Chapter 11: Bearly Controlled Enthusiasm

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.

Chapter 10: The Little Lizard Eats BIG

One day over lunch, I asked Scott what the biggest challenge was for him in zoo medicine.

“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.”

I grimaced.

“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.”

“Why remarkably?”

“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.

He nodded.

“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.

Chapter 9 – Let Sleeping Tigers Lay

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.

Chapter 8 – Going Ape

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.

Chapter 7 – For the Love of Dolphins

My brother, Scott, was greatly influenced by James Herriot’s stories about his life as a veterinarian in the bucolic English countryside. Scott saw in Herriott the empathy he felt toward animals and appreciated his self-deprecating humor – which was not unlike Scott’s own. Yet, what really started Scott on his path to vet school was a job at the Miami Seaquarium.

He had spent his childhood, as we all had, in love with Flipper. Everyone wanted a dolphin friend who would lead us on exciting adventures solving puzzling mysteries and helping the police capture bad pirates or mean boaters who dropped empty beer cans into the ocean and didn’t even wear their life preservers.

Scott, more motivated than most (I just drew dolphins in crayon on my bedroom wall), took up scuba diving as soon as he was old enough to become certified. Then he left New York and moved to Florida to start college at the University of Miami. In 1976, Scott saw a job announcement at the Miami Seaquarium. It was a pivotal moment that changed the direction of his life.

Scott applied to be a tank diver – the guy who cleans the huge aquarium tanks while peering nervously over his shoulder at the circling nurse sharks. He also had to feed the tank creatures and many close encounters with manatees, sea turtles and barracudas followed. It was fun, but the best part was that he was finally working in a place where he could be closer to dolphins. An added bonus was that the actual set where Sandy and Bud played with Flipper on the television series was located right on Seaquarium grounds. It was where the Seaquarium trainers worked with the dolphins.

 Scott often went over to the training area and watched the trainers work with the dolphins, seals and killer whales. It was a humbling experience to see these obviously very intelligent animals work with their trainers to create a performance that people from all over the world would come to see.

After a while, he began watching one trainer in particular (almost as much as he watched the dolphins). It wasn’t just that she was a pretty brunette who had an amazing rapport with the dolphins. He’d also heard that she’d trained a blind dolphin. He’s heard that everyone had given up on this dolphin because he couldn’t see the hand signals that the trainers used. Kathy (the pretty trainer) had used a whistle and gentle touches on his body to train him anyway. And despite his blindness, he could soon do almost anything the sighted dolphins could do, including jumps and twirls. Everyone was impressed with her and no wonder – she was smart, pretty and had a way with dolphins.

Scott started to think that he needed to get out of the fish tanks and closer to the dolphins. After several months of tank-diving, a job opened up for a show announcer in the marine mammal arena. With his experience as a disc jockey at the campus radio station in college, Scott enthusiastically applied for the job. He had to do a “test show” before he could get the job. He was nervous and made up some silly things to help himself relax that weren’t in the script. The Seaquarium staff laughed at his antics. He got the job on the spot.

For the next year, Scott wore goofy Hawaiian shirts and narrated the antics of the dolphins, sea lions and killer whales as well as occasionally performing with them as part of some of the shows. It wasn’t quite what he’d pictured when he’d thought about befriending dolphins, but he was still learning about them and the humans who worked with them. It was an exciting and entertaining time.

Then, one day, something bizarre happened. Scott was announcing a show involving a male killer whale named Hugo. In the middle of the show, Hugo knocked the trainer into the water and grabbed him in his giant mouth. Then as everyone watched, he pulled the trainer under water.

The audience thought it was part of the show and applauded wildly. Scott knew something was very wrong. He ran out of the sound booth and down to the edge of the water. The other trainer was standing at the edge of the tank in shock. They watched Hugo surface with the trainer in his mouth. He looked terrified and in pain. Scott and the other trainer grabbed him and tried to keep Hugo from pulling him under again.

The truth was if Hugo wanted to hold onto the trainer, they could not have stopped him, but the whale allowed them to pull him out of his mouth. The trainer escaped with only a few bruises and scrapes, but everyone was deeply shaken – especially Scott and the others who had witnessed the event.

