Amy Sutherland, journalist and author of Kicked, Bitten, and Scratched: Life and Lessons at the World’s Premier School for Exotic Animal Trainers
Linda Castaneda, animal keeper at the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago
Excerpt: ‘Kicked, Bitten, and Scratched’
by Amy Sutherland
On an August day, under a sharp blue California sky with a view of the umber Santa Susana Mountains behind him so beautiful it can make you forget the pounding 100° heat, Dr. Jim Peddie stands in the shade and speaks of death. As a veterinarian who has euthanized hundreds of people’s beloved pets during his long career, he knows death too well but he has never grown comfortable with that moment when life slips away at his say. " Everyone thinks death should be peaceful, but it seldom is," he says, his hands in his jeans pockets, his face pinched, and his voice raw.
Before him are fifty-one faces scattered over metal risers in a small outdoor theater. The smooth, tan faces belong to the incoming class of students or — as they will be referred to for the next twelve months — the first years in the Exotic Animal Training and Management Program at Moorpark College (EATM). This new crop of aspiring exotic animal trainers are nearly all women, forty-seven out of fifty-one. Most are in their early to mid-twenties, many of them tall. They are dressed for the heat in shorts, visors, and tank tops. Tattoos scroll across their shoulders or lower backs. They look eager, optimistic. This is their first step toward a bright, sunny future. Death — that dark, distant star — is the last thing on their minds.
Still, Dr. Peddie’s gravity is not lost on them. Nobody smiles. Their sunglassed eyes all rest quietly and attentively on the broad-shouldered, fatherly vet. The change in tone is oddly striking in what has been up to now an overwhelming, yet giddy, few days of meet and greets. On their orientation week schedules, this one-hour slot is listed blandly as Processing Food Animals. Most of the new first years know what is coming and have steeled themselves, though there’s a rumor they may be spared this gruesome initiation rite that requires animal lovers to prove their love by killing a bird with their bare hands. It’s an early litmus test of whether the first years are tough enough for the program, because the school is not, as Dr. Peddie says, for people who think animals are cute.
Birds of prey and reptiles require fresh prey, Dr. Peddie explains. In captivity they can’t hunt, so their caretakers must do the job for them. Consequently, the school teaches students how to humanely kill pigeons and rats. Every student must break a pigeon’s neck with her hands, what they call pulling a pigeon, or gas a rat before she can graduate. There is no way around it, the vet explains. Crying vegetarian won’t get you out of it, nor will your religious beliefs. " I feel it is important you do it so you know you can do it," he says. " We’ve had [graduates] lose jobs because of this. You people are animal people, and this is part of animal care. We do this right up front and early."
He describes how the birds’ wings flutter, the small black eyes blink, and the head pops off in your palm. As you pull, you may feel the spinal column stretch like a piece of elastic. Despite the medieval style of execution, this is the quickest way to render the birds unconscious, he says, and is thus the most humane. " People deal with this differently," he explains. " Some people will break down crying, some will burst out laughing like they are giddy. Either one is the same thing, a release, so don’t be critical of how someone reacts. They’re not laughing because they are ecstatic. They are ecstatically uncomfortable."
Usually at this point, a current student gently takes a bird, wings flapping, with one hand and leans over a trash can. With her other hand, she quickly jerks its nut-shaped head, cracking its small vertebrae and tearing the neck; she drops the head, which lands with a small thump on the bottom of the can. Then Dr. Peddie asks for a half dozen volunteers to step forward for this odd baptism. Today, this is not to be. After all this buildup, it turns out the rumor is true. Fortunately or unfortunately (depending on whether you’d just as soon get it over with or prefer to procrastinate pulling a pigeon until the very last day of school), there are no birds to kill. To head off the spread of Newcastle disease, a contagious and deadly virus, a statewide quarantine has stopped all sales of birds, Dr. Peddie explains. He hopes to have some pigeons soon, he says. He apologizes.
Death, however, will not be denied on this sunny day. Instead, a half dozen unlucky rats will be smothered with CO2. Before a collective sigh of relief can be exhaled, a trio of women in their twenties wheels in a shoulder-high metal tank of the explosive gas, precariously strapped to a handcart by a bungee cord, and totes in a plastic bin of rats. These women are second years, meaning they are in the second year of the program. Moreover, they are the Rat Room managers. They oversee a small colony of rats in a room the size of a large walk-in closet. The rats are raised to feed the zoo’s reptiles and birds of prey. A Rat Room manager with schoolmarm glasses and visor pulled low cinches a spotted rodent around the shoulders with her thumb and index finger and hoists it up for all to see. Except for its busy nose, the bright-eyed rat goes slack, its pink tail hanging straight. " Be careful, because they will, I repeat will, bite you," she says.
