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Wild Animal School
A novel for anyone who has ever wanted to be a wild animal trainer
At this school, every lesson is an adventure.

Sixteen-year-old Jessica Rainville’s dream of working with exotic animals is about to come true. She’s signed up to spend a summer learning to train and care for tigers, lions, leopards, bears, and elephants at an exotic animal ranch. She will pet tigers, feed grizzly bears, and ride bareback on elephants. But the experience will test her in ways that she never imagined. And just one mistake can mean the difference between life and death.

WILD ANIMAL SCHOOL is a young adult contemporary novel that will appeal to similar audiences as ENDANGERED (by Eliot Schrefer) and KICKED, BITTEN, AND SCRATCHED: LIFE AND LESSONS AT THE WORLD'S PREMIER SCHOOL FOR EXOTIC ANIMAL TRAINERS (by Amy Sutherland). The book is the perfect gift for animal lovers, especially those who have ever considered a career working with exotic animals, from zookeeper to animal trainer.
 

Praise for WILD ANIMAL SCHOOL:

"The author's experience with animal training is clearly firsthand, lending realism to her descriptions of the main character's tentative first interactions with bears, tigers, and other beasts that most sane people would only approach from behind a three-inch pane of glass ... I was propelled through the book by the risk and wonder of interacting with wild creatures, and there was more to experience with each chapter." - Pierre, Amazon.com

"Loved this book! Had me hooked all the way to the end! Animal lovers delight!" -- Pepper, Goodreads

While the characters, places, organizations, programs, businesses, incidents, etc. in WILD ANIMAL SCHOOL are fictional, the author personally experienced nearly every animal interaction in the pages of this novel firsthand.

WILD ANIMAL SCHOOL is available in Kindle ebook and in paperback. Read it FREE with Amazon Prime or Kindle Unlimited.

 
  
Author J.W. Lynne works with some of the animals who inspired her to write Wild Animal School
 

Wild Animal School
Chapter One


It’s six fifty-three in the morning on my sixteenth birthday. I stand outside the battered wooden gate to a compound just off a desolate dirt road. On either side of the gate are high concrete walls. It’s impossible to see what’s on the other side. I hope this is the right place.

And then I hear a low, slow roar. Then another one. And then another one. I smile. The lions are waking up.

I take a deep breath and glance down at my brand-new work boots, my thick white socks, my pale shins, and my khaki work shorts and shirt. I’m ready … I think.

I knock on the gate.

There’s no answer.

I knock again, a little harder.

Still no answer.

I pull on the gate and, strangely, it opens. I’m surprised they’d leave the gate to a place like this unlocked.

I poke my head inside. “Hello?” I call out.

Suddenly, a barking dog barrels toward me, sharp white teeth bared. I shove the gate back, planting my foot at the bottom to prevent it from opening any further. The dog’s menacing jaw pushes through the gap.

“It’s okay,” I tell the dog. “I belong here.”

The dog stops barking in mid-bark.

A grizzly older man’s face appears above the dog’s. “Are you sure?” he asks me.

“Hi, I’m—” I start.

“I know who you are. Are those your forms?” He pulls the papers that I clutch in my sweaty hand through the partially‑open gate and looks them over. “You’re sixteen?”

“Today,” I say.

He sighs. “Come in.”

I pull the gate toward me enough so that I can enter and shut it behind me. The back of the gate is reinforced with metal bars. I wonder whether that’s to keep things in or out. My skin prickles with unease.

The man walks toward a small, rundown shack that has chips of white paint peeling from its worn wooden siding. The dog follows silently by his side, now appearing as harmless as a puppy. I catch up with them inside the shack. The dog crawls under the desk and lies down.

With a dismissive wave of his hand, the man directs me to a rusted chair. “Sit. There are some rules of the ranch that we need to go over.” He doesn’t look at me when he speaks.

I sit and assess my surroundings. The inner walls of the shack are almost completely obscured by awards, certificates, and photos of exotic animals—tigers, elephants, leopards, and bears—with people who I assume are their trainers.

I am drawn to the only thing on the wall that doesn’t appear to be in danger of being enveloped by the chaos around it: a framed oil painting of a dark-haired woman holding a baby tiger. The cub gazes at the woman with a bright, playful expression. Although tigers can’t smile, it almost seems as if this one is. The woman’s kind, captivating, dark eyes stare out of the painting, appearing to look directly at me.

I force myself to focus my attention on the man as he continues, “The first rule is that you arrive dressed for work. That means work boots and long pants. There are a lot of things here that can scrape you up. You need a layer of protection.”

