Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that my work as a playwright would include wrestling with a reindeer.
On the very last day of my gig shadowing keepers at Edmonton’s Valley Zoo (as part of Workshop West Playwrights’ Theatre’s “This is YEG” project), I work the “hoof stock” shift, which includes caring for the reindeer. The keeper lures the herd into a field adjoining their enclosure, where they cavort and high-leap in a manner worthy of the Bolshoi, so that we can clean their main living area.
We shovel poop, rake hay – oh the glamour!
After finishing this, I’m meant to follow the keeper into the barn – but I decide instead to schlep one more shovel of hay to the garbage bin. When I return from this task I am confronted by Freya, a lone reindeer who has wandered back from her frolicking. She head-butts the shovel out of my hands – I find out later she likely wanted to rub her antlers against the wooden handle – and then just keeps coming. I don’t know how else to stop her except to grab her antlers with my mittened hands. I wrestle with her for three or four surreal seconds before it occurs to me to call out for help. The keeper is there in an instant. Phew. And wow.
As I consider how to describe this privileged time spent in the company of animals I find I have mixed feelings. The stew of emotion includes awe (see above), gratitude and sadness. I am so incredibly grateful for the smart, caring zoo staff who allowed me into their world. Sadness? It’s inevitable that some of the animals there are the lone members of their species. The zoo is often able to source a companion through an international network of zoos, but that doesn’t always work out. Many of the species represented are endangered due to poaching. In other cases, there’s no home for the animals to return to even if it could be orchestrated. Their native forests or jungles having been destroyed by the grinding wheels of “progress.”
I came to this project with a creative question: what’s really going on in our relationship with animals? Well – there’s no denying that there is ignorance and cruelty out there in the wider world. But every single day at the zoo I also witnessed and experienced powerful and positive emotional connections between humans and animals. And that continues to inspire me.
Conni Massing is an award-winning playwright and screenwriter, based in Edmonton. Her new play Matara, set in a zoo, was recently featured at the SkirtsaFire HerArts Festival and is currently in development with Workshop West Playwrights’ Theatre.