The savannah makes up the central part of Africa in a band across the continent and down the middle into South Africa. Some of the countries with savannah are Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia, Chad, Sudan, Ethiopia, Somalia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Botswana, and South Africa. These grasslands range from desert grass plains to those of trees and bushes. The veldt, typical of the interior of South Africa, is more of a vast area of treeless grassland. Together, this open country is home to many of the world’s largest land animals. The cheetah is the fastest land animal in the world, but it cannot run that fast for long. The lions hunt differently than the cheetah. Members of the pride work together to scare a herd of grazing animals, while a lionesses hides in the tall grass waiting to ambush a passing zebra or gazelle. When the animal is dead, the lions take turns feeding on it and guarding it while others in the pride rest or go off to drink. Jackals and hyenas are mostly scavengers, feeding on animals that are already dead. Waiting until the big cats have eaten their fill, the jackals and hyenas move in to eat what is left over. They may even scan the sky for circling turkey vulture, other scavengers, that signal an animal nearby has died. Sometimes a big group of hyenas will steal a kill from a lion or kill an animal themselves. With few trees to slow them down, animals can run great distances on the veldt. The ostrich’s seven-foot height and good eyesight give it a great advantage in seeing predators from far off. If danger is spotted, it runs! Animals on the veldt often travel in large herds. The more there are to watch and sniff the air for danger, the safer they are. That is why it is not unusual to see herds of ostriches, zebras, gazelles, and wildebeests traveling together. Living in groups is also a good way to search for food and teach the young. The termite is one of Africa’s smaller animals, but it builds its home so large that they can be seen all across the savanna. The dung beetle builds its round nest in the droppings of other animals. Then it lays its eggs inside. As the offspring develop, they eat their way out of the nest. A common bird of the savanna is the weaverbird. Using long stems of grass, they weave great hanging nests. On the ground the secretary bird, named for its black-and-white suit and quill-like head feathers, hunts for mice and snakes to eat. From above, the brown harrier eagle circles, scanning the hot African plain. As always, life here is a race to find food without becoming someone elses meal.
Another seasonal resident has just started to show itself above ground, slinking along through clumps of moss and ferns. The little red efts or newts. It is always exciting to spot the first ref eft of the season and, to be honest, I never tire of finding them.
When my kids were small, we called them the little red dragons and finding them was a cause for celebration (hey, when you’re entertaining small children, you find any excuse for a party, right?).
When the red efts first come out of the water after their metamorphosis from gilled tadpoles, they are less than an inch long. They then grow up to be about 4 inches long ambling along on delicate toes – four in front and 5 in back. Their bright orange color will fade to green later in their lives.
My kids once asked me if they were red because they were hot – which made me laugh at the time, but, in truth, their color is a warning. Their skin exudes a mild toxin that makes them unpalatable to predators.
Eventually red efts will go back to the water to mate and lay their eggs, but while they’re on land we will enjoy hunting them in the underbrush or helping them across the road.
After a very long winter that stretched its icy fingers well into April, I was very relieved last week at sunset to hear the sound of spring peepers.
The first frog of spring, these tiny amphibians are very loud for their size (1-1.5 inches long). If approached in their wetland habitat, their calls are so deafening and resonate, you can feel them like a tickle in your neck and scalp. Even stranger, despite their powerful calls, you rarely see them anywhere. spring peepers are remarkably well camouflaged and at close inspection go silent before you can locate them.
If you are lucky enough to spot one, you will note a light X on their tan backs, which accounts for their species name “crucifer” – which means “cross bearing”. Spring Peepers are well adapted for their habitat with tiny suction pads on their toes to help them cling to plants.
Only the males sing. They are nocturnal and will sing all night, searching for a mate. After mating the females lay their eggs in the water attached to an anchored plant. The tadpoles that hatch out are bigger than the adult frog.
So it’s March 24th and the official start of spring has come and gone. When I looked at the thermometer this morning and it was 4°, I got to thinking about how cold, snow and ice affect our sense of well being.
In the fall, after a summer of warm sun and nurturing green, the first cold snap and snowfall are pleasant signs of the change of seasons and the coming of family gatherings. I am invigorated by daily hikes with friends and Silas – our fat, happy dog.
Then I start to snuggle in to cook soups, bake bread and work long hours on illustrations. The freezer is full and the top of the cabinets are lined with canned tomatoes and grape jellies put by from the garden, their colors pleasing and their presence enhancing a sense of safe, warm comfort. The dropping temperatures seem a natural progression and I look forward to getting a lot of work done and catching up on reading novels and other hobbies. I pull out wool hats, long underwear, snowshoes and skis with anticipation.
