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Wesley the owl, p.12
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       Wesley the Owl, p.12

           Stacey O'Brien
 
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  Every day she was presented with a “bucket o’ balls,” the testicles of some of the John Does and other men who had donated their bodies to science. The first thing she did in the morning was empty the bucket into a large blender, much like the one you have at home for making smoothies. And that’s what she made: a testicle smoothie that she would then run through a machine that separated the developing sperm cells according to fourteen or so types. Then she took the fourteen or so sperm soups and studied them and the effects of experimental medications upon them.

  Scientists often find themselves in the most extraordinary situations and want to tell people about them. Yet most nonscientists are easily grossed out or simply aren’t interested, which can be frustrating.

  Let’s say that you are a married entomologist (such luck!), and your husband asks you to pick up the takeout order you placed. Off you go in the “good car,” which is a rare treat in itself, because you drive a clunker to work. (You simply cannot see why anyone would need anything more than a clunker, just to get from point A to point B, or to transport your boxes of insects.) Off you go.

  You get to the restaurant and, outside, after you’ve picked up the food, you see the most amazing thing on the restaurant’s porch. To others, it would look like two bugs, but you see that it’s a fight between a carpenter ant and a fly. You stop to watch for just a little while. You drive home with the food and can’t wait to tell your mate the whole story. You’ve really built up a head of steam over this thing and you’re eager to describe every detail. You pull in and race into the house all excited.

  Your mate is oddly cold and distant. He says, “Why did it take you two hours to pick up food from a restaurant one mile away?”

  “Oh!” you answer. “Just listen to this. I saw the most extraordinary fight between a carpenter ant and a fly. I am not kidding you! I think it’s unprecedented. And you’re not going to believe this—the fly started it!”

  “Just gimme the damn food,” he snaps, grabs it out of your hand, and stomps into the kitchen.

  You hear cupboard doors slamming, silverware being thrown forcefully onto the table, the microwave whirring to reheat your dinner. You sense that you might not be able to tell your story until you get to work tomorrow with the other scientists, who will understand completely. You lie awake all night rehearsing and rehashing the incident in your mind, trying to make sure you get all the details right for when you tell the gang. They won’t roll their eyes.

  And you are right. Not only do they share your enthusiasm, they press you for more details on exactly how did the ant come at the fly in the 123rd pass. Was it from the right? Did they appear to learn from trial and error? Was the fly on its back or did it rear up on its hind legs? How did each animal use its mouth parts, and to what end? How did they protect their antennae—pretty soon there are objects on the table and a group of scientists gathered around. This actually happened, by the way.

  “Okay, now this eraser is the fly and the soda can is the ant…” The crowd around you grows as the news races throughout the offices.

  “Go to the snack room! Someone is describing a fight between an ant and a fly. It’s unprecedented!”

  The other scientists drop everything and sprint to the snack room. Arriving breathless, they ask, “What’d we miss?” and there’s a murmur as someone fills them in on what has happened so far. Excitement fills the room. You wonder why you don’t get this reaction at home. What is wrong with your mate?

  VISITING BIOLOGISTS FROM all around the world would come to Caltech for a year or so to study our work. Some of them were from cultures that did not hold with our American habits of hygiene. You would think that with our lack of concern about guts and animal smells, biologists would not be sensitive to human odors, but for some reason this is not so. In our lab the line was drawn at not bathing. We may be able to dig maggots out of the flesh of a living rescued animal to save it, while enduring a stench that would cause most people to pass out, but we retch at the scent of an unbathed person. Even those of us who worked with monkeys in an atmosphere reeking of primate often could not stand the smell of a stinking human.

  Ignorance of the actual dynamics of daily life can be bliss sometimes. Because we know chemistry and biology, we knew that when we smelled something, the molecules from the source of the smell had actually entered our noses and taken up residence on our receptors. So when we smelled a dirty person, this meant that some of his filthy molecules had actually gotten into our nasal passages. This bothered us. We didn’t want to know that person that well, and we certainly didn’t want his disgusting molecules in our nasal receptors.

