What I did on the weekend, or, How to have extra fun at wildlife parks, at great personal risk.

  1. This writeup describes me and my companions doing something which will probably one day cause us a hospital trip. This is a risk we are prepared to take for the experience we get out of it, but we are taking the responsibility into our own hands. Don't do what we do, unless you, like us, bring a suturing kit along with you for a worst-case scenario.
  2. If you are the kind of person who should be doing this kind of thing, you probably already are doing it. If you haven't done it, perhaps you should continue to not do it. Just a suggestion.
  3. Sorry for making this writeup drag on a bit. I realise in retrospect that I didn't exactly get to the point quickly, but that was all a part of the events I describe.
  4. Animal lovers and cat people are going to go green with envy when reading this.

As I type this, I still have some grime on my left wrist. I haven't cleaned it off because I don't get dirty hands from patting a panther very often.

The place is one of the many Wildlife Reserves in the Adelaide Hills, and despite being a successful tourist attraction, it still manages to be a well kept secret. I live in Australia, where wildlife + tourism = koalas. Koalas hold very limited interest for me and my wildlife loving companions: we see through the cute and cuddly exterior and recognise them for what they are: a semi-mobile digestive tract. Koalas don't enjoy the company of humans, they just tolerate us as a means to getting fed. Koalas serve to distract the tourists while we enjoy the park's true treasures, and joyfully endanger our lives.

As a planned detour from our usual Sunday entertainment, my uncle, my older brother and myself; Mick, Matt and Mike respectfully, who meet to enjoy life on a similar level twice a week, made our way to the Adelaide Hills and the wildlife reserve around midday yesterday. We visit this place every couple of months, it seems, and we so clearly get more out of it than most do.

This reserve has a number of paddock-like enclosures around it's perimeter, and a system of reasonably large cages near it's centre. As we arrived and entered, we turned left past a riot of colourful honey-eaters, each slightly different than the varieties seen in the city, and headed towards the ostrich paddock, our secret weapons concealed. The ostriches met us at the fence, and once they saw what we bore, we had a captive audience.

You see, most or all of the cages, and of course all of the paddocks, are accessible to hands; you can hand-feed the animals. In fact, the reserve sells packets of peanuts to feed the monkeys and birds with. Our secret is that the animals couldn't care less about peanuts once they know about our pockets bulging with almonds. We have to be careful not to cause riots with our almonds.

So we walked along the perimeter of the ostrich paddock, sustaining mild bruises on our hands as we amiably fed almonds to the excited ostriches, one at a time. The two birds were wrapping their necks around us, serpent-like, to make sure not one nut slipped them by.

On past a mystery cage, and a similar scene ensued with the emus. Emus are a little smaller and more reserved than ostriches, but we still draw entertainment from having our fingers mistaken for food by a 6 foot chook. We continued to wander past more birds (including rheas, which are like ostriches, but smaller then emus, and more animated and intense than both - ouch!), and stopped to scratch and feed some free-range kangaroos, including a cute widdle albino joey. We calmly walked along, not discussing our obvious destination, enjoying the scenery and maintaining our patience, as we slowly bore down on our main course.

Before long, we found ourselves at the southern end of the system of cages. At the south-eastern end of the cages, casting shadows on free-range wallabies, are four cages which are paired, each is open to one other, making two double cages. Without discussing our plans, we snuck to the shadowy east side of these large cages, checked to make sure we weren't being watched by keepers or other visitors, who just wouldn't understand, we surveyed the puma cage.

Through the cage we could see that the heat of the day had put the five pumas to sleep. They rested on the ground, looking for all their worth like giant housecats. We know these pumas; we've met before, and we fancy that we can read their expressions, and so we take our chances with them, and get a little more interactive than is normally advised. The eastern cage we were looking at houses two pumas, a male and a female. The females, we knew, were friendly and curious, very cat-like, and not above playing with some humans for a few minutes. The males, we feel, think that we are idiots, and will have nothing to do with us. They will tolerate us having our hands in the cage for a while, but will eventually groan and whinge to the females, seemingly telling them, "Stop making friends with those stupid bloody humans!" We keep an eye on them.

In the eastern cage, the male was nowhere to be seen, hiding from the heat, we gathered, in the small brick structure over one side of the cage. The female was outside, sprawled on the dirt, and susceptible to our next secret weapon.

Like our almonds, which guarantee us a captive audience of monkeys, birds and marsupials, while tourists wonder why the gibbons keep taking their peanuts and throwing them away in disgust, we have a trick for attracting the big cats. We picked our target cat, and my brother, who has far better reflexes than I do, asked me "Can I have one?", prompting me to reach into my oversized cargo-pants pocket and pass him a long, white flight feather from a goose, four of which I pocketed from our goose enclosure before I left home for my uncle's house that morning. Within moments of him brushing the feather along the fence, we were rewarded with a look of amazement from the waking puma. Being enclosed for their entire lives, these pumas probably never meet anyone as ballsy or foolhardy as us. As I said, most of the visitors of this reserve are here for the koalas, and the cats are only ever admired briefly. Here was a person who wanted to play with it, and such a thing surely happens only when we visit.

