Wednesday, January 20, 2010


The interpreter was in the nature house, seated behind the counter. He had shifted his computer monitor to an ergonomically incorrect position to make it easier to avoid eye-contact with the young activists, which was what he secretly called the only other people in the room. There were two, and their names were Kyle and Carrie. They seemed to be boyfriend and girlfriend. The interpreter wasn’t sure.
Kyle and Carrie represented a group called The Exotic Animals Protection Society. Its purpose was to make illegal the keeping of so-called exotic pets. They were also opposed to zoos.
Kyle and Carrie were seated at a folding table inside the front door. They had several stacks of pamphlets and a poster –sized picture of a large python with an alarming burn mark. It had tried to hug its heat lamp, and took a while to realize it was slowly burning a hole in itself. If you bothered to look at any of their literature, you would find many more unsettling images of injured, starved, or abused animals.
The young activists were there as a compromise. On the previous weekend, the nature house had hosted an annual event, a presentation by a reptile keepers’ club. The building had squirmed with reptiles—boas, pythons, corn snakes, bearded dragons and iguanas. The general public thronged to the event. Hundreds packed the nature house from opening to closing. People can’t get enough of big snakes.
The Exotic Animals Protection Society did not approve of the event, and the year before held a noisy, ugly protest at the park gate. Wanting to avoid a repeat, Parks Department officials contacted the group and offered them a day to set up a display in the nature house to explain their point of view. The group declined at first, but eventually agreed.
It now seemed clear that they should have stuck with their strong suit, waving signs and shouting at cars. The few people who had ventured into the nature house so far had given the display a wide berth. The seared python was somewhat off-putting, but so were the crossed arms of Kyle and Carrie. The young activists radiated hostility, not invitation.
On top of that, the weather was poor. A rainy day could cut park attendance to almost nothing.
Kyle asked, “Are you sure you advertized as much for us as for them?”
“Absolutely,” said the interpreter, which was to say not at all. The reptile group very effectively advertized itself. It knew how to send public service announcements to conventional media, and how to self-promote online.
The interpreter couldn't escape the fact that he felt bad for them. He got up and walked over to their table. “It’s the rain,” he said. “It should end soon, and then we’ll get more visitors.”
“How many came last week?” Carrie asked.
“Oh, quite a few,” said the interpreter. He had done the math. 762. “It was a sunny day. They got lucky.”
“What’s your position, your personal position on snake-keeping?” Kyle asked.
The interpreter looked at the python picture. “I don’t see a need for it, and I doubt that even the most knowledgeable people fully understand the requirements of these animals.”
“You should join consider joining EAPS,” said Kyle. A person in your position would have serious influence. That would be the end of reptile shows in this place at least.”
The interpreter said, “For one thing, you’re speaking to the bottom of the food chain. I don’t make those decisions. For another, there is the argument that such events help people learn about reptiles, and therefore learn not to fear them, which may be helpful in their conservation.”
Kyle snorted. “Getting your picture taken with a boa constrictor around your neck is not going to convince you to go preserve some habitat you’ve never heard of.”
The interpreter said, "There’s also money involved. Admission to the reptile show provides a lot of money for this place, which helps pay for the educational programs.”
“Still, it’s hypocritical,” said Carrie.
“Perhaps,” said the interpreter. He could see arguments on both sides. What he couldn’t understand was why anyone would be so clearly on one side or the other.
“If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem,” said Kyle.
“Hm,” said the interpreter. “I told my dad that once, about something-or-other, when I was about fourteen. He laughed in my face. It’s hard to forget the feeling of your dad laughing in your face when you’re about fourteen.”
“He was being an jerk,” said Kyle.
“Oh, he was just being a dad,” said the interpreter.
“There’s a bunny in the parking lot,” said Carrie. The front door was wedged open. A dark brown dwarf rabbit was sitting in the middle of the parking lot, begging to be run over, or nabbed by a red-tail.
“That guy,” said the interpreter. “Someone abandoned him. We’ve been trying to catch him for several days.”
Just then a woman burst through the side door, dragging a whimpering preschool-aged girl. “We need help. My daughter is missing! Phone 9-1-1!”
The interpreter looked at the woman, at the whimpering girl, and then at the young activists, who looked back at the interpreter.
“My other daughter!” said the woman. “She’s six-years old. She’s lost on the trail!” The panic of a parent with a missing child is a palpable, contagious thing. The interpreter had been caught up in it before. He backed away from her and skirted the far end of the counter to pick up a radio.
“Where did you last see her?” he asked.
“Call 9-1-1!”
