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WEEK SIX - Fencing with Joe

February 16, 2017



     Like most people, I was handed an orientation packet during my first week on the job. Tucked into the translucent pink plastic folder was a stack of papers: a list of important phone numbers, articles about lemurs, emergency protocols, and cold weather procedures. Also included was a brief bit of pertinent information about the captive species still left on the island (In its heyday, there were forty-six different species housed on the island. Now, there are only three).  Each of the three lists announced, in bold and underlined text, the animals' common and scientific names followed by a set of bulleted factoids. For example, under Ring Tailed Lemurs (Lemur catta), one bullet advised me to memorize the lemurs' names and another warned that gloves are mandatory when handling lemur diets. The page for Gopher Tortoises (Gopherus polyphemus Daudin) told me that I'd have to soak and weigh these animals three times a week and that GTs are Georgia's state reptile. Under the heading that pertains to Joe and Josephine, who are Great Hornbills (Buceros bicornis), one bullet particularly stood out. It read, "Make sure you are far enough away from the enclosure fencing so that Joe cannot stab you through the slits." 


     I'm less wary of the alligators that lurk in the ponds on St. Catherines than I am of this pair of caged birds. For one thing, their beaks are over a foot long and made of the same hard keratin that composes eagle claws and tortoise shells. That's what Joe will use to harpoon anyone standing too close to the fence (and I've seen him try). For another, these birds are very intelligent. I've heard that Joe knows how to unlatch his enclosure. When his squawks and menacing glare fail to ward off unwelcome guests, he will hop over to the latch and slip his beak under it, threatening to set himself free. He might just be exhibiting the crankiness that captive hornbills are known for or it could be that he's protecting his mate, Josephine. Although her beautiful plumage and pale blue eyes don't betray her, she is the oldest recorded hornbill in existence. Wild Great Hornbills live in South Asia, in places like India and Nepal, though their habitat is disappearing quickly. When Josephine was caught, it was 1948 and she was already an adult bird. She's robbing the cradle a little bit; Joe was caught in 1969.


     For all of the aggression Joe shows toward his human visitors, he shows in tenderness toward Josephine. Hornbills express their love by passing food to one another with their beaks. Their magnificent mouthparts are equally as adept at delicately feeding grapes to their monogamous partners as they are at jabbing through fences. This comes in especially handy when it's time to nest and the female hornbill seals herself into a tree hollow (or in Josephine's case, a whiskey barrel) using spit and dung. She will lay one or two eggs and won't leave again until her chicks are born and half grown. In the meantime, it's the expecting father's job to fetch fruits, insects, and sometimes small mammals to pass to her through a narrow slit. Our hornbills have produced eggs, but never any viable offspring. Nobody is quite sure why, but these and other captive hornbills rarely succeed in raising young. 


     I might be too nervous to get close to Joe and Josephine, but once a week, they both must be caught and taken to see the doctor. Our veterinarian makes house calls, getting ferried over to the island to make sure everyone is healthy. Usually, we don't bring animals to the clinic unless they're injured (I got to see lemur x-rays!), but the hornbills have chronic casque infections. The casque is that bit of horn on top of their heads. This beautiful photo of a female hornbill in Malaysia shows what a normal casque should look like. Joe and Josephine are missing the front part of theirs due to a bacterial-fungal infection. Again, not a lot of research has been done on the subject, but the infection may be opportunistic. That is, it starts as a result of injury, similar to the way bacteria gets in through an open flesh wound. The microbes that got into their casques cause what's called necrosis, or dying of tissue. When they see our vet, he sands away all of the dead horn and applies ointment. It's sort of like getting a manicure, since all that's removed is a bunch of dead cells. 


      While it's unlikely that I'll be posting any photos of Joe and Josephine that don't include blurry chainlink fence in the foreground, I don't want to give the impression that I dislike our avian couple. The size and intelligence that intimidate me also engender respect and awe. The speed with which Joe can cover 20 feet, the beauty of Josephine's neatly ordered feathers, and the spark of comprehension in their eyes all fascinate me. Just as I do with the alligators, I will be sure to give them their space and learn what I can about them. It's often, I find, that the more I fear something, the more I want to know about it. And the more I understand, the less I fear.

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