Other Steve on the two baby black leopards, and television.
(I– Steve B– found the cubs, still very small when Annie first introduced them to me, rather intimidating, unlike the much bigger but almost doglike, playful young tiger. They weren’t so much malevolent as little forces of nature, like animated thorn bushes who BIT. Hard. (Betsy Huntington on margays, on TV: “Yes, they bite. EVERYTHING bites. I bite!”) I should add that Annie who raised them loved them and got affection back. Me they bit– and as I reminded her yesterday, once you picked one up, putting it down was like trying to get off animate Velcro).
Nobody wanted to do [kid’s] TV, especially Major M, so I was ordered to go. After a while, I got to really like the Major. He really understood animals and was a terrific guy.
He sympathized with the “bad pet” theme that we always tried to get across and, one day, because all the local ghetto kids wanted to buy a black panther, I decided to take Dudley on his show. This was a bit audacious, taking a six-month old black leopard on a kiddie show, but Dudley, unlike his sister Denise, was really slow in the head. I could always see his intentions before he did anything, so, I figured that, even though he was unusually big for his age, I could handle him.
The stage hands helped me bring the stainless steel cage up from the loading dock and into the studio. When the segment started, the cage was on the floor. I opened the door and tried to coax Dudley out, but he was frozen – in a mild state of shock from all the lights and cameras. So I reached in and grabbed his scruff and slid him out onto the floor. He still hadn’t moved. Bob and I knelt down on either side of him. Right away, Bob says, Now, Steve, Dudley doesn’t seem to be having any fun being here. In fact, he doesn’t look happy at all. Why is that?” (He was great at knowing what you’d want to say and he’d feed you cues to start your spiel.) “No, Major, leopards are wild animals and they are not really comfortable in situations like this, blah, blah, blah.”
This went on for a while. It was a perfect show. I was getting exactly what I was hoping to get out of it. Then Dudley suddenly, quietly, turned his head to the side 45 degrees and chomped down hard on Bob’s ankle, then froze into his new position. We both stared at him for a second, not wanting to do anything drastic in front of the cameras. Then Bob said, calmly, “Now, can you see what Dudley has done, kids? He’s biting my ankle and it’s very painful. Tell us why he did that, Steve.” “Well, Major, as we were saying, he’s a wild animal and he’s scared in unnatural surroundings. He’s really at home in the forest. This is the reason why a black leopard makes a really bad pet.” “Well, we can see that, can’t we kids? So, if kids want to have a pet, what should they do?” “Well, Major, the Animal Rescue League has lots of dogs, blah, blah, blah.”
When we broke for the commercial, I pried Dudley’s jaws off Bob’s ankle and got him back in the cage. There was blood seeping out of his boot and he said, “Well, that went very well. I think you really got your message across.” It was true. The squealing kids really shut up when Dudley chomped his leg. They REALLY paid attention after that.
It was the most successful TV show I ever did, but I realized that I had taken much too big a chance. As I got back in the truck, I said to myself, “Next time I’ll bring a safer animal like Corey the Tapir.”
(Zoonote: Remember the Great Tapir Caper? [SB: Yes, and we will get to THAT debacle– already have plenty of material, & getting more])
When I left the studio, it was already dark and I realised that, in rush hour traffic, it’d take forever to get to the zoo, so I drove across the river to my apartment. I went upstairs and asked Cathy to come down and help me with something. She came down and looked into the back of the van, which was all dark. She peered into the cage and could only see two yellow eyes. “What’s that?” “That’s Dudley” So we carried the cage up three flights of stairs. My next door neighbour who always seemed to come out her door at the wrong moment, opened her door, screamed and went back in.
Cathy was always amazing with animals; still is. She’d never met Dudley, but we dragged him out and put him on the couch. I gently stroked his ruff, as he was still in a state of mild shock and I wanted to warm him up. Cathy got him a dish of milk and was putting it in front of him when he suddenly came to life. He tore the corner off the couch, leaped about seven feet to the drapes, tearing them down. Then he tore the cord out of the TV. He was crushing the alarm clock when I got my hands on him and muscled him into the cage. That was the end of the excitement for the day.
After that, my neighbour saw me bring Vinnie the [King] Vulture in the house once and, after she saw me with a boa around my neck one day, she moved out.
(Steve B again: One more, on why some domestic animals at the zoo may be worse pets than leopards…)