It was said in Vaudeville that you should never work with children or animals.
I don’t know about the children, but I do know about the animals.
For five years, I was a docent at the Los Angeles Zoo. Mostly that meant taking fourth-grade to middle-schoolers around the enclosures and explaining that, no, that wasn’t the elephant’s fifth leg—or his trunk.
But it also meant working the small animal show called Discovery Circle. Our stars were not the exotics that take center stage in many other animal shows. Ours were usually refugees, donated to the zoo after a parent discovered that the exotic animal they’d given a child was a poor candidate for a pet.
There was Ty, a lovely barn owl that everyone thought was male until he laid an egg. Ty was a trouper. During my owl talk she was known to start working her gullet like she was trying to dislodge a bone—which she was. I’d move smoothly into telling kids that when owls ate a mouse, they ate everything but the squeak. When everything was digested, they would—and Ty was always right on cue—cough up an owl pellet of all the leftover bits. The demonstration was met predictably with a loud chorus of “Ewwww!”
There was our poor nameless rabbit, a huge lop-ear who had come to us after he’d grown out of his Easter cuteness and been manhandled by children. If you don’t think a rabbit can become mean, you’ve never had a 15-pound lop growl at you. I never took him out of the cage. Only the keepers and a few courageous docents did.
There was the sleepy, normally nocturnal ferret, who came to us probably because someone discovered his strong scent was not desirable in a house pet, not because it was illegal to own ferrets as pets in California. I never had trouble but he did bite another docent. My biter was Miss Tiggywinkle, the hedgehog. (She may also have been male for all we knew. We didn’t enquire.) During a presentation, I put my hand in front of her to keep her from waddling off the edge of the table. She repaid my kindness by nipping my finger. I expect she was disappointed to discover it was not a slug.
The most surprising troublemaker, though was an arthritic boa constrictor named, of course, Balboa. Ancient and creaking, we handled him as gently as we could transporting him curled in a canvas sack.
Balboa’s sense of humor first became obvious when I did an outreach show at a school in central LA. On those occasions, docents traveled with a driver/handler named Randy. He knew the show as well as the docents did and he would bring out the animals as we needed them and return them to their cages in the back of the van while we went on with the show. Balboa did not have a cage. He rode to our schools in his sack on the console between us in the van.
At this memorable presentation, I was discoursing on Ty (no pellet that day), getting ready to move into my reptile section. Randy, knowing what was expected, returned to the van.
I heard a quiet, “Shit.”
I glanced back and saw that Randy was desperately looking around the van. The sack in his hand was empty. I ended up talking about the tortoise instead of the AWOL Balboa.
When we broke between the shows Randy opened the back of the van and we both started searching. I heard him say, “Ah,” and turned to see him pluck the boa from between the van’s side panels. Balboa went on for the second show.
The next time the boa got clever, I had gone into the zoo early before opening. We had a group of mentally disabled kids coming in, my first time with this audience. The school had asked for a private tour of the zoo and the Discovery Circle show. The docent who was supposed to work the show with me was unable to come in that day, but she assured me the show would be easy to do.
Fortunately, the docent touring the group had worked Discovery Circle before, because when we got to Balboa, he was unusually frisky. Although we usually held him with one hand behind his head and one on his body, he was squirming much more than usual. Focused on my audience, I didn’t notice what he was up to.
Until I realized he’d gotten his head through the belt loop on my jacket and was about six inches through.
Snakes, because of their backward facing scales, don’t back up, a fact I pointed out to my audience as the other docent helped me feed three feet of boa constrictor through the belt loop one inch at a time.
I couldn’t help thinking of “The Boa Constrictor,” a children’s song sung by Peter, Paul and Mary. “I’m being swallowed by a boa constrictor/and I don’t like it very much.”