The puma rose within twenty seconds, walked to us calmly, and proceeded to chew the feather. Matt twirled the feather between his fingers, the flights of the feather entirely within the cage, and the beautiful cat, with a build slightly larger than Mick's Pit Bull terrier, gnawed on the feather, closing it's eyes in lethargic raptures of pleasure. In a short while, it began to tire of the feather, and it pressed itself against the cage, pushing it's face against the mesh in a housecat's gesture of affection. Grinning like half a watermelon, Matt leaned across the short outer fence as far as he could, and scratched the big sooky carnivore on the shoulder, and on the back.

We had her. The puma was truly loving the attention and the scratch, and all three of us, being careful not to overwhelm her, scratched her as she scraped across the cage. After several minutes of this, she stopped, and pushed her muzzle through one of the big square holes in the mesh cage, and looked at us, rumbling a primal purr far back in her throat. My companions leaned back, as I reached forward, and delicately scratched the tip of her nose while she smelled me, and allowed her to take the finger partway into her mouth, as she licked me. Quietly, Mick said "Whoah." I can't describe my exhilaration. We scratched her half a minute more, maybe, before being slightly startled by a more gutteral growl from our massive feline friend as she turned her head away from us. towards the brick structure in her enclosure. The male had emerged, and while he didn't so much as show a fang or approach us menacingly, the message was clear: Play time was over. We had also noticed some other visitors heading in our direction from the north, and so we decided continue for now, and return later, while the koalas were being fed, for some more dangerous fun. We left them a feather.

As we left the puma cages and turned our attention to the wild dogs and dingos, we grinned at each other; we'd offered a feather to a big-cat, and had it play with us as if it were a kitten. With it's fine, velvet-like fur and delicate nose, it really was just like a huge cat. Comparing it with similar sized dogs, I'd estimate it's weight at 30 - 35 Kg.

The dingos there are the best behaved I've ever seen. Most dingos in captivity are fairly nasty, in my experience, but these ones are just like very polite, well-behaved dogs. They graciously accepted and ate the almonds we gave them, and pushed into our hands happily when we scratched their chins and necks. Calmly they sniffed our hands, and licked from us the dripping sweat. The dingo cage was actually re-enforced with mesh so fine as to not admit a finger, but a frayed patch near the ground allowed us to endanger ourselves anyway. The dingos watched attentively as we left them.

We wandered the park some more, played with the wombats, fed some black cockatoos, and many other beautiful birds, including the fantastic macaws, and such rarities as a pair of albino magpies. This reserve seems to have a staggering collection of albino animals, including peacocks (I think) and pheasants. We postulate that this is because these stark white animals would have little chance of surviving in the wild.

We regularly stopped by monkey cages. I suspect that the monkeys remember us, not by our appearances, nor our odour, but by our almonds. The reserve sports a variety of monkeys, often with several species co-inhabiting the same cage. I regret that I don't recall the exact species of all of the monkeys, only that there were varieties of gibbons, capuchins, spider-monkeys and others, of medium-small to small size, plus some tiny tamarins. Their tiny hands look perfectly manicured, with perfect little fingernails, each of their hands never larger than two of my fingers. And their faces are so clearly that of Man. Monkeys are funny, because they are like humans with absolutely no self-control. When we offer a monkey an almond, it will snatch it instantly, and if we offer clumsily, and the almond is not so easy for the little hands to grab, their faces light up with raging frustration! They'd kill us for our almonds if they could, this is very clear. When we don't hold back for several minutes, and continuously offer a stream of almonds as fast as one hand can give them out one at a time, they calm down a little. A group of up to five monkeys will cling to the cage effortlessly, staring at us and making the occasional whoop, forever chewing the almonds we gave them, holding two more in one hand, they will reach for us with the free hand, and scream with anger if the next almond is given to a less enriched ape.

We laugh and move on when Matt quips: "Look at their behavioural problems: we've created a stock market!". It was so easy to imagine the monkeys in suits with their one-track minds and angry expressions, desperately shouting "Almonds! Almonds! Buy almonds!" All thinking the same thing, we silently turn towards the next source of dangerous fun: The black leopard.

In the past, we've been wary of this fellow. The reserve sports two panthers, a male and a female. The female is not very active whenever we see her, but the male paces endlessly. There is a worn track where he paces along the north and east edges of his enclosure, and we've seen the way he looks at the quokkas and other nearby marsupials when they venture close. This miserable picture of captivity makes us want to vary his day, but we weren't ever sure if he was interested in us as anything but a target. At the end of our last visit, Mick topped us all by scratching it's shoulder, and while it seemed to enjoy it, the mesh of the cages of these cats is large enough that they can fit their paws, indeed their entire arm through the cage. At any time, these cats could snap, reach through and pin us to the side of the cage, before going to work on us with their teeth. We just assume that we can read their expressions well enough to withdraw before they do anything like that. During our last visit, Mick also offered a puma the sleeve of his jumper that he was holding. The cat joyfully reached out and grabbed it, and a short game of tug-of-war ensued. Mick's jumper has holes in it now.