A couple of years back, I set up my small workshop under the grow lights where, in the spring, my seedlings would be started. The theory was that the full spectrum grow light would help me see my projects while staving off the cabin fever that always seemed to rise in February for me. My secret to surviving winter, as such.
This year’s project is to build a fairy house for my future grandchildren (the first of whom is due at the end of March). I collected fallen birch bark, seed pods, pine cones, and other interesting stones and bits from the woods all summer and set down to build a fantastical little world for the small children that would be coming into our lives.
My husband built a frame and I began to glue pine cone seeds on the roof as shingles while listening to music, Silas sleeping at my feet. I bound sticks with twine to make tiny brooms and used birch bark as siding. One morning I came down to find tiny chairs and a table that my husband had built in his own workshop. A few days later a tiny ladder appeared leaning against the eaves of the house. There be fairies here…
As the fairy house grew, I began to worry who would inhabit this tiny kingdom. This was no home for Lego men, action figures or Barbie dolls. I looked online and found all kinds of figures from small farmers to fairies in gossamer wings. None seemed quite right. But I kept framing tiny windows with bits of wood and constructing a kitchen table and chairs with sticks and bark. Window boxes made of fungus were glued in place and a chimney of pebbles went on the roof.
Then in February, I started to feel that familiar sense of claustrophobia that always seemed to come after many months inside. It had been below zero every night for several weeks and the snow banks were shoulder high. The treacherous ice on the trails was beginning to seem a personal affront. I was tired of wearing spikes and snowshoes everywhere. I hated my wool hat and wanted to break my ski poles over my knee. I turned off the grow light and left the fairy house. I cooked a massive lasagna and froze batches of oatmeal cookies for my husband, made sure there was enough dog food and flew to California to visit my sister.
San Francisco in February is sunny and 65°. The neighborhood gardens are blooming and the smell of their blossoms is heady and rejuvenating. I walked and walked and walked winding through impossibly steep neighborhoods that have never even seen a frost. I stopped now and then to stare off at the Golden Gate Bridge across the bay and marvel at the weird contrast between the view of mountains back home and the view of the heavily developed San Francisco Bay area – still breathtaking but in a different way. That first week, I didn’t worry about my husband or dog much or think about the fairy house at all.
We shopped and sat at outdoor cafes sipping cold drinks watching stylish people walk by. We drove to Point Reyes and hiked the cliffs and then the beach, the sound of the waves ever present and soothing. Her puppy ran wild, tossing into the waves, greeting people, digging in the sand. I understood how she felt. The warmth of the sun and the smell of the ocean were like some kind of magic working its way into my muscles and bones. I wondered if my husband was taking Silas out and skiing. I found a tiny seed pod that would look good in the fairy house garden and put it in my pocket.
My brother drove up from LA and we traveled up the coast to visit the redwoods. We wandered among the giants with awe, their bulk turning the noon sun into twilight. It was hard to see them without feeling a mixture of wonder and shame. The idea that we cut so many of them down is hard to take in. I thought about the scale from Redwood to human to fairy house.
We walked Scott’s pack of dogs on the rocky Eel River and I found a round, flat stone for the tiny fairy walkway and slid it into my pocket.
We drove further north and watched the dogs run with abandon on the wide expanse of beach north of Eureka. We found sand dollars and odd crustaceans I had never seen on eastern beaches. I picked up an interesting shell that would make a artful fairy salad bowl. I breathed in the sea air deeply and felt myself whole again. Then I realized that just as my sense of needing to get away had crept up on me at home, my need to get back to my own pack was becoming hard to ignore. I knew it was time to go.
Back in San Francisco, my sister gave me a little gift before I left. I unfolded delicate tissue to find tiny mice made of wire and wool, dressed in little hats and jackets. They were adorable and exactly the right size to sit at the kitchen table that was waiting in my fairy house back home. Hmmm….
Coming home was still a bit of a shock admittedly. It was still hovering around zero even though it was early March and the woods were icy and treacherous. We went for a hike up a small mountain behind our property and it was frigid and slippery with ice flows pouring over every cliff. Ice flows form when a seeping spring pours out layer after thin layer of water that freeze on the rocks and build up into what looks like a beautiful frozen waterfall. They can be cloudy or filled with colors – brown, green or blue and are quite lovely close up. Despite their beauty, I was anxious and cranky as I stumbled and slid on hidden slicks of ice, regretting having stubbornly left my spikes at home.
My husband kept climbing up, never looking back to see if I was ready to turn back – a technique that over the years he’s found effective for keeping me going. Silas ran back and forth in total bliss, smelling deer tracks and looking back at me to see why I was not running with glee, like him. It was tougher going for me. The crusty, untrustworthy snow kept giving way every third step plunging me shin deep into the snow. I scrambled on disgruntled about the cold and the mean spirited branches that kept snapping in my face with stinging accuracy.
