Poems by Amanda Sandos

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by Amanda Sandos

From Canary August/September 2009

Amanda lives on a hundred-acre farm nestled between the Blue Ridge Mountains Peaks of Otter and the James River in the Blackwater Creek watershed.

          Wilma-Lou Teal has something like a complex personality. She is difficult to please and she is not shy about letting you know it. She expects things to be completed promptly to her specifications, and if they are not, she will complain loud and long until things suit her. She goes her own way, even if it differs from the norm. She is a believer in diversification, and the need to accept cross-cultural relationships. She is also a fierce protector of her spouse. All of this is not uncommon for a woman of today, but might come as a surprise from a duck. Wilma is a Chestnut Teal, who lives at the RJ Reynold’s Forest Aviary of the North Carolina Zoo. You may consider it anthropomorphic for me to assign these human characteristics to her. I respond by saying that I’m fairly sure you have not met Wilma-Lou Teal or you might find yourself unable to resist doing the same. Let me introduce you.

          Wilma is a small brown bird, about half the size of a Mallard, and she expects her food to be delivered on time. She will not be satisfied with the average dry duck feed. She expects greens and live bugs at every meal. If any of these things are not served on the dot of nine in the morning, Wilma will have something to say about it. She will come out of the water to follow her keepers around the exhibit stretching her head forward and retracting it in a repeating motion while emitting sharp, raspy quacks, like the duck on those famous commercials. At first, I thought it was the staff’s uniform colors that tipped her off on where to direct her complaints, yet visiting staff in the same uniforms are not harassed, nor are any visitors wearing similar navy polo shirts and khaki pants. Only those who work the exhibit daily are singled out, sometimes while visiting in their street clothes.

          Although there was a Chestnut Teal male in the exhibit, one with a beautiful iridescent plumage and a green head, Wilma chose as her mate the exhibit’s Rosybill Pochard, known affectionately as Rosy by the staff. Rosy is a dark, black and gray bird with a large rosy colored bill. This unlikely couple has become one of the most strongly bonded pair of ducks I’ve ever worked with, despite the fact that each looks very different from the opposite sex of their own species. Neither of them, according to their natural histories, are monogamous birds, yet neither has shown interest in breeding with any of the other birds in the exhibit.

          One morning when I stepped into the aviary, Wilma was standing by the exit door making a long cry that sounded like an infant crying for its mother, a long "waaaaaaa" that she repeated over and over. It did not take long to realize that Rosy was missing, and the staff began to search for him. Since Wilma was so focused on the exit doors, we soon asked the other keepers around the zoo to help us search outside in case he had managed to escape. We also used flashlights to look into the huge tunnels of the air handling system running beneath the aviary to cool and moisten the air. We found no sign of Rosy anywhere. Wilma spent several days in the area of the exit door crying until we had to post guards to make sure she didn’t get stepped on.

          We began to think we might only find Rosy's body. However, the exhibit houses over four thousand plants, and although it was unusual for a carcass the size of his to disappear, it had happened before when a sick bird crawled up inside a hollow plant. Some birds had vanished entirely, not surprising since the exhibit was always crawling with ants and other flesh eating insects that came in through the soil floors. We began to feel sure Rosy had passed away and Wilma was grieving, but after several days by the exit door, Wilma moved to another vent area closer to the central pool where she wailed for a few more days until finally, at the end of a long week of guarding her from the visitors, she returned to the pool. We began to get complaints from those visitors who thought we must be doing something terrible to that poor bird to make her wail so. Over and over, we explained that she was mourning the loss of her mate.

          We could not have been more wrong. As it turns out, Rosy had fallen through a sink hole in the exhibit, a hole which filled back in with soil each day when staff watered the plants and was not found until after Rosy's disappearance. He was buried in the soil near the exit door for an unknown period of time until he was able to make his way to the area directly below where Wilma had been standing to wail for the first two days. He was able to locate a pocket in the fiberglass seam of a large tunnel in the air handling system where he squeezed through and landed on the floor below. The large tunnel was not accessible to the staff without climbing gear and ropes. He had fallen three stories down from the seam and he was pinioned, made flightless by his previous institution.

          Next, Rosy had to run between the blades of a jet engine fan into another adjoining tunnel, which was closer to the pool. He must have made it through the fan on speed and sheer luck. The evidence found showed that he had spent several days in the second tunnel. He then followed Wilma's calls to a wall where he found the air filters, and he managed to dislodge a filter and climb through to a third tunnel, which ran underneath the central pool. Fortunately, the third tunnel was accessed by the staff every other day in order to backwash the pool filter system.

          After a little over a week, Rosy was found standing by the pool filter waiting to be rescued. His only injuries were a couple of chopped looking tail feathers and a mild limp. Suddenly, Wilma's strange vigil from the exit to the pool made perfect sense. Upon Rosy’s return, Wilma spent days helping him preen his feathers and they often slept close enough to touch sides. She has never been heard making the baby wailing sound again, not even when Rosy has been separated from her for medical procedures or health checks.

