Trucks hauling cages came into the port city, and pulled into a parking lot to line up dockside. The cages contained exotic animals from around the world. Parked side by side, the cargo beds placed their passengers in very close quarters with predators and prey within smelling distance of each other.
Unfamiliar surroundings, the restrictions of small confinements, fearful and disturbing sounds, as well as sights and various odd and unidentifiable smells added to the neuroses of the prisoners. Most of them had been raised in captivity, but this was not their home, and none of them were happy about it.
Even though air horns were silenced, and diesel fumes were dispersing in the moist morning air, peacefulness was not prevalent. Stacked in close proximity, the animals were making faces at each other, and sending threatening signals. A warthog was giving a panther what for, and two skunks were raising quite a stink. All of the animals were in an uproar, and not being neighborly with each other at all. If what some of them said could be translated, it might’ve sounded like:
“Hey! Hey, hey, hey! Back off, dude!
“Grrrrrr, Yo mama!”
“Lemme outa here!”
“Shut up! I’ll smack yo face! I’ll cut you!”
“You ain’t gonna have time to cut loose, much less cut me!”
“Coolit! I’m sick of your whinin’!”
I’ll put you down with one paw! I’ll use yo leg bone for a toothpick!”
“Who are you calling a weasel, you weasel?”
“C’mon! Stick your fat nose over here ‘n I’ll fill it full of quills!”
“You, and whose army? You’d barely make a snack!”
“Oh yeah? Just step up to the wire, and we’ll see!”
“I’ll mash you like a bug without even standin’ up!”
“Hey! Hey, hey, hey, hey! Watch it!
“Grrrrrr, I’m warnin’ you!”
“Ha! I’m warnin’ you, you skinny little…!”
“You just try! Hoot! Whooo! Put yo face over here, and I’ll rip it off”
“Hey! Hey, hey, hey, hey, hey! Back off!”
“Shut up! You back off!”
“Nyah, nyah, nyah, Grrrrrr, nyah!
To say the animals being transferred to new zoos were a bit nervous would be an understatement. You could hear some of their woeful cries, howls, threats and insults from quite a distance away. Though they were all distraught with captivity, the barriers of cage walls conjured up some appearances of bravery that would not be seen if the walls were not there. Perhaps somewhat unnaturally, and comical if not crazy, a spider monkey boldly (and rudely) told a hyena what he could do with his silly laugh.
It was very early morning, but most of the animals had been awake all night. The lack of sleep did nothing to improve their moods. Conversations were curt, and grumpiness was the trend. Sometimes people are like that, too when they don’t get enough sleep. Imagine being herded into a public bathroom and made to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with strangers for hours on end. Add a couple of cups of sleep deprivation to the recipe, and I’ll bet you could cook up a war.
Work on the loading docks seemed to go on twenty-four hours a day, but it was still several hours before they would begin staging the animals for deployment. Music and lights from a nearby diner attracted the truck drivers, so they all decided to go in for a quick breakfast. The animals didn’t seem to care–if anything, momentary silencing of the roaring trucks and some stillness for awhile was an improvement over bumps and swerves in the road, but not much.
Huffs, puffs, snorts and bluffs continued for some, while others took advantage of the stop to grab a quick, but uneasy nap. Still others took the time to inspect their confines hoping to find some weaknesses in them. But it is natural to do that: I’ve done it myself.
A meerkat named Wilbur was working frantically at a corner of his cage. Seems some of the wires that braided the closure were worn, and a little loose. Wilbur was hoping to increase the looseness a bit with some pulling and gnawing. Barely skin and bones, he flexed muscles like a weight-lifter, arching his back in absolute certainty that his mere ounces would exert many foot-pounds of torque. He was a clown in this circus, but didn’t know it. It’s hard to say for sure what he was thinking, but it appeared to be no question that he was trying to escape. Just to get out, with no thought for what he’d do next, was all that seemed apparent.
On the bed of the truck next to him, cages were stacked on top of each other, and tied together with rope. The rope was tightly secured around the cargo, and except for one small area, it was positioned so none of the animals could chew on it, or mess with it in any other way.
The discrepancy was across the top of a small cage containing an otter. Ernie the otter was beginning to get over some of the motion sickness brought on by the long truck ride, and began inspecting the perimeters of his small confinement. He studied the exposed piece of rope for some time before he approached it to see what it was made of. First, he smelled it, and touched at it with a paw. Then he touched it with his teeth.
Whether Ernie knew what he was doing, or whether he began chewing at the rope out of boredom doesn’t matter. But as soon as he got it chewed down to the last thread, the rope snapped loose causing his cage to topple to the ground, and roll around in the dirt up under an adjacent truck.
Though quite a tumble, Ernie was not hurt–just shaken up. The two hyenas chimed in to add insult to injury with a boisterous kind of junior high school laughter that always follows some off color joke. Other animals joined in, and the banter increased to almost riot levels.