I look down at my bare knees.

“I assume you didn’t bring any long pants with you.” He pauses, apparently waiting for my response even though his eyes are still focused on his desk.

I shake my head. “No, I didn’t—”

“Today, you’ll wear these.” He tosses some threadbare work pants onto the desk. “Throw them on over your shorts.”

I reach for the pants.

He holds up his hand, stopping me. “Not right now,” he says. “Right now you listen.”

I swallow and sit back in my chair. I don’t like this man. He must love animals, otherwise why would he work with them for a living? I’d thought I would like anyone who loves animals like I do. I was wrong.

I’ve been dreaming of being an animal trainer ever since my parents took me to the circus when I was nine years old. I remember watching a man in a sequined vest step into a cage with three tigers. The tigers stood on their hind legs and the man danced with them, one at a time and then all together. It felt as if nothing could possibly go wrong there, but here, I feel like it can.

The man goes on, “Next rule is, you never stick your fingers inside the enclosures. These are wild animals here, not pets. Final rule is, you pay attention to the trainers and do exactly as they say, no matter what.” The man looks directly into my eyes for the first time. “You got all that?”

“Yes.”

“Good,” he says, and then he pushes a button and speaks into a radio, “Ryan, I’ve got the new student. Pick her up in the office.”

“Be right there,” a younger voice answers.

“Your trainer will be here in a few minutes,” the man tells me, and then he goes about his business. He reviews papers and files them. He makes notes. He doesn’t say anything to me. I want to excuse myself and wait outside, but the man seems so absorbed by his work that I feel like anything I do will interrupt him. And so I just sit there, completely uncomfortable.

The work pants on the desk smell like animal poop. I don’t want to wear them. I wish I’d known about the long pants rule. I hope the trainer is nicer than this man, who never introduced himself. I know from looking at the Bob’s Exotic Animal Sanctuary website that he’s the ranch’s owner, Bob North. He looks different in the picture online than he does in person. The man sitting in front of me looks tired and old.

A guy with a mop of curly reddish-brown hair pops his head into the shack and motions to me. “Come on.”

I stand and grab the work pants. “Thank you, Mr. North.”

He doesn’t look up from his desk. “My name’s Bob.”

Outside the shack, I quickly pull on the smelly pants and follow the curly-haired guy, who is walking at a pretty good clip up the hill.

“I’m Jessica,” I say as catch up with him.

“Ryan,” he responds. “There are four trainers here: me, Tim, Paul, and Leslie. There’s also Aaron, who apprentices here. He’s Bob’s son. I’m gonna give you a tour of the ranch. Does that sound cool?”

“Sounds great!” I feel a wave of relief; already Ryan is much friendlier than Mr. North.

Ryan retrieves a ring of keys from his pocket and unlocks a tall chain‑link gate. “We are now entering a secured area. As a student, you always need to be accompanied by a trainer whenever you’re in a secured area.” Ryan pulls a square of red cloth from a bucket and clips the cloth to the gate. “We put up a red flag to let everyone know that someone’s inside. If you see a red flag on a gate, before you open it, you need to communicate with whoever’s inside the area to make sure it’s safe to enter.”

We move through the gate. Ryan locks it behind us and tugs on the lock to make sure it’s secure.

I follow him along a remarkably‑clean wooden walkway that winds past some animal cages. I peer into the first cage.

Suddenly, a huge tiger leaps from a raised perch inside the cage and lands on the ground just a few feet away from me. Even though the chain‑link separates us, I jump back at least a foot, and nearly fall off the walkway.

Ryan grabs my shoulder to steady me. “You can’t respond to them like that. Around the animals, you need to stay in control. Stand your ground.”

My cheeks flush with embarrassment.

Ryan leads me to other cages, introducing me to tigers, lions, and leopards, one by one. At each cage, he tugs on the lock and points out the water bowl. “Every time you pass an animal, check their water. If it’s not full, fill it, and check it again later. Grab the hose. Let’s top Lotus off.”

I turn on the water and bring the hose to Ryan. He fills Lotus’s bowl, and when he’s done, he sprays the water at her. She chases the spray with her open mouth, drinking it, just like our family’s dog does. Water droplets on her orange, black, and white fur glisten in the morning sunshine.

Ryan gestures to neighboring tigers that are pacing excitedly. “They want to play too.” 

He hands me the hose, and I walk from cage to cage, giving each of the tigers a turn with the spray as they prance around. I smile. The tigers are dancing with me.

“Okay, enough of that,” Ryan says, shutting off the water. “Time to get some work done. Let’s go scoop up some elephant poop.”

* * *

Two long trunks reach toward me, moving over my body like some sort of strange security scanner. The elephants use the tips of their trunks, like fingers, to check the pockets of my shirt.

“This is Emily and Pongo,” Ryan introduces the elephants to me. “They’re frisking you.”

“Why are you wearing my pants?” a male voice says from behind me.

I’d forgotten that I’m wearing somebody else’s pants. Although I haven’t looked in the mirror, I’m sure I look like a complete dork with my shirt stuffed into them so they don’t fall down.

I turn to see a muscled guy in dusty jeans and a worn gray t-shirt, standing behind me with a wheelbarrow. His brown hair falls in his face.

“Mr. North told me to wear them,” I say.

“Whatever,” he grumbles as he passes me.

“Let’s get some hay,” Ryan says, leading me into the barn. “We distract the elephants with food while we scoop up their poop.”

“Was that Aaron?” I ask Ryan.

“Yup,” he says.

Aaron reminds me of his father.

Ryan and I collect armfuls of hay and emerge into the sunlight to see Emily and Pongo examining the wheelbarrow that Aaron is shoveling full of elephant poop.

“Emily, Pongo, come,” Ryan calls out.

Emily glances in our direction and then takes off toward us. She moves surprisingly fast for such a big animal. Pongo follows.

“Trunks up,” Ryan instructs as they get close.

The elephants instantly stop walking and curl their trunks up to their foreheads. Ryan and I dump the hay in front of them.

“All right,” Ryan tells them.

The elephant’s trunks swing down and skillfully pick up bunches of hay. They stuff the food into their mouths and quickly go back for more.

“Grab a wheelbarrow,” Ryan says to me.

He picks up two shovels and enters the elephant pen. Although the animals are distracted, there are no bars between him and them. I don’t consider whether following Ryan is a good idea or not; I’m too busy awkwardly maneuvering the wobbly wheelbarrow. I’ve never actually used one of these things before. It’s surprisingly difficult to keep it balanced as it moves over the uneven ground. Aaron looks over, barely hiding a smirk, as he effortlessly speeds past me with a full load.

I park my wheelbarrow next to Ryan and he hands me a shovel. Following his lead, I scoop the heavy poop from the ground and plop it into the wheelbarrow.

“Elephant’s digestive systems are very inefficient,” Ryan explains as we work. “They eat a lot and poop a lot. Even though we only have two elephants, we scoop up a truckload of poop from the elephant pen three times a day.”

Thanks to Ryan’s efficient work, our wheelbarrow fills quickly. I muscle it up the ramp to the ranch truck, a rusted old thing that looks like it has lived a hard life. When I attempt to dump the poop into the truck bed, I nearly lose my balance. Fortunately, all of the poop lands in the correct place and I don’t go with it. Also fortunately, Aaron isn’t there to smirk at me.

As I steer the empty wheelbarrow back to the elephant pen, Aaron is already on his way to the ranch truck with another full load. He seems to intentionally cross my path, forcing me to stop.

“So what’s your story?” Aaron asks me.

I’m not ready to tell him my story. “What do you mean?”

“You want to be a zookeeper or something?”

I could tell him that, when I was nine years old, I decided I was going to be a tiger trainer when I grew up. And that, when I announced this to my parents, my dad laughed at me and insisted that I was going to be a doctor. But that I never lost my desire to work with animals. And that I want to find out what it’s like before I go off to college and settle into my life as a future neurosurgeon. And that I wanted this experience so badly that I just spent all but sixty-seven dollars and forty cents of my life savings to try it. Instead, I say, “I don’t know yet. I’m only sixteen.”

“I’m sixteen, and I know what I want to be,” Aaron says.

“It’s different when you’re going into the family business,” I snap, immediately regretting the way I said it.

“Who says I’m going into the family business?” Aaron scoops a nearby pile of poop into his wheelbarrow and wheels away.

* * *

By the time late afternoon arrives, I’ve filled numerous water dishes; scooped up loads of animal poop; scrubbed cages and walkways; practically inhaled the peanut butter sandwich, apple, and carrots I packed for lunch; and drunk every last drop of my water.

Ryan announces that we need to feed the tigers, lions, and leopards. In the kitchen, he fills my arms with logs of defrosting “Carnivore Diet” sealed in thick plastic and explains, “Carnivore Diet is chopped beef with added vitamins and minerals to provide a nutritionally complete diet for the cats.”

