The wolves have started blowing their coats, which means we have several weeks of serious grooming ahead of us. Their copious undercoats begin loosening—gradually at first, then rapidly, before tapering off into those last few clinging, clumpy mats that drive us all insane.
As our wolf experts Kim and Frank Pyne always say, much of the reason the wolves enjoy interacting with their trained handlers so much is because of the excellent grooming that our opposable thumbs and bendy fingers provide. Our ability to pull out large, itchy handfuls of loose fur make us excellent companions. They will be content to flop down next to us (as long as we are in the shade) and relax, which usually results in the squishiest wolf of all… the wolf who is so very exhausted that it can’t do anything but let you groom it.
And if we try to leave, sometimes there will be a paw extended in our direction (“giving paw” as we say), silently but definitively requesting more attention. This is how they let us know that it’s just not time for us to go do whatever relatively unimportant task we were going to do. And so begins summer with our wolves.
The heat is setting in. Everyone is slowing down. The wolves and lions are a little less attentive—every movement seems to take extra effort—and at any moment, a nap could become a necessity. These are the days when the animals are the most pliable (our word for this is “melty” or “mushy”) and in some ways, the heat makes them incredibly frustrating. Trying to convince a lion to shift into another part of the enclosure when it’s above 75 degrees outside is a feat. When a keeper achieves this at temperatures above 90 degrees, it warrants a call over the radio and applause from the whole staff.
This is the time of year when the binturongs begin to pant, signaling to the keepers that it’s time to break out the pools and fans, which will stay with them until the heat of the summer subsides. The sound of running water can be heard all over the park as water tubs are emptied, cleaned, and refilled. Getting the lion prides to oof for an afternoon tour can be embarrassing, as they may only twitch their ears in polite acknowledgement of the humans bellowing in their direction.
The impending summer brings new challenges. Anywhere between 55 and 75 degrees is reasonable for the outdoor work, but when the heat crests 90 degrees, the already-difficult laboring of the animal care staff becomes astonishingly arduous. Water buckets are rapidly lapped down, pools and tubs require daily cleaning (as they are sometimes used by our animals to make what we call “chicken soup,” which is even more appetizing than what you are envisioning), and the ongoing battle of our tour paths against vines, nettles, and other vegetation persists with a vengeance.
Our keepers begin to encounter any number of creepy crawlies as the weather heats up—everything from the scary-but-benign (giant wolf spiders…) to the truly awful. (Ever stood on top of a yellow jacket’s nest? Don’t, or you too may have the joy of running pants-less down our tour path, which is not nearly as fun as it sounds.)
The challenges of the season extend to other areas of the organization as well. Tour guides must maintain their upbeat tenor in the incredibly challenging conditions. Whether it’s the guide’s first tour of the day or third, they must maintain the effusiveness to sustain a group’s attention, especially in the heat. It doesn’t seem like it should be so difficult, but I can speak from experience when I say that it is truly draining. Our tour guides don’t let their exhaustion show, although it’s difficult to conceal the inevitable sunburn, the sweat-soaked clothes, and overall wilted appearance that accompanies it all.
Our office staff, who know how lucky they are to work in the air conditioning, help ease these challenges by keeping vats of cold Gatorade ready for weary volunteers and staff, coordinating for coolers of drinks to be taken out to personnel at regular intervals, and stocking the building with everything required to tend bug bites, sunburn, heat exhaustion, and the other inevitabilities of the season.
Together we move through, generally in good humor, because that’s what we do.
But like seasons do, spring and summer come with their own pleasures. Warm nights encourage more evening activity, so the Center is abuzz with noise deeper into the twilight. This is the time of year when Arthur Tiger enjoys an engaging (but sometimes bittersweet) game of Tiger Tetris as he determines whether or not he can fit in his pool with all of the toys he’s drowned in it. (His tire has died many an honorable death on many a hot summer’s day.) This is the time of year when you can see the lemurs sun-worshipping on their hammocks, the binturongs taking their tails for a dip in their pools, and the tigers dozing in their tubs.
For our people, this is the time of year when we stay at work late, and it doesn’t always seem as onerous as it should. Twilight Tours move later into the evening, overnight programs with Girl Scouts and other groups abound, and work stretches into and long past dinnertime. Meetings are conducted outside—sometimes in singing-dog enclosures—and staff can be seen bent over laptops in the sun, wearing sunglasses in order to see their screens.
When the tour guides begin oofing, conversations and meetings with staff and volunteers break off as everyone joins in. For visitors mingling and awaiting their tours, it must be a bit bizarre for several people to begin bellowing in response to someone yelling unseen in the distance, and I’m sure it’s especially peculiar when the lions choose not to respond, because no explanation is really provided until they have the opportunity to meet our lions during their tour. It’s in these moments where the unique culture we have built around these animals is truly evident, and completely of our own creation.
And so, we move toward the summer. We focus on the positives while acknowledging and preparing for the negatives. Hurricanes can result in up to a week of abject disruption, so we watch the weather wearily. And we know that the severe thunderstorms that periodically crop up are being closely monitored by our long-time volunteer and beloved friend, Kim Barker, who will call and keep us updated when it looks like we may have something come upon us. Many a time she has tracked storm movement, which is critical knowledge for our personnel (because when you’re wrestling with a rogue shade cloth, checking the weather online is really just not feasible). Having had her own encounters with weather at the Center—suffice it to say that we call her Sparky for a reason—she knows how critical it is that we focus on keeping both our animals and our people safe.
The seasons are a pronounced part of our experience, and each comes with its own implications and complications.
Each season forces us to reflect, and we are always surprised that we’ve somehow accomplished a lot more than seemed possible a year ago. That’s what we focus on when things get difficult. And so, I have found that the best way to meet each new season is with open arms, because it is yet another season that our human/animal microcosm is growing, evolving, and thriving at the Conservators’ Center.
Julia Matson Wagner
Senior Director of Administration, Conservators’ Center
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