Chapter 1: Life’s a Zoo

Early one morning, my brother Scott and I trudged up the side of Hurricane Mountain in the pouring rain, a daily ritual we had begun years before whenever he came to visit from his home in LA. We talked as we walked (when it wasn’t too steep to breathe) and exchanged stories about weird things that had happened with wildlife (and people) at the zoo, in the jungles of Borneo, in the Canadian wilderness or on a Hollywood movie set. Some were stories about Scott’s adventures as an exotic veterinarian or mine as a naturalist. All were a little quirky.
On our last visit, I began to realize that these experiences were not isolated incidents, but stories that wove the fabric of our lives together. From a childhood steeped in strange outdoor adventures to careers that brought our interests in animals, conservation and the outdoors into focus, our stories told a tale of discovery, wonder and tragedy.
Now that we are older and wiser (don’t smirk), I thought, it might be time to tell our tale. So over the next few months, if you are interested, I will be telling our story. I will start here…

A Temporary Situation
In 1992, I visited Scott when he was working as a veterinarian at the Los Angeles Zoo. It was hot and muggy as we walked across the compound toward the animal hospital.

“I was just supposed to be a temp at this zoo,” he said.

We strolled past the tamarin cages and the tiny mustached monkeys, strongly resembling little, old men, eyed us. They looked like they had something to say. I stared back, just in case.

“The vet was just taking some time off,” he said, pulling my attention from the many sets of beady eyes following us.

“He was burned out from stress and just needed a couple of weeks off. I had not worked with that many species of exotic animals back then and was just praying that none of them decided to get sick or have a crisis while he was gone…”

It was early morning and the deep green foliage on the pathways was dripping with dew and smelled of peat and that intense sweet, musk of wild plants. I knew by his tone that things had not gone to plan while the permanent vet was away, but things like that happened to Scott. It is what made him so good at what he did.

“So, the first week this very sweet Sumatrin rhino, named Emmy, stopped eating,” he said. He talked quietly, like this half-ton pachyderm was the neighbor’s poodle.

“You know, this particular species of rhino is terribly endangered. Maybe only a couple of hundred of them are left in the whole world, so she’s very precious, to say nothing of priceless…” He tugged on his mustache, a sure sign that what he just said was significant, even though his tone was calm and level. Veterinarians know that animals pick up agitated speech. Scott could tell you a pack of mad wildebeests were about to trample you to death and make it sound reasonable. I could only imagine the stress of dealing with animals that valuable.

“Rhinos have an image of being very dangerous and they have hurt keepers, but it’s mostly accidental. We had a rhino who had panic attacks and once and when she was in a state she inadvertently crushed her keeper.”

“Crushed her?”

“Well, the keeper got hip-checked between the rhino and the cement wall. She crushed her pelvis. It was serious. But the rhino didn’t mean to do it. She didn’t even know she had done it. They are that strong,” he said. “It was her keeper’s fault, really. You should never get in the way of a panicked rhino.”

“Good advice,” I said.

“Emmy’s keeper is scared of her too, but she is not a worry. Such a sweetie pie.”
Now, I like rhinos as much as the next girl, but I had never thought of them as sweet. My earliest memories of rhinos was on Wild Kingdom where Jim, the brave assistant, was tossed in the air like a rag doll by a black rhino, while Marlin Perkins watched from a safe distance.

“So the keeper took me into her pen,” Scott continued. “And he was so nervous that he brought an arm load of carrots to distract her while I examined her. He told me anxiously to hurry because as soon as the carrots were gone we had to get out of the pen.”

“She didn’t seem the least bit agitated or dangerous to me, but he was feeding her carrots as fast as she could take them into her mouth. Rhinos love carrots, so she must have thought she had gone to heaven.

“I examined her, but I was distracted by how nervous the keeper was. I kept expecting her to suddenly bolt or rear. But she just placidly stood there and chewed like crazy. He was stuffing carrots into her mouth at a furious rate and she was chewing as fast as she could, but still more carrots came. He was feeding her so fast they were falling out of her mouth onto the ground. Her eyes were wide with either ecstasy or panic as carrot after carrot was stuffed into her mouth.

“I continued looking her over, as the carrots dropped everywhere around our feet and she chewed furiously. Suddenly the keeper yelled to me, ‘I’m almost out of carrots!’ Then he bolted for the door of the enclosure.”

“I was still doing her vitals. She seems okay though and I was beginning to wonder what on Earth would make her stop eating?”

“Maybe it was the carrot bingeing,” I suggested.

“Then I looked in her water trough,” he went, on ignoring me. “It was full of manure balls. You know rhinos, they are always going in their water troughs.”

I nodded, like I knew all about that nasty rhino habit?

“I asked the keeper to collect a manure ball, so I could check it out. It turned out it was full of worms and parasites…” he said smiling triumphantly.

I tried not to make a disgusted face, thinking of squirming parasites in a manure in her drinking water.

“That was an easy one,” he said. “I treated her for worms and parasites and she was fine. It was such a relief. It could have been a lot worse.”

I let my breath out too. His relief was contagious and I brightened as we made our way past the lemur cage, the ring-tailed lemur peering over to check us out.

I actually didn’t get to see a rhino close up until a few years later, when Scott was working at Animal Kingdom in Orlando. He took us on a special family back-of-the-enclosure-tour and we met a “little” female. I use this term loosely as she weighed about half a ton. We weren’t allowed to take pictures, as Disney has a strict policy about that (and just about everything else), but we could touch her. She lumbered over like a rather large dog and let us scratch her behind her ears. She had wrinkled knees, like her pantyhose were too loose, and her skin was smooth and rather pleasurable to stroke. As we scratched her, her ears twitched with pleasure. She had a huge, rubber ball in her pen which we were told she pushed around for fun. She was getting alarmingly close to cute. I began to wonder how the vets got anything done with all these adorable creatures on their rounds.

“Every day there are things that come up to stump us,” Scott said gravely, as we walked on through the zoo grounds.

“We’re dealing with literally hundreds of different anatomies. I’ve got a stack of veterinary  journals on my desk as tall as Everest.”

“So when the other vet came back he taught you everything you needed to know?” I asked, watching a peafowl with its tail spread in our path – the peacocks roam free at the zoo and perform like mimes for anyone who will watch.

Scott laughed, startling the peafowl, who belted out its eerie call and scrambling for cover.

“He never came back,” Scott said, adjusting his radio on his belt and shaking his head. “And I’ve been here ever since. ”

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About Sheri Amsel

Sheri Amsel has degrees in Botany and Zoology from the University of Montana 1980, a Master's Degree in Anatomy, Physiology and Biomedical Illustration from Colorado State University 1987. Ms. Amsel interned at the Smithsonian Institute in 1983 in Scientific Illustration, taught anatomy and biology at three colleges from 1990 - 1997. In addition, Ms. Amsel has published more than 15 nonfiction children's books, two field guides for adults, and illustrated a myriad of books and interpretive displays on nature and science topics. Ms. Amsel has done science programming at more than 300 schools nationally, developed more than 20 educational nature trails in New York State, and coordinates school visits to local nature trails for environmental education programs for the Eddy Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to conservation and habitat preservation. Ms. Amsel created the Exploring Nature Educational Resource website with the hopes of sharing her science and environmental education knowledge and experience with science educators and students worldwide.