  Gagging coworkers finally put up a protest, and our boss elected one of the supervisors to give “the talk” whenever an unbathed individual reported for duty. The talk said, basically, that the rules of the lab were that you had to shower thoroughly each and every day without fail, including washing your hair, and you had to use soap. And you had to wear freshly washed clothing every day, whether your clothing from the day before looked clean or not (we had learned that if there was no actual dirt on a garment, some scientists would wear it forever without washing it) and that included underwear. The visiting scientist also had to brush his teeth and use a deodorant and antiperspirant daily.

  Some of the visitors were quite taken aback by these rules, but our scientists remained steadfast in their insistence that these standards be laid out and enforced by management. A sheet with full hygiene instructions was given out to each scientist. This was groundbreaking stuff for some folks and it seemed outrageous to them. But we stood our ground.

  After my encounter with Steve, who was very clean other than his parasitical hangers-on, I was quite happy to go up to the labs, where all the freshly scrubbed biologists were working, and do some microsurgery under the tutelage of my supervisor. It was a real privilege to be doing such leading-edge work, including many intricate procedures, for example, to inject a tiny finch egg with a microscopic glass needle using a foot-controlled microscope. We would insert monoclonal antibody tracers into the developing embryo so we could track later which neurological cells were developing at the time of the injection. With careful record keeping, we could see how the brain developed in the embryo at each stage. After inserting the tracers, we had to reseal the egg with a tiny drop of candle wax, all while managing not to kill the embryo inside. Then we returned the eggs to their nests where their parents hatched them and they led normal lives. In another delicate procedure, we had to sex the finches, since we were keeping breeding pairs. Sexing involved threading a microscopic optical filament between two tiny ribs to look down into the sex organ area, which is inside the abdomen near the diaphragm below the lungs, to see whether a finch had ovaries or testicles. We always used full anesthesia—of course—which necessitated learning another odd technique, mouth-to-beak-resuscitation.

  Anesthesia on a very small bird is tricky, and if a bird were accidentally injected with too much, it would stop breathing; then you had to be able to breathe for the bird until the anesthesia wore off, which, thankfully, it did quickly. Whenever a finch died of natural causes we would practice this technique in order to perfect it in case we needed it for the live finches. Right…My mouth on a dead bird’s beak. Our motto was “No Waste, No Pain, No Harm,” and we interpreted the “No Waste” part to include getting some use out of the dead finch. The trick was to blow carefully so as not to burst the lungs. I am proud to say that I never have burst a lung of any animal, not even a dead finch. I don’t think we ever made an anesthesia mistake, but if we had, we were ready. That was Caltech—thorough.

  We were also called upon to sex birds from other animal centers because our techniques were so advanced. If a zoo had an extremely endangered pair of ruffled toucans, for example, and they wanted to see if they were male and female so they could start breeding them, the caretakers came to us rather than to a vet. In those archaic days, twenty-some-odd years ago, vets would make a long incision and open up the
bird like a book, killing it half the time, just to see what sex it was. Zoos and top breeders obviously preferred our microfilament techniques.

  While absorbed in these procedures, my supervisor and I would chat about all kinds of things. One day, I decided to ask him if he knew other biologists whose work had affected their way of life.

  “Oh, do I ever,” he said. “Soon after the vulture lab was attacked and those poor birds released, there was another attack on a facility that was doing research on childhood leukemia. It had taken ten years to breed a mouse that was crucial to the study, and all those mice were released. That means children will die because the results of this research will have to wait another decade.”

  “That’s horrible,” I said.

