I felt pretty special when the vet gave me my own job to do. I was just a High School age intern at the Cherry Brook Zoo in my hometown, but I was given an important job. The vet had been called in to check on a llama that she had treated a while ago for a broken leg. The cast had to come of in order for the vet to check on the strength of the leg and that required her to sedate the llama. The zookeeper, the vet, and I herded the fluffy white llama into a small barn in the exhibit and prepared to work. The vet gave her a quick injection with a sedative and we waited. Slowly she sank to her knees, then onto her stomach, and finally onto her side. She wasn’t completely unconscious, but she was pretty close and not worried at all when the three of us surrounded her.
The vet straightened out the leg with the cast and prepared her cast-cutting saw. “Okay, I need you guys to hold onto her, just in case she starts to wake up and try to move around.” The zookeeper I was shadowing that day moved to hold the llama’s other front leg and her head. I knelt down behind her and wrapped my arms loosely around the llama’s torso. The wool was so thick, my arms seemed to sink into the animal’s side.
“Can you feel her breathing?” the vet asked me.
“Yes, I can. She is taking slow, deep breaths.”
“Good, you be sure to tell me if that changes, especially if she stops breathing.”
It made me feel so good to be helping with such an important task, rather than just standing out of the way and watching. I was fascinated as I watched the saw cut into the plaster and expose the wooly leg. Things were healing well but the vet was concerned about there being enough strength in the leg for the llama to get around in her rocky enclosure after having a cast on for quite a while. She decided to let her wake up in the barn and stay there for a few hours before she went outside again. After some of the amazing things I’ve seen this far in my zoo career, this simple cast removal seems a bit mundane. But it will still be the first time I helped out with a vet procedure on one of “my” animals, and that’s why it sticks in my mind.
Sometimes events are so poignant, or intense, or infuriating, or joyful that we remember them easily. Other times we need little things to remind us of specifics. You would think that having God come down and die a horrible death just to take away our sins would be an amazing enough thing for us to remember all the time, but Jesus knew what humans are like. He knew we would need a reminder. He set up that reminder during what we call “The Last Supper,” when Jesus ate the Passover meal with His disciples right before he would be crucified. He took a piece of bread and compared it to His body that would be broken and He took a cup of wine and compared it to His blood that would be poured out. It was to be a reminder of His sacrifice, one that was easy for us to replicate and continue to practice. Paul said it this way in I Corinthians 11:26 “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes.”
My church practices this reminder, called communion, once a month. Last Sunday, we took unleavened bread, shared it around, and ate it together to remember His body. We then passed around little cups filled with grape juice to remember His blood. As I was holding my tiny plastic cup in my lap with both hands, I just stared down at the deep red juice. The lights on the ceiling were reflecting on the top as little yellow dots. I tried to hold the cup as still as I could, something I remember trying to do since I was young. Even though the cup wasn’t moving and I was sitting as still as possible, the yellow light spots kept jumping around. Then I realized why. My heartbeat, the blood pulsing through my fingertips, was making the surface of the juice vibrate. It was like that scene in Jurassic Park where the glass of water shakes in time to the T-Rex footsteps. But this wasn’t water. It was deep red juice reminding me of my Saviour’s blood. Blood that was once pumped by His heartbeat and was poured out for my sins. It was as if I was seeing God’s heartbeat right there in my hands.
“And can it be that I should gain
An int’rest in the Saviour’s blood.
Died He for me, who caused His pain?
For me, who Him to death pursued?
Amazing love! How can it be?
That Thou, my God, should die for me?
Amazing love! How can it be
That Thou, my God, should die for me!
He left His Father’s throne above,
So free, so infinite His grace;
Emptied Himself of all but love,
And bled for Adam’s helpless race;
‘Tis mercy all, immense and free;
For, O my God, it found out me.
Amazing love! How can it be
That Thou, my God, should die for me!
No condemnation now I dread;
Jesus, and all in Him is mine!
Alive in Him, my living Head;
And clothed in righteousness divine,
Bold I approach th’eternal throne,
And claim the crown, through Christ my own.
Amazing love! How can it be
That Thou, my God, should die for me!”
– “And Can It Be, That I Should Gain?” By Charles Wesley
We zookeepers are often the ultimate scavengers, the champions of reusing and repurposing. Did a tree just fall down? Bring the leafy branches for the antelope to browse on, give the sticks to the bird department for nesting material, and divide the logs among the primate department, the carnivore keepers, and the elephant barn. Getting ready to throw out old newspapers? Give them to the budgie keepers instead. They always need them to cover cage bottoms. Got a flower pot that broke in half? Give it to the reptile department. It would be perfect for their new lizard to hide under.
