This post is in response to the WordPress one-word daily prompt: Quill
When I was a teenager, I worked at Opryland USA in the animal department as an animal keeper in the park’s petting zoo. It was a coveted job. When I first applied for the position, I was told everybody and their cat wanted to work in the animal department and if I was really serious about working there, I would have to work my way up to it. Apparently I was just one of thousands of teenagers who wanted to work with the animals. I was definitely serious as I would soon be applying to veterinary school and I needed the experience. I knew it would look good on my vet school application to be able to say that I had worked with such a variety of animals.
The animal department was a part of the maintenance department and so I was told to get a job somewhere in maintenance and eventually I could work my way into the petting zoo. That’s exactly what I did. My first job at Opryland was in maintenance cleaning restrooms. It wasn’t nearly as bad as it sounds and I actually kinda liked the job. I met lots of nice people and learned a lot about life working that job.
I was not assigned a particular restroom at the park but I was the relief person who rotated around the park working different restrooms on other employees days off. I loved working relief because it was a change of scenery and I became familiar with the different areas of the park. Sometimes, I even got sent to work the restrooms in the Grand Ole Opry House and I really liked working there because it was air-conditioned. It sure beat working in the 90+ degree heat and ungodly humidity that was common in the months of July and August in Tennessee summers. And a perk was that I got to watch the Opry performances in between cleaning my restrooms. I even met a few Opry stars backstage.
After two years of cleaning restrooms, I was told there was an opening in the animal department and so I finally got that coveted position. I. Loved. It. It’s still by far the best job I’ve ever had. The head of the animal department was an easy-going very friendly man and he was a pleasure to work for.
Part of my job responsibilities were feeding the animals. The park opened at 10 am but the petting zoo employees got there at 8 am to prepare for opening. Soiled bedding needed to be shoveled out and replaced with clean shavings, and animals needed to be fed, dairy goats milked, and fresh hay distributed. On my assigned feeding days, I would go to the kitchen and chop vegetables and fruit for the various animals. We had large laminated sheets listing all the animals in the zoo and what they ate and it didn’t take long to memorize those lists after you perused them a few hundred times.
Opryland had two porcupines. I called them Porgy and Bess and can’t remember if those were their actual names or something I just called them. Before working at Opryland I had always imagined porcupines as very aggressive animals with sharp hollow quills that stayed erect all the time. Like most people, I thought they were able to shoot or throw their quills if threatened. Not so at all. They reminded me of bristly guinea pigs. Their pudgy robust little bodies were covered in stiff guard hairs and the sharp quills were distributed throughout these guard hairs on the upper part of their body. They had a soft wooly underfur. Porcupines are nocturnal so Porgy and Bess spent most of the days at the park sleeping and so the guests/tourists thought they were quite the boring animals. In the early morning hours when we fed them, they always appeared sluggish and slow-moving.
Every now and then there would be a dropped quill in the enclosure and man oh man were those things sharp!
I came to love those very docile porcupines. They were the sweetest, gentlest animals and they loved seeing me coming in the mornings with their food plates. At Opryland we fed the porcupines a combination of dog food, monkey chow and a variety of fruits and vegetables. Porgy was more outgoing than Bess who was more on the shy side. Porgy always would come running when she saw me approaching her enclosure (there’s nothing like being greeted by a happy porcupine!), eagerly awaiting the plump red grapes she knew I had for her. I would hand her a grape with one hand and pet her with my other hand. The first time I went home and told my mother that I had hand-fed a porcupine while petting it, she looked at me like I was crazy. Ironically, they seemed to be very tactile animals and I loved to watch them eat. They were slow and sloppy eaters but they sure savored those grapes. I recall that bananas were another favorite food item too. We sliced the bananas for them and they made a mushy mess of them, their little faces often covered in squashed banana. Sometimes they made little moans, grunts and whining type sounds when they ate. I interpreted those as happy sounds.
I miss Porgy and Bess and often wonder what became of them when Gaylord closed the Opryland theme park down. I’m sure somewhere in a box in my basement is a quill or two from my little spiky friends. Treasures.