Venomous: How Earth’s Deadliest Creatures Mastered Biochemistry
by Christie Wilcox
Never one to pass up a conversation about adorable animals, I was drawn into a couple different ones at the office over the last few days. Just today, chatting over the tops of our cubicles like we often do, a couple of us were talking about shipping pets. In the Foreign Service, this is a major topic that comes up time and time again- how to get a pet (usually a dog or a cat, but I’ve seen serious discussions about birds, rodents, turtles, etc…) from post A to post B. Never a cheap proposition, flying a pet around the world adds up quickly, with thousands of dollars (each move!) going to meet veterinarian requirements, buy tickets, and endure the quarantine process. For some though, a pet is synonymous with family and no expense is too great to have them accompany tour after tour after tour.
In this rambling tête-à-tête about shipping between posts, I learned that the Frankfurt airport is apparently the Shangri-La of airports for travelling pets. In addition to nice rest facilities for the critters, and staff who are attentive and actually seem to care (apparently this is not a given), the airport has a top-notch veterinarian on call at all times.
Wondering why an airport would put so much effort into animal transportation had me a bit baffled, until a colleague mentioned that the airport is used as a main hub for circus animal movements in Europe. Of course, this sent my brain down a widly different path, as the thought of sending circus animals by plane had not really ever occurred to me. Apparently, my childhood selection of picture books, plastic toys, and Disney movies has me eternally convinced at all circus animals travel by train- you know, the one with the red engine, the elephant with his trunk sticking out of the side of a car, the car with the giraffe head periscoping out of the top of his roof, and brightly painted advertisements up and down its length. This is how circus has moved, does move, and will always move. Right?
Welcome to the 21st century, Michelle! Circuses are fancy and travel by air. Sadly, this just doesn’t create the same nostalgic mental image as the train congers up. There are no lions roaring in the belly of the plane, no head/trunk holes in the fuselage for various critter pieces parts, although maybe if it were a private plane it could be brightly painted in primary colors.
Of course, with my recent trip to Johannesburg, the talk of elephants and lions smoothly slid into one about trips to various animal parks in South Africa. Unfortunately, I was not able to get out of town to do full-on safari trip, but I did squeeze in half-day trips, one to an elephant halfway house and the other to a lion park.
Yes, I said elephant halfway house.
Just a few hours outside of Johannesburg is an elephant park that houses a mere handful of pachyderms at a time- those who are awaiting placement in new homes. These giants come from a variety of places: one from a zoo that had closed down, one from a bigger park that was having social issues within its herds, and a couple from private complexes that could no longer house them. The day I went to the park, I was unable to meet the oldest member of the transient crew, as he had apparently “gotten up on the left side of the bed” and was in no mood for visitors. The keepers said the transition from the zoo has not been an easy one and he often opts of our socialization.
But, even if Old Man was grumpy that day, I still got to meet and spend the morning with some awesome creatures. The park is small and has a rolling population, but they have a great visitor program. Paired with an attached monkey park (which I opted out of!), elephant visitors still have to make their way through a free-range monkey enclosure to reach the sanctuary of the big guys. (There were monkeys out and about, but not in the terrifying numbers that still haunt my dreams after a trip to Monkey Forest in Bali. At no point was I concerned for my well-being or pondered the possible full ramifications of a broken-skin monkey bite.)
The tour started with a time to feed two of the elephants, mostly just a mash of pellets that they sucked into their trunks like powerful wet/dry vacuums. Our group was mostly adults and some folks were satisfied after dropping a handful or two into a trunk, so with a half-full bucket of pellets left, I went ahead and took a few extra turns at snack time. (The two kids our group were terrified of the elephants and hid behind their parents, regardless of the amount of coaxing by those they trusted. The adults didn’t seem overly interested, and the way I saw it, those enormous mammals ended some serious calories to survive the day, so really, I was the hero of the morning, at least in the long-lashed eyes of my new friends.)
Feeding time was followed by a really nice informational session in an outdoor classroom. We all plopped ourselves down on wooden benches and learned about the differences between Asian and African elephants (the usual, size, ears, toes, etc.), but also some really cool facts about how elephant skulls help cool their brains and about their five sets of ever larger teeth. Coming from someone who signs up for every imaginable animal outing possible when I travel, I was really impressed with the mini-biology lesson I got from the ranger and definitely came away from the day not only having interacted with elephants, but with a bit more critter data in my cranium.
