The Right of Passage Part 2
by Phillip Cimei
Not For Sale
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Not For Sale
Author requests article critique
The rite of passage into adulthood, celebrated with ceremonies and rituals by many societies and cultures, typically takes place during oneâ€™s teen years. According to my children, I was a slow learner and somehow had missed out on that passage. I thought to have seven children and being married 50 years qualified me. They didnâ€™t think so. The two youngest of this brood of â€œLet's make a man out of dad,â€ clan seized every opportunity to thrust me into that rite of passage. Today was not different. But it had tragedy written all over it.
It all began with a family outing on a beautiful fall day at an animal rescue facility in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma. Safari Exotic Animal Sanctuary housed 250 animalsâ€”27 of those being big cats. Megan, my next to youngest childâ€™s fiancÃ©, told us about this facilityâ€”located not far from her home. She thought this would be a pleasurable Saturday outing. Wrong!
At the entrance to the park stood a small crudely built ticket booth. My eyes squinted as my nose puckered in dismay. So far, unimpressed. I knew that this was a privately owned animal rescue facility, but I was taken aback with this first impression. I looked over at my son, Mark, and said, â€œI hope this isnâ€™t like that run-down makeshift animal show we took your older sisters to when they were little.â€
I was referring to the time our daughterâ€™s school had a field trip to what was supposed to be an animal rescue park. When we arrived, all that was there was a retired black bear that had wrestled in bars for beers, a crippled old lion, a tiger that looked half-starved, and some wild geese that kept running up to the children trying to nip them on their behinds. The neglected cages, layered in crusty rust, looked as if a three-legged dog would be able to escape them. This reminiscing turned into what I hoped was not a premonition of history repeating itself. A voice interrupted my foreboding.
â€œThat will be $2 each,â€ the lady at the window said.â€Do you want frozen chicken legs to feed to the lions and tigers?â€
â€œWhat? Feeeeed the tigers and the lions,â€ I loudly whispered outâ€”yes, thatâ€™s an oxymoron, but visions of arms ripped off, a feeding frenzy over some silly chicken legs and my windpipe crushed by some massive beast kept swirling in my head and prevented audible words from formulating.
â€œSure, Mark, said instantly.â€ Then he turned to see my anxiety.It wasnâ€™t so much the furrowed brow or the slackened face that gave away my apprehension, but I think the wagging of my head from side to side and the thumbing in the direction of our car indicating, â€œLet's go!â€ that gave it away.
â€œBe a man, dad. You're such a baby.â€ I think the term in Oklahoma is â€œCowboy up.â€
So much for sounding the retreat bugle. We grabbed a bunch of chicken legs and headed into the park. Immediately upon turning down the first pathway, an ominous roar, as alarming and unanticipated as a tornado siren, raised the hairs on the back of my neck. â€œWhat in the world was that,â€ I asked. â€œIt sounds like a lion on steroids.â€ I wasnâ€™t far from the truth.
Megan explained the unusual exhibit this park had. â€œItâ€™s a liger,â€ she said, â€œa cross between a male lion and a female tiger.â€
We headed toward the sound. We all gasped as we saw this massive animalâ€”purported to weigh 1000lbsâ€”standing next to his handler. So powerful was this animal, we later learned, he would play with a bowling ball for a toy.
The handler motioned for us to come close to the enclosureâ€™s 10ft chain-link fence. â€œDo you want to feed Rocky?â€™ he asked. Rocky, quite the appropriate name for this hunk of a beast, loved to be fed by his admirers.
â€œSure,â€ I said. I beat my son to the draw showing him that I was no wimpy two-year-old.â€
â€œGreat,â€ said the handler, â€œ but you will have to hold the chicken legs real high. Stand on your tip-toes and reach up as high as you can.â€
â€œWhy so high,â€ I asked, but soon got the answer.
We all stood in awe as the liger stood on his back legs and placed his front paws near the top of the fence. His head stood 7ft tall in that position. We took turns feeding this Goliath. Not many moments in any of our lives would be as memorable as this one. If only I had known that one day Rocky would maul to death his handler, my future decision that would highlight this noteworthy day would have been different.
Our hearts pounded with excitement as if we had just participated in a group bungee jump, a white-water raft ride down the Colorado river, or even an attempt to kiss the head of a cobra. Okay, maybe not that exciting. But we walked away wondering if the rest of the tour of this facility would be as momentous. Mark was impressed that I passed the first test of the day. It wouldnâ€™t be the last.
