I used to clean penguin poo. Willingly. I performed heavy physical labor, moving and hosing and scrubbing large mats and rocks, carrying buckets of fish, swabbing floors, siphoning debris out of the water, and washing Plexiglas. I shoveled and carried buckets of sand and power-washed more mats.
I always looked my very best when working at the aquarium. I knew I was representing the organization and I frequently was in the public’s eye, so I never left the house without lipstick. I wore my special short-sleeved aquarium shirt with “Volunteer” woven on it; I coveted those bleach-stained shirts. These weren’t my only “aquarium wear”; I also wore either my special zippered fleece sweatshirt or my black zippered jacket, both sporting the spiffy aquarium logo. One day each week I arrived early in the morning for my shift wearing my uniform: the “aquarium wear,” dark pants or jeans, closed-toe sturdy shoes, and my smile.
There is something very special about entering the aquarium through the employee gate and walking through the not-yet-open-to-the-public building and exhibits. I cherish these memories. Strolling past tanks and exhibits, I quietly wished fish and birds, “Good Morning.” The rays in the touch pool were ready for breakfast. During the numerous times I have toured this aquarium as a visitor, only once or twice have I ever managed to touch a ray. These critters either stayed away completely from the beckoning hands and their splashing, wriggling fingers, or cleverly swam just near enough to entice the excited crowd, but disappoint those who splashed so eagerly. But first thing in the morning, the rays are sweet and respond when I tickle the water with a few fingers. I don’t have breakfast for them, but I know their meal is coming very soon, so I don’t feel too guilty about asking them to visit for a few moments. As they swim under my outstretched fingers, I can feel their smooth, and a bit spongy, shapes go by. What a way to start a day!
My jobs changed from week to week. When it was my day to clean the penguin enclosure, I would cover my jeans with a pair of overhauls and step into high-calf rain boots. Sometimes the boots would fit pretty well, but other times the medium sizes were taken, so I grabbed the mens’ sized-large boots. No matter. There was work to do. I picked up my scrub brushes and hose, put on my goggles, stepped into a foot bath and entered. One week, a penguin decided to make the entry way his domain, so he pecked at each member of the morning team. How is it that this penguin knew just where the boot line ended? Even with jeans and overalls for protection, being nipped behind the knee sure smarts!
Penguins are beautiful, and they are the bosses in their domain. I could be crouching down, scrubbing rocks, and a penguin just might peck me in the you-know-where. Yes. I’ve been bitten in the backside. Once when I needed to scrub with a larger brush, I made the switch dropping the little brush I no longer wanted by my knee. The next thing I knew, one of these entertaining beauties had stolen it! Our team leader and staff professional quickly retrieved my brush, and I never put a brush or any piece of equipment down again. These birds are fast! And I learned fairly quickly to cover my ears when the penguins started communicating. What the public cannot hear behind the Plexiglas is how loud they are.
Sometimes my family would catch a glimpse of me next to “my penguins” by checking the aquarium’s web-camera. Every week I would come home with a new story. One day there were whales in the Bay. Another time I was asked to help re-band a few birds. Then, I had to conquer my fear of handling some live bait because I sometimes prepared other birds’ meals.
Even picking up squirmy bait with my thick gloves made me happy in that I knew I was there for the birds. Whether washing the many containers needed to hold food, or just scrubbing, this was a job in a million, and I loved it and always found the humor in it. My dream job remained just that, no matter how sweaty I became, or how much I reeked of fish when I drove home, or how uncomfortable I felt when I tripped over a log while siphoning the pool. As I started to tip over, the cold water poured over the bib of my cumbersome waders designed to keep my dry. And my friends listened to every word I told them, just as long as I had showered and changed first.
So why am I not there? I sure do miss my little critters. Well, I learned during my tenure at the aquarium that it takes more than enthusiasm and a love of animals to work there. It also takes a very strong back to perform the duties well, and so I look forward to finding another job that lets me be near my buddies, but perhaps not tidy up after them.