Search This Blog

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Nothin' but Net

In my first job out of college, I moved across the country to take a position in the reptile house of a southern zoo.  About a month after another new keeper and I started, the whole staff went out after work one night to a British-themed pub.  Pints were drunk.  Fish and chips were consumed.  Darts were played.

I'm really, really bad at darts.  Or anything that involves throwing object with precision.  So bad, in fact, that the people standing directly behind me begin to wince whenever I came up, convinced I was somehow going to launch the dart in the exact wrong direction and nail them in the eyes.  As I walked up to the cork-board to pull out of all my misses, one of my new coworkers cackled, "Hell, son, if that's your depth perception, I'm gonna hate seeing you learn to hook cobras!"

He needn't have worried.  I'm pretty damn good with a snake-stick.  And I'm pretty awesome, if I do say so myself, with a net.  They ever make netting hawks an Olympic event, and I'm bringing back some golds.

It startled me the first time I went to net birds.  I have, as I just mentioned, no skill at throwing things, or otherwise launching things (like golf balls).  With a net, however, it's nothing that you throw, or lose control of.  It's an extension of your arm.  You are able to make lots of slight adjustments swiftly, which is useful in response to a small, fast-flying bird.   You can feint one way then double back and catch the bird when it seeks to evade you.  You can launch it straight up, or turn it suddenly.
At first glimpse, netting birds in a large aviary seems impossible.  In some cases, it probably is, especially when the aviary is absolutely huge and very tall.  In those cases, keepers may resort to traps or catch-pens to capture birds.  A small cage is baited with food, the bird enters, the trap is sprung.  It's not that much more sophisticated than a box propped up with a stick tied to a string, a la Wile E. Coyote and the Roadrunner.

In smaller aviaries, it can still be challenging to catch birds.  Thankfully, they tend to become fairly predictable after a while, developing flight patterns.  Often, they stick to these flight patterns faithfully, making it easy to predict when and where they will be - and having your net ready.  It's important to be mindful of the birds' and their stress-levels as you try to make a capture - not just that of the bird you are after, but all of the others in the aviary who are being stressed by your efforts.  What you absolutely don't want is to push the birds too hard, allowing them to succumb to capture myopathy, which can be lethal.

You want to know your net for the task.  How big and deep is the net?  I've tried to capture tamarins with a net that was so shallow that they popped out of it the moment I caught them.  How light is it?  For small, fast-flying birds, you're going to need to be able to handle it over your head for quite a while and move it swiftly.  What size is the mesh?  It's obviously no good to net an animal, and then watch it wriggle its way out before you can extract it.  How strong is it?  Will the animal rip it apart?  Be careful about the heavy rim of the net - you don't want to accidentally bring it down on a wing, leg, or neck and cause injury.

In recent years, the expansion of training programs in zoos has helped to reduce the need to net birds and other small animals, as positive reinforcement can be used to coax an animal in.  It's much safer and less stressful for the animal (and the keeper), and can be far more reliable.  That being said, netting is still a very valuable skill for a keeper to be practiced in, whether its snagging an animal that just refuses to be caught up when it needs to be, or its capturing a wild animal that's made its way into your zoo.

So I'm going to keep practicing my netting.  After all, you never know what's going to happen before the next Olympics.

No comments:

Post a Comment