Thunder was rumbling in the distance as my partner and I got into the jeep. Jake and I were almost always teamed up for these runs, as much because we worked well together as because people think our names looked cute on the schedule together: Jake and Jen. Never underestimate a zoo admin’s sense of whimsy.
It was six in the evening, but it was summer so the sun had only barely begun its slide from day to night, as far as anyone could tell through the cloud cover. We were on our way up Cheetah Hill to see if we could find a brand-new baby aoudad.
“You think the thunder will have them in the trees?” I asked.
Jake was our senior hoofstock specialist. I’m one of the three veterinarians at the Conserve. We take turns being on call, three days on, three days off, rotating Sundays. That day was my Sunday, and while I loved the mornings, by afternoon we always had all sorts of minor emergencies. Mostly because Sunday afternoons were crazy busy with families who came through after church.
The Conserve is a drive-through safari park, and we do our best to limit the traffic. We charge per person, not per vehicle, and we limit people to one bag of kibble each. But when it’s a warm spring day, and folks know there are baby animals around, it gets crowded, and people do stupid shit.
We had human medics at the admissions area and at the café and rest stop that are the half-way point on our safari, for the inevitable nips that happen when parents don’t control their kids, and let them pet or attempt to hand feed the animals. (Never mind that there were signs everywhere, and more warnings in the map and animal identification pamphlet we provide.)
But for the animals, we were the folks who handled everything from lacerations to matting incidents to dental care on the rhinos and – that day – hopefully – tagging a newborn baby sheep. Or goat. The thing about aoudads is that they’re a bridge species, half-way between the two.
Maybe it was because the approach to Cheetah Hill was the steepest part of the Conserve, or maybe they just liked the way the grass tasted there, but it was where the aoudads congregated.
Jake decelerated, til we were crawling up the hill at less than five miles an hour, and I had my head out the window searching the throng of animals. Of course, we had kibble with us, and we tossed them liberally, partly to keep the road clear, and partly because new mamas were typically incredibly hungry.
“Look, there’s Poor Dad,” I said, as a bearded sheep/goat countenance came into view. “We found papa.”
“Why do you call him that? I thought his name was Dave?”
“There’s this play I read in high school. It was one of the ones everyone pulled monologues from. Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mamma’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feeling So Sad.”
“Are there animals in it?”
“Only the human kind. For some reason, the word ‘aoudad’ just feels like it should be followed with the rest. So, he’s Aoudad, Poor Dad. And really, it’s not inaccurate. He’s got to service all these females whenever they’re in season.”
It was typical in wildlife parks, to have only one or two males of any hoofstock species and whole herds of females. Female hoofstock are pretty docile, and we just kept the boys separate when the weren’t in service.
“You have a point. Wait… look. On the right… Is that…?”
“Number 526 and a calf… yep.”
“Jake stopped the jeep. “Okay, let’s do this.”
For a skilled team, bagging, tagging, and returning a baby aoudad took less then then minutes. I helped drive the calf into Jake’s arms, and he lifted her into the back of our vehicle, holding her still while I noted her weight, temperature, heart rate, and confirmed her sex. Then I pulled an ear tag out of my kit, logged the number, and gave the wee baby her first – and likely only – piece of jewelry.
That calf handled it like a pro, bleating only once, and then nuzzling us in search of milk. As soon as I said, “Done,” Jake scooped her up again and returned her to her confused mother. We gave mama handfuls of kibble, then patted her rump sending her away.
As to Poor Dad… hoofstock don’t really co-parent, but he seemed to understand that we were welcoming his offspring to our greater Herd. He gave us a grave nod – not difficult as most adult aoudads look like ancient Hebrew scholars – as if to tell us he approved.
We got back in the jeep, and Jake glanced over at me. “Wanna take the long way? See the cats on the way back?”
“Yeah,” I said. “Let me just radio back.”
I called in the successful ID, and told them we were taking the scenic route, and then Jake put the jeep back in gear and we continued up the hill.
The thunderclouds burst open as we reached the crest, but we didn’t care. The cheetahs loved to frolic in warm rain, and we spent our time watching them, driving impossibly slowly.
“There’s a live band down at The Barn tonight,” Jake mentioned casually – too casually – as we moved past the last enclosure. “Wanna go? Get a burger and a beer and maybe dance?”
And there it was: the elephant, or, uh, aoudad, in the room. The other reason the admin always scheduled us together. Jake had a thing for me, and I kinda had a think for him, and we were too focused on the job to ever really go there.
Or maybe we weren’t.
“Sure,” I said. “You wanna meet or…?”
“I’ll pick you up at eight.”
We had cabins on the Conserve property, all the permanent animal care people, so it wasn’t like he didn’t know where I lived.
“Okay, then,” I said. “See you at eight.”
Maybe we’d end up being colleagues grabbing a meal, or maybe it would end up as more, but either way, it didn’t matter. We’d had a successful tagging and got to see cheetahs in the rain. Nothing could ruin the day.