“I know it’s difficult, but please do try to stay calm,” he said. “By the time the police get here, if they come at all, we’ll have found her. We find missing children very quickly, all the time.” This last bit was a ridiculous lie—children almost never went missing--but it had the effect of calming the woman slightly. He asked again, “Where did you last see her?”
“We were on the trail with all the puddles, with the logs for stepping over them, she ran ahead to hide, but she didn’t jump out!”
There were two volunteers out in the park, Cyril and Mary. Cyril was about 18. Mary was about 81, but you would guess much younger. They were doing trail checks, which entailed looking for hazards, litter, interesting animal signs, anything at all. It was always a challenge to find things for volunteers to do. The interpreter called them. “Mary? Cyril? Can you hear me?” The interpreter never used standard police radio jargon.
“Hello dear,” responded Mary. Neither did Mary.
“I read you,” responded Cyril.
“Where are you? Mary, you go first.”
“I’m close to the junction of the North Trail and the Swamp Trail.”
“Cyril here.”
“Where are you?”
“I’m on the Middle Trail, in the middle of it.”
The interpreter placed his finger on a map, first at Mary’s location, then at Cyril’s. “Perfect,” he said. “Look, you guys, we are looking for a lost child, a little girl.”
“Samantha!” said the mother, and in mentioning her daughter’s name overwhelmed herself. She burst into tears, which caused the younger daughter to sob too.
“Her name is Samantha and she’s six years old.”
“She has blond hair!”
“Blond hair,” said the interpreter.
“Her secret word is ‘chocolate,’” said the mother.
“Secret word is ‘chocolate,’” said the interpreter.
“That’s a kind of dumb secret word,” said Cyril. “I could guess that one.”
The interpreter cleared his throat. “Mary, could you walk west along the North Trail to where it connects to the Main Loop, and come back here that way.”
“Righty-oh,” said Mary.
“I read you.”
“Continue east on the Middle Trail, then come back here on the Main Loop.”
“Call her name, and stop and listen every 20 paces. Got that?”
The woman said, “Is this all you can do?”
The interpreter said, “We have other helpers here.” He spoke to the young activists, “Grab your jackets.” He opened a drawer and took out another radio, and took a map from the brochure rack. He drew on it with a red pen, and gave the map to Kyle. “Your job is to take this trail. It’s a short circle loop. Come straight back, even if you don’t find her.” He turned the knob on the radio to the correct frequency and blew into it to make sure it was transmitting.
“What about our display?” Kyle asked.
“It’ll be safe. We’re locking up the nature house.”
“What about our equal time?”
“You can come back next week.”
“Probably not. It’s not up to me.”
“Let’s go,” said Carrie.
Out they went. The interpreter locked the door and switched the sliding sign to “Closed.”
“I have to go find her,” said the mother.
“Wait here,” said the interpreter. “There is nothing in this park that can harm her. There aren’t even any other visitors. Look at the parking lot.” It was an expanse of pavement with four cars, all easily accounted for, and a lonely rabbit. A light rain was falling. He led the mother and small daughter to a shelter with picnic tables.
They had not yet taken a seat when the radio warbled. “Yoo-hoo! Mary here.”
“Hi Mary,” said the interpreter.
“A little lady is with me,” said Mary. “All is well.”
The mother snatched the radio from the interpreter as he raised his hand to speak. Her fingernails grazed his face. “Ow,” he said.
“Sammy! It’s Mommy. Are you okay? Say something!”
“Let go of the button,” said the interpreter. He poked the side of his nose, where it stung.
“Say hello to Mommy, dear,” Mary said.
“I’m here, Mommy,” said a tiny voice, and the mother closed her eyes and squished the second child’s face into her abdomen. The interpreter took his radio back.
“Come back everyone. She’s been found. She’s with Mary.”
“Are you sure it’s the right girl?” Cyril asked. “Over.”
Five minutes later, Mary returned with the child. The mother ran to gather her up in a whirl of emotions. The interpreter turned away. He then saw that the suicidal parking lot rabbit had hopped close. He fell to place his hand upon it, pressing down. He was good with animals. The rabbit was relieved to be captured.
Kyle and Carrie were next to return. They stopped to wonder at the mother and her children, and then approached the interpreter.
“Thank you for helping,” he said.
“You got the bunny!” said Carrie.
“Yup. Now we have to find him a home.”
“We can take him,” said Carrie. “I’ve kept rabbits before.”
“But he’s not for eating,” said the interpreter.
“We’re vegans!” said Kyle.
“He is,” said Carrie. “I’m only a vegetarian, but of course we won’t eat him.”
“I have to ask,” said the interpreter. “Rules.”
“I promise we won’t eat him,” said Carrie.
“Then he’s yours,” said the interpreter.
Cyril returned. “Your nose is bleeding,” he said to the interpreter.
“So are you going to reopen the nature house?” Kyle asked. “We still have three hours left for our display.” No more cars had arrived and with the rain it was unlikely any would soon.
“Do you think it matters?”
“We had an agreement.”
The interpreter turned to what was going on behind. Carrie was crouched down, holding the rabbit on her lap, and lost-girl Samantha was stroking its ears.
"What should we name him?" Carrie asked.
"Chocolate,” the child said.
The interpreter said, “Let’s not ruin this moment."

