The day Belem escaped everything changed for my family and me. I awoke that Sunday morning to the rooster’s crowing, ready to start the feeding routine with Sandy. As I tied my shoes, she turned in bed, snoring. My heart broke for her. She had been putting in fourteen-hour workdays for the past two weeks with little support and no breaks. I decided I would get started without her so she could rest a little longer. Grabbing the keys off of her nightstand, I set out into the bright, warm day.
Karkus wasn’t waiting for Sandy by the feed trailer. I filled buckets and bowls, and made my way to the rear of the property. About an hour later, only the tigers remained without food.
I caught them playing. The sun beamed down through the vines growing over their pen as they stood on their hind legs pawing one another. Sass bounced off the floor and tackled Belem who playfully rolled over. Watching them gambol in their colossal frames sent adrenaline coursing through me; it was like watching gods jousting.
When it was time for feeding, they ran, as trained, into the adjoining enclosure through the trapdoor. After closing it, I walked into their pen through the service entrance, used a shovel to scoop out their heavy feces, and set their bowls down on opposite sides. Had I not stopped to imagine what it would be like to sit inside the pen while they frolicked I would not have noticed the reticulated python.
Actually, the python fell on my head. It was small, about three feet in length. I must have jumped in fright when it hit me because it flew through the air again before finally landing on the ground. While it doesn’t typically rain snakes in Florida, I didn’t stop to wonder where it came from. I rushed over and quickly snatched it by the neck, cradling its body in my arms. I had to get it to Sandy, whom I hoped had risen by then.
I ran out, leaving the tigers in the lockout pen, and arrived at the main entrance to the property where I thought Sandy might be by that time. The volunteers I met there didn’t know her whereabouts. Impatiently, I answered their questions regarding the snake.
Will happened to walk by. I asked if he wanted to take the snake, but as I suspected, he told me to let Sandy decide where it should go. At least, he knew where she was—by the alligator pond cutting down overgrown branches while Will’s wife kept an eye on our children.
I made my way to the pond near the rear of the park, surrounded by reeds, trees, and a perimeter fence. Still holding onto the snake, which struggled for its liberation, I lifted the latch and walked through the gate into a dangerous wilderness. At least thirty gators roamed this fifty- by fifty-foot wetland. The scary part was not being able to see where they hid.
I called out to Sandy, who was also nowhere to be seen. Bravely, I pushed past the tall Sawgrass and bushes. My eyes followed my feet, making sure they didn’t step on a tail or a set of open jaws.
I found them close to the water. Karkus had his arms wrapped around Sandy, kissing her face, while she stroked his hair with both her hands. In a sudden rush of jealousy my calves contracted and my heartbeat spiked. I wanted to drive Karkus into the alligator-infested pond. Instead, I froze. Almost unconsciously, I stepped back into the bushes and pretended not to have seen anything. My mind struggled to process what I had seen.
“Sandy!” I called out from behind the Sawgrass, trying to control my fit.
“What?” she yelled back, irately stepping away from Karkus.
I walked over. Karkus turned towards me, sneering.
“Look what I found! Will told me to bring it to you,” I said, once again, acting as if I had seen nothing.
She deftly took the snake out of my hands.
“It’s a retic,” she stated.
“Yeah, I know. It fell into Belem’s pen. I just happened to be in there when it happened.”
“Wow, lucky snake,” she said.
“Do you want me to put it in the snake trailer?” I said.
“No, I don’t want it there with the venomous ones. Let’s put it in the front office for now.”
I followed her towards the entrance of the alligator pond. I could not get the image of Karkus and her out of my mind.
“Did you hear that?” she asked, throwing a hand back to keep me from advancing.
I stopped, straining to hear. It was a soft but intense hissing. I looked down at my feet expecting to see a rattlesnake.
“It’s not a rattlesnake, is it?” I questioned, trying to ease my own fears.
“No, that’s not it.”
We listened to the hissing carefully. It wasn’t continuous. Sandy took another step forward. The hissing grew louder.
This time, a quiet growl accompanied it.
Handing me the snake, Sandy bent down and picked up a long branch. She leaned out and parted a clump of tall grass. The hiss-growl intensified. We were looking into the weary, green-gray eyes of a very angry bobcat.
“Don’t move,” she said.
I wasn’t planning on it. I had never seen a wild bobcat. This was an extremely rare meeting, especially considering where it had wound up.