Everything is ready to go. All that is needed is a plastic bin, a small plastic garbage bag, the CO2, and, of course, the rats. The managers are at pains to explain themselves and keep repeating that they do not relish their task. " Then we feed the golden eagle and see the enjoyment he gets out of the food. It’s the circle of life," one manager, unsmiling and squinting in the sun, explains. " If you are upset by it, if you want to cry, go for it," she says. " If it’s upsetting to you, let your emotions out."
A Rat Room manager quickly, unceremoniously loads six rats, noses twitching, little ears upright, into a plastic bin covered by a small green garbage bag. There’s hardly enough time to spit out a good-bye. Another manager closes the bag around the carbon dioxide tube. The other holds her hands down on the rats, because they sometimes push their way out. The third manager opens the gas valve. In the bleachers, no one says a word. The two minutes tick away slowly as everyone stares at the plastic bag. There are no noticeable rustlings in the bin. No squeaks for help. The gas is turned off. The now limp rats are removed one by one. The managers lightly tap the eyes with their index finger to make sure the rats are stone dead. There is no blood, no smell.
While men are embarrassed to cry, women can be embarrassed not to, but there is nary a sniffle. Instead of a wet-hanky fest, there is a solemn hush. This is broken as the new first years raise their hands and ask practical questions like how often do they gas rats and for how long exactly. The bin of gassed rats is whisked away to a freezer. The canister of CO2 is wheeled offstage. That’s enough of death for one day.
A sheep zips across the back of the outdoor stage. A pig, his hide a sooty black, ambles out and pokes at a ratty red carpet with his nose until the length of it unfurls and two chunks of apple pop out. Having devoured them, he lazily saunters offstage, his scrawny tail giving a little twitch as he exits. " We’re going to need to cut his tusks again," Dr. Peddie sighs, sitting in the bleachers next to me. The first years will find that the sudden shift in mood is emblematic of life at EATM, where emotions run high and the unexpected is around every corner.
Orientation is packed with traditions, one of which is the off-color show the second years present. It’s a chance for them to strut their training stuff and cut loose after a long, grinding summer of running the teaching zoo by themselves. What follows is a ribald beauty pageant of beasts that breaks all the rules of a proper animal education presentation. They even have the animals do tricks, a forbidden word among enlightened trainers, who prefer behaviors instead. In one hand, the MC carries two dead squirrels frozen in an amorous embrace. He occasionally holds them to his sweaty brow. When a student rides Kaleb, the caramel-colored camel, onstage, the MC says, " Here’s a big hairy beast onstage with a camel underneath." He warns that Kaleb could " freak out at any minute" and notes that a camel has thick knee pads and prehensile lips. " When would that come in handy?"
Another student totes Happy, the American alligator, onstage like a big log. The MC rattles off some alligator stats — they are exothermic, only grow as big as their enclosure, and have extra eyelids — then encourages his audience to take the Velcro strap off his snout. " Really, it’s like opening a present." He adds, " Their skin makes excellent shoes and purses." He pauses. " Would you ever say that in a regular show?" None of the first years answers. Just laughter. " First years, what have you learned in your first three days? Wake up!" he taunts.
Half the show’s humor comes at the student handlers’ expense. A good number of the animals don’t do as told. A little big-eared fox suddenly bounds off a student’s shoulder as she exits the stage; despite her trainer’s protests, C.J., the coyote, takes a long drink of water from a shallow moat that rings the stage; Julietta, the emu, won’t take her exit; Banjo, the macaw, won’t get on his roller skates.
Finally, the stage is hosed down, techno music is cranked up, and the star arrives. Schmoo, the twenty-four-year-old sea lion, head up and barking joyfully, bounds onstage like a rock star with her band — in this case, her four student trainers. Schmoo isn’t just the star of the show but of the whole program, with her 170-plus commands and her long list of movie and commercial credits.
Schmoo zips back and forth between the student trainers as they put her through her paces, tossing her chunks of slippery squid. She quickly rolls over and coats herself with specks of dirt, barks jubilantly, raises a flipper to her brow in a quick salute, and sticks her tongue out like a third grader. When a trainer points her finger and says, " Bang!" Schmoo collapses in an overly dramatic heap worthy of a silent screen diva. When a trainer says, " Shark!" she tosses a flipper up to imitate the killer. She tips far forward on her breast and pitches her tail happily into the air. Then Schmoo does the reverse, rising up on her tail, throwing her flippers out, and pointing her nose heavenward like an angel.
The first-year students are rapt. They lean forward and smile broadly. This is why they are here, why they’ll endure a brutal schedule, give up their social life, and take on huge student loans. A year from now it could be they who are having a high time tossing squid to this incredible creature and singing out " Shark!" This is proof, however fleeting, that their farfetched dreams of working with animals can come true. What they don’t know is that, backstage, Gabby, the Catalina macaw, has bitten one of the second years badly enough that she has been rushed to the campus Health Center. Dreams always come with a price, whether it’s money, time, or blood.
It is now the third day of what is likely to be the hardest twenty-one months of any first year’s life. This orientation week — a busy string of potlucks, ice breakers, and gag gifts — is a deceptive introduction to life at the school. However, the week is peppered with advice and announcements that foreshadow what’s ahead. Starting next week, the first years won’t have an official vacation until next summer. They will work most, if not all, holidays and most weekends. Four days a week they are due here by 6:30 a.m. and won’t leave until 5 p.m. During these long days, they will care for the teaching zoo of some 150 to 200 animals, doing everything from hosing out the cages to answering the phones. When not cleaning, feeding, or even weeding, they will attend classes — one of the few times they get to sit down during the day, which often induces deep naps complete with drooling and snoring. In the evening, drowsy from the day, they will study animal anatomy tomes and memorize agonizingly long lists of Latin species names. As an alum puts it, the school " pretty much owns you."
Students will follow a list of rules worthy of the Marines. Their uniforms must be kept clean; shorts cannot be too short; earrings cannot be too long; bra straps cannot show; sleeves must not be rolled. They cannot use their cell phones at the zoo. They cannot smoke. They cannot run or laugh near the primates’ cages. Most important, they cannot be late for the morning cleaning. If these rules are repeatedly broached or if a grade slips below a C in any class, they will be kicked out. Four students among the class of 2004 got the boot last year.
They could be chomped, mauled, or even killed by an animal. Even the smallest nick could produce a surly infection. They might catch a zoonotic disease — anything from parrot fever to bubonic plague. " Wash your hands," a staffer reminds them. " The last thing we want is any of our students coming down with worms." Dr. Peddie warns that their romances, especially new ones, may not survive. They will not have a social life beyond the zoo. Tell your family you’ll hardly see them, Dr. Peddie instructs. Working part-time is strongly discouraged. Money will be tight. As the letter to prospective students ominously warns, " You will not have much time for yourself, so make sure areas of your life are in order."
They will live and die by their planners, in which they will chart out their days in fifteen-minute increments and write endless to-do lists. They will get what they call EATM hands: hands that are cracked, cracks that are filled with dirt, dirt that can’t be washed out, no matter how hard they scrub. They will keep an extra set of clothes or two in the car because, as a staffer tells them, " If the tiger sprays you, you don’t want to go around smelling like urine all day."
The students will suck it up and count their blessings because they have gotten into the premier program in the country, if not the world. This is the Harvard for exotic animal trainers. It’s also the only academic program for trainers. Santa Fe Community College in Gainesville, Florida, has a zoo as well, but its program is primarily for zookeepers. If you want to be a trainer, Moorpark is the school for you. The general public may never have heard of it, but anyone in the animal industry has. Graduates work in zoos across the country, in Hollywood, the U.S. Navy, Ringling Bros., Guide Dogs for the Blind, and SeaWorld. They work in sanctuaries, aquariums, animal parks, and research facilities. Most of the trainers at Universal Studios’ animal show are Moorparkers, as they are known. A few years back, the San Diego Zoo and Wild Animal Park, one of the country’s top zoos, filled seven openings with recent grads of the program. Julie Scardina, the animal ambassador for SeaWorld and one of the country’s most visible trainers with regular stints on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, is a Moorparker.
EATM perches on a ridge overlooking the college’s ultra-green football field and driving range on one side, the orderly houses of the commuter burg on the other side. To the east is a range of arid, muscle-bound mountains. To the west, the six lanes of Highway 23 bend through a treeless landscape the color of old, washed-out khakis. The highway occasionally backs up, reminding you that Los Angeles is only fifty miles to the southwest.
EATM’s entrance is tucked into an out-of-the-way corner of the community college, at the far end of its moatlike parking lot. The sign out front reads America’s Teaching Zoo, but no one calls it that except when they answer the telephone. Students and staff refer to the program as EATM (pronounced " EE-tem" ) or just Moorpark. Looking through the high chain-link front gate, all you can see is a small outdoor theater, an unassuming huddle of buildings, some olive trees, and a single-lane blacktop road running away from you. There is not an animal in sight, though you might hear a doleful wolf howl or a cranky cockatoo shriek. Those are the only clues to the reason why this gate must always be kept closed.
Just inside the gate down a grassy slope on the left is a small aviary. Nearby, Clarence, the septuagenarian Galapagos turtle, with his impossibly long neck stretched full-out, is likely to slowly turn his rocklike head, as if it moved on hydraulics, to look at you. On the right is an outdoor theater with a bare earth stage and metal bleachers. A short walk farther, there are a few low, unassuming buildings. This is the hub of the zoo, where the front office and the two classrooms, Zoo 1 and Zoo 2, are located. The zoo stretches the length of the ridge, which makes for stunning views of the surrounding mountains and foothills and near constant, welcome breezes. An oblong-shaped road circles the teaching zoo’s animals. Down the western side, the road is made of blacktop, lined with benches, and shaded by willowy pepper trees. This is the front road, where the public is allowed to wander on Saturdays and Sundays. The road turns to gravel along the zoo’s eastern flank. This is the back road. The entrances to the animal cages can be found here. Consequently, this is the road favored by students, and you hear them crunching down it all day long.
