Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Flying Gunk

They say time flies when you are having fun.  This year, I am having more fun than ever working at the World Bird Sanctuary’s Milwaukee County Zoo Bird Show.

Duncan, the Wedge-tailed Eagle executes a beautiful flight (photo: Flannery O'Brien)
However, the birds and time are not the only things that are flying at the bird show.  Blood.  Guts.  Poo.  Slobber.  All of these things are constantly soaring around those of us who work these amazing programs.  Unfortunately, sometimes these soaring pieces of “gunk” find their way onto our arms, face, and even into our mouths.

I like to talk--a lot! (photo: Ian Wright)

I like to talk; a lot.  It’s kind of my thing.  My job sort of requires that I talk constantly and nine times out of ten my sentences seem perfectly timed for my mouth to be open just as the bird is sending a slobber, blood, or meat filled shower my way.  I can talk my way through a lot of unexpected situations, such as a bird deciding it wants to take the scenic route to its perch.  However, when an unwanted bird shower ends up in my mouth, it’s impossible to not be taken aback for a few seconds.

Whiskey Sam Adams, our African Augur Buzzard (photo: Flannery O'Brien)
Earlier this year, our African Augur Buzzard, Whiskey Sam, decided to become a part of the Africa section of the zoo by hanging out in a tree within the Bongo exhibit.  After running out of my long list of “Fun Fowl Facts with Flannery,” I decided to ask the audience for questions.  Of course, the first hand into the air was a little girl in the front row.   She obviously had been itching to ask me the question for a while.  I called on her and she eagerly opened her mouth and asked, “What would happen if a baby was crying and a bird flew over and pooped in that baby’s mouth?”

I love kid questions.  They are so creative.  However this was by far the most creative and unexpected question I have ever been asked.  After hesitating for a moment and rewording the question so everyone could hear, I came up with the only answer I could think of, “Well, the mom would probably run to the bathroom and rinse that baby’s mouth out.”

At the time, that was probably the worst scenario I could have imagined happening with flying bird “gunk.”  Until, that is, a couple of weeks later.  At the end of the show, as I am delivering a particularly delightful conclusion, Clark, our Bald Eagle, decided that the piece of meat he was in the middle of consuming, needed to be shared.  He shook his head and sent a shower of slobbery, disgusting, gooey meat directly towards my face and into my mouth!

All was going well until Clark decided to "share" (photo: Ian Wright)

As mentioned earlier, I can usually pretend the situation never happened and keep talking--but a piece of meat flying into my mouth was not a situation I can handle with much grace.  Instantly, I started sputtering, trying to get the gunk out, but to no avail.  The only thing that resulted was that the speakers were echoing my sputtering into the stands, and that was not professional.  My left hand was in a glove that Clark was seated on top of, and my right was covered in blood and gore from handling food for the rest of the birds.  So I did the only thing I could do.  I took a deep breathe, thought, “Yep, I’m doing this,” swallowed as best I could, and continued with the rest of the conclusion.  The second that show was over, and I had joked with several people about being more patriotic now that the Bald Eagle had given me that deliciously disgusting piece of food, I gracefully put Clark down, and did exactly what I had told the little girl.  I ran to the sink and rinsed my mouth profusely with water.

When you work with animals, you sign up for the fun things like speaking shows and watching a bird problem-solve on its own.  You also sign up for the not so fun stuff, like scrubbing poo and apparently sometimes sharing their dinners.  It was easily the most disgusting experience of my life, but that was the moment I knew that I was hooked on this career and that I found where I belong.  Because if I can suck it up, eat a ball of slobber and gore, and still keep a smile on my face, I can do anything that this job throws at me.  Literally.

Submitted by Flannery O’Brien, World Bird Sanctuary Milwaukee County Zoo Show Naturalist/Trainer

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