Black rhinos are the most endangered mammals in the world.
In 1970, there were approximately 65,000 black rhinos in the wild. Currently there are only about 3,500.
Yesterday I pet a rhino named Zuri.
I didn’t set out to pet a rhino; it was my intention to kiss a hippo’s nose, but life surprises us at every turn.
It all started with my novel, Out of the Blue Valise, and my thwarted desire to go to Africa and rescue endangered species. When cancer came between me and my plans, I wrote a book. Well it’s really a book within a book, teeming with adventure, endangered animals and eccentrics of all persuasions, with and without tails.
Five of us gathered that hot Sunday afternoon for a behind-the-scenes-hippo/rhino tour at the Portland Zoo. But I’m getting ahead of my story.
The patisserie incident that morning had set the scene.
We all needed rescuing.
Encounter at the Sweet Shoppe
My girlfriend Sue and I stood in line ogling the array of sugary delights: fluffy cream puffs, napoleons, one of my faves—impossible to eat with civility, but too delicious to even consider the word civil in proximity, utterly scrumptious. Obviously, my writing is on a sugar high. I will try to stay focused. The lineup continued: fluffy cream puffs, dark chocolate cake layered with whipped cream, éclairs, sticky buns, croissants, (plain, chocolate, and marzipan), carrot cake slathered with cream cheese frosting, profiteroles and other delectable sweeties—and of course, the more pedestrian fare: bagels, buns, and French baguettes.
I was fixating on the dark-chocolate-covered graham crackers, or maybe the carrot cake—but that sticky bun with pecans sure looked tempting. Where’s one’s bib when one needs it? Messiness is de rigueur when devouring good pastry; crumbs on the chest and lap, a few escapees down the bodice, cream on the collar and face, chocolate on the sleeve.
I ended up choosing a plain croissant, a Hungarian ginger muffin, and to drink, a double decaf cappuccino—so modest of me. My friend was vacillating between the white chocolate brownie and the Belgian chocolate mousse pie or the gooey oversized bear-clawish number and the cream puff with cherries and salted caramel in a zigzag drizzle on top. The latter won out. Her choice of coffee was a complicated chocolate-mocha-honey-whipped cream affair.
“So much for guilty pleasures,” I told her.
“Well, we’re walking a lot,” she defended.
“Got to be bad sometimes,” I said, salivating as we neared the front of the line.
“Life is too short for guilt,” the woman in front of me interjected. She looked me in the eye and smiled—a steady gaze, unblinking, unshrinking—a handsome woman with basil-colored eyes, skin tautly clean, and sleek black hair that resembled two waterfalls neatly restrained by white barrettes in the shape of clouds.
“So young and yet so wise,” I rejoined. She looked about forty and comfortably composed—fluffy, I was soon to learn, would be the perfect adjective. I am lithe and attached to my streamlined body to an unreasonable degree. Though thin, I still have a fat head, a remnant of my modeling days in Hollywood. “You can’t be too thin or too rich!” was our catchphrase. So today was a fanciful departure from my paleo-centered diet. I’m not fanatical about anything anymore; it always leads to misadventure. The pendulum swings in the desired direction but shortly thereafter swings violently to the opposite extreme.
“Are you local?” I inquired.
“No, visiting from Shanghai. Here to meet my new niece.”
I learned that her husband worked for an import/export company and that she was a translator. We chatted gaily about wanderlust, simple pleasures, and what mattered most in life.
“Next!” came the call from behind the counter. We nodded to one another and she stepped up to place her order. We didn’t speak while we waited. I felt a frisson of pleasure as one does when life offers a surprise moment of true connection. My meditation teacher would call it complete experience.
When I looked up, she had disappeared into the crowd.
The restaurant was vast. Perched on a corner, the entrance formed a triangle that opened onto two intersecting avenues. I placed my order and again I perused the crowd. No sign of her. When I opened my wallet to pay, the server waved her hand.
“The woman before you has already taken care of the bill.”
I can’t remember being the recipient of such a sweet and unexpected act of generosity from a stranger. This ilk of human being is as endangered as the rhinos, hippos and elephants.
While my friend paid for her treats, I commandeered a table on the terrace, arranged my indulgences, draped my sweater over the back of the metal café chair and went in search of my benefactor.
I spotted her tucked in a corner, sitting alone at a table. She looked utterly content and self-contained. Her plate was empty and the paper napkin crumbled on top. It looked like a jester’s hat. She was standing up and gathering her purse and sweater as I approached.
“I’m so touched,” I effused. “Thank you for charming me and making my day. You have restored my faith in humanity.”
She laughed. “Enjoy yourself and remember, no guilt.”
“I promise. No guilt.” I gave her a hug. It was a real hug with no pulling away.
“E-mail me. I’d like to send you a book.” I tucked my card into her pocket.
She smiled and walked away.
Later that day, I telephoned my husband and related the tale of the pastry fairy.
“Ah, paying it forward,” was his response.
I went online and discovered that the Paying it Forward record to date lasted ten hours and took place at a Starbucks in Florida.
I couldn’t wait to take my turn, and wondered what it would look like? Little did I suspect it would weigh three thousand plus pounds and have a leathery hide.
The Zoo • Keep it Fluffy Baby
The hippo/rhino encounter was to make up for my cancelled African safari. All I knew was that it would last ninety minutes, our group was limited to five participants, and a photographer would be assigned to us. Was I setting myself up for disappointment? Who cares? I dared to embroider this adventure with glorious expectations and golden threads; I was goofy with happiness, if a little bit apprehensive and jittery.
We gathered around a huge wooden table in the conference room where Dave Thomas, the zookeeper instructed us in Zoo 101.