But then something shifted, as it always does while walking. I started to feel warm. My muscles started to feel stretched and humming. I could almost feel those magic endorphins flow into my bloodstream and I started to feel happy and kind of powerful. The view began to appear through the trees behind us showing snowy mountains and the sparkle of Lake Champlain in the distance. It was a stunning sight. I looked out at it and sighed contentedly. I was sweaty, cold and longing for spring, but I was home.
And there were mice that needed to move into their fairy house.
I have been telling stories about my brother, Scott, who has spent many years traveling around as an exotic animal veterinarian. Every once in a while I will go along to take pictures, hold tools and generally ogle the amazing creatures Scott repairs. Several years ago, I accompanied him to Ruth’s compound when he went to consult on a badger, named Digger, who had issues with car sickness (Who knew badger got car sick? Maybe its from reading the map while driving?).
We went into Ruth’s trailer and I sat at her kitchen table while she and Scott discussed “Diggers” tummy troubles. Suddenly, I felt something sniffing at my shoes and a wet nose went up my pant leg. I looked down. There was a skunk standing on my foot.
“Um…guys…” I said.
They didn’t notice.
“There’s a skunk making advances on me,” I said loudly.
“Oh, that’s alfalfa,” Ruth said.
She reached down and picked her up and set her on my lap.
“She is my bed buddy.”
I stroked alfalfa’s back tentatively. It was the softest fur I’d ever felt. Alfalfa pushed her tiny face into the crook of my elbow and rested comfortably. I was quite taken with her.
“Oh, she’s not de-scented,” Ruth said.
My hand froze over her back.
“Does she spray?” I asked, quietly.
“Only if I roll over on her in my sleep.”
Later, I met Bonkers, a small black bear. He was lying in the shade of a pine tree when we entered his large, wooded enclosure.
“Bonk,” Ruth called.
He slowly sauntered over and hopped up onto a metal spool. Sitting on his butt, he was eye level with me.
“You can pet him,” Ruth said, feeding him sandwich cookies. “Just not on the nose, ears or under his chin.”
I patted his back. His fur was long and rough – not like the skunk’s at all.
Ruth said something to him and he leaned over and blew in my ear. I giggled hysterically, partially from how it tickled and partially from nervousness. There was a black bear blowing in my ear, after all.
Scott snapped a picture. Then the bear licked my neck thoroughly with a long pink tongue. I tried to keep a straight face, as Scott was getting all of this on film.
It was remarkable really. Having the bear that close to me, I started to feel this sense of woozy complacency. I wanted to lay my head down on his back. His tongue was incredibly long.
Suddenly his nose found its way into my ear and I flinched and squealed. Click click, all on film. Great.
“Alyoop,” she said and gave him a cookie. She turned to me. “Want to meet him?”
I nodded. I wasn’t sure what meeting a grizzly actually entailed.
“Lean forward over the wire with your hands behind your back,” she instructed.
She motioned and Alyoop came forward. He was hard to take it in, his head was so huge.
“Say hello, Alyoop,” she coaxed.
He came toward me and opened his huge mouth.
“Spit in his mouth,” she said to me.
“Huh?” I said dumbly and looked at Scott.
Scott nodded at me encouragingly.
“He looks hungry,” I said.
The bear’s ears twitched.
“Go on,” Ruth said. “It’s how bears get to know each other. Like cats smelling your breath and dogs sniffing your hands.”
I looked at Scott. “Did you do this?”
He nodded, smiling, his eyes twinkling with amusement. I made a mental note to KILL him later. He was enjoying this way too much.
I leaned in. Alyoop opened his mouth wider. I tried to spit. Suddenly, I realized that my mouth had gone completely dry. Alyoop was waiting. I was trying to make spit. My heart was pounding so hard that I thought cardiac arrest was imminent. I realized that I would never be able to spit.
“I can’t…” I said, embarrassed.
“Just kiss his tongue,” Ruth suggested, kindly. She must see this all the time.
His tongue was about the size of a dinner plate. It was pink with black mottles. I leaned in and kissed it. He sat back, sniffing the air and yawning. Ruth popped a cookie in his mouth.
I stepped back, my legs like rubber, my stomach fluttery, and my face flushed. But I was alive and had just kissed a grizzly’s tongue. My day was pretty complete.
In August 2002, Dr. Scott Amsel worked as “Vet on the Set” for an American Express Commercial. The production company hired Ruth LaBarge and her family of bears for the commercial. Scott’s job was to stand by with a tranquilizer gun – in case things went sideways.
The idea behind the commercial was that the bears would approach the tent, in which a celebrity was camped – in this case Jerry Seinfeld, who would offer a comical diatribe about his credit card.
