At one time in my convoluted life I worked as a zoo keeper. Yeah, I have a few stories about those days. One that sticks in my mind most had its genesis on one of those most unlikely of days; you know, the kind of day when everything seems fresh and innocent . . . the sky is clear as cubic zirconia, the mild temperature is perfect for working or just being outdoors, the air is awash with the mixed scents of nature, and you just start to think that there’s no way you’ll get attacked by an ostrich today.
As I recall, my coworkers and I had finished the primary duties of the day, caring for the animals in our area including feeding and checking on their health, and cleaning exhibits and off-exhibit areas. The middle part of the day often consisted of working on projects involving maintenance, repair, or botanical care.
For some reason, on this particular day, I decided to depart from the routine for a few minutes and take more hay to our zebras. I don’t remember my reasoning for doing this. I suspect, in hindsight, that it was more a total lack of reasoning on my part. Regardless, I got this idiotic notion in my head that our zebras needed more hay. Now, as I said, this was a departure from routine, and that alone should have had red flashing beacons and sirens going off in my head. One must always take great care in departing from routine around animals. Especially animals that can kill you. Animals tend to like routine. Quite often, what they don’t like is zoo keepers.
At this particular zoo, during the time I worked there (some twenty years ago), we happened to have possibly two of the tamest zebras at any zoo in the U.S. These two zebras were out on exhibit during this time of the day, along with an adolescent male ostrich, both species being native to the African savanna. This particular exhibit was in the planning stages for major renovation, but at this time it consisted primarily of a large open field enclosed with eight foot high chain link fence. Lots and lots of room, in any case, for the animals to run like the wind or just hang out at the back of the exhibit, away from the visiting public and us pesky zoo keepers, if they so desired.
The ostrich, as I mentioned, was an adolescent, and we’d had him there at the zoo since he was pretty young, so we were used to him, and he was used to us. The zebras were an older pair, and unusually tame, as I said, so we often had occasion to enter their exhibit even when they were in it, as well.
So for some reason I decided the zebras needed more hay. Perhaps because it was such a beautiful, innocent day, I thought they might like to prance an extra special amount today and thus required more hay-energy. I told the coworker I was with at the time, and perhaps due to what seemed my confident and jovial behavior, but was actually stupidity as a high performance art, my plan did not set off an alarm in his head, either. I went into the zebra building and grabbed a partial bail of hay and a sturdy push broom. The broom was a routine thing, just to keep the animals a little at bay if they got overly curious.
I walked out to the gate of the exhibit, where we would normally drive a truck in to clean or do other maintenance while the animals were locked inside the building. I unlocked the gate, as the animals were all visible near the back, or far end, of the enclosure. I entered, then chained and padlocked the gate behind me so there would be no risk of an animal escaping. The feeding area where I wanted to deposit the hay was perhaps twenty yards from the gate. I started to walk that direction.
At some point, I looked up to check on the animals. The zebras were still lounging near the back of the exhibit, perhaps some eighty yards or so from me. I didn’t see the ostrich right away, though it had been hanging out in the zebras’ general area. Ostriches are not the smartest of creatures, and sometimes they would just take off running for no apparent reason, as if they’d suddenly seen a bug move on the ground or something, and mistook it for a predator. Then, after several steps, once they’d forgotten why they had started running, they’d stop, and eat a different bug off the ground. I did see the ostrich moving then, but it didn’t stop after several steps this time. It was sprinting at top speed, running like the wind. Directly toward me.
I paused for an instant, not quite believing my eyes. Yes, it was running right at me, and it was not slowing down. If ostriches had a gaze that indicated any kind of coherent intelligence, ours would have locked.
The next few seconds are a blur.
I think I dropped the hay. I know I started running back toward the gate. I yelled my coworker’s name as loud as I could, perhaps multiple times. Imagine Tarzan’s yell, and then mix in a teenage girl screaming at a concert. Then double the volume. That’s what I sounded like.
An adult male ostrich can weigh 350 pounds and run 43 miles per hour. They can kill a lion with one kick. This ostrich was nearly fully grown. I had gotten to within about 15 or 20 feet from the gate. My petrified scream had not only gotten the attention of my coworker, but also a construction worker that had been a couple of hundred feet away working on a new exhibit. Both came running.
I must have used the push broom to try to protect myself, because in the aftermath it was found with the handle snapped off. I ended up curled on the ground, on my side, with the ostrich trying to do a dance on top of me. By that time, my coworker was struggling to get the gate unlocked. The construction worker, bless his soul, ran up to the chain link fence a few yards from the gate and yelled at the ostrich and pounded on the chain link to get the bird’s attention. That worked, thank goodness, and the ostrich left me to run at the construction worker. In trying to attack the other man, the bird kicked the fence and left a large, permanent dent in the chain link about 4 feet up.
At that point, I think the ostrich forgot what it had been doing. It suddenly turned and ran away at high speed. Perhaps it had seen another bug.
My coworker got the gate open right around that moment and helped me up and out of the exhibit. I had been extraordinarily fortunate, and only ended up with a deep bruise on one of my thighs that gave me a limp for a few weeks. I can only guess that the ostrich broke the broom as I tried to stop or redirect its charge, then knocked me to the ground with a kick to my leg. Somehow in its war dance over my broken form, it managed to avoid disemboweling me or crushing my ribs or my skull.
I recalled something then, after this episode. For a few weeks preceding, this ostrich had started to become increasingly aggressive and territorial as it neared sexual maturity. As a consequence, keepers had been prohibited from any longer entering the same enclosure with the animal.
Shortly after the incident, the same day, I was called up to the zoo director’s office. Up to that point, I had been a pretty reliable and trustworthy keeper, maybe even something of a curator’s pet. But I’d just blown that reputation to smithereens. I sucked it up and headed for the third floor office of the administration building. I certainly deserved whatever trouncing I got from the boss. But I definitely wasn’t used to being in that position. My best hope was to take a stance of admission and contrition.
I walked into the office. The man behind the desk, the same one who had interviewed and hired me a year or two before, asked me first how I was, which I’m sure he already knew. I mumbled something repentantly. He may have asked, just to be certain, whether I felt I needed any medical attention, which I didn’t.
Then he asked, “Well, did you learn anything?”
I nodded. “Yeah, I learned I’m capable of doing really stupid things sometimes.”
To the best of my recollection, I think he just laughed and sent me back to work. I guess he figured he wouldn’t be too hard on me, since I’d nearly just gotten myself killed, and he knew that I knew that.
Yeah, who knew that one of the stupidest creatures on the planet would teach me the life lesson that if I wasn’t careful, I could be just as stupid.