I have always loved animals of all kinds–slimy, bumpy, long, teeny, chirpy, toothy, buggy, furry–if it is a living creature, I’m curious. That is not to say that I embrace every type of animal; my list of “acceptable” critters is limited to those I find most endearing: Cats, yes. Feral rats, no. Blue Herons, yes. Caged birds, no (I have never favored animals being contained in small spaces). Lizards, turtles, fish and Praying Mantises, yes. Ferrets, Hissing Cockroaches, and any hairless mammals, no. Hedgehogs, definitely. I am fascinated by all creatures great and small.
When I was a new teacher I decided to pair my love for “critters” and children together and volunteer at our local zoo as a Field Demonstrator, which meant I was trained to hold a variety of “safe” animals in the Children’s section of the zoo and demonstrate to visitors the many intriguing facts about the animal I was holding that day–from fish to ferrets, alligators to owls, cockroaches to snakes. I had been trained in proper handling and pertinent information to share with the public and I loved the job. I relished the time I spent talking to young children (and their adults) about the wonders of nature, the importance of each particular creature, and how to safely get a close-up view of the each one. I loved the expression on their faces as they got to touch a new animal and ask their many questions. I was helping to develop their love and respect for nature!
One thing never explained to the volunteers, however, was the daunting sign that hung over the door in the building where we received our assigned animal to demonstrate: “Never let ‘em see you bleed!” At the onset, that seemed rather foreboding and callous on the part of the zoo staff. It was as if they were suggesting that their highly trained volunteers were bound to screw up but that we would be considered unprofessional if anyone knew of our mishaps or could see the concern on our faces if an animal did not mutually respect our “handling” rules. (I learned quickly that animals do not actually read, nor are they required to sign the same waivers as their human counterparts at the zoo!) I found this proclamation worrisome, at best, and pretty off-putting.
And then one day I came to understand the sign as it was intended–not as a put-down or mockery, but as a reminder of our valuable role as volunteers at the zoo.
I was excited to take Arthur* Alligator out for a spin. He was a “baby” of about three feet in length, typically docile and well-fed before his Field Trips; always a thrill for the public to be able to see up close and even touch his bumpy scutes. It was a sunny day and we had been out “informing” (not “entertaining”) the masses for about 30 minutes. Part of my role was to teach people that wild animals are incredible and deserve to be understood–not feared. I was busily explaining how alligators are born, how they move, what they eat, and so on, when suddenly (a word which cannot be overstated in this context) Arthur decided he’d had quite enough of me babbling and people touching and ogling him. His tail, which had been residing – as trained – wrapped around my waist to provide balance and allowing me to keep his tail captured under my arm for security, FLIPPED with the strength of ten men! I found myself barely holding him with only one hand behind his jaw and the two parents and two children who had been touching him a moment ago now screaming and jumping back in terror.
*Name changed to protect the innocent.
Can I salvage the situation? Will I stay? Run? Hide? Stay tuned for Part II to find out…
Sound Off: Is fear learned, innate, both? Are all fears based on something rational at their core?