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Wesley the owl, p.11
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       Wesley the Owl, p.11

           Stacey O'Brien
 
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  I decided that from then on I would tell only trusted friends about him. But, unfortunately, Wesley was advertising his own presence with his interminable mating call. Every time he did it I thought, Oh, no, people can hear him from the street. But in all the years Wesley was with me, no one ever commented. Even when guests sat at the dining room table having tea while Wesley wailed away down the hall, they just raised their voices and continued conversing over the din. It was amazing. I even asked a few people later on what they thought the sound was. They had to think about it, and if they did remember, they said they thought it was a very loud dryer/fan/air conditioner in desperate need of oil.

  What we do not expect we often do not even perceive. It would not have occurred to visitors that I might be raising a real live owl in the house. Normal people didn’t do such things. But in my line of work, many people I knew were far from normal, and my lifestyle didn’t even begin to compare with the way some other biologists had chosen to live. If I hadn’t known them personally and been to their homes, I never would have believed it myself. I worked with many of these folks every day.*

  Nine-year-old Wesley looks at Stacey through the mirror on her makeup case. Stacey O’Brien.

  * * *

  * I took this story at facevalue at the time, and have not been able to confirm whether or not the incident happened, or happened in the way it was described.

  10

  A Day in the Life of a Biologist

  I GOT UP particularly early one morning in order to stop by a marine biology lab on my way to work to pick up a couple of octopi for Tom, a postdoc at Caltech who was studying their behavior. I love octopi and was looking forward to seeing them.

  I dressed in my usual sweatpants and T-shirt because it didn’t make sense to get all gussied up to work with animals. I’d just wash my face and brush my teeth and wait till the end of the day to shower.

  Wesley played in the water while I got ready and then settled down on his perch to sleep while I was gone. It was hard to leave him behind in the mornings, but I always gave him a snuggle and kissed him good-bye on the curve of his smooth, warm beak as I left.

  After being stuck in Los Angeles traffic, barely moving, I finally reached my destination, the marine lab at Occidental College, which smelled like a hundred years’ worth of fish and formaldehyde. I was surprised to find only one container waiting for me, because I had expected two. Octopi need to be kept separate, as some species will eat each other, but the scientists were already loading diving equipment into the vans, getting ready to head out to the research boat for the day.

  I waved at one of my old Occidental classmates, Lisa, who was getting ready to go diving with the group. Lisa could walk right up to a bloated, decaying seal carcass on the beach, reach into the black, liquefying flesh up to her armpit, fish around in there, and pull out a bone. “Hmm,” she’d ponder. “The bones were weak.” Everyone else would be running away retching. This proclivity has helped her in her future career, as she has spent her life doing autopsies on dead sea mammals to figure out what’s killing them off and how to try to protect the living—a job she was born to do.

  “Why are the octopi in the same container?” I asked one of the lab assistants. “Won’t they eat each other?”

  “Well, it’s only fifteen minutes to Caltech, so if you hurry it’ll probably be fine. We just now put them in there,” he replied.

  I loaded the container into my car and looked inside. There, swimming in the seawater, was one huge octopus and one small one. Not good. I drove to Caltech as fast as I could and parked in the loading zone. The ice chest was heavy, but I lugged it out of the car and rushed toward the back door of the building.

  “Stop right there! What are you doing?” I looked up and there was a stern cop standing in my way. “This is a loading zone,” he barked.

  “I’m unloading,” I said.

  He took out his ticket book.

  “I’m unloading octopi,” I insisted.

  “Yeah, right.”

  “Listen,” I blurted out, “I have two octopi in here. One is much bigger than the other and will eat the little one if I don’t get them into the lab right away,” and I yanked the top of the ice chest off.

  To my dismay, the big one had already eaten the small one and was undulating around, happily changing colors, as they do to express emotions. He reached one long tentacle over the top edge of the container and began feeling his way out using his suction cups.

  “Oh, no” I yelled loudly. “It’s already happened! He ate the little guy. Now, what am I going to do? Look, there’s only one pathetic little tentacle left floating on the—”

  I looked up to see the cop stumbling backwards, making choking, guttural sounds. He jumped into his car and burned rubber out of the parking lot.

  This is how stories get started about secret laboratories doing experiments on aliens.

  I set the container near the lab door then went upstairs to get Tom. A wave of chemical odors mixed with the pungent aroma of animals hit me. I would always love that combination of smells. As we took the ice chest up the elevator I explained the tragic demise of the smaller octopus.

  “That’s a real loss,” he said.

  “I know, I should have insisted they separate them, but they thought it would be all right.” At least we had this one, and into the aquarium he went, full and content.

  I went off to start my workday, cleaning animal cages and feeding the owls and songbirds. It was also my responsibility to check all the animals for signs of ill health and other anomalies. It took about four hours to make my rounds, which gave me a lot of time to think.

