A Keeper's Tale, Part 1 of 5: Sharks

by guest writer Hodari Nundu

I am kind of an artist. I’ve been drawing since I was three years old. That’s also about the time I became obsessed with dinosaurs and all sorts of wildlife both living and extinct. Most of my drawings depicted dinosaurs, rattlesnakes with impossibly long rattles, and sharks, along with comically square cars with oversized radio antennae. Today, I believe I am pretty good at drawing dinosaurs, rattlesnakes and sharks- my cars still look the same, though.

I have a job as a cartoonist in a newspaper and I draw a lot when I have free time. Also, I write- both fiction and non-fiction. In other words, I use my fingers quite a lot. This is the reason why, despite wishing to become a zookeeper since age 15, I always hesitated a bit.

Anyone who has read anything about wild animals in captivity knows that being a zookeeper is no joke. All young boys and girls who dream of being zookeepers or animal trainers seem to operate under the impression that they will magically develop a close bond or relationship with their animal charges, and that it will be awesome to have a ferocious tiger or gigantic killer whale following your commands and being as loving and obedient as a puppy as the crowd watches in awe. 

But I always knew reality was nothing like that. I knew that zookeepers had a dangerous job. They were often mauled, envenomated, trampled, even crippled or killed. Although wild animals are indeed capable of bonding with their keepers, provided they are treated with respect and that their needs are fulfilled as much as possible, that doesn´t mean they become puppies. A leopard cannot change its spots. And leopards have been eating humans since prehistory. Even years of training can´t beat millions of years of predatory instincts.

What worried me the most, as a teenager trying to figure out what he wanted to do in the future, was not the (very real) danger of being mauled to death by a zoo animal. I wasn´t very afraid of death at the time. I was more worried about my fingers. I had been told that one of the most common injuries zookeepers suffered was the amputation of fingers. Either directly, due to the bite of an animal (and a surprising number of finger-choppers were not even predatory), or indirectly, as a desperate measure to save someone from dying a painful death. A friend of my father’s had worked at the local zoo. He too was an artist- he painted the jungle-mimicking backgrounds to the snake enclosures in the reptile house. He told us that an unfortunate snake-keeper had been bitten in a hand by a Gaboon viper- one of the deadliest snakes in the world, and the record-holder when it comes to the longest fangs of any snake.

Gaboon Viper (Ltshears/Creative Commons)

There was no antivenom available at the time, and so they had to chop the man’s hand with an axe to prevent the venom from spreading to his body. He lived, but his story was scary enough for me to think twice about my wild dream. After all, as much as I loved animals, I loved drawing and writing just as much, and I needed my hands and fingers intact to do that.

For a little while, I forgot about the zookeeping dream. Then,  one day, the local zoo made an announcement. The exhibit formerly known as the Nocturnarium was to be closed permanently, and all the animals in it- which had been caught in a nearby natural preserve- were to be released back into the wild, except, unfortunately, for the vampire bats, since the risk of having them infect the wild ones with a disease was too high (it had to do with the vampire habit of regurgitating blood meals into the mouths of hungry mates).

The good news was, the Nocturnarium building would be adapted into an Aquarium. And there were going to be sharks.

Now, sharks are among my favorite animals. When I was a kid, a group of friends and I found a requiem shark’s severed head in a beach. Some believed that the shark had been beheaded with a machete, perhaps by a fisherman. However, it made little sense to me, as I figured a fisherman who takes the time to hack a shark’s head off would probably keep the head instead of throwing it away. Besides, it didn´t look like it had been cut off with a machete. In fact, the head bore every sign of having been bitten off by another, bigger shark. I asked a local diving guide if there were any large sharks around. He said the biggest he had seen were about four meters long.

However, my favorite encounter with a shark, although not very close, was when my family and I went on a brief tour in Puerto Vallarta on board of a small yatch. The yatch was taking us to a small island nearby (which, as we eventually learned, was teeming with leeches). It was the journey to the island that was interesting. I saw hundreds of bright blue Man’O’War and jellyfish, and a pod of bottlenose and spotted dolphins swam besides the yatch for a while.

Also, we saw a shark. I couldn´t tell what species it was. All I know is that it was too busy feeding on a huge fish shoal to pay us any attention. But even the brief glimpses of its dark, triangular dorsal fin were enough to hypnotize me. I had seen a shark, alive, in its natural habitat. My fascination with these animals was even greater since that day.

So of course, as soon as the sharks arrived to the newly-inaugurated Aquarium, I went to visit. Once again, I was captivated by their beauty, their elegance, the way they glided through the water effortlessly, almost as if they were ingravid creatures from another dimension. I spent over two hours standing in front of the tank, ignoring the noisy children around me, and the desperate guard who kept telling people, to no avail, that it was forbidden to touch or hit the glass. After a while, I decided that I wanted to be a shark keeper. I knew it was dangerous and I suspected that no self-respecting zoo would allow an unexperienced boy to deal with such umpredictable animals without previous training. But I still wanted to try my luck. I went looking for the Aquarium managers and asked them many questions about the sharks. I was told that all of the Aquarium’s sandbar sharks were females (although I had already deduced this by looking at their pelvic fins), and that they all had names. The names were all rather comical- it is a part of Mexican culture to make a joke out of everything. Unfortunately, I have forgotten the names. They also told me that the keepers only went into the tank when it was absolutely necessary.

When I asked them if I could apply to be a shark keeper, they told me just what I expected. I needed previous experience working with animals. The zoo was very strict about who got to work with the creatures. Only vets and veteran biologists had that privilege. Of course, they said, I could always apply for a more normal job at the zoo- a cleaner, for example.

Needless to say, I didn´t even consider it. Not because I think being a cleaner is demeaning-- but because what I wanted was to be in the water with the sharks, to look at their eyes and touch them and feed them, hopefully with some other creature’s flesh instead of mine.

I was a little bit disappointed but at the same time, I was relieved. My hands weren´t in danger of being bitten off for the time being.

I still dream of swimming with wild sharks, or going on one of those cage-diving trips to Isla Guadalupe, an island in the Gulf of California which is known as one of the best spots to see great white sharks up close. To date, none of my friends or relatives understand why I would want to go into the water with a two-ton predator known to bite human limbs off as if they were made of butter.

I really don´t know the answer, to be honest. Maybe I’m just an adrenaline junkie. Maybe I’m just madly in love. I am terrified of death, but there is one thing that terrifies me even more; the idea that the great white shark may go extinct before I get to look directly into its dark blue eyes.  Somehow, I feel I will not be complete until I do.



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