I hate writing about myself. I’m not saying I’m not an excellent subject; it just makes me worried I’m coming across as self involved and arrogant. It’s ironic I’m worried about that since I don’t mind being perceived that way, in general. It doesn’t make sense to feel that self conscious about it. Most of my favorite writers are autobiographical, and the great majority are autobiographical about their work or interactions with animals. The other ones are humorists. Or at the very least humorous. When you think about it, I’m right in my wheelhouse, whatever the hell a wheelhouse is. What is a wheelhouse? Probably a place that houses wheels, I’d reckon. End digression.
My point is if I weren’t me I’d enjoy what I have to say. And the way I say it, because I say it good. Real good. I generally enjoy what I have to say. Is this blog getting too self referential? I think it may not be self referential enough. Now, if you removed the stigma of being a big fan of oneself, I’d be a fan of myself. But when I read back my writing that is about me I usually say, “Jesus Christ, what is this, a cover letter? If it was I would hire the shit out of me, but still Jesus Christ. One more Jesus Christ for any Christians still reading. Jesus Christ!” I don’t care what I would be applying for either: Dipping Dots Flavor Strategist, New American Sign Language Sign Designer, Secretary of the Interior, Miniature Golf Caddy, Jesus Christ, whatever. I’d hire me. Jesus Christ.
Anyway, now I’m going to write about the plight of child textile workers in Honduras. No, I’m not. Because no one cares about that. I’m going to ignore that particular plight and keep purchasing cheap, comfortable clothing. And I’m going to write about myself – specifically my animal experience. My work with animals began when I started attending the Exotic Animal Training and Management program at Moorpark College (EATM) in 2005. I had first heard of the program when I was in high school. Someone at school was talking about this crazy Australian dude who wrestles alligators on this channel called Animal Planet. (Crocodile Dundy?) And like Coldplay, they had me at Yellow (Hello pronounced with a ‘y’, anyway…it’s a pun, deal with it.). After checking this arcane little booklet called a “TV Guide” (You’re too young to know what that is hypothetical teenager reading this), I turned the channel to Animal Planet early that evening. There was a show about a vet school, followed by this program called Moorpark 24/7, about an animal training school. I enjoyed that vet school show as I had toyed with the idea of becoming a vet when I was younger, but put it out of my mind when I was dissuaded by the idea of putting animals down and dealing with sick and dying animals all the time. There’s an Anthony Jeselnik joke that comes to mind, “I wanted to become a vet when I was a kid, until I realized it wasn’t just putting down cats all day.”
The animal training school sounded amazing, and not only had I never thought of training animals as a career path, I never knew there was a real avenue to pursue something like that. Cut to 4 years later, after high school, after pre-requisites, after not getting in the first year I applied (It’s a lottery system), and I was there. Not to sound over-dramatic, and to blatantly rip off a Colin Hay song, but until then I was just waiting for my real life to begin. (Oh wait, Colin Hay wrote Land Down Under by Men at Work and with the Australia connection it all comes full circle – that’s a callback, friends).
Just that first week, just through meeting all of the animals (and by meeting I mean we weren’t aloud to talk to or interact with any of them for the first year), I immediately realized this is what I was waiting for since I was a young’n visiting the zoo, or taking a field trip to what was then Marine World Africa/USA, and would later change it’s name and even later than that sorta almost hire me then not because I’m a good person and other people aren’t. Before my classmates and I even got our uniforms, we had an alumni stop by with a tiger cub that one of my classmates got to bottlefeed right in front of the school. Who gets to do that, for free? That’s right: a mother tiger, smart ass (Are we gonna have a problem with you?), but also animal training school students.
This program had wall to wall classes I was interested in (Technically wall to wall to wall to wall to ceiling, because that’s how classrooms are built). Before that if it weren’t for a charismatic instructor, school was like hell, in that I didn’t believe in it. In that way it was also like Heaven, and God, and funny Jeff Dunham jokes, and the female orgasm (Am I right fellas? That’s a joke, easy). Yeah, some of EATM was tedious, difficult, boring, tedious, redundant, but the scientific name for humuhumunukunukua’pua’a is Rhinecanthus rectangulus and I’d rather know that weird little tidbit than the square-root of a sailboat or whatever shit people learn in normal school.
One thing that had changed long before I got there was a sort of wild west mentality that tends to exist with most new things. When I was there all we heard were the tales. There were now many rules and precedents set based on past mistakes. But still, we got quite a bit more leeway with wild animals than most college students do. It always bothered me when people didn’t spend every waking moment at school – in that I couldn’t fathom it more than anything. Long before I attended the program, it really was 24/7 (As such the Animal Planet show was called Moorpark 24/7). There was a nightwatch, when students kept an eye over the zoo while staff was home sleeping. And, there were requirements to spend ungodly amounts of time there. In latter years, after the founder of the program retired, and the college took more control, those sorts of unrealistic, and probably illegal requirements were dropped. Now it’s just a suggestion to spend all of your free time there. It never had to be suggested to me, and I gravitated towards people who spent similar amounts of time there as well. I picked animals that took up lots of time, and I wanted to work with as many animals I was interested in as possible, and I wanted to be as creative as possible with the training. Train the baboon a multi-step comedy bit? Sure. Fly the hawk onto the back of a moving truck? Of course not…that sounds unsafe…or whatever. Ride a water buffalo that’s never been ridden? Hell yes.
Two of the animals I worked with were a water buffalo and a highland cow – two massive animals who lived together; one of which was learning how powerful he really was, and the other had lice (We all have our cross to bear). My co-trainers, co-walkers, and I with the help of staff did our best to learn how to control them to the point where they could be relatively safe to walk. Most times that involved avoiding attractive targets to a growing water buffalo, like bushes, and then when that didn’t work steering and redirecting Walter away, when he was exhibiting his strength. After we learned how to work with them in the safest manner possible and redirect his power, my friend suggested we try riding Walter. Now, people ride water buffalo in other parts of the world, and even though we had learned to walk Walter pretty safely, his reputation was that of a temperamental teenager. So when we asked if we could walk the two big bulls, as was required at EATM before taking any animal out of its enclosure, we posed the second question in the most delicate possible way to get the answer we desired. Casually may be the best way to put it, and a little sarcastically. First we asked the staff member on duty “Can we walk Walter and Dunny?”, as we asked every day. “Sure,” she answered. “Cool if we ride Walter?” “Yeah, good luck,” she replied. “Thanks.” Now, being a sarcasm aficionado, I’m pretty good at sniffing out that particular affectation. But on that day I guess my sarcasmonitor was in the off position. Since it was my friend’s idea in the first place to ride Walter, he got the first chance. And you ever watch someone ride a bull in the rodeo? Because that’s not how it went down. Not really, it went pretty smoothly, and painlessly. First, we used a chair so he could get up there. Remember, this is a very wide, relatively tall animal. I believe he was about 1200 or 1300 lbs at this point. With a person on his back, Walter seemed confused, and ultimately calmer than normal. We walked around the zoo, and as we were heading back towards the hoofstock area we realized there was another staff member in there working with other students. Even though we had technically asked, technically been given the go-ahead, and technically not broken any rules, my friend already had a couple strikes against him at this point (what they used to call “unsafe credits), so we thought it better that he not ride Walter into that area. So I did. I take pride in knowing that I was able to hop up there without any assistance, like cowboys always do in movies. And so we walked Walter in through the gate, me atop his back, and as we walked past Gary I asked “Hey Gary, is it ok if we ride Walter?” And he answered, “sure, just wear a helmet next time.” A helmet. We didn’t think of that.