I momentarily questioned my love for all animals—each and every species—as I peered over the opened exhibit of a hissing Chinese alligator.
Steve, the friendly and knowledgeable guide for my zoo-keeper experience at The Toledo Zoo, attempted to reassure me. He told me that Mu Shu, at just under four-feet-long, was considered a runt. Yet the gator’s size mattered little when he bared his teeth.
I leaped back. “Could he jump out of there?”
“Well, yeah, probably,” Steve said, “if he really wanted to.” I hoped Mu Shu wouldn’t be so inclined.
My job was to feed this reptile. I hoped breakfast might be Alligator Chow, so my heart sunk when I spied two dead mice on the counter. But, as Elton John sang so profoundly in The Lion King, this was the circle of life. Fortunately, I didn’t have to hold the mice by their limp, pink tails. I grabbed one, using a pair of jumbo tweezers, and dangled it into the exhibit.
It took a few minutes for Mu Shu to spy the mouse. Then, he reached his long snout up and snapped his jaws over it. I jumped. His black eyes remained trained on me. I loaded up the second mouse and as I barely lowered it, he lunged up and grabbed it, nearly taking the tweezers with it.
Steve explained that only about a hundred Chinese alligators still existed in the wild, mainly due to the pollution in the Yangtze River. These creatures could likely become extinct, and zoos were doing their best to maintain a population. I gazed down at Mu Shu, with sympathy for his family’s possible fate. Still, I was relieved to move on. Even though our next stop was in front of the snake enclosures.
I’d never had a fear of snakes. Seeing them in the wild had never frightened me, although my encounters in these parts of Ohio had generally been with the harmless garter snake variety. Holding a ball python, while it wrapped itself around my arm, proved to be a slightly different story.
Steve told me to relax and let the snake rest upon my arm, wrapping around it like a tree branch. I held the python for a few minutes, stroked his silky skin, and admired his beautiful markings. Then, he craned his head and hissed at me, his forked tongue flicking. I thrust him back at Steve.
“OK,” I said. “I think that suffices to check this experience off my list.”
“Oh, he wouldn’t hurt you,” Steve said, putting the python back in his exhibit. “He’s really a good boy.” Sure, but I didn’t wish to push my luck. I believe snakes deserve their place in our world. Even in our own back yards. In my arms, maybe not so much.
I could barely contain my excitement when two employees in the Zoo Educational Center said they were leaving “to take the dingoes for a walk.”
“Wait, you walk dingoes—on a leash?” I asked. I was told the dingoes were fairly tame and being trained for educational shows. We followed them over to the theater, for a training session.
The Zoo obtained the year-and-a-half-old animals when they were four- or five-months old. Dingoes, native to Australia, look much like small German shepherds. Their claim to fame was a controversial news story a few years back: “The Dingo ate my baby.”
Steve said the male, Indigo, was skittish but the female, Tawny, was friendlier. Sure enough, the trainer allowed Tawny to walk right up to me. She sniffed me a couple times and promptly began licking my hand. I hoped she wasn’t deciding if I might taste good.
But as she continued licking, I realized she apparently just liked me. I instinctively leaned my head down toward her, as I do when showing affection to any dog. Steve yanked me back.
“Not the face,” he warned.
Oops. Right. Tawny was well-trained and seemed awfully sweet, but I’d have hated for the headline for my story to read, “The Dingo Ate My Face.”
Baby wallabies provided my cute and cuddly fix of the day. The soft, furry creatures hopped around me, pausing to eat lettuce from my hand. The little marsupials were nearly full grown but still only a few feet tall. I was told that while many people confuse them with kangaroos, kangaroos actually reach up to eight-feet-tall. Still cute, yes, but maybe not so cuddly.
While I got to spend time with a variety of animals, I spent the bulk of my zoo-keeper stint with the rhinos. As I hesitatingly entered the rhinoceros area, I mentally cued the charging rhinoceros scene from the movie Jumanji.
Probably no such worries with laid-back Sam and Lulu, who at forty-one and forty-six, were considered geriatric. Even so, Robin, their caretaker, noted, “That doesn’t mean they couldn’t smash you.” With each of them weighing in at close to four thousand pounds, I could only assume she was right.
I helped Robin prepare their breakfast, a combination of what looked like rhino kibble, hay, fresh fruit, and various vitamins and nutrients. Because rhinos have a heightened sense of smell and enjoy a variety of scents, Robin said she also sprinkles their enclosures with an assortment of distinctive smelling items, including basil and Aqua Velva after shave.
My duties included shoveling rhino poo. It was, literally, some heavy shit. And it did not smell a bit like Aqua Velva.
I squirted, soaped up, and scrubbed the floors and walls. As we cleaned Lulu’s enclosure and she ate breakfast, Sam grew restless. He rattled the bars with his huge horn. Robin reprimanded him, and he paused for a few moments. But when she walked away to gather some equipment, he started back up.
“No, Sam,” I shouted. “Stop it! Be a good boy!” He stared at me and immediately stood still. I blinked. Why did that kind of discipline never work with my cats—or my two sons?
Next, it was bath time. l squirted down Sam, who backed his butt up against the bars, enjoying his daily wash.
We continued Rhino Spa Day with an exfoliating session. While I always thought of rhinos as scaly creatures, their skin is actually smooth with bits of protruding hair. Layers of scales are dead skin cells which need to be regularly sloughed off. As I rubbed Sam’s back with a rubber mitt brush, bits of dead, scaly skin flew off.
I moved on from his side to his lower hip. Sam collapsed against the bars, seemingly in ecstasy with his massage. Suddenly, he lifted his back leg on the side I was rubbing. I stepped back.
“Oh! I think he’s going to pee!”
“Um, no,” Robin said. “See his equipment there? This is similar to how we ejaculate him.”
Huh. I moved on to exfoliating his belly. Sam might have become my new best friend, but we wouldn’t be friends with benefits.
As we finished up Sam’s spa treatment, Robin rewarded him with a few treats, given by hand. I hesitatingly reached toward him with a handful of rhino kibble. “Don’t worry, he doesn’t have front incisors,” Robin told me. He sucked my entire fist into his mouth—a gigantic wet vacuum. “But his back molars,” she continued, “could do some damage.” I yanked my hand out.
Yet Sam was a gentle giant indeed. I pet his horn and told him he was a good boy, never minding his one minor indiscretion.
My zoo-keeper gig proved educational, amusing, and at moments, frightening. In fact, this venture, number thirty-four on my list of new experiences, could go down as my favorite so far. I left with fond memories of my new animal friends, a wealth of new knowledge, and an appreciation for all the work done behind the scenes every day at The Toledo Zoo. I felt fortunate to have one of the world’s greatest zoos in my own home town.
And, I added “I gave a rhinoceros an erection” to the list of things I never, ever thought I’d hear myself say.