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TODAY
updated 7/28/2006 9:46:48 AM ET 2006-07-28T13:46:48

The Exotic Animal Training and Management Program at California’s Moorpark College has been called “America’s teaching zoo” and the “Harvard for exotic animal trainers.” The two-year program prepares its students for jobs at zoos, aquariums, animal sanctuaries, and even Hollywood. The only school of its kind, Moorpark teaches students about Latin species names, zoonotic diseases, and animal care, such as why the Zulu the mandrill takes his morning juice in a paper cup — never a plastic one.

In her new book, “Kicked, Bitten, and Scratched: Life and Lessons at the World's Premier School for Exotic Animal Trainers,” Amy Sutherland chronicles the students’ lives as they learn how to interact with cougars, baboons, snakes, wolves, tortoises, mule deer, camels, rats, and more. She also writes about clashes among the students, making the book one about human behavior as well as animal behavior. Sutherland was invited on ‘Today’ to discuss her book and her experiences. Read an excerpt:

Orientation
On an August day, under a sharp blue California sky with a view of the umber Santa Susana Mountains behind him so beautiful it can make you forget the pounding 100° heat, Dr. Jim Peddie stands in the shade and speaks of death. As a veterinarian who has euthanized hundreds of people’s beloved pets during his long career, he knows death too well but he has never grown comfortable with that moment when life slips away at his say. “Everyone thinks death should be peaceful, but it seldom is,” he says, his hands in his jeans pockets, his face pinched, and his voice raw.

Before him are fifty-one faces scattered over metal risers in a small outdoor theater. The smooth, tan faces belong to the incoming class of students or — as they will be referred to for the next twelve months — the first years in the Exotic Animal Training and Management Program at Moorpark College (EATM). This new crop of aspiring exotic animal trainers are nearly all women, forty-seven out of fifty-one. Most are in their early to mid-twenties, many of them tall. They are dressed for the heat in shorts, visors, and tank tops. Tattoos scroll across their shoulders or lower backs. They look eager, optimistic. This is their first step toward a bright, sunny future. Death — that dark, distant star — is the last thing on their minds.

Still, Dr. Peddie’s gravity is not lost on them. Nobody smiles. Their sunglassed eyes all rest quietly and attentively on the broad-shouldered, fatherly vet. The change in tone is oddly striking in what has been up to now an overwhelming, yet giddy, few days of meet and greets. On their orientation week schedules, this one-hour slot is listed blandly as Processing Food Animals. Most of the new first years know what is coming and have steeled themselves, though there’s a rumor they may be spared this gruesome initiation rite that requires animal lovers to prove their love by killing a bird with their bare hands. It’s an early litmus test of whether the first years are tough enough for the program, because the school is not, as Dr. Peddie says, for people who think animals are cute.

Birds of prey and reptiles require fresh prey, Dr. Peddie explains. In captivity they can’t hunt, so their caretakers must do the job for them. Consequently, the school teaches students how to humanely kill pigeons and rats. Every student must break a pigeon’s neck with her hands, what they call pulling a pigeon, or gas a rat before she can graduate. There is no way around it, the vet explains. Crying vegetarian won’t get you out of it, nor will your religious beliefs. “I feel it is important you do it so you know you can do it,” he says. “We’ve had [graduates] lose jobs because of this. You people are animal people, and this is part of animal care. We do this right up front and early.”


He describes how the birds’ wings flutter, the small black eyes blink, and the head pops off in your palm. As you pull, you may feel the spinal column stretch like a piece of elastic. Despite the medieval style of execution, this is the quickest way to render the birds unconscious, he says, and is thus the most humane. “People deal with this differently,” he explains. “Some people will break down crying, some will burst out laughing like they are giddy. Either one is the same thing, a release, so don’t be critical of how someone reacts. They’re not laughing because they are ecstatic. They are ecstatically uncomfortable.”

