One morning, I rolled over in bed and looked at the clock. It was three a.m. in Kendalia, Texas, and I had insomnia on account of the windstorm ravaging the tin foundation of the trailer I lived in. I had to be up before the sun rose to start work feeding the animals, but let it be known that I was not complaining. I found it strangely comforting having only a thin wall separating me from the wind and rain.
Assigned to do the dreaded “Meat Run” for the day, I loaded up the truck bed with eight large empty garbage cans, stacked four and four lying on their sides. Praying my GPS skills were up to par, I plugged in Wal-Mart, my first meat pick-up destination, and set off with an ETA forty-eight minutes from departure. Merging onto the highway, I increased the speed to sixty.
Had I been singing a decibel louder, I might have missed the bouncing and bumping and smacking noises behind me. A look into the rearview mirror showed two trash cans hurtling through the air, two others poised for take-off. I rolled my eyes, a mix of frustration and amusement, U-turned once, twice, and pulled into the grass next to the rolling bins. Of course, such a rare and fantastical event couldn’t go unnoticed. I was joined by a heavy-set man from inside the store near to where my lost goods stalled. He came barreling toward me, shouting excitedly, “I saw it! I saw it!” as if the garbage bins had just descended from a UFO. Remembering my Safety Town lecture “Don’t talk to strangers,” I waved him off.
“Yeah, that was me. Oops. Have a nice day.” My attempt at a subtle dismissal was overlooked.
“Where, uh, where do you work?” he said, plainly and non-coquettishly.
“At the wildlife center next town over.” Dishonesty would have been futile; a magnet with WRR’s logo stuck to the side of the truck.
“Oh yeah, yeah, I’ve heard of you guys. I called you once about a deer.”
“Mmm hmm, we have a lot of deer these days.” Headed toward the truck bed, I hollered back another pleasant dismissal, smiled and climbed into the driver’s side. The rest of the drive to store number one would be a slow one.
As cautioned, I was sure to rope the meat-filled bins together on my return route. I looped the rope over the lids and through the handles, criss-crossing here and there, creating an indistinguishable, irregular grid. I stepped back to look at my work and dare I say, was pleased as pie.
Even so, smooth running was not in the cards for me that day.
Another highway and all chaos broke loose. Focused on the merge, I put a cap on my aria solo which provided me the unique opportunity to watch one trash can lid fly off onto the busy road behind me, followed immediately by another. I cringed, peering into the rearview mirror as a trail of cars headed straight for them. Knowing there could be no saving those lids from utter destruction, my hands gripped the wheel and my gaze focused forward, daring not to make eye contact with any drivers passing me by. Instead, I opted to pretend I had no idea such an event had unfolded on I-281.
The “Meat Run” would not have been such an undesirable task if it ended there. But in addition to the three-hour drive and hauling of raw meat onto the truck, I had to unload… and then sort through each piece of dead animal. And dead animal with a hint of sourness was exactly the odor of eight bins of meat in a poorly ventilated, humid, eighty degree garage. Add the flies and the constant fending off of vultures that snuck their way in to steal a treat, and the “Meat Run” is the most revolting thing I’ve ever done.
Ten hours, five gallons of sweat, one hundred twenty-eight songs on my I-pod and eight hundred pounds of meat later, I fled to the shower. The smell of raw meat stung my nostrils for the next week. But this is what you have to do if you want to work with lions and tigers and the occasional bear, oh my. A job that’s much more glamorous on the outside than it is on the inside. Well, we have our moments of glamour.
The first time I used a machete to slice through a horse thigh (hair and all), I awarded myself the red badge of courage. (Literally. Give me a knife and I’m bound to slip up, cutting myself within five minutes.) I couldn’t bring myself to mince up the head, so I gave the whole piece to the lions, figuring the two of them would appreciate it much more than the permanent resident bobcats. The same way that some animals, having died naturally in the clinic, are fed out to permanent residents, WRR also feeds out horses or deer that were put out of their misery by way of a shotgun. It sounds horrible and it is horrible but I never watched the initial slaying, nor did I listen. Ranchers brought us their horses to complete the sometimes repulsive but always necessary cycle of life.