Notes From the Zookeeper: I’m Positively Giddy

We’re used to making history in our department. Is that bragging? I’m okay with it. Our successes have, in many cases, perpetuated the propagation and potential rescue of entire species. The beauty and frustration of the field of Herpetology is that it is still in its infancy, with so many discoveries yet to be made. But we’re making them, slowly but surely, with research and a large helping of patience.

Our zoo (my curator, Michael Ogle, really) has made some historic firsts. Lots of zoos, our own included, got eggs from their Malagasy tortoises regularly, but not only did they not hatch, they never even began to develop. Embryo development is quite easy to see just by turning out the lights and shining a pen light through the egg. An egg that is developing has distinct veining, and eventually, you can see the shape of the tiny little reptile. It was extremely unlikely that the dozens of eggs produced over the years were ALL infertile. There was something keepers were missing, some cue, some signal. But what was it?

You’re looking at a baby tortoise. An embryo. If I m not mistaken, its head is toward the left. I watched it move. It has months to go before it hatches, and I saw it wiggle. Mind = blown.

My boss (he hates when I call him that!) solidified the gold standard for hatching Malagasy tortoises by reading a field guide and taking a risk. After egg-laying season, the temperatures drop in the wild. Michael speculated that by cooling the eggs to 65F (18C) for a couple of months and then replacing them in an incubator at 84-88 degrees, fertile eggs might begin to develop! He was right!The egg waits until weather warms up to begin developing, otherwise it’s like Game of Thrones. Winter is Coming. There won’t be food when the egg hatches if it starts before winter is over. Michael hatched the first Flat-Tailed Tortoise (Pyxis planicauda) in the Northern hemisphere, with many others to follow.

By applying these same principles to the other species of Malagasy Dwarf Tortoises, our department has had amazing success. In 2006, Michael hatched the first captive Northern Spider Tortoise (Pyxis arachnoides brygooi) in in the world. Heady stuff, right? Now we are headed full circle. Look what happened a couple of days ago!

The first egg from the very first hatchling in the world! She isn’t the first captive-bred to lay an egg, but this is still a significant event for us. And I am trying to hatch an F2 (grandkids of the wild-caught animals) of all three sub-species.

The chances that this egg will hatch are very slim, mostly because the male she is paired with did not figure out what girls were for until this breeding season, so chances are that the space shuttle didn’t quite hit the dock. But it’s an excellent sign. Eventually they will get it right! I have hatched one F2 this year, just 2 sub-species to go, and I now have eggs from ALL of them!

Maybe this is too much information to process. TL;DR A rare hatchling laid her first egg.

This is what’s rocking my world this week. What’s great in yours?

Advertisements

Notes From the Zookeeper: Saying Goodbye

I love to share the good things. There is so much about my job that is good, hopeful, wonderful. I hatch baby tortoises fairly regularly now, I have the privilege of taking care of an Aldabra Giant Tortoise that I met for the first time when I was on a class field trip in the first grade, and my job is never, ever boring. There is so much to learn, so much to question, so much to DO! Happy is when a kid overcomes their fear and pets Big Al for the first time. Happy is when a new baby tortoise hatches and thrives. Happy is changing a guest’s mind about the value of snakes in their yard. But with light comes dark, with sweet comes bitter.

A few weeks ago, we lost Khaleesi, our beautiful female Komodo Dragon. She would have been nine in August. Captive dragons don’t live as long as their wild counterparts, a phenomenon we have begun to understand and correct, but a captive life expectancy is around 25 years. At 9 years old, she was still a young dragon. We are still reeling from her loss.

One Saturday she looked like she was favoring one hind leg. A few days later, she was gone. Necropsy (an autopsy for animals) revealed that she was carrying eggs, several of which had begun to decay. Had the eggs been fertile, she would likely have laid them days, even weeks, prior. Infertile eggs don’t pass through the reproductive tract as easily. Retained eggs lead to infection, and that is what got our girl.

Dog and cat owners can tell you how strong the human-animal bond can be and how much it hurts when our pets die. We loved our dragon the same way other folks love their cats and dogs. She was one of a kind, and we miss her.