The sanctuary had two sections. The lower part had cages aligned in a â€œUâ€ shape housing the big cats, and the upper part housed, wolves, monkeys, and other animals. We took the lower section. Should have taken the upper!
We made our way around to each cage. First, a small female lion, then other catsâ€” panthers, mountain lions, cheetasâ€” around this horseshoe of pens. We each stuck a chicken leg through the fences. They all seemed quite gentle. But as we made the turn at the bottom of the collection of cages, pandemonium broke out.
Off in the distance on the upper level, wolves started howling. The howling agitated the cats. One after another started roaring until all in unison displayed their annoyance with the wolves with a choir of ominous roars. The voice of Africa enveloped our souls, muting the howling of the wolves and impregnating our ears with the most frightening yet mesmerizing sounds we would ever memorialize.
Fear touched every one of our senses. Mental images of cage doors flinging open, and our bodies martyred not for any religious dedication as the first Christians experience, but mere entertainment fueled by curiosity. How ironic, curiosity wouldnâ€™t kill the cat on this day, but the cat might kill curiosity. Thank goodness things settled down quickly. We all took a deep sigh of relief.
We decided we had enough excitement for the day and agreed that lunch at Pizza Hut would help us reflect on the dayâ€™s activity with laughter and thankful reflection on the â€œWhat ifs that could have led to disaster.â€ That wasnâ€™t to be. All previous hair raising events would pale to what was about to impact our decision to stay in the park.
As we moved toward the exit, which was near where we entered, a large cage about 20â€™X 20â€™ housed three adult Bengal tigers. Two of them were at the back of the cage, along with three handlers carrying large poles that aided in controlling them. One tiger was resting on the ground closest to our end. Inside the cage with his back facing out toward us was one of the visitors to the park. He turned around and asked my daughter, Kristi, if she wanted to come in.
â€œWhoa!â€ I said to Kristi, â€œThere have been many occasions when your antics have prompted your mother and me to have expressed our desire to throw you to the lions, but those were only in jest.â€
Kristi, the baby of our seven children, was mentored by her four older risk-taking brothers. Hardened to the core and willing to take on insane adventures to prove she could keep up with them begged, â€œ Oh dad, come on. You can come in with me. How cool will this be?â€
â€œListen, I have gone on rattlesnake hunts with you, went swimming in water moccasin inhabited waters, housed every pet from pythons to possums. Give it a rest.â€
A distant voice, coming from one of the handlers, said, â€œCome on in, they are gentle and wonâ€™t harm you.â€
â€œGo ahead, dad, donâ€™t be such a chicken,â€ teased Mark.
â€œChicken,â€ wrong thing to say, considering the main meals we had been feeding them all day were chicken legs.
â€œWe will be right by the door. Come on, Papsy, when will you ever get another opportunity like this?â€ asked Kristi.
Her nickname for me, â€œPapsyâ€ always seemed to melt away my resistance. I succumbed. Again!
Kristi and I entered the gate to the pen. We moved to the left of the guy that was already in there. The tigers at the back of the cage responded well to the guidance of the handlers. I became relaxed and embraced the moment. Then it happened. A laughable request from the other side of the cage only added fuel to the fire of my idiotic attempt to gratify my sonâ€™s quest of making me a man.
â€œGo over and pet the one lying down,â€ said one handler.
â€œGo ahead dad, be a man,â€ tauntaed Mark.
â€œHoney, donâ€™t do something stupid,â€ pleaded my wife.
â€œStupid! What do you call where Iâ€™m at right now?â€ I looked at Mark, gritted my teeth, and said, â€œWhy donâ€™t you come in here and take my place?â€
â€œThanks, but no thanks, I am already a man.â€
I figured since I already took the plunge, I might as well swim. I slowly made my way hugging the penâ€™s chain-link enclosure. As I approached the tiger, whose head now came to attention, a sound came out of him I had never heard before. â€œThatâ€™s called a chuff,â€ said the handler. Tigers canâ€™t purr. Go ahead and pet him.â€
I stroked his hindquarters. To my surprise, his fur was as coarse as horsehairâ€”not the soft plush feeling of a stuffed animal. I stroked him again. He stopped chuffing.