Scott had always thought of the marine mammals as benevolent and friendly. They seemed happy to play and do tricks. The dolphins and seals were rarely purposely aggressive, but this was a killer whale and he had just done something that was more like a predator playing with prey than a trained animal working with a trainer to perform a live show.

The experience gave Scott a new outlook on wild animals and their relationship to humans. His sense about the happy partnership of humans and marine mammals would never be the same. He knew his role had to change. He wanted to be more of an advocate than he could be at the Seaquarium. He decided to leave the Seaquarium and go to vet school.

Scott (and his new wife Kathy) left the Seaquarium together and moved to California. Scott applied to and was accepted into Davis Veterinary School. A new chapter in his life had begun.

Scott had many experiences with wild animals as a veterinarian in the years to come, but he would never forget how his naive childhood love of dolphins had evolved at the Miami Seaquarium.

He didn’t stop loving dolphins, but from that time on his daily life was shared with a pack of large dogs instead of dolphins and that seemed just right to everyone.

Rocky the Rocketman protecting mankind (between naps).


Chapter 6: Let Sleeping Bats… Well… Hang

One bright, blue sky day in early April, I descended into an inky black hole in the Earth and didn’t know if I would make it out alive. It was an old iron mine in upstate New York and I was talked into going into it by Tim Barnett, the head of the Adirondack Nature Conservancy.

Tim had invited me to work as an illustrator on a bat education project and thought I should see some real bats. So when he and another Nature Conservancy staffer were to take a writer from Harrowsmith Magazine down to see the bats in their native habitat, he wanted me to accompany them.

I was reluctant to go, as I tend to be a bit claustrophobic, but more importantly I had always heard that it was dangerous to go into old mines. (Anyone from the Lassie generation knows this.) The danger was not just from dramatic cave-ins but also from simply getting lost. There were hundreds of tunnels which branched into an endless web of caverns and causeways with pits and underground rivers. If you get turned around down there, you may never find your way out. In addition, the darkness is complete. You cannot see your hand in front of your face. So you only have as long as your batteries last to get out. When entering a cave, you always bring extra batteries and an additional light source. Always. (And never go into a cave without an experienced guide, period!)

I thought of all this when Tim asked me to come along. I made up what I thought were some very plausible excuses. Yet, Tim Barnett was not someone who took no for an answer, so despite my efforts I found myself on snowshoes hiking through a forest covered in spring snow. I was looking for a big mine opening in the side of a hill, so when Tim stopped and motioned for us to come forward, I was confused. There, down in the snow, was a dark, gaping hole in the ground only six feet wide. A cascade of water poured down across the hole into darkness. I stared at it in fascinated horror (and wondered how fast I could run away in snowshoes).

In the end, I reluctantly removed my snowshoes and donned a headlamp. One by one, we pushed under the waterfall into the mine and stumbled down a steep, rocky slope. At the bottom, we adjusted our packs and turned on our lights. Then we started walking down further into the mine. I was third in line behind the journalist but ahead of Melissa, the conservancy staffer. When we rounded the first corner and the light from the mine opening disappeared, I got a sudden rush of suffocating fear. In the pitch darkness, I felt sure there was no air down there. I started to panic. Melissa, whom I had just met that day, spoke reassuringly from behind me.

“Everyone gets a little panicked at first,” she said. “Just breathe and watch the back of the person in front of you”.

I did what she told me to do, mostly because I was too embarrassed to run shrieking back towards the cave opening. So we made our way down and down and down into the murky blackness. I noted every stitch in the back of the journalist’s jacket until my breathing settled into a rhythmic pattern.

Tim kept up a steady stream of conversation as the journalist asked questions. It was cool in the cave, but not cold, about 55°. In some places the ceiling was very low. I shined my flashlight up so I wouldn’t hit my head and noticed the small dark lumps clinging to the ceiling of the cave just over our heads.

“Bats!” I said, in a little voice.

“Oh yes,” Tim said cheerfully.

He stopped and shined his flashlight above him too. A group of a dozen small bats were huddled together there sleeping.

“Those are Myotis lucifugus, little brown bats,” he said, in his singsong voice. “There are seven species of bats in the Adirondacks. There are actually more bats here now than there were 200 years ago.”