She arrived at Zoo Knoxville eight years ago, as a yearling. Komodo Dragons have an excellent sense of smell, so one way to get to know her keepers was to have each of them put a dirty work-out shirt in her exhibit with her a few times per week. Dragons are intelligent, as well, and they recognize individuals by sight and by smell. Very quickly, she had picked her favorite person. Each time the shirts were hung in her exhibit, she would yank his down and sleep on it. Years later, when he had been promoted out of the department, he could still do things with her that none of the rest of us had the nerve to. He could hold her to have her claws trimmed when she was nearly grown.

People were stunned that we would go into her exhibit with her, but she was a pleasure to work with. We always took precautions. She was a wild animal, after all. But we knew her – knew how to read her behavior. We used a Komodo stick, basically a long, thick stick with a fork at one end, useful for pinning a tail, pushing a head away, or cupping the back of a chunky thigh to encourage her to move forward when she was dug in and refusing to go inside. Sometimes she surprised us. Last summer, she learned to pin the stick with her thigh so she could try to whack it out of our hand with her tail.

Khaleesi was very intelligent. Not only did she recognize individual keepers, she responded to each of our expectations differently. Stephen, her primary keeper, didn’t hesitate to open the door to feed her when she was right in front of it. He could get by with that. He had known her longer and had worked with her more. It took her only a couple of tries to learn that if I was feeding her, she needed to go up on a platform under the lights. Considering she only ate once a week, it was a pretty impressive feat on her part.

Intelligence also means curiosity. Any time we brought something into the exhibit that she hadn’t seen before, she would run over as quickly as she could, tongue-flicking to beat the band. I once brought in a temperature gun to make sure the exhibit was warm enough, and tried to climb my leg like a temp gun was exactly what she wanted for her birthday. How could you not love an animal like that?

We’ve been asked quite a bit whether or not we’re getting another dragon. The short answer is that we don’t know. The longer answer is that there aren’t any available dragons right now, and we don’t know if that will change. We don’t even know right now if any zoos are incubating viable eggs. So we wait to see what will go in her exhibit.

We wait. And we miss her.

 

 

Nearly Wordless Wednesday: Something Terrible Happened Here

There is only one witness, and he is a little fuzzy on the events that occurred. I understand. I’m sure it was terrifying.

“He went thataway!”

One minute the sprinkler in Big Al’s lot was merrily chugging along, watering the grass and filling his mud hole. The next, this:

What happened? Where did that third arm go?

I looked for Al to ask him if he had seen the perpetrator because he had been hanging around close by while the sprinkler was running. He was all the way in the front of the exhibit. Hmm. That’s weird.

Hey, Al! Did you happen to see who did this to my sprinkler? I’d like to talk to them!

I took the broken pieces out and threw them away. When I came back, Detective Al was investigating the crime scene.

“Wait, Miss Heather! Wasn’t there a sprinkler right here? I mean, um… Someone laid on it. I do not know who. I had never seen them before in my life! I hope you catch them!”

Unfortunately, the case has gone cold. I wonder if we will ever solve this particular mystery. In the meantime, Big Al asked me if I wouldn’t mind starting a GoFundMe for a new bidet. I’m sure he meant sprinkler.

Notes From the Zookeeper: Change Is Hard

I know. Saying that change is hard is about as cliché as it gets. Oh, hello. You’ve read the blog, right? I’m nothing if not a giant cliché. It’s worth repeating. Change is hard. Painful. Awful. Some people thrive on trying shaking up the routine, whether it’s adding a new spice to a favorite comfort food, or visiting new churches for fun. I am not one of those people. I don’t even like to take a new route home. I want the same, and I want it now. And tomorrow, and the day after that… But nothing stays the same forever, and my job is no exception.

Some things never change. Big Al is one of those things. He can always be counted on.

