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  • Writer's pictureAshley Gray

10 Things I think... Before y'all knew about the Tiger King & Carole, I was the Critter Queen

Since Tiger King and Carole Baskin are getting all the love and Black Lives Matter, I think it's finally time I tell my story. I was the Critter Queen of the STL zoo. I know that sounds really advanced and whatnot, because it was. I was changing the world one classroom and senior center at a time. Honestly, I was the worst outreach educator in the history of outreach educators. No lie. This sweet lady at my church (more like an auntie) had gotten me a job sophomore year. Part-time. I had my own cube. the benefits were minimal, but I did get a discount in the various cafes on site. And unlike many of the other people my age, I got to work inside with air conditioning. If you've ever survived a St. Louis summer, you know how important this is.

1. My animal handling training had to be the worst. I only wanted to touch the cute and furry animals. I was a G with the baby owls. So ugly that they became cute. I named some of them. Leroy, JuneBug and my favorite, Tyrone. And the hedgehogs with their button noses... a dream. I learned very quickly that I was not cut out for other animals.

2. During my animal handling training, my hands shook so bad that I couldn't keep the salamander in it. It was already slippery and he didn't stand a chance. I'm sure it was shaken up from that roller coaster ride. Poor thing. I used to call them frog-faced slippery lizards. My supervisor must've hated me.

3. I never felt like my hands were clean enough so I use to overwash them. My supervisor at the time could handle a buffalo then go eat lettuce out of the container. She was earthy as hell. She'd smell herself some time and say, "Welp, not wasting another uniform shirt!"

4. The uniforms... I'm gonna just leave this here.

5. One time, we went to do a lesson for a senior home. So she [my supervisor] decides she's ready for me to handle some of the creepy crawlies. In front of the people she asks, "Ash, will you hand me the Madagascan hissing cockroach? So I brought her the container. If there's one thing I never want to be associated with having- it's roaches. She was like (all happening in front of the people), "Can you take it out?" So I lied and said I had cut my hand by accident. I wasn't touching that roach. And it was huge. I knew enough people with roaches that til this day, I'm not eating at your house unless I can turn the lights on and not see a decathlon take place. Roaches scurry worse than the folks at Bellanoches.

6. Another time I failed my job was when my supervisor had me display the millipede from the rainforest. I was usually cool holding it because it just coils up. *Imagine holding a roll of coins*. Well, today this mf wanted to be friendly. Wanted to engage the people. Give them a show. So I'm almost done and then it's like "hey, girl, hey" uncoiling and trying to attach itself to my skin. I threw that damn thing so fast that it landed on a senior. An old lady of European descent who never seemed that thrilled to see my Black behind there. So at the millipede is trying to attach itself to her, I can see my zoo career ending. I knew I was gonna be the cause of her heart attack. Well, by the time she realized it was on her, my supervisor had scooped it up. Imagine some Ocean's 13 level of swiping. She was on it that day. On the ride back I tried to encourage her to go into jewelry theft. She was expert level. She was so mad at me she said nothing. She looked like a roasted beet when we got back.

7. My family really thought I was out here like Steve Irwin. My scary ass was trying to avoid anything that didn't have feathers or fur. I'd come home with brave stories when all I had mastered was not dropping the animal.

8. One day we were in the car and the snake kept moving in the pillowcase. I mean, it was like he was recreating Wayne Wonder's "No Letting Go" video. He kept trying to get close to me. I'd move the bowl back and go on with the conversation which was usually about how she ate grass for fun. Or how she was from Boston and could outdrive even the Pope's driver. Here comes slithering Sam again trying to get close to me. So eventually, I stop trying to fight him. He clearly is looking for warmth and I'm safe. I had really drank the kool-aid of white supremacy to think I could ever comfort a snake. I was telling people all week about Sam feeling connected to me. "I'm kinda like a snake wrangler!"

9. Welp, one another day of animal handling training my supervisor wanted me to pull Sam out the enclosure. Sam was acting really weird today. Kinda jumping at me and I thought he was going to strike. At that point, my Blackness kicked in and I was like "hell no, I won't go!" So she pulls Sam out and hands him to me. We're chilling for a few minutes. He's finding a comfortable place in my arms until he stars pop, locking and dropping again. So of all the things I signed up for, being bitten while Black by a black rat snake ain't one. I don't do the myth of Black and black crime. I go to put Sam back. Well, Sam had gotten everything he came for anyway and gladly crawled back in. I looked down at my arm and it's covered in some fluid. If you've ever smelled snake poop, you know good and well it's the worst smell ever. But this doesn't have a scent so I'm pissed because I think Sam pissed on me. I ain't into all that kink and carrying on. My supervisor does a closer examination of my arm and says, "That's not pee" before laughing hysterically. Me being the saint I was back then *inserts heavenly noise* I was confused. At this point, there's a crowd drawing. She decides to tell everyone and me (at the same damn time) that Sam had um... well... he mated with my arm. BABY, I high kneed it to the sink because if Mary had trouble explaining how Jesus came about, surely I'm gonna have trouble explaining these snake-man babies. I was horrified. For the next few weeks, the men in the department were smirking and lowkey trying to slide me their numbers. Raggedy asses.

10. On a serious note, I have written nothing short of 4 blogs that are about the heaviness of the nation's first pandemic- racism. And I decided not to publish them yet because Black joy is resistance, too. I hope my misfortune and snake charming makes you heart laugh and I hope you feel a little closer to human today. I love y'all and never forget BLACKLIVESMATTER. Even the Black rat snake knew that. By the way, these are true stories.

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