Saturday, September 21, 2013

Death of a Tiger (Part III of V)

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. 

Monday, September 9, 2013

Death of a Tiger (Part II of V)

The Mission Animal Rescue had been formed to care for injured and confiscated wildlife. Every animal had a history, typically a sad one. Simon, the rhesus monkey, had his teeth pulled out by an inconsiderate owner. His food had to be liquefied everyday. Daisy, a Florida panther, had been caught while guarding her sister’s skinned carcass, which was left to rot by poachers. Ricky Ricardo and Lucy, the ostriches, hadn’t been abused, but their story was strange.
A rich woman who owned an ostrich farm in upstate New York donated them. She told Will she had a dream in which Ricky ran up to her, flaring his short, black and white wings, screeching over and over in Spanish, “Take me to Cuba!” The woman was so struck by this vision that she got on the phone the next day to export him and his mate. The condition of US-Cuba relations would not allow this regardless of her wealth and influence. She settled on shipping them to the Mission, which was as close to Cuba as she could send them.
Bemel the Tiger had his own strange story. He was rescued from the hands of an incompetent stripper named Princess Glitter-Cheeks. This exotic dancer thought she could garner more attention and tips if she incorporated a tiger cub into her routine. How he was involved, no one really knows. The only known fact is that shortly after hitting puberty, Belem playfully pounced on Princess Glitter-Cheeks. She had made the mistake of turning her naked backside to him during her show. Her stilettos slipped beneath her and she landed face-first on the glossy stage floor, losing a tooth in the process. The toothless stripper with nominal relations to royalty dropped Belem off at the Mission shortly after the painful, embarrassing incident.
The other tiger, Sass, joined Belem exactly one month after we moved in—the day Karkus showed up.

At first, I forced myself to like Karkus. His pasty-white skin, greasy strawberry-blonde hair, and the layer of filth that clung to him nauseated me. His crass manner grated against my personality like heavy-duty sandpaper. But he made Sandy laugh and he worked hard. She took to him very quickly. That irked me. I did not trust him, but other than his vulgarity, he made no overt attacks on me. In fact, he seemed fond of me, and the Mission benefited from having him around. 
Karkus only came around when Sandy worked. She got up at six every morning and headed to the feed room to prepare meals for the carnivores. Without fail, Karkus would be waiting for her outside the tiny air-conditioned building. If I happened be helping that day he would greet us and find something to fix around the property, but if I didn’t show up, he’d follow her in to help prepare the meals. This bothered me, but I did not want to argue with Sandy.
 “He’s just a fun guy to work with. Get over it,” Sandy would growl when I finally tried voicing my presentiments. “Am I just being jealous?” I’d ask myself out loud when I was alone. I didn't want to admit that Karkus received more of Sandy's attention than I did. It cut into my soul.

Sass' homecoming kept everyone distracted. She was a purebred Bengal, young and full of life, replete with the viciousness of birth outside of captivity. It took a forklift to move her small cage from the truck bed to the back of the property where Belem lay panting in the shade. His ears twitched when Sass’ guttural growls reached him.
Sandy opened the pen neighboring Belem’s enclosure. His body sprang to massive life as Sass’ cage was carefully placed inside. Only a chain-link fence separated the newcomer from Belem, but a gate had been built that would allow access from one enclosure to the other. The forklift moved out. Sandy closed Sass' pen and used a rope to open her cage. The tiger didn’t dash out. She hissed and growled in a corner, fearful of her new surroundings; she retracted her lips to reveal two sets of long fangs.
Everyone watched in anticipation, breaths held, waiting to see if the two tigers would take to one another. Slowly, Belem strolled up to the fence to get a better look. He sniffed loudly trying to catch Sass’ scent. Sass stopped growling, but her fangs remained bare. She looked like corporeal venom coiled up into a tight, demonic spring.
Belem broke the tension. He got as close to the fence as he could, lifted a hind leg, and shot a stream of strong-smelling urine towards Sass. Sass sniffed Belem’s musk, hiding her fangs. It was over. After a few minutes, Sandy pulled a second rope that lifted the gate separating the tiger enclosures. Within an hour the pair lay side by side, licking each other’s fur.
It shocked me to see how small she was compared to Belem. I had grown so accustomed to the oversized, hybrid male that I forgot how big an actual Bengal was. Yet, what Sass lacked in size she made up with ferocity.

 For the next few months I worked, cared for Jeremiah and Salem, and watched my wife from afar as the Mission Animal Rescue bloomed. Often, I spent my evenings in front of Belem’s and Sass’ enclosure while the boys slept and Sandy continued to work. Karkus followed her around like a dog. Each night, before she went to bed, he disappeared. He returned every morning just after I drove off to work. Karkus had a way of knowing when I was around, but weekend mornings were all mine, thankfully.
I’d wake up just in time to follow Sandy out the door. Jeremiah and Salem remained behind, snoring lightly in their sleep, the baby monitor hissing gently beside them. Our morning was spent feeding the larger animals. We’d walk towards the feed room where we’d fill up five metal bowls with raw meat and four buckets with donated produce and grain. One bowl was for Belem, one for Sass, one for Daisy, and two for the wolves, Tyson and Michelle. The buckets were for the pigs, the black bear, and Chantee the Camel.
Chantee loved palm leaves, in addition to his grain and produce. I fed him by hand, petting his short, tan coat in the process. He didn’t like it very much, but he put up with it as long as I had something to feed him. Sometimes I brought him apples, but he’d even eat raw potatoes. I didn’t really start liking him until the day I fell for one of his pranks.
That particular morning I walked towards his enclosure with a bucket of apples dangling in my hand. Usually, he'd bring his massive head over the fence and watch me, stomping his feet impatiently. I expected the same behavior, but he was nowhere to be seen.
At first, I thought he had escaped, but I quickly realized I would have noticed a wandering camel on the property. I ran up to the fence, searching every corner of his habitat with my gaze. Finally, I saw him, covered in dirt, lying motionless on the ground.
My heart sank. Chantee was dead, but I couldn’t think of anything that could have killed him. He had plenty of water, he ate every day, and he hadn’t shown any symptoms of illness. I had to tell Sandy what happened.
As I turned around, one of his legs twitched. I froze, watching to make sure my eyes hadn't played tricks on me. Within a few seconds Chantee’s massive body began rolling from side to side. He kicked his legs wildly, covering himself with dirt. It was the strangest thing I’d ever seen. I yelled his name and he ran to me, taking a red apple out of my hand. At that moment, I couldn’t have been happier.     

Friday, September 6, 2013

Change is Coming: NGSS

I was invited to write an article on the implementation of the Next Generation Science Standards--the challenges and benefits. I hadn't heard from the editor since I submitted it and was never sure it would be published. But it was! Thanks to Stephen Ruthford and Rebecca Hite for helping edit my various drafts. In my opinion, their edits truly made this piece stronger.

Here's the article: