Sunday, January 26, 2014

The Poor, Forgotten Seals

We've all mistaken someone for another person, right?  Let's set aside the completely uncontrollable fact that there are doppelgängers of people everywhere; we have all at least called someone by the wrong name.  We've mistaken a person we don't know very well who we haven't seen in a long time for another, equally-barely-known person.  And let's be honest: some of us in this room have had lengthy phone conversations with someone they thought was a guy they were kind of dating but it turned out to be a complete stranger and the only reason that became apparent after 20 minutes was because the guy started saying really gross, suggestive things and I tried to politely end the conversation by saying I had to be at a class that he was in soon but he had no idea what I was talking about and then I realized OMG THIS IS A STRANGER.

Doppelgängers create easy potential for mistaken identity.  Unless of course, one of the doppelgängers is dead.

Humans mix each other up all of the time.  It's normal, but it doesn't mean it's not embarrassing.  I'd contend we strive for most of our social lives to remember people's names not just to be polite, but just to make sure we don't experience that awful feeling after a case of mistaken identity.  

But you know who has to deal with that on a daily, even hourly basis?  

Well, there are a few:

River otter or wolverine?

Manatee or sea turtle?

Commerson's dolphin or baby killer whale?

But I'm here to talk about one in particular (arguably the worst case):


Seal? Is that a seal?

Yes, seals.  

I feel bad for seals, really.  Because true seals are really cool animals.  They are adorable, they are roly-poly, some of them are total BAMFs.  Elephant seals are massive, gray seals kill harbor porpoises, leopard seals are one of the most terrifying things on the planet next to serial killers and public speaking.  Seals are one of the most graceful swimmers in the animal kingdom, they are intelligent, and they are beautiful.

Disclaimer: For seal images, I typed in "cartoon seals".  The following graphics are alleged "seals", but content may be intellectually disturbing.

Google search: cartoon seal.  Result: This atrocity.

But for some reason, real seals are never identified correctly.   Everyone thinks that sea lions are seals.  So what does that mean seals are?

This phenomenon is one of the best things to witness in a park guest, especially if your facility has both seals and sea lions and they are in separate locations.  The guest first spends 25 minutes staring at a park map showing individual animal group locations using complicated methods such as cartoon drawings and large, block letters with words such as "SEAL" and "SEA LION".   They then observe a 20 minute sea lion show where an incredibly mysterious and as yet-unnamed scientific process occurs in which all educational information passes completely through the ears and brain and is shot back out into the air where it will eventually climb into outer space, bouncing around from satellite to satellite until aliens pick up the signal, translate it into their language and say, "Oh, THAT'S the difference between seals and sea lions?"

So your park guest leaves the sea lion show with a great big smile on their face and an appreciation for marine mammals and updates their Facebook status with, "jus saw a hilaaaaaries seal show!".  And everything is copacetic in their world until they reach the seal habitat. 

This piece is entitled: "Cartoon seal fishing".   Are those tusks?! 

And there it happens, right on their face.  They stare at the seals, wondering why a tiny voice deep inside their brain is saying, "THIS IS A SEAL" but their most conscious self is saying "BUT YOU JUST SAW SEALS OVER THERE" and both of these voices scream "THESE ARE NOT THE SAME ANIMAL."

Their face betrays the internal struggle.  It's a puzzled but anguished expression.  Some people never make it past this stage.  Others take control of a seemingly uncontrollable situation and frantically look for signage around the habitat to slake their thirst for an answer.  And when they see the sign "Harbor Seal", they almost always have a look of disgust or confusion, as if to say, "THAT'S a seal?"

Uh, not even close.

Of course, any good zookeeper who identifies this cognitive dissonance will approach the person to help them clarify and sort through their confusion.  The one-on-one conversation has a higher chance at conveying information that the person will retain for a period of time.  But this conversation often begets some interesting speculation on the part of the guest.

Some just refuse to see the difference:

"Is these seals the one I just seen in the show?"  …as if there is some clandestine, underground tunnel that connects the habitats so that when it's showtime, we flush the seals down the drain, into the tunnel and into the show….and then reverse it back to the other habitat after it's all over.

I can't even identify this animal.

Some accept defeat:

"So these are seals?  So what were those animals I just saw in the show?"

And others refuse to admit they are confused.  Their ego gets the best of them, and they try to make an educated guess:

"So where did you get these manatees from?"

"The sea otters are so cute!"

Before you go thinking I'm some kind of giant jerk for lightheartedly picking fun at customers, let me seriously state here that the entire reason for zoos and aquariums to exist is so we can help educate people on zoological issues and facts that they did not know about before.  Not knowing something is 100% okay.   Of course we as animal keepers occasionally forget that the world does not revolve around our taxa in our animal family, because most of the world only sees animals in forms such as: dogs and chicken nuggets.

Even in the zoo world, animal keepers have a difficult time identifying animals that are completely out of their areas of expertise.  For example, I can't tell you the difference between most types of primates.  Those little dudes are hard and I know they have different colors, but I will just call them monkeys even though I realize that's probably wrong (is it?). 

I have no clue what this is.

True story, in the 90s a trainer posed a question in the International Marine Animal Trainers Association's (IMATA) quarterly publication Soundings asking for advice dealing with their seal who could not perform a front-flipper stand.  The trainer was especially confused because, admittedly, they had seen plenty of seals do front-flipper stands, so why was their seal making no progress?

Unfortunately, the trainer was working with an actual seal. Unfortunately, he/she was referencing a behavior that only sea lions could do: it is physically impossible for a seal to do this behavior.  But even the trainer did not realize that there was a difference.  

Here is photographic proof that seals CAN do a REAR flipper stand.

What is it about sea lions that make seals so forgettable?  

Sometimes I imagine seals sitting around their haul-outs, talking about how unfair it all is.

Seal 1: Like I've always said, sea lions secretly market themselves as seals to take the
              glory away from us.  It's propaganda and conspiracy.
Seal 2: I think it's simply human simplicity.  They think that anything with a dog face and
              flippers is a seal.
Seal 3: You are both being too cynical.  I like to think of it as a compliment: humans think
              sea lions are so great that they call them a seal.  
Seal 1:  Oh please, Seal 3.  STFU.  
Seal 2: Yeah, not even trainers can keep us straight.  We might as well not even BE seals

The movie Andre is probably the best and most embarrassing illustration of this fact.  Seals everywhere will weep for time eternal until the day that Andre is remade with an actual seal.  Let me say this another way: the real Andre was a seal.  Not a sea lion.  Yet, a sea lion was the animal used in the movie.  

In fairness, seals definitely don't look good in Hawai'ian shirts.

If you were a seal and were aware of this fact, wouldn't you be livid?  No?  Think about it.  Why did Hollywood choose a sea lion instead of an actual seal?

I'll tell you why.  A rotating os coxa.  Sea lions can tuck their rear flippers underneath them and walk, making them agile on land.  Seals cannot.  And, as we all know,  in Hollywood, everything (such as Miley Cyrus' career) revolves around the almighty Pelvis.

Os coxae

In actuality, the real Andre did a lot of amazing behaviors.  His human family taught him to do a number of acrobatic aerials that you don't tend to see often even in modern seal shows and presentations.  His personality, relationship, and antics were just as impressive as those portrayed in the sea lion movie version of himself.   And yet, the Sea-Lion-As-Seal concept prevails and poisons the minds of humans everywhere….

A real photo of Andre (yes, really)

….leaving the seals to ponder why.

So for the sake of alleviating mental anguish and inferiority complexes of seals everywhere, I've spent countless hours creating a quiz scientifically proven to permanently etch into your cerebrum this pertinent information to discern a seal from a sea lion.  Feel free to print this out and use it as a pocket reference.

A real seal!

1. Does the marine mammal have tootsie roll ears?
    Yes: It's a sea lion
    No: It's a seal.

2. Does the marine mammal walk on all fours?
    Yes: It's a sea lion
    No: It's a seal

3. Does the marine mammal have claws on its front flippers?
    Yes: It's a seal
    No: It's a sea lion

4. When in motion, does the marine mammal look like a dog trapped in a sleeping bag?
    Yes: It's a seal
    No: It's a sea lion
    It is a dog in a sleeping bag: Seek the attention of a qualified veterinarian

So pay heed, dear readers.  If you have confused the two, now is your chance to turn the page.  Start afresh.  Pass along this knowledge to others (preferably, to my mom).  In closing, we all can do our roly-poly sea pals a favor and forever remove their identify crisis.  We love them for being seals, and we love the sea lions for being sea lions.  Equal love for two incredible kinds of animals.

