Due to a collective lack of imagination, every military macaw I've ever encountered, regardless of sex, has been given a military rank for a name. Usually "Sarge" or "Major", maybe a "General" or two. As it was, the bird that I was dealing with at the moment was named "Sarge." I was currently coming up with a few other choice names for him.
You see, Sarge had escaped, and was now perched on a fence rail just a few feet from me. I could either call for backup, have someone bring me a net (an object which Sarge knew and loathed on sight), and try to scoop him up before he took off... or I could grab him by hand. No gloves, mind you - just four fingers and a thumb, up against a beak that could crack nuts with a twitch. Oh, and I should mention... I wasn't one of Sarge's favorite people.
I had just been promoted to Senior Keeper, and my now-direct supervisor was not a forgiving sort. Granted, I wasn't the one who'd let Sarge fly out of his holding pen, but the person who did was a direct report to me, which made it my fault, in the eyes of the boss. Confronted with the possible loss of a finger on one hand (ha ha ha) and certain loss of position on the other, I made a decision.
Edging close to Sarge, I wiggled the fingers of my left hand provocatively in his face. "Bite me, bite me" they seemed to scream. Sarge watched them with greedy eyes as they got closer and closer... and didn't watch my right hand, snaking around from behind. With one snatch, I caught him by the back of the neck. I don't remember much of the hundred-yard dash back to his enclosure, holding a screaming, thrashing, macaw that was hell-bent on revenge. I just remember the satisfaction of hearing the door click shut behind me as I tossed the bird back in.
It was something of a letdown that night when I recounted that day's triumph to my girlfriend. I don't know if I was expecting an "Oh my God, you're my hero" or "Wow, that was so brave." Instead I got a sixteen-and-a-half minute lecture on safety and the relative value of my fingers compared to military macaws (I'd made similar calculations, but came up with a different answer than her). The bird had to be grabbed, I insisted, if only to save it from a certain death on the lam. Okay, she replied... but why did I have to be the one to grab it?
I've gotten a few variations on that question since from various people who I know mean well. Okay, there's a hurricane coming, or three feet of snow... I get it that the animals need to be taken care of, but why do you have to be the one out in the storm? Okay, there's a fight between two alligators... why do you need to break it up? Okay, so this animal needs to get on a 2AM flight at the airport... why do you need to be the one to drive it there?
The first animal escape I was present for, as a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed volunteer of age thirteen, was a crane. I thought I'd catch it single-handedly, thereby winning the admiration and respect of the entire keeper staff, who would then be so impressed with me that they'd hire me on the spot, sparing me the waste of high school or college. Instead, I was gently but firmly banished from the scene until the bird was recaptured by hands far more competent than mine. Those hands, if truth be told, already had some scars, and at least one of them I knew was missing a finger.
When you are a volunteer, or an intern, or are new on the job, there's always someone more experienced out there... sometimes, lots of someones. That's the person/people who will make the sacrifices, take the risks. It's expected of them, the product of their experience, their knowledge, and their demonstrated commitment to the job. They get in some pretty crappy situations... sometimes literally, like getting bathed in diarrhea while nursing a sick animal. They get hurt sometimes, like getting taloned by a wounded eagle that's been found on the side of the road and needs to be rescued. And they get a lot of sleepless nights, as anyone who has ever had to hand-rear a rejected baby animal can attest. There are times when it really, really sucks... say, after waking up after an awful night of sleep on the commissary floor, listening to a hurricane rage outside, and knowing that you will soon be soaked to the bone.
Still, I get a sense of pride sometimes when these things happen to me... well, not the diarrhea one. There is no pride to be had there. When these times come, and I look behind me and see volunteers, interns, and new keepers, it makes me feel like I've made it. Like after a lot of years of being a kid pretending to be a zookeeper, I actually made it, and now there are young people who look to me to see how I'll handle a situation, so that they might do the same some day. And it's my job to take risks, and make sacrifices, so they don't have to.
It can feel like quite a responsibility some times... but at least I still have all my fingers.