Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Dangerous Animals

I've been longing to walk the bayside trail late in the day, and Saturday that's what I did, setting off just after the park closed, saying goodnight to the rangers passing me as they left for the day. That trail is rich with lichens, and on previous hikes I'd done some lichen color-matching for artworks I'm planning, but always in flat mid-morning light; I knew they'd be more vibrant in late afternoon, that the whole trail would look different.

You should never hike alone. That's a tip I remembered as I turned down the slope. The trail
did look different. Shadowy, dim; with the sun already on the west side of the peninsula, it was positively crepuscular. And narrower, the shrubs pressing in, the cliffs looming. And suddenly I also remembered a dinner party the weekend before.

I've had to turn down many dinner invitations (people have been incredibly kind and generous), only because even putting in full days, I'm so short on time for art-making that it's how I spend my evenings, too. An evening out means work from that day still not finished. But last weekend my brother-in-law and his wife came to San Diego. We went to dinner, along with several other folks who were in town with them for a police chiefs conference.

No, my relatives aren't police officers. They're actually both rocket scientists. Really. I won't go into how anyone in rocket science got involved in police science. Or why the number two ranked boxer in the world was also in our dinner party, or why it included the woman who sat across from me -- who'd survived a mountain lion mauling while hiking in Los Angeles. Few people live through an attack by a large carnivore; if you're alone you're almost certainly going to die. She survived because she'd been hiking with another person, the friend who was sitting next to her at dinner.

Our oldest son survived a dog mauling only because he wasn't alone. Also because a few months before, he'd had animal attack training in scouts, and practiced protecting his face and belly: rolling in a ball, making fists and clenching them over his ears. He was nine. It was a Doberman Pinscher, a friend's dog. It happened in our living room. Nearly half of his scalp is a network of scars: that's the amount of damage done in
seconds, the time it took us to pull and kick the dog off him. 

If I hadn't known about her lion mauling, I couldn't have guessed it. Scars, yes, but she looked good. Several reconstructive surgeries and the passage of time. Rolling in a ball won't protect you in a mountain lion attack. I've heard people claim confidence they'd be able to fight off a mountain lion. Know-how and strength and testosterone, and possibly carrying a weapon. I say
not likely, buster. They're pros. Stronger than you can possibly imagine, they use silent stealth to their advantage, and kill mammals your size for a living. Literally.

There aren't mountain lions in Point Loma. There haven't been mountain lions in Point Loma for generations. There's only archeological evidence to indicate they were
ever there. This I know, in my rational heart. But I have a creative imagination. And exercise, like hiking or walking, is excellent for stimulating creativity. Hiking a narrow path carved in the vegetation, with sandstone ledges and cliffs on one side -- which provide the PERFECT cover for any concealed lion about to pounce on you -- sets your imagination free. Every shadow drives a wedge that opens the possibility of an animal hiding there, every attempt my rational brain made at reassurance (cripes, there's not enough prey here to support any mountain lion!) was countered by creativity (if there were a mountain lion, it would be very hungry). By the time I got to the bottom of the trail, logic was losing a ridiculous argument. Lichens? Who cares about lichens! Get off this trail.

I'm not afraid of most animals. I've restrained fully awake alligators and sharks, lain on top of anesthetized lions, tigers, and bears. I've been chased by an angry zebra stallion, tussled with other various potentially lethal animals, been bitten by a snake, footed by a hawk, and attacked by a small cat -- an injury that needed two months of treatment. I have what I'd call a healthy respect for all animals, for the potential of situations. When I was a zookeeper, only the big cats gave me the heebie jeebies. Going into the back areas of the big cat enclosures was deeply unnerving. To a degree that still raises my heart rate now. No other zoo animals are so obvious about their intent to kill you; facing groups of them all focused on you, even behind bars, is facing your own mortality.

A common question from zoo visitors: "What's the most dangerous animal here to work with?" With the possible exception of the petting barn, they're all dangerous. My charges included venomous snakes; some on the aquarium crew handled sharks, one crew handled sea lions -- animals with the highest microbial hazard, should you be bitten, than any other animal. The hoofstock crew had to contend with zebra stallions and bull water buffalo, the carnivore crew had bears and wolves, another crew had rhinos and elephants (elephants are responsible for more keeper deaths than any other captive animal), the primate crew had the great apes, the cat crew...well, pretty much every one of their charges was dangerous, and historically more keepers are maimed by cats than by any other zoo animal. But even the bird crew faced lethal potential. My first day as a keeper, an animal escaped. Every keeper crew sent responders to the alert; mine sent me. It was just a small crane, but it had escaped straight into the ostrich herd paddock. They didn't care about the crane being in their enclosure, but they sure didn't want us there, and just before we entered the paddock, one of the bird keepers told me exactly how an ostrich would kill me.

Ostrich can be tamed. So can zebras, and for that matter occasionally there's been success taming some of the great apes. But many zoos make it a practice to keep the animals as wild as possible. This includes limiting physical contact and replicating many of the pressures of their natural environment. Urges regarding territory, hunting and food protection, mating and social behaviors aren't deliberately suppressed, as in taming; add to those the unavoidable pressures of reduced territory size and mating choices in captivity, and urges are magnified. Given the opportunity, OF COURSE animals are going to attack human interlopers. So keepers tend to be fit, young, and cautious. But not afraid.

The most dangerous animal at Cabrillo is the pacific rattlesnake, not commonly encountered. Rattlesnakes don't frighten me. They're easily avoided, they prefer to avoid people, they have plenty of retreat space, and even the
extremely slim chance of being bitten isn't likely to be life-threatening: you're in an urban area; anti-venin is a short drive away. And, I've been bitten by a snake before (not a rattler) and that familiarity dulls worry. If I had any worry about snakes, which I didn't. All I was worrying about was an imaginary mountain lion.

You know how sometimes a little seed of something plants itself in your head, a flash of a fragment of an idea that isn't even articulated...and you can't undo it? You want to shake it off, but can't.

Here's what a good artist does with those little growths, those newborn creative tumors: turns them into art. Like a purging, a closure. Sometimes it makes the best art, that therapeutic kind. I'll definitely be using this strategy. But just so you know -- I won't be displaying any mountain lions in my residency exhibition.
Because there aren't any mountain lions at Cabrillo.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Lisa,

    Just looked up your blog. I think it is so great that you are doing a residency!!!!

    So I had to comment here that I AM sculpting a mountain lion- a rather large one, too. We'll have to see each others work when you get back to the area.

    Have a wonderful and productive time!

    Lisa Reinertson