Then he turned and walked on and his voice filtered back to us as we followed.

“There are few natural caves here in the Adirondacks. It was the mines that provided a place for the bats to hibernate all winter. Thanks why there are more bats here now than there were before there was mining.”

As we walked deeper, more and more bats appeared on the roof of the cave. We turned right down a narrow passageway and crossed a small river flowing through the darkness. It was odd to think of rivers flowing underground, but of course that is what you tap into when you dig a well. I suddenly realized that I was seeing something few people had ever seen. Then something brushed across my cheek and I screamed.

“Got a few wakers,” Tim said, his huge smile visible in the dim light.

Wakers smakers, I mumbled, the reverations of my scream still echoing in the depths of the mine.

We stopped at the junction of two tunnels and sat to rest. We drank water and Tim talked about how all species of bats in the Adirondacks are insectivorous. They start to wake about the time the first hatch of moths and mosquitoes occur in spring. They are nocturnal and use echolocation to locate prey in total darkness, so life in the mine came naturally to them. The cool temperatures allowed them to hibernate without using up their meager winter weight stores. The ground was covered with a fine dust of dried bat guano. They would be waking soon and ready to eat. The females who had borne young over the winter would be nursing and especially vulnerable to starvation. Like all mammals they take care of their young until they are independent, but unlike all other species of mammal on earth – they fly.

I took pictures of them clinging to the rock ceiling. Some were sleeping alone and while others were grouped in large huddles like a furry slumber party. Some bobbed and squirmed as they huddled together. It was getting close to waking time and they were restless.

Carefully Tim pulled a bat down and held it in his hand. I was surprised at how small and delicate it was. Its dark, furry body was only two inches long and it had tiny clawed hands and feet that were made for grasping rock. 

It was hard to believe that this was a creature that evoked terror in humans and inspired a whole genre of horror movies. Then the tiny bat bared its razor sharp teeth and hissed at us. That was impressive. Tim set the bat on a rock and it took off and flew into the darkness.

We made our way further down the narrow passage until it opened up into a huge cavern. Our voices echoed off of a domed ceiling that was so high it was above the range of our lights. Bats flew about in the dark. We could hear the whistle of their wings as they passed near.

The journalist set up his tripod and some lights. We looked around and were awed by the sheer vastness of the cavern. We could now see the bats lining the vaulted ceiling in brown fuzzy masses. The journalist took some time-delayed photos to capture the scope of the cavern in the dim light.

Melissa and I were told to stand perfectly still as perspective. We chatted quietly in the blackness while he timed the photos. It was damp and the air was musty. Tim disappeared beyond the lights and was lost in the shadows. I realized that if anything happened to him we would never find our way out of there. Time seemed to creep by while bats wheeled and the camera ticked off enough exposure to make the scene visible for the cover of the magazine.

Then something happened in the hollow darkness that to this day I cannot explain. Melissa, who I knew hardly at all, began to tell me mournfully about how she was worried because she was almost 40 and might never get to have kids in time. I suddenly felt deep regret for having left my kids all day at the sitter so I could hike into an old, abandoned mine. I thought of how devastated they would be if I was lost forever down here. Loneliness and regret seemed to echo around us in the cavern in an almost palpable way.

Then Tim came bounding out of the darkness near us and I jumped.

“All done!” he announced loudly.

As quickly as the gloomy mood came on it seemed to dissipate. I gave myself a mental shake. Then I followed them back, crossing rivers and making turns that I hadn’t remembered making on the way in. I wondered if the sheer volume of bats flying around us in the cavern, all sending out their radar-like echolocation, might have addled our minds a bit.

When we emerged from the mine, the afternoon light on the snow was blinding. Squinting, we strapped on snowshoes and stowed headlamps. I felt elated – buoyed up by fresh air and sunshine and the fact that I had actually survived. Snowshoeing back to the car I had a bounce in my step and had to stop myself from bursting into song.

I drove back to my studio and started illustrating bats flying, hanging upside down, sleeping and stretching their membranous wings. Eventually they would go on posters, flyers and buttons. People would build bat boxes and hang them on their garages to help keep the night insects down. School children would write poems and illustrate posters about bats.