Although EATM opens the gate to the public on the weekends and for field trip after field trip of kids lugging backpacks, it is first and foremost a school, which means it looks different from most zoos. In an age of lush zoos with enclosures that resemble African grasslands or polar ice floes, EATM has a bare-bones, old-fashioned look. Though the grounds are well landscaped with bird-of-paradise, cactus, roses, trumpet vines, mulberry trees, and oleander bushes, the animals are in cages, and there are no efforts to conceal that. The Bengal tiger, Taj, glares at you from behind bars. There are no chapter-long labels explaining mating and eating habits or lecturing the public on endangered species or rain forest decimation. At most, there’s the species name, and often not even that. The cages may look as if someone just emptied their office trash can in them. Student keepers are forever stocking the enclosures with all sorts of things to keep the animals busy and stimulated.
This is called behavioral enrichment or B.E. In the parrot cages, there are hefty Los Angeles Yellow Pages with sunflower seeds tucked inside and rolls of unraveled toilet paper. Leafy browse is stuck through the primate cages for the animals to pluck, and big blocks of frozen Tang are left on the floor for them to lick. There are bowling balls for the cougars. Goblin, a baboon, cuddles a menagerie of stuffed animals.
You’ll see other things you’d never see in a regular zoo. You might spot a student with a French manicure reaching her fingers through the bars and digging her shiny nails into the head of a hyena that’s gone limp from the joy of a good scratch. You might see a gibbon, its long slender arms stretched through the cage, meticulously picking bits of dried skin off a student’s arms. You might see Legend, the wolf, out for a stroll on her leash or Harrison, the Harris hawk, winging back and forth between two trainers. The teaching zoo is a lab where students can lay their hands on many different types of feathers, scales, and fur, and that is what makes the program so unusual.
So far during orientation week, the students have gotten
to touch only two animals: the easygoing Chilean rose-haired tarantula, Rochelle, or any of the three-inch-long Madagascar hissing cockroaches. More people want to hold the tarantula that bites than the cockroaches that don’t. These are two of the very few animals the first years will be able to touch until well into next semester. In fact, they are not even allowed to speak to most of the zoo’s residents. If Taj chuffs at them, they may chuff back, but only one breathy greeting. They can talk to and handle the rats, the bunnies, the sugar gliders, the chinchillas, the opossums, all the reptiles, and Nova, the great horned owl. That’s it for now. Sometime next winter they can say hello to Zulu, the mandrill, and Benny, the ancient capuchin. Until then lips must remain zipped. Students may not even linger in front of a cage long enough for an animal to notice them or, in some cases, make eye contact. The first years are like the cleaning staff of a high-end hotel, busy but invisible, and any interaction with the well-turned-out guests is absolutely forbidden. They clean the animals’ poop out of their cages, but they mustn’t utter a word. If a parrot says " Hi," the first years must turn a deaf ear, no matter how rude they feel.
There are a number of practical reasons for this legendary rule. The animals are generally unnerved by the arrival of new students each August. For example, Rosie, a baboon, is likely to scream and shake her cage like a berserk mental patient, the first years are told, until she gets used to them. Too much attention from these new faces may not only upset the animals but also distract them from their training regimen and cause them to lose their learned commands. They may confuse " Circle!" with " Speak!" or start waving when they should sit. The rule is especially important for the primates, who, as social creatures go, can be mighty prickly. For them, eye contact can translate as aggression. Look at a primate too long and he’ll think you want a piece of him. The pissed-off monkey may then vent his rage on his unwitting trainer. Moreover, the rule is a test that the first years will do as they are told and that they will exercise great discipline in the face of great temptation. Everyone is rightly anxious about this rule. For these students, talking to an animal is a reflex as natural as breathing. The first years worry that without thinking they’ll utter a " Hi, cutie!" or a " Hi, sweetie!" and the next thing they know, they’ll have their walking papers.
" Don’t talk to anything," Chris Jenkins, a second year, tells two first years, while they are standing in front of George, the fennec fox. George looks like a fairy-tale character curled in an afghan, softly whimpering for attention. George not only provokes an overwhelming urge to say hello but also to cradle him in your arms like a baby and sing a lullaby. " It’s very unnatural to not say ‘Hi’ to animals, but everyone is listening. There are severe consequences. It affects your grades, your animal assignments, it could even get you kicked out. Every year there’s a couple who do it."
