, points joyfully at a bald eagle, and chirps, "Wow! Look at the vulcan!" I...had, and have, no words.

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elionwyr: (write hard)
As well as working in the mini zoo, I also worked in our butterfly exhibit for a few years. It was a unique exhibit in that everything about it was, well, unnatural - located inside, all of our 'sunlight' came from huge bucket-shaped lights, our plants were imported from warmer climates, and our butterflies were all purchases as pupae from suppliers in varied rainforests.

We included some other critters in the exhibit. A tank of poison dart frogs were popular non-insect tenants, with one frog frequently filling the air with his plaintive, "Is there a beautiful amphibian love for me out there somewhere beyond the confines of this cage?" Another tank held an impressive dark red emperor scorpion that inspired the frequently-asked question, "If it stings you, would it hurt?"


"Have you ever let it sting you?"


"What would it feel like?"

"I'm told it feels like someone shoving a pencil through your hand."


Back in our office, there was, for a while, a relatively small tank that contained a black widow.

Or so I hoped.

One day, the boss called. "Hey, do me a favour?"

"Sure - what's up?"

"Do you see the black widow?"

"Um. Excuse me?"

"Do you see her in her cage?"

"Is this a trick question?"

"Seriously. Take a look."

I looked. "Actually...no, I don't."

"Ok. I haven't seen her for a few days. So just..keep an eye out for her, ok?"

I realized he wasn't joking. "Kay. I quit."


"There is no WAY I'm gonna poke around this office looking for a black widow!!"

"Ok, ok. Don't look for her. That's not really what I want you to do. Just - don't panic."


(As I write this, I *think* she did eventually wind up being spotted curled up something tiny in her cage. Still? Not such a good moment.)

Lesson learned: Venom? No sir don't like it.

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elionwyr: (write hard)
[livejournal.com profile] shadowwolf13 asked for a wolf story. I’ve been given permission to make this a coyote story instead, as I don’t really have a quality wolf tale to tell.

I’ve been talking quite a bit about the Chuck Jones exhibit, and that we had varied animals featured in Warner Bros cartoons. Perhaps the most impressive critter we had was Chinook the coyote.

Chinook had been found as an orphan in New York and had lived much of the first part of his life in a small concrete room. Moving to Pennsylvania was definitely a huge improvement.

And ya know? A coyote is a LOT larger than you might think. More than a few of us took one look at Chinook and asked, “Um. Are you sure that’s not a wolf?

Our boss spent hours and hours with Chinook, comforting and bonding with him. For the entire span of time he was to stay with us, she was his alpha. Jason became an alpha of sorts to him because one day, when Chinook got a little aggressive, Jason pinned the critter to the ground and bit him.

“Ok! Dude, man, we’re cool, we’re cool. Let me up, ‘kay?”

For a time, Chinook lived in our boss’s office, in an enclosure that took up the better part of the space. And sometimes people would clean his cage and throw his poop into a nearby trash can.

Lesson learned: Carnivore poop smells bad.

One day, my mother ([livejournal.com profile] irisl) came in to visit me whilst I worked, and took a seat in my boss’ office at a safe distance from Chinook’s cage.

“I need to get his food bowl out of there,” I said. “No poop. I promise. It’ll just take a second.”

Now, I was not one of Chinook’s peeps. He tolerated me well enough, but if he had his druthers, he’d druther I left him alone. Usually when I went into his enclosure, he’d keep his distance and largely ignore whatever the heck I was doing. (Unless it was something interesting like cleaning or bringing in food – in short, if I had something he could steal, he was VERY interested in me.)

I opened his door, hands empty, fully expecting him to do his normal ‘la la la I’m ignoring you’ routine.

Instead, he came barreling at me, pushed the door open, leapt at my mother, put his front feet on her knees, licked her on the nose, and ran back into his cage.
My mother was both pleased and amused, if memory serves. In her shoes, I probably would be, too.


Lesson learned: Keep valium on hand at all times.
…For me.

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elionwyr: (write hard)
My first year of working at Grisly, I was also volunteering at a wildlife rehabilitation center. I lasted for two years, and I greatly appreciate the opportunity I had to work there. I learned many wonderful things, such as what an incredible diversity of wildlife that exists in the Philadelphia area.

I also learned that when going to pick up a Canada goose, you really REALLY want to make sure you have those wings under control.

At night, you see, we brought in the injured wildlife that spent the daytime outside in varied enclosures. (If you leave an injured goose outside, you’re just setting the table for the local carnivores.) And while my zookeeping training focused a lot on the proper and safe way to pick up varied types of exotic animals, I was never shown how to carry a Canada goose.