The bears Ruth used for the commercial were three grizzlies – Barney, Betty and Whopper.
Each of the bears have their own personality. Barney and Betty were tightly bonded to each other and often sat side by side holding hands. Whopper was larger and tended to dominate the other two, bullying them like a big brother might.
Betty and Barney cuddling.
Ruth knew that Whopper needed to be “fixed” because he was starting to bully Barney and Betty more aggressively. During a break in shooting, she talked to Scott about coming out to her facility to do the job after the commercial wrapped. It became apparent to Scott, after watching the bears interact, that this was not a moment too soon.
Whopper takes direction from his trainer.
Ruth trained her bears using a hot wire, which gave them a boundary they respected from an early age. As adult bears they would never approach the wire even if it wasn’t turned on. The wire was portable and represented a real boundary for working with these huge bears. On the site of the commercial, the wire was strung around the perimeter and would later be “blown” out of the film anywhere it showed up. At any time during the shoot these half-ton bears could be only a few feet from the camera crew on the other side of the wire.
The one concern that the trainers had about the hot wire was that the bears had to see it for it be effective. If they were distracted, they could accidentally go right through it. It was apparent, by their relaxed attitude, that the film crew didn’t think there was any danger involved with filming grizzlies. Scott, however, was on high alert and held his tranquilizer gun like a fly swatter against a bull moose. He soon got to see first hand how silly his “fly swatter” actually was.
The incident happened in between one of the shots. Barney found a spot of salmon juice on the ground about three feet from the camera crew and sniffed it. Whopper moved in to push him off it – in his typical big brother style. Then, in the blink of an eye, the two huge grizzlies were fighting. Fights among hand raised bear siblings can be a lot like two family dogs fighting in that they often look and sound much worse than they are – a lot of sound and fury. The one significant difference though is that grizzly bears are the size of small tanks. So its best to get out of their way while they resolve their differences.
The fight was short, about ten seconds, but their cavernous mouths flashed huge, razor sharp teeth and they roared and snapped at each other. When the brothers moved back to swing their giant claws at each other, they came within inches of a half million dollars worth of camera equipment and a terrified movie crew.
The trainers carried pepper spray, lead chains and a wooden cane, but nothing could stop two grizzlies if they were determined to fight. The key was to calm everything down without getting too close. Ruth got in front of them and waved her arms to get their attention. The other trainer yelled for everyone to freeze. If the camera crew began to scream or run away the bears might become agitated and the fight could escalate.
Then, just as suddenly as it started, it was over. The silence afterwards was broken only by the sound of a lot of panting humans. Scott had not even had time to raise the tranquilizer gun. The bears, for their part, went serenely back to following their trainers. The crew took a short break to get cold drinks (Scott joked that they probably had to change their underwear). Then the commercial resumed filming. Scott noted that the tenor of the film crew was different afterward. They now realized that these were not trained dogs. They were huge, wild grizzly bears.
Later that afternoon, while Whopper was resting in his trailer, Ruth took Barney and Betty to exercise in a field up on a hill above where the filming was being done. They set up another hot wire perimeter to let the bears romp and burn off excess energy. These two bears were close and loved to play together. Betty was especially excited and was bouncing all over the place. She ran at Barney and made a playful swat, then took off toward the top of the hill. It looked to Ruth and Scott as if she had just done a “tag your it.” Betty was so excited that she then ran right over the hot wire at the top. Ruth realized too late that the wire was slung too low to be an effective barrier for the excited bear. Betty was now loose and was running at full speed.
Grizzlies can run as fast as racehorses for short distances and Betty was having a good run. The trainers took off after her and Scott came around the other side of the enclosure with the tranquilizer gun. As he topped the hill, he saw Barney, standing stretched up to his full eight foot height, looking off in the distance after the quickly receding Betty.
Without thinking, Scott put his hand up toward Barney and said in his best dog owner’s voice, “STAY!” Then he ran over the crest of the hill in pursuit of Betty. Later Scott thought of that moment, when he’d told Barney, a half-ton Grizzly, to stay as if he were a beagle, and laughed.
“I was watching Betty run down the hill toward the equipment trucks and was in a kind of “catch the bear” fugue state. Since Barney actually DID stay, maybe it helped after all,” he shrugged sheepishly.
Scott noticed a truck driver standing outside one of the trucks in Betty’s path. He was a big guy, with a Harley cap and impressive tattoos – the kind of guy you might give your side of the sidewalk to. When he saw Betty barreling down the hill toward him, however, he leaped headfirst into the cab of his truck, his large muscular legs dangling out the door. Scott would never have imagined a man his size could move that fast.