It is now Thursday, the fourth day of orientation week, and Jenkins, one of the best liked and most respected students in his class, is giving two first years another tour of the teaching zoo. This one is a behind-the-scenes look. The two first years, Susan Patch and Linda Castaneda, have had their pens and notebooks out all along the way. Jenkins starts at the aviary at the front of the zoo, where he tells them the turacos " like to buzz heads." The noisy guy is the plover, and the pheasant doesn’t have a name — " just pheasant." Jenkins points out that Clarence, next door, is the only animal first years are allowed to hose off.
Jenkins leads them across the front road and behind the outdoor theater, where Happy, the alligator submerged out of sight in his pool, and two tortoises live. Here, Little Joe, much the smaller of the two, mounts Tremor and thrusts away, his hooked mouth opening and closing. Both Castaneda and Patch briefly quit taking notes. " It’s like turtle porn," Jenkins says before turning to go backstage, where he slides open the lid to a box, and several sets of eyes blink in the light. He’s awakened the sugar gliders. Jenkins points out the rabbits in their cages along the way. If it’s over 100°, put a water bottle in with them, he says. They stroll past the front office and through the squawky ruckus of Parrot Garden, where, Jenkins warns, you can accidentally get locked in the cages. As the threesome pauses by the emu’s enclosure, Jenkins explains that when they clean her cage one student goes in and holds the emu down. Both Castaneda and Patch quietly contemplate this, while looking at the towering bird with her monster-sized feet. " It sounds worse than it is," Jenkins says.
Now they are in what’s called the Show area near George. It’s so hot that nearby Buttercup, the only trained badger in the country, Jenkins tells them, lies flat on her back, paws in the air. " She looks like roadkill right now," he says. " She’s dug a hole nine feet deep." A trainer in the cage with Hudson keeps chanting, " Good beaver." They step up to the pen where Hamilton, the Yucatan mini-pig, lives and look down on his tattered black ears. He’s not so mini, weighing in at 180 pounds. There’s a rock in his pool, Jenkins says, because he likes to push it over. Castaneda and Patch scribble down the detail.
Next door, they duck into Carnivores, the area that everyone calls Big Carns, where three cougars, a Bengal tiger, an African lioness, a coyote, a wolf, a hyena, and two servals sleep most of the day away. The servals both bare their fangs and hiss. " Watch your fingers with them. They’ll get you," Jenkins says. " The locks with red paint mean only staff can open those cages." They continue down the back road, and then through another gate, where the smell of a farm, that earthy mix of poop and hay, and sea lion barks fill the air. This area is called Hoofstock, which the sheep, deer, a miniature horse, the pigs, camels, and Schmoo call home. Jenkins demonstrates how the two camels can lean way out of their enclosures and trap you in the far end of Hoofstock. " These guys you need to watch out for."
Jenkins looks at his watch. He is due to walk Olive, the baboon, so he rushes through the rest, quickly ducking into the Reptile Room, a converted railroad car that smells like overripe fruit. He tells them to make sure the tarantula has water in her bowl, that none of the reptiles are venomous, and don’t let Morty, the Burmese python, get too hungry. If so, he’ll think his student handlers are dinner and squeeze them too hard. They sprint through Nutrition, a building devoted to making the animals’ meals. He shows them the terrarium, where the mealworms are grown for the reptiles’ dinners. They speed walk around Primate Gardens while the capuchins squabble and chatter. " These guys are hair grabbers and pullers," Jenkins says. He stops at the back of Primate Gardens and points to one last gate, this one between the lemurs’ and the binturongs’ cages. That gate leads to Quarantine, where a mishmash of animals — a raven, a snapping turtle, an arctic fox, a dog, among others — live. Then Jenkins is off, as Castaneda and Patch still write, hoping against hope to commit at least a small chunk of this avalanche of information to memory.
Patch is a lean, poker-faced beauty. She has a matter-of-fact manner and an athlete’s grace. Blue rhinestone studs run up both her earlobes. Castaneda is nearly six feet tall and striking. Like many tall women, she slouches slightly. She has very pale, lightly freckled skin, black hair, and cultivates a kind of hip, bookish look. She wears a CamelbaK, the mouthpiece of which is draped over her shoulder and leaking water down her T-shirt. Both women are fairly typical of EATM students these days. They are in their twenties, they already have bachelor’s degrees, and they are using this two-year associate’s program as a kind of graduate program.
Patch, twenty-two, grew up in San Diego, where she regularly visited the city’s world-class zoo and early on set her sights on working there. Her young life has been one calculated move after another to that end. Despite low pay, zookeepers’ jobs are highly competitive, especially at a zoo with the reputation of San Diego’s. Patch began building her resume at the University of California, Davis, where she studied animal science, cared for the school’s barnyard of animals, and trained a cow to be led on a halter. To beef up her animal experience, Patch volunteered at the San Diego Zoo, giving health exams to boas and iguanas at the reptile center. She worked part-time for her mother, a research scientist, plucking ovaries out of mice lying prone under a microscope.