I always love coming up with new uses for empty packaging and containers. In the bird house exhibits I looked after, I hated that the food bowls just sat on the ledge, looking super out of place in the natural surroundings. It took me a while to come up with a solution, but one day when I was taking out some recycling, I saw a bleach bottle in the plastics bin. “That looks about the same diameter as our round food bowls, the ones I use for the hornbills and aracaris,” I thought. Sure enough when I cut the top off of the bleach bottle, the bowl fit right inside. I set to work with some paint, moss, artificial plants, and a glue gun. Voila, a food bowl stand that blended in (well, mostly) to the naturalistic exhibit! Here’s El Macho, the aracari, getting ready for a snack.
Another one of my favourite re-purposings actually came about when I was cleaning out an old storage bin. It was one of those plastic sets of drawers with the white supports and the clear drawers. The bottom drawer was full of old enrichment toys that were broken or un-usable (yeah, zookeepers are often that kind of packrat, too). The middle drawer held supplies for weighing our hawk and owls, and the top drawer held the gloves for handling the birds of prey. Sounds like a fairly good system, but there was one big problem: we tried to use the top of the set of drawers to store things on. Turns out if you stack too many things on top of those, the plastic tends to buckle. And by “things” I mean 30 or so towels plus anything else we happened to toss up there. It got to the point that you could barely open the top drawer and the towels stacked on top didn’t like to stay put. My supervisor mentioned that we should clean that thing out and get rid of it. So on a day when I was looking for an indoor project, I set to work on it. After cleaning out all of the drawers and throwing away anything that was truly useless or broken, I used one of the drawers as a basic bin to hold the supplies for the bird of prey handling and weighing and was about to see if I could recycle the rest of the plastic pieces when I realized I could utilize it instead. In the area of the bird house that I was responsible for, I had lots of items stored on a long low bench, and the rest of my supplies on the top of an air filter attached to the wall. Even without the top or top drawer, the other two drawers would be perfect for holding some of the tools in there. I washed up the supports and the other two drawers and pulled them into South Tunnel, the area I worked in. The whole thing fit perfectly under the air exchange filter and didn’t stick out any farther from the wall. It was just how I wanted it. I filled the second drawer, now just an open topped bin on a stand, with the enrichment items for my birds and used the lower drawer to hold bulletin board decorations after they had been used, just in case I could reuse them.
This morning in church, I thought of that broken, dirty plastic set of drawers and how they became just the thing I needed. We were singing a song called Overcome that was fairly new to me and one of the lines struck me: “And for every fear there is an empty grave. For the risen One has overcome.” I know that the line was intended to mean that the empty tomb shows us that Jesus overcame our fears, but for some reason, I thought of it a different way. I read it as if every fear was being put in the empty grave Jesus left behind when He was resurrected. The tomb was just like that plastic set of drawers: it did its job well for a time, but then it was no longer needed for that purpose. Instead of holding supplies for taking care of raptors, the drawers became storage for papers and pictures. Instead of holding the sacrificed Lamb of God, the tomb can now be used by us to drop off our fears, our sins, our failings, and anything else that weighs us down. When we decide to follow Jesus, He takes everything that separates us from Him and tosses it into a little cave somewhere in a garden in Israel as if He was dropping a bag of putrid waste down a garbage chute. He will never see it again. He will only see us, shining and full of new life.
“Therefore we were buried with Him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too may walk in a new way of life. For if we have been joined with Him in the likeness of His death, we will certainly also be in the likeness of His resurrection.” Romans 6:4-5
Today, my coworker and I were talking about animal care work being the type of job that you persue because it is “your passion.” So many zookeepers will say that. But then my coworker, who is fairly new to zookeeping, asked me if the passion stays or if it just becomes work after a while. After thinking for a second, I told her about how I used to write all the time. I had so many notebooks and journals with the beginnings of stories scribbled on page after page. Writing has been my longest running hobby and one that I often thought I could persue, if not as a profession, then as something in addition to my job. I continued to write all the way through college and even after I started working, but in the last few years I’ve left it almost completely behind. Sure some of it had to do with life circumstances and changing preferences, but I really believe that a big part of why I lost the urge to write was because I made it more like work. I started taking writing courses, bought books on how to get published, and tried to write with the goal of having lots of people read my words. My hobby was moving into the job realm and it became work.
Something about my job as a zookeeper is different. I’m not one of those people who quote the adage “If you love what you do, you never work a day in your life.” I’ve had bad days and things about my job that I certainly didn’t like. But overall, I can’t imagine doing anything else. My coworker asked what the difference was. I thought and finally said that the difference was in writing being something I did, while my passion for animals was simply a part of me. My parents tell stories of me as a toddler asking them to catch squirrels so I could hold them. I didn’t develop a love of animals. It was just in me. That was the difference.