Tee hee!!

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Cold Weather Is The Master Weapon Of Murphy's Law: A Tale of Trainer Woe

Wow, it's been COLD.

Yeah, check out that sweater!

I'm sure a lot of you are nodding your heads in agreement, because it's been cold in a lot of places around the world, especially in the past few weeks.

Like, where I'm at, our lows were in the teens at night.  When I try to explain how cold it's been here in Florida to some of my family members in much colder climates, I wind up sounding like I'm telling a bad variation of "yo' momma so fat?" joke.  Instead it sounds something like, "Our weather so cold, we bring our penguins inside*."

I found icicles on our outdoor garbage disposal, there were thick ice patches everywhere, and trainers who found every article of clothing they could physically put on without cutting off circulation to major blood vessels necessary for life and/or bucket cleaning.

Look! Real icicles! In Florida!

Every winter in the zoo field, something happens that just strengthens our belief in our variation of Murphy's Law: if it can go wrong, it'll be really friggin' cold outside.

That reminded me of one of the worst experiences I had at work that didn't have to do with anything sad with animals.   

Years ago, one of the facilities I worked at had three dolphins born around the same time.  They were all born within a few weeks of each other, and were all healthy, happy dolphin calves.  They did everything dolphin calves do, which is similar to what a human toddler would do if they didn't have legs and their hands and arms were fused into triangles and they could swim really fast.

A grandma gives her daughter a break and swims with her three month old grand-daughter.

And as I've mentioned in previous posts, one of the most critical behaviors that any animal in any zoo setting needs to learn is to shift from one habitat into another.  If this seems crazy to you, this blog explains why it's so important.

Since the calves were born in the middle of the summer, which happens to be the Busy Season in this industry, we needed to have other habitats available for our dolphins who were not involved in raising the calves to do our interactive programs.  So the calves and their moms spent several months in one of our largest, main habitats and we did not ask them to move from one area to another.

When our Busy Season died down, we knew we had to start teaching the calves to gate.  Sometimes, if all of your target poles are lined up and the moon is in the Seventh House and you wear your lucky socks, the calves will follow their moms through a gate channel and into another habitat. 

But most of the time, one or both parties will decide that this task is the scariest thing ever.

Now, because coastal Atlantic bottlenose dolphins are a) smart, b) 350-500 pounds, and c) live in the water all the time, it can be very tricky coaxing them into a habitat if they've never seen it before, or if they haven't gated before.  And in addition to all of the other serious reasons why we need animals to shift into different living spaces, we wanted all of our dolphins to be able to go into any combination of habitats.  Sometimes, we'd give access to many pools at a time.  But if the calves refused to swim through a gate, they'd get stuck in a habitat which wasn't in their best interest.  You'd think, "Hey! You've got three massive habitats to swim in if you swim through this gate!"  But they're like, "AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!"

I googled "scariest thing ever" and this is what I got.  And I approve.

The way we decided to help out our calves was to put in a massive series of panels made out of PVC and shade-cloth.  It essentially acted as a false wall.   We put it in at the opposite end of the habitat and slowly (and I do mean slowly) move the wall closer and closer.  At some point, the calves go through the gate and into another habitat.  It may only take one time, or you may have to repeat the process several times, but eventually the calves realize that going into an unknown habitat is not scary.

Some people who are not in the field get upset when they hear or see this.  We hid nothing from our guests, so they saw how we used the panels to teach the calves to gate.  

"Why don't you just use positive reinforcement? Reward them for going in a little at a time?"

It's a good question, and it seems like the best answer.  But what I will tell you from personal experience, what we think is the best "nicest" option actuality ends to cause a lot more anxiety.  Because what we're forgetting here is that the calves are not going into the new habitat, not for anything.  Their moms may zip in (depending on how independent the calves are, and how lax the moms are in their own parenting styles), but the calves are like, "No way," and the moms come back out to be with their kids. 

Also, depending on calf, he or she may not be coming over reliably to humans for any kind of real training.  If they are coming over and playing with toys and eating ice, you could conceivably train them to go through the gate a little at a time.  But even if this was possible, it does not work very well.  Think of the phrase, "Rip off the band-aid".  Maybe you're someone who likes to slowly remove bandages, enjoying the pain of every little hair getting plucked out, knowing full well there is a less scary option.  If you are one of those people, I hope you're not an animal trainer.


Once the calves get into a new habitat via this paneling process, they realize what they've been missing.  They may take a few laps with mom in there, but sometimes within minutes they are playing and doing their thing in the new pool.

With three calves, it's a little complicated.  These calves played off of each other.  Once they got into a new habitat, I could almost hear the conversation.

Calf 1: WOW! Did you even KNOW this habitat EXISTED?
Calf 2: It's like our fort!
Calf 3: Let's NEVER leave this place!
Calf 2: What about that place we just swam in from?
Calf 1: No, you must never think of that place.  THIS new place is the COOL place now.  

And then the paneling process would begin for that habitat.  

And then one would go when asked without panels, but the other two would be like, "HEY! REMEMBER OUR PACT?" and it would unravel.

Their moms tried their hardest, but the three little calves were their own entities, playing by their own rules.

I play by my own rules.

The only problem was, paneling required many, many people in the water.  Since the panels had to stretch across the entire habitat (which was huge), and reach from surface to floor, the panel wall itself was very heavy and difficult to move in the water.  While we didn't WANT to move fast, we couldn't move quickly if we wanted to.  We needed five to seven scuba divers inching (centimetering, really) the bottom of the panels towards the desired habitat, and twice as many people floating at the surface to make sure the panels stayed at the correct angle. 

And, as you may have deduced, all of our paneling that year happened in the winter. 

Around that time, I took a trip for my birthday throughout Florida.  It was a great road trip where I essentially saw every corner of the state.  I stopped in Miami to visit some friends there and ate at one of my favorite restaurants.  But the next morning, I noticed I had a weird stomach pain.  It felt like I'd eaten too much, but I tried to ignore it so I could enjoy the rest of my vacation.

It was like I'd eaten a bag of sugar free gummy bears (google this if this references makes no sense)

Three days later, I had the same nagging pain but I was ravenous.  Still, I tried not to eat too much because it really made the pain worse.

When I got back to work, it was the coldest day of that year.  The high was 29 degrees Fahrenheit, and the water temperature was 52.  Fifty two.   The dolphins were fine; they were fat and happy and warm. But us humans were ill-equipped to hang out in that kind of cold temperature.

However, we were on the brink of getting the three calves to shift into other habitats on their own.  We had to continue with this momentum, because it was so critical for them (and for the other dolphins who we wanted to be able to have access to the main habitat) to gate.  My boss apologetically announced that we would go full-throttle on our paneling plan, despite the freezing temperatures.  Everyone in the park got involved.

I was assigned as a diver.  As you can imagine, I put on a bunch of wetsuits which amounted to roughly 98mm of neoprene coverage.  I couldn't find a dive hood, so I just sucked it up.  We didn't anticipate having to panel for a long time, because all three calves were gating more quickly.  But the Cold Weather Murphy's Law reared its ugly (albeit consistent) head.  

Murphy: Hey, little dolphins, I have an idea.  It's the coldest day of the year and these bald apes will be miserable in the water.  
Calf 1:  I'm already ahead of you.  We'll totally refuse to gate.
Calf 2: I can't wait to hear their heart rates plummet when they go into the end stages of hypothermia!
Calf 3: That's so mean, Calf 2!  But it will be funny to hear them scream when they jump in the water.
All calves and Murphy: BWHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!

So we asked the calves and their moms to gate.  The moms tried their best, but the calves refused.   We put the panels in.  I remember watching them sink below the depths, my stomach roiling, begging any universal power to convince the calves to gate without us having to get in.

No such luck.

We all got in, and we all paneled.  The entire way.  We repeated it again, and I swear those little calves just sauntered around the habitat.  They swam by the panels and looked at us.  No, I'm pretty sure they looked at me.

"Oh," one of the calves seemed to say.  "That one looks sick.  We should probably gate."
"Nah," they all replied collectively.

By the time we were finished, we were all frozen solid.  Our toes, fingers, hands, faces, were numb. All humans shivered uncontrollably as we got out.  We rushed to the locker rooms and tried to warm ourselves, but we couldn't change out of our wetsuits because we were going to do another round of this paneling again after lunch.

As I stood in the steaming stream of hot water, I detected a smell.  My most favorite smell in the world.



All trainers picked up the scent and ran like madmen into the main office, where we saw heaping boxes of Domino's pizza.  My amazing boss had bought us pizza for lunch.

"No no," my stomach said.

"EAT IT" my brain said.  "IT WILL WARM YOU!"

I didn't need anymore convincing.

I ignored the searing stomach pains and HOUSED half of a pizza.  It tasted so wonderful and warmed me up from the inside out.  

"Why are you doing this to me?" my stomach said.
"STFU!" My brain screamed.   I ate more.

We set up for more paneling, but the calves took pity on us and gated much quicker.  I felt relieved in my mind, which quieted my brain down enough for my stomach's messages to get through.

"GET THEE TO A BATHROOM!" it screamed.

I ran, knowing at any moment all hell would break loose.  Everyone else was in the trainer locker room taking off their wetsuits, so I went to an empty guest locker room for privacy…..

…..and realized I was hermetically sealed in three (yes, three) wetsuits.  A 3mm shortie, a 3mm full suit, and a 5mm full suit.  Booties tucked into the legs.  I might've well be Han Solo carbon frozen.  

An actual photo of me (my hair is longer now)

"OH MY [censored] GOD!" I said out loud.  "I [censored]  AM [censored]  STUCK [censored] IN [censored] THIS [censored] WETSUIT. [censored]  [censored]  [censored]  [censored] !!!!!!!"

My stomach begged for mercy, for release.  But I couldn't give it that.  It was physically impossible for anything to happen so long as I was in the wetsuit prison.   I moved as fast as my frozen, useless hands would let me, tears streaming down my face because of the pain, frustration and embarrassment.

It was a while before I came out of the bathroom.

I came out in one full 3mm suit, because I didn't want to walk back in my bathing suit (no one wanted to see those tan lines).  I felt weak and dizzy, like you do after a G.I. failure.  But my stomach still hurt, and I felt like I was going to die.

Luckily, it was at the end of the day so there was just a lot of cleaning up left to do.  My boss asked me where I went, but I didn't want to look like a bad worker (plus, I didn't necessarily want to describe the biological terror that had been unleashed) so I made up some excuse.  

I went home with a fever, stomach pain, and the belief that I would probably never wake up the next morning.  

Well, this awfulness continued.  Even after the calves were gating fine, I still had to seal myself in  neoprene to do my job.  I'd put on my wetsuit, do a program, them peel it all off and weep in the bathroom thinking, "WHY! WHY COULDN'T HAVE THIS HAPPENED IN THE SUMMER WHEN I'D AT LEAST BE WARM AND NOT HAVE 87 LAYERS ON?!"  And then I'd put on my cold, wet wetsuits back on and repeat this awful cycle.

And after five days of not being able to keep down food or water, I woke up with the overwhelming feeling that someone had packed my mouth full of cotton balls.  I realized quickly thereafter I wasn't able to make any saliva, tears, or sweat (in that order), so I wound up in the ER where I was treated for severe dehydration.  The doctor told me I had a little parasite friend who was living with me and maliciously controlling everything about me and didn't  even offer to do the dishes.  A few rounds of intensive atomic-bomb level anti-microbial drugs and I was back to normal in two weeks.  

I'm pretty sure this is what was living in my intestines.

We could blame the food I ate in Miami.  We could blame unfortunate luck.  But of all the times this parasite decided to rear its ugly head, it was on the coldest days of the year when I needed to wear the most wetsuits.  So I'll tell you who I blame it on.  That arch nemesis of zookeepers everywhere: Murphy and his no-good, ridiculous law!

* Of course, our penguins are warm weather penguins.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

The Tale of the Hawk and the Sun Conure

I've wanted birds since I was a little kid.  "A Bird" was the top-requested item on every Christmas list I'd ever made from the inception of my writing ability to the end of my high school career.  I don't know what it was about birds that fascinated me so much.   They're awesome and everything, don't get me wrong.  There are very few animals I DON'T find awesome and wonderful*.  But we've all got our favorite species of animals, right?  I remember clearly the overwhelming feeling of awe when I saw my first dolphin show in Chicago at the Shedd Aquarium.   I remember thinking, "I want to know everything there is to know about these animals" (but I actually said, "DOLPHINNNNSSSSSSS!!!!!!!!!!").  

My first actual training job was with birds!

I had the same feeling when I saw a red-tailed hawk up close for the first time.  My fifth grade class took a field trip to a local nature center located on a forest preserve.  They had a few native Illinois animals who were unreleasable due to a variety of human-caused injuries.   The ranger who showed our class around spent a lot of time telling us about the red-tailed hawk, but I can't remember why she was there because I completely spaced out when I saw her amazing eyes.  That and she kept looking up at another red-tailed hawk who was flying high above her.  I wondered what she was thinking, and had the same "I need to know everything there is to know about birds" feeling.  

Little did I know that the type of bird that sparked my new interest would be the cause of one of the scariest days of my life.

My fifth grade teacher Mrs. Harris snapped me out of my daze and said, "Wow, Cat!  Maybe dolphins aren't your favorite after all!"

Well, I don't see why I need to have just one family of animals as my favorite.  I can have as many favorites as I like.  For example, I like all the donuts except the ones with stuff inside.  I've liked every type of macaroni and cheese I've ever eaten.  My favorite people are, well, people.  Not just one person.  


While I wound up working with dolphins, I still cultivated my interest in birds.  As soon as I got my first paid job in Miami, I adopted two adorable little budgies I named Coconut and Mango.   They weren't hand-reared but they eventually didn't have a heart attack when I changed their food and water every morning.  

Coconut (C-Nut, for short) hanging out in a Christmas tree.

My love of birds was common knowledge among my coworkers, and this led to another bird adoption.  A colleague could no longer care for her sun conure, and so I wound up with her.

 Are bird ladies weirder than cat ladies?

The story of Cher and me is by itself another Middle Flipper entry or two.  So let's just say after a rough start, Cher the sun conure and I became good buddies.

Behold: The Cher

I moved to Northeastern Florida not long after that.  I lived in an apartment complex that was one of those sprawling, town-housey type places.  My one-bedroom apartment sat feet away from a retention pond that was home to some wading birds, some turtles, and a couple of little alligators.   

And because I was (and still am) a poor dolphin trainer, I didn't have a washer or dryer.  This required me to walk about 30 feet to the clubhouse to use their laundry room.  

The scene of the crime.  Cher and I lived on the apartment on the far bottom right.

Cher and I did not like to be separated from one another, so I kept her with me all the time.  She'd hang out in my shirt, using it like a little hidey-hole the way conures do.   When I left to do laundry, she'd scream and scream and scream when I left her in the apartment, so I started teaching her that if she was calm and quiet when it was obvious I was leaving, I'd take her with me.

Cher spent our fifteen second walk in my shirt, in a harness, or in both of my hands depending on the situation.  For the same reason she seemed to like being in my shirt, she appeared comfortable when I'd hold her like a potato with both of my hands, her head the only part of her body sticking out.  She never struggled, and sometimes she'd solicit this method of handling. 

This is NOT how I potato-held Cher.

She wasn't flighted, either, so I wasn't worried about her getting away.  My biggest fear was her tumbling into the pond and ending up in the gut of one of the alligators, so I held onto her very securely.

Alas, the harness was ripped to shreds by Cher one day broke.  I potato-grabbed Cher and walked outside.  Immediately, she went on alert.  I looked around, expecting to see some turkey vultures flying overhead which always set off Cher's alarm bells.  There were a few, but as I scanned the horizon I identified the source of her fear:  a Cooper's hawk, sitting about 500 feet away on the tennis court chain link fence.

The foe!

I brought Cher in close to my chest and actually said, "Don't worry Cher-Bear, that hawk can't get you."

I started walking towards the clubhouse.  I don't know what went through Cher's tiny brain then, but it was probably something like,


She used that magnificently horrifying sun conure beak to crush the most perfect location on one of my finger joints.   Within three-tenths of a second, Cher mauled my finger enough to free herself from my grasp and was flying away from me…..towards the pond.

My blood ran cold (and also, down my mangled hand) as I watched the little orange bird beat her wings at a rate that would put a hummingbird to shame towards what I knew would be her watery grave.  I ran after her, wondering what I was actually going to do if she went into the retention pond.  Would I go in after her?  Would I get stuck in the silt at the bottom and drown like so many others?  Would an alligator eat her?  Would we both die and I'd have to spend an eternity in the afterlife together apologizing to Cher for being so stupid? 

Our hero, in deep trouble!