It was nothing like a refined debate you might witness in a university setting, but it did resemble behavior noted on political campaign trails. Hoots from some of the primates may have approached eloquence in comparison, but big cats flexed sharp claws praying for a chance at rebuttal.
The crash to the ground provided just enough impact to cause the latch to Ernie’s cage to release. Once out, he ran a few feet, then stopped dead in his tracks frozen by the panic of not knowing what to do next.
By chance Ernie was from the same home zoo as Wilbur the meerkat. Back home, their runs were next to each other, and the otter and Wilbur had played together many hours in the past running back and forth: one over mounds of dirt; the other sliding down wet rocks in a short stream fabricated in the zoo for a little otter fun.
As Ernie looked side to side in confusion, he heard Wilbur call his name:
“Ernie! C’mere! Psssst! Up here! Gimme a hand!”
The otter climbed up to Wilbur’s cage even though what he wanted to do was to get as far away from the trucks and cages as possible. Maybe it was hearing the voice of a friend, or perhaps thinking what difference would a couple of minutes make, we can’t be sure, but now Ernie and Wilbur were face to face.
“I can almost get my head through this opening, “ said the meerkat. “If you’ll tug on it from that side just a bit, I might be able to get my shoulders…”
Without another word, Ernie latched onto the cage, and forced the opening to expand just enough for Wilbur to squeeze out. There! They were both free! Now what? At first, they just looked around.
They made a mad dash down to the ground, and without any discourse, ran through the pre-dawn darkness towards the water. On a sandy knoll, they met up with a family of blue crabs that had come ashore to check out the possible smorgasbord that often comes in with the tide.
Ernie and Wilbur had never seen a crab before, and I’m sure the surprise was mutually felt by the crabs. Technically they were all capable of becoming food for each other, but none of them realized it at the time. After a little hissing, jumping, side-stepping and dancing about, the general consensus was to let things be, and part company. The crabs retreated a little closer to the water, while the otter and the meerkat headed towards dryer land.
On the other side of the parking lot, they headed across a narrow stretch of pavement to a marsh. The sun was beginning to rise, otherwise they might not have noticed the alligator. Perhaps they had distracted a pelican for a moment, but for some reason the bird dropped his guard long enough for the ‘gator to grab breakfast. Ernie and Wilbur learned something right away about alligators, and no refresher course would ever be necessary.
A quick turn back toward the pavement met with another surprise. A paper bag was laying right in the middle of the road. A passing car ran over and killed the bag instantly, bringing an end to what had carelessly blown onto the right-of -way. The “pop” of the bag got their attention. Without having to write anything down, the meerkat and the otter decided to avoid ‘gators and pavement alike. It was probably for the best.
They managed to travel some distance away from port keeping well between marsh and blacktop. But they weren’t out of danger yet. Ernie the otter, and Wilbur the meerkat both bobbed up and down now and then hoping for a view of the pathway ahead of them. Also, periodic glances back to make sure no alligators, paper bags, or truck drivers were approaching from the rear seemed prudent.
One such movement by Ernie blocked the path of a descending red-tailed hawk just inches from snatching poor little Wilbur. As Ernie stood up quickly for a look ahead, the swoop of the raptor was interrupted. The hawk tripped over the otter’s head, and fell into the marsh on the side of the road. The hawk was bewildered by the mishap, and took off in a different direction as soon as he regained composure. Wilbur and Ernie weren’t sure what exactly a hawk was, but figured it a good idea to add it to their list of things to watch out for, and to avoid. Again, it was probably for the best.
Almost exhausted, and beginning to feel the effects of hunger and thirst, they came upon a rather pastoral scene. The path had widened into an open field in a park. To one side by the cattails, there were sand dunes rolling down to the beach.
In the other direction was a grassy playground with swings, a sliding board, and other gym equipment for small children. Some picnic tables stood in the shade of some live oak trees, and there was quite a mix of smells. The aroma of food and humans seemed to be all over the place. Memories of home led to connect these two smells together.
Beyond the tree line was a fresh-water stream that fed into a nice pond. On the other side of the pond, a man with two small children were fishing. Ernie may not have understood what they were doing, but he could smell fresh-caught fish, and ran over quickly to beg a snack. It was a learned behavior from the old zoo where “please don’t feed the animals” signs did little to inhibit the throngs of the thousands of humans he was accustomed to seeing parade by his front door every week. The bet paid off, and the otter got lunch for free.
It was a park between the sea and a fresh water oasis. It was heaven. With fertile ground, a nearby patch of woods, and trash cans scattered about for the convenience of the humans, there was no shortage of worms, crickets, grasshoppers, small rodents, and lizards. Wilbur the meerkat found such an “all you can eat” buffet to be delightful.
There were crayfish and frogs in the stream and pond, and down by the beach around the jetty of rocks lived thousands of crustaceans and shellfish. Ernie was estatic, and overjoyed with this find. It looked like the cafeteria was open twenty-four hours a day, every day.
Later, the otter reintroduced himself to the crabs. Before, he didn’t know what they were, but found if you approach them properly and be mindful of claws, they would make a nice dinner.