Let me add a little context before I jump right in. Successful zoos (and successful people), are always working toward a master plan – 5 years, 10 years, etc. They spend a lot of time thinking about where they want to be, what projects they want to undertake, what animals they want to exhibit. These plans are what takes a zoo to the next level, and my zoo is no different. We are preparing for a major construction project (more on that in another post), and before site work can begin, our Central American Aviary will have to away. For months (years?) Boss Man Michael, who is curator of both Ornithology and Herpetology, has been been preparing for this project by sending the birds that we won’t be exhibiting anymore to other facilities.

So there won’t be an aviary. That shouldn’t affect me too much, right? You would think. But because our bird collection is being downsized for the next  of 5-10 years, and because of staffing changes,  the entire Ornithology department is being disbanded, and the Bird keepers are being absorbed into other departments. And so are the birds themselves. Instead of a department dedicated to them, the birds will be cared for by the department they are closest to geographically. And that, gentle reader, is the crux of my problem. Herpetology is getting birds.

Now, we’re not getting ALL of them. And one of their dedicated keepers is coming over to our department and will be the primary caregiver for our feathered friends. But as the boss pointed out, she won’t be working seven days a week. And that means we all have to learn to take care of them.

I don’t *hate* birds, yo, so go easy on the hate mail. But I wouldn’t say I *like* them, either, exactly. Birds are messy, and they are often loud, and those stupid things bite. A lot of them are sharp on every end, too. I would rather be bitten snake than by a bird. And birds are so needy. Did you know they expect to be fed more than once a day? What is up with that? I like my creatures slimy, scaly, and mostly quiet, with a slow metabolism. But I must learn.

Fridays are now my days to shadow Bird keepers to learn how to take care of our feathered friends. I don’t want to resent it because I like to think I am up to learning something new, but, man they’re birds! Last week was my first time on the routine. I learned that our department will be getting a Eurasian Eagle Owl, the only one that reads Winnie the Pooh, I am sure, because he actually says “Hoo!” We will also be getting Western Burrowing Owls, Edward’s Pheasants, nearly extinct in its native Vietnam, Blue-Crowned Laughing Thrush, and White Crested Laughing Thrush. We are not yet sure if we will be getting White-Naped Crane exhibit, so we’re learning their care just in case.

I survived my first day on the job. It was even kind of interesting. The White Crested Laughing Thrush have a chick, and it was fascinating to watch a species with parental care. I stood for a long time watching the three adults in the exhibit picking up meal worms and stuffing them into the fledgling’s cake hole. And the Burrowing Owls were cute. The Edward’s Pheasants were all up in our business, which kind of reminded me of Big Al, and I get to keep all the owl pellets for dissecting. That’ll be cool.

I’ll survive, I know. I may even succumb to the charms of these new, feathery dinosaurs. I hope. In the meantime, I will just have to take comfort in the fact that none of them poops as much as Big Al.

Fans of the Bloggess, Beat the Mid-Winter Blahs With BOOKS!

Let me start by asking this. Did you know that when you create an Amazon wish list, the default address is NONE, unless you click “manage list” and add one? I did not know that. Now you do, too. It’s important for what follows.

So The Bloggess recently hosted her annual Booksgiving, where people post their wish list, and others (usually complete strangers) surprise them by treating them to their book. A group of us are huge fans of hers, and some of us missed it, so we’re going to host it in-house! YAY!

Lumen says books are GOOD!

I was going to create a spreadsheet like I do for the Christmas swap, but we’ve had a death in the family, and I am just not going to have time. But I said I would do SOMETHING, so here it is. If someone wants to create a Google Doc to share or wants to  take it over, let me know in the comments. I can lock comments here and move everything to the spreadsheet. Otherwise…

Here’s how it works:

  • Create a BRAND NEW Amazon wish list with ONE BOOK on it. If you have a preference for e-book or audio, add a comment beside the book.
  • Click on “send list to others,” and copy the link.
  • Paste it in the comments here.
  • If you are international, list your country in your comment so you can find each other.
  • To buy for others, just click their link.

