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The AuthorFrozen in place three feet from one another, neither of us moves a muscle.

He, massive silverback gorilla, is bold Akbar.

I, passive silverhead human, am old Blackie.

Head bowed in submissive stance, I feel his piercing eyes study me, gauge my posture, assess my strength. Fear bathes me, but I’ve come to this time and place with purpose.

Despite the sweat lazily tracing my back, I slowly reach toward the mighty giant, my shaking hand edging closer and closer to his black, leathery fingers. Two hands – one from present times, one from worlds past – match and meet, touch and greet.

Well, they would … if three-inch glass didn’t separate us.

Blackie and the GorillaToledo Zoo attendees, impressed by this display, clap and laugh in admiration. “Well, Ah nevuh!” marvels one of the women in the crowded exhibit. “That fella’s communicatin’ with the monkey!”

As I spout fast facts about the display’s lowland gorillas, some bonehead bangs the window to capture the gorilla’s attention. My easy trickle of perspiration becomes a shirt-soaking flood.

“Stop!” I whirl and shout. “That agitates him!”

“So?” counters Bonehead.

“So,” I spit out in fear and disgust as I nervously watch the ape’s equally nervous motions, “Akbar can come right through this glass!”

The crowd falls back in a single movement. One quaking voice tells many frightened ears, “The keeper says it can kill us!”

Cryin’ out loud, mocks one of my less-polite screens, you didn’t say that!

Hyperfocus hits. (This astonishing power is explained in last week’s column.) Mere mortal mental abilities drop out; ADHD-powered processing kicks in. Fast. Furious. Fabulous. Fun!

That bumpkin just called you a keeper, screens remind me. These people – they’re convinced you work here.

My eyes confirm what my ADHD states. Your pullover matches the polo-styled blue shirt of the Zoo Crew. You have the same black-thread writing across the chest. And all of you are wearing shorts.

The seed (“A keeper!”) is planted. Such seeds, watered by the raging river of ADHD spontaneity, blossom in mayhem and mischief.

“Hey, you’re right,” I say to nobody in particular. “Let’s take this show on the road!” I pull out the tasty lunch lovely Laura whipped up for a hungry husband and start walking toward the next exhibit.

SLoth BearsThe sloth bears are in sight when people whisper behind me, “We’re lucky we caught the tour-leading zookeeper.”
I see, reflected in the glass enclosing the bears, a dozen silent human faces. They await the guide’s wise words.

The shuffling bear runs its snuffling nose along the glass edge, following my scented hands which moments earlier held greasy meat tortilla wraps. So intent on tracking my delicious digits is this bear that its actions draw the second bear. Defying her scientific name, she hustles over to catch whiffs of what the first bear sniffs.

Safe on this side of the glass, I run my hands gently across the thick panes, two small bears matching my movements. When I step back for a moment, several tots run forward to copy what I’ve just done.

The sloths stay still.

“Stupid bears!” shouts a fussing child. I step back up, cite several sloth bear facts and again position my hands so the bears smell them.

Like beautiful magnets, fine furs flawlessly follow fragrant fingers.

Next door is the Siberian – oops, Amur – tigress. She, too, presses against the glass right by me. Tigress licks, cameras click and once again, I am the Wizard of Ahhs. The crowd enjoys the big cat frolicking with its twin cubs, so I conclude the talk, thanking all listeners for having been such a great audience.

Returning alone to the primate exhibit, I visit the huge silverback once more. He is fascinated by my mimicry of his mannerisms. For 30 minutes, we interact. Cameras snap and people clap. Kind zoogoers proudly share digital shots taken moments earlier, the great ape dwarfing my small human frame.

But the gladiator grows bored. His big moment – one for which I steel my nerves – arrives without anyone else expecting it. Akbar straightens, flashes fangs, thumps chest, roars and throws huge body heavily against glass.

The boom is loud. Screams are louder. Tightly packed, horror-stricken humans stay locked in place, exercising lungs for 20 full seconds. A shaky voice finally asks, “How did you get him to do that?”

Just then, Akbar reaches for a female ape and … well, parents scramble to cover young eyes.

I laugh at nature’s ill-timed lesson. A small tap on my back causes me to turn and face a young boy. He shyly asks, “May I have your autograph?”

I smile and lean down. “Why do you want my autograph?”

“My dad says you’re the gorilla whisperer.”

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Postscript: “Does Toledo Zoo have vidcams?” asks my wife, concerned officials may follow up on reports about unusual tour guides.

“I didn’t claim to be someone I’m not, Laura. You can relax. Nobody will ever know what happened today.”

Nearly 18 months later, during Thanksgiving at my twin’s home more than two hours south, my nieces introduce me to their visiting friends. One of the young men walks up to me, putting out a hand. “Hey, it’s you!” he says, smiling broadly. “Toledo Zoo’s gorilla guy, right?”

Other Information and Links

THE REAL GORILLA WHISPERER

A perfect example of what NOT to do at the Zoo

Gorilla attacks kids at Zoo

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