I was so euphoric that I called my brother, Scott, in California and told him about the day. I was so excited that I probably sounded a little nutty.

“Wow,” he said, sounding surprised.

We were not a family of spelunkers, unless you counted some minor chandelier hanging. I felt so brave as I told him about the darkness and the panic and the bats.

“You wore rubber gloves and face masks, of course,” he said.

“What? No. Why would we?” I said, confused. “We were in a bat cave!”

“Exactly,” he said. “And many bats carry rabies.”

“Oh, no, don’t worry,” I said, shaking my head. “No one got bitten or anything.”

“You don’t have to get bitten to get rabies,” he said, in his matter of fact style of giving bad news. “Rabies spores can live in the dried bat guano on the cave floor. You stir them up when you walk around and breathe them in and sometimes you get rabies.”

I stopped breathing for a minute while I took this in, my euphoria turning to dread in an instant.

“Oh don’t worry,” he said laughing. “You probably didn’t get it.”

I started breathing again. It must be a common phenomenon how much younger sisters want to punch older brothers.

“So, just to be clear, you don’t think I’ll die in my sleep tonight then?” I said, a little cranky now.

“Oh noooooo,” he said.

“Okay then,” I said sighing.

“You’ll have at least 40 days before your brain swells up and you die a horrible death.”

Good to know, I said.

Chapter 5: Why You Should Never Flirt with Gorillas

After learning about the gorilla escape, I was kind of jazzed about gorillas. So the next day at the zoo, Scott asked Jennifer, the gorilla keeper, if I could help her feed while he was busy on his veterinary rounds.

We entered the gorilla enclosure through the back door, a heavy metal number that weighed a ton. If a gorilla somehow got out of his “room” he would not get past this door. We walked down a long hall, through another big metal door that ended in a long hallway lined with gorilla bedrooms.

Every night, at the same time, Jennifer opened the bedroom doors and all the gorillas came inside from the outdoor enclosure into their own rooms. Then she locked them in and fed them. In the morning, the pattern was reversed with Jennifer locking them out so she could clean their rooms.

“It’s a bit like room service,” I commented.

“You have no idea,” she said. “And I’m the bellboy, maid and dishwasher.”

“But you love it, right?” I asked.

She laughed, and rolled her eyes a little.

“Now this guy in here trashes his room every night. I have to do a total cleaning in here. Just like my ex-husband.” She laughed again.

Hmmm….I said.

“Let’s get the food,” she said and motioned for me to follow her out to the truck, closing each heavy door behind her.

I don’t know what I thought gorillas ate out of – maybe an over-sized salad bowl? So I was a little startled when she pulled a giant, powder blue laundry basket out of the back of the truck. It was full to the brim with lettuce, cabbage and other vegetables. Gorillas are vegetarians and need to eat a lot to maintain their body weight, but that was more veggies than I bought in a month.

“So between the six of them, they’ll eat all that?” I asked.

Jennifer laughed again.

“This is just for one gorilla,” she said, lugging the basket down to the first bedroom.

“Woah.” I grabbed the next basket in the truck and followed her in.

Once the food was in the bedrooms, Jennifer pulled the latch to open the outside doors. The gorillas came in quickly as if they’d been outside waiting for their tables to be ready.

I stood in the long hallway and could smell them in their bedrooms. Their scent was strong but not at all unpleasant. It was a musky, animal smell, but comforting, like the smell of horses.

I was standing there thinking about this when an ear-splitting, metallic boom shook the enclosure. I screamed and jumped. Had I just experienced my first earthquake?

Jennifer sighed and shook her head like an indulgent mother.

“He’s flirting with you,” she said.

“Wait, that was a gorilla?” It sounded like a sonic boom.

I peered into the bedroom where the sound had come from. A large male silver-back stared back at me. He was about 300 lbs. of bulging primate muscle. He looked at me with the most intense dark eyes.

“He’s staring at me. Is it rude for me to stare back?” I asked.

Jennifer laughed. This was clearly entertaining for her.

Suddenly he leaped away, ran around his room in a frenzy and then landed a crushing blow to the metal wall with his fist. My ears rang.