Rules:

  • Only put one book on your list. Only one. If you are hoping to get a book for your kid, too, they need their own list, please. Post them both in a single comment.
  • Don’t add more stuff to the list after someone buys it. I know my Bloggess Buddies wouldn’t add stuff, but it’s best to say it because not everyone that reads this will be familiar with the swap.
  • If you can afford to buy for someone else, please do. It would be fantastic if everyone was able to get a book.
  • If you cannot afford to buy for someone else, don’t feel badly about it.

FAQ

  • Why do I have to create a NEW list? Because if stuff shows up on your list as “purchased,” people get a bad taste in their mouths.
  • To Participate, must I be a part of the Bloggess Buddies group (on Twitter the hashtag says “tribe,” but I am non-native, and I feel more comfortable using “buddy”)? Not necessarily. If you’re a regular reader, go ahead and jump in the pool!

Ya’ll, I will be out of pocket for a while. I cannot promise I can monitor the post. Use your best judgment. Most of you will recognize the folks you interact with regularly on the Twitter or from here in my comments section.

 

Stuff I No Longer Care About, and One Thing That I Do

So a few days ago, I wrote about a book that has changed the way I view the world. Read it, practice it, love it, quit caring about stuff that doesn’t matter. To be honest, it’s not easy to let go of the emotional stuff. It’s funny that as a borderline hoarder, going all KonMari on my vast collection of *STUFF* has come more easily to me than not giving a… shall we say “fork.” Point me in the direction of a cluttered dresser, and I can sort, and organize, and spark so much joy that the house nearly catches fire. But not caring? I have taken the book with me everywhere so I can re-read parts and get it stuck in my brain. But when I CAN let go, it’s really so wonderful! I feel unburdened.

That’s the beauty of the “Not Giving A Fork” method. If I miss obsessing over stuff, if that anxiety sparks joy, I can have it back. Here are some things that I decided not to waste any more energy on, at least for now:

  • My weight. This one was surprisingly easy given my decades-long struggle with an eating disorder. I am what I am. I go to the gym now several days a week because I frickin’ LOVE the gym (no joke!), and if I lose weight, fine. If I don’t, that’s okay, too. As long as I am active, that is all that matters.
  • The 2020 presidential election. I will care about it later, but dear God! There is too much going on right now to spend an iota of energy worrying about 2020. I’d like Congress to sort out the Now before moving on to 2020.
  • The economy. It’s not that I don’t care, it’s that I can’t do anything about it. If I can’t fix it, how does worrying help? I’ll write my representatives, of course. But obsessing until I make myself sick? No can do.
  • Whether my kids eat what I cook. This is a big one because I tend to take it kind of personally. But one has sensory issues, and one gets home from school and eats a big snack because he is starving, so he isn’t really hungry for dinner. Know what this means? I can cook what I like!
  • Whether my clothes match when I go to the gym. I am just going to get sweaty. Might as well start out looking like something the cat dragged in.
  • Grouchy people. I didn’t do anything wrong, so I am not going to shoulder the burden of someone else’s bad mood.
  • The Wall. I’ve let my representatives know exactly what I think about the ridiculousness of such a venture. I’ve done what I can do. Yelling at the radio every time it is mentioned does not do me any good.
  • Understanding all the implications of Brexit. I am nosy, but this issue is just too complicated to spare any extra forks for. Over the last 2 years, no one has explained it in simple enough terms for me to understand, so odds are I’m not going to gain a sudden understanding of the complexities of such a big event. I am okay with that.
  • The Oscars.
  • People who claim that e-readers aren’t *real* readers.
  • When someone cuts me off in traffic.
  • Being over-charged at Sonic. $2 isn’t worth getting worked up over.
  • When I make a minor mistake. I apologize, I mean it, and then I let it go.

Now here’s something I DO care about. I’m trying to turn my blog series “Notes From the Zookeeper” into an actual book. I have some chapters laid out already, but I would love some input. If you were reading such a book, what would you hope to learn? This book is going to be primarily factual, with lots of references, but there will be room for anecdotes about animals. What do you want to know? Help me bring this idea to fruition!

I had so much fun with “Unscienceandanimal” hash tag!