By comparison, Castaneda, twenty-seven, discovered her affinity for animals relatively late. She grew up in Lynwood, where the wildlife was limited to rats and pigeons. She didn’t see a squirrel or a woodpecker, she says, until she went to Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon, on a scholarship. She started out premed, " so my parents could say they have a doctor in the family," but decided that animals needed more help.
After college, Castaneda moved back to Los Angeles with a degree in biology and taught science to grade schoolers and high school freshmen on her home turf, the inner city. She signed on for a summer gig as a research assistant helping a professor in Cameroon study the habits of hornbills and primates in the rain forest. She had to walk the eighteen miles into the jungle camp and ran out of water with four miles to go. The days in the rain forest were long, the nights uncomfortable and buggy, but the trip convinced Castaneda that her future truly belonged with animals. When she got home she applied to EATM.
Castaneda essentially moves through the world incognito. She’s a Mexican American who grew up in the inner city, but people assume she’s middle class and white. This leads to some awkward situations. People make racist remarks to her — outright ones or backhanded ones like " You could totally pass for being white." Even other Hispanics think she’s white and doesn’t speak Spanish. Her father is a retired machine operator who never really learned to speak English. Her mother, on the other hand, not only learned to speak English, but earned a high school degree, then a bachelor’s, and finally a master’s in linguistics. Nearly all the girls Castaneda went to school with, she says, got pregnant. Castaneda’s family and work ethic made her different. " When my mother was my age she had three children and didn’t speak English," she says. " I have no children, no house payment. I have no excuse for failure." So, like many second generation immigrants, Castaneda is under some pressure to succeed, even if it’s self-imposed.
Both Patch and Castaneda are smart, confident young women. Neither worries that she will wash out of EATM. Both are aiming for straight A’s. Patch thinks her UC Davis degree will stand her in good stead at EATM. Castaneda knows she can work harder than most anyone. Besides, after her trip to Cameroon and teaching, Castaneda feels especially unflappable. " What can EATM do to me that a fifth grade punk already hasn’t done?"
Tonight yet another social function is on the schedule, the last one of the busy week — a bonfire. As tradition has it, the second years are the hosts, so they pack up a load of firewood, boxes of graham crackers, cans of chocolate icing, and marshmallows and head west to the broad beaches of Oxnard, where the temperature is a good thirty degrees cooler — a welcome change from the day’s heat. After a good-sized fire is stoked, the students settle down in a kind of circle, second years on one side, first years on the other. I settle on a neutral spot in the circle where I have first years to one side, second years to the other. The conversation is, naturally, about animals. A second year tells me that she dreamed of being a dolphin trainer when she grew up in landlocked Wyoming. Another says that when her parents offered her the choice between the traditional Mexican coming out party or a horse for her fifteenth birthday, she chose a horse. A first year from Georgia tells me about volunteering at a shelter for fawns. A woman had cleared all the furniture out of her house and filled it with cribs for orphaned fawns. When they jumped out, the first year would put them back in their cribs. " I totally love deer," she gushes.
If the first years feel a little as if they have intruded on someone else’s party, they are not to blame. Many of the second years talk among themselves and ignore the first years. They crack inside jokes and sit close to each other. By comparison, the first years sit stiff and quiet. They don’t know the second years or each other. They look over the flames at their very confident, very comfortable upperclassmen. As they’ve already been told on several occasions by staffers, this class of second years is exceptional and may be the best class ever.
It could be the second years are feeling too giddy just now to be good hosts. For them, the worst of the program is nearly behind them and they are about to come into the full wealth of being second years: field trips, later mornings, much more time with their animals. Essentially, they will be promoted to middle management. They will oversee all the scrubbing and make sure the first years follow the rules. This is why many of the EATM grads do not have fond memories of their second years. They are their bosses. This class of second years has sworn among themselves that they will be nice to their first years, mentors rather than shrews. But I’ve been told every class of second years makes this solemn pledge to themselves. All these students are here to learn animal behavior, but it’s human behavior, often their own, that is most likely to trip them up.
As the evening deepens and the surf grows louder, the students go around the circle giving their names and ages. Then a game of telephone is begun, quickly becomes off-color, and then peters out. Marshmallows are spiked on foraged sticks and dunked into the fire, where they flame like mini-meteors, shooting sparks of burnt sugar into the black night. The flames reflect in young eyes that are eagerly, nervously turned toward the future. As the fire’s crackling punctuates the lulling song of the surf, some of the first years wonder if they will shine; others, if they will make it. All of them consider the possibility that in the next year, month, or even week, they may be kicked, bitten, or scratched.