When Betty reached the line of production semis, it was like she suddenly woke up and realized she was not where she was supposed to be. She stopped next to one of the trucks breathing hard and looked around. She had been running with abandon and pleasure but now she was winded and confused. Barney was nowhere in sight.
It’s hard to say what she would have done if left on her own at that point, but just then Ruth came into sight and Betty approached her and stood so Ruth could put her lead chain around her neck. There was a lot of relief to go around as Ruth calmly led Betty back to rejoin Barney.
It had been a very long day with bears.
In 2003, Dr. Scott started treating bears. The bears were raised by Ruth LaBarge, a former horse trainer, who learned her bear training skills from Doug Suez, most known for his work with a 1,500 pound Kodiac bear named “Bart.” Bears raised in captivity and trained in a certain way become very pliable, displaying more of their dog-like characteristics and less of the frightening, predatory characteristics they are known for in the wild.
Ruth has one black bear, and several grizzly and Kodiac bears. She raised what Scott calls happy bears. They were playful, socialized, used to travel, calm in unfamiliar situations and not easily frightened. That is important as there is nothing more dangerous than a frightened bear.
Ruth’s black bear, named “Bonkers“, was starring in the HBO remake of Gentle Ben, when he began to have intestinal problems. The local vets had no idea how to deal with bears. Scott spoke to Ruth on the phone, asking questions and trying to tease out the clues to what might be wrong, but he couldn’t do anything conclusive until he saw Bonkers “in person.” When the movie wrapped up they decided to bring Bonkers down to Los Angeles to let Scott examine him.
They made arrangements to use a local equine (horse) hospital that was big enough to accommodate a black bear. It had an endoscope and x-ray machine that they could use to do the examination. Scott met Ruth in person for the first time outside the hospital. She wanted to lead Bonkers into the surgery by hand. Scott had serious concerns about this. Until he knew the owner of a potentially dangerous wild animal, he was never sure what their relationship with their animal was actually like – so he wasn’t sure how safe it was to to interact with them.
He looked from side to side as Ruth let the giant bear out of his trailer. To the left was a parking lot to a department store. There were parked cars and some shoppers pushing grocery carts. To the right was a busy road. He said a quick prayer that Ruth was really in control of the bear – and that the name Bonkers was not a description of his personality.
It wasn’t. Scott watched Ruth lead Bonkers calmly into the x-ray area of the hospital. He could see that she had a good relationship with the bear. Bonkers wasn’t feeling well, but even so he seemed very relaxed in Ruth’s care.
Scott had his dart gun, in case the bear needed to be darted, but Ruth didn’t want that used on her bear and insisted it wouldn’t be necessary. Instead she lay down on the floor of the examining room and Bonkers lay down next to her and put his big head on her lap. Then she told Scott she was ready for him to inject Bonkers with the sedative.
Scott again had doubts. This bear was huge. If he jolted when Scott injected him he could crush Ruth. Later Ruth admitted that when Bonkers wasn’t feeling well, she often slept with him in his trailer to comfort him. The only danger she had experienced was that if Bonkers rolled over in the night he could crush her. This was a trainer who had bonded with her animals.
Still, a veterinarian never knows how a wild animal will react when they stick a big needle in it. If you expect a reaction you can do a quick aggressive injection and be done with it, but this might startle a calm animal. With a calm animal you can do a slow injection. Ruth assured Scott that Bonkers would be fine and so he went ahead with a slow injection. Bonkers lifted his sleepy head and peered at Scott then, but then he laid it back down and calmly drifted off to sleep.
Scott did biopsies and x-rays. Things pointed to a type of gastroenteritis — essentially a bear tummy ache. This can result from a variety of things including food allergies or bacterial infections. To pin down the exact nature of this reoccurring problem they would have to do more invasive exploration and possibly even surgery. Ruth was too anxious to let them do exploratory surgery, unless it was unavoidable. Scott gave Ruth some advice about what to feed Bonkers, but he suspected that the bear had chronic inflammatory bowel disease.
When Bonkers had his next episode, Scott decided to go out and visit him at home. Sometimes he could get a clue about what an animal might be eating that was upsetting its stomach from looking over the enclosure.
The bear preserve was in a large wooded area surrounded by a quiet suburban neighborhood. Scott drove through a locked gate in a chain-link fence and down a long dirt road. There were several large enclosures. Some were surrounded by tall chain-link fences and some were only bounded by a string of electric wire about three feet high. In one of the enclosures he saw a huge water trough with what looked like a giant tree stump soaking in it. Then the tree stump moved and he realized it was the biggest grizzly bear he had ever seen. It had turned its massive head and watched him drive by. He was glad he’d been driving so slowly or he might have driven off the road. It was like looking for an alligator and seeing a t-rex.
