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.
“Ohhhhhh, she’s so sweet,” I crooned. “Does it hurt them to be de-scented?”
“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.
As we were heading back to the car, one of the grizzlies came running over and Ruth greeted him.
“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.