Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Farm in the Zoo

My blogger friend Melissa over at This is it? Seriously? is very excited about becoming a volunteer for Wildlife Conservation Society at the Bronx Zoo. Her enthusiasm has made me seriously nostalgic for my days as a volunteer for the Farm in the Zoo at Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago.

Having grown up in rural Indiana, it was somehow so reassuring to know that the horses and cows and goats and sheep and pigs and chicks of the Farm were only a short bus ride away.

I know. Most people can’t believe that my acerbic personality isn’t urban-grown.

But those people have never been to Indiana. Believe me, you haven’t experienced sarcasm until you’ve experienced it at the hands of a 70-year-old farmer who gets up at 4am every goddamn morning, thinks sunglasses are for pussies, and has wrinkles in the back of his neck 1/4” deep. And you best shut up and do what he says, boy, unless you want some more. Which you don’t.

And the withering stare? That was invented in Indiana. Unlike New Yorkers, Hoosiers are people of few words, and so the withering stare is an essential communication tool for those who haven’t yet done what I asked you to. Twice now.

So to be able to live amid the culture and the nightlife and the freedom of a big city, and yet get to spend one day a week grooming horses and milking goats (yes, I can) and wrangling lambs and piglets was quite literally the best of both worlds.

The Farm in the Zoo was a “working farm,” and so the eggs and chicks and milk it produced were all put to use. When I worked there, we hatched dozens of chicks a day, and when parents would ask me what was done with them, I would tell them honestly that they were killed and fed to the birds of prey in the zoo. Most parents didn’t want their kids to hear that. My feeling was that if you’re old enough to ask, you’re old enough to know the answer. I still think it’s a pretty good policy.

Most parents didn’t want to know what happened to the male calves or kids born to our dairy cattle or goats, either. In fact, most people are pretty woefully ignorant of exactly what that meat is that’s on their plate and where it came from and what it took to get it there. Ditto dairy products for that matter.

We had a milking machine for the dairy cows, and the public was able to view this activity. Frequently it was my duty to put on the mic and answer questions from the public and spout facts about dairy cattle: which breeds yield the highest volume of milk, how many gallons a day, etc.

The first time an adult pointed to a cow in the milking machine and asked me whether it was a “boy cow” or a “girl cow,” I thought he was kidding. He wasn’t. I decided to make the question a regular feature of my talk, and I would start my spiel by asking people if they could guess the sex of the cow being milked. “Here’s a clue,” I would say. “It’s being milked.”

A surprising number of adults would still guess “boy cow.”

And 8 or 10 year-old kids on field trips from inner city schools seemed to have never even heard of a goat, let alone seen one. “Look at the little horse!” they would yell, and then they would gather around the pen, leaning over the fence with their paper bag lunches dangling from their hands. “Watch your lunches,” I would say, usually too late. Our goats could dispatch a sandwich, chips, piece of fruit and the paper bag in about 5 seconds.

The goats were my favorite. I love goats. They’re so smart and playful. And I learned how to hold a goat kid or a lamb, with one knee underneath their belly and my arms wrapped around the middle, so that small children could approach them to pet them without fear of being knocked to the ground by a sudden prong. Unfortunately, holding a baby animal in that position meant you were almost certain to be in the path of either bodily function. But after a few times getting nailed with goat kid pee, you shrug it off and don’t even bother to try to rinse off your pants before you go on to the next duty.

We also had an event called Feed the Cows. Kids and adults could line up and receive a handful of fresh hay, and they could walk down the line of stalls and let a cow eat from their hand. It was a popular event, and the cows were very well behaved for the most part. My favorite cow was the Jersey, whose coat was the color of a deer, and whose eyes were big and sad with long curly lashes. My least favorite cow was Toni, the Holstein, who once got caught on the lower half of a barn door by trying to jump it to get into the barn. She was a bad cow and you had to keep an eye on her.

There was one kid who used to come in at least a couple of weekdays every week. He looked to be about 12, and he was pretty skinny and his clothes looked kinda shabby as well. All the volunteers remembered him because he was never with a school group, and he would stand at the cow pen and stare at them for a very long time. No one could talk to him though, because he would leave as soon as any zoo people got close to him. I think he was afraid of being reported truant.