  I loved being at Caltech. It had been a part of my life since I was eight years old, but recently I had begun to worry about my financial future. There really wasn’t any way to have a career at Caltech without a PhD. An aerospace company was recruiting me quite persistently and they were starting to turn my head with their offers. The position was out of my field but paid a lot by my standards, and they would train me to work with UNIX operating systems. The sky was the limit as a UNIX specialist, although biology would always be my first love. It would break my heart to leave, but I had spoken to Dr. Penfield about it and he had assured me that the lab would still welcome my observations of Wesley. In that way I’d still be involved with the lab, which kept me from feeling that I was losing everything.

  I went back up to the main building for some supplies and dropped by the lab of John, a postdoc one floor down from us owl biologists. As was my habit, I leaned against the door of his small lab area to chat. I never went all the way inside for fear of bumping into one of the crowded shelves and bringing their contents down on my head. His lab had thousands of black widow spiders living in thousands of petri-like dishes that had been made into little spider habitats, stacked high on shelves that went up to the ceiling. I hated to think what would happen in an earthquake.

  John particularly doted on his “nursery” of egg sacks and newly hatched babies. Clucking and fussing over them like a mother hen, he would separate the babies using a glass tube. He gently sucked one baby spider into the tube, transported it to a new dish, then carefully blew it out into its new home. I always feared the little spider would run right up into his mouth, but it never happened.

  John spent long hours sorting out all the babies when they hatched, more hours than he spent with people. He thought it was sooo adorable when they hunched up, right before they jumped. I finally conceded that, if you watched them long enough, you could see their tiny faces, which had an alien sort of “cuteness” to them. He would say, “Oh, look, they’re so precious when they’re little!” And the babies were, in a strange way, delicate, perfect miniatures. Not lanky like the adults, but more, uh, cuddly looking.

  At some point I think maybe John lost perspective. He started taking the black widows home. Then he got to where he refused to allow any yard work whatsoever because it disturbed the wild spiders, so his yard became completely overgrown
and covered in huge, thick, active spider webs. Eventually he became a professor of biology at another prestigious university.

  John was not married, although he was charming and gorgeous. What a waste. But I couldn’t imagine dating a guy with this specialty. After all, how would you raise children in a home filled with black widow spiders?

  So many interesting people from all over the world came through Caltech. Jane Goodall’s lecture there changed my life when I was eight. Her discovery that chimps made and used tools shook the world of science to the core and showed how close these primate relatives are to us humans. To me, Dr. Goodall is the Galileo of behavioral biology. Every year for nearly ten years my sister, dad, and I went to hear her lectures whenever she came to Southern California.

  Dr. Goodall’s biggest influence on my life has been her refusal to see animals as simply instinct-driven, stimulus-response mechanisms, which has been the dominant view of many scientists since the overly reductionist Enlightenment scientist, Descartes, declared that animals had no real feelings, and his twentieth-century descendants, the behaviorists, led by B. F. Skinner, described them as little more than furry automatons. Goodall has proved that each chimp is a unique, sentient being, and other scientists have taken courage from her and have studied other animals, such as elephants, orangutans, gorillas, and wolves, proving that these creatures, too, exhibit individuality and personality. This encouraged me to go beyond just studying Wes, and to experience him as an authentic feeling, intelligent, and even spiritual individual. I was Wesley’s friend, not a superior observing a specimen. The emphasis on empiricism in behavioral biology often keeps us from seeing clearly, and may actually bias and block us from observing the very truths we seek.

  Many scientists who will never be as famous as Dr. Goodall make important contributions to science through their own particular specialties, which can seem quite odd to laypeople—even odder than studying black widow spiders. For instance, one of my favorite professors at Occidental College spent his entire life studying the ovary of the Pacific surf perch. That was his passion. As he got ready to retire, I used to joke to him that he had spent his life studying the right ovary of the surf perch, and now he would be free to study the left ovary (they’re the same). When he did retire, he indeed moved to a house next to the ocean, set up a lab, and continued to study the ovary of the Pacific surf perch.

  When I was a kid, my dad was friends with Richard Feynman before he’d won his Nobel Prize in physics. Always an iconoclast, Feynman never let anyone tell him how to act or behave. He would go to topless bars to sit there and do calculations on the tablecloth. He wasn’t there to look at naked girls; he just liked the ambiance. Even after he won the Nobel Prize, he didn’t let it go to his head but still taught freshman physics. He was so entertaining that he eventually wrote a popular science book that became an enormous bestseller, Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! and his lectures still sell to physics students worldwide. His ability to see clearly, without bias, enabled him to demonstrate memorably to Congress why the O-ring shattered and caused the tragic Challenger space shuttle explosion in 1986.

  Yet another physicist at Caltech insisted on working in the buff in his office. There was a picture in one of the hallways in the physics department of him sitting naked at his desk, taken tastefully from the side. I used to see a man striding across campus decked out in an authentic-looking court jester’s costume from the Middle Ages. He had the funny hat, striped bloomers, purple tights, and velvety purple shoes with the toe curling up over the top, decorated with a jingly bell. No one ever looked twice as he walked by. I don’t know who he was, but people treated him with respect.

