It was a weird year. For the first time since I graduated from college, I slept in on December 25th. And not just because the zoo was closed and I could come in and do my rounds whenever I felt like it. Because I wasn't there. It was the first year in my adult life when I did not work Christmas Day.
It's hard to describe the feeling I had as I lay in bed - the sun already shining - on Sunday morning. There was certainly more than a tinge of guilt that I wasn't out there racing through the zoo, trying to strike that balance between doing the job well and doing it quickly. There was maybe a little bit of pride that I'd finally achieved enough seniority to score a major holiday off. There was also something a little akin to regret... regret that today might be an adventure that I was missing out on with some very good friends.
To understand, I'll have to take you back a decade or so to my first Christmas as a zookeeper.
I was far away from home - far enough, certainly, that going to see my family after work wasn't an option, especially since I was working the next day as well. I was at the bottom of the pecking order at work, so I was one of the few keepers in that day at our small zoo, working a huge chunk of the zoo that mixed the primates and carnivores, the birds and small mammals (the reptile keepers, using typical foresight, fed their charges the day before, topped off the waters, and told us to call them if there was an emergency... the smug bastards).
With great skillful skill and great speedy speed, my partner and I knocked our rounds out to the best of our ability in record time. It wasn't the best job ever, but everyone was warm, fed, watered, and comfy enough to make do until the next day.
That's when we got the call from the hoofstock keepers. Everything was going wrong in their section. A sick animal. Broken fences. A truck that wouldn't start. Would we mind...?
I should mention, at this point, that this was not what you would call a White Christmas. It was a gray, bitterly cold one, with freezing rain drizzling down on us. Of course we minded. But of course we helped.
We spent the next two hours working the unfamiliar hoofstock run. My already frozen hands were cut with baling twine as I hauled hay around the zoo. We ran through the rain to fill grain feeders before our buckets of feed were soaked. We pushed sodden wheelbarrows along dirt trails to dump (whenever an exhibit generates that much poop, you can't let it pile up). All in all, we busted our butts.
After work, I went back to the apartment and showered. Then, many of us holiday orphans congregated at the home of a fellow keeper. All of us were newer keepers, so none of us knew each other particularly well. We made a Christmas dinner that, while by no means extraordinary compared to what we would have had at home, was that much more satisfying based on the day we had. There were no gifts exchanged. There were no carols. No stockings. We all still smelled vaguely like pee. Everyone hurt somewhere. Everyone knew they had to work tomorrow.
We still had a fantastic Christmas. Part of it was the satisfaction that we'd made it through such a crazy day, one that retrospect would turn from hellish to amazing. Part of it, however, was knowing that we'd found a place in our chosen profession, and were sharing it with people like us. It was a realization that, even if we were all far from home, that a band of keepers can become its own family.
Now that band doesn't last forever. Of the four of us, none are still at that same zoo. One keeper was fired. Our host quit the profession all together. Another keeper got married and moved away. I drifted off to another zoo. But as I moved from place to place, other keepers filled that void, and each Christmas, I've forged another link with another surrogate family.