Wednesday, May 26, 2010


Thanks to a very special snake, a ball python named Brittany, I no longer throw across the room magazines with pictures of snakes, or feel repulsed at the sight of snakes. Indeed, I actually cuddled Brittany and other snakes at the zoo where I volunteered, and loved every minute of it. These amazing and adorable ambassadors of their species have undoubtedly helped to change attitudes of many who have met them. It was a special privilege to work with them. At the zoo, an adoring public can touch an exotic animal, learn what it eats in the wild versus its zoo diet, learn how it reacts when confronted with danger, its reproduction cycle, and other interesting facts. My greatest joy was introducing a critter to a child. Innocence meets innocence and a connection is made. Thus, children grow up knowing that animals are precious beings whose care and protection has been entrusted to mankind, and that animals are to be respected and loved, not hurt.

Being an volunteer animal handler was an invaluable learning experience. I handled animals I had never heard of, i.e., blue-tongued skinks, leopard geckos, bearded dragons, radiated tortoises and chinchillas, among others. I enjoyed working with all of the animals, but I was proudest of myself for overcoming my fear of snakes.

I remember the day I picked up our daily newspaper and read that the zoo needed volunteer animal handlers. Fantastic, I thought! That was me! I promptly showed up at the zoo and told the volunteer director that I loooooved ALL animals except snakes! I stopped short of telling her my REAL feeling: that all snakes should be rounded up and set on fire! And my ears were closed to the arguments that snakes had a place in the environment. They certainly had no place in my environment! When she said I would have to work with snakes as well as the other program animals, she might as well have said I would have to work with the devil himself.
I shook my head and sadly said, “I can never touch a snake.”
She smiled and replied, “Oh, yes you can, and you will come to love them.”
I thought the woman had lost her mind! Love and snakes was an oxymoron! It seemed that my animal handling was over before it began. The woman extolled the virtues of snakes. My mind closed down. Nothing good could ever be said about snakes. She asked me to give it a try. I joined the training class and tried not to think of the session when we would meet the reptiles.

Our first training session taught us about the cuddly animals we would work with. We met the cute, furry critters: ferrets, chinchillas, rabbits and guinea pigs. It was a heavenly experience. Our training continued with parrots, nun pigeons, and the like. And then came the night we were to come face to face with – shudder - reptiles.
I talked to St. Francis at length. I have always prayed that I could be like St. Francis and walk among wild animals without fear, to be able to talk to them and to have them listen to me. In fact, I tried to talk to birds, butterflies and a few stray cats, but they were far too busy to stop to listen to me. I wondered how on earth St. Francis ever got wolves and adders still long enough to listen to him. Now, I was closer to realizing my dream of being like St. Francis, and the only thing that could stop it was a snake. I asked my family and friends to pray that I would not throw the snake one way and run the other way. I knew that definitely would be the end of my animal handling career. By the time that evening arrived, I was crazed with fear! I thought mean and evil thoughts about snakes. Why, oh why, would anyone want to see one, to touch one, or to listen to anything about a snake? I had no answers.

Several people were absent from our class that evening and there were snickers that they were afraid of snakes. I swallowed hard, and concentrated on not trembling. The first animal was a leopard gecko, a type of lizard with leopard coloring. He was tiny, beautiful, and fit right in my hand. The bearded dragon was awesome and gentle. I was in love. The next critter was a blue-tongued skink from Australia. He was awesome. He cuddled right up to me. When I put him away, our trainer said, “Charlene, you have just handled a snake with feet.”
I replied, “Yes, but those feet make all the difference in the world!"

And then the trainer brought out a cloth bag knotted at the top. She carefully rolled the top down, reached in and pulled out a snake. I gulped, shut my eyes briefly, took a deep breath and said a little prayer. This was it. This is where the animal handlers are separated from the would-be-animal handlers. The snake was a ball python named Brittany. She was about four feet long. There was no getting around it, she was a snake. I have never been more afraid of anything else in my life! She was passed from hand to hand so that everyone could get a feel – pardon the pun - for her. I announced that I would be the last to hold her. Much later I realized that being the last person to handle Brittany could have been a mistake. She might have tired of being handed around. I barely noticed the reactions of the other volunteers; I was concentrating on the snake. And then she was placed in my outstretched hands. She had worked herself into a huge bow with her face in the middle. She was very still. She looked at me as if she knew that I was terrified.
Barely breathing, I said, “Hi, Brittany. Ooh, you are being so good. You’re not moving.”
And something passed between us that let me know I had nothing to fear from her. She had the sweetest, dearest little face. Snakes I had seen in magazines and on television had evil faces, and looked positively wicked. But not Brittany. Her face exuded gentleness and goodness. I knew without knowing how that she would not harm me. Brittany and I bonded! People guffaw when I say this, but it’s so true. And then she began moving and I handed her to the instructor. After our training ended, I went in several times and worked with the instructor and Brittany. I learned that snakes feel their surroundings with their tongue. I learned to let Brittany do that to me. I stood very still and as she flicked her tongue over my arms and hands and I became quite comfortable with her.

