So I volunteer at our local zoo every Monday and have been doing so for the past 7 months. I love it! I am in charge of Mammal Care 1 which includes the black bears, the bobcats, the deer and the Opossum. I prepare their diets which consists of chopping up lots of produce and I clean out their enclosures. I am not in charge of the Beavers (which falls under Mammal Care 2) but I wish I was. I ADORE them and I bring them treats at every shift. Anyway, this past Monday was SO COLD and miserable in Georgia. It was 15 degrees and windy! I was pushing through my morning and had just arrived at my last mammal when I noticed a beautiful owl in the exhibit across from us just going crazy squawking and desperately trying to get my attention. He has NEVER done this before. I immediately radioed our Zoo Director Clint and our conversation went like this:
Me: Annie to Clint
Clint: Go Ahead
Me: Hey..I'm up here getting ready to clean out Daisy Mae's house and that really pretty white owl across the way is going crazy--you can probably hear him on the radio right now. I don't know if he's hurt or what?
Clint: He's hungry.
Slight pause as the guilt washes over me because I know this means some hungover college student didn't show up for their shift. Dammit! I want to go home--I have finished my shift. I'm freezing. I want to climb back into bed and watch my shows for an hour before the kids get home from school. But UGH…that damn bleeding heart of mine. This owl is hungry. And just so you don't think I'm crazy for caring, you have to see how beautiful he is. I am NOT a bird person by any standards but this is truly the prettiest bird I have ever seen. See what I mean...
Anyway, I get back on the radio with Clint:
Me: Do you want me to feed him Clint?
Clint: Oh that would be SO great.
Me: Okay, I'll meet you in the kitchen in 10 minutes.
I make my way back up to the kitchen where Clint is waiting with instructions. I will not just be feeding the pretty white barn owl but I will be doing "Bird Care" in general. Fine. I've accepted it--I will be there for another hour. Now here's where this story gets funny. As usual, I find it's best communicated if I just share the exact conversation between Clint and I:
Me: Okay--so what do I need to do?
Clint: Well, here are the basic feeding instructions. Give the Bald Eagles 1/2 a pound of rat each. Give the Barn Owl 2 baby chicks. Give the Vultures 1/2 pound of Carnivore Diet each. Give the Red Tailed Hawk 3 baby chicks. Give the Screetch Owls 1 medium mouse each. Give the Great Horned Owls 3 baby chicks each and give the Barred Owl 2 baby chicks.
(Now I have broken into a complete fit of nervous laughter that I cannot stop; I literally have tears coming down my cheeks. Clint is not amused because he has a sick animal to get to the Vet and he and I are the only 2 employees at the zoo. He needs my help and I need to do this for him.)
Me: Okay--I'm sorry. It's just that I don't "DO" stuff like this..you know what I mean? But I know that I CAN do it because I'm not squeamish at all. Heck, I'm an Esthetician who pops pimples for a living and does extractions and Brazilian Waxes. I can do this.
Clint: Good. Well I truly appreciate it.
So I'm thinking about the food I have to prepare and Clint is literally walking out the door when I stop him:
Me: Hey wait. I assume these same keys I have work for the bird houses?
Me: Okay, is there anything else that I need to know about feeding them--any particulars?
Clint: Oh yes. I'm sorry--I forget that you haven't fed the birds before.
Me: Ya, so what do I need to know?
Clint: Well there are a few you'll need to watch out for.
Me: Okay then let me grab a paper and pen real quick to take notes.
Clint: Okay..when you enter the Great Horned Owls exhibit you're gonna want to maintain eye contact with them at ALL times. Walk in very slowly and keep your eyes on the both of them. Gently place their chicks on their feeding posts and then slowly, slowly back away while maintaining eye contact at ALL times.
Me: So worse case scenario, they land on my shoulder or peck me?
Clint: Laughing. Oh no! Worse case scenario you have 9 holes in your back.
Clint: Ya they just swoop in real fast and all the damage is done on your back, above the bra-line. You would have 4 talon holes on the left, 4 talon holes on the right and a hole in your head from the beak.
Me: Mouth Open just aghast. "But it's not fatal?"
Clint: Oh no--not fatal.
Me: Do you think I'm dressed appropriately? (I'm wearing a knitted winter cap, a long underwear t-shirt, a puffy zip up vest, jeans, thin knitted mittens and boots.