          Wilma and Rosy have changed the way I think about animals. I find it amazing that even a duck could be capable of such things. We are so often taught that animals are not like us, that they should be treated differently. We believe they need humans to care for them, to watch over them and keep them, to be stewards for them. Some even take this notion a step farther and believe animals are here to be used by us. Certainly, they cannot think and feel like humans. Wilma and Rosy taught me that animals of all kinds, even ducks, are more like us then I ever imagined. They can and do accomplish amazing things. They can understand more then I gave them credit for, and they each have a unique individuality similar to the personality of a human. Maybe it’s time to find a word for this phenomenon in the English language. I propose animality.

Bonding with Hondo

by Amanda Sandos

From Canary Summer 2012

       Hondo was one of the largest chimps I had ever seen. A commanding male, he ruled his troupe at the North Carolina Zoo with a king’s presence. On more than one occasion, when Hondo was taking out his frustrations on his unruly family, I watched from a distance in absolute terror of his power and the expressions of anger and hostility on his face. I had to work very hard not to show him my fear, but somehow Hondo knew, and he seemed to relish finding new and interesting ways to scare me. He made loud noises, threw things, or spit on me. We shared a mutual dislike that I think was caused by a mutual misunderstanding of each other. 

       I made numerous mistakes with Hondo in the early days of our acquaintance. I avoided him and never gave him a proper and respectful greeting as troupe leader. I also had a difficult time masking my frustrations with him as our relationship deteriorated, and although I tried hard not to react, I had a hard time schooling my facial expressions. I made my dislike clear in a hundred small ways, like lifting my eyebrows or creasing my brow. Then along came Hondo’s offspring, Jonathan, and my relationship with Hondo changed drastically. 

       Jonathan chimp was born to a first-time mother, who was unable to nurse him. In the absence of another nursing female, the choice was made to hand-raise him. But because the regular chimp staff was short-handed, the non-primate keepers in the park, such as me, were asked to volunteer time to help feed him. Of course, I jumped at the chance to cuddle a baby chimp.

       Jonathan was a tiny thing with enormous ears twice the size of a normal chimp. We fed and cared for Jonathan in the cage adjoining the troupe to help teach the females care skills by watching us. This minimal contact would also help integrate Jonathan back into the troupe when he was weaned. I was extremely nervous about entering the cage next door with only a large, metal grate separating me from Hondo and the others. So on the first day, I hesitantly walked in and sat in the plastic chair beside the mesh, waiting for the keepers to bring Jonathan and his bottle to me.

       I remember distinctly being grateful that the chimp troupe was outside and none of them seemed to notice me. I had visions of the amount of spit and urine I would have to shower off myself before the afternoon was through. But, when they placed that tiny, furry chimp boy in my arms, none of that mattered. I was completely spellbound by his little, pink hands that grasped at my fingers just like a human infant, and his beautiful little face framed by those enormous ears. He gazed up at me with saucer-sized eyes and took the bottle for me right away. I felt a sense of peace fill me up, and I rocked him gently while he ate. I was bent forward over the baby crooning to him, encouraging him to keep eating, when I felt something on my neck, blowing my long hair. 

       A chill shot down my spine when I looked up to find Hondo seated with his side pressed up against the mesh cage door. I had to fight the urge to jump up and run. The only thing that kept me planted in my chair was worry that the precious baby would be frightened. When I looked back at the baby, Hondo blew gently at my hair again, and I realized he was blowing my hair out of the way to see the baby. I moved my hair back behind my shoulder and sat up straighter. I did this mostly so I could watch Hondo out of the corner of my eye. 

       Hondo remained quiet and my heart rate eventually slowed to normal. I opted to turn my chair and move it closer to the mesh bars. The look of surprise on Hondo’s face was something to behold. I don’t think the other keepers had offered to bring the baby closer to him, or perhaps he had not asked since he already trusted them. Regardless, my decision changed our entire relationship. 

       It became normal for Hondo to meet me whenever I was feeding the baby. We even sat with our shoulders touching against the mesh sometimes, once I learned to trust that he would not grab at my hair or pinch me through the bars. Hondo never again treated me with anything less than respect and affection. We eventually graduated to grooming each other through the bars, which indicated that he accepted me as a member of his troupe. I often brought him treats, and he sometimes brought me items too, things he found in his exhibit. Hondo gave me a rock one day. That piece of slate is one of the greatest gifts I have ever received, more precious to me than any gemstone. 

       In all the years since, I have never been forgotten by either Hondo or Jonathan. No matter how much I change, every time I visit the zoo both males come across their large exhibit to greet me with obvious joy. The zoo visitors often find it exciting that the chimps know me, particularly when Jonathan throws his arms out and gives me a mock hug and kiss against the glass like he used to do as a child. Every time this happens, I feel a tightening in my gut that we can never again hug, and I remember how he would let me rock him to sleep with his head on my shoulder. But the boy has grown to nearly Hondo’s size, so we must be separated by bars, glass, and fences now. I realize this is best for my safety as well as his, but it doesn’t stop the longing or the sadness.