The corners of his mouth widened, exposing his canine teeth, and his ears flattened to the back of his head. My eyes bulged, my breathing raced, and my heart exploded with terror. Immediately I heard the handler calmly but flavored with urgency say, â€œMove slowly toward the door. Do not run or turn your back toward him.â€
â€œMove slowly?â€ The tigerâ€™s mesmerizing glare imprisoned me, my feet were stone anchors. My breathing accelerated. How do you move slowly when your mind is racing out of control, telling your legs to â€œGet out of there!â€
His demeanor had swiftly turned from indifferent curiosity to agitated aggression. It caught me off guard. His dormant savage instinct erupted as spontaneous as the first contraction of an expectant mother. Many victims of this unpredictable transformation have suffered vicious attacks. Would I be another statistic?
â€œPhil get out of there quick,â€ yelled my wife
I could only manage a sluggish attempt at exiting this dilemma. My eyes bulged with confusion moving back and forth. I slowly reached up with my right hand to grab the fence, and I never took my eyes off of the tiger. The tiger turned his head toward the handlers as they moved toward him with their pole.
As I slothfully moved toward the door, I had time to reflect on how right my son wasâ€”I was a child. No adult in his mature thinking would have ended up in this situation.
The rite of passage to adulthood is not validated based upon the age of the body but on the willingness to store away childish toys and open one's heart to the adult world of reason and judgment. My mind went back to the bible teaching of the apostle Paul when he said, â€œWhen I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish thingsâ€ (I Corinthians 13:11) KJV.
Did I wait too long to get rid of my childish ways? Do we ever get rid of all of them? Life, to me, would become mundane tasks lacking humorous events that made adulthood palatable. But then again, maintaining a childish perspective can not guarantee that similar life-altering events will not take place. Like today.
Even as I write this, I am slow in distinguishing the transition of an animal from letâ€™s play to I am going to rip your face off. You can only poke a stick at an animal so long until the beast awakens, and raw animal instinct pokes back. The tiger had â€œThe Look.â€ His penetrating eyes told it all. You would think it would have been branded on my soul to prevent these infantile impulsive episodes later on down the road. It didnâ€™t.
My daughter, Tammy, Lives in Hawaii. She has a pit bull named Leia. She has had her since a puppy. When I lived there, I learned a lot about pit bulls and Leia. She was full-grown with rippling muscles when I came to know her. I was apprehensive about any interaction with her at first because of her vicious growl and threatening bark. But soon, the inability to master my childish teasing overtook any fear I had.
My daughter, wife, and son-in-law warned, scolded, plead with, and begged me not to tease the dog. Yeah right! Just tell a kid to keep his hands out of the cookie jar.
It started slow. I would test her reflexes by lightly slapping at her face. I attempted to outsmart this animal by moving my left hand slowly toward the right side of her face, then quickly hitting at her on her left side. She futilely snapped at my hand, and then I slapped at her right side. Leia lunged at me, growled, and snapped. I was not intimidated.
I pulled a WWF move on her by putting her massive head in a headlock and wrestled her to the ground. She would wiggle her way out and run wild through the house knocking over chairs, jumping on the couch, ignoring all threats from her owners, and settle on the oversized ottoman. She then would glare at me. Motionless.
â€œYou better stop,â€ warned my son-in-law, Jody. He had been a K-9 cop and knew the temperament of dogs. He has suffered many wounds separating dogs that left human behavior training and succumbed to its unharnessed animal disposition. Leia was at that juncture.
Leia sized me up. Her ears in an oh to familiar posture flattened to the back of her head. Her eyes took on a devilish stare. Her finger or I should say paw, was on the triggerâ€”a hair-trigger, to say the leastâ€”ready to let fly a raging bullet. Maybe I had matured a little. I stopped.
They say that excitement triggers the change in a pit bullâ€™s demeanor. That might explain why a childâ€™s face would be ripped off in an instant from a dog that was the familyâ€™s pet. Is this what is happening to the tiger? I quickly returned to reality in the tigerâ€™s cage.
I seized the opportunity of his distraction to slither up the side of the fence and shuffle toward the door. The tiger quickly turned back toward me. He let out another gluteal growl showing his canines then turned to size up the advancement of the handlers. I played on his indecision as to pounce on me or to ward off the handlers and quickly made my escape.
My first thought was to grab my son Mark and throw him into the cage, but I felt sorry for the tiger and decided to handle him myself.
â€œWay to go, old man, welcome to the world of manhood,â€ Mark quickly cast my way.
I had visions of taking my hands and wrapping them around his scrawny little neck. First off, they were shaking too hard, and secondly, since he assumed I had passed this ceremonial rite of passage to manhood, I better act like an adult. I just grinned.
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