25 October 2010

Volunteer work should not cause post-traumatic stress

I have ideas, lots of them. That's one of the reasons my Rear-View Life List is so full of wonderful items. I get some nutty notion and then I feel compelled to do it.

It usually works out. Sometimes I convince people to go on a speed boat on Lake Michigan and I find myself flying across the water, laughing my ass off at a guy's ears flapping in the wind with Karen and the Queen of Spain's husband.
Kaiser and Karen on the lake

Other times, not so much. This weekend was SO not so much.

My work sends out a list of volunteer opportunities every so often. One of the opportunities was to go to this wildlife sanctuary and help them inventory fencing materials.

I asked the organizer if lifting would be required, because, after back surgery, I just don't lift.

"Oh, no," he said. "You can hold the measuring tape." (Spoiler alert: THIS WAS A LIE).

Okay then. CC, Ish and I headed out bright and early to a facility deep within the Angeles National Forest to help the animals.

We had been promised a tour of the place to go along with our labors. We were pointed toward our appointed task: hundreds of rolls of chain link fencing needed to be moved, unrolled, measured and re-rolled, then stacked in order of size.

There was another option: clean up the wood pile. We quickly volunteered for wood pile duty, correctly assuming that fencing duty would suck. About 15 of us took every piece of wood out of a disorganized pile, sorted it and re-organized while the other poor suckers dealt with the fencing.

Did I mention that rattlesnakes live in the woodpile? Oh, yes, they do. I looked down and one was about 6 inches from my foot. I managed not to freak the hell out and Volunteer Wrangler Bob soon moved the snake off into the bushes where he could live to menace volunteers on another day.

This place had the volunteer thing down, though. After about every 45 minutes of slave labor, they would bring a wild animal ambassador around to keep us interested - first a wild boar, then a coyote, then a grey wolf - just enough to give us a break and keep us working.

We finished the snake-infested woodpile and moved on to chain link fencing. After about 16 hours of work, more or less (ok, it was about 3 hours), they said "We just have one more hour, THEN LUNCH, then another hour of work, then the tour."

Lord help me. At that point, I was ready to quit, but CC insisted we stay for the tour. Dang her and her dedication and enthusiasm.

Lunchtime rolled around. We strolled up to get the proferred lunch...aaaaaand there WAS no lunch. Apparently we missed the memo that said we were supposed to bring lunch. We scavenged some stale granola bars from under the seats in the car and glumly chewed them at one of the rickety picnic tables.

Then it was back to work on the chain gang. All the measuring was done, so then it was just re-stacking chain link fence. The measuring-tape holding duty had been claimed by a young, fit guy named Wolf. Thanks for the gallantry, Wolf. You look good there holding that measuring tape while sweaty-faced office workers move heavy rolls of fencing.

I stood with the other girlie-girls and watched the men scratch themselves to hell on the fence wire and ruin their backs lifting rolls of fencing up onto these tall racks. Yay, men, and the three macho chicks. You go. I'll be over here, cheerleading.

After 6 more hours (more or less), tour time finally rolled around! Note: there will be no photos from the tour because the woman who owns the place doesn't allow photos. Whatevs. Here are some photos from their website.

We got bused down to the area where the big cats and predators are kept. We split into tour groups - for leaders, you either got Bob and Tony, the volunteer wranglers, or Heather, the crazy possum-lover. I tried to scooch CC and Ish over toward Bob and Tony, but they were clueless to my motionings. So Crazy Heather it was.

Heather had an officious proprietary crazy animal lady thing going on. I was all too familiar with the personality type from my time voluteering at the County Animal Shelter. For instance, she kept insisting we stay "THREE FEET AWAY" from all the cages, even the very secure cages where the animals rested calm, sleepy and bored.

I guess she had some kind of a point, though, because a lot of those animals were dangerous killing machines.

I don't know if I have ever been as chilled as when the grizzly bear - about 4 feet high at the shoulder, maybe more - regarded me with its piggy little eyes. It viewed me with the casual disregard with which one might inspect a Chick-Fil-A while one has a steaming pizza before them. You could just see it thinking "Not now. Maybe later."

It paced around, its 3-inch claws clicking on the pavement, staring us down, taking the measure of our mettle. I was glad for the extra large-gauge chain link right about then.

There were also cheetahs, tigers, ligers. Honest to Napoleon Dynamite, there were Ligers - which Heather told us were very sad animals "Because they don't know what they are, how they should behave." Right, Heather. Thank you for your keen insights on animal genetics and psychology.

There were also wolves and coyotes and Mountain Lions, who were elegant and fierce and, like the Grizzly, seemed to look at me more as food than anything else.

It was all heart-breaking and confusing. The place is trying to do good, rescuing animals who have worked in movies or who have been raised by Michael Jackson-style idiots who think that a tiger cub is so cute and who suddenly end up with a 600 pound cat with razor-sharp teeth and a $1000 a month food bill.

I was torn between being captivated by the beauty and power of the animals, feeling sad for them being in cages, and being terrified at being THREE FEET from killing machines.

The worst part was the chimps. They have about 30 chimps, mostly rescued from animal laboratories, and those dudes just aren't right in the head. We had to run the gauntlet between their cages, where they spit on the unfortunate tour members who happened to be at the back of the line.

They made this unearthly whooping/crying/moaning sound. It sounded like the voices of those descending to hell. And it was LOUD. I don't know when I have heard something more heartbreaking and more terrifying.

CC, Ish and I all agreed that we were disturbed to the bone. We left quiet, somber and more than a little angry. Why are people so stupid? Why do they think that chimps are babies and lions and tigers and mountain lions are kitties that they can just snuggle with and play with, when in reality they are wild beasts who would be better off wild?

None of us had been fans of zoos before, but we vowed to never visit one again. It is just too horrible. I know that place is the best hope for animals whose lives were ruined by the idiocy and cruelty of humans, but the sounds of those chimps keeps ringing through my head.


Karen Sugarpants said...

I'm certain the sound of flapping earlobes should cancel out medically altered chimps. Actually, they're probably pretty similar! Poor you. :)

rockygrace said...

Oh, man, I'm with you on the zoo thing. It's just too sad.

San Diego Momma said...

Oh Sweet Lord. Even though I've never head it personally, Crazy Chimp noise will reverberate in my head for years.

And by the way, you are hilarious. Even when disturbed by the mental state of rescued wildlife.

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