“Doesn’t that hurt him?” I asked, my hands pressed over my ears.

Jennifer shrugged. “You would think so, but apparently not.”

He did it again and I shrieked with surprise again. There was no getting used to that.

“Oh, he’s got it bad for you,” she said, chuckling.

“Great,” I said feeling my face get hot.

Another crash. I was starting to feel downright embarrassed. I moved away down the hall and helped Jennifer finish her chores.

“Just think of it as the gorilla equivalent of a guy winking at you,” she said.

“Hmmm,” I said, not at all sure that made it any better.

As we were packing up to go, the flirty gorilla started vocalizing. It had a keening quality that reminded me uncomfortably of pleading.

“Wow,” Jennifer said, grinning. “He rarely goes that far.”

I was mortified.

When we left the enclosure, we ran into, Scott, who had finished his rounds and was looking for me.

“So did you learn anything today?” he asked as we walked through the jungle-lined pathway across the zoo. The pea fowl were calling loudly from somewhere on the zoo grounds.

“Yes,” I said. “I am stunningly attractive…”

He looked at me quizzically.

“…to apes.”

 

Chapter 4: Why You Should Never Pick Up a Baby Bird

One morning, after a violent windstorm, we found a robin’s nest on the ground under the apple tree. There were two dead baby birds still in it and one survivor hopping around, squawking pathetically.

I had always heard that you should never touch a baby bird, even if it’s fallen from the nest, because your scent would discourage the parents from taking it back. But how would the flightless baby get back into the nest without help? The baby bird’s parents flew around in a panic, but they would never be able to rescue this baby or put the demolished nest back together.

So I picked up the bird, who seemed almost full grown, but lacked its full compliment of feathers. I brought him into the house. I set him in a cardboard box and we all proceeded to stare at him.

The family dog, a big black lab, stuck his nose in the box and huffed. The bird, beak up, ready to be fed, showed no fear of the 80-pound canine. I put my own face into the box and talked soothingly to it. It opened its beak and pumped its legs like it was doing deep knee bends. It “cheeped” loudly – the universal language for, “Feed me.”

I drove to the local convenience store and bought a small tub of night crawlers. It said on the side of the tub that they were size “large” for catching big fish. Back in the kitchen I fished a worm out of the brown peat. It wasn’t large – it was huge, fat and eight inches long. I rinsed it under the tap. I looked at the bird, who was only about as long as the worm from beak to tail.
In the mean time, bird was bobbing up and down, mouth open, cheeping like a brass band. So I lifted the worm by one end and dropped it into bird’s mouth. It swallowed vigorously, but could only get about a third of the worm down its throat, the rest dangled pathetically out of its mouth. I swallowed hard.

I pulled the worm out of bird’s mouth and laid it on my cutting board. Quickly before I could think about it, I cut off a one-inch section. The worm writhed and I felt a bit queasy, but I picked up the worm section and dropped it into bird’s mouth. He stopped cheeping and bobbing for an instant, closed his black beady eyes and swallowed. Then the mouth popped opened again and the dance started all over. I cut off another worm section. It still felt odd, but I was on a roll. Bird ate all ten sections I got from that first worm and another eight from the next worm before it stopped the commotion. Then it settled down on the bed of paper towels, fluffed out its feathers and seemed to zone out. I exhaled loudly. The dog, who had been watching the whole process as if expecting to get a worm too, sat down and huffed. I cleaned up the whole mess, put the worms in the fridge and went to get some work done in the next room.

About an hour later the cheeping started again. The dog came in and stood next to me whining. I wasn’t sure if he was trying to make sure I knew bird was hungry again or if he was complaining about the racket.

I sighed, went into the kitchen and looked in the box. Sure enough bird was bobbing with its mouth open and cheeping with gusto. Plus there were now bird droppings all over the paper towels. I put in new clean paper towels, took out the worms and started chopping and feeding. It’s amazing how you lose your squeamish sense so quickly. I realized I could probably do open heart surgery after all.

I fed bird every hour for the entire day until I ran out of worms. Then I went back into town and every last tub of worms they had. When the kids got home from school, I showed them the process and made chopping look really fun in case they wanted to take over. They were happy to hand the worm sections into bird’s mouth, but they refused to do the chopping. Couldn’t blame them there.