One day, while I was working the Feed the Cows activity, the kid actually came into the barn and stood in line for handful of hay. He walked down to the big, friendly Brown Swiss, and fed it to her. Then he came through again. And then again. I watched him hold his hand flat, trying not to move as the cow swept her big, rough tongue over his palm. And then, slowly, he reached up and touched her forelock. And then he petted her, in small soft motions, between the eyes.

Suddenly, the kid turned and saw me watching him. He fixed me with a hard, mean stare, and then he reached back and smacked the cow between the eyes. The Brown Swiss recoiled slightly, but remained unfazed. I opened my mouth to yell “Hey!” but I somehow never formed the word, and instead, open mouthed, I watched him take off out the barn door.

It was one of those moments that you can’t stop thinking about, but you’re not sure why. Gradually, I came to recognize that kid in the faces of many of the kids that I saw come through the farm. Kids that stood, sullen, on the edges of their groups with arms folded or hanging limply by their sides. Kids standing near the doors who wouldn’t meet your eyes. Kids that had been beat down so many times they knew better than to care about anything. Because if you don’t care about anything, then you can’t get hurt.

And they wanted to make damn sure I knew there was no room in their hearts for some dumb cow, or a pink squirming piglet, or a big gentle old horse with lips like tickly velvet.


Anonymous said...

Awesome blog entry!
I want a velvet, tickly-lipped horse for my very own!

Jess said...

Me too!!

I've always wanted to milk a cow. I don't know how to go about finding a cow to milk, though. Stupid, I know. But, it's still one of my goals. Maybe when I have a kid I can milk myself and that will be enough.

Hey Vikki, are your experiences on the farm/zoo the main reason why you're a vegetarian?

(I gotta say, after learning about colon health... which I have... I'm starting to warm up to the idea of vegetarianism. It takes your body, like, a week to digest meat. But, meat rots in less than a week. So, basically, every time you eat it, you've got rotting meat in your colon. GROSS!)

Melissa said...

This post almost made me cry. I know those kids all too well and they break my heart. There is something magical about the feelings animals can produce in humans, and people who don't see this or feel it - well, there is something seriously wrong and/or missing in them.

vikkitikkitavi said...

Actually, my feelings for vegetarianism go back pretty far. Even as a kid I was always aware that the meat on my plate used to be some animal's body, and that always bothered me.

I remember the first time that my teacher read "Charlotte's Web" to my class because I remember thinking what a hypocrite Charlotte was. Sure, she wanted to save the cute little piglet, but she had no problem eating bacon for breakfast, right?

I guess I was a pretty uncompromising little kid.

But I'm so different NOW.

Believe me, Jess, you do not want to milk a cow by hand. It takes FOREVER, and your hands really start to hurt. We're talking gallons of milk coming out one little squirt at a time.

Better to milk to goat. They'll typically only give about a couple of quarts. Also, they're much less likely to break your jaw with a well-placed kick while you're back there.

When I used to do the goat milking demo at the Farm in the Zoo, I got to be pretty good at hitting the kids in the audience who were talking with a stream of milk. A good squeeze on a goat teat has about the same range as a cheap water pistol. The goat doesn't care for it much, though, so you had to use it judiciously. And definitely when the teacher wasn't looking.

Goats are so freakin smart, too. Someday I really really want to have one.

I miss being with all those animals. I miss Captain, the big old Clydesdale. I even miss the stupid sheep. I agree with you Melissa, that they can make you feel things that you otherwise might not be aware you are capable of feeling.

Grant Miller said...

That's some story. Quite well written. Just realized you're vegetarian too. We're a vegetarian family here. The only one in the entire Chicago suburbs. My kids love going to the farm at the zoo. But the smell is tough for me to take. Thanks for the comments on my site too!

Bro said...

The truth about Indian'a "accent":

I can't really say that we had an accent in Indiana, sure we talked funny but the word "accent" implies that we all talked alike in a way where we understood each other because we were mutilating the language in like and similar ways.

Untrue. We had never agreed just how to mutilate the language so we all did whatever way seemed expeditious at the time, based upon what time of 4:00 AM it was, whether there was church nearby and our level of sobriety. Truth is we didn’t really understand each other, not really. We say “soda pop” because saying either soda or pop isn’t enough of a clue as to what the subject matter really is, even with vigorous pointing. There is actually a vowel that is neither an “e” or an “i” since it is used so interchangeably, if you want to write something down you’d better put the word “ink” in front of “pen/pin” or you will be asked twice for clarification.

So we resorted to mixed metaphors and withering stares.