Clint: Oh ya--you're fine.
Me: Okay--is there anything else I need to know about any of the other birds?
Clint: Ya--you do NOT want to get underneath the Vultures.
Me: Why...9 holes in my back?
Clint: No. For some reason Vultures have a nasty habit of puking on top of humans when they walk underneath them; may be a territorial thing? But Annie--you do NOT want them to puke on you. It is the most vile, disgusting smell in the world and you can shower for a week and not quite get rid of it.
Me: OMG! So…is there anything else???
Clint: Nope. That should cover it. Thanks again for your help. And he's off…
OMG...OMG…OMG. WHAT HAVE I GOTTEN MYSELF INTO??? WHY did I commit to this? Why do I have such a damn bleeding heart that I can't ignore hungry birds? DAMMIT!
So I gather the bird diets. Let me take a quick moment to describe what the Vultures "Carnivore Diet" is. You know how you can buy those rolls of ground beef at the grocery store? Well the Carnivore Diet comes in a plastic roll like that and you have to cut it open and squeeze out the appropriate amount for each Vulture. I cannot even begin to describe the smell of this stuff which is made up of flesh, animal tissue, blood, guts and I'm sure a few vitamins & minerals too. It is SO gross!! And yes I had to pick up dead rats and mice and baby chicks but thank God they were dead. I truly don't think I could have done it if they were alive. Now it's time to head out on my first ever adventure of feeding Birds of Prey:
First stop is the Great Horned Owls. I set down my food bin and get out the copious notes I took from Clint. Great--these are the guys who will put 9 holes in my back and head. Fantastic. I unlock the cage slowly while making serious eye contact with both owls who are high up on perches but on opposite sides of the cage. I place one foot inside the cage and one of the owls swoops down and splashes into his pond scaring the living sh#! out of me. I step back out of the cage. I am scared and pissed. And I am starting to lose my mind a little bit because I am now talking/yelling at the owls. "Seriously? You had to fly down here. Look--I am scared to death and I would appreciate it if you would return to your tree up there so I can place your baby chicks on your food posts please!" He's not budging. And now I am panicking. I can't do it--I can't go in there. There's just no way. So…I slide the gate open just a tad and I throw his food at him. I think it actually hit his chest and bounced off. He looked completely appalled and downright insulted. I speak to him again, "Look--I know you're used to getting it served to you on that fancy table over there but that's not going to happen today so consider yourself fed." Then I glanced up at the other owl and threw his 3 baby chicks at him. Ofcourse he didn't catch them. They landed on the ground somewhere and he looked equally insulted. I locked there cage back up and walked away yelling over my shoulder, "Your food is in there--you'll eat it if you're hungry!"
Next stop is the Barred Owl. I look over my notes again. Doesn't say anything scary about this fellow? Good! I unlock his cage without realizing that he is hiding out in a little owl house immediately to my right--like 5 inches from my face. He peeks his head out, starts chomping his beak and scares the crap out of me. I gather myself and say, "Well hello handsome fellow" and he continues chomping his beak LOUDLY. It was a full on threatening chomp. So I shut his gate door and again read him the riot act. "Are you serious? This is my first time doing this and I'm really scared and you're going to chomp your beak at me? That's just plain rude!" Again, I slide his gate open 2 inches and toss in the 2 baby chicks. No feeding table for you either buddy.
Third stop is the Vultures and I don't even have to look at my notes to remember the vomiting threat. I am sweating profusely in the 15 degree weather and having to muster up every bit of courage I possibly have because I don't have the option of tossing dead animals in to this cage. Remember this is the disgusting "carnivore diet" that has been measured out in ziplock baggies and must be squeezed out on to their feeding posts. I enter the cage slowly; my heart is racing. I am looking above me constantly to make sure I'm not directly under anyone. Suddenly I hear a swoop swoop and big wings flopping and I hit the deck like someone caught in gunfire. I am literally in the fetal position with my hands over my head. All I can say is THANK GOD there were no park visitors that day because they would have been watching a freaking circus. When it finally got quiet, I looked up to see both Vultures calmly sitting on their branches. I decide that they were just really excited when I entered because they could smell the food. I don't know how I did it but somehow I managed to make my way over to the post and squeeze out the disgusting piles of flesh. I then booked it out of the cage.
