My Magical First Job Running Wild in an Indonesian Zoo

As a twelve-year-old trainee I hand-fed hippos, hugged orangutans and was even bit by a baby tiger. Now that I’m an adult I wonder if kids these days need a little more dangerous freedom.

Neighborhood children tumble from the school bus like crayons released from a box, bright and happy. Every day, I time my dog’s walks to the hiss of yellow bus breaks so I can silently shepherd them home. They are not mine, but I worry about them. I worry about their tiny, bubbly bodies. Children don’t always color in the lines and they don’t always stay on the pavement. Speeding cars roar down our street. I tell myself that my presence might be a danger deterrent. But then I remember a treasured part of my own childhood, and wonder if perhaps the children have been entrusted with the walk home for a reason.

* * *

I am twelve years old. A man decked in a uniform plonks a giant tray of wriggling worms under my nose.

“Pick these out,” he says, his hand disappearing into the mass of writhing beige bodies, pinching a beetle between thumb and forefinger. “Put them in here.” He plops the frantic black beetle into an empty red tray.

“Do I get a pair of gloves?” I ask, staring at penne pasta come to life.

He rolls his eyes, turning to monitor another tray of worms.

This is my first job — picking out darkling beetles from buckets of mealworms. My mother secured this job for me through her volunteer work for a zoo in Indonesia. It is noble work, and phenomenally tedious for a precocious tween. The beetles are the graduates, too advanced for their wriggling environment — a feeling I relate to. As a twelve-year-old professional animal devotee, I am clearly overqualified for this position. I wait until the keeper is distracted organizing worm buckets and sneak away into the belly of the zoo.

The zoo is draped in the tropical luscious emeralds of greedy vines, alive with a chorus of crickets, waxy-skinned frogs and the echoing howls of siamangs. I’ve walked it many times, but now, I plan to slip into the areas off limits to the public.

I stop by the hippopotamus enclosure, a collection of pools, wallowing mud, flitting mosquitos and rickety gates. A three-ton male hippo is waiting, his gargantuan head slumped on top of a bamboo gate. Sharp flicks of his wispy tail suggest impatience.

“Bisa saya bantu?” I ask the keeper, sidling up to him. Can I help?

He smiles at the pasty bule (the Indonesian slang for “foreigner”) in front of him with her pink knees, scarecrow hair and brush flick of freckles. Nodding, he gestures to a handwoven basket filled with whole corn and watermelon. He hands me the basket and the magic word.

“Buka!” I say, Open! like a secret password as the hippo’s jaws yawn wide to reveal a mass of sugar-pink gums, formidable yellow teeth and tusks. I lob the whole watermelon on top of its tongue — wrinkled, pink and slippery as a brain. The hippo closes his jaw and crushes the enormous fruit like a grape, seeds spilling from its lips, cold juice spraying onto the raised hair of my arms. I am permitted to touch the rubbery skin of his upper lip, feeling the sharp spike of wiry bristles. I knock my hand on enormous tusks that feel like hollow bamboo. The keeper hands me a broom and I brush the hippo’s bubblegum carpet of tongue, then we smile at one another in rapture, sharing the magic, a reverential love fizzing in our blood.

This zoological sneaking becomes routine. I tell my mother I’m going to sift through worms to feed the nursery animals, but instead I go on walkabouts. I am a liar and a mealworm defector, but my heart is as full as the belly of a hippopotamus.

I hand-feed the zoo’s Sumatran rhino. She’s smaller and more cherubic than her better-known African relatives, her species on the knife edge of extinction. I fall in love with her gentle, inquisitive expression straight from the pages of a children’s book, the way her lips gingerly gather leaves from my palm and chew them rhythmically. I wonder what would happen if other people got to touch the smoothness of her two mystical horns. Would they also spill tears at the thought of losing her kind?

On my day-to-day adventures, I hug orangutans, leaf-feed monkeys and fawn over the ailing animals at the nursery. I watch a snake handler slip behind the scenes to where they care for the reptiles — pythons and boas and cobras, oh my! It is an area that is strictly off limits, especially to twelve-year-old girls.

One day, I tell myself, One day.

The mother white tiger is separated from her cubs for a medical check and I am allowed to enter their enclosure. While I stick my head into the hollow log that a tiger cub hides in, admiring her icy blue eyes and alabaster fur with its trickling rivulets of darkening stripes, her larger brother sneaks up on me and bites me on the ass. The bite pierces through my t-shirt and shorts, puncturing skin in a tiny red dot. I squeal with delight. The keepers laugh. They understand my pride.

My greatest passion, however, is wrapped in the muscular grip of the snakes. I stalk the reptile handlers, convincing them to let me help feed juvenile snakes red-eyed mice, studying ball and blood pythons, boas and anacondas up close. I am fascinated by the peristaltic motion of their slender bodies, tile-smooth scales, hypnotized by the kaleidoscope of their sleek patterns. Shiny marble eyes captivate me, the flickering tickle of a tongue on my skin bringing me to life. I learn their names in English and Indonesian (reticulated python, ular sanca kembang) and how to care for them. Many of the snakes I spend time with greatly outweigh me.

Finally, I have proven my love for the reptiles and the keepers reward me for it.

“Ayo, sini,” says a keeper, beckoning me to follow. It is finally happening. I am infiltrating behind-the-scenes, where the snakes are cared for. They hand me snake after snake. I drape albino Burmese pythons around my neck, feed an Indian python a live chicken and am given recently shed skins that feel sacred, like the crisp tea-brown paper of ancient scrolls. They are mine to savor, I can’t wait to show them to my sister and display them in my bedroom. The keeper I spend the most time with (Pawang Ular – “Snake Charmer”) holds up his hand, his voice changing.

“Stay still. Don’t move.” He adjusts my palms skyward. “Don’t move,” he repeats. Silently, he places a long, glossy black body into my palms. I instinctively coil my fingers around a sinewy cylinder of muscle. I look down. In my hands is a cobra. Hood raised.

Stay still. Don’t move.

Fear seizes me by the neck. A cobra bite can be fatal. If I am bitten and manage to survive it, there will be no plausible way to convince my mother a mealworm was the culprit. But I don’t let the fear breathe, unwilling to let it suffocate me. It quickly loses its grip, slithering away. The cobra’s head sways rhythmically as a calm confidence spreads through me. Reverence. Connection. Pulsating power in my hands.

The keeper gently removes the cobra, smiling from his soul through teeth that don’t get along. He knows he’s given me something no one else ever has or ever will again. I ask him if the venom is still in the cobra. Of course, he tells me. Good, I respond.

Looking back now with hyperopic parental glasses, I realize I could have ended up a python burp in the ether. But I wasn’t naive about the power a snake wields. I pushed my way in, studying the risks with the last breath of every mouse, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I think of the neighborhood children and wonder, in our new world of constricted curfews and near constant supervision, are we robbing our children of independence and the gift of self-determined adventure? Have we forgotten the syrupy taste of early freedom? Perhaps we don’t have much of a choice. We live in a new world with fangs, where letting your child tackle the park alone may result in having the cops called on you. Stakes, across the board, seem so much higher. But a child raised in a cocoon will be devoid of the skills to navigate a dangerous world. We must still question if fear and the pulsing hangover of media horror stories should govern our choices, whether it’s worth the narrowing of a child’s world. In the battle of protection versus self-reliance, where is that murky line? I don’t have answers, but I cling to the hope of unstructured exploration and the whimsy of childhood adventure.