By Friday morning, the first years have dropped several hundred dollars at the bookstore on weighty textbooks on animal anatomy and an array of sweatshirts, tank tops, and polo shirts with the EATM logo. Now it’s work day, the last day of orientation week and the traditional scrubbing of the teaching zoo from one end to the other. Both classes of students, numbering ninety-seven strong, will march through the compound with mops and buckets in hand. As the thermometer again hovers around 100°, students take brooms and knock cobwebs off evergreen bushes. They sponge the black mildew off the walls in the Reptile Room and pull a small tree out of Happy’s sun-baked enclosure. All twenty-six bins of rodents are placed on desks in Zoo 1 so the Rat Room can be hosed. Legend, the wolf, stands and watches as three blonde students wrestle a huge stainless steel sink down the front road.
I find Terri Fidone, a first year with dark eyes and a long black ponytail, at the back of the zoo, shovel in hand, contemplating an unenviable task. She has been assigned to scrub out the Dumpsters. The problem is they are full, and the truck that could empty them is off on an errand. If the truck doesn’t show up soon, Fidone will have to climb into the Dumpster and shovel out the trash. " If I have to, I will, but I will be really bummed out," she says in her low voice. Until recently, Fidone was working on her bachelor’s in biology while serving cocktails at the world’s biggest casino, the mammoth MGM Mirage in Vegas. She started waiting tables when she was seventeen, then graduated to cocktail waitress. The tips were on average $100 to $200 a night — more if she worked the baccarat room, less if she worked the nickel slots. Once, a high roller at the roulette table threw her a $1,000 chip. When she dropped an organic chemistry class at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas because she was failing, she made a pact with herself to use the time she would have been in that class productively. She noticed a billboard for Keepers of the Wild, a sanctuary for exotic animals about an hour’s drive southwest from Vegas across the Arizona state line, and signed up to volunteer there. While cleaning out the big cats’ cages, she discovered that she " could shovel crap for eight hours and I’d rather be there than go to work and earn money."
After nearly ten years, she quit her job at the MGM in July to attend EATM. Now she’s contemplating life as an EATM student, which means no more $100 sushi splurges or buying brand-name groceries. It will be generics for the next two years. " I have to get used to going to the bank to get money," she says. " Before, I always had cash on hand." A voice on the intercom asks if anyone knows where a pickax is. The truck arrives and Fidone is spared. She goes looking for sponges and a bucket.
The cleaning frenzy continues around me. Oddly enough, there’s a lot of fussing over insects. The Reptile Room managers call out, " Ooh, spiders!" as they wipe down the walls. A threesome in the iguana enclosure hops and chants, " Yuck! Yuck!" as an ant colony they’ve disrupted streams up their bare legs. By the front office, Castaneda, still wearing her CamelbaK, points out a tarantula wasp to me, the big furry spider’s only predator. It’s about as big as a praying mantis and has a shiny black body and alarmingly orange wings. As Castaneda calmly explains to me how the wasp can paralyze a tarantula, the thing flaps its menacing wings, lifts off from the lawn like a helicopter, turns in our direction, and buzzes past us. Castaneda holds her ground and says calmly, " There it goes." Other students nearby — women who aspire to pet tigers and handle boas — shriek, duck, and run for it. Someone yells, " What the hell is that?" Turns out animal people are not necessarily bug people.
As the sun grows stronger, people zigzag like drunks as they walk from patch of shade to patch of shade, toting buckets and mops. They stand in the parrot misters. They squirt each other with hoses. Anita Wischhusen has sweated through her baggy tank top, a large wet stain spreading across her back, another pooling between her breasts. Despite the heat and hard work, she wisecracks loudly and cackles huskily at her own jokes. At forty-five, she is the second oldest student in the class of 2005.
Wischhusen is naturally loud but thoughtful. She has a gray, fuzzy mullet haircut and a dirty-brown tan. Her car is covered with pro-animal bumper stickers, even one that proclaims her membership in People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), which is a kind of dirty word around EATM, but Wischhusen is not one to fit in. She grew up wanting to be a vet but didn’t have the heart to euthanize animals. Her parents pushed her toward a secure career, so she went into computers. Her career may have been secure, but her lifestyle was not. When she wasn’t at the keyboard, she was partying as hard as a Hell’s Angel. At forty, after another night of drugging and drinking, she nodded off at the wheel, plowed into a highway median, broke her jaw, and landed in a court-ordered thirty-day rehab program. " The program told me to stop drinking, but did not tell me why I drank," she says.