As I drove into my church parking lot for Sunday night Bible study tonight, I read the sign out front that asked passers-by, “Do you have a religion or a relationship?” It made me think back to my conversation with my coworker and the difference between a hobby and a passion. When Jesus was on earth, He had many encounters with Pharisees, strict followers of the Jewish Law. Their lives were totally focused on what they did and how it related to their religion. Jesus wanted them to know that His way, the only true way to be right with God, was so much easier. In Matthew 11:28-30, Jesus says, “Come to Me, all of you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. All of you, take up My yoke and learn from Me, because I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for yourselves. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.” I used to think these verses were about Jesus carrying our burdens, but I heard the true meaning explained once. Jesus was telling people who were so used to carrying the burden of following the Law that they could drop that load and take up the bundle He offered in exchange. It was a whole lot lighter because it only had one directive to follow: trust in Him. It wasn’t a list of things to do, but a call to a relationship.
I have friends who have told me that the way of grace is too easy, that there has to be something they need to do. I am thankful that God allowed me to avoid carrying that burden. I was blessed to grow up in a strong Christian home where grace was taught to me since the day I was born. I was so young when I accepted Jesus’ salvation that I don’t remember what it is like to live without Him. Sure, there are bad days and things I come up against that I certainly don’t like. But overall, I can’t imagine living any other way. He is simply part of me.
One day when I was scanning through the TV channel guide, I noticed that it must be a slow day for the sports channels because one was showing a spelling bee and the other was showing something unique: Extreme Ironing. Seriously, it exists! Extreme Ironing. Apparently, it was started buy a guy who needed to iron, but wanted to be rock climbing instead.
Ever since that day, I’ve joked that I have my own version of an extreme chore: Extreme Gardening. I practice this “sport” when I have to climb the mountains in my penguin exhibit to care for the plants growing in the small pockets of soil along the sides. It can be a bit crazy to climb the mountain with a bag of tools and a roll of garbage bags. It is also crazy trying to climb back down the mountain with tools and full garbage bags.
Recently, I have added a couple of new extreme chores to my list. I was practicing this morning with one of my coworkers who is also training for extreme chores. We started with a session of Extreme Window Cleaning and finished our “workout” with some Extreme Vacuuming. What makes these things extreme? Well, the fact that we have to use SCUBA gear to do them. This morning my coworker and I had to get into our hippo pool (with the hippos locked securely in their stalls of course) and clean the underwater viewing windows before using a pool vacuum to suck up hay and leaves on the bottom of the pool. It can be quite a workout but I find it fun. After an hour in the pool wiping algae off the windows and siphoning the bottom of the pool, I really just wanted to continue swimming around. Instead, I got out of the pool and moved on to more normal chores like feeding birds and washing dishes. Not even in the same league of fun 😉
This got me thinking about some of the things we humans try to do to gain favour with God, or even earn our way into Heaven. Most are “mild” like praying, lighting candles, or trying to live a moral life. Others are much more extreme. In the past, people would punish themselves with itchy clothing or even whip their backs until they bled. Today, there are groups who isolate themselves and live under very strict codes of ethics and rules for living, all to make themselves pleasing to God.
I’m sure there are many more intense ways that people today strive to fulfill the requirements for entering Heaven. But the price is much too high for any human to pay it. God requires absolute perfection and total sacrifice for us to enter Heaven. The good news is that the price has already been paid! Jesus, God’s Son, was born on Earth, lived a completely sinless life, then died in an intense, extreme way, all to pay for my sins and yours. But Jesus’ extreme acts didn’t end there. Three days after being buried, Jesus rose from the dead. The fact that He didn’t stay dead means that His sacrifice was accepted and His work was done. There’s a ticket for Heaven with my name on it, and it is imprinted on my soul so I can never loose it. You can have one, too. All you have to do is acknowledge your need for redemption, accept Jesus sacrifice on your behalf, and ask God to make you His own. No rock climbing or SCUBA required.
John 3:16 “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, so that who ever believes in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”
Jesus loves me, this I know,
For the Bible tells me so.
Little ones to Him belong.
They are weak, but He is strong.
I am broken. Doesn’t He know?
I try to hide it, but it still shows
Still, He came down from Heaven above.
Died on a cross to show me His love.
Jesus died to make me clean.
Now my sins cannot be seen.
He rose up from the tomb.
Now He’s in Heaven preparing my room.
Yes, Jesus loves me.
My Lord Jesus loves me.
Oh, Jesus loves me.
The Bible tells me so.
Good morning, God. I know it is early and You’ve been up all night, but Your Word says you never sleep so I figured I could bug you now. I had a lot of fun last night talking to a new friend until it was late. Even though I slept pretty well, I’m awake at 5:00 AM with all kinds of thoughts whirling in my head. They’re not necessarily bad things but they are keeping me from resting. Do You mind if I give them to You? It amazes me that You can listen to all of Your children at once and pay total attention to every one. If You can do that, You can handle the song that is looping in my brain, the ideas for craft projects, and my plans for the week. I may not be able to get back to sleep now that I’ve been this awake, but I can rest in bed until I’m ready to get up. Or until my alarm goes off – whichever comes first. Thank You, God, for being there, for listening, and for caring about something so small.
“Casting all your care on Him, because He cares about you.” 1 Peter 5:7