They were fascinated by bird’s antics and giggled hysterically when he would stop all action for an instant while savoring the worm, just to start up again like a manic wind up toy. It continued on that way all afternoon and into the evening. At bedtime I closed bird in his box and he seemed to settle down, mostly.

For the next few days we fed bird all day, tried to ignore his peeping at night, and waited for a sign that he was old enough to fly away.

The kids carried him around and gently set him on a wooden bear sculpture we had in the yard when they went off to play. Bird sat contentedly, feathers fluffed until it got hungry at which time the cheeping started.

After a week, I called my brother, Scott.

“How long will this go on?” I asked.

“Until his primary feathers grow in and he can fly away,” he assured me.

Two days and many chopped worms later, bird started flying. It flew all around the yard. It came back and landed on the wooden bear. Then without looking back, it joined a flock of robins on the lawn. We could not tell it apart from the others. We stood in the yard and watched them all hunting worms. I was relieved that our part was over.

A few minutes later, one of the robins flew right at us and landed on my son’s head. It started cheeping. We all looked at each other.

“We have to feed it,” my son begged.

So I cut up more worms and fed bird again. It flew off. Then two hours later it came back for more worms. Then again at sunset. Then again in the morning after it had slept all night out on the front porch perched on the bear’s head.

I called Scott back.

“Stop feeding it,” he said.

We threw away the worm tubs and crossed our arms in determination. Every time we left the house bird flew right at us begging to be fed. My chest hurt, like I was a bad mother.
When we pulled into the driveway after a trip to town, bird flew right over and greeted us with loud hungry cheeps. The boys couldn’t play in the yard without bird landing on their heads and begging them for food. We hid in the house. It was beginning to feel uncomfortably like an Alfred Hitchcock movie at our house.

I called the Scott again.

“Go away for the weekend,” he suggested.

“You know how ridiculous it is that we have to leave town because a robin is stalking us?” my husband pointed out.

We packed our bags and went away to the lake for the weekend. We worried about bird while we were away.

“Will bird think we had abandoned him?” one of my sons asked.

“Will the other birds let him join them?” the other asked.

“Will he forget us?” They wanted to know.

I certainly hoped so.

We came home Sunday night with trepidation. We got out of the car. No flapping wings assaulted us. There were robins out on the lawn quieting hopping around. None of them turned to look at us. There was a definite mix of relief and regret hanging on the air.

That night, after I tucked my two crestfallen boys into bed, I realized why you should never touch a baby bird. It wasn’t to protect the birds from being rejected by their parents. It was to protect the humans from getting emotionally attached.

I called Scott again.

“ I am not cut out for rescuing wildlife,” I said, dejected.

“No? Why?”

“They never call,” I complained.

“Well, there’s one big advantage to raising wildlife, as opposed to children,” he said.

“What?” I asked, hopefully.

“They never write home for money either.”

Chapter 3: The Trouble with Teenagers… Even When They’re Gorillas

Scott and I walked up to the zoo nursery so I could take pictures for my own work. I was right in the middle of illustrating my first children’s book series called, Habitats of the World that was being published by Raintree-Heinemann Press and I needed lots of pictures of animals.

“We’re having trouble with some of the hooved stock,” Scott complained, his brow wrinkled, as I snapped a picture of a two-day old pronghorn antelope, its long legs wrapped around itself awkwardly.

“They keep going into labor prematurely and the young inevitably develop respiratory problems.”

“Is it a lack of surfactant?” I mused.

“Right, exactly,” he said.

We were playing the “practicing medicine without a license” game. It was a game we’d played our whole lives. Being raised in a medical family we had grown up with regular dinner table discussion of medical prognosis. So it often amused us now to discuss someone’s medical problems and come up with our own diagnosis. It wasn’t as farfetched now that Scott was a veterinarian and I had my master’s in anatomy and physiology, but it was still just for our own amusement.

I looked into another stall and peered into the dark eyes of the tiniest deer I’d ever seen. It was about the size of my cat. I stopped short and stared.

“It’s a mouse deer,” Scott said. “Cute, huh?”

