Monday, March 15, 2004

The scoop on poop.

I’m well aware that I frequently write about dung, in both figurative and literal senses. So please excuse the topic, or move on to if you’d prefer to read entries most likely not to involve poop…

Having been a zookeeper of sorts and now being a parent of two humans, I have lots of experience with the stuff. Anyone raising kids has dealt with dirty diapers, so there’s not much I’ve encountered there that’s unique. However, being a Biology major and having been a primate keeper, I’ve come across the Good, the Bad and the Ugly offal of the animal world.

I once had the pleasure of observing a dung beetle (Scarabaeidae deltochilum gibbosum) at work in a local state park. He painstakingly rolled a foul little ball of excrescence along the Piedmont forest floor. (Some d. gibbosum bury balls of dung with their larval offspring inside. Both larvae and adults feed off the yummy “brood ball.”) He was so intent on getting his burden to its destination that I couldn’t fault him for his stinky addiction. Friends and family didn’t share the enthusiasm when I described my fascinating study; it’s hard to rally respect for a bug with a crappy moniker.

A quaint name, or even better yet, a quaint shape, can refine some scatological elements. One of my college biology professors related a story in class about wombat bowel movements. Apparently, wombats leave cube-shaped blocks of waste on rocks throughout the Australian outback. Professor W. found this lore difficult to believe, which spurred an Aussie colleague to collect and mail him a sample of the square stuff. Apparently airport security was confounded as to the contents of an incoming package labeled “one fumigated wombat scat.” Professor W. was delighted to report that wombats are indeed, capable of producing cubic ordure.

Delight is not a term I’d use to describe my frame of mind in this last indelicate narrative...
Shell-shocked is more like it, since I was the target of a carpet bombing mission of sorts. I was a primate technician responsible for the care of several outside "silo" cages of red ruffed lemurs. (Lemur varecia variagata rubra; similar in appearance to fluffy, medium-sized dogs.) The metal-gridded towers were tin roofed and stood several stories high. All silos contained a nest box, a huge tree stripped of bark and several dried vines. The varecia would caper from branch to branch at feeding time, eventually gathering at ground level platforms to eat. Feeding time was a piece of cake, compared to daily cage cleaning. I would enter a silo’s outer door with bucket, wirebrush and rake in hand. I could then walk down a short safety run and through an inner door to access the main silo area. Upon opening the inner door, it was common to hear the "plop plop" of stool ammo blasting the entryway. If I survived the gauntlet to make it to the silo’s center, I could look up and gauge the location of each buttock aimed at me. The challenge was on, however, to rake up the contents of the sandy cage floor before the bombers above could strafe my general direction with foulness. If victorious, I would escape unscathed, or simply with a stained shirt that I could change or wipe off. If defeated, I would slowly stomp my way to the facility shower, covered from head to toe in lemur pudding studded with decaying fruit. "Ohh," the perfumed front desk receptionist would utter with both sympathy and repulsion. I never encountered the center’s director during my “Trail of Smears,” but I fantasized that I might get hazardous duty pay if discovered in my humiliated state.

I never really came up with a foolproof solution to the silo-cleaning dilemma. I even had to chalk up a final victory to the red ruffs the day before I ended my career at the center. If there was anything to be learned from my experience under the "guns," it was this:

Don’t look up with your mouth open, unless you’re really certain what’s overhead.

Words of wisdom from an ex-zookeeper.