Somewhere in the world right now a harpy eagle is choking on the remnants of a helium balloon and a giant sea turtle is strangling itself in a six-pack ring. Nature, by its very ... nature, is cruel; it claims the lives of animals wantonly, sometimes the lives of entire species, leaving the rest terrified and wondering which will be the next group to blink out of existence. Will it be the stoic snow leopard? The majestic osprey? Bugs?
I hope it's bugs.
Hard to say. Someone would have to count all the animals which would take forever.
But, where others might see tragedy, I see opportunity for heroism. Humanity alone is gifted with a reason so sharp and a compassion so pointed that together they can cut through the tangled nets of nature, and free endangered whales. We belong to a species with abnormally large hearts and minds, and I have chosen to use mine to help the creatures of the world, even the ugly ones.
I spent two days last week in Washington D.C. working to protect a canary in the coalmine species called the snot otter. The World Wildlife Fund requested my help after reading the gentle and affectionate attention I showed teratoma tumors in the January issue of
At least make an effort to evolve.
"Pandas and silverbacks are played out," the WWF rep told me in the town car when I arrived in D.C.. "They don't reach people in the same way they used to. We need a new spokes-animal for the environmental movement." Leslie had her gray hair pulled back in a simple pony tail with a few free radicals around her temples. There was something about working with animals that made everyone age into Jane Goodall. "We're going with the
"Rad," I said. "I love otters. Did you know they hold hands when they sleep?"
"Actually, otter is kind of a misnomer, it's an amphibian. The rest of the name is entirely accurate."
"Right. It's pretty awful."
"Good," I assured her. "I look forward to pulling back the ugliness and seeing the heart of this majestic creature."
"Its heart is also pretty disgusting. We can show you one in a jar at headquarters."
"I would like that very much," I told her.
For the rest of the drive she explained that the snot otters in the wild were slowly dying. It was a massive salamander living in local rivers with skin that was particularly susceptible to absorbing toxins, in particular, chemicals and pesticides seeping into waterways. Recently, it's numbers had started to dwindle.
"Mother Nature is a terrible parent." I agreed. "On the flight here, my jet hit a goose. It went everywhere."
We all sat in silence, thinking about that for awhile. It was hard to tell if she was nodding in agreement or it was just the bobs of an uneven road.
At WWF headquarters we walked into a humid room with a skylight and a massive terrarium taking up most of the space. There I was introduced to my first snot otter.
"I think someone might have spilled something here,' I said.
"That's Sally. We have a few males in the other tanks but she's the biggest and the only snot otter bred in captivity. One of the biggest problems we're facing is that we can't seem to get them to reproduce in this environment. We think the same thing might be happening in the wild."
"You keep them?"
"No, they're on loan from the Zoo. Sally is here for you so be careful with her."
I looked closer at the mess in the middle of the terrarium. She was curled over herself like an eel but easily over two feet long with stubby legs, and in all other respects, resembled shit. Her body was a slippery brown mass that tapered at both ends and offered no indication of which one might host a face. I didn't blame whatever refused to have sex with her. Not even the snot otter likes the snot otter.
Then it moved.
"No," I said instinctively, because I wanted whatever was happening to stop and never happen again. The mass didn't shift or change position as much as its insides writhed in protest for being encased in such an awful body. Each step it took looked like tendons snapping and bones rubbing up against each other. It slowly made its way in my general direction.
Leslie put hands on her wide hips and smiled. "She's flirting with you."
"It looks like a tiny nightmare."
She laughed and showed me stained teeth too big for her mouth. "It's also called a hellbender for that exact reason." Then she sighed and stared at it for awhile. "You have a lot of work to do," she said.
I was allowed as much time with the snot otter as I requested, but the WWF team insisted that I don't touch it without gloves because it sweats toxic slime and it has teeth that will draw blood on contact. I joked that at least it didn't stink but no one laughed, they just nodded and assured me that it did that too.
For the rest of the night I sat in the tiny humid room with the abysmal creature and tried to fall in love with it. In the water, she was just as slow and flaccid as on dry land except her skin pruned and flapped around in the artificial current like an old person in a hot tub.
"Come on in, I can squeeze over."
I watched her spill around in the mud for awhile and it seemed as though everything about this snot otter was intentionally miserable. Finally, her head shot up and swung to one side. It looked as though she might do something interesting. She raised a stubby arm to her face and scraped downward. A chunk of dead skin loosened, then freed itself from her head. She scraped her face against a rock peeling off the rest.
Sally, much like an onion, needed to peel away the layers to reveal her true self. I had only been concentrating on her appearance, despite promising myself never to do that again after seeing She's All That. I pressed my face against the glass and waited to see what new aspect of her character she would reveal to me now that I was finally willing to look deeper.
Sally stared at the hunk of skin in front of her for a moment, then opened her mouth and started eating it. I watched. I watched until it was gone. Then I wept a little.
I don't know how long Leslie was standing in the doorway. She had stopped by to see how things were going and to offer some hot chocolate. She caught me crying and came to comfort me.
"I watched that thing eat itself," I confessed. "It was terrible."
"I know." She put a cheek on my shoulder. "They're cannibals. That's why we have to keep them in separate terrariums. They'll even eat their own young if they're hungry. And sometimes if they're not."
I sat on the floor while Leslie rubbed a hand across my back for a long while before realizing her motions was slowing into long deep, deliberate strokes. She kissed my neck once. I turned and looked into her ordinary eyes, her spotty complexion and her thin lips.
"OK," I shrugged seductively.
We all make mistakes.
There in the World Wildlife Fund headquarters, Leslie and I showed all the celibate snot otters exactly what they had been missing out on by making mediocre love on the floor. There was no passion behind it, no lust, only comfort and connection amidst the looming threat of extinction.
The next morning I presented in front of the full WWF team. I explained that just as Leslie and I had found connection, so too were we connected to every creature in the great web of life, and to lose a species, even an awful one, would be to lose a piece of ourselves. The snot otter was a part of each one of us, and I for one, was ready to fight to protect it.
Then I revealed the tools they would need to bring Sally to the public.
"Did...is that a costume?" someone asked.
"Yes." I explained. "It's really for lap-dogs but it fits the snot otter perfectly."
"You dressed an endangered species up like a rabbit."
"Right. It has to be cuter or people are going to hate it. Plus, it's almost Easter."
"But, what about everything you said before? What was all that about unity of creatures?"
"Yeah, I learned that from doing Leslie on the floor. You can't send Leslie around to do everyone for the sake of the snot otter. Wait, can you do that?"
My flight home was relatively uneventful. No turbulence and no geese. As I drifted to sleep, I thought about Sally and Leslie as they fused into one being in my mind. They chased me through the halls of WWF headquarters, though whether to love me or eat my skin I didn't know. Eventually I found myself cornered and turned to face the creature. It writhed and heaved up close to me before leaning itself against me. We hugged. It was thanking me for everything I had done to save it. The embrace was hard and desperate, despite the toxic skin and horrifying smell. Holding one another there Leslie's voice whispered in my ear, "Those who are the hardest to love need it the most." I knew then, I had done the right thing by nailing her.
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