Today, the veterinary staff, students, and other interns are gathered on Sandpit Road, northeast of the compound. They’re watching our vet demonstrate scopes and ground-penetration tools on one of the wild gopher tortoise burrows. I’m missing out on this rare bit of entertainment because I’ve got a guest on the island. Half an hour ago, when it was still lunch time, she was more interested in lunch than wildlife. So, while we sat in the intern house eating cheese and crackers, the tortoise-watching group left without me. Now that lunch is over, I’m wondering what to do with myself. The daily task list was taken care of before lunch, when there were two of us working. I ask my supervisor - one of the only people not scoping out tortoises - if there’s anything on the to-do list I can tackle.
This is usually a mistake. I’ve had such fun assignments as: remove rats’ nests from the old barn, sweep up years of roach feces, and - my favorite - empty the rotten fish out of the broken walk-in freezer (shudder). Today, he wants me to tackle a space we affectionately refer to as “the enrichment room.” It is so named because it’s where we keep supplies for the daily lemur enrichment activities, but it used to be an office. Files dating back to the 1980’s and dusty electronics still fill boxes and clutter its cobwebbed corners. Some of the old machines bear duct-tape labels that say “broken.” Sweeping under a creaky old desk, I discover a petrified frog. I pause to put it in a box for my friend (she’s also a science nerd) and start rifling through drawers. That’s when I come across an old business card for one of the people I work under. I hold it up to the light and read the title: Island Aviculturist.
I didn’t know she had a title. Hell, I didn’t even know “aviculturist” was a word. I think for a bit and recall that back when the Bronx Zoo was involved, our little island was home to a fair number of exotic birds. That’s how we came to be the home of Joe and Josephine. Not only were there parrots (their perches are still up in the old aviary) but a collection of maleos and curassows called this place home too. I often wish I could have seen St. Catherines in its heyday, back when everything was new and zebras grazed in the pastures. These days, it’s mostly deer who graze the pastures and we’ve very few exotic birds.
We have the hornbills, of course, the Sandhill Gang, and Hamilton the hawk. Aside from them, there is only one other avian officially in our care. His name is Ichabod and he’s one of my favorite animals on the island. Ichabod is a wattled crane. He stands a regal five feet tall and resembles an Elizabethan gentleman in a coat and tails made of long charcoal and white feathers. His proud head is bald; an exposed cap of black skin. His cherry red eyes blend in perfectly with the red of his face that extends down onto his wattles - folds of skin that hang down past his sharp beak. On the rare occasion he spreads his wings, they stretch about eight feet wide. I love the graceful way he strides regally about his enclosure. Unlike the sandhill cranes, Ichabod doesn’t take any crap from the grackles who try to steal his food (although he’s slightly more intimidated by the vultures and raccoons).
Wattled cranes are rare birds. In fact, they are Africa’s rarest crane. They come from the old world; places like Ethiopia, Zambia, Botswana, and the sub-Saharan. The remaining 7,700 or so left in the wild are threatened by habitat destruction; people clearing land for agriculture. I wonder if Ichabod has ever had a mate. If he has, he won’t have another. Wattled cranes mate for life and they’re not terribly fertile; another reason there aren’t many left. If he came to St. Catherines in the 80’s, like most of the animals here, he’s lived longer than the average 20-30 year lifespan of his brethren. I hope he lives another 20 years. He's got a lot of space to roam around in, but he can't fly. His left wing was damaged years ago and although he can stretch it out, he can't take to the air. Ichabod doesn't hold still for long, which makes it difficult to get a good photo.
When my boss is feeling generous - the aviculturist - she lets me take Ichabod his food. He gets the same crane grain and dog food as the other cranes, but I like to sprinkle peanuts and the garishly pink pellets that smell like fish on top. He likes those. Although his expression is inscrutable, I like to think he’s fond of me because, when I call out to him, he strides over to me. He is wary and always stops just a few feet away. So, I usually back off so that he can eat but, I stay close enough to ward off the raccoons. They are sneaky and come from all sides. It’s a challenge keeping them at bay long enough for Ichabod to swallow his kibble, but they’re adorable despite their thievery. Two of the lemurs who used to live in Holding B (Hazel and June) started hanging out near Ichabod’s enclosure when the troop was let out to free-range. They have to contend with the masked bandits too and I watch out for them the same as I do Ichabod.
I don’t blame the raccoons; every animal on the island does what it can to survive. I don’t blame the pigs who eat the sea turtle eggs either. Not all of the animals get special care here, but a lot of them take advantage of our human trash and primate biscuits. I want the sea turtles and the terrapins to hatch, of course. I want all of the animals to be safe and happy, but I think it’s strange sometimes which creatures we choose to help and which animals we elect to keep away. I love watching them all and wondering what they do when we’re not around.