This resulted in my getting socked in the nose by a flailing wing one night.

..ow ow ow ow ow..

Now, I didn’t Allan well yet. I adored him pretty much at first sight, but I can’t claim to actually knowing him. I went to the haunt after work that night, and upon seeing me, Allan exclaimed, “Oh! I didn’t expect to see you tonight!”


“How are you?”

“Well. I got punched in the nose by a goose.”

Whereupon Allan started giggling.

Lesson learned: If Allan’s laughing? Someone’s gotten hurt.

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elionwyr: (write hard)
For the Chuck Jones exhibit, we had, on loan from the Phoenix Zoo, a roadrunner named Rover. It’s a tribute to Mr Jones’ creativity that he extrapolated the colourful, long-limbed, plumed cartoon roadrunner from the drab short bird eyeing me doubtfully from the recesses of his temporary cage.

I was a part time, or “relief” zookeeper. This means that I mostly worked on weekends, holding down the fort while the staff of full time keepers enjoyed time mostly away from the zoo. Ya know, unless I couldn’t find a tortoise or something. We had a group of maybe 6-8 part timers at any given time that shared the weekend schedule, and a better group of people just couldn’t be found, in my not-at-all humble opinion.

..Anyway. The point I’m making is that we were part time staff. We couldn’t make a lot of decisions on our own; nor, generally, were we asked to. Our not-so-simple job was to make sure the collection of exotic animals were cared for over the course of the weekend, the museum educators had what they needed from us for their varied natural history shows and cleaned up after themselves, our volunteers were both learning from us and helping us clean/feed/play with the critters, and that the public had their varied questions answered about our animals.

“Why do you have a zoo in a dinosaur museum?”

“Because the animals are used to educate the public and to act as natural history ambassadors.”

“Can I pet the owl?”


“Can I donate my nurse shark to you?”

“HELL no!”

As the Chuck Jones exhibit was being constructed, I was asked by the Exhibits Department to come take a look at the roadrunner area and to tell them what I thought of it.

“You realize I can’t ok it, right? All I can do is tell you what I think.”


So I took a look. The enclosure was pretty nice, but..I did have a concern. The entire front was made up of a mesh screen, allowing cool air into the enclosure. The only source of heat came from the track lighting up at the top of the mesh screen wall.

I pointed at the exposed light cords. “If I were a desert bird and I was cold, I’d spend most of my time up there.”

“Yeah, yeah…but the rest is ok.”

“Well. Sure. I’m just concerned about warmth.”

My feedback was – to the best of my knowledge – ignored, because (sure enough) Rover spent a large part of his time out of sight of the visitors, tucked up and behind the lights.

When the exhibit closed, Phoenix didn’t necessarily want their bird back, and while Jacquie searched for another home for Rover (and I begged her to let us try to fist-train him), he was put into a temporary home that didn’t come close to the luxury to which he’d grown accustomed. Moping, he stopped eating; and unhappy, he developed a knack for escaping at any opportunity (which fortunately was NOT very often).

At this time, our zoo was still located in the basement of the museum – or as I affectionately called it, “the bowels of the Academy.” Rover was pretty good at zipping down and across the varied hallways, leading me to another realization about Mr Jones’ cartoons: If I were Wile E Coyote? I’d probably hate the roadrunner too.

(I am eternally grateful that no one actually witnessed me chasing that silly bird around the basement…)

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elionwyr: (write hard)
(part two)

Prickles, as it turned out, liked to be petted. Which one could do. CAREFULLY. As long as you petted her ‘with the grain,’ so to speak, you could give her the affection she was requesting. And as she approached her 17th year of life – a remarkably old age for a porcupine! – she started to become more social altogether.

We moved the zoo to a better-designed area in the public eye. Once here, Prickles no longer needed to be roused from slumber by banging on a metal container and yelling her name. No, Prickles had decided that the world was pretty interesting after all, and she was very willing to venture outside her cage and take a look around.

Indeed, one way of showing her appreciation for the opportunities to walk around was to squat over a drain and pee there rather than in her cage.

(Well. It was appreciation, or it was bragging. “Wow, monkey…you need to go all the way to the ladies room to relieve yourself? Let me show you one of the ways in which it rocks to be a porcupine!”)

Sometimes we’d offer Prickles a treat – say, a piece of apple – to munch on while she was enjoying a bar-free view. Ever the genteel lady, she would take the fruit in her long-clawed hand and slowly munch on the offering.


