Memories of My Former Self
A True Story - Believe it or Not
As I approach my twilight years, I find myself reflecting upon the vast amount of memories of my former self that enter my mind daily. It may seem that I exaggerate and/or stretch the truth. Some of the facts may be out of order, or appear to be tainted truth. However, the essence of this episode is real, and quite memorable.
These series of events took place in my late twenties, when I was footloose and fancy free. I had recently failed to obtain a job as a dolphin trainer, while also pursuing a degree as an oceanographer. As I continued on my career search, I came across a classified ad for a position as an assistant zookeeper at the San Diego Zoo. I quickly scheduled an appontment for an interview. Although I was not the most qualified candidate, my enthusiasm and passion during the initial interview resulted in being hired that same day.
Since this was a brand new venture for me, the training that lay ahead seemed difficult at first. The zookeeper expressed that he had complete confidence in me, and recognized my positive attitude and willingness to learn new things. One of these new things would be the responsibility that I would be given to supervise the behavior of the largest gorilla in captivity. His name was Mafubo, which means "someone who has an excellent character" in his native African culture.
At first I merely observed Mafubo's daily activiities, and made sure he got his "3 squares" a day. Over the weeks and months that passed, I learned more about this incredible animal, not least of which was his unique personality and intellect. The zookeeper noticed how dedicated I had become to my job, and especially my diligent work with Mafubo, who had become the #1 attraction at the zoo.
Gorillas are extremely smart, and Mafubo exhibited a level of intelligence that was extremely high. It was, however, his personality that captured the hearts of everyone that encountered him. He was creative, impulsive, and extremely active, like an adventurer or daredevil. Mafubo was also very sociable, characterized by a keen desire to interact with other gorillas; and he showed it with his empathy/compassion, tenderness, and kindness. Although there were many incidents that could have affected him negatively, Mafubo was always calm and peaceful. Besides his display of a unique personality, he performed amazing feats every day, including back flips on several of the tree limbs. In general, gorillas play hard, so once in a while they get injured. Fortunately, the zoo's most treasured possession did not suffer any severe injuries.
While I was the tender of the zoo's "prize possession," I learned all of his idiosyncrasies over a period of nearly six years. Then an extremely sad event took place. It was the beginning of a new work week, and the zookeeper and I sat down for our weekly planning meeting. With a somber look on his face, and tears welling up in his eyes, he softly told me that he had just received Mafubo's annual medical checkup report, and it was not good. It was discovered that he had an enlarged heart, which was diagnosed as life threatening. To say I was shocked would be a gross understatement. This would change many things in my life and work at the San Diego Zoo.
Another New Beginning
The next phase in my job would be challenging in more ways than I could imagine. First, I would have to monitor Mafubo's activities and all of the finite details. The veterinarians had prescribed numerous drugs to prolong a healthy life for him, but as a result there were many negative side effects.
Early one morning, my boss called me into his office. It had now been about two months since Mafubo's diagnosis, and the drug seemed to be helping. So what I heard next from the zookeeper was not something that I even remotely expected. Mafubo's heart had given out, apparently as a result of the drugs, and he died quietly at around the break of day that same morning. Although I felt sad and full of grief, it also gave me a sense of peace, knowing that this incredible primate had brought me, and thousands of others who came to the zoo, much joy throughout the years.
During the rest of our conversation that morning, the zookeeper shared something that he said must be kept strictly confidential. He went on to explain that he had a plan to compensate for the loss of the biggest attraction at the zoo. Both of us realized that the death of Mafubo would have a negative effect on attendance, especially on weekends. The plan was simple, although it would not be easy to carry it out. My life was about to take a drastic change of direction.
The plan the zookeeper and I devised was ingenious, with only a few minor flaws. We would not reveal the gorilla's death, but instead design a "gorilla suit" that was designed to fit me to a "T." As mentioned earlier, I knew all of Mafubo's moves, and all of his "monkey business." The tricky part was learning how he maneuvered around the different apparatus that was set up in his play area. I would now have to work seven days a week, with the exception of those days which we designated as sick days when the new Mafubo would not be available.
Since I couldn't rehearse Mafubo's routine at the zoo, I had to practice at home. Luckily I had my kid's playset in our backyard that I could try and duplicate the gorilla's backflips and one-arm swings. This included making sure that the gorilla suit appeared authentic. Any imperfections would be noticed, and if that happened, I (and the zookeeper) would be in deep trouble.
We designated the next two days after Mafubo's passing as a time when a special visit from the vet would make him unavailable to the public. So I had nearly three days to get ready to do my best as "Mafubo II." I kept this in secret from my wife or kids, so I had to be discreet in scheduling my time to practice my new routines.
My Debut at the Zoo
The day finally arrived for me to take center stage as "Mafubo." It was on a Saturday, which typically was the day when the crowds were the largest. For my debut at the zoo, the weather was perfect; it was a warm, cloudless day in San Diego. Before I made my grand entrance into the play area from the secluded cave, I went over in my mind everything I needed to do in order to make it all believable. I was nervous, yet confident in my skills and abilities. For all of my readers who are football fans, it was like anticipating the kickoff at the beginning of a game. I was filled with excitement and apprehension in all that was about to happen.
I ambled slowly to the area where I would do my first trick, wanting to get the difficult stunts out of the way first. After a few routine flips off one of the tree limbs, I prepared for the one-arm swing that ususally brought huge oohs and aahs from the crowd. The limb of this tree was adjacent to the neighboring lion's den, but my predecessor had always landed the swing at least fifteen feet from the lion's abode, as if to show the king of the jungle his due respect. After one complete 360 swing around the limb, the roar from the crowd motivated me to do a double swing.
And then...something unexpectedly happened! About midway through the trick, I felt the limb crack, and my momentum was interrupted. I came down nearly on my head, but was able to roll so that my shoulders and back took the brunt of the fall. Unfortunately, the force of the fall propelled me towards the dividing wall separating me from the lion's den. This all resulted in the inevitable slide down into the lion's lair.
My Life Flashed Before Me
"Was this going to be the end of my life?" I asked myself. I then quickly assessed my options. There were really only two that were obvious, since running or trying to escape was not likely possibilities. So, I could yell for help or try and defend myself as best I knew how. If I did the former, I might save my life, but certainly I would be disgraced and possibly face legal charges.
The hungry lion (it was nearing lunchtime) would most likely have the advantage, especially since I was now slightly injured from the fall. In what seemed like an eternity of time, my life flashed before me, and then I sensed it was time to make my decision. Life is all about choices, and this was going to be the one that was literally a matter of life or death.
The King of the Jungle surveyed the situation before him, and then he began to draw closer to his prey (me, of course). The crowd, which was strangely quiet, looked on with nervous anticipation. I knew they were silently, and perhaps prayerfully, begging for the lion to be merciful. I remained in a prone position only about twenty yards from the imminent jaws of death. Finally, the lion took a couple of long strides toward me, and I could feel his warm breath on my face. I couldn't hold back anymore. Just as I was about to scream for help, the attacker opened his mouth and whispered (so the crowd would not hear a word), "Shut up or we'll both lose our jobs!"