The highlight of the morning was getting up close and personal (up close and pachydermal?) with the stars of the show. Having no fear of the enormous animal, I walked right up to him and his trainer, full of questions about his age, history, future, etc. The trainer looked at me and said, “Have you spent time with elephants before?” I could only laugh and reply in the affirmative, as a detailed list of my many animal visits wasn’t on the morning agenda. After some hugs and kisses, it was time to bid adieu to our new friends and their wonderful keepers. (These men obviously loved their charges and took amazing care of them. It was really impressive to see the relationships that had been formed between man and animal and to hear of how hard the reserve works to send their animals away from the halfway house to safe and healthy forever homes.)
Elephants were the itinerary for the first weekend I was in South Africa, but after that incredible outing, it was time to get down to business. I flew to Johannesburg on business and it was time to clock in. I had a week of community liaison office coordinator training ahead of me- a very full week of conducting training sessions for CLOs posted mostly in Africa, but a few from other regions, who were looking for support and a deeper understanding of their roles in their embassies and consulates. This was an amazing week of teaching (it made me realize how much I miss my classroom!) and networking, but as soon as we wrapped up the last session on Friday afternoon, I was off making plans for a Saturday trip to the lion park!
If you’ve read more than about three entries on this blog, you are well aware that much of my travel revolves around the ability to go see (and more importantly, touch) *all* the animals. Being based in Southeast Asia has given me some fantastic animal-touching opportunities: snuggling a koala, being a mahout for a day, illicitly touching a panda bear, etc. (Click the links for a quick jump to each of those animal-rific tales. They will open in a new window, so no need to worry about losing this one.) If the chance is there, I’m going to take it! With that in mind and with three weeks of being a solo-traveler in Ho Chi Minh City, one of the first things I did was take the chance to go visit the city zoo.
Now, zoos are not my favorite way to see animals, as I much prefer to get even closer and more personal with the critters, but I’ve been to some fantastic animal reserves/parks, which are just fancier names for zoos, but also usually with a bit more forward-thinking take on keeping wild animals. The animal-area in HCMC is called a “zoo,” but that didn’t put me off in the least. San Diego calls their animal park a zoo and it is amazingly well done, creature-centric and education focused.
So, one day last week, I skittered out of work as soon as I could, made the quick dash to my temporary apartment (a mere one block from the consulate- what a commute!) and changed into a sundress and headed out the door, all in the span of about ten minutes. My CLO-provided map (thanks , HCMC CLO office!) said that the zoo was a convenient fifteen minute walk, so after a brief consultation with the front desk to make sure I was headed in the right direction (Vietnamese street names all still look the same to me- I have not gotten to a higher level of language understanding yet!) and a book and a bottle of water in my bag, out I went.
The map did not lie about the distance, but I may have slightly overestimated the convenience factor, mainly because I had to cross several large streets and at this early point in my HCMC tenure I had not yet grasped the finer points of local traffic patterns. (A week and a half in, I can report that I’ve gotten pretty good at playing Vietnamese “Frogger” and can weave my way across six lanes of traffic without missing a step.) Arriving in one piece at the front gate, I was a bit taken aback by the general appearance of the entrance to the zoo; rundown is a sliggt understatement. Rather than reading “zoo,” the welcome had more of a “so-creepy-you-might-die-inside-park” vibes. But whatever. I braved the traffic to get there, I was going to see what it had to offer, so I quickly offered up my two dollar entry fee and headed on in.
Saigon Zoo (the official name) is comprised of two main parts: the animals and the botanical gardens. One of these was well-worth my $2 and the other was not.
I’ve seen a zoo or two in my time, but this one ranks as one of the worst. There was a strange array of animals, everything from reptiles galore to sadly swaying elephants. The most abundant caged animal was deer- there was a huge dirt area dedicated to a herd of probably fifty critters. (The “caged” designation is key, as other than the deer, the second most ubiquitous animal at the zoo was rats. I saw enough free-range rats to last me for the next few weeks. ) The best exhibit was the sea otters, mostly because they were actually active and seemed halfway happy. They had just been fed a bucket of fish heads (where were the bodies?) and were skittering around from pond to pond eating their seafood-inspired lunches.
But, putting aside the deplorable menagerie and wandering a few meters away , I found a decent botanical garden. It was really more of a nice park that a botanical garden (no labels on flora, nothing seemingly in any order), but I’ll stick with their nomenclature on this one. Toss the poor city parks group a proverbial bone! The park was nice. It was filled with benches, a fountain and several smaller parks-within-a-park. It will come as no surprise that my favorite part of the botanical park was the two huge cranes who wandered by the bench where I had settled in with the book I brought along, in hopes of a peaceful evening. (HCMC is *loud,* so any bit of quiet is a nice reprieve from the bus horns, scooter squeals and general ruckus of a quickly expanding Asian city.) But back to the cranes. These two long-legged, long-necked, long-beaked buddies just walked by as if they had not a care in the world and I was just another inanimate object- a piece of the bench. (Did they make their great escape from the zoo side? If so, props to you giant cranes! Run while you can.)
