Stalked by a Vulture!
Monday was a mild day, surprisingly beautiful for the middle of January. It’s my day off, so my wife and I decided we’d take a walk at one of our favorite spots: the St. Louis Zoo.
The animals all come out on mild winter days like this. We walked past the new grizzly bear exhibit. Two young brown fur balls with long noses and even longer claws wandered around the rocky landscape that lies just on the other side of the tall, thick glass enclosure. Toddlers wander right up to the glass and lean their heads against it. The bears don’t seem to notice the tasty little human treats just out of reach.
A little further down the walkway, the polar bear was swimming in his little pool. We could see his great face-sized paws as he pranced back and forth in the water. Then he’d stand straight up and open his long-tongued mouth, pearly hair matted and dripping. After a quick break, he’d dive back down and start again, doing his laps. This one, too, seemed oblivious to the fresh meat standing just a few inches from his powerful jaws.
We walked through big cat country, where the lions and tigers lazed on the grass, enjoying the warm day. A little boy was yelling, “RAHR!” at the lions. The male stood, walked a couple paces in the boy’s direction, then fell back to the ground as if struck by a narcoleptic attack. So. Bored.
The only action we saw was in the vulture cage.
There, a zookeeper was trying to train a vulture couple to mate. I’m not sure how this is possible, but he seemed to think it could be done with a bucket of dead mice and a stick. The stick had one sharp end and one tennis-ball-covered end. He would motion with the tennis ball end. The bird was supposed to jump up on a log. If the vulture was obedient, the keeper would jab a dead mouse with the sharp end and feed the bird.
The female, born to wild parents, was obedient. But savvy. She knew where the dead mice were, and she was willing to play along to get fed. But even I could tell, she didn’t like the keeper.
The male, born in captivity, was both unresponsive to the keeper and, apparently, unable to copulate. I don’t have high hopes for the long-term relationship of this particular couple, but the keeper was trying. He was explaining all of this to us while standing in the cage.
When the zookeeper would turn his back to the female, she would jump off her perch. Slowly, she’d raise her wings and lower her head. As she stalked toward him, he’d turn suddenly, startled. He’d warn her off with the stick. She didn’t look that scared. Once, she even opened her wings up to intimidate him, her wingspan wider than he was tall. Frightened, but still wanting to talk to us (never get a docent talking, by the way), he hid behind a tree inside the habitat, visibly shaken.
I went away thinking about a dream I had once. In it, I owned a black panther that I kept inside my backyard chain link fence. Though I fed the panther and kept up the appearance of control, I was afraid of it, knowing at any second it could tear into me.
But as I started to come out of the dream, something drastic happened. I saw myself become the panther. Saw the panther become me.
I woke up, shocked. I imagined I could cage and train the wilder parts of my nature, making those pieces of me as docile as well-fed bears at the zoo. And in many cases, all of us must do that, for the good of ourselves and others.
But I never want to forget that deep inside me, deep inside every one of us, is someone both wild and powerful. Maybe we can learn to let that part of us out of the cage once in a while.
Just see what happens.