It was beyond cute. Long chocolate brown fur, large dark eyes, delicate tiny, tongue. This was the picture in the dictionary, next to adorable.

“Go in with her, we’ll get your picture,” he said.

“Really?” I said, probably squealing like a six year old.

Okay I may have been jumping up and down too. I sat down gently next to this tiny creature in the straw. She sniffed my hand,. Her muzzle was as soft as velvet. The keeper snapped a picture.

“You wanna move in?” Scott asked.

“Yes, please,” I said, with as much dignity as I could muster lying in the straw. “Tell my kids I’ll see them again someday.”

“Okay,” he said, smiling broadly. “I’ll go get your ration of pellets.”

Then his radio crackled. He stopped and pulled it from his belt, his smile fading. A riot of voices poured out.

“Wait,” he yelled into the radio. “I don’t read you.”

He was striding quickly to the door. He stepped out into the open trying for better reception. I could hear someone’s voice raised to a panicked pitch repeating something to him. I left the stall reluctantly and followed him outside.

“What is it?” I asked, following him to the jeep.

“Gorilla’s out,” he said grimly.

The hairs on the back of my neck rose.

“Lemme get my camera!” I said, scrambling back to the door.

“No way,” he was shaking his head. “You stay here.”
“What? No! Please, Scott,” I pleaded, suppressing the urge to do more jumping up and down. I was definitely regressing.

“Sorry,” he said, pulling the tranquilizer gun out of the back of the jeep.
I suddenly could see how worried he was, so I squelched another whining plea. This was stressful for him. Not only was the gorilla at risk but if a zoo patron was injured it would be a disaster. He had to act quickly and decisively.

He looked at me for a brief moment and I nodded. Then he jumped into the jeep and drove off. I sat down on the planter, a cactus sticking me in the back and moped. As Scott might have noted, had he had time to comment, my lower lip stuck out enough for a small plane to land on.

Scott had once told me that if a chimpanzee gets out at the zoo, they immediately close the place down and usher people out. Chimps are the most aggressive of all the great apes. They are the only meat eaters of the group and as Jane Goodall taught us, have their own form of war-like aggression. Were gorillas that dangerous? I had no idea. But this clearly worried Scott.

Later, over dinner, I pressed him for every detail.
There had been a crowd. He had to abandon the zoo jeep and run to the gorilla enclosure.

“It was the enclosure with several sub-adult males in it,” he said.

I gave him a blank look.

“Teenagers,” he sighed.

“Gorilla’s have teenagers?”

“All primates do,” he said. “And they are just as cranky and obnoxious as human teenagers are, except they are unbelievably strong and can pitch you like a football if they feel like it.”

“They climbed up on each other’s shoulders in front of the viewing window and pushed one guy right out. He was sitting up on top of the enclosure, his legs dangling down, looking at all the patrons who were looking up at him. The people were watching him like it was a circus act,” he said, shaking his head. “I’m not even sure that they realized he was out.”

“What did he do? Would he hurt people?”

“It’s unlikely,” Scott said, but I could see he wasn’t positive. There had been that gorilla at the D.C. zoo who got out of his enclosure and was startled by some patrons walking by and bit a toddler in a stroller.

“Gorillas aren’t usually aggressive unless they’re frightened.”
He smoothed his mustache down, something he did during contemplation.

“So, how on earth did you get him back in?” I was picturing nets and loud speakers and the little planes circling.

“Ahhh,” Scott sighed and leaned back in his chair. “He saw me running toward him with the tranquilizer gun….” He said slowly.

“Yes, and then?” I said, getting ready to poke him with my straw.

“Well, he saw me. He knows who I am. I’m the mean one who occasionally gives shots and of course he’s experienced the tranquilizer gun before. It’s not like we can get them to roll up their sleeves when they need vaccines.” He sighed. Any dreams he’s had of all the animals at the zoo loving him had vanished the first time he’d had to restrain one for a treatment. “Well… he took one look at the gun and he turned around and jumped back into the enclosure.”

My mouth opened but nothing came out. Then I laughed.

“Just too wild out here for him, I guess,” he said.