Usually at this point, a current student gently takes a bird, wings flapping, with one hand and leans over a trash can. With her other hand, she quickly jerks its nut-shaped head, cracking its small vertebrae and tearing the neck; she drops the head, which lands with a small thump on the bottom of the can. Then Dr. Peddie asks for a half dozen volunteers to step forward for this odd baptism. Today, this is not to be. After all this buildup, it turns out the rumor is true. Fortunately or unfortunately (depending on whether you’d just as soon get it over with or prefer to procrastinate pulling a pigeon until the very last day of school), there are no birds to kill. To head off the spread of Newcastle disease, a contagious and deadly virus, a statewide quarantine has stopped all sales of birds, Dr. Peddie explains. He hopes to have some pigeons soon, he says. He apologizes.

Death, however, will not be denied on this sunny day. Instead, a half dozen unlucky rats will be smothered with CO2. Before a collective sigh of relief can be exhaled, a trio of women in their twenties wheels in a shoulder-high metal tank of the explosive gas, precariously strapped to a handcart by a bungee cord, and totes in a plastic bin of rats. These women are second years, meaning they are in the second year of the program. Moreover, they are the Rat Room managers. They oversee a small colony of rats in a room the size of a large walk-in closet. The rats are raised to feed the zoo’s reptiles and birds of prey. A Rat Room manager with schoolmarm glasses and visor pulled low cinches a spotted rodent around the shoulders with her thumb and index finger and hoists it up for all to see. Except for its busy nose, the bright-eyed rat goes slack, its pink tail hanging straight. “Be careful, because they will, I repeat will, bite you,” she says.

Everything is ready to go. All that is needed is a plastic bin, a small plastic garbage bag, the CO2, and, of course, the rats. The managers are at pains to explain themselves and keep repeating that they do not relish their task. “Then we feed the golden eagle and see the enjoyment he gets out of the food. It’s the circle of life,” one manager, unsmiling and squinting in the sun, explains. “If you are upset by it, if you want to cry, go for it,” she says. “If it’s upsetting to you, let your emotions out.”

A Rat Room manager quickly, unceremoniously loads six rats, noses twitching, little ears upright, into a plastic bin covered by a small green garbage bag. There’s hardly enough time to spit out a good-bye. Another manager closes the bag around the carbon dioxide tube. The other holds her hands down on the rats, because they sometimes push their way out. The third manager opens the gas valve. In the bleachers, no one says a word. The two minutes tick away slowly as everyone stares at the plastic bag. There are no noticeable rustlings in the bin. No squeaks for help. The gas is turned off. The now limp rats are removed one by one. The managers lightly tap the eyes with their index finger to make sure the rats are stone dead. There is no blood, no smell.

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While men are embarrassed to cry, women can be embarrassed not to, but there is nary a sniffle. Instead of a wet-hanky fest, there is a solemn hush. This is broken as the new first years raise their hands and ask practical questions like how often do they gas rats and for how long exactly. The bin of gassed rats is whisked away to a freezer. The canister of CO2 is wheeled offstage. That’s enough of death for one day.

A sheep zips across the back of the outdoor stage. A pig, his hide a sooty black, ambles out and pokes at a ratty red carpet with his nose until the length of it unfurls and two chunks of apple pop out. Having devoured them, he lazily saunters offstage, his scrawny tail giving a little twitch as he exits. “We’re going to need to cut his tusks again,” Dr. Peddie sighs, sitting in the bleachers next to me. The first years will find that the sudden shift in mood is emblematic of life at EATM, where emotions run high and the unexpected is around every corner.

Orientation is packed with traditions, one of which is the off-color show the second years present. It’s a chance for them to strut their training stuff and cut loose after a long, grinding summer of running the teaching zoo by themselves. What follows is a ribald beauty pageant of beasts that breaks all the rules of a proper animal education presentation. They even have the animals do tricks, a forbidden word among enlightened trainers, who prefer behaviors instead. In one hand, the MC carries two dead squirrels frozen in an amorous embrace. He occasionally holds them to his sweaty brow. When a student rides Kaleb, the caramel-colored camel, onstage, the MC says, “Here’s a big hairy beast onstage with a camel underneath.” He warns that Kaleb could “freak out at any minute” and notes that a camel has thick knee pads and prehensile lips. “When would that come in handy?”