Because you see, there was this duck.

I’ve posted before about Duckie the mallard…the fearless tyrannical duck…the crow-killing probably-ate-license-plates duck.

And boy, did Duckie like apples, too.

Duckie had the run of the mammal room at the time, because we’d had an in-floor duck pond installed into this room. And as I’ve said, Duckie feared no man, carnivore, or porcupine.

So imagine if you will, an elderly porcupine contemplating the apple in her claws.

She slooooowly moves her head forward to take a bite…

…and this little fart of a duck comes booking around the corner, grabs the apple, and keeps on running to the safety of the duck pond…

…and Prickles is looking around bemusedly for the apple she could have sworn she’d had a minute ago.

Lesson learned: Ducks are evil.

Prickles eventually got to a point in life where her body could apparently no longer fight off varied small illnesses. She had a bout of worms. She caught colds. And I assure you, there’s very little that’s as pitiful as a porcupine with a booger nose. One of my fondest memories of my ex-husband is seeing him in the cage with Prickles, trying to wipe the snot from her shniffly shnuffly nose.

Prickles passed away many years ago at this point. I still have a box of her quills; I still think of her a lot; and I still miss – just a little – the feeling of her clawed hand reaching out to pull at my pants, asking me to let her crawl up into my lap for a very cautious snuggle.

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elionwyr: (write hard)
Some of the critter memories I most treasure are the ones that involve Prickles the porcupine.

Prickles had outlived her mate. When I made her acquaintance she was around 14 years old and slept more than anything else. When we were scheduled to clean her cage, we would make a ruckus by her door until she’d eventually rouse herself, give a good shake, and stumble out of her cage – either into an awaiting carrier or to a perch under an iguana tank – to doze off again until it was time to get her back into her freshly cleaned cage.

I started collecting quills from Prickle’s cage while I was cleaning – which taught me the very painful lesson of how one has a quill removed from one’s finger – which in my case involved hiding behind one keeper while another used forceps to pull the quill from my quivering hand – which is an experience I do NOT recommend!!

..Where was I?

Oh, yes. So I started collecting quills, regardless of whether or not she was in her cage. One day, Prickles noticed she had a visitor; and with a sleepy stretch and a shake of her back, she started to climb her way into my lap.

I did not scream.

I may, however, have squeaked.

Lesson learned: Be careful what you wish for. If you wish for a connection with a porcupine, you may find yourself with a lap full of quills wanting to be loved.

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State of the Owl's Nest:
I want to eat everything in sight. Dang oral fixation.

We are past the 1/4 mark! How did THAT happen?? I hope these blogs are proving to be interesting and varied enough..!

Lurk remains a sulky little puddle of fur. JT is feeling well enough that there may be a performance of the cat-o-phone later this evening..which will result in an audio post, if so.

*rubs hands together gleefully*
elionwyr: (write hard)
One of my human coworkers at the zoo accused me early on of having no respect for her – and I should, because she was my elder.

My general response to such a sentiment is, “No. You earn my respect; you may have my courtesy, as a general rule.”
But when it came to Old Man Crow, he immediately had both.

Old Man Crow was in his twenties when I started working at the zoo. He was so old that he literally had feathers going grey. His feet were knotted up and swollen from arthritis, so that he tended to walk on his elbows. But oh, he was a proud old gentleman, and he spent most of his days out of his cage and perched either under a parrot cage or balanced on top of a water hose. (I assumed he liked the warmth on his feet.)

When you have 120 animals in very close proximity, animals interact that would probably never see each other in the wild. We were always learning new and interesting things about our critter-coworkers. Opossums? They love bananas. Armadillos? They apparently hate opossums. And crows – well, at least Old Man Crow – are scared of tortoises. Which was useful to know, because it meant that if a tortoise escaped from the kitchen into the main area of the animal room, Old Man Crow would sound the alarm.


As contrary and sometimes aggressive as Baby Crow could be (don’t worry, the naming of the crows improved as the years went by), Old Man was generally pretty mellow. He did, however, have one thing he absolutely insisted on: Let him return to his cage under his own steam. If you tried to carry him back to his deluxe apartment in the sky, he’d fuss and flap his wings until you released his jesses, whereupon he’d fly to his home perch on his own, thank you VERY much.

In the wild, crows will mourn the death of one of their flock. I can’t say that I saw much of this from Baby when Old Man finally passed away – but then, it was hard to see much from Baby that wasn’t just plain ol’ ornery in those days.

