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  • Working as a junior keeper in the giraffe and elephant barn instilled in me a respect of things wilder and bigger than I.

    There was Brett, the elephant handler, with his frizzy red beard and frayed flannel and penchant for old school heavy metal, Frank Sinatra, and Bob Dylan, who would storm into the library each Saturday morning and berate PJ and I for being late. "You know where I've been all morning? Doing YOUR JOB. I've been out in the elephant yard picking up each oak leaf BY HAND! Fucking lazy good-for-nothings! Jesus, do you need a special invitation to come to work?!" He'd slam a metal folding chair around, vehemently quoting Wordsworth at us, then rage out. All the while we bit our lips to stifle laughter; Brett was the most lovable, friendly guy you'd ever meet. We had all of the other junior keepers scared shitless of him, though.

    One day, between tasks, he sauntered over to PJ and I, and said slyly, "I got a pincher," showing us the blood blister on his finger. He took out his pocketknife and his half-smile and said, matter-of-factly, "I gotta lance it," and proceeded to spurt blood all over the floor. "I did it to benefit you kids," he laughed at our incredulous, amazed disgust and awe.

    We shared a love of Black Sabbath, Brett and I. Every Saturday morning, some CD was blasting through the barn. Sabbath, Sinatra, Metallica, some obscure grunge band he met in Chicago. We turned those giraffes and elephants into metalheads.

    Brett's carefree mien was as volatile as New England weather. He'd go from tousling PJ's hair to speaking dangerously low and soft, cautioning us gravely of the dangers of the barn. "The elephants have been fighting today," he'd growl. "I don't want you anywhere near that side of the barn, or they could kill you in a second."

    Risking my life every Saturday morning was a rush; I loved it. See, as crazy as Brett was, there were entities of greater proportions to deal with. Jaffa, the pubescent boy of the three giraffes, was prone to kicking. Feeding him could be a lively dance, constantly on your toes. Once I saw Jaffa and one of the older females, Amber, fighting. They galloped around their enclosure, crashing their long, graceful, delicate necks into each other like rapiers in a rogue swordfight. Moments like these reminded me of the raw power of these wild beings.

    Above all were the three monstrous African elephants: Ginny, Kate, and Alice. Have you ever heard an elephant growl? It's a chilling sound, so low it's felt more than it's heard and it shakes you right down to your core. On rare occasion, I was permitted to enter the elephant enclosure and feed Alice. These days, every possible precaution was taken. I had to know my exits, and if anything went wrong to get out and not worry about Brett or the other keepers. It was drilled into me. The first time I fed her yams, and when they were all gone she reached out and touched my stomach with her trunk and snatched away my breath. I stroked her leathery skin, honored that this mammoth soul, who could maul me in an instant, was so gently touching me.

    During my stint at the zoo, I fell in love with those six animals and all of their strange and wonderful caretakers. Sometimes, when powerful spirits are caged, we forget about their abilities. I was reminded to never doubt the wildness of anything.
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