Wilbur dug a burrow in a sand dune, and Ernie found dozens of perfect places to nap. The presence of seagulls and pigeons kept the meerkat nervous at first, but he got used to them.
A stray cat and the otter soon came to terms, and agreed to inspect trashcans in alternating shifts. The meerkat, the cat, and the otter all would creep up on paper bags with discretion. Ernie and Wilbur were anticipating popping noises, but the cat’s caution was different. Once out of a bag, a cat wants little to do with it. In time, they discovered food might be in bags, and appetite improves valor.
As time passed, they spent more and more time alone, but met up each day to play together in the park. Sometimes the cat joined in, but usually kept to himself. Wilbur the meerkat maintained a healthy distrust of the cat–which was probably for the best. Sometimes the cat seemed to want to play “tag” with Wilbur, but the Meerkat didn’t want to become “it”, so kept a measurable bit of real estate between himself and the tabby cat at all times.
Families of humans would sit and watch them play, and once in a while would share a tasty treat with them. A morsel is sometimes a good way to break though a stray cat’s aloofness, and the distraction is appreciated by the meerkat. Wilbur was beginning to form the opinion that the cat should not be allowed to get too hungry, and seldom ventured outside his burrow without some certainty that kitty cat was a good distance away.
From appearances, the people considered the meerkat and the otter to be tame, and to be a part of the standard attractions in the park, and especially in concert with a tabby. Nobody seemed to know they were fugitives from zoo life and an animal shelter, and nobody cared. These animals didn’t seem to be bothering anything, and they were quite fun to watch.
Recently on a motorcycle trip, I met up with Ernie the otter and Wilbur the meerkat. The motorcycle had to sit quietly and cool down before they would approach me. With a piece of apple, some peanuts and a bite of a tuna fish sandwich, I got their attention. They both played with my offerings more out of curiosity than hunger, but Ernie did make quick work of the tuna.
They were on the ground, and I sat on a bench trying to keep movement to a minimun so as not to spook them. We sat that way for some time just staring at each other. The cat stayed some distance away even with my tuna fish sandwich. It must have been unsure of the motorcycle. Tabby never got close enough for introductions and to this day, I do not know its name.
I looked back down at the otter sitting politely next to the meerkat while both of them looked at me. Finally, inquisitiveness got the better of me, and I asked them how they came to live in the park, and to have struck up such an odd companionship. With a little hesitation at first, they began telling their story. Once they got going, it was non-stop. Wilbur did most of the talking, but the otter interrupted frequently just to keep the facts straight. Wilbur it seems, has a habit of embellishing his own heroics now and then, but don’t we all?
Soon, a family with children came into the park, and gathered around a picnic table. Ernie and Wilbur quit talking to watch the folks approach. Now that there were witnesses, these funny little animals wouldn’t say another word. I’ve seen that kind of public shyness in critters before, so I wasn’t surprised.
A little boy ran over to the swingset, and my audience turned its attention towards him, and the other members of his family. As the meerkat and the otter watched the people, the people watched them, too. I sat there watching everybody watch each other, and things seemed kind of peaceful.
Gleeful noises from the swingset startled the meerkat at first, but he didn’t seem to feel threatened by it. Smells from the family’s lunch basket made tabby kitty a little more willing to approach, and all interaction was without conflict or angry words. Suspicions gave way to curiosity in what was becoming a pastoral day dream kind of scene. The people seemed to enjoy watching the animals and vice versa. Nobody seemed threatened by anything.
At other times in other places, I’ve watched people, and no doubt they’ve watched me, too. But people are not always at ease when watching each other even though all of us humans are the same species. I guess sometimes people can be fun to watch. But if you watch them for very long, you’ll realize that not all of them are harmless. And depending on whether you are the otter or the meerkat, neither are tabby cats.
When I left there that day, I wondered if the tabby kitty would be able to maintain a civil relationship with Wilbur. I thought about Ernie, and considered the possibility that his natural inquisitiveness might somehow in time put him in harm’s way. The cat was young, and not unattractive, so there is a chance of it being adopted by humans at some point. But whether that would be an improvement of lifestyle remains to be seen. Being hundreds of miles from home, and traveling by motorcycle, there wasn’t much likelihood of the tabby kitty going with me. Cats don’t like to wear helmets, and to just shove it into the saddlebags seemed cruel.
It is without concern for credibility that I choose not to tell you where this park is located. You don’t have to believe me if you choose otherwise. In fact, it might be better for Wilbur and Ernie if you don’t. I would hate to think that by telling you where they are, that some harm to them, or their recapture might occur. Then, I would be guilty of a breach of confidence. Human beings do that to each other all the time, but to sin in that way at the possible expense of an otter and a meerkat that had done me no harm somehow seems less than honorable.
If circumstance allow you to stumble upon them, I hope you enjoy their circus-like antics and performance. If you’re all alone and with no witnesses around, sit quietly and be very still. They just might come up and talk to you. If that happens, tell ’em I said “Hello”.