No longer are zoos designed simply to entertain—although no performance could match the thrill of meeting a rhino and hippo up close and personal. In this century, the mission of our accredited zoos is to prevent the genocide of the earth’s remaining precious and glorious wild creatures as well as to preserve their habitats. Ever since the Endangered Species Act was passed, zoos can no longer import animals but must draw from those in captivity. Breeding programs are sophisticated. Zoos share and shift animals for their optimum well being. They keep meticulous records of an animal’s lineage to prevent inbreeding. They go to any length to help an animal adapt to life in captivity—how do you keep a rhino nourished when fifty or sixty pounds of trees, branches, leaves, and browse don’t appear daily on the local menu? The training, mating habits, and health challenges require numerous skilled professionals and dynamic new approaches: vets, nutritionists, scientists, lab workers, sophisticated blood tests, castration protocols, and that’s just scratching the surface, or leathery hide, if you choose.
After forty-five minutes of school time, I was a fervent supporter.
Dave was passionate and compelling—a natural-born orator.
Next, we adjourned to the behind-the-scenes part of the tour. Taking a circuitous route around the back of the zoo, through areas under construction and many a locked gate, we trucked along in single file. We stopped at the pantry where the animal food was stored. Here each of us received a large plastic bowl of quartered apples. Then we followed Dave into a dark barn-like area, with cement floors and thick jailor bars. There was a yellow line painted around the enclosure.
And voila! Zuri. Three thousand pounds of gorgeous rhino-ness. Zuri was a rhino-highness, and I was in the company of royalty. As I approached, I wondered, should I curtsy?
“Do not lean into the cage, stay behind the yellow line. Do not stray from the group. Follow my lead. Safety first.”
We were now in the care of the rhino/hippo handler, Jeb Barsh. He reminded me of the cowboys I met when we ran our ranch. Handsome, ruddy complexion, thick pepper-and-salt hair swept back from his forehead. He was lean, strong, articulate, and composed. Most of all, he was ardent about his work and the animals in his care. His enthusiasm was infectious.
Jeb formally introduced me to Zuri. I stood on my mark, toes touching the edge of the yellow line, then I filled my palm with apple quarters. I took a deep breath, let it out slowly. Goosebumps of delight erupted on both my arms. My heart rate climbed. My whole body tingled. Oh-so-slowly I extended my spread-out palm until my hand rested next to Zuri’s chin. My breath became unperceivable. All at once, my acting-yoga-teacher-meditation-working-with-horses experiences merged. I felt completely at home while in awe of this powerful beast, my adorable sister on earth.
With her prehensile lip, Zuri hooked a section of apple. I pet her nose and then followed Jeb’s example and dared to touch one of her horns. I continued to offer her treats until I realized I had to forfeit my place for the next in line. Damn! Reluctantly I stepped back so the woman behind me could take her turn.
Tears welled up as I stepped away. I was besotted with Zuri, the zoo, the work to be done, but more than that, I felt a primal love. That sense of oneness we yearn for—the need to be complete. I vowed to do my bit to save the rhino and other magnificent creatures whose numbers grow thin with each tick of the clock. I was overcome with soppy earnestness, not the usual calling card for this skeptic.
Next we segued to the other end of the enclosure where we met Ruka, Zuri’s betrothed. Only five, Ruka had some maturing to do, and according to Jeb was a bit fluffy. In order to enflame Zuri’s desires, her consort had been put on a diet—no pizza or ice cream for him!
Fluffy has to be the superlative euphemism for fat. Comfortable, well-upholstered, zaftig, portly, porky can’t compete.
We’re talking survival of the species. No small matter. The sooner Zuri awakens to Ruka’s leathery charms, the better the chances that these singular beasts will not become extinct.
The hippos came next. Jeb had to call repeatedly before they thundered in. Mukenko and Kiboko stood with jaws agape as I followed Jeb’s lead and aimed the apple sections for the huge maws. Touching was not an option for us. Alas. I studied the two grand beasts and thought of hippo Po, my heroine in Out of the Blue Valise. I had captured her perfectly. I don’t often congratulate myself, but in this case, well done, moi! My depictions of Po were right on target. With perfection, I had caught the movement, the feel, the delineations and the hues of the hippo. My drawings were true. Thank Dog, since the book had just been released. It’s instinctive, the way I draw, not photogenic reproductions but impressions. I close my eyes and move to the emotion in my gut, then draw the feeling, and I was overjoyed to see Po come to life before my eyes.
Sadly, the hippos at Portland zoo are destined for relocation. That rankled, but they require fifty gallons of mud daily. And that mud has to be freshened regularly. They too are endangered and poached for their meat, hide, and ivory. Human encroachment is also driving them out and killing them. Poor hippos. When I need a hippo fix, I’ll have to turn to one of the pages of Blue Valise.
The time whooshed by. When we parted, I was overcome with universal love and imbued with bittersweet happiness. We had shared a rare intimacy, human and beast. I left inspired, exhilarated and determined to do what I could to contribute to their legacy.
As we drove away, I recalled the generous stranger that morning who had paid it forward in the form of a plain croissant and ginger Hungarian muffin. And I realized here was my chance to pay it forward to insure there would be future generations of rhinos, hippos, elephants, blue whales, black rhinos, Javan rhinos, Bengal tigers, giant pandas, chimpanzees, snow leopards, giant tortoises, Amur leopards, green sea turtles, African wild dogs, mountain gorillas, cross river gorillas, Sumatran elephants, hawksbill sea turtles, pygmy hippopotamuses, leatherback sea turtles, African forest elephants, Borneo pygmy elephants, African savanna elephants, greater one-horned rhinos, and many, many more—not to mention earth and human beings.
When I got home, the first thing I did was join the conservation circle, bequeath a legacy to the zoo, and sign up for the behind-the-scenes giraffe tour.
(See part two)