I believe that both crows were imprints, meaning that they were raised by people and thought we were just some very feather-lacking crows. Both birds could fly, but whereas Old Man was given his freedom each day, Baby only got a few days a week in the bird exercise/flight room to stretch her wings. She had toys in her cage, but she preferred to amuse herself by trying to bite any monkey paw placed too close to the barred door of her cage. In later years, when she had a much larger enclosure and more time spent out of said enclosure, her nippiness faded away quite a bit. Beautiful and vaguely mischievous, interacting with Baby was one of the better parts of my job as a keeper, and my only regret involving her is that I could never quite get her to take a dump on Duckie’s head.

She came dang close though, one day, and received much praise as a result.

(Yes, I had, and have, duck issues. For dang good reason.)

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elionwyr: (write hard)
Since I've told the tale of how Hades joined my family, I should in all fairness also talk about Lurk's advent as well. )Because clearly y'all need to hear even MORE stories about Lurk.) :D

As I've said, I had no intention of bringing a kitten into the house. Hades clearly had no interest in anyone's agenda other than her own. I'm a big believer in the importance of a cat choosing its owner, which is in part why I didn't resist her desire to become my cat quite as much as perhaps I should have.

And with all the torture Hades was inflicting on Jason, there's no way in hell we should have adopted another cat.

..And then I got a call at the museum.

"Hi! Aren't you looking to adopt a black cat?"

"Well...I sorta was, maybe, but I just did." (Forgive me the lie.)

"But I work at a shelter and I have one I'm saving for you!"


Jason and I discussed it, and he was a trooper. He agreed that yes, we could bring one more kitty into the house was an acceptable idea, and we arranged to have this new bundle of furry joy dropped off to him at the museum.

"I'll bring him by this afternoon," my coworker said. "But he may need a bath. He won't leave the litterbox."


The kitten in question was delivered to Jason in a much-too-large carrier. Wide-eyed and terrified, the critter was indeed firmly planted within a small litterbox. Being a good guy and an animal lover (despite the torture inflicted on him by Hades), Jason decided to reach in and try to pet the kitten.

His reward? He was bitten through a finger.

(...Do I need to say this was the last cat I acquired during our relationship?)

I met Jason at the museum and we brought Lurk home. He cried for the entire walk to the car. He cried all the way home. He hid under our claw-footed tub and he cried for four days straight, until his voice was hoarse and none of us were entirely sure that this adoption had been anything remotely resembling a good idea.

And I named him "Lurk" because this was one of the few things I knew about him...that he was really good at hiding.

Lesson learned: When someone offers you a pet, try to find out more than just what species this critter is. (While I can't say that knowing how feral Lurk was would have discouraged me from adopting him, it would certainly have changed our plan of attack, so to speak..)

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elionwyr: (write hard)
[livejournal.com profile] chris_walsh wanted to hear the story about how Hades earned her name.

I had no intentions of coming home from the pet store with a kitten. No sir, don’t believe in buying pets, I already had a cat I loved very much – Maggie – and I’d never had a kitten.

But she totally played me..crying until I picked her up, licking me on the nose when I said, “Ok, fella, what do you think?” and apparently slipping the pet store employee a $20 to tell him that this kitten was most assuredly a boy.

This was the deciding factor for Jason, and so we went home with a teeny tiny black kitten who had the most evil eyes I’ve ever seen a cat possess.

I decided to name “him” Loki.

(Yes, I know. And [livejournal.com profile] slipjig? Yes, this is proof that the name does indeed belong on your list of 10 Karmically Unfit Pet Names. But really, those EYES..)

Within the first week of Loki joining our household, “he” had pooped on the bed – directly between Jason and me – and Jason had rolled over in his sleep into the mess; deftly removed Jason’s nipple ring with one amazingly non-injuring swipe of a paw; and – most terrifyingly – bitten Jason on his manhood.

After such a hell week, it’s perfectly understandable that Jason had had just about enough of this teeny tiny ball of fur that was terrorizing him and torturing my elderly Maggie. And so he decided to take Loki downstairs to our housemates brute-kitties, thinking they’d be quick to teach the kitten a lesson.

Loki settled down on “his” side.

Both Maine Coones walked away. Backwards.

“..Oh.” Our vet housemate walked over to Loki, picked him up, and looked under his tail. “Well, once we get him fixed, he should…OH.”

Jason returned upstairs, kitten in hand, fuming.

“THIS CAT IS A SHE!” he proclaimed. “And her name is now HADES!”

And so it came to pass that my demon-kitty earned her name. *nod*

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