We are touring Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge—a sanctuary for tigers, lions, cougars, bobcats, leopards, and bears that have been rescued from private zoos and the homes of people who thought refrigerator-sized carnivores would make great pets.
The interns live on the property, and are paid fifty dollars a week stipend. They feed, water, medicate, clean up after, build enclosures for, occasionally butcher donated cows for, and generally rhapsodize about the animals in their care.
A lion lies on its back in the sun, feet in the air, while an intern tidies outside his enclosure. “We work sixteen-hour days, six days a week. I was off last Sunday, but I went into the office to work anyway.” Her six-month internship is ending. She tosses a metal feeding tray onto a stack on the ground. The tray is heavy enough to withstand the jaws of a full-grown male lion chomping his daily ten pounds of raw chicken, but the intern looks like she’s merely tossing a tennis ball. Her movements are more playful than work-like. She’s dressed in khaki shorts and shirt. Her rubber boots are covered in mud and god knows what else. She has the dewy-eyed look of someone hopelessly in love. “I applied to come back for another six months.”
More than a hundred college graduates applied for ten spots.
A brown bear peels his orange before eating it. He holds it down with his left paw, bites off the top, and scoops out the meat with his tongue. After feeding, there’s a pile of orange shells on the ground, scooped out clean as a whistle. And the bear rinses his left paw in his water dish. He lopes over to his swimming pool, splashes in. You can imagine cuddling up with this charming fur ball. On the tour, the intern says, “If you see me duck, take cover. The bear throws rocks.” The intern has the dewy-eyed look of someone hopelessly in love.
From her side of the security fence, another intern pours water into a tiger’s water pan. The dish fits snugly through an opening, halfway inside the enclosure and halfway outside. The tiger lunges at the fence on hind legs, fangs bared, an eight-foot tall, 400-pound killing machine, but as quick and quiet as a mouse. The intern does not flinch, does not turn away. (I, on the other hand, am having a heart attack.) She takes two steps backward, always facing the tiger, before she turns and walks to the food truck for a load of chicken.
The tour guide says, “These are ambush predators. They’ll attack if you look like prey.” The tour guide has the dewy-eyed look of someone hopelessly in love.
At Turpentine Creek, I rethink love.
I’m in love with my husband. But … I expect him to be attentive when I want attention and to leave me alone when I crave solitude. I expect him to smile at me, to say good morning and kiss me goodnight. When I cook for him, I expect him to purr.
I fell in love with my new hair stylist, who works out of her home. She’s curious, intelligent, creative, funny, patient. But on my third visit, I noticed candy wrappers and a dead fly on the window sill. Instead of a smock, she placed a bed skirt around my shoulders. She’d grabbed it off a pile of laundry in the next room. There was another pile of clothes on the bathroom floor. I haven’t gone back to see her. I expect a tidy enclosure.
I'm compassionate. I give money to panhandlers. Once, after I handed a dollar to a guy, he sneered and flipped me off. “Thanks to you, I’m going to get a beer.” I felt betrayed. I expected something back, some acknowledgement of my kindness. His ridicule felt like an attack. I expect fangs to stay retracted.
My love is a business deal. In exchange for it, you have to be better than your natural cardboard-shredding, rock-throwing, fang-bearing self. You have to be You Plus.
At Turpentine Creek, I rethink love.