The smell of peanut butter still makes me nervous.
It all goes back to that summer in college when I was a summer intern with the Bronx Zoo. I was interning with the Zoo’s nutrition department, whose idea of a good time was, “Let’s kill it and figure out its nutritional content.” They sent me out to the barrier islands off the coast of Georgia, near Savannah, to observe the feeding behavior of these shorebirds known as American oystercatchers. American oystercatchers are these chunky black and white birds with bright orange bills shaped like oyster knives and bright orange eyes.
My job was to follow around the oystercatchers on the beach with binoculars, figure out out what kinds of prey they were eating and collect samples for nutritional analysis. Now, I’m from Kansas. We don’t have an ocean (well, anymore.) My zoo folks had to teach me about intertidal zones and marine invertebrates and shorebirds. Heck, they had to explain tides to me. (“You mean the water changes levels everyday, but at different times?!”) This was enough of a challenge in itself.
In addition to the oystercatchers, the nutrition department had a side project for me. At the Zoo, they fed the raptors (eagles, hawks, owls. etc) whole mice as part of their regular diet. The zoo mice at commercial rodent food, which was fortified with vitamins and minerals. The Vitamin A levels in the rodent food were fine for the individual mice, but the nutritionist was concerned that eating too many of the Vitamin A-fortified mice would lead to cumulative Vitamin A toxicity in the birds. They wanted me to get samples of wild non-Zoo-fed mice to compare natural vitamin A levels.
So the staff helped me rustle up some humane traps (ha!), which I baited with peanut butter crackers and waited for some mice to show up. In order to preserve the levels of Vitamin A, I had kill the mice and freeze them immediately, until we could get them back to the lab. In theory, this didn’t sound so bad. After all, I’d been dispatching oysters and clams with little remorse in the oystercatcher project.
What I didn’t realize is that when it comes to dealing death, cute, furry vertebrates are different from molluscs. I finally came up with an execution method involving plastic bags and a cannister of compressed CO2. It wasn’t easy, but I acquired and packaged the requested mouse samples. (I also cried a lot.) Then we brought our frozen stuff back to the lab.
In order to test whole mice for Vitamin A &E, fat, protein and ash content, you have to process them. Turns out that a nutrition lab is not so different from a kitchen. We would defrost the frozen mice, chuck them in a blender (yup, good old cuisinart!) and … blend them. (It kind of smelled like a combination of hamburger meat and peanut butter.) We would freeze dry the … blended mice, and use the powder to run our lab analyses.
It was in the name of Science! I wrote a paper on it.
And that’s why I went to law school.
Note: This is an approximation of the story I told at the HeART of the Story slory slam.