Finally he spotted a trailer surrounded by a scrub pine forest. He got out of the truck and knocked on the trailer door. No answer. He thought he heard movement inside the trailer, but not knowing what other animals Ruth might have inside, he decided not to investigate. Maybe she’d taught one of her bears to fold laundry…
Scott looked around, glancing dubiously at the low fences. He wasn’t sure it was such a good idea to wander around the compound. There were, after all, several grizzlies – each weighing a half ton – ambling around the place.
He spotted a picnic table sitting under a tree near one of the enclosures. It seemed to be covered by a picnic. He walked over but there was still no sign of Ruth. Then he looked more closely at the table. There was a plate of oreo cookies, a chocolate cake, a pie and a dozen frosted cupcakes. That was weird. He was sure this was the time Ruth had agreed to see him. He didn’t think she had mentioned that she was having a birthday party. Finally Ruth came strolling out of the woods carrying a bucket and ball.
“Hey! Sorry,” she called, walking over swiftly. “It’s training day.” She gestured at the ball before tossing it on the ground.
“Sorry to interrupt your party,” Scott said, motioning at the picnic table.
“Party?” Ruth said. She looked confused.
Scott gestured again at the picnic table covered in cake and cookies.
“Oh that!” Ruthe said a little sheepishly. “I told you it’s training day.”
Scott stood still for a moment and then it finally sank in. “You feed them that on training day?” he asked incredulous.
Ruth shrugged. “They love sweets. It’s a great incentive.”
“Ruth,” Scott said, trying to keep the scold out of his voice.
She put a hand up. “I know, I know. I spoil them. But they so love cake.”
Scott looked at the devil’s food cake with fudge frosting and shook his head. He knew it was not the whole story behind Bonkers sensitive tummy, but it wasn’t helping either. He gave Ruth a serious talk about the bears’ diets before he left (with a cupcake).
Driving home Scott thought about how many obese pets he had treated over the years. People just couldn’t resist over-feeding their beloved pets. Bonkers was not overweight, but it didn’t mean that chocolate cake was good for him either.
Scott took a bite of the cupcake. Hmmm…. It was delicious. He might growl on command for one of these. Bears, like humans, have a sweet tooth and love dessert. Winnie the Pooh’s love of honey was based on fact!
Scott sighed. It looked like Bonkers was having his cake… and eating it too.
* Watch for the next entry – Chapter 12: Bears On The Job.
“Too many different anatomies,” he said. “From a half-ton rhino with worms, the next call can be a half-ounce lizard. And at the zoo, you can bet that any disaster that can happen will happen.”
Then Scott told me about one of the most challenges calls he’d ever gotten.
“It’s not eating,” the keeper complained.
“It was a fat-tailed gecko from North Africa,” he told me. “They are about four inches long, have huge eyes, a fat tail, and in this case – a belly ache.”
“No tiny Tums for lizards?” I asked.
“Nope, it’s usually just surgery. I palpated its belly and I could feel something hard in there. They had been feeding it crickets.”
“Crickets are not on the gecko’s normal menu?” I asked.
“No,” he said. “They’re too big. It had an obstruction. I would have to operate.”
“How do you operate on a four-inch gecko?” I asked, picturing a tiny operating table.
“Very carefully,” he said. “I made an anesthesia mask out of a straw and some scotch tape. I used the smallest scalpel I could find. It was intense because her intestines where like a tiny bowl of spaghetti.”
I hesitated, my spoon over my bowl of soup. Not that I had a weak stomach. We had grown up listening to our father discuss his surgeries over dinner. I was just glad we had decided against Italian.
“Something large bulged out of one of those tiny strands,” he continued. “It was shaped very distinctly like a cricket’s head.”
“The real trick was how to slice through something that was essentially the size and shape of a strand of spaghetti and be able to sew it back up again. When I finally got it open, the cricket’s head popped right out.
” He stopped to eat some chili and I envisioned a partially digested cricket head flying out of a severed gut. I swallowed, hard.
“But it turned out that the hardest part was actually sewing it up. I used the smallest needle I had and stitched the wall of the intestine together. It had to be sewn so carefully that the opening was still big enough for food to pass though or we would be right back to where we started with another obstruction. So I had to make these minute, little stitches. Plus, it was slippery and kept sliding around between my fingers. Really frustrating. Finally it was done and I stitched her belly closed.”
Maybe I was imagining it, but it seemed like the tables near us had suddenly decided to take their food to go.
“She was okay?” I asked.
“Remarkably, yes. Just fine.”
“Lizards, especially small ones, don’t always do well with anesthesia,” he told me. “Despite everything we do, they still die after surgery sometimes.”
“But it was okay?”
