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Animal Magnetism

If it’s true that men are such beasts, this must account for the fact that most women are animal lovers. — Doris Day

According to a recent article in the Boston Globe, over 80 percent of the students at most big-name veterinary schools are female. I’m not surprised. For most young girls, “veterinarian” is just after “princess” in the developmental progression of what one wants to be when one grows up. As the nurturing gender, women are simply more susceptible to being captivated by all things cute and cuddly.

With the exception of cats (because of Mom’s allergy) and ponies (because who did we think we were, anyway), my parents allowed my sisters and me to keep all the creatures we wanted, including, but not limited to, dogs, finches, hamsters, and rabbits. As a child, I didn’t want to be a princess so much as a fairy. But as soon as I learned that hard-to-pronounce word, I joined my fellow female animal lovers in wanting to grow up to be a veterinarian — a profession that would grant me endless days communing with birds, squirrels, and deer, just like all my favorite Disney heroines.

My desire to follow in the footsteps of Dr. Dolittle ended the day I was instructed to dissect a pig fetus in my high-school biology class. I wanted to be close to animals, but not, like, on-the-inside close. I considered other animal-related careers — biologist, zookeeper, or circus trainer — but my research revealed that each of my prospective occupations required long hours spent doing incredibly boring things, such as collecting data and comprehending chemistry, all of which had nothing at all to do with caring for a fuzzy tiger cub or a clever monkey as if it were my very own pet.

Now, 15 years later, I rely on photos and videos culled from the Internet to curb my craving for cuddlesome creatures. I pass my findings on to my friend Jen, who shares my affliction. Each of our email inboxes is filled with links to YouTube videos documenting the antics of all the cutest fuzz balls. Last week, Jen raised the bar — she renewed her membership to the zoo and signed me up for one as well.

My membership had expired three years ago, and I had been remiss in not renewing it. After all, I live only a ten-minute walk away from the animal park’s entrance. David’s never shown much interest in perusing our world-famous menagerie. Jen, however, was interested in tapping the place on a regular basis; once she and I realized we had a dedicated zoo-buddy, we were eager to embark on our animal exploration.

To avoid the weekend surge, Jen and I began our adventure on a Friday. In a rare deviation from the intense early-morning sun glaring across the bright windless blue, the air was generous with cool breezes and the sky remained overcast until well past 10 a.m. We had dedicated this inaugural trip to getting reacquainted with the arrangement of the exhibits. Jen had the better lay of the land, so I followed her lead — down Tiger River, up to Polar Bear Plunge, onto the Skyfari, back to the entrance, then over to Cat Canyon. Knowing we had the next 365 days to return to the zoo as often as we liked, we felt no need to pause for more than 20 seconds beside the enclosures we passed.

As the clouds burned off and the sun reclaimed its unobstructed view of San Diego, Jen and I paused to rest in the shade of a tree beside Elephant Mesa, where a female zookeeper had transformed the task of cleaning the elephant pool into a game with one of the playful pachyderms. The animal seemed to be smiling as, with its trunk, it gleefully intercepted the water shooting from the giant hose in the zookeeper’s arms.

How cool it must be, I thought, to interact so closely with such a majestic creature. Suddenly, I remembered my childhood dream and became envious of the zookeeper and her apparent bond with this animal.

“I used to want to be a veterinarian,” I confessed to Jen as we stood marveling at the scene before us. The elephant had been using its trunk to collect water, but now switched to a broader grin, allowing the water to stream directly into its mouth.

“So did I,” Jen said. “I even worked as a vet’s assistant for awhile.”

“Wow, you actually went through with it. So what happened?”

“I didn’t do it for too long, maybe a couple of months,” she answered. “It bummed me out. I saw mostly sick animals. There was an outbreak of the parvovirus, and we had to put animals to sleep. All these puppies coming in from pet stores were dying in my arms.”

“Yeah, I can see how that would get to someone. What about being a zookeeper?”

“I would love to do that. Let’s do it,” Jen joked, or at least I assumed she was joking. “I’m in.”

The zookeeper’s walkie-talkie squawked. When she turned off the hose and left to respond to the call, the crowd dispersed. Jen insisted we make a special visit to see her favorite animals — the pigs. “I don’t know what it is, but I just adore them,” she said, as we leaned against the wall of the enclosure. “They’re always wagging their tails, and they have the most wonderful faces and eyes — you know, they don’t have the ability to crane their necks, they have to lift their whole head, and those eyes just look up at you…” she trailed off with a sigh.

The pigs were lounging in the afternoon sun, and not doing much else, so we moved on to the meerkats, a species both Jen and I appreciate with the same fanaticism. I was beside myself with excitement when we arrived at the exhibit to find another female zookeeper sitting among the meerkats. “Ohmygod, ohmygod,” I squealed, “I wish I could sit there.” The zookeeper may have been cleaning the meerkat-dug hole of dried brush, but what I saw was a woman communing with cute little mongooses. She wore thick gloves, on which the meerkats tested their teeth. One daring creature climbed onto the zookeeper’s knee and then stood on its teeny hind paws so as to make itself taller and get a better look at the woman’s face. Sure, the scene might have resembled an Alfred Hitchcock–like nightmare for anyone with rodent issues, but it looked to me like Sleeping Beauty singing in the forest.

“God, how awesome would that be?” I said, once I was able to tear my gaze away from the meerkats. “So, what next?”

“I can’t leave without hitting up the petting zoo,” said Jen, as though reading my mind.

Jen and I did our best to tune out the screeching of the children who stood between us and the woolly sheep, coarse-haired goats, and the pig with scaly skin whose nose turned out to be quite soft. Finally, I was close to wild-ish animals, stroking their heads as I would my own pet. This was not like the squirrel encounter I had in the park a few years ago, when I was bitten after trying to touch its furry little head — this was safe. These animals were disease-free and not likely to come at me with tooth and claw.

I shooed human kids out of my way to get closer to the animal kind. From where we stood or crouched to caress our chosen critter (the pig’s nose for Jen and the fluffy fleece of a sheep for me), we caught each other’s eye and shared a big stupid grin. But as cool as it was to get right up next to the pygmy ponies and their friends in the petting zoo, I would have given anything at that moment to be sitting among the meerkats.

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