  “Yes. Scientists all over started getting worried about their own lab animals. A primatologist I know was so attached to his monkeys that he couldn’t bear the thought of any harm coming to them during the night. He tried sleeping in his lab every night, but that couldn’t last, so he started taking them home, one by one. Talk about a change in lifestyle. First, his very favorite monkey. Then another one that he just couldn’t stand to lose. Then it snowballed. The last time I visited this guy he had laid down a foot and a half of sawdust throughout his house and there were fourteen monkeys living freely in the home. You could smell the place from half a mile away.”

  “What did the neighbors say?” I wondered.

  “Fortunately, he lives way out in the country or he could never do this. The monkeys do have cages, but they’re not used except for time-out.”

  “What’s time-out?” I asked.

  “Well, the monkeys are like children, they’re so smart. And they love to torment his dogs by pulling their hair then leaping out of reach. The primatologist figured he’d have to teach them not to do this, so he established a rule where the monkey in trouble had to go sit in his cage for five minutes if he pulled the dogs’ hair.”

  “Did it work?” I asked

  “Only for a few days. Then the monkeys would just pull the dogs’ hair and go straight to their cage and sit for five minutes without being asked. They figured it was part of the routine. It was no deterrence whatsoever.” He laughed. “This guy has these monkeys sitting around the table in the morning eating toast and marmalade with the family.”

  “I hope he doesn’t try to dress them up and make them act like humans,” I said.

  “Oh, no, no, he’d never do that. They have a great life, and the dogs are there to guard the place so that no one will mess with his precious monkeys.”

  “Wait—family? You mean he’s married?” I asked.

  “Why, you want his phone number?”

  “No, I’m just wondering if people ever do find someone who will put up with the way they live.”

  “Oh, yeah, he’s married. She’s a primatologist, too.”

  Aha. So that was the key. You had to marry someone just as weird as you were. Hmm.

  After I finished my work with my supervisor, I wandered down the halls to check on some of the animals. Suddenly a closet door opened right in front of me, and a furry man walked out. He was what we called a “troll.” Unshaven, his beard and hair both reached his belt. He didn’t appear to notice me at all. He shuffled down the hall and disappeared into one of the bathrooms.

  Theoretical mathematicians and physicists, trolls are ubiquitous at Caltech and go as far back into its history as anyone can remember. Caltech was built in the 1800s and was heated with steam that ran through a labyrinth of tunnels with all kinds of twists and turns. The steam and hot water pipes still run through the tunnels, making them warm in winter and comfortable in the summer. The trolls live deep in the labyrinth, rarely coming aboveground. That is their home and it’s okay with everyone. They receive grants and their meager style of living doesn’t cost much.

  Each building has secret doors in certain closets that lead into the labyrinths so the trolls can go from building to building and use the locker rooms. People say Caltech is as close to Hogwarts as one can get in the real world, and I’d have to agree. I’ve been down in those tunnels, and as I walked through the darkness, I’d occasionally come upon a bluish glow, the computer screen of a troll. Next to the computer screen, in a small alcove, would be a twin bed, some blankets, piles of books and papers, and the computer. That was it. Some of them live their entire lives this way. Productive genius theoreticians, they tend to keep to themselves and publish their work. Some of them clearly have what’s now referred to as Asperger syndrome, a mild form of functional autism, but they are happy in their secret cubbyholes, doing calculations and making discoveries. After all, theoretical scientists do not require a lab—only a piece of paper, a pencil, and a fantastic brain.

  MY WORKDAY OVER, I hit the LA traffic once more. Home at last, I was greeted by the usual chorus of geese and horses. Wendy was in the living room, playing her guitar, working on a song. Annie was drawing a crayon project on a big sketch pad. Omar, Wendy’s umbrella cockatoo, sat on the back of a chair and bobbed his head to the beat, occasionally screaming, his idea of singing along.

  As soon as Wesley heard my voice, he screeched and I went straight to him, as I always did, kissed him on the beak, cuddled a few minutes, then let him off his perch to play.