Cher had enough of her flight feathers to maintain a long glide, but no lift.  She hovered above the water like a pelican riding the surf.  I ran and hyperventilated.  She was halfway across the pond and still going strong.  I ran and hyperventilated.  Now she was three-quarters of the way across.  I felt a small glimmer of hope in between the running and they hyperventilating.  Oh my god, she's going to make it across!!!!!!

And then, as Cher closed in on her landing space on the bank of the pond, I saw a brown blur race across the water.  

The Cooper's hawk.

 I thought.  Amid the black, grey, and brown songbirds of Florida, Cher was  the brightest-colored bird this Cooper's hawk probably ever saw in his or her life.  I imagine the Cooper's hawk had the following thought:

"Just sitting here on the tennis courts.  La la la la la.  Maybe I'll eat a mouse, or a rat, or maybe a - WTF IS THAT DELICIOUS ORANGE THING FLYING OVER THERE?"

The Cooper's hawk couldn't believe his good fortune.  "I can't lose with this one," the hawk probably thought.

I screamed as I ran, hoping perhaps to startle the hawk away from Cher.  Of course, the hawk was probably so focused on how ridiculously incredible this opportunity was that he'd have never left his prize.  

"That's it," I thought.  "Cher's dead.  I'm going to watch her get taken away by this hawk.  I'm so stupid.  How could I be so stupid?! I'LL NEVER FORGIVE MYSELF!"

I heard Cher's last scream, and I knew it was over in that instant.  I stopped running and collapsed onto the grass.  I wanted to look away, but I couldn't.  

Poor Cher!

Suddenly, the hawk rolled backwards, flapping its wings in a panic.  He scrambled and righted himself, and shot up to the nearest apartment roof.   I looked back at Cher, who waddled as fast as her little parrot legs could take her into the decorative shrubbery around the base of the building the hawk was now on.

I ran again, wondering how badly injured Cher was; there was no way she came out of that tangle unscathed.  

Cher sat underneath a bush, puffed up and heaving.  She made a little growling sound when she saw me, but I couldn't see any injuries.  She bit the %*#% out of my finger when I went to pick her up (the punishment I deserved in that moment) and then allowed me to pick her up and put her into my shirt, where I secured her with both of my hands so even if she did try to break my finger again, she'd at least be in my shirt and couldn't escape.

Poor, scared Cher.

I peered up at the roof.  The Cooper's hawk looked down at me, cocking his head. 

"What the HELL was that thing?" he seemed to ask.

I rushed Cher back to the house, where I inspected every part of her.  I was terrified.  Even one tiny scratch from a hawk's talon could cause massive infection.  But she was completely untouched.    I called the my bird vet (the closest one was 90 minutes away), and they told me if she didn't have any marks on her, she was going to be fine and I should just keep her quiet.  I quadruple checked through all of her feathers, nooks and crannies.  Nothing.  The hawk had left not a mark on her.

How was that possible?

I thought back to the incident.  And this is what I believe happened:  Just as the Cooper's hawk descended onto my poor sun conure, wondering how he could've deserved a meal so easy, Cher did what she did best.  She probably bit some part of the hawk's body as hard as she could (and from personal experience, probably multiple times in rapid-fire succession).   While I can't know for sure if the Cooper's hawk had ever encountered a parrot in his predatory life, I like to think that he had zero experience with a bird with a bite pressure like a sun conure, and he probably did not take a lot of precaution in his final takedown.   Hence, the scramble ensued and Cher scared a terrifying predator away from her and saved her own life.

I fought a hawk off with my bare hands.

I look back on this story with nothing but regret and embarrassment for myself, and endless awe for Cher.  I made a series of very dumb decisions, despite good intentions and attempts at making a risky situation safe.  I've since never taken my birds into the open unless they are securely in an appropriate travel carrier or in a harness.  In fact, the more research I did on having birds outside, the more I learned of stories of hawks slamming their way through screened-in porches to get to parrots.  Yikes!

Cher is just as sassy and healthy as she's been since the hawk attack seven years ago.  She is a normal sun conure who enjoys screaming really loudly and throwing food on the floor, destroying wood, and taking baths in her water dish.

As I reflect on this experience, I often wish I could've transcended the linguistic barrier between man and animal the moment I looked up and saw the perplexed hawk look down on me.

"What the HELL was that thing?" he seemed to ask.

"That," I'd say.  "Is a Cher."

* Fire antssssssssssssss