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The Siberian tiger roared and twisted his massive body as he pressed his paws against the chain-link fence. Miniscule dirt particles trickled from his raised paws while saliva strings dripped from his gaping mouth. I stood on the other side of the fifteen foot fence, entranced; unable to stop staring into the animal’s enormous emerald eyes.
A heavy weight fell onto my left shoulder. I let out a yelp and spun around to meet whatever dangerous creature had been let loose from its pen.
“A little jittery this morning, Caitlyn?” Hearing the playful voice of my new employer, Katja, I lowered my guard and squinted against the blinding desert sunlight. She turned to look at the prowling tiger.
“Don’t tell me you’re afraid of Khan? He’s a jokester. Khan likes to play with the newcomers. He just wants his breakfast.” Katja led me to the nearby “kitchen” and held open the heavy metal door. I walked across the threshold and promptly fell down. I rose up on my hands and knees to find Katja laughing at me and holding a very disgruntled looking turtle.
Working as an assistant animal keeper out in the Red Rock Desert, I routinely found myself interacting with menacing “beasts”. Every Saturday I would drive 40 miles to donate my time and possibly my limbs. The impelling force was my unique animal charges. Animal Ark isn’t your average petting zoo. It’s a wildlife sanctuary for animals that cannot be released back into the wild; meaning a refuge for untamed and outwardly ferocious creatures.
Under Katja’s watchful eye, I cared for cheetahs, raccoons, and a peregrine falcon. I became befriended with Yogi the black bear and Sundari the snow leopard. I chased lynx and frolicked with my favorite silver fox, Effie; who liked to leap upon by back and lick my ears. The only tame animal I worked with was Mr. Peabody, the desert tortoise who tripped me on my first day. He has since forgiven me for scuffing his shell.
Saturdays soon became the most enjoyable day of my week. Puttering up the long driveway in my Suzuki, inhaling the rich aroma of desert flowers, pulling into my reserved parking space adjacent the dumpster; it all gave me the same feeling. I mattered. These animals needed me to survive and were happy to be dependent. This gave me an overwhelming sense of responsibility and motivated me to never miss a Saturday, no matter how early eight o’clock seemed. I know that my time there was not wasted. I will never forget the feeling of euphoria one gets from observing a living thing grow from your love and care. The animals taught me how to be truly responsible for someone other than myself and how to think on my feet in the face of danger. I learned more at Animal Ark than how to dodge tiger spray.
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