When I was in Ecuador, I fell asleep to the deafening sounds of insects buzzing about the rainforest canopy. In Europe, my head hit the pillow amidst hushed whispers of fellow backpackers determining their morning plans. At WRR in Texas, I closed my eyes to the sound of a rescued African lion roaring in the hills nearby. I can’t think of many places around the globe where a lion lulls you into a reverie, but little Kendalia, Texas is certainly one of them.
As I worked my way up to “senior” status, more opportunities were extended to me, such as being able to assist with caretaking of the exotic animals. Most of the primates found sanctuary here after years of laboratory research at various facilities throughout the U.S. I guess I can’t blame the Rhesus macaques for being angry all the time. They had had it pretty rough, and while we tried to offer them a glimpse of paradise, their bodies and brains were still slaves to the haunted aftermath of a poor living environment.
Many of the lemurs were ex-pets. Someone, somehow, discovered at some time that lemurs and domestic felines–your average household Fluffy–can, in fact, co-exist. And so, one of the enclosures housed two lemurs and a family of feral cats. One of the ring-tailed lemurs taught himself to mimic the typical cat “meow” so that you only had to look at him and make the noise to receive a similar response.
Aside from ex-research and ex-pet animals, many of our sanctuary friends were retirees from zoological settings. One of the black bears was the retired mascot of Baylor University. Many of the moutain lions (also called cougars or pumas) were rescued from roadside zoos. The oldest mountain lion in our care came from a zoo that had deemed him “too old for public viewing.” It is not uncommon for zoos to follow the adage “out with the old, in with the new.” We gave this geriatric feline as much of a grandiose lifestyle we could. During my six month stay, his health began declining beyond more than just cataracts. The mountain lion stopped eating, ceased mingling with his lady friends, and spent practically every hour of the day sleeping.
On one of my rounds with a staff member, Matt, we moved the other two cougars from the enclosure into the lock-out because the old guy was resting out of sight and needed to be checked on. He was expected to pass on any day, and so it came as no surprise when we discovered that he was no longer breathing. Matt and I lifted the heavy, limp body onto a tarp and dragged it to the front of the lock-out, where we gently laid it down so that the other mountain lions could investigate.
Different species of animals have unique mourning rituals, with elephants perhaps having the most notable. As there had been three pumas living together in this enclosure, removing one without reason could disrupt the natural hierarchy and behavior of the others. Lying the old man within reach of his buddies would allow for these creatures to understand that he had died. Matt and I stepped out of the enclosure and observed their interactions.
The females paced back and forth along the fence that separated them from the geriatric mountain lion’s corpse. They sniffed madly, taking deep inhalations of his scent. A few moans and whines escaped them as well, differing from the intimidating, high-pitched roar I was accustomed to hearing. About five minutes passed, and then both of the females backed away to resume more normal behavior. Matt and I took this as our cue that the goodbyes had been said, and it was time to remove the body from the enclosure. We radioed for the tractor and loaded this soft, majestic, lifeless animal into the backhoe.
I took a moment to press my bony hand to the massive paw, with tufts of fur protruding through the cracks in the foot pads, a moment to smooth down the fur just between his ears. It was such a humbling few seconds, to be that close to an animal revered for its magnifcent stature and gait, cradling a head that housed the deadly fangs feared by regional night-hikers. If this animal stayed like this, bending to my affection and casting aside all wild instincts, I could see why someone would want him as a pet. “If only” is a clause that so many cling to, repeat, and eventually come to believe. Thankfully, I know better. Being reared by humans could never have extinguished that very basic, innate nature of the beast that lay within this body. If his heart were beating, he could rip my face off. And so I quietly regrouped from dreamland to join in the burial preparations.