Robert “Rusty” “Red” “The Treatman” “Can we keep it?” Hackles (also known as “Spot,” “Sport” and “Fluffy”) is awakened each and every morning (Sunday? What’s a Sunday) by a couple of swishing tails in the face, a mouthful of fur, several high-pitched whistles and a grunt or two. It’s been like this since, well, for as long as Rusty can remember. Animals have always been in his life; he was the kid who brought home the frogs, the crawdads and the lost cats (many of whom weren’t lost at all and had to be reunited with their owners who lived on the same street Rusty did).
As the head of the Animal Training, Welfare & Education division of the state’s largest animal preserve, Rusty knows what he’s doing when it comes to the animals he works with: what they eat, where they came from, their genetic lines and their individual personalities. Rusty loves his job for many reasons, including the fact that, although there is a set routine—animals really need routine—every day is different.
First thing is to feed himself and his houseful of critters: three dogs: Bamboo, Ry and Gaston (of various ages, mixed pedigrees, all from shelters); four cats: Gigi, Poe, Fang and Theo (he’s not sure where two of them came from); a pair of guinea pigs: Matzo and Seder (left on his doorstep by - it would seem - a family fed up with the nocturnal whistling and chittering); Wallenda, the flying squirrel; and Naima, a Capuchin monkey he rescued off the streets of Mumbai last year.
When Rusty arrives at the 6,000-acre preserve he’s got one thing on his mind: the School Expo that’s happening tomorrow and the animals he’s working with could use a little more work.
After he assigns his direct reports to specific jobs with specific animals, he heads to the area where he works with individual animals. First up is Lobo, a gray wolf. Lobo was not born in captivity, but he’s become so accustomed to human contact that some people mistake him for a particularly long-legged dog, maybe a husky or a malamute. But Lobo is a wolf and Rusty takes care to never forget that.
Everything Rusty does with regard to training each animal is based on the concept of positive reinforcement. No choke collars, electric prods, loud noises or spraying bad tasting liquid (and certainly no physical punishment). It’s all about rewarding the desired behaviors and the clicker helps with that.
Lobo’s favorite treat is hot dog, and Rusty makes sure he has plenty in his treat pouch before any session. Because Lobo will be in front of kids of all ages next week, Rusty needs to ensure he’s not going to mistake any of them for wandering pups or, worse, lunch. It’s not that Lobo has ever truly acted like that; it’s the fact that he’s a wolf, a wild animal, and that fact alone makes him unreliable.
After some rousing games of tag, Frisbee and a few go-rounds of some basic commands, Lobo is led off to his area of the preserve with hot dog breath.
Next up is the North American beaver couple, Laverne and Shirley. The two sisters were born at the preserve and are very used to being handled by Rusty and the other trainers, and they’re actually quite good natured. Rusty grabs his clicker and assembles his sticks and logs: he’s taught Laverne and Lenny how to do what they do naturally, but do it on cue: Build a dam. It’s a big hit at every show he’s ever done with them and the beavers, oddly enough, seem to get a kick out of the applause as well, slapping their tails up and down as if wanting to clap along. (Rusty makes a mental note to not let any of the kids behind the beavers, as a good swat of their paddle-like tail is likely to send someone under 60 pounds sailing.)
As the day goes on, Rusty’s treat pouch is filled—and then emptied—of cattails (Laverne and Shirley), dead mice (Hedwig, the Snowy Owl), sunflower seeds (Remi and Bessie, the Dumbo rats, who appreciate not being in the same space as Hedwig) and, of course, hot dogs for Lobo.
Rusty goes over the schedule one last time, walks out to see some of the animals he didn’t work with today—Hobbes, the local Aussie shepherd, Louis, the grouchy barn cat, and Prince Charles the Pampa horse, known for his intelligence and obedience.
Rusty heads back to his house where his menagerie greets him, each in their own way. Then it’s supper for everyone and a couple of hours watching Animal Planet.