I had dreams of writing, even when I worked at the Zoo. Then, I used to think I’d write my memoirs. I figured by the time I’d put in 20 or 30 years I’d have enough memories cached away to make some interesting stories. I even had a title for my autobiography: Dead Mice In My Pocket. Catchy, right? I mean; if you saw that sitting on shelf at Barnes and Noble, you’d pick it up, wouldn’t you?
When you work with exotic animals, you get used to having a lot of odd things in your pockets, dead mice being only one of them.
It was a great career; I had a blast, made lasting friends and have treasured memories. Animal training is every bit as rewarding and heartwarming as it looks on TV. Exotic animals are not pets, but the emotional bonding is the same, at least on this human’s part.
I worked with sea lions, wolves, some big cats, birds of prey, many different types of reptiles, wild dogs, porcupines, and so many more. I get asked all the time, ‘which one was your favorite?’ They all were, for very different reasons.
Akela, the timber wolf, was such a funny pup. We took turns babysitting him off site for a few weeks, before the hospital had room to quarantine him. Those were some rough shifts let me tell you! Daytime TV, a wolf puppy snoozing in my lap, and I’m getting paid? Sweet!
Harpo was the first sea lion I worked with. He was already elderly and blind by the time I started, and he was the one all trainers started on. Harpo was the equivalent of the solid, reliable plug you put first-time horseback riders on; won’t startle, won’t bolt. But he was no push-over, if you weren’t consistent or clear in your training, he wouldn’t work for you. Same with Corky, the harbor seal.
Honda, the small-toothed palm civet. Get it? Honda…Civet… oh well, I didn’t name him. He really was a sweetie, but he bit so many people he intimidated most. I learned from Honda that sometimes the loneliest ones are the ones that look the scariest at first. Honda was a big love once you knew how to work with him, and not let him bite.
Jezebel, my sweet Harris hawk; she was nothing but joy to work with. She came to us a naïve, untrained bird, and became one of our most reliable free-flight birds. I’d go running up to the top of the stadium to catch her as part of the show, a glove on one hand and a dead mouse for her in my pocket. The best part was hearing the squeals as people seated close by watched her eat; she was not dainty and entrails frequently went flying. Nature in action, people, it’s what you came here for.
Every day, I was grateful. “Man, they’re paying me to cuddle a cheetah!” went through my head more times than I can count. I’m still grateful, and yeah, I do miss it. But, right now, I’m content with my dogs, cats and chickens. Oh yeah, and one fish. I tell Max (he’s a Betta. Get it? Betta Max? **sighs**) he’s lucky he’s so small, or he’d get thrown at a sea lion.
Not really, and Max knows I’m just kidding. He’s shaking his fins at me right now.
I was lucky enough to have that dream career. When I was a kid, if you asked me, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I always answered, “Animal trainer!” For eight years I lived that dream, and it was glorious. Really.
But what happens when you’ve reached a goal? Do you stop setting them? I loved my job, but I stopped growing, and I needed to get away from an environment that was entirely too comfortable for me. I didn’t think in these terms when I was going through it, but in retrospect I can see that I needed to grow in ways that my animal training career and lifestyle couldn’t provide. So I uprooted and transplanted to the Pacific Northwest, and learned about new goals, and how to grow.
What’s your dream job? Do you have it? Are you seeking it? Have you reached your goals?
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