  When I returned to the big barnlike owl building after my chat with John, I noticed that the adolescent wild owls, the most unruly of the bunch, who were housed together in one large aviary, were particularly restless that day because of the Santa Ana winds. Hot, desiccating winds that come in from the desert, the Santa Anas fill the air with static electricity and generally irritate everyone, including animals. I decided to play some soothing music so I tuned the upstairs radio to a soft classical station. Then I went in to clean the adolescents’ aviary wearing a helmet, face shield, rubber boots, and my lab coat.

  The birds finally settled down into their favorite perching areas and I started working. I didn’t notice that the music had changed until a soprano started screaming at the climax of some opera. Terrified, the owls flew around frantically as the singer’s voice topped out at the highest notes and the orchestra hit a sustained crescendo with crashing timpani. Dozens of owls were bumping into each other and smacking into me, tumbling to the ground. Several landed on me, then panicked even more when they realized they were standing on a human being. Some owls attacked me, hitting my shoulders and arms.

  I slipped out the door and raced up the stairs to turn off the radio. The owls calmed down, some of them just sitting on the ground panting. I sat on the floor, weak in the knees, trembling and laughing a little hysterically, covered with dots of blood where the terrified owls had pierced my lab coat with their talons. I decided the place was clean enough for the day and finished up by feeding them, still shaking.

  It was time for lunch, so I cleaned my wounds with a solution of iodine and went back to the office building. I avoided the cafeteria, aptly called “the Greasy.” Like others, I tended to bring lunch from home and join my colleagues around the conference room table exchanging stories. As we ate, tame owls flew in and out whenever they wanted, checking on their humans and each other. None ever interrupted us with a “Screamer,” the disciplinary letters that owls delivered to Hogwarts students in the Harry Potter books.

  After lunch I hurried down the hall and almost ran into Steve. This is not something you’d want do to physically because Steve’s skin was infested with parasites. A member of the Caltech primate group, where I had worked before switching to the owl project, he studied owl monkeys, so named because they have faces like owls. Steve was a Jane Goodall–type field ethologist—a wild animal behavioral biologist—who went deep, deep into the Amazon jungle alone. Just getting there over land and by canoe took some six weeks. His research area was a dense swamp, so he would be up to his knees in water from the Amazon, which was a stew of parasites. All night, every night, he watched the owl monkeys up in the trees, which was not good for his neck. His boots would rot off his feet within the first month. After his boots rotted off, his feet rotted, too. Steve slowly became part of the jungle itself, a human host for the parasites and hangers-on that the Amazon had to offer.

  I don’t know how long he was there, but it was a long time. Long enough to become kind of “Amazon-ed.” Changed. Altered by the experience. Not one of the regular folks anymore, if you know what I mean. He had a different outlook on life. Steve had so many different kinds of parasites that I hadn’t even heard of many of them (and I had studied quite a few). The most impressive was a creature that laid eggs right in his flesh. The worms that emerged from these eggs grew to maturity just under his skin. You’d be standing there trying to have a straightforward conversation with the guy with worms moving under his skin. Steve just left those worms alone until they were ready to “hatch” to the next level in their life cycle—in which they poked through his skin. He would know when they were ready because they would make the spot itch so that he would scratch and create a little opening for this fat 2-inch-long worm to crawl out. Sometimes the worm would poke its head out and when he tried to grab it, the thing would dodge back into the hole in his skin. So he had to almost catch them off guard. He did this quite matter-of-factly, as if everyone in the world had worms crawling out of his skin. To him it wasn’t an issue. No problem.

  “Carry on, what were you saying now?” he’d say as he rummaged around for a jar. He’d save the worms he hatched for doctors who specialized in tropical diseases, to whom these worms were real treasures, appearing as they did right here in Southern California. A human petri dish, Steve had attracted a whole
troupe of tropical disease specialists who were thrilled to have the opportunity to study him. Sharing their scientific curiosity, he was very cooperative.

  Steve told me about another postdoc who was going to be heading off into the jungles soon.

  “Once he gets his appendix out he’ll be good to go,” he said.

  “He has appendicitis?” I asked.

  “No, no,” he laughed. “Most people get their appendix out before going into remote areas, didn’t you know that? Think about it. What would happen if you were six weeks away from help and you got appendicitis? You’d die. It’s not worth the risk, so most people just have it out.”

  There are an awful lot of people studying in the Amazon, and these are the chances they take. No one at their institutions or universities is checking up on them to see if they need anything or are still alive—just “he should reappear in about a year’s time, we think, but we have no idea where he is.” These field biologists are so fascinated by the creature they are studying that they devote everything to their science.

  Another female friend studied a more “domestic science,” doing research at a medical center trying to develop a birth control pill for men. When they finally figure it out, we’ll all hear the announcement, “Scientists have discovered a birth control pill for men,” but almost no one will wonder or hear about who or what was actually involved in making this discovery.

  My friend’s work entailed studying the attributes of sperm as it worked its way through a sort of assembly line in the factory that is the testicle. Each spermatozoon starts out as a nonspecific cell and goes through some fourteen or so distinct stages of development before actually becoming a sperm cell. The researchers were trying to find a way to interrupt this process so that the sperm cell would not fully mature. That’s the aim, but the actual work went like this:

 
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