My afternoon at the zoo was definitely not what I had envisioned when I logged off my State Department systems and headed out the door for the day, but it ended up being an interesting and entertaining evening, regardless. Would I recommend the Saigon Zoo to folks headed through town? Nope. But, if I lived here long –term (rather than my current three-week TDY) I think I’d be a frequent visitor, as the breath of fresh air a bit of calm among the chaos of the city would make for a welcome reprieve. Just ignore the swaying elephants, hungry-looking snakes and slightly mangy deer.
This is the second guest entry by South American cruiser, Joyce McDaniel.
As we boarded the cruise ship bound for the tip of South America and Patagonia, I am sure I heard the chant of “penguins, penguins, penguins!” coming from the ship’s guests, mostly retired folks like me. For who does not envision visiting a giant colony of penguins as well as a variety of other wild life when thinking of a trip to Patagonia?
Globe Trekker and other travel shows on PBS had really pumped me up for the Patagonian experience and filled my head with visions of waddling, black and white tuxedoed penguins jabbering in Penguinese for as far as the eye can see.
Reading the excursion literature we discovered that there were 3 different kinds of penguins living in the Patagonian area: the Magellanic, Gentoo and King. I had plans to visit all 3 kinds so we signed up for 3 different excursions.
Disappointment upon disappointment filled me as first one excursion to see an island reserve of penguins was cancelled due to rough and unnavigable seas, and then a second excursion to Falkland Islands and a visit to King and Gentoo penguins rookeries was cancelled as the cruise ship was unable to park due to rough seas and high winds! Bummed was too weak of a word to describe my disappointment!
I had to settle for the too-cute and delightful towel animals that filled my stateroom. Our steward Jamie made one every day of the voyage; I really enjoyed these little animals, but they were not penguins!
I even bought 8 stuffed penguins (for the grandchildren of course!) at one stop, hoping that they would not be the only ones I saw.
On Day 8 of the cruise we were able to take a catamaran tour that visited some small rocky islands that were filled with blue-eyed cormorants -that were black and white and kind of looked like penguins They were awesome, but not penguins. Some other small rocky outcrops were filled with lazy noisy sea lions, also pretty cool, but again, not penguins.
I wanted penguins and pouted mightily!
Finally on Day 12, we moored in Puerto Madryn, Argentina. The day dawned calm and sunny and we were headed to a Penguin Reserve two hours away. Trying not to get my hopes up too high, I boarded the bus to the Peninsula Valdes Wildlife Sanctuary with promises from our guide of not only penguins, but many many other wildlife endemic to the Patagonian region.
And I was not disappointed that day! We saw Lesser Reas, an emu like creature and it was never explained why they were “lesser” rather than “greater” as they were huge. Guanaco herds covered the dry sandy landscape blending into their surroundings. They are the wild cousins to our llamas. We saw this giant rodent called a Mara which looks rather like a cross between a rabbit and a dog. It is actually a Patagonian hare. We were able to walk to within a few hundred feet of a huge colony of sea lions, mostly black shiny pups and their moms, enjoying beach time.
But still no penguins! The guide said “don’t worry, you will have your fill of penguins; I promise!”
As we traveled to see the penguins, the guide related some history of the early explorers visiting this area and encountering penguins. She shared that the early explorers wanted all animals they discovered to be useful to humans and since penguins were not edible due to their oiliness nor were they useful for clothing making or any other purpose, early explorers decided to take a burning log and light them on fire. They found a use for them- as a torch! I was and still am horrified. Fortunately that practice did not catch on and the poor penguins are no longer used as a torch.
Our mini-bus then veered off the main dusty dirt road to a small rutted dusty dirt road heading to our final destination: The Peninsula Valdes Private Penguin Reserve. As we entered the Reserve, penguins sightings began to pop up and everyone began to shout out when they saw a penguin. As far as the eye could see, penguins dotted the shrubbery covered landscape. It was a penguin watchers paradise! We quickly hopped off the bus and began our walk around the Penguin rookery and down to the ocean. Here a penguin, there a penguin, everywhere a penguin! It was wonderful. Words cannot describe the sight that beheld my eyes so be sure to check out the pictures I posted as they will give you a small glimpse of the world of penguins we entered. There were thousands! We were able to walk right up to many of these cute creatures and some walked right in front of us; for the most part they just ignored us but we delighted in them. What a sight to behold- they were cooing and chirping and waddling and just being cute.
I found my penguins! And I was happy! And I have pictures to revisit that delightful experience. I could leave my cruise having pursued and found penguins.