Archive for March, 2012

Ass Backwards On A Llama

Close your eyes and picture a llama.  It can be an alpaca if that’s what pops into your head, odds are you didn’t realize you were picturing the wrong thing to begin with.  As long as you’re picturing a thickly furred spitting a-hole, you’re in the ball park.  I love animals, great and small, so please do not be offended I called llamas and their brethren, alpacas, a-holes.  If you’ve ever met one, you know what I’m talking about.  We had several at my first zoo and while I have stories that involve a few of them, today I reference Romeo.  Like many Romeo’s out there, this guy was well aware of his standing as head honcho in the herd and didn’t mind aiming a kick in your general vicinity if he felt offended or merely bored-more than likely just bored.  He was in the petting zoo with a couple of females that seemed to suffice in keeping him well established in his full estimation of his own greatness.  Everyone knows to be on one’s guard when working with cougars or bears, it’s the herbivores you have to look out for.  They lull you with their victimized woe is me, I’m a prey animal, sob story and when they’ve fully distracted you into a sense of security, they stomp, trample and otherwise make their best attempt at proving to the world they are not only one notch above grass on the food chain.  Romeo was such an herbivore.

Now, Romeo resided in the barnyard which was a charming little pit stop along the guided tour where zoo guests could purchase food and hand feed goats, miniature horses and llamas.  There was a well placed sign on the llama yard that warned, spit happens, but oddly, it was always a surprise when it actually did.  Here’s a little insider information for your next llama or alpaca encounter: If they’ve laid their ears back, you’re about to get it.  On the particular day though that I recount to you, the zoo was slow and there were no people for whom Romeo could release his latent insecurities at being an herbivore.  I wasn’t actually the barnyard keeper but I fed the barnyard on the rounds of feeding my own animals.  Like I said, herbivores are not to be trusted, but at the end of a long day and wanting to get my feeding done, I found myself in that most dangerous of places a zookeeper never wants to find herself, autopilot.  Typically, upon feeding Romeo’s group you had to feed him by the gate first so he would stay calm and let you feed and hay in the lean to for the girls.  You didn’t want to be in that lean to with a hungry llama shoving everyone around to be the first to eat.  I opened the gate and Romeo’s bowl was pushed up against the fence immediately to the right of the gate.  I poured his food in his bowl and he, being eager to eat as it was a slow day without guest hand feeding him, immediately dropped his head to begin.  Now, the smart thing was to walk around behind Romeo, giving him plenty of space not to kick at me and walk into the lean to behind and feed the girls.  But again, at the end of a long day and eager to be done I decided to shave off 10 seconds or so.  Romeo’s bowl sat on the ground, up against the fence, with Romeo’s long neck bent down so he could eat.  I decided that I could step just over his head and take a short cut to the lean to so I could feed the girls.  So, I did.  Unfortunately, just as I stepped my foot over, Romeo lifted up his head quickly with his neck between my legs, flinging me onto his back.  It was so effortless how he tossed me up.  The llamas had not been sheered so I found purchase in the fur on his rump and wrapped my knees around his neck.  I am lying face down, backwards, on a llama that tolerates me at best.  Romeo, highly offended at my position on his back began bucking and kicking.  All I can do is hang on for dear life and squeeze his neck with my legs even harder and clench my fists even more into his ass while I look frantically for a place to dismount.  I was sure if I let go I was going to break a leg or get trampled once I hit the ground.  I don’t know how long the ride lasted but I somehow popped off and I can’t even tell you if I landed on my feet or on my face.  I just remember hustling out of the llama yard stunned and then hysterical at how hilarious my experience was. 

Romeo and I were never what you would call friends after that, but he left me alone and I took the long way round.  Being a zookeeper is not an easy task.  It’s a lot of hard work and your mind must be constantly engaged and trying to out-think the animals, even the llamas.  The moment you let your guard down, or try to take a short cut, you’re riding ass backwards on a llama.


The Curious Primate

Let’s begin with saying that monkeys have tails, apes do not.  This means the devastating news for many is that chimpanzees are not monkeys.  Yes, this may take some getting used to, but as a primate keeper I am obliged to insist you get this distinction so I can retain my sanity and not have to go ape shit if you call a chimp a monkey in front of me.  This is just a necessary disclaimer before we go any further together.  This is your only prerequisite for reading this blog.  Good, let’s begin.

I always knew I wanted to take care of animals.  I’ve known it since knowing was known in my little world.  Oddly enough I never had a fascination with Curious George.  What’s curious is that he is an amalgam of primates rather than an actual primate.  A literal translation of what most people view primates to be.  Throw in the size of a capuchin monkey, think the flying monkeys in the Wizard of Oz, the face of a chimpanzee and the tail of a Monkey, again, a capuchin perhaps, and anthropomorphized enough to resemble humans.  Anthropomorphism is a big word zoo keepers and other animal professionals use to describe and avoid the curious tendency for humans to project upon non-human animals human traits, thoughts and emotions. Curious George is an exact replica of what most people think of primates.  You are all disturbingly mislead as to what a primate actually is.  If you are reading this text, you’re a primate.  I’m not making that up to be clever.  In the animal kingdom, we’re primates.  Based on the taxanomic system of categorizing animals in such a way that animals with biological similarities are categorized from broad to specific traits from Kingdom, which includes all animals, to species which are so similar they can actually breed with one another.  Humans share enough distinguishing characteristics to be categorized in the order of primates.  Unless it’s happening in some Chinese test tube, humans and chimps cannot reproduce together so relax, I’m not calling you a chimpanzee.  I’m not even saying we descended from chimpanzees.  Sure, we had a common ancestor six million years ago, but they went their way and we went our way.  I think God must have had pity on the chimpanzee.  But back to Curious George, the curious primate, we are conditioned from a young age to lump all primates together.  It’s understandable, there are a lot of us.  We go to the zoo and there are gorillas-huge, 300 lb silverback males and there are tiny pygmy marmosets that weigh less than a pound.  True story, there are monkeys that small.  We come away from the zoo so overwhelmed by the fascination of so many primates that we can hardly be expected to retain in sharp relief every species we were enamored with.  But go to the zoo more than once a year on a field trip with your kids and do more than the cursory glance and requisite giggle at their antics.  Watch them for half an hour.  Really look at their behavior and you will start to see Curious George unravel.

I have been fortunate enough to work with many species of primates and many other animals as a zookeeper over the years.  My career took me towards specializing in primates, but many other animals along the way have lent to my experiences and the impending stories you will read here.  There’s a little something for everyone, so come on in and have a listen while I zoo and tell.