This is the Way of the Owl.
I l earned my own passionate love of animals from my dad, who worked at Jet Propulsion Laboratories (JPL), one of Caltech's labs, for as long as I can remember. He would take my sister, Gloria, and me on many adventures to the ocean and into the Angeles Crest National Forest, which bordered our house. He taught us to observe animals without disturbing them, and every encounter was like a breathtaking meeting with an intelligent life form from another world, so different yet so familiar. I realized that each creature had its own personality. It was as rewarding for me to win an animal's trust as it would be for a space scientist to converse with an alien.
I learned to lure octopi out of their secret places by holding my hand very still, near shallow ocean rocks where they would hide. Because they are so curious, they'd eventually slide their tentacles toward me, gingerly explore my hands, then they'd gain confidence and end up crawling all over me. Gloria and I always tried to save baby birds we found, and we'd intervene to rescue lizards from cats. Once when I was four, my mother absentmindedly flicked a spider off a wall and flushed it down the toilet. I screamed and then cried for the rest of the day, because to me the spider was an innocent being who had hurt no one, and her life had been destroyed for no reason. My mother was flabbergasted by my extreme reaction and tried to reason with me, but even today I agonize about how casually our fellow creatures can be killed.
I also had an affinity for a more familiar, "traditional" animal. My first close bond, aside from my parents, was with our dog, Ludwig -- half collie, half German shepherd. Luddie guarded my crib, lying under it while I slept and padding out to get my mother when I woke up. He always watched over me as I started to crawl and, when I began to learn to walk, would let me grab his tummy hair to pull myself up. I'd put my arms over his back, holding on to his fur, and he would walk very slowly and carefully with me. Whenever I started to fall, he went down, too, to cushion my landing. He taught me to walk, and I can still remember his soft, patient brown eyes looking back at me as we toddled along. I think Luddie's companionship lay the groundwork for my other relationships with animals, and I'm grateful that my mother had the wisdom to teach me to love and trust Luddie.
In addition to my love of furry, many-legged, complex animals, when I was a kid my bedroom was also filled with "experiments" -- things in jars and vats of stagnant water full of exotic life forms that I could examine under my microscope. I once had two hundred silkworms in my room, which then hatched into two hundred mating moths that I would have to brush out of my bed at night before retiring. As a child I definitely had to clean my own room -- and was instructed to use disinfectant. No one else would venture in there.
As I grew older, my father began taking my sister Gloria and me to lectures at Caltech, where I first saw my childhood hero, Jane Goodall. I was so convinced that I would grow up to do exactly what she did in Africa that I insisted on Swahili lessons. The next time she lectured at Caltech, I met her and tried out my newly learned language. I wonder if she remembers a little girl in blond braids who spoke Swahili.
Gloria and I were child actors who sang professionally in Hollywood recording studios into our twenties. We started singing onstage with our family band when I was five and she was three, and because we could sight-sing (read music and sing it without needing someone to teach it to us), a year later were doing TV commercials, movie scores, and singing back ground on albums. You probably heard us through the 1970s in campaigns for McDonald's and Pizza Hut, Little Friskies, ice creams, Bekins Moving and Storage, California Raisins, and more than a hundred other commercials. Gloria and I also sang backup for Glen Campbell, Barry Manilow, Helen Reddy, the Carpenters, and John Denver, among others, as well as in the second and fourth Rocky movies, The Exorcist II: The Heretic, and a bunch of Disney movies. Music definitely runs in our family. My grandfather was a drummer in the big-band era, and my dad's brother is Cubby O'Brien of the original Mouseketeers. Even so, because of my fascination with science and love for animals, it was more natural that I would go on to earn a degree in biology, which I did in 1985, at Occidental College -- a sister school to Caltech, which had very few women at that time. Students at Occidental could enroll in any Caltech classes, and vice versa, which enabled both schools to broaden their curricula. I preferred the atmosphere at Caltech, though, so I took classes there, which also led to an undergrad, part-time job working with primates at their Institute of Behavioral Biology.
Copyright © 2008 by Stacey O'Brien
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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