“We’re going to have to catch him, but we’ll need some gear,” Sandy added.
“How are we going to do that?” I said, trying to keep the wriggling constrictor still. Somehow the idea of holding live bait was not exciting me.
“We’ll go around and hop the fence.”
Quietly, but quickly, we retraced our steps, keeping our eyes on the clump of grass behind which the cat hid. She motioned to Karkus to run ahead of her. He quietly obeyed.
We darted towards the front office, dropping off the snake in an empty ten-gallon tank. Sandy stopped to tell the volunteers what was going on, forbidding them to get any closer until she was back inside the pond area. She pulled a large kennel, about three feet in height, out of the outdoor storage closet, as well as a dog catcher stick with a loop of insulated cable at one end. Sandy tossed me the kennel and we walked swiftly towards the alligator pond.
“Do you have a plan?” I asked, carefully placing the kennel over the fence and climbing over.
“Yes,” she answered confidently. “Keep your eyes on him all the time. Use the kennel as a shield. We’ll approach him and try to back him into the fence or into a corner.”
“Why can’t we just use a dart gun?”
“It’ll stress him out.”
That was a typical Sandy answer—always more worried about the animal’s safety than her own.
The bobcat hissed and growled in the same spot, but this time we did not move away. Sandy used the stick to part the grass again. He was not happy. He bared his fangs.
I stepped closer. The cat hissed, swiping a clawed paw in front of him. He wasn’t large, but I knew he could still inflict serious damage. Sandy tried to place the loop on the end of the stick around his head, but he backed further up into the brush. We moved even closer.
The cat got down on all fours, his rear end slightly elevated, as if ready to pounce. I mentally pushed myself onward though I felt my heart exploding. Beads of sweat formed on my upper lip and forehead. Sandy, on the other hand, was cool and calm.
“Go around him,” she commanded.
“Are you sure? That’ll leave you exposed.”
“Yeah, just be careful.”
I walked around him, my eyes fixed on his. I could tell this new development greatly upset the bobcat. Now he had two enemies, and one of them he couldn’t see.
Sandy struck the ground with the stick, diverting his attention. It seemed the bobcat forgot I was behind him. I positioned the kennel with its door wide open, facing my wife.
While I stood still, Sandy inched forward. With every tiny step she took, the cat moved backwards, towards the kennel. I didn’t know what to do other than stand still, and time seemed to tick slowly. The closer she got, the less cooperative the bobcat became.
Finally, he lashed out. He ran up to Sandy, who instead of running away stood her ground and yelled as loud as I’ve ever heard her yell. Both the bobcat and I stood still, stricken by what we heard. That was all she needed.
In that miniscule moment of fear the bobcat and I experienced, Sandy flung the loop end of the stick towards the cat and dexterously placed it around his neck. She tightened the cable.
With much difficulty, we weaseled the still-struggling feline into the kennel. When it was over, we looked at each other smiling, realizing what a stunning feat we had just performed. It wasn’t until much later, looking back, that I found understanding to thank the heavens no alligator had been anywhere near us.
The hard work finished, it was time to put the scared animal in a safe place. We walked to where the volunteers waited patiently. Sandy clung to me in victory. I held the kennel with both hands and she wrapped her arms around my neck fondly. I was elated. It was the first sign of affection I had in weeks. To top off my joy, I could hear Karkus muttering with jealousy behind us. Despite my conflicted emotions, I enjoyed the moment.
But things got worse.
Will recommended that we place Gideon, the newly christened bobcat, in a secluded enclosure just behind the tiger pen, blocked from view. Still feeling the rush of adrenaline coursing through my veins, I carried the kennel to where he would reside. Gideon had not stopped grumbling gutturally since we trapped him.
Will and the volunteers went with us. Everyone wanted to be part of the action, even Karkus. As we approached, the tigers sensed the excitement and paced up and down the lockout pen. I had forgotten to close the service entrance to their cage and let them back in through the trapdoor. The snake had distracted me.
“Sandy,” called Will, “run up there and close the fence. Let’s get the tigers back in first.”
I was ahead of the group.
“Wait, I’ll do it!” I yelled back, putting the kennel down and throwing out an arm to stop Sandy from continuing, accidentally knocking the wind out of her.
In a flash, Karkus pounced on me, growling and punching,
teeth drawn out. My first instinct was to protect my face. He
held onto my shirt. All I could see were his arms and saliva
sliding down his teeth.