“Oh yes. They did a little article in the zoo newsletter about it. They nicknamed me the ‘Lizard, Gizzard, Wizard’.”
“Good one,” I said. “Did you start wearing a pointed hat?”
“Only at home,” he said, not missing a beat. “The dogs call me master.”
I rolled my eyes.
“And the gecko started eating again and everything?” I continued.
“Something better than crickets?” I asked.
“Oh yes,” Scott said.
I smiled and started eating again. He waited until I had taken a large mouthful of soup and was just about to swallow.
“Now she only eats fat, juicy maggots.”
“Yum,” I croaked after the coughing stopped.
In the spring of 1994, the Los Angeles Zoo was loaned tigers from the Wildlife Way Station, a non-profit Animal Sanctuary, for breeding while broadening the genetic diversity of their tiger population.
Tigers are very endangered in the wild. Much of their Asian habitat was lost in the Vietnam War when napalm burned up their forest (and, sadly, much of their population). In India, the growing human population has caused deforestation throughout their habitat there. As the number of tigers dwindle in the world, the importance of maintaining a genetically diverse zoo population has increased. Zoo breeding programs have become more important over time and careful records are kept to maintain genetic diversity and avoid inbreeding. Zoos and other animal facilities frequently share tigers for this purpose.
“When the Wildlife Way Station lent the zoo tigers for breeding, it was a stressful project right from the beginning,” Scott related to me, shaking his head. “The male tiger kept getting beat up by the more aggressive females,” he said, with obvious male compassion.
I tried not to smile, but it was hard.
“Finally we got the Wildlife Way Station to send four less aggressive females and things began looking up.”
“Then one female went “off her feed,” he said, frowning. “It’s always bad when an animal stops eating. So I decided we had better take her up to the facility to be endoscoped right away.”
Endoscoping involves putting a long plastic tube containing a light and viewing device down into the tiger’s stomach to look for ulcers and other abnormalities. Because it was a procedure he had rarely done, Scott brought in Dr. Todd Tams, an expert gastroenterologist, to look her over. They had to first dark the tiger and put her under anesthesia to move her up to the medical facility.
“Drugging big cats is not an easy task. The new anesthesia drugs at the time were causing some neurological damage to big cats post-operatively. So I fell back on some older standard drugs. The risks were still there, as these drugs could cause respiratory problems, but they were considered safer than the alternative.”
“We intubated the tiger and put her into the back of the zoo pick-up truck for transport. I sat down by her tail with the I.V. while the anesthesia technician sat by her head maintaining the anesthesia equipment. Three keepers and Dr. Tams sat around the edge of the truck as we readied to move up across the park to the hospital.”
“Then with a last minute check I noticed that the tiger’s lips and tongue had gone pale and her breathing had slowed. This is a known side affect of the drug I’d used, but it is not a good thing. In theory, they can just stop breathing altogether and die. I decided to start an infusion of a slight respiratory stimulant to restore her breathing and color. I watched her for signs of recovery. Slowly she began to breathe normally again and I relaxed a little.”
“Everyone in truck had been patiently waiting, watching this process. They got ready to start moving, chatting easily. It was a beautiful California day with bright sunshine and blue sky.”
“I looked her over once more and was about to nod to the driver to get going when I noticed that her breathing had begun to quicken. No one else noticed yet. I looked her over quickly and noticed with a little thrill of fear that she was starting to blink her eyes. I felt a trickle of sweat pop out on my forehead. Then suddenly, a low guttural growl rumbled from her throat. My mouth went completely dry. I literally could not swallow. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up.”
“The others in the truck jumped at the sound of the growl and for one brief moment everyone’s eyes were riveted to the tiger’s twitching face. Her sleek, 300-pound body was all muscle. This was an example of the largest, carnivorous feline on Earth and she seemed to be waking up.”
“Then, like the proverbial sinking ship, all three keepers and Dr. Tamms reacted at once. In a simultaneous move, like navy seals going backwards into the sea, they all bailed out of the truck. I had the giddy urge to yell, “Abandon ship! Abandon ship!” as I saw them all disappear over the side. I was alone with the anesthesia technician and, of course, this stirring tiger.”
“A calm settled over me finally as my brain began to recover from the flood of adrenaline. I thought we should get her back into her bedroom in the tiger house, but it would take several people to lift her and I could see the keepers receding into the distance as they ran for their lives. There was no choice but to wait it out.”
“In reality, this was not as bad as it seemed. It just meant that enough air had passed around the intubation tube and through her vocal cords that she could make noise. But the growling sound at that close range with no protective bars between us was terrifying.”
Since that day, Scott has admitted to me that the only reoccurring nightmare he ever had about his years at the Zoo was of a tiger jumping on his back as he leaned over his medical bag in the narrow passage of the tiger house. The seed for that dream started in the back of the truck that day.