Another student totes Happy, the American alligator, onstage like a big log. The MC rattles off some alligator stats — they are exothermic, only grow as big as their enclosure, and have extra eyelids — then encourages his audience to take the Velcro strap off his snout. “Really, it’s like opening a present.” He adds, “Their skin makes excellent shoes and purses.” He pauses. “Would you ever say that in a regular show?” None of the first years answers. Just laughter. “First years, what have you learned in your first three days? Wake up!” he taunts.

Half the show’s humor comes at the student handlers’ expense. A good number of the animals don’t do as told. A little big-eared fox suddenly bounds off a student’s shoulder as she exits the stage; despite her trainer’s protests, C.J., the coyote, takes a long drink of water from a shallow moat that rings the stage; Julietta, the emu, won’t take her exit; Banjo, the macaw, won’t get on his roller skates.

Finally, the stage is hosed down, techno music is cranked up, and the star arrives. Schmoo, the twenty-four-year-old sea lion, head up and barking joyfully, bounds onstage like a rock star with her band — in this case, her four student trainers. Schmoo isn’t just the star of the show but of the whole program, with her 170-plus commands and her long list of movie and commercial credits.

Schmoo zips back and forth between the student trainers as they put her through her paces, tossing her chunks of slippery squid. She quickly rolls over and coats herself with specks of dirt, barks jubilantly, raises a flipper to her brow in a quick salute, and sticks her tongue out like a third grader. When a trainer points her finger and says, “Bang!” Schmoo collapses in an overly dramatic heap worthy of a silent screen diva. When a trainer says, “Shark!” she tosses a flipper up to imitate the killer. She tips far forward on her breast and pitches her tail happily into the air. Then Schmoo does the reverse, rising up on her tail, throwing her flippers out, and pointing her nose heavenward like an angel.

The first-year students are rapt. They lean forward and smile broadly. This is why they are here, why they’ll endure a brutal schedule, give up their social life, and take on huge student loans. A year from now it could be they who are having a high time tossing squid to this incredible creature and singing out “Shark!” This is proof, however fleeting, that their farfetched dreams of working with animals can come true. What they don’t know is that, backstage, Gabby, the Catalina macaw, has bitten one of the second years badly enough that she has been rushed to the campus Health Center. Dreams always come with a price, whether it’s money, time, or blood.

It is now the third day of what is likely to be the hardest twenty-one months of any first year’s life. This orientation week — a busy string of potlucks, ice breakers, and gag gifts — is a deceptive introduction to life at the school. However, the week is peppered with advice and announcements that foreshadow what’s ahead. Starting next week, the first years won’t have an official vacation until next summer. They will work most, if not all, holidays and most weekends. Four days a week they are due here by 6:30 a.m. and won’t leave until 5 p.m. During these long days, they will care for the teaching zoo of some 150 to 200 animals, doing everything from hosing out the cages to answering the phones. When not cleaning, feeding, or even weeding, they will attend classes — one of the few times they get to sit down during the day, which often induces deep naps complete with drooling and snoring. In the evening, drowsy from the day, they will study animal anatomy tomes and memorize agonizingly long lists of Latin species names. As an alum puts it, the school “pretty much owns you.”

It is now the third day of what is likely to be the hardest twenty-one months of any first year’s life. This orientation week — a busy string of potlucks, ice breakers, and gag gifts — is a deceptive introduction to life at the school. However, the week is peppered with advice and announcements that foreshadow what’s ahead. Starting next week, the first years won’t have an official vacation until next summer. They will work most, if not all, holidays and most weekends. Four days a week they are due here by 6:30 a.m. and won’t leave until 5 p.m. During these long days, they will care for the teaching zoo of some 150 to 200 animals, doing everything from hosing out the cages to answering the phones. When not cleaning, feeding, or even weeding, they will attend classes — one of the few times they get to sit down during the day, which often induces deep naps complete with drooling and snoring. In the evening, drowsy from the day, they will study animal anatomy tomes and memorize agonizingly long lists of Latin species names. As an alum puts it, the school “pretty much owns you.”

Excerpted from “Kicked, Bitten, and Scratched” by Amy Sutherland. Copyright 2006 by Amy Sutherland. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from the publisher, Viking Penguin, a divison of Penguin Group (USA).

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