I spill the logs onto the counter and, side-by-side with Ryan, slice open each package with a knife and drop the meat into plastic tubs. We pack the tubs in a clean “food‑only” wheelbarrow, trudge up to the big cat area, and raise the red flag.

The animals seem to know why we’re here; as soon as they see us enter, they begin feverishly pacing and vocalizing intensely. It’s as if they’ve transformed from the playful cats I met this morning into intimidating beasts.

“Follow me with the wheelbarrow,” Ryan instructs. “We’ve gotta be quick.”

Rapidly, he moves from cage to cage, tossing meat into each feeding trough with a splat, as I try my best to keep up with him. Each cat gets an appropriate amount of food for his or her weight. Most of the tigers get one log. Some of the bigger males get one and a half logs. Ryan knows the amounts by heart.

The cats growl deeply at us as they receive their meal, a natural instinct to protect their catch.

“Never attempt to take anything back,” Ryan warns me. “If you make a mistake, you live with it.”

When we’re finished, the growls subside as the animals wolf down their food. We head back to the exit with our empty wheelbarrow. As we pass the cages, we are careful not to get too close and make animals that haven’t finished eating feel threatened.

One of the lions stares at her untouched food. Even I know that isn’t normal.

Ryan approaches her, and she doesn’t growl. “What’s wrong Savannah? Not hungry?”

The lion just looks at him.

Ryan presses his lips together as if he’s trying not to say something. He grabs his radio and reluctantly speaks, “Bob, Savannah’s not eating. Do you want me to take a look at her?”

“I’ll be right up,” a gruff voice responds.

Seconds later, Mr. North comes charging into the big cat area. Without acknowledging us, he walks straight to Savannah’s cage, opens her lock, steps inside, and shuts the door behind him. Savannah affectionately rubs against him, just like a housecat.

She likes him.

“Let’s fill the water bowls and check the locks,” Ryan whispers to me.

I go with Ryan to continue our chores, but I keep an eye on Savannah.

“Lie down,” Mr. North says to her.

Savannah does.

Mr. North presses on her belly, disguising it as a tummy rub. Savannah is obviously enjoying it; she rolls onto her back with her huge paws batting at the air. I can’t help smiling.

“That’s a good girl,” Mr. North tells the lion, then he raises his voice, obviously talking to Ryan even though he looks only at Savannah, “She’ll stay separate from her pride tonight. Plenty of water. I’ll check her again later.”

“Got it,” Ryan answers.

Mr. North leaves just as quickly as he came.

“Our lions spend the night in pride groups—one male with each group of females,” Ryan explains to me. “That’s how they’d be in the wild.”

There are two large cages—one for each pride group. Ryan and I slide open the gates that connect the individual cages to the large ones. The lions race to join their pride groups and greet one another by touching their heads together or rubbing against one another’s sides.

As Mr. North instructed, Savannah is left alone in her individual cage with a bowl full of water that she eagerly drinks.

The radio crackles, and a voice I don’t recognize says, “Hey, Ryan, does the student want to walk the elephants?”

My eyes widen. I smile and nod.

“Why, yes, she does,” Ryan tells the radio.

* * *

A tall guy, with wavy blond hair pulled back into a ponytail and a smile that makes me feel less self-conscious than I normally do, extends his hand to me. “I’m Tim.”

“I’m Jessica,” I say, allowing his strong, calloused hand to embrace mine.

“Have you ever walked an elephant before?” he asks me.

I shake my head. “Never.”

“Let’s remedy that, shall we?” Tim smiles again, his blue eyes appearing to illuminate when he does.

I smile back. “Okay.”

“We're going to take them out to the field.” Tim gestures to a dirt path lined with trees that leads away from the ranch. “There are lots of small saplings along the way that the elephants like to uproot, so we need to have them hold someone’s arm with their trunk as we exit the ranch. You ask them to hold your arm by saying ‘Arm’ and putting your arm like this.” Tim extends his arm, bent at the elbow, like an old-fashioned gentleman does for a lady. “You try it.”

“Arm,” I say, positioning my arm like Tim did.

Tim wraps his arm around my arm, exactly like I imagine an elephant’s trunk might do. I laugh.

“Good,” he says. “Now let’s do it for real.” He opens the latch on the elephants’ gate. A twinge of fear mixed with excitement tickles through me.

“Need help?” a young male voice calls out. I turn and see Aaron and the ranch dog, Joyce, coming toward us.

“You want to take Pongo?” Tim calls back.

“Sure,” Aaron says. “Pongo, come.”