The Thing That Has Maybe Changed My Life

If you read my last post, you may remember that I have begun to employ the KonMari method around my house. If you missed it, you can catch up here. Embarrassing photo and all. It’s so simple. Look at all my things, one by one. If a thing makes me happy (or is something I *need*), I keep it. If I don’t need it, and it doesn’t make me happy, I have permission to let it go. This notion is huge for me! I grew up low-income, and with tight family ties. This combo is a giant-double whammy, and has led me to be a borderline hoarder all my life. But now, I have permission to let it go. My brain does not operate in any kind of linear manner, so organization has been a huge struggle until now. But using KonMari, I have less *stuff* to process, and packing what I DO have in clear bins makes sense. I get it! And it’s easy for me to maintain because I can see immediately when something is out of place and return it to its home. But there’s something that has helped me even more.

I have started going back to the gym, too. I had a wake-up call that reminded me that I need to take care of my body. The gym seems cliche (have you met me?!), New-Years-Resolution Driven, but the truth is that I love the gym. After spending an hour on the treadmill, reading and listening to music, I feel so good. It’s like a spa treatment. I have not prioritized going because it felt like a guilty pleasure, and because it has been difficult to get there. The Destroyer has had full-on panic attacks when we have tried to get him to stay at the facility’s childcare. It just wasn’t worth it. But now The Padawan can babysit, and The Destroyer even likes to work out on the treadmill, too, so it can be a bonding experience, at least in the short term. But that isn’t the thing that has revolutionized my take on the world.

I went to the used bookstore the other day, with $90 in credit from the books I had KonMari’d because I didn’t feel like I needed them anymore. In the humor section, I found the most incredible book, a gift from God. It’s called The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a F*** by Sarah Knight.This is a family blog, so we’re going to say the f-word is Fig. The idea behind this book is so simple. Set a Fig Budget for how many figs you have to give overall and then see where they *really* matter and where they don’t. Where the figs given do not matter, cut them out. That’s it. There are even tips for how to do so politely so that feelings don’t get hurt when we say no. It’s all about prioritizing, and it’s glorious.

As a result, just a few days after buying the book, I am sitting at my kitchen table at 8:30 in the morning. School is delayed due to ice on the road. Husband has an early-morning meeting, so it is up to me to stay home and disperse kids. I normally leave for work at 7:15, and Wednesdays are busy days. But can I change the weather? I cannot. So why invest the energy of giving a fig? So I am blogging and drinking coffee while my son and his buddy play football outside. It’s not even an inconvenience. This re-route is a gift.

I went out to move my car for husband, and the car wouldn’t start. The battery is sick and needs replacing. That will take me a half-hour this morning. Can I control it? No. Will buying a new battery after I drop kids off make my life better? It will. No more mornings wondering if today is going to be the day my car won’t start. I can put that fig back in my pocket. And if it’s a battery? They’re expensive. But electrical issues in the car are MORE expensive. So a battery seems like a good deal. I will save this money-fig for another day.

So there it is. All that time and energy spent worrying about things that I can’t control today have been invested in writing. Do you spend more figs each day than you have? I have your solution. Read it, love it, share it. I’m serious.

A Zookeeper’s Gratitude

Please don’t ask me why I have put off this post for so long. I simply do not know. It’s not that I am a whiny ingrate. I have been practicing gratitude daily for a while now because it really works. But I’m tired. Somehow, the act of creating a post, and finding the right pictures, and editing, and feeling a little exposed has felt like more than I could do. I have been ill for a while, and illness has taken its toll. I’ve been doling out my energy by the tablespoonful just to keep functioning, and the hoops have felt too tiny to jump through. But I promised my sweet friend, Dawn. Gratitude is worth giving some energy to, even if I don’t count my blessings all the way up to fifty. I am not on the verge of death here, I promise. Even though this first paragraph is kinda heavy. I’m just tired, ya’ll. Physically spent. There are worse things.

So here I am. And what am I grateful for? Lots. So much. I have good things, and more good things on the horizon. Some of them are more obvious than others.

  • I am so thankful for Marie Kondo. Let me just tell you, the Netflix series really was life-changing for me. If you’re not familiar, Marie wrote a book called “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up.” Now she has a TV series. If you know me in real life, you know that I am a borderline hoarder. I have sentimental attachments to every, little thing. And I lack a linear thought process, so my house is perpetually a mess. I can appreciate a tidy space, but my brain doesn’t always know how to get there. But I watched the entire season in a couple of days, and now I get it. She doesn’t tell anyone to throw anything away, ever. Ever. She gets a bad rap on the internet because the internet is for people who like to complain about things. She says that if an item “sparks joy”, (or if you NEED it, like pots and pans) keep it. There is a way to store it. In the last three weeks, I have donated about 15  trash bags full of things that I was ready to let go of. It is an incredible feeling. For the first time ever, I feel like my living space is getting tidy. And I traded books to our used bookstore and got $90 in credit. Which I am saving for something cool.

 

  • FROGS – It has been a good frog-year for me at work. I got my first eggs from my Bumblebee Dart Frogs, which are easy to breed but had eluded me. I got 2 clutches, and I have four froglets. They are tiny enough to sit on my pinkie nail. I have learned from my mistakes as I went, and they have not suffered for it. I am pretty stoked.

See that little tadpole? It’s not so little anymore!

 

  • Big Al. Because always Big Al. He has so much personality, and he gives me hugs when I need them. Al, for the record, I always need them.

Big Al is pressing his face into my shoulder. It’s how he gives hugs. I love him.

  • I got to take a trip to San Diego this summer. For free. Getting there was a nightmare, but I learned that I do like to travel. And I can pack light. I can go cross-country for four days with only a backpack. As long as my e-reader is in it, I’m good.
  • This is my favorite picture of all.

 

  • My e-reader. I love my Kobo. Don’t @ me. I get a little tired of the “I don’t like e-readers because I like REAL books” crowd. I love physical books, too, but I am running out of room. Literal floor-to-ceiling bookshelves in our family room are filled to overflowing. I do buy some nice print editions – most books related to my job are either not available in e-format, or they are so beautiful that I buy physical copies. I get all the illustrated Harry Potters, too. But my e-reader can hold 10,000 books without gaining a single gram. And I can fit it in my pocket to take it anywhere. And it is backlit, so if I can’t sleep, I can read without disturbing my husband. And when my hands start cramping, I can prop it up on my lap and turn a page with a single tap. I don’t have to fight to hold open a huge volume.

 

  • My Tweeps. I love Twitter. I have found a band of fairly like-minded people there, and they are often my soft place to fall. I have also found some people that I don’t necessarily agree with on all things, but that educate me on the other side of lots of issues. Twitter has been a good learning place for me.

 

  • Books. I have read so many great books recently! I have been on a roll. Not one stinker, DNF in the entire bunch!

 

  • My tortoises groups are laying eggs in record numbers, and some of them are developing. I got six shoe boxes of eggs this year, which is impressive because they only lay one egg at a time, and I don’t start the incubation process for an individual box until there are at least 9 eggs in it. Not all of them will hatch. Most of them will not. But I am collecting some really valuable data, and I am trying some new things to see if I can hit the sweet spot and increase the hatch rate.

Common Spider Tortoise is awake and ready to hatch.

  • Power tools. I was able to build a new series of outdoor enclosures for the Northern Spider Tortoise adults, and as a result, they got to spend their summer outdoors. The natural sunlight does WONDERS. UV produces vitamin D, which in turn helps the females shell their eggs properly and utilize the calcium in their food, it gives them signals that can’t really be replicated indoors. Sometimes it takes a year to reap benefits, so it might be this upcoming breeding season before I see results, but I am hopeful. And proud. I did a thing with very little help, and I did it with power tools and an 8lb sledge-hammer.

