Bright Lights, Big Cacti

Arizona through the Eyes of a Native

Category: Zoos

My “Power Days”

For anyone who is curious about how my recent decision to lose weight and get healthy is going, I am proud to report that I am no longer “obese” according to the BMI calculator. No, now I am merely “overweight.” Yay, me! Additionally, I have worked out five times a week for more than a month now, which I believe is considered an amazing feat of endurance – at least in my world.

My birthday weekend was great. Since my mother-in-law and I share the same birthday, my brother- and sister-in-law served up a home-cooked meal of filet mignon and assorted sides on Saturday. The whole Bennett clan (at least the ones who live in Arizona) showed up to celebrate.

My husband and I also celebrated seven years of marriage Monday. This weekend, I discovered something that hadn’t occurred to me on any of my last six birthday/anniversary occasions: Dan cannot say no to me. He’s caught in a three-day perfect storm of celebration. When I asked him Saturday morning if he would take me to the zoo on Sunday, he didn’t hesitate to say yes, even though I know that he wanted to go to the zoo about as much as he would like a prostate exam. I must be careful with my new-found “power days” – I don’t want to use them for evil…only for good.

Even though Dan was suffering from a slight cold, we had a great time at the zoo. The animals weren’t all that cooperative, though. I was hoping to see the newborn giraffes, but alas, they were not out. Even the orangutans were inside – though at least I could see them through the windows. Apparently, they don’t like the chilly (around seventy degrees) weather. I did get a good picture of a squirrel monkey at least.

Sunday night, we had dinner at my parents’ home, where Mom prepared my requested birthday meal: chicken pot pie and rum cake. Dan and I picked Fuzzy up and one of Mom’s good friends also attended the dinner. Afterwards, we played a game of cards.

I’m thinking I’ll use next year’s three-day perfect storm to request a trip to Disneyland. Dan hates Disneyland a lot more than he hates the zoo…let’s see what these power days can really do!

A squirrel monkey at the Phoenix Zoo Monkey Village


Never Name Your Food

Even as a very young child, I had a realistic view of nature. I never believed that claptrap about all the animals living together in some sort of vegan paradise – I knew better.

This authentic view probably came from the fact that I am the daughter of a farming and hunting family. My mom likes to recount the story about the pig roast when I was three or four years old. She wanted to protect me by keeping me inside and away from the blood and gore of killing an animal, but all I wanted was to be outside. Finally, Fuzzy told her that if I wanted out so badly, she should let me go. My mother remembers me dancing around the fire pit “like a wild indian” as the pig was roasted. I don’t actually remember the event at all, but I don’t doubt the veracity of my mom’s account.

When I was in grade school – probably around the first or second grade – my mom volunteered to be a chaperone on a school zoo trip. My mom was left with five little girls, including me. As we were watching the crocodiles that day, a duck landed in the water near a lurking amphibious creature. Mom, being a relatively squeamish person, attempted to turn the group’s attention away from the bird’s impending death. However, I was quick to get everyone’s attention with my announcement that the crocodile was going to “have lunch.” Sure enough, a few seconds later we were rewarded with the sight a crocodile smiling around the spread wings of his unsuspecting – and now very dead – prey. The other girls were screaming bloody murder, my mother was trying to draw them away from the traumatic scene, and I was saying, “What? Why are you crying? Crocodiles have to eat too!” Needless to say, I was the most popular girl in class – at least as far as the boys were concerned. The girls…not so much.

My cavalier attitude toward animal deaths came to an abrupt end around the age of nine. Fuzzy took me out to meet the new calves my grandfather had bought at auction. There were four of them, and I named them Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. They were cute, all black and white and still a little playful (well, as playful as livestock can be). I visited and petted them over the course of a summer. In short, I thought of them as pets – not food.

Several months passed. One night, my parents and I went to my grandparents’ house for dinner. Now, I am anything but a vegetarian – I enjoy meat, especially steak. Grandpa dropped a nice cut of beef onto my plate, and I dug in. I was maybe a quarter of the way through that steak when Grandpa said, “That’s Matthew you’re eating there! Tastes good, huh?”

My stomach rolled in horror and I seriously thought I was going to throw up right there on my plate. I must have blanched, because all of the adults looked at me with a mixture of concern and amusement. I pushed the plate away with three-quarters of a tasty steak on it. No matter how the adults cajoled me, I would not eat another bite.

That was the night I learned the most important lesson of an omnivore: if it might end up on your plate, don’t hang a moniker on it – no matter how cute it is.

English: Rump steak on griddle pan

Steak — not Matthew. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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This first post was supposed to be about me and Arizona in general — why I live here, what I like, what I don’t like, how people can possibly survive in the ridiculous summer temperatures.

But last Sunday, Duchess died. I’d known her all my life, or at least since my first school field trip. I must have been around five the first time I saw her reddish-brown hair and soulful eyes. She used to sit on her steel-beam perch and watch the crowds who gathered to watch her right back.

Every chance I got, I went to see her. I would linger at her place, watching her stretch out her long arms and as she graceful swung around her enclosure. In later years, my grandfather and I took a myriad of pictures of her and her family. She lived with her daughter Bess, “son-in-law” Michael, and granddaughter Kasih. After my grandfather died, I visited her alone — though I had all but abandoned my photography. I just watched her instead.

If you haven’t figured it out yet, Duchess was an orangutan. In fact, she was the oldest living orangutan in captivity until she was put down last Sunday after a weeks-long battle against cancer. She had been at the Phoenix Zoo almost since its opening day back in 1962. I would wager that everyone who attended school in and around Phoenix from the zoo’s opening day until very recently had “met” Duchess. I don’t know how many of them spent as much time as I did watching her, but I’m sure I am not the only human who visited the zoo just to see the orangutans.

The zoo held a memorial for Duchess today. I didn’t go. It’s 111 degrees out today, and I try not to leave the house in the summer. I hope a lot of other people showed up for her, despite the weather. When the heat passes, I’ll go and visit what’s left of the family. Bess, Michael, and Kasih will probably be over the loss of their matriarch by then, but I fear I will always miss Duchess’s soulful gaze.

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