Search This Blog

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Bad-Ass Bambi

Sadly, many visitors consider ungulates to be uninteresting, and few have a less-exciting reputation than the deer and antelope (which, in the eyes of the average visitor, are all deer).  These are the animals that the guests tend to stream by without much of a glance.  Which is sad, really.  For one thing, the hoofstock are almost always, without exception, "on" - awake, alert, in sight, and doing something... even if it's just grazing, or chewing a cud.  Secondly, once you get to know them, you'll often find that they can have just as much character, as much charisma, and much spunk as any of the carnivores or primates.

To illustrate that fact, I'll tell the story of one gazelle I used to work with.  His name has been changed, so let's just call him what most of the visitors did - Bambi.

Bambi was probably the single most overlooked animal in the zoo.  At the time I worked with him, he was the only antelope in the entire zoo, though he carried the standard for his tribe nobly.  Barely two feet at the shoulder, he had a plump little sandy body propped up with anorexic thin legs.  His graceful neck held up an impish face, with a small flap of skin on the tip of his nose.  When excited, this flap puffed up like a balloon until it was the size of a tennis ball.  At the top of his hand was a tiny pair of neat, small sharp horns.   Guests rarely saw him; when he was in the yard, he preferred to lie on a dirt heap, where he blended in perfectly against the sand.  He never called attention to himself, and he never made a show for the guests. 

Those first glances were deceiving.  Bambi was a bad ass.

He may have been tiny, but every ounce of Bambi petite frame was crammed with attitude, until he was one fearless, dangerously confident little antelope.  He delighted in racing along the fence line, tormenting the cheetahs and the wolves that flanked his exhibit, practically chanting, “Neener, neener, neener, you can’t catch me!” 

Bambi was under the impression that all things in this world fell under two categories – food and sparing partners.  After I'd been working with him for a few weeks, the zoo acquired two female oryx - massive antelopes, each the size of a small horse, which the zoo decided to try and house with Bambi.  The little gazelle instantly tried to herd and dominate the females.  They promptly kicked his ass. After an unsuccessful attempt or two at introduction, it was decided that they would have to be rotated through the yard; oryx in the afternoon, gazelle in the morning.  To be clear, the oryx never started the fights.  Bambi just wouldn't leave them alone.

Refusing to learn his lesson, the pint-sized gazelle would continue to challenge the oryx (and, later, zebras) through the fencing of their holding yards.  I had a hard time imaging Bambi backing down to a lion, or an elephant, for that matter.  A log or a ball left in his yard was seen as a deadly rival for supremacy of the yard, and was immediately challenged.  On more then one occasion, we found him with an entire flake of timothy hay or alfalfa impaled on his horns, shaking to get the wisps of hay from his eyes, and we knew that he had successfully vanquished his enemy.  During the winter, for enrichment purposes (ours and his), we made Bambi a snowman (err… snow gazelle) to challenge.  He slaughtered it in no time

It was plain where keepers stood in Bambi's two category view of the universe.  Bambi had shared his yard with a pair of crowned cranes; when one of the birds had died, the other had become lonely and bored.  Seeking to fix the situation, the keepers had installed a mirror in the yard, so the bird would have someone else to “talk” to.  It worked marvelously, and the bird spent hours preening and honking and resting with her new found friend.  One day, when cleaning the yard, I glanced up at the mirror for no particular reason.  There, in the reflection, was Bambi, a full fifteen feet behind me, pawing the ground and shaking his little head for the charge.  I spun around, only to find him staring with the look of martyred innocence, as if there was no idea farther from his mind than ramming his horns into the dumb kid who cleaned his yard.    From that day on, whenever I entered his domain, he would slip up behind me, stalking like a big cat.  If I’d turn around, he’d freeze, and then pretend to graze or to take a nap… not only fearless, but crafty. The doe eyes didn’t fool anyone.
I made a habit of not turning my back on Bambi while I was in the yard.

Bambi was quite elderly when I met him, hence the reason for his being alone.  He was the last of his herd at the zoo, and the keepers felt he was too old to stress and ship to another facility for company.  He decided to spite them, of course, by living damn near forever.  Bambi has since gone to his eternal reward (whatever that may be for pugnacious little gazelles), but I still think of him often.

I was brand new in the field when I met Bambi, but he taught be a lesson which stayed with me throughout my career (two lessons, if you count "Never turn your back on an animal with horns).  You can never predict which animals will make the biggest impression on you, and who you'll always treasure the memories of.

No comments:

Post a Comment