Chapter 2: A Life Altering Experience Involving Cows

One might wonder what childhood experiences led to our livelong love of wild places and wild animals. After all, we grew up in suburbia outside of New York City, attended public school and never once went on a family vacation to Yellowstone. The answer is complicated, but it is mostly because of strange experiences like the one that follows.

In the middle of the night something woke me up.

“It’s happening!” my mother’s voice penetrated my groggy brain. “Wake up.”

I got out of bed and pulled on a pair of pants and a sweatshirt over my pajamas. I lumbered downstairs and out the front door into a cool June midnight. My brother Scott was already in the car, which was idling in the driveway. He looked just as bleary-eyed as I was and so I didn’t say anything to him. As groggy and confused as we both were, he probably would have just elbowed me for penetrating his stupor. Part of any loving sibling relationship is random battering.

We dozed off as mom drove through the night. The car jolted to a stop.

“Come on!” she said, getting out.

Scott and I ambled out into the lights of a cow barn. This was Farmingdale Agricultural College, where our mother was going to nursing school. We entered the huge barn and shuffled past cows in their stanchions. Most were bedded down, but a few were standing and turned to stare at us dolefully. The smell of the barn was familiar, as she had taken us here many times. That sweet mixture of cow and manure is actually comforting to me despite occasions like this.

She led us to a stall, which was empty of cows, but had a bed of sweet-smelling hay in it. We sat down on an old blanket in the hay to wait. She moved down the aisle to find the night barn supervisor and Scott and I huddled in the hay watching the cow across the aisle. Because that was why we were there. The cow across the aisle was going to deliver a calf, sometime tonight – if we were lucky.

We had made this pilgrimage many times before, trying to catch a birth. Our mother was obsessed. She wanted us to witness the amazing event ¬– the miracle of life. It would be a beautiful, breathtaking and life-altering moment. We would not rest until we witnessed this fantastic sight. We had come to the barn repeatedly over the last few months trying catch one birth, but all the births seemed to happen in the middle of the night after we had gone. I was beginning to think the cows were doing this on purpose to thwart us. I was already jaded at nine.

Finally mom decided it was time for an all night vigil. We would just stay until it happened. The barn manager agreed to keep us posted. I suspected the poor man would have done anything to get rid of us for good.

So we waited under the bright glare of a naked, fly-specked light bulb for the miraculous event to occur. At about three am things started to happen. We stood up and came to the edge of the stall and peered in expectantly. Finally we would witness the blessed event.

The cow, for her part, looked very unhappy. Her eyes were opened so wide that a rim of white showed all around the glistening brown irises. Then after moaning piteously for what seemed like hours, she pushed out a giant gush of water, followed by a blood and mucous soaked lump that plopped unceremoniously on the hay.

I was horrified beyond words. My stomach turned over and threatened to leap out of my mouth. I thrust my sweaty, little hands over my face and tried not to throw up on Scott, who was staring in wild-eyed horror at the mess.

“Isn’t it beautiful?” mom crowed.

I gaped, swallowing hard and shuddering, as the calf squirmed on the hay. Then the mother cow started to lick the bloody mess off. I ran out of the barn into to the cool morning air and pitched headlong into an adjacent cornfield. Taking big breaths I willed myself not to throw up. I am not sure what I had expected, but it certainly was not that mess.

A few minutes later, Mom came breezing out of the barn calling for me. Scott trudging behind her looking like he’d been inside the alien mother ship and there’d been torture. We both trudged to the car like little zombies.

On the way home our mother droned on about how beautiful it all was and how she wanted to be a midwife and do it every day. I squeezed my eyes shut and tried not to think about what that would mean for us. Would we have to attend births? I pictured us all suited up like miniature Dr. Kildares. I was dizzy and nauseous from lack of sleep. I just wanted to go to bed and forget the whole horrible night.

“We had a great time!” Mom announced as we entered the house. “The kids loved it,” she told our yawning father.

Dad looked at us critically. Scott and I looked at each other in confusion. Had we slept through some vital moment, like when anything good had happened? We stared at our mother in disbelief. How could she be so oblivious to our horror and embarrassment? Ah, if only we’d known then that this was what life with Mom would look like.

“They will never forget this experience,” she beamed.

Finally, reluctantly, we nodded. That much was true. We would never, ever forget what happened that night.