Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Joys of Life

There are so many things in my life that give me joy…my family, my friends, the beauty of nature around me.  One of the things that has always brought joy into my life is my love for animals.  Growing up in a rural area, my parents encouraged me to commune with nature.  They supported my interests in wildlife and taught me to respect nature.

One of my favorite insects to play with while growing up was ladybugs!  One of my favorite memories was when my family and I were at a state park where they were demonstrating how to smoke tobacco leaves on a working plantation.  While other people were running away screaming by the hundreds of ladybugs driven out by the smoke, I was enthralled by my new “friends.”  

I suppose this love of nature is why I chose a career path that lets me work with animals on a daily basis.  When I think back over the past ten years as I have moved from state to state and worked in different organizations, I am amazed with the huge number of species I have been in contact with. 
My first experience working outside of the normal animals (dogs, cats, fish) was when I completed an internship at a zoo in Tennessee.  I absolutely loved my time there and was able to work with a wide variety of exotic species.

One of the most heartwarming and significant encounters I had while working there was a female Bengal tiger.  Now, I was always partial to white Bengals…I love their ivory coats and beautiful eyes.  This beautiful orange tiger, “J”, taught me not to judge by appearances.  I never expected to see personalities within larger animals, like you can often see in the household dog or cat, but J was absolutely amazing.  She would “chuff” as I approached the fence, an affectionate sound of tigers.  She loved the different types of enrichment that I would put onto her exhibit and would watch me carefully as I walked around, placing different aromatic oils or hide goodies for her to find later in the day. 

One month, I was kept extremely busy in different areas of the zoo and did not have the chance to visit J for several weeks.  I was heartbroken to be away from her for that long, but I was working with other large cats and in order to prevent communicable diseases from being transferred, I had to stay away.  Finally, I was able to go visit J early one Sunday before the zoo was opening.  The other husbandry tech and I climbed out of the gator and saw this tiger, sitting and staring intently at us.  

We then heard the strangest sounds…it wasn’t a full growl, but rather just a very low, very steady “grrrrr.”  I looked nervously at my companion, “What does that sound mean?”  She shrugged, looking very perplexed and told me to stay back while she went to see what was wrong.  After a few moments, the tiger was acting normally again and she waved me through to go to the exhibit.  One corner of the night enclosure was badly positioned between a tree and a steep hill, so you had to squeeze between the fence and tree to get to the door.  J watched me the entire time, while the other zookeeper went ahead.  Nervous by those intent eyes, I started to squeeze by the tree, keeping one eye to the ground for my footing and one eye on the tiger.  

J picked this exact moment to lunge at the fence, hitting it hard with her paws and stretching her entire length above me (about 6 feet or so).  I yelped and fell backwards into the dirt, staring up at this magnificent, albeit terrifying creature.  The tiger looked down at me for a long moment before she dropped to her haunches…and began chuffing at me!  J had played a practical joke on me!  At first I was irritated, since I had fallen into wet mud and was still shaking from the encounter…then I was amazed that this tiger was acting just as she always had with me.  The zookeeper was amazed and had never seen that behavior before.

I could have dismissed it as just a random animal behavior, but apparently my reaction was very reinforcing for the tiger, because as I was leaving, J did the exact same thing again!  This time, I was prepared, but no matter how prepared you are…a six foot tiger stretched above you is impressive!

My career has carried me through working with exotic species, agriculture and traditional animals.  Surprising to many people, some of my favorites are in the rodent family.  Mice and rats are extremely complex animals.  Sociable animals, to the point that they enjoy being held if treated properly.  I enjoy working with them and their antics bring joy to my work life.  My favorite part of the day is when I retreat to check over them and make sure that all is well.  Some days, I prefer animals to people! Less drama, more truth.