When I was three years old, a camel tried to eat my face. My mom had taken me to the Houston Zoo, and back then they only put glass or tall fences around the obviously dangerous predators– alligators, lions, gorillas, etc. Camels, apparently, were viewed as docile and tame enough to allow toddlers access (despite their propensity for spitting). I don’t know if what I experienced is typical of camels or if this particular camel just happened to be an asshole– either way, it traumatized the hell outta me.
My mother stood back with A1 (my first brother) in his blue stroller, and I climbed up on the log pen that prevented the camels from wandering around like free-range douche bags. Evidently, I found the camel that was creative enough to come up with a way to assault the general public despite his captivity. As I leaned over the top of the fence, holding on to the top log, a large and rather smelly camel lumbered over to me– and promptly wrapped its entire mouth around my tiny head. I remember seeing the camel walk towards me, then suddenly being enveloped in very wet darkness. The next thing I knew, someone’s arms were around me, rescuing me from the camel’s oral embrace. I was so shocked I didn’t know whether to cry or pass out or poop. So I just stood there, camel saliva dripping from my face and hair, and stared in dazed astonishment at my mother– who was looking back at me with the same open-mouthed, wide-eyed expression– and then at the stranger who had had the presence of mind to rescue me. (My mother was remarkably terrible in an emergency; her panic mode kicked into overdrive pretty fast, and then she was useless. I learned how to handle 911 situations by the time I was ten. As a result, I am now excellent to have around in a crisis.)
When I got older, and began retelling the story to my friends– because I thought it sounded pretty awesome that I had narrowly escaped being devoured by a large and massively stinky mammal– my mom told the story from her perspective. She watched in horror, panic making her immobile, as the camel slurped my face into its mouth. Fortunately, some other mom (who apparently was actually functional in emergency situations) sprinted over and yanked me away. Hearing that, I was very glad that the camel hadn’t bitten down, or I might have been accidentally beheaded. Or be-faced. De-faced? What’s the word for having your face ripped off?
I eventually developed a fear of the Houston Zoo because bad things tended to happen to me there. As well as almost being eaten alive by an animal that isn’t supposed to be all that dangerous, I was also sneezed on by an elephant. I’m pretty sure I’m the reason they started putting double-fences and very deep ditches around even the “safe” animals. I was riding around in my stroller, probably looking adorable, and my mom wheeled me up to the wire fence that separated the elephants from the spectators. One elephant turned its trunk straight at me and sneezed with such force that it required a sink bath in the public restroom and a full change of clothes. In addition, when I went to the zoo with my grandpa as a small child, some weird, older couple grabbed me by both arms and tried to run off with me. I screamed my head off to alert my grandpa because my parents had instilled in me a specific terror of kidnappers (as most parents did to their children in ’80s). My grandpa yanked me away from them and, as I recall, said a lot of words to them that would have gotten my mouth washed out with soap had I repeated them. So between the camel assault, the elephant attack, and the kidnapping attempt, I really disliked the zoo. (Aside from the hot dogs. The hot dogs were awesome.)
In fact, my spastic parents helped make me scared of just about everything and everyone. If they weren’t telling me about kidnappers (which I’m sure was just their misguided way of trying to keep me from running off in public), they were talking about burglars. There were a couple of times when houses in our neighborhood were robbed– despite living in a really nice area– and I heard a few too many burglar stories. I was afflicted with insomnia and almost nightly nightmares as a child, so I was awake pretty often in the middle of the night. I would lie there in bed, listening for the intruder I was positive would eventually come, and the moment I heard the slightest creak or groan of the house settling, I would run wake my dad and tell him to get his gun. So he would dutifully, and groggily, grab his pistol from the bedside table (because in Texas, in the 80s, lots of dads slept with pistols next to the bed) and walk through the house checking for criminals. Then he would reassure me, tuck me back in bed, and order me not to wake him up again unless the house was on fire. But he didn’t understand– my bedroom was the first room in the hallway off the living room! When the burglars came, they would come to my room first, and they’d probably kidnap me for good measure! Then they’d send my parents a ransom note, and I would be forced to sleep in a basement with no TV and eat nothing but disgusting vegetables until I was rescued. (I had a weird idea both of burglars and kidnappers.)
My fear of kidnappers was so severe that I would throw a hysterical fit any time my mom tried to leave me in the car while she filled the gas tank. And when I went out in public with my dad, he couldn’t use the restroom until he got home because I would insist on going in with him to make sure I was safe. Once he took me to the circus, and on the way back we had to stop for gas. He needed to use the facilities and told me to wait right outside the door. Which I did. For about ten seconds. The moment a strange man walked toward the restroom, I burst into the men’s room, screaming my head off, and startled my dad so badly that he peed all up the wall and all down his pants.
I wish I had some profound lesson from all of this (other than “Don’t tell your kids about burglars or kidnappers” and “Don’t get close to elephants”). But really, what I got out of all of this crap is this 1) There is a fine line between teaching your kids to be cautious and scaring the ever-living-fuckity-fuck out of them and 2) Camels are dicks. For real. They are just about the biggest assholes in the animal kingdom. Followed closely by elephants.