Forest Giraffe (Okapia johnstoni)

by Amanda Sandos

From Canary Autumn 2009

Oxygen-thin air grows heavy, drips down
velvet fern fronds. Fat dollops condense on stems;
drop onto a mattress of leafy loam, beside pebbles
of his dung. Birds, frogs, mosquitoes, trees creak and sing,
none disturbed by the silent Okapi moving
through the thick Ituri brush. With a burgundy coat oiled
by skin and scent glands, he slips beneath the sleeping
leopard who, dreaming of the evening hunt, never
twitches his keen ears. Today, the black cat dines
on dung beetles and Barbet birds.

The Okapi stops, wraps a prehensile tongue
around teak stems, stripping them bare,
quietly chewing, on his hike toward the Congolese
River. Skin-covered horns separate the wall of vines
at the bank. One striped leg and a head lean
out of the underbrush, observed only by Bichir fish
that scatter when his shadow slides over. His long
purple tongue laps flowing water sponged
by dangling roots of a strangler fig ficus,
its slick bark shining with lichens. Clouds crack
and spill. Bromeliads rest in the crooks catching pools
of rain. Bearded Barbets sip from rising
water, fly when it spills down the tree. Below,
the Okapi retreats into the underbrush, shaking
droplets off his hide. He steps over dung, glides
to his nightly nest, stands surrounded by green
spirals of ginger, beside bulging buttresses
of mahogany, sheltered by massive leaves
of a climbing elephant ear vine.
He ruminates, chewing and swallowing
what was coaxed from the thin soil
by another day of rain.

Greater Flamingo (Phoenicopterus roseus)

by Amanda Sandos

From Canary Winter 2009-10

On the shore of this parched bowl, at the base of a volcano,
                                                                         ten thousand.
birds flag their heads from side to side, necks stretched,
                                                             marching in rows.

Quills on their backs click like the beads of Masai women
                                                walking, barely heard over
the honking chaos. Every year when the rains come, the
                                           lake rises from cracked earth,

they wade through bubbles, mixing blue-green algae and
                                                    brine shrimp. If the earth
is quenched they build, scooping and stamping, stamping
                                                       and scooping, clapping

their feet, molding mounds, growing thinner, feathers frayed,
                                                    caked, matted. She’ll perch
at the top of her turret and sing – soft, lyrical – stretching
                                             towards any who walk past,

resting her neck against the one who stops, hoping he’ll rub
                                                 his neck to hers. She’ll close
her eyes and return the caress of the one standing with her
                                                                 in this boiling lake,

the one who will share their roost, turn their chalky egg, tend their chick, preen and feed,
protect until these waters recede.

This year they waited for the sky to open, but no rains came. Tonight, as the sun sinks,
they lift their wings and fly, without ritual, without young.

Nene Goose (Branta sandvicensis)

by Amanda Sandos

From Canary Spring 2010

She builds their nest under sparse scrubs, lines bare rock
with down, guards her mate while he incubates, moos soft
warning calls. Together, they hatch three chicks, survive
mongoose, black rats, dogs, cats, tourists, scientists. Together,
they find ohelo berries or dry fruits on stiff
pukiawes, always feeding
their young first.

The guidebook says: “This endangered goose has evolved;
prefers land to water.” Such strength in this state
bird, frame stunted like a miniature Canada,
only partial webbing between short, black toes.
Today, she stands beneath her own silhouette
on the yellow sign,

here on barren lava flows, along Chain of Craters Road.
Here, at the top of Volcano National Park, Hawaii, land of paradise,
under pioneers, woody shrubs that first emerge from porous, black
rocks. Here, beside rerouted drives rebuilt each time lava seeps
out of fissures, buries asphalt. Here, where rain collects
in crevices heated by liquid rock, steams to scalding
clouds, miles above the sea.

Today, she guards his silent remains, hissing
with her three chicks in the middle of the desolate
road, under the Nene Crossing sign, goose
silhouette above, “Drive Slow”
in black letters below.

Polar Bear, (Ursus maritimus)

by Amanda Sandos

From Canary Summer 2010

Transparent hairs soak ultra violet
rays through hollow shafts, transferring
heat into a black hide for her insulation
against the frozen mass she floats on.
Trapped by melting tundra, she lies
conserving energy, growing thin, adrift
on this burg on the midnight sea, no prey
to hunt, no seals who once denned
under the ice.

Deep groans belch up from the belly
of the ice. She wakes with a shifting
tremble, stands to peer over the ledge
at wakes rippling out from her perch.
Her white reflection blurs. Another
shudder staggers her, and boulder-size
ice breaks free to slide down the wet
mountain towards her. She leaps
over building waves, plunges
into the sea.

Swimming hard toward a shelf
once only a mile from here, sluggish
limbs fight the churning surf. The ice
burg behind her splits, half its giant mass
plummeting, raising a cresting
tidal wave that rolls towards her, over her,
pulling her under, spinning her thousand-pound
body like a drift of powdery snow. She peddles
once-powerful legs, each swipe slower,
never finding the surface she seeks
until at last she rises and floats
face down.

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