  I had gotten several cages of Syrian ground squirrels, better known as teddy bear hamsters, after the disaster with the finches. The hamsters were much larger than finches and Wesley didn’t see them as prey. In fact, he seemed to be entertained, seeing them as a sort of “owl television” brought in solely for his viewing pleasure. He didn’t even appear to mind my playing with them. He assigned himself as their guard and would screech to let me know if one somehow escaped its cage, so I would immediately come put it back in. As surprising as it was, we coexisted quite well. I needed multiple animals around me and loved the sound of Wesley and all the hamsters playing at night. The room thrummed with life and I felt like I was sleeping in a forest instead of a suburban bedroom.

  Stacey kissing Wesley; Wesley nervous about the photographer. Connie Fossa.

  That night, I stayed up late reading, and just before retiring checked the hamsters. One of them seemed to have died. Wait, she was just “mostly dead”—she wasn’t breathing but still had an occasional heartbeat—maybe one per thirty seconds. Her temperature was normal, which meant she wasn’t going into a dormant, or hibernating, state. I checked her air passage and it was clear, so, holding her in my right hand, her tongue out and secured by my thumb, I started doing mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Wesley watched all of this quite calmly from his perch, where he was tethered.

  Still breathing for the hamster, I ran with her into the kitchen, scribbled a note for Wendy, leapt into my car, and sped down the freeway toward an all-night exotic animal hospital forty-five minutes away, hamster in one hand, driving with the other. I started compressions with my right fingers, since her heart was barely beating and I needed to get the oxygen into her organs. I’d covered her entire face with my mouth, doing tiny puffs, peering over the wheel. Thank God for all the practice on finches.

  I was weaving like a drunk driver, trying to focus on the hamster, the car, and drive with one hand, but there was no one on the road at 3:00 a.m. so I wasn’t too worried. But suddenly I noticed lights and sirens behind me. Unbelievable. The second cop of the day. I had become a menace to society.

  I stopped, rolled down the window, continuing resuscitation, and one of the two officers who’d come up to the car said, “Do you know you’re driving like you’re drunk?”

  “Yeah, I realize that [puff puff]. I’m sorry [puff puff]. I’m doing CPR on a [puff puff] hamster and trying to get her to the all-night animal hospital!”

  “You’re what?”

  Out came the flashlights. Seeing the hamster lying belly up in my hand, her head back, tongue out and held down by my thumb, they leaned into the car and watched as I did compressions and mouth to mouth. The cop hit the hood of my car.

  “Go go go! I
ve never seen anything like this in my entire career! If that doesn’t—”

  I didn’t hear the rest of what he said because I was already speeding down the freeway again. When I got to the hospital my hamster was in a seizure-induced coma of some kind. I continued resuscitation for a full hour until she cough, cough, coughed and started breathing on her own. She lived a long, productive life afterward. The vet there couldn’t believe it. “Where the heck did you learn to do that?” he asked.

  Well, I’m a biologist at this lab at Caltech…

  11

  Owls Are Not Waterbirds

  I ACCEPTED THE offer at the Aerospace Corporation in El Segundo. It was difficult saying good-bye to everyone at Caltech. Working with computers would be a far cry from my daily adventures with animals and animal biologists.

  On my last day Dr. Penfield loaned me some recording equipment. “I want you to record the sounds Wesley makes and then bring us the tapes,” he told me. It felt good to have a last assignment and to know I would still be connected.

  Wendy’s home was too far from the Aerospace Corporation for me, so I sadly broke the news to her. We both had tears in our eyes.

  “I won’t be that far away,” I said. “We can visit each other as much as we want.”

  But we both knew it wouldn’t be the same and that this was the end of a wonderful period of our lives.

  When I had told my mom, who lived in Huntington Beach, that I’d accepted the new job, she had said, “Oh, you ought to come live here with me.”

  “Even with Wesley?” I asked.

  137

  “Sure, if he doesn’t poop all over the house.”

  “He wouldn’t do a thing like that. After all, he is your grandson.”

  She groaned.

  “So you really mean it, Mom?” I asked.

 
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