When her brother came out, it occurred to Wischhusen for the first time that perhaps she was gay too. She’d always dated men and had sex " and all that, but it didn’t do much for me." Maybe, she wondered, that was why she drained whole bottles of amber tequila at a sitting. In short order, she was not only sober but also had a serious girlfriend, a traffic cop with a daughter. At last, her personal life was in order. Then California’s robust tech economy wilted, and Wischhusen was laid off from three jobs in a row. After the final pink slip, Wischhusen thought back to her younger self, the one who dreamed of working with animals. She decided to go to EATM. That she is here is a small miracle. It took a couple of applications to get in. In the meantime, her father died of melanoma, the treatment for which used up the money her parents said she could have for EATM. Her girlfriend’s daughter suffered a brain aneurysm. Wischhusen, who was teaching the girl to speak again, worried that she now had neither the money nor the time for EATM. Her girlfriend pushed her to go. Wischhusen sits for a moment in the shade, dabs at her wet shirt with a towel, and says happily, " I have no life now."
The first year students aren’t the only new faces at the zoo this week. Amber Cavett, an outgoing, athletic-looking second year, leads me to the far end of the zoo through the gate at the back of Primate Gardens and into Quarantine. Here, we find Samburu. Samburu is a caracal, a small, fawn-colored African cat with tassels of black fur that droop decoratively from the tip of each ear. An EATM faculty member drove him from Northern California through the cool night and deposited him here this morning. The eleven-year-old cat is in the cage next to Tango, an arctic fox. While Tango pants loudly, the caracal lounges on a bed of hay in a box mounted about five feet up one wall of his cage. Word is that he’s ornery, even nasty, but he seems quite demure just now. This is Cavett’s first look at her new charge. She will train him for a grade this semester. She’s fascinated but apprehensive because of his bad reputation. She’s hoping to teach him to go into a crate on command — nothing too fancy. " They have round eyes rather than slitted like other cats because they hunt birds," Cavett says, looking at him. " They aren’t nocturnal. They are crepuscular." You wouldn’t know it by her upbeat nature, but Cavett has had one tough summer. Chance, the huge binturong (a native of Southeast Asia that resembles a kind of raccoon on steroids with a huge prehensile tail to boot), bit her finger while she was showing off some training for her mother. He sunk his teeth into her middle finger down to the bone. She couldn’t bend it for two weeks. In June, she became the emu’s lead keeper. Every day since, Julietta has tried to attack Cavett. When the 200-pound bird feels peevish, which is all summer, she rises up, stretches out her strange, turquoise neck, and then whacks at the nearest human with her beak. As if that wasn’t bad enough, Julietta will kick with her three-toed feet. Whenever Julietta came after Cavett, she jumped back, even yelped. Cavett was told she had to get over her fears or she couldn’t be Julietta’s lead keeper. So Cavett drew on her experience as a scholarship runner at a community college in Oregon, where she put on a brave face for races even when she was terrified of losing. Cavett suppressed the urge to run for her life when Julietta attacked, stepped near the emu, and grabbed her blue, hairy neck. " If you stand really close to her, she can’t kick you," she says.
We head to Nutrition to fetch Samburu his first meal at EATM. There we find various second years busily making dinner for their charges. They pluck whole rabbits from the walk-in freezer. They scoop crickets out of a terrarium. They unscrew jars of bright orange and green baby food. Cavett takes a cleaver and whacks off the head and feet of a frozen yellow chick. She pulls the stringy fat from three chicken necks, then chops them into bite-size chunks. She measures out 40 grams of canned horsemeat. Back in Quarantine, Cavett steps between Tango’s and Samburu’s cages. She will feed him by hand to develop a bond with him. She squats and tentatively holds out a piece of chicken neck in her fingertips, reaching through the bars at shoulder height. With a loud hiss, Samburu explodes out of his raised box, bounds to the bars, bares his teeth, and snatches the chicken neck from Cavett. " Okay, I’m a little scared," she says, holding her ground but turning her face away from him.
Samburu zips back into his box, jumps the five feet down to the floor of his cage, and bounces back up, hissing and growling loudly. Cavett holds another piece of meat through the bars. The cat bounds back down, grabs the meat with his teeth, inhales it, runs in a quick circle, and then suddenly, surprisingly, lies down on his stomach. He places his front paws neatly under him and gobbles up everything Cavett holds out to him. He gets up every once in a while and runs around the cage, only to settle right back down for more chow. " See that circle behavior?" Cavett asks. " I could put that on cue." Behind Cavett, Tango, perhaps inspired by Samburu’s ruckus, gives himself a nice scratch. He runs back and forth along a series of wooden scrub brushes wired to his cage. The yellow bristles pull loose strands of his plush white fur. Tango pants happily. Samburu keeps hissing, but now it’s a light, steady, contented-sounding drone. Cavett smiles. The summer is nearly over. The first feeding couldn’t be going any better. This cranky, crepuscular cat with the fancy ears might just change her luck.
For the cats,
Carole Baskin, CEO of Big Cat Rescue
an Educational Sanctuary home
to more than 100 big cats
12802 Easy Street Tampa, FL 33625
813.493.4564 fax 885.4457
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