 

  • Home Improvement Stores
  • My plants. Sorry, husband. They spark joy, so they stay…
  • My cell phone (it’s so much more fun and useful than I ever thought that it would be!)
  • The Padawan got his first job.
  • Family meals when Girl-Child tells stories from her days at private school
  • I’m getting better. One day at a time, one step at a time, if not feeling better, I am functioning better. I can at least make dinner some nights before getting into bed.
  • Little surprises. This banana plant was, to the casual observer, dead. Look what popped up yesterday while I was off!
  • My bed. My comfy, cozy, welcoming resting spot, covered in cats who want to be near me.
  • Puppies catching treats. You’re welcome.
  • Friends who prompt me to get the blogging done.

Alright. I have completed my post. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to write your own post. Visit Dawn to get complete rules and link up, and make sure you check out some of the other folks in the link-up. Come on in. The water’s fine!

 

 

 

 

 

 

The One Where I Learned What I Already Knew.

I have composed this post and recomposed it so many times. I do my best blogging in the shower. I’m brilliant, funny, clever. And then I sit down in front of the computer to write it out, and moths fly out of my ears. Don’t say voice-to-text. My next blog post would consist mostly of “Who took my tweezers? I put them RIGHT HERE! If you don’t like it when Mommy has whiskers, DON’T TAKE MY TWEEZERS!” and “Who flushed the toilet? I lost all the water pressure!”

This post is a bit of a departure from my normal doings. It’s less about humor or endangered species and more about real life. It’s about my smallest one, the child formerly known as Squish. He was horrified by this nickname and demanded that I change it at once. By his decree, he will henceforth be known as The Destroyer.

dp cucumbers help puffy eyes

One of my favorite goofballs

We’ve always known that the little critter marched to the beat of his own drummer. I love that about him. All of my kids are weird in their own wonderful ways. Weird is good. Weird suits me. I wouldn’t want to change one thing about them. This right here is one of my favorite stories. He’s kind of hilarious, and he views the world in his own special way.

I can’t say that the news was unexpected. We’ve seen it coming for a long time now. Since he was eighteen months old, we knew there was something different. Something a little… off. He was evaluated as a toddler for speech delay, but the delay wasn’t significant. Just something to keep an eye on. And I saw when he was in preschool that he tended to play alone. I talked to the teachers. Oh, no, he’s fine. He has LOTS of friends! The list of signs grew longer. Anxiety. Hand-biting. Running in place when he was overwhelmed. Tantrums that didn’t fade as he grew older. Panic attacks. Fears about weird things while daredeviling with stuff that could actually kill him. We suspected. We worked with teachers, worked together, trying to make a plan that would keep his development moving forward. His teachers have been phenomenal, always brainstorming about things that could help. We have been so, so fortunate.

We avoided having more evaluations done. We didn’t want to change our kid. We were so worried that a doctor would put the little guy on meds for ADHD. He is a busy little person, but we can work with busy. We did okay.

I am not even totally sure what caused us to pull the trigger on it and seek out additional evaluations. I think it was when the medication for his anxiety backfired and sent him into unexpected rages every evening. So we got a referral, we made some calls, and we waited. And after a grueling two-and-a-half hour appointment, we learned what we knew. The Destroyer is Autistic.

We knew it. We’ve been constantly developing work-arounds since he was a toddler. I’ve run the zoo’s camp for Autistic kids since we first offered it. I know Autistic kids, and I love them. In some ways, having my own kid’s autism confirmed is like being given a golden unicorn, a priceless gift. He sees the world in such an incredible way. But no one else ever saw him like I see him until we went to the specialist.

In other ways, the diagnosis was overwhelming. We left the office, and we didn’t talk a whole lot. It was Halloween, and we had a party to get to and lunch, and lots of fun things planned. But suddenly this little person was a stranger. After hours of picking him apart behavior by behavior, I had lost the gestalt of him. Suddenly I couldn’t reconcile the child in the backseat with the little boy I had yelled at that morning for throwing his football in the house. He was a stranger.

