Chipmunks and Other Creatures

Carol Campos shared an absolutely beautiful piece about animal friends, real or cartoon drawings, which brought me back to an exciting week I spent caring for animals in the Copenhagen Zoo.

First, a little intro describing why I was running around in the Zoo in the first place:

In Denmark’s multi-branched educational system, when I was a teenager most children would finish school after 9th or 10th grade with an exit examination and continue into trade apprenticeships. Hence, a week was set aside in 9th and 10th grade for trying out what working in the trade of your desire could be like. If you think a plumber only puts in pristine water pipes, perhaps a week clearing sewer blockages might be useful? My friend wanted at that time to be a veterinarian, but spending a week caring for dogs and watching some being euthanized, she decided this was not her thing after all. Good to know before you head into many years of education. I wanted to study law, so naturally, I would spend the week at a Zoo. Or to put it differently: it was not that easy to find lawyers who wanted to have a useless teenager trail them for a week while they did confidential work. So I could just as well do something entertaining.

The work was dirty and at times dangerous, and as I have always loved an excuse to draw my mother crazy (like getting really dirty) and go a bit out on a limb literally and figuratively, this fit right in.

My first morning was spent moving manure. As were my 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and 5th. Before the park opened, we cleaned all outside enclosures for the prior day’s droppings. That is no big deal if the enclosure is that of the chipmunks or the kangaroos. Let me tell you about rhinos or elephants… Once the place was clean, we filled the feeders with hay or alpha which enticed the animals outside once the doors were opened. Then the doors to the stables were closed again, and we did the same cleaning in the stalls and spread out fresh straw.

The first morning, we let out the rhino mom but her babies didn’t feel like joining her. We very carefully cleaned out as much as we could, and when we saw her whirl around at the far end of the enclosure and gallop towards us to protect her babies, everybody ran for safety. We got out just in time to hear her horn meet with the heavy red iron door that shook on its rollers.

I scaled the fence and found my two colleagues roaring with laughter as we all moved towards cleaning the stables.

The next morning I was not on rhino duty but met the zebras and water buffalos. Like the day before we cleaned the enclosure and I was left with some bales of feed and instructions to just crawl over the gate when the feeders were filled.  As I was fighting with a big bale of alpha lodged into the feeder that hung at head height, I felt a gentle push in my right side. Looking down I saw nothing. Odd. There it was again, and more persistent. Then I noticed the head of a water buffalo on my left side, stretching for the fresh greens. Her right horn was reaching all the way around my back, locking me in up against the feeder. Fortunately, Indian water buffalo are domesticated and fairly peaceful. Had it been the African buffalo, it had been a different story. I scaled the fence and found my two colleagues roaring with laughter as we all moved towards cleaning the stables. They were clearly testing me – and I had passed.

On my third morning, I was sent to the petting zoo. This side of the park held goats and pony rides and similar peaceful species. Little did my colleagues know that only a year before I had a really unpleasant encounter with a small herd of sheep: My sister and I had come across two sheep and a lamb while traveling in Norway, and as lambs are always super cute, we tried to pet it. It was way easier to pet one of the sheep. She really liked to be petted. She would nudge her head against our legs as we scratched her behind the ears. This went on for a little while until I scratched her on the top of the head – where two small indents disclosed that she was not the aunt but the dehorned dad – and by now a plenty pi#### off dad. So we yelled for our dad who had just come out of the hotel, and while he now had to deal with the ram, my sister and I jumped to safety on the other side of the cattle grid. In time dad got to safety, too, but only because our mother who had no idea what was happening distracted the ram with a big tuft of fresh grass. All this time the locals were laughing wildly from the safety of the other side of the river.

This experience was in my emotional backpack as I entered the goat enclosure. So when one of the goats decided to see if he could scare me with his two-foot-long horns, I showed him what I could do with a four-foot rake. Then word went out among the furry friends not to mess with this new gal. It was much more peaceful to nurse the baby goat whose mother didn’t want to deal with him – formula in a beer bottle – and it was an absolute delight to assist one of the goats giving birth to twins.

While each of these encounters has been a gift in themselves, one of my life-changing moments came when I was asked to polish the windows in the chipmunk enclosure: As I was cleaning the windows, a guy came up to me and told me he was a window polisher and that I did a shoddy job. I offered him the bucket and squeegee and asked if he could do better. He got the same lousy result because the squeegee was old and crocked. We parted in mutual respect – me for the profession of window polishing and he for my gumption to ask him to prove himself.

Since that day I have always expressed my respect for any well-used talent – and in return learned quite a few handy tricks of many trades.

Naturally, sitting in the middle of a chipmunk enclosure where I just happened to have some seeds in my pocket, I had chipmunks all over. Let me tell you, it is very difficult to remove a rodent from up your pant leg if it decides to bury its claws in your jeans. Also, make sure to remove critters from your pocket before you climb out of the enclosure and shake any pellets out of your clothes before you go home.

Between the above stories, hatching chicks, caring for a sick kangaroo, and dancing with an ostrich, it is hard to decide which memories are the best. But let me tell you when somebody asks “tell me something most people don’t know about you”, having hand-fed a rhino is a pretty unusual answer.

(Darn, now I have to come up with another thing…)


Charlotte Wittenkamp
Charlotte Wittenkamp
Charlotte Wittenkamp is an organizational psychologist who counsels international transfers, immigrants, and foreign students in overcoming culture shock. Originating from Denmark, where she worked in organizational development primarily in the finance industry, Charlotte has lived in California since 1998. Her own experiences relocating lead down a path of research into value systems and communication patterns. She shares this knowledge and experience through speaking and writing and on her website Many of these “learning experiences” along with a context to put them in can be found in her book Building Bridges Across Cultural Differences, Why Don’t I Follow Your Norms?. On the side, she leads a multinational and multigenerational communication training group.

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  1. Dear Charlotte,

    I am half way between laughing and terror regarding your vivid description! One things for sure, I shall avoid rhinos!
    Such a vivid account of your experiences. Considering how communicative they seemed to be (in their own way) I was reminded of George Orwell’s Animal Farm. AS for chipmunks; really scary!

    Brilliant essay, Charlotte.