“Thanks a lot,” I hiss at Will. He smiles good-naturedly, running a hand through his thick brown hair. “It’s about time you led a tour. You’ll be good at it; just tell them what I’ve been telling you." He meets my incinerating glare with his cool blue eyes, and keeps staring.
Eventually, I give in. “Alright, fine, I’ll lead one.” I nearly spit the words.
Will has been my friend for a long time, but recently, I haven’t seen much of him. He kept telling me that he was ‘working his job.’ When I demanded to know what was so engrossing at his place of employment, he invited me to come to work with him on his day off. After a look-around, I immediately applied for the same position as him. Why? He’s working at a dinosaur zoo. At least, that was my first impression.
Will says that, technically, it’s a sanctuary park of sorts, for animals regular zoos reject. Aggressive, disfigured, inbred, and otherwise unwanted dinosaurs are housed here; however, the management didn’t want to call it a sanctuary. They named the place Dinosaur Zoological Park instead.
I stump away from Will, towards the cluster of guests. Why the heck would he spring this on me? He knows I don't do well interacting with people I don't know.
By the time I reach them, I’ve pasted a smile onto my face.
“Hello, my name is Rachel, and I’ll be directing your tour today. If you’ll please follow me, we can start our excursion. Is everyone ready?” They murmur affirmatively, so I turn and start walking, with the group close behind me. Will is probably going to follow me, like he has for other people being trained in, but he’ll hang out at the back, especially since I’m mad at him.
The dinosaurs spend most of their time in outdoor enclosures, with small buildings called night pens adjoining them. The first compound we reach is inhabited by a dinosaur who’s notorious for impromptu aggression, especially when there are multiple guests watching him, but I’ve been working on a relationship with him. I see Will coming, and quickly open the outer gate. Before I can change my mind, I’ve gone through the inner gate too, and locked it behind me.
This isn’t a very intelligent decision, but right now I just want to do anything I possibly can to aggravate Will. I’ll be fine. Tut will be fine with it. He’s happy to see me. As I proceed further into his pen, the occupant comes to me slowly, as always, probably wondering if I’ve got any tidbits for him. There are gasps and exclamations as I reach out to him, intending to scratch that itchy spot on his neck like he usually wants, but he backs away. That’s fine, I tell myself. He doesn’t always want to be touched. I pivot to face the group.
“This guy is named Tut, and he’s a male deltadromeus, which are carnivorous. He’s a juvenile, so he’s still got some growing to do; eventually, he’ll be around eight feet tall. Are there any questions so far?”
A girl’s hand goes up. She looks about 12 or 13, and she’s been at the front of the group the whole time.
“Can we come in with him now?”
I turn away from the girl’s imploring gaze, and look at Will, aghast. He’s frowning, and I feel a momentary burst of glee.
I’ve heard people ask him this question nearly every time he’s given this tour, but I’m still surprised, and I guess it shows on my face. When Will notices that I’m eyeballing him, he shrugs and sweeps out his arm, the same gesture he always accompanies with a boisterous ‘Take it away!’
I refocus on my ‘friendly tour guide’ demeanor, and start talking.
“I’m sorry, but no, you can’t. Are there any more questions?”
The girl’s hand shoots up again.
“Why can’t we?”
As I’m formulating my answer, I feel the energy around me change. I turn around, putting my back to the fence and the crowd on the other side.
Tut has backed way up, about thirty feet, and is staring at me. When he sees that I’m looking at him, he stands as tall and straight as he can, and starts bobbing his head, while making very deliberate eye contact.
This is not good. God, please help me, I pray.
I hear Will’s voice behind me.
“Rachel, you’re okay. Eyes down, don’t stare back. Don’t run, he’s faster than you. Just back up until you hit the fence. I’ll get the gate for you.”
I know all that. Some people might have forgotten these guidelines, but I haven’t - yet. Although Will might justly be questioning this, since I’m in this situation . . .
I back up until I hit the fence. I don’t want to take my eyes off Tut; I’m not sure what he’ll do.
“To your left,” Will murmurs. I edge that way.
And then I’m out, and Will is locking the gate behind me. He looks into my eyes, and I look back. Then he turns toward the outer gate and lifts his eyebrows. I lead the way.
