Sunday, 1 February 2009

I wish I was Doctor Dolittle....

.. you know, the one who can talk to the animals. And I pretend to be. I have always professed to have a marvellous affinity with nature's beasts. Reading 'Some Mother's Do Ave 'Em' latest post Tag you're it, I was reminded of a time when I was given the opportunity to prove exactly how great I am.

I discovered that a local privately owned wildlife park accepted volunteers. So I applied.

The day started at 8am with mucking out. Nothing like a good bit of mucking out first thing on a winter's morning, scraping up camel, zebra and reindeer poo with a shovel from the 'hard standing' (that's concrete to you or I), refilling the water troughs, changing the straw. And I like working with the big animals because I could stand in the pens and looked the part when the public arrived, whilst the animals themselves were locked in to another area of the field, out of harm's way.

The park had a variety of animals: racoons, coati, red pandas, ostriches, emus, tapirs, red deer, tigers, lions, genets, a few rare breed cats, meerkats, a variety of monkeys and of course the petting zoo, with rabbits, ferrets, chinchillas, barn owls, mice, guinea pigs. Pretty much the whole of Noah's Ark, really, now I come to think of it.

As the weeks went by, rather than becoming a revered member of the volunteering team, I discovered that I am nothing but a big fat coward.

It wasn't all bad, I guess, and I do have some wonderful memories. The meerkats I loved, and twice a day one of the keepers took food down to the meerkat's pen, climbed in to feed them and gave a talk to the public. After showing an interest and learning everything I could about all things meerkat, I was regularly allowed to go and give the talk to a crowd of envious children, who wanted the meerkats to climb on their laps or bite their shoelaces. One of the reasons why this was not allowed was that the meerkats shared their pen with the porcupines, who are nocturnal and hence stayed out of sight. Except for two occasions when they charged out of their pen, spines rattling, helping me to realise exactly how quickly I could vault the wall of the enclosure from a seated position. Porcupines aren't in to negotiation and I wasn't in to arguing with them.

One of the big cat keepers asked me to help him feed the siberian tigers on one occasion, which I would have loved if it weren't for the fact that we were locked in (to keep the public safe) and I kept having visions of the doors to their house being opened by mistake. Like it would only ever happen to me.

As time went by, I realised that I was really great with animals so long as I didn't have to hold them, touch them, or come within close proximity of their teeth or claws. I was asked to handle a parrot, and was bitten by that. I was asked to handle a chinchilla and was bitten by that. I was asked to pick up a huge buck rabbit, and refused. Have you seen the size of the teeth on a buck rabbit? Ferrets.. bitten. Squirrel monkeys... slightly nibbled.

Two experiences stand out in my mind from my eighteen months of becoming less and less confident with animals (and I am not going to include the incredibly hot, sunny day that I took five different living animals to a local fair for a 'show and tell' and came back with only four that were still breathing).
The first was being sent in with the red pandas. Red pandas are such beautiful, cuddly, cute bears. They sit quietly up in the trees and they eat fruit. I was asked to clean out their house and told that the only problem was that one of the keepers was on holiday and they had taken the key to the panda house with them, so the only way in was through their little 12 inch hatch at ground level. I was the only person on hand small enough to fit through the hole, hence my selection.

I clambered in to the pen and realised that both pandas were in their house and not in the tree. Not a problem, for two such cute, amiable creatures, surely? So I crawled through and stood up... and came face to face with Mr Panda, standing (bristling) on a ledge at the height of my chest. Oo, and he wasn't happy. He wasn't Mr Cuddly Bear. He made a low growl in the back of his throat and starting shifting from side to side on the shelf as though he was about to launch himself at my chest. I have never felt so afraid in my life (well, with the exception of being chased by a large taxi driver with a kitchen knife in Goa, but that's a whole new story). I could literally feel all of the blood being diverted from my internal organs to my muscles - my stomach went ice cold. What do I do? 'If I duck down and try to crawl back out of the hole, he'll have me!' I thought. I could picture the headlines now "Foolish keeper mysteriously slain at WildLife Park. Cute panda says 'wasn't me'". I was in such a panic that I couldn't think. One of the other volunteers was cleaning the windows to the panda house.
'He-e-e-ellllp' I croaked 'What do I do? He's gonna get meeeeeeee.... ooooo, I don't like thiiiiiiissss.....' She looked in, quite calm (hey, fine for her, she wasn't faced with a psychotic bear - have you seen the size of their feet and claws?!) and said 'Oh, just move away from their door. He'll be fine'. So slowly and unconvinced, I did, realising that this would mean I was trapped in the corner of the house and completely at his mercy. And he jumped on to the floor, keeping a close eye on me as he did so, and swiftly left the house, followed by his mate.
It was only then that I realised that the poor panda was probably enjoying a peaceful lie in, only to be confronted by a huge human being, who insisted on a stand-off by blocking his escape. Poor thing. Where was my common sense? Later in the day I was asked to help feed the pandas, and they were back to their cute teddy-bear selves. Red pandas don't appear to hold grudges, luckily for me.

The second occasion related to my life long desire to hold a tarantula (just to prove that I could), so I was invited to handle various different beasts - a king snake, an owl (pray tell me the link?!), a bearded dragon, a tortoise (easy) and Rosy, the red-kneed tarantula - at the twice daily reptile show.
I have been told that nobody has been bitten by Rosy, and much as they tell everyone in the audience that being bitten by a tarantula is like being hit with a sledge-hammer, the keepers told me that according to one of their friends it was more like a bee sting. I can't say that made me much more relaxed given that I'm not partial to being stung by bees either. I was invited to handle at the 5:30 show as most people had gone home by then and the theatre was always empty, so I didn't have to worry about screaming kids frightening the spider. I was also told that if I stayed calm there would be nothing to worry about, but Rosy would be able to sense my fear. Oh good.

I arrived a few minutes early to practice picking Rosy up, and realised that I felt quite impossibly sick. I was terrified and I had no idea where the fear came from because it was something that I have always wanted to do. It was primal. But the practice went well, and at 5:29 the theatre had one adult and two older children. Fantastic. I can do this.

And then the clock struck 5:30 and the doors opened... and an extended and very noisy family who had been running riot through the park all day streamed in. There must have been twenty-five (sugar-rushed) kids and ten adults, all ready for the show, all excited at touching snakes and owls and tortoises. It was my worst nightmare. In fact, I can feel sweat forming on my top lip even as I type this.

To all intents and purposes, when I did pick Rosy up at the end of the show, I must have looked like a beacon of peace and calm, carefully tiptoeing through the crowd for them to all look at the spider, with a confident smile on my face. Hey, I do this aaaaallll the time.... Inside, however, I was a babbling mess, sobbing internally as I could feel the sweat pouring up through the palms of my hands, thinking 'any second now, any second now, here it comes, she's got to bite me... oooo nice spidey.... breathe.... breathe....'

The kids, however, were fantastic. They transformed from their entrance as a single, baying mob, in to rows of silent, careful and fascinated children, looking at both me and the spider in awe, no doubt with the thought that they would rather the spider stayed safely in my hand. They behaved beautifully, and hence, so did Rosy.

Perhaps I ought to remember this time whenever I open my mouth to say "I've never really been great with children" or "I just LOVE working with animals". Or maybe the only way to tackle a scary, baying mob of children is to carry a tarantula....
Or maybe just forget the tarantula, avoid the children, and stick to dogs instead.

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