Fourth stop is the Red Tailed Hawk. He's actually really cute and sitting way, way up high in his tree. Plus--he seems completely uninterested in me. I double check my notes and sure enough--nothing. This guy is harmless. I confidently walk towards his feeding post holding the 3 baby chicks. I can't even describe what happened next because it was all so fast. He swooped down out of that tree at lightning speed and I swear to God his wing hit my head. I hit the floor again this time doing a somersault down the hill and rolling over the dead baby chicks I had dropped. I got up so fast running out of there that I lost a mitten on the way. And I didn't go back for it. As far as I know there is still a black mitten inside the Red Tail Hawk exhibit. Sorry Clint.
Fifth stop was the Bald Eagles. I don't think one can fully appreciate the size of the bald eagle until you're right up next to it. These guys are 40 inches tall, weigh about 14 pounds with a wingspan of 7.5 feet. Oh and they can fly at speeds of 160 mph. Ya. So my job was to go in there and feet them a 1/2 pound of rat each. They stood together on their perch watching me enter. They have by far the largest exhibit at the zoo so it was a looooong walk over to their food posts. As I got closer, OFCOURSE they started acting funny. One flew down off his perch and that was it for me. Again, I threw the 2 rats from a distance and exited the cage. But then I hear them squawking like they are hungry. I start yelling at them "Your rats are on the ground--get down and look for them." At this point Clint is back on zoo property and I radio him:
Me: Annie to Clint
Clint: Go ahead.
Me: Will the bald eagles not eat their rats unless they're placed directly on the food posts?
Clint: Not necessarily; they just have to be able to see their food.
Me: So if I threw the rats in there--that's bad?
Clint: As long as they didn't end up in the weeds or somewhere they can't see them, it should be fine.
So I walk along the fence to see where the rats landed. And you know what I'm going to say don't you? In the DAMN WEEDS. This is officially becoming the hardest physical activity I've done outside of childbirth. I have to go back in. My hair is disheveled; I'm wearing one mitten; I have baby chick guts on my jacket from doing a somersault over them; I'm a mess. I re-enter the exhibit and maybe it's because they can see how broken I am, but they truly leave me alone. God Bless them! No wonder they're our national bird. They allowed me to dig through the weeds in peace and place the rats directly on their food posts with no trouble. I even walked slowly out of that exhibit. Amen.
Sixth stop is the Barn Owl--the beautiful white one that got me into this mess in the first place. His name is "Atari" by the way and he is apparently beloved by all at the zoo. But here's the thing; Atari is hungry--like really hungry and as soon as he sees me coming he is biting through the fence. Crap--here we go again. Now we are out of baby chicks, so I am supposed to feed him 3 small mice. I throw the first mice through the fence where he is standing on the ground and he just looks up at me and squawks. I tell him to eat it but he ignores me. He's not going to eat anything unless I place it on his food post which I can reach through the fence if I find a long stick. After a few minutes I find a suitable stick and carefully prop the dead mouse on it and maneuver ever so slowly through the fence hole. I just barely make it to the food post before the mouse drops to the ground. Ugh! Atari continues to squawk at me. I realize what I must do and it goes against my comfort level beyond words but I want to be DONE with this horrible job and never do it again. I take the stick, turn my head the other way and poke a hole through the mouse's stomach. Uggghhh!!! I can still hear the sound of it. I quickly reach through the fence and perfectly deposit the mouse on his food post. Atari is delighted and swoops right up there to eat it in record speed. But now I must drag the other 2 mice back with my stick and do the same thing. Yes I mutilated 3 little mice in order to NOT enter the exhibit. I'm not proud of that.
So I thought I was done but then I notice another owl in the exhibit next to Atari's. This looks like an old owl with one blind eye. I don't know what kind of owl it is but I have 3 mice left in my bin so that's what he's getting. I'll spare you the details but suffice it to say I fed him the same way I fed Atari so you can make that 6 mice mutilations on my list of "messed up things I've done in my life."
I return to the kitchen to find Clint:
Clint: Hey! How'd it go?
Clint: Did you have any mice leftover because the 2 screech owls are in my office upstairs.
It must have been the look on my face because he quickly added, "You know what--I'll go ahead and take care of them."