There are many different facets to a person- so many things about them that, when put together, make them who they are. One of those facets of my own make-up is this: I am an animal lover.
I cannot remember a time that we didn’t have a pet in our family. I have grown up with animals and love to be around them. Not all of them. I was a horrible fish owner. That’s a story for another day. I am deathly afraid of sharks and alligators/crocs. I like very few reptiles (none come to mind, actually). And I detest insects (but don’t consider them animals).
But, I love most mammals, some amphibians, and appreciate birds from a viewer’s position (fun to watch, but I don’t wanna own one). Dogs are my absolute favorite animals.
My second favorites are actually a three-way tie: cats, elephants and dolphins.
Cats I have had many of as pets. I’ve had some awesome ones. Dolphins have also fascinated me for quite some time. Wild yet tolerant of or even friendly to humans, incredibly intelligent yet quite playful, sleek and powerful yet nurturing of their young…I once dreamed of training these creatures for a living (then I decided not to move to Orlando). Elephants were not a favorite until I did work with them for a time. More about that further down.
So…most of us have interacted with your basic animals: dogs, cats, birds, horses, and (where I’m from) cows.
I’ve had the opportunity to work with some animals beyond the…um…norm. When I was in college, I fully intended to work as a zoo keeper upon graduation and completion of a keeper internship. I majored in psychology to understand learning, behaviors, social interactions, etc. that would help me better grasp how to train animals.
So my senior year of college, I went to Bear Hollow Wildlife Trail. I told them my name, major, and what I wanted to do. I asked if they had any use for a volunteer. And lo and behold, they needed someone to clicker train some of their animals for the vet. Bingo.
Next thing I knew, I was training black bears, bobcats, deer, and otters different commands to make it easier for the vets to do their examinations. The picture below is not of me and the doe I trained, but a picture of me and a (somewhat domesticated) wild doe I met in Costa Rica.
I also helped out with the feeding and watering of all the animals there except the reptiles. So that basically included all of the animals listed above plus red hawks, a bald eagle, a golden eagle, all different kinds of owls (including one that loved to jump on brunettes’ heads–ick), a falcon, and an opossum named Harry. Not so much a fan of Harry. Overgrown rodents do not appeal to me.
Following the plan, I graduated from college and started my keeper internship at Zoo Atlanta. I worked with Orangutans, Gorillas, Golden Lion Tamarins, Lemurs, African Elephants, Lions, Tigers, Asian Small-Clawed Otters, Warthogs, and for one day: zebras, giraffes, and other animals in that habitat. The habitat they were in didn’t give you much opportunity to interact with the animals, so I didn’t request to work with them again.
The first half of my internship, I worked solely with primates. I preferred the orangs to the gorillas. The gorillas smell awful. I’m just saying. My favorite orangutan was named Chantek. He knew over 100 words in American sign language, most of them relating to food. He would sign to me what foods he wanted me to hand him out of the bag of food I would bring him for meals. He was a sweet (for an orang) and very, very bright. Either my mom or my sister took the picture below of me when I took them as well as my brother-in-law on a behind the scenes tour of the zoo. I did not wear sleeveless shirts when I was working. And, you should know, the animals spend almost the entire day outside. They are not usually inside during the day; this holding area in the picture is where he sleeps at night, and it’s a lot bigger than it looks. It even had a hammock made of fire-hoses, and they got freshly laundered blankies to sleep with every night. Chantek would get into his hammock to sleep and pull the blanket over him so he couldn’t be seen. He was a trip.
The last half of my internship, I worked primarily with large mammals and would work with primates once a week. Most of the time this meant working with lions and African elephants, but, while I was there, it also covered tigers, warthogs, and (though they’re small) Asian small-clawed otters. I learned a lot. Including that I love elephants. So smart, and so full of personality, I absolutely loved working with them. Zoo Atlanta had all female elephants. They are not small. Bathing them was a team effort that we took on multiple times a week. Somehow, I was always much dirtier afterwards and needed a bath myself, though I had to wait until I got home to get one. People who work at the zoo are filthy. It’s true.
Dottie, the elephant in the picture below (of her painting a canvas for me), was artificially inseminated and had become pregnant during my time at Zoo Atlanta. After leaving the internship, I kept up with one of the keepers and was given updates on the girls. I was brokenhearted the day he called to tell me that she and her calf had died. Dottie got pneumonia, and she declined quickly. She was only 26 years old (young, for an elephant) and only a few months away from the end of her 22 month gestation period. It was a huge loss for the zoo and made her keepers’ hearts break. I still have her painting, and I really treasure it.
Notice how messed up my hair is? We were dirty, sweaty, and gross at the end of every day. Being a keeper is not glamorous.
I was offered an introductory keeper position working in the “outback station” area with kangaroos. So, if I loved working with animals, why did I turn it down? As a keeper, I’d have to work EVERY weekend. Not a rotation, but every single weekend. Both days. No church, no time for Tom or family or friends. Nothing. So, though I loved it, I didn’t love it more than my faith or the people that matter to me.
I still get to spend time with animals, though. And I even train them…sometimes.
I do love animals. It’s just part of who I am.