“He’s the same kid he was yesterday,” my brain told me. “And they said you’d done great with him.” And it was true. The therapist told us that we had been creating interventions all along that aided his development, and that if we hadn’t, he would be a much different kid, he would have more difficulties than he does. But her words didn’t help. We did the right thing. But which thing was that, exactly? Out of the blue, I no longer knew how to parent this child. I felt like I was walking on thin ice; one false step and I would break him. I did not see my son as my son, but instead a collection of neurodivergent behaviors. Yesterday the only thing on our schedule was church choir, and now we’re looking at Speech Therapy and Occupational Therapy and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, and who knows what else. And I’m tired. We were doing okay before, right? Is all this stuff necessary? And how do I handle the time off work?

I’ve made a million phone calls. Some are answered, most are not. It’s hard to get an appointment with a specialist apparently. I’ve shifted things around, talked to the insurance company to see what’s covered, done all the grown-up things. I’ve ordered books and special Chewelry so he has something to gnaw on. I’ve gone through the steps without feeling them, checking off boxes one by one.

And then out of the blue, I *got* this kid. When our mornings are rocky, I realized, it is usually because I have not been clear in my instructions. He wants to do the right thing (mostly, he is 10 after all). He’s not trying to get on my nerves. It’s just that I haven’t made myself clear. Now I am rethinking the structure of our morning and the things that I say. And it’s easier. Because I *get* him now. I am learning to put myself in his shoes because he does not yet know how to put himself in mine. And the speech therapist will go to his school. When she told me that, I felt like a weight had been lifted. One less thing to schedule around. And we’re doing it.

I still have a lot to learn. I have to weigh the pros and cons of different therapies, and I have to learn all the lingo. There’s so much that I don’t know. But it’s pointless to expect that I’ll learn it all the first week. Or the first month. Or the first year. Baby steps. This month, we’re concentrating on National Novel Writing Month. He’s writing, I’m writing.  I’ll read a little on cognitive behavioral therapy and do a little research on games and things we can do at home. Baby steps. If he’s doing well know, imagine how much better he will do with additional therapy.

I still don’t want to change my kid. Autism isn’t a bad thing. It makes him who he is. He is funny and bright and driven and sweet. He doesn’t need to change. I do. I need to let go of my fears of the future and let the pieces fall into place. Adventure awaits around every corner, and I am so here for it.

He set up this shot. He has the most delicious sense of humor!

The Introverted Activist: Be the Light

I was so depressed this morning that I could barely get out of bed. This administration becomes more monstrous by the day; there is so much evil in the world, and I can’t take it anymore. There aren’t enough anti-depressants in the world to make me feel better. Like, I asked the world to quit turning because I wanted to get off. What can I do? I called my senators (both Republicans, both speaking out against the abuses at the border), I called the Department of Justice (1-202-514-2000), but I didn’t feel better. Not at all. Again, what can I do? I am one person. And I figured it out. My most important job right now is to make my own tiny corner of the world the very best that it can possibly be. And so I did.

I did anything I could think of.

  • I picked up trash
  • I checked a reservoir before the end of the day so my co-worker didn’t have to fill it
  • I paid for the groceries of a little elderly lady whose check kept getting rejected at the check out
  • I let a birthday boy help feed Al his watermelon
  • I let cars into traffic, and I didn’t honk when someone cut me off
  • I talked to lots of zoo guests who had questions and tried to make their day a little better
  • I let son choose what we watched while we worked
  • I made falafel for husband and son
  • I didn’t expect son to eat the tabouli
  • I let smallest pick his own dinner – ramen noodles – and didn’t bark about nutrition (there’s always tomorrow!)
  • I fed my silver Arowana a little extra goodness. Roaches. Her favorite
  • I gave the dogs extra biscuits
  • I am making plans to take my husband to see the Mr. Rogers documentary – something that we BOTH need!
  • I wrote the report for today so my co-worker didn’t have to
  • I gave my intern some fun jobs to do – like feed Al. It was good for both of them

Am I cured? Not by a long shot. My heart still hurts, and I am struggling to breathe sometimes. But tomorrow is another day, and I will do it again. As much as I can for as long as I can. You do it, too. Do what you can to make your world better than it was without you. You do it, I’ll do it, and before you know it, we will have our world back. We can do it. Together. Be the light.