Pongo lumbers toward him.

Just when the massive animal gets close, Aaron instructs, “Arm.”

Pongo takes Aaron’s arm, and they amble together down the path. Joyce trots along behind them, tail wagging happily.

“Do it just like that,” Tim says to me.

“Emily, come,” I say.

Emily doesn’t move.

“Try inviting her,” Tim suggests.

I soften my tone and try again. “Emily, come.”

Emily charges straight toward me. My excitement transforms to pure fear.

“Stand to her right,” Tim guides.

Tim doesn’t sound nervous. I try to let that fact calm me as I move to the right of what I predict will be Emily’s path. Emily picks up speed. If she decides to barrel past me, I won’t be able to stop her.

“Arm,” I say. Hoping for the best, I offer my arm.

Emily reaches toward me with her trunk and wraps it around my elbow. I start moving involuntarily as Emily carries me onward. Tim grabs a bag of apples from a bench near the elephant barn, and catches up with us.

Emily leads the way, past the trees and into a grassy open area, about the size of a football field. Pongo is already there, wandering at the far end with Aaron. Joyce chases butterflies nearby.

“Tell Emily ‘Go play,’” Tim whispers in my ear.

When I say those words, Emily immediately lets go of my arm and prances off. I’ve never seen an elephant walk like that; she appears … happy. Emily finds a clump of tall grass, easily uproots it, and stuffs it into her mouth. Tim reaches into his bag and pulls out an apple. He tosses it into the grass near Emily. She retrieves it and places it into her mouth.

“How’s your throwing arm?” Tim asks me.

“Not too good,” I admit.

He hands me an apple. “Then you throw to Emily.”

I toss the apple close enough to Emily that she goes after it. Tim hurls one across the field, incredibly close to Pongo. Pongo grabs it and tosses it into his mouth.

Aaron sits on a rock and lights a cigarette.

“Aaron smokes?” I ask Tim, although I suppose the answer is obvious.

“Only out here. There’s no smoking allowed on the ranch,” Tim says. “You smoke?”

“No,” I say, my face wrinkling with disgust. “Smoking is gross.”

“Yeah, it is,” Tim’s hand brushes his shirt pocket where a package of cigarettes peeks out.

For some reason I feel comfortable asking him, “Then why do you do it?”

“I started when I was twelve. My dad smoked. He always told me not to, but I saw him doing it, and I wanted to be just like him. Now I know better. Dads aren’t perfect, you know.”

“Mine wasn’t. He’s part of the reason why I’m here,” I say. And then, for some reason—maybe because I feel like I can trust Tim, even though I hardly know him—I tell him about the tiger trainer who I saw at the circus when I was a kid, and how my dad laughed at me when I said that I wanted to be a tiger trainer too. And how my dad died in a car accident a few days later—just five days before my tenth birthday. And how, from that day on, my mom has spent most of her time alone in her bedroom. Sharing these details of my life with Tim doesn’t feel nearly as strange or awkward as it should.

When I finally stop talking, Tim says, “I’m sorry about your dad. You did the right thing by doing this. You won’t regret it.”

My eyes well up with tears. I’m sure Tim notices, but he doesn’t mention it. If he did, I’m certain the tears would start to flow. I take a deep breath—trying to will away my tears—and stare across the field at Emily and Pongo. Pongo bounds off. Emily follows. Watching the elephants wander around, as free as wild animals should be, with no gates or bars to hold them in, I wonder aloud if they’ll ever come back to us.

“They always do,” Tim tells me.

Almost on cue, Emily heads toward us looking majestic, her huge ears spread like wings. She walks right up to me and begins examining my face with her curious trunk. I stroke her mud‑caked skin; she feels like a soft tree trunk. Emily is standing so close to me that I can feel humid heat coming from her mouth each time she exhales. I look up at her sharp, intimidating tusks. I’ve never been this close to an elephant before.

“Is this safe?” I ask Tim.

“Pretty much,” Tim says.

Despite his lack of complete reassurance, I don’t step away.

A lone car driving along the dirt road next to the field pulls to a stop. The driver leans out of the car window, eyes practically bulging from his head. “Are those your elephants?” he calls out to us.

Tim nods. “Yup.”

The man shakes his head in disbelief. “You mind if I …” He pulls out his cell phone.

“Go ahead,” Tim says.

I look up at the elephant towering over me and whisper, so softly that it’s almost to myself, “Does this ever get old?” I can’t imagine how it could, even if I did this every day for the rest of my life.

Tim answers just as softly, “Absolutely not.”


* * *

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