Thursday, March 25, 2010

My Very Cool (ex-)n-Girlfriend

Before my ex-girlfriend, there was my ex-ex-girlfriend, and before her was my ex-ex-ex-girlfriend, and so forth.

As luck would have it, Margot, my (ex-)n-girlfriend, from all the way back in high school, recently got back in touch with me after X years via Facebook (here n is a positive integer and X is a positive real number – both larger than I would like to admit). As it turns out, Margot and her family now live in Portland Oregon, and she has what must be officially the coolest job on the planet –-- she is a vet for the Oregon Zoo. Here is a photo of Margot in action

Being that the March Meeting of the American Physical Society happened to be in Portland this year, I took the opportunity to stop by, catch up, meet her family, and (of course) to see the animals in the zoo! Incidentally, for those of you who don’t already know this about me, I just LOVE zoos. (Maybe it is not so surprising that Margot and I dated each other all those years back.)

Here is a video of Margot in her element, doing dental work on a rather large leopard. And if you like cats you can check out this video too, of the world’s cutest cat – an Ocelot kitten.

Margot’s office in the vet building is a low key affair, but you have to be impressed by the equipment for doing such things as taking x-rays of elephants (Here is a video of exactly that – The elephant is near the end. Margot is at 1:29, I think she is being an anesthesiologist for a bear).

Some of the job is a bit less glamerous - like inspecting turtle poop for signs of parasites (there were none on the day of my visit).

During my visit there were a few animals that needed some vet attention. A relatively elderly zebra was showing signs of congestive heart failure, and they were afraid they would have one zebra less by the end of the day… but in fact it seemed to be recovering slowly. (Although I’m happy for the zebra, it would have been really interesting to watch a zebra autopsy had the zebra actually kicked…. So to speak).

A very cute beaver seemed to have some sort of swollen red eye. Margot poked her head into the lodge where the beaver was hiding but couldn’t get a good enough look at the eye. She decided to return later to try to get a photo of the eye and also to send another vet down to take a look. One of the zookeepers yelled at the beaver “Don’t rub it!”, but I don’t think the beaver listened.

We stopped into a small quarantine building where a female cougar was being kept away from the others. (This cougar may have been acquired from the wild, or from another zoo, I’m not sure). Well, this rather large cat was not in a good mood, and as soon as I walked into the small building it looked at me as if I were her lunch. It stared me down and growled rather alarmingly. Margot scolded it like a mother for being in such a bad mood and threw it a whole (dead) bird for lunch. The cougar did not even blink at the bird, but continued staring at me as if to say “I’m not eating that bird, I want the big guy for lunch.” Grouchy or not, this was a rather beautiful animal.

Perhaps the worst situation of the day was a zookeeper who got some disinfectant in his eye and had to go to the hospital. Despite the assurance of Cosmo Kramer that vets do better work on humans than doctors do, these vets restrict their treatment to animals of the non-human kind.

Most interesting, perhaps, was the work on the elephant’s feet. Apparently elephants in zoos (particularly Asian elephants) frequently develop foot problems, as they are (a) not really meant to be confined to small areas and (b) are not really meant to be walking on such artificial surface. As a result, they tend to develop abscesses and similar trouble. On this particular day the vets were going to try out a new curative on the elephant’s feet. Here is a photo of a vet (Mitch) working on the foot of a female elephant named Sung-Surin, (which I'm told means "Sunshine" in Thai) , but they call her "Shine" for short. (Sorry that the photo is so blurry, I need a better camera). In these photos I am making friends with Shine. She seemed completely unperturbed by my presence. I gather that female elephants are typically better with humans than the male (bull) elephants. In fact, I've been told that as a rule, bull-elephants are considered extremely dangerous and should not ever be in contact with humans. The Oregon zoo has several bulls, and on the particular day that I visited, one of them needed work on his foot. This bull, named Tusko, weighs about twice what Shine weighs -- about 13,500 pounds (over 6000 kilos) -- a rather imposing beast. In this picture (below) you can see him behind some very very thick steel bars that separate him from his human keepers. Apparently on occasion he has gotten upset and rammed his head into the bars, doing some serious damage to the steel, although not actually managing to break out. On this particular day he seemed perfectly willing to do as his keeper asked of him, in return for carrots being thrown into his open mouth. This method of feeding seemed to work pretty well for keeping him calm, and also worked pretty well for giving him his daily medicine: Among other things, an entire bottle of advil which was thrown down his throat and he swallowed in one gulp (perhaps not even noticing that it was not a carrot). To work on repairing his feet, Tusco was convinced (with rewards of carrots) to slip his foot through a very small gate in the giant steel bars, allowing the vets access to his foot while he munched happily on his carrots. You can sort of see in this photo how this works.

Not all of the day was spent doing actual useful vet things. Margot was nice enough to take me around to meet some of the animals just for fun. (As well as meeting her husband and kids, who are very nice human animals.) The penguin in this photo (Moe) is considered their penguin ambassador, as he is pretty good with humans. He still has a tendency to defecate on people though (which I very narrowly avoided). Nonetheless, he didn't seem too upset about being handled. Penguin feathers feel remarkably like fish scales. Perhaps I should not be surprised by this example of convergent evolution but I certainly did not expect them to feel this way.

The armadillo is another very people friendly animal. Apparently this guy is taken around to schools and the like. He is totally harmless and only rolls up into a ball when he is very scared. I think he is a bit scared in this picture, but he eventually unrolled and sniffed around a bit more. Pretty cute little guy. Probably would make a good pet.

Then there are more of the bigger animals. We fed the giraffes from a high window . Advertising has clearly worked on me since now I can't look at a giraffe without thinking of Toys-R-Us. In the picture with Margot you can see the giraffe sticking out his tongue a bit. Actually, the tongue is much longer --- I think about a foot and a half long.

And there are the bears: These black bears were not on display (not sure why) but were living in a cage near the vet building. They seemed pretty happy to have someone come around to feed them all sorts of bear food. "Bear food" in this case consisted of apples, grapes, spinach, lettuce, carrots, broccoli, and generic large animal pellets (similar to the stuff we fed the giraffes). You had to be careful not to stick your fingers through the fence, but the bears seemed to more or less understand that the food was the vegetable-matter and not the people-matter. After they tried all of the stuff that was being offered, it was clear that they really only wanted the spinach and lettuce.

Sadly, I'm out of pictures at this point. There were quite a few animals in the zoo that I saw, but did not photograph: The otters, the beaver, various snakes, some bats (including one in the hospital for a broken arm), some cute rats, lots of monkeys, some boars, bears, lions, hyenas, and other beasts. And alas, perhaps the coolest animal that I saw was not amongst those that I caught on film: The Amur (Siberian) Tigers. Margot seemed particularly fond of them, and, being fully objective, Tigers are among the most amazing animals on earth. Like many of the animals in the zoo, the Tigers did seem to know who she was, and they seemed to like her as well. When we arrived, they were sitting out in their yard sunning themselves (it was perhaps the first sunny day of spring). Despite the fact that they were mid-snooze, when Margot called their names, they were immediately up and alert and they responded by sticking out their tongues and made this face at her.

I gather that this is an expression that indicates affection towards Margot. I was told that if they didn't like someone they would let that be known in no uncertain terms.

To finish off this post, I am including a photo (from the zoo web site) of the two Amur tigers: I think their names are Nicky and Nick (they are brother and sister). Ain't they cute?


Jessy Randall said...

Looking forward to the next post in this series, where you visit your ex-girlfriend who's now an astronaut, and so on.

JT said...

The armadillo curled into a ball because it was perturbed by Steve's flasher raincoat.