For our final exam each volunteer had to go into a different room and handle and talk about the animal in that room. I did fine with most of them. The chinchilla got away from me when I was putting him back in his carrying case. The instructor and I ran around the office trying to catch him. I was thankful that we were not out in a park! The last room I walked into contained a pillowcase tied at the top. I knew a snake was in there. I prayed tht it was Brittany, but I couldn’t be sure. I looked at the bag and I looked at the tester. If Brittany was in the bag I knew I would be fine, but if another snake was in there, I didn’t know what I would do. I began shaking. I was not ready to handle another snake – I only felt safe with Brittany. I knew the snakes were not vicious and they were not poisonous. None of that mattered. I did not want to come face to face with some strange snake. I had only been introduced to Brittany and I only wanted to see Brittany. I was terrified. I began visibly shaking. I was scared and disappointed in myself, and then the tears began to flow. I knew my dearest dream of working with animals was ended because I could not open that bag. I timidly asked if Brittany was in the bag. The tester said he could not tell me. I was paralyzed. There was no way I was going to open that bag. I stood staring at the bag, and he waited. Finally he asked me to tell him about Brittany and I did. I knew all about ball pythons and why they were called that, what they ate in the wild and what they ate at the zoo and on and on. I could barely talk. I was so upset and I could not take my eyes off the bag. I wanted to get out of that room before whatever was in the bag got out of the bag. I finished and fled. I returned to the instructor’s office feeling very dejected and disappointed in myself. There was just no way I oculd open that bag and no way could I handle any snake other than Brittany. I learned that Brittany had been in the bag. The instructor comforted me by saying that I was too hard on myself and she insisted that I would be a wonderful volunteer who would come to love snakes. She was partly right; I was a good volunteer, and while I enjoyed working with all of the snakes, the ball pythons were always my favorites.

And then I met our other program snakes: corn snakes, milk snakes, the majestic king snake and later, the most awesome snake ever, Bob, a huge ball python who was a gentle giant. Bob was extremely heavy and when I took him out to do a program, I could only hold him for so long. He was an awesome snake, and he was so laid back. I enjoyed taking Bob out to meet people. Not too many wanted to meet him, but he seemed to look forward to meeting them.

We were taught to watch for signs of stress in all of our animals. If too many people surrounded an animal, or if too many people tried to touch it at once, it could become stressed, and it might bite its handler. None of the volunteers was ever bitten. The reptiles, like our other program animals, did not seem to mind being touched and rubbed by children and adults alike. Most people think snakes are cold and slimy. In fact, they feel like a basketball and they are not slimy at all, as many people learned. It was such a joy to present to an admiring public the wonderful, fascinating, wild creatures who share our world. I felt blessed and privileged that these animal ambassadors trusted me to be gentle with them, and to introduce them to the public.

The Bible tells us that when peace and justice prevail, the wolf will be the guest of the lamb, instead of the lamb being the dinner of the wolf; the leopard will nap with the goat, and the baby calf and the baby lion will graze together. The cow and the bear will be neighbors. A baby will play happily beside the cobra's den. And no harm will come to any of them. What a glorious day. I will caress the mane of a majestic lion; tickle the tummy of a black bear; walk on ice with a polar bear and her cub, knowing that they will take care of me. I'll rub the tusk of a rhino, admire the ivory teeth of a hippo, and talk to an anaconda snake about his life in the rain forest. I'll caress the chin of a majestic elephant, and cuddle her baby; kneel down to chat with a gigantic tortoise, and each of us will understand the other's language.

Imagine the joy of St. Francis who had the amazing ability to speak to animals about God, and they listened! He spoke to the birds, and wolves, and other wild things. They never harmed him. What a gift God gave to St. Frances. Oh, that I could come close to having a small part of that same gift. And in some ways, my request has been granted.

When the first African elephant conceived through artificial insemination was born in the Indy zoo, I was among the volunteers privileged to meet her when she was about three months old. She was adorable. She and her mother were in their exercise yard. Amali greeted each of us. She kept coming over to the fence to me and I put my fingers through to rub her little trunk. She was like all babies, curious, extremely sociable, and mama Kubwa was content to see her baby having a great time with humans who obviously adored her. Animals feel love.

When we received our three white rhinos from South Africa, volunteers were allowed to meet them early on. My first question was, “Can we pet them?” “Yes,” was the reply! I was in heaven. I could pet a rhino. Well, they had had a mud bath the day before and the mud was caked on them. It was like petting a Mack truck! I doubt that they even felt the petting. It was weird to pet an animal whose skin you could not feel. I only felt that thick coating of mud. I didn’t feel that I was petting an animal, but it was still a treat to be up close and personal with rhinos.

My hat is off to all the awesome creatures that allowed me to introduce them to their public, but especially to Brittany for taking away my terrible fear and loathing of snakes, for which I will always be grateful. Thank you, Brittany!

1 comment:

  1. dolores crowleySaturday, 29 May, 2010

    ahhhh,well done"oh, good and faithful servant"...
    humor mixed with insight goodness and challenges...a tendered soul, heart and