So we were on our toes as we approached the big, black cat. A panther is a pretty big cat; I'd say he was a fair bit bigger than a Rottweiler, with far, far larger arms. (Technically they're front legs, not arms, but I can't help but think of them as arms when I see the articulate way they use them to snatch at a feather.) His pacing was slower today, due no doubt to the 32 degree heat. I passed Matt one feather and drew another from my pocket for myself. First one of us, then both, brushed the feather against the fence and twirled. The short outer barrier was low and close enough to just allow us to reach the feather through, but we couldn't quite touch the fence with our hands. The panther slowed his pacing further, and brushed against the fence where we stood, biting at the feathers playfully as he passed. He kept pacing, always slowing as he passed us, and after a minute, would stop by us for ten seconds or so, before walking on, and turning again and returning. He was obviously loving the attention. He quickly lost interest in the feathers, though, and just brushed his face against the cage. Grinning again and after looking up and down the paths to make sure we wouldn't be seen, Matt and I threw one leg over the short barrier and touched the panther. A visual investigation of the cats behaviour and his surroundings showed that he paced up against the growth of bamboo, clearly scratching himself, until the bamboo broke and frayed. Sensing our chance, Matt and I reached through the cage, at times one or the other of us with our entire arm in the cage, and gave the cat a vigorous scratch.

I never would have guessed that a caged leopard would be so very tolerant of humans. I can't believe that around this time yesterday, I had my arm wrapped around a black leopard, scratching it along the side, with it's back leg kicking like a dog's does when you scratch it. He was even purring loudly.

People were coming. Laughing at our luck, we moved on, to the western side of the puma cage. The two females in this cage had crashed out from the heat, far from the edge of the cage, and only the relatively unfriendly male puma was on the raised platform mounted to a tree in the enclosure, right along the fence. We tickled the dozing puma while he glared a little but tolerated it, but moved on before long.

We wandered the still unexplored areas of the park. I think about one and a half hours had passed. We patted the free-range animals, and found some cassowarys who were in an enclosure shaded by a fruiting plum tree. We took great pleasure in feeding these massive birds - whose powerful legs can eviscerate a person in an instant - almonds and plums. We bent the limbs of the plum tree and laughed at the birds cleaning the branches of plums as fast as they were physically able to.

We went through an aviary, with various pigeon sized birds, including pigeons, and saw several reptiles, water dragons, turtles and tortoises, and others, in concrete walled enclosures. Mick and Matt have a reptile enclosure of their own, and we all share a common interest in reptiles, especially large ones. Australia has a veritable fortune of reptiles or all sizes, and Mick owns a variety of bearded dragons, shingleback lizards and blue-tongue skinks, most of which were rescued in the wild after being injured by cars, but one of which was actually bred from Mick's lizards. He also owns two rather large long necked tortoises, which must have shells which are 45 cm, in a pond inside the reptile enclosure.

After leaving the reptile enclosures and passing a pen which seemed to be for the free range birds and wallabies when they got sick of being chased by tourists, we spotted a medium sized, water dragon-like lizard under a bush growing at the side of the path. "Free-range lizards?" we asked each other. This was a pretty unlikely idea; the park has loads of free-range birds, big birds with big, curved beaks, and pelicans, and plenty of other stuff eating our almonds for which the lizard would be an irresistible snack. Mick (the main man with lizards, or with catching anything with your bear hands) leaned down and grabbed for the razor toothed little lizard. The wily little escapee was momentarily got, but managed to wriggle free. His escape was short lived, though, for we kept an eye on him and eventually herded him back into the hands of Mick, who this time seized the lizard a little more surely, and we escorted him to the shaded kiosk area where many of the keepers were hiding from the sun. The first of the to notice us looked up at us with a slightly puzzled smile, and Matt, who by now bore the lizard, asked "Is this little fella supposed to be free-range?" "I don't think so! You'd better talk to him." The woman replied, gesturing to a man talking on a mobile. The man extracted himself from his conversation long enough to affirm that the lizard was indeed supposed to be behind a barrier, and to say "Ah, yes, I've got two of these; not sure what they are though!"

What fun. Before we left, the koalas were fed, so we made our way back to the now deserted big cats, and resumed our scratchings of the panther, and of one of the female pumas. Matt wondered aloud at the possibility of us making a $1000 donation to the park, and attaining maybe after hours access to the panthers and pumas (after all, we wouldn't want to give the other people ideas: If we encourage other people to do what we do, before long at all some people would have done the wrong thing in some irreparable way. Such is the nature of man.)

Anyway, I've taken enough HDD space on the E2 servers to describe my dangerous indulgence. I think I'll have to do a writeup for the wildlife reserve though. I doubt I'll ever tire of that place.