Once the outer gate is locked, I take a deep breath and turn to the crowd. Will is already behind them again. I smile and say,
“As part of the animal enrichment staff, I get to work with amazing animals like Tut, but I have to be careful that I don’t end up enriching his diet!” Nervous smiles and laughter go through the crowd.
“Tut regards this pen as his territory, and just now, he was displaying possessive behavior. By his behavior, he was indicating that he wanted me, the only other being in his territory, out, now.”
Don’t look at Will, keep smiling, keep talking, keep taking questions. Start walking to the next enclosure.
“Many of the animals here are tame. But tame does not mean the same thing as domesticated. An animal like a cow or a dog is what we would call domesticated. They could survive on their own in the wild, but they’re content to live with humans and be provided for. An animal like an elephant or a wolf is non-domesticated, but they can be tamed, whether wild or in captivity. If they are in captivity, they don’t have much to do on their own. They can get from one end of their ‘territory’ to the other easily and quickly. They can’t get food on their own; they have to rely on humans for it. And they probably have humans looking at them every day. Eventually, some of them seek human companionship; other times, it’s offered, and they take it.
“However, if they are not in captivity, they have a large territory to roam, and they can probably still provide for themselves, both food and company. They’ll be less likely to seek human companionship.”
By this time, I’ve stopped outside of another pen.
“Here at Dinosaur Conservation & Rescue League's Cypress Center, we offer many of the animals human/animal relationships. We do this to give them more variety in their lives, and to help combat boredom. A bored animal is an unhappy animal, and boredom can eventually cause a psychosis of sorts. This would make it much more difficult to work with and care for them. Since we have them in captivity, we want to provide for their comfort to the best of our abilities.
“The people who fill the human side of the relationship are mostly members of the animal enrichment staff, like me. However, I don’t have a relationship with every animal here. Such as these guys.” I motion to the pen.
“These two are adult female ornitholestes. Ornitholestes are carnivorous; they typically live . . .”
About a half hour later, I flop down on the ground next to Will. He’s watching a eustreptospondylus paddling around in a pool. He named it Riptide, and they have a really good relationship.
Will glances at me.
“How’d you like your first tour?”
“It wasn’t fun.”
“Really? You’re such a people person!”
“When I read the job description for the animal enrichment staff, ‘conducting tours’ was not on it.”
Will looks sideways at me.
“Did Tut scare you?”
For a moment, my body tenses, but then I relax. “Yes,” I admit.
“Come on then.” Will gets up and leads the way to Tut’s pen.
We’re not doing this as if he’s a horse. Where a horse is concerned, you need to re-establish that you’re the leader and they’re the follower, not the other way around. Right now, we need to find out if Tut reacts negatively to me on sight. Neither of us is going to force ourselves into his space if he seems agitated; that could be dangerous.
When we reach Tut’s enclosure, I’m not sure what to do. Should I call out to him? Just stand here? He sees us, and comes up to the inner fence.
“I don’t want to go in,” I say.
“You don’t have to,” Will responds.
“No. I mean ever.”
We stand silently together.
“You know, I could report you for gross negligence of protocols.”
“Yeah, I know.”
There’s not a hard and fast rule against going in with Tut during tours, but nobody does. I guess they didn't expect anyone to have a fit of doltishness. It would be perfectly reasonable for Will to report me. Since he’s a supervisor of sorts, I’d probably get fired if he pushed it.
“But I’m not going to, because I don’t think you’re going to let your anger get in the way of your sound judgement again.”
“Why do you think that? I’m only human, and I have a temper.”
“I don’t just think that, I know that you’re not going to risk your life so casually again. Like you just said, you’re human, and self-preservation is a typical human trait.”
Will knows how much I like animals, and he often makes similes between their behavior and human behavior. It works annoyingly well.
“Also, there’s a new raptor coming in tomorrow. An illegal fighter just got busted, and his participant animal got confiscated.”
He knows I love raptors. “It must be in bad shape if it’s coming here. Aren’t all the menageries desperate for seized raptors, because of the breeding restrictions?”
“I haven’t seen any pictures, but from what I’ve heard, he’s been pretty badly maltreated.”
“I’ll be here tomorrow then, God willing.”
“I was counting on it.”
I turn to leave.
“...and Rachel,” he says.
I look back.
He grins. "I’ll be praying for you. About that temper of yours.”
“Thanks a lot,” I reply, smiling.