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Cage Match

Confronting fears at the Pittsburgh Zoo



The scorpion's name is Cupcake. And Cupcake looks pissed.

"Oh come on," a zoo official with a walkie-talkie strapped at his waist says. "How scary can it be with a name like that?"

He's talking to a girl. The girl is on Cupcake's side of the safety rope. The zoo official is on the other.

It's the girl's job to pop Cupcake's carrying case open. Then she's supposed to reach in and scoop up Cupcake like a gerbil. From the way the girl is shaking, I'm sure this is her first time.

I want to say, "Honey, what are you crazy? Don't do that." But instead, I call my 10-year-old son over to watch. 

How I became this person, I don't know. 

Earlier, I wanted to hang out at the shark tanks. Then on the bridge over Otis the Alligator. We were on our way to check out venomous snakes when I saw the Live Animal Demonstration sign. 

How I justify watching: I read somewhere that most scorpion stings are the same as bee stings. And I think if someone's going through the trouble of picking up a scorpion the size of a Pop-Tart, the rest of us should pay attention.

"You've got to see this," I tell my son, who would rather not see this at all. 

Cupcake's whole body is a claw. She's backed into the corner of her carrying case. Inside the reptile house, under ultraviolet light, Cupcake glows like a club kid at a rave. But out here, in the sunshine, she's so black she's almost purple, a nasty oil-slick bruise. Her carrying case is pink plastic, the kind of thing Barbie might store her shoes in. 

"Look, sweetie, she's going to pick up that scorpion," I say, and point, like I've just said something wise. Like I'm the muscle-guy back at the aquarium who flexed, pointed and said, in a low voice, "What we have right here are fish," while his pretty girlfriend clung to a bicep and cooed.  

My son doesn't coo. He backs up, because he's not an adult, because he still feels things.

"Why would she do that?" he says. 

The girl is ponytailed, in a powder-blue polo shirt with The Pittsburgh Zoo logo stitched on the chest.  She looks like summer help, an intern, maybe. 

 "Because she's an expert?" I say, and of course it comes out as a question. 

I've had a lot of awful jobs. None of them involved handling a scorpion. 

The closest I've come was the time I worked as a flight attendant and a pilot made me hold an exterior door shut during take-off. There was a mechanical problem -- the door wouldn't lock completely and the handle would start to open on ascent. But the pilot had a date that night -- one hot blonde, one steakhouse, margaritas the size of soccer balls -- and he didn't want a delay. 

He said, "Did you bring a parachute?"

He said, "You'll love the way you'll fly." 

He said, "Just don't let go," and winked.

I was young. I needed that job. I pushed my weight against the handle and held on, smiling at passengers who looked at me like I knew what I was doing. 

It's been a dozen years since I had a job like that, though. 

"You don't know what work is," my steelworker father would say, meaning what I do now, pushing words around a page. Meaning: It's not work if it can't kill you. 

"I mean, seriously: Cupcake," the zoo official is saying.

What I know about scorpions: They're sensitive to vibration and touch. Some bats and centipedes hunt scorpions for food. Cupcake is normally kept in the dark fruit-bat part of the reptile house. Her neighbor one cage over is a giant millipede.

The girl is shaking so much, that when her hand goes for the clasp on Cupcake's case, it's like she's about to stick a fork in a live toaster. I look down at my son, who's squinted his eyes shut.

The girl cups her hand and lowers it into the case. She nudges it under Cupcake and brings the creature out, a heavy dark heart in her palm.

"OK," she says to the zoo official, who's proud, beaming. "Now what?"

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