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Cindee said...

As a mother who has temporarily lost a child, and as a child who was once lost (a LONG time ago), I thoroughly enjoyed this story. And I'm happy the bunny found a vegan home to live in. But won't it be hypocritical if they keep it in a cage?

KaHolly said...

Love the irony!! ~karen

Eskarina said...

What a delightful story.

How can some people be so clearly on one side or the other when there are so often many shades of gray?

Garden Lily said...

Irony, drama, danger... Great story. I have never been one for extreme views either. I can see value in both zoos and pets. Ignorance is a bigger issue, in my opinion.

ksdoolittle said...

Comes with the age. Young, impetuous, immature, and inexperienced. My how our prospective changes as we age. Funny thing is, these two young birds are clueless to the irony of the situation. Guess that's what keeps the world going 'round! Great post combining all the elements of a good story! Will HAVE to check out all your other interpreter stories!

randomtruth said...

Wonderful story Hugh. Have to admit - I was expecting the rabbit to end up as python food.

I'm in the middle on the issue too. Pets are great, but people are WAY too casual about their ownership and impacts. A medium-sized dog has the equivalent yearly environmental impact of driving 2 SUVs, and domestic cats kill over 20 million native birds and rodents every year.

But that said, I'd much rather see kids owning pet hamsters instead of spending hundreds of dollars on electronic, robotic Zhu Zhu Pets that teach them absolutely nothing (except that consumerism works).


Hugh said...

Everyone, thanks for the kind comments. I'm glad it seemed to work.

Cindee, the first time I was part of a search for a lost child I had no real sense of how terrifying it was for everyone involved. After I became a parent, it became apparent.

Ken, Those are daunting facts. I'm constantly puzzled that some of my colleagues who identify themselves as conservation biologists think it's okay to let their 2 or 3 cats roam around outside. Or maybe they don't like their cats very much. The coyotes certainly do.