“What happened?” I asked, a little impatiently.
He smiled. He’d obviously survived.
“The tiger continued to growl and I became more certain that this was all subconscious and that she would not wake up. I began to breathe again, though my mouth was still too dry to swallow. I smiled at the anesthesia technician who had bravely stayed at her post, though she was as white as a sheet.”
“I learned something that day,” Scott said to me when he was done telling me the story.
I loved these moments. He had such knowledge, such wisdom, such a clarity of thought.
He looked at me and very seriously said, “Never ride in the back of a pick up with something that can eat your face.”
Words to live by.
In July 1990 Scott flew to Taipei to meet with Marcus Phipps of the Orangutan Foundation. They were trying to fund a rehabilitation center for orangutans that were rescued from the pet trade. Since the passing of the Primate Protection Act, the government had seized several orangutans from private owners. They needed a safe place to keep them until they could be examined and possibly returned to the wild.
Some would never go back, as they were too old and it was unlikely that they could learn the skills they needed to survive in the jungle. Some had contracted diseases from humans that made them a danger to other primates in the wild. They also had to do DNA profiles to discover which subspecies of orangutan they were – from Borneo or from Sumatra, before they could be released.
A committee was formed which included Scott, Marcus and several other veterinarians and Orangutan Foundation volunteers. They tried to find corporate sponsors who would donate money for a facility. It looked like this process would take several years. In the mean time, they needed a place to keep the rescued apes.
When Scott was in Taiwan there were ten orangutans that needed a facility. The orangutan Scott got to know best was a male named Romeo. Romeo was a five-year old orangutan who came to Taiwan with the Brazilian Traveling Circus. The circus was impounded in Taipei and the owner was jailed, so suddenly Romeo had no place to go. Marcus Phipps volunteered to take care of Romeo until they could find a proper facility for him.
He took Romeo home to his apartment on the 8th floor of a high rise in down town Taipei. Going up in the elevator, holding Romeo’s hand, Marcus worried that he really didn’t know how to take care of an orangutan. Romeo seemed unconcerned as he followed Marcus down the hall and into the apartment. Marcus didn’t even know what to feed Romeo. Orangutans are vegetarians in the wild, eating leaves and fruit. Marcus wondered what he had in the apartment that he could possibly offer the ape to eat.
As they entered the apartment Romeo looked curiously around. Suddenly he took off toward the kitchen. Marcus followed him and watched in amazement as Romeo opened the refrigerator, took out a can of coke, popped the top and drank it down. At least he wouldn’t have to worry about what to feed him.
By the time Scott came to visit Romeo, Marcus had other concerns. The orangutan had become fixated with eating soap! He knew this could not possibly be good for the ape, but Scott had seen it in orangutans before. The only thing Scott could come with was that some substance in commercial soap was similar to the waxy leaves that the apes ate in the wild. Eating soap was like a taste of home to them.
The problem with keeping an orangutan in a high rise apartment was that they are very smart and very strong and the apartment will not hold them for long. Marcus had to keep Romeo in a large cage when he was gone to keep him out of trouble. Very quickly Romeo discovered that he could move the cage around the apartment by rocking it back and forth. Often Marcus would return home to find the cage clear across the room and his houseplants picked clean of leaves.
One day while Romeo was working his way around the apartment rocking the cage, he misjudged how hard he was rocking and tipped the cage over. It fell into one of the apartment’s plate glass windows and the huge window was knocked out of its molding. The huge sheet of plate glass fell eight floors to the street below, narrowly missing a pedestrian below. Having a young orangutan in a high-rise apartment was a bit like having a wild party that never ended.
Even people who raised orangutans from babyhood begin to see serious difficulties when their babies became teenagers. By their teens orangutans can be 200 pounds, and like human teenagers, they become very cranky and hard to handle. This is the age when orangutans are often donated to local zoos by their frightened or injured owners. It is unlikely that many orangutans lived out their lives in the homes where they were sold as babies.
Ideally it is best if rescued baby orangutans are returned to the wild. Their dwindling numbers make reintroduction seem an obvious goal. The problem is that, like human children, orangutans need twelve to thirteen years of parental care before they can survive on their own. While they are being raised, they have to be taught to forage for food in the wild and to socialize with other orangutans. At the same time their human caretakers have to be careful not to handle the orangutans too much to avoid human-orangutan bonding which would certainly be a disadvantage when it was time to release them. Rehabilitation centers in Borneo and Sumatra have been set up to house and re-assimilate the rescued apes until they are old enough to be released. Only time will tell if these human-raised orangutans can make a smooth transition back to the jungle when their time comes.