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Bob O’Connor: Up close and personal with animal kingdom

I have never understood the fascination with the animal kingdom. I am not talking about otters, koalas and pandas – those are Disney characters. When I say animals, I’m talking sloths, slugs, rats and cockroaches.

Anything that crawls, slithers, swims or flies has one thing in mind when it sees me: dinner. I am wary of dogs, suspicious of cats, and hamsters give me the creeps with their unnatural noises and sneaky moves.

So many of my friends call themselves “animal lovers” and I have no idea what they mean. I suppose it’s easy for them to love cuddly puppies or kittens, but does anyone really love anteaters or barnacles? And no matter how tame they seem to be, you can never turn your back on your pets. Just ask Siegfried and Roy.

The woman across the street owns a Great Dane the size of Secretariat. Every chance I get, I wander over and feed the beast a doggie treat. My neighbor thinks I love animals, but I consider the Pupperonis as protection money. When the beast goes bad, I want to be on her good side.

One of my children is a marine biologist who works at a big zoo in the Midwest. Every time we visit, we are treated to a behind-the-scenes tour with a tower of giraffes, a flange of baboons, a rookery of penguins or a pod of dolphins.

The penguins were scary up close. I picked up a little one called a rock hopper and it proceeded to poop all over my shirt. “Dad,” cried my daughter, “you aren’t trained. You are not allowed to pick up the animals!” Neither she nor the rock hopper cared about my soiled top.

We were then introduced to a few emperor penguins. These guys stand about 4 feet tall and can be really mean. In their tuxes, they reminded me of the wedding scene from “The Godfather.”

“Do not touch them,” warned my daughter. “They may bite you.” Touch them? I don’t want to be on the same continent with them. I wanted to leave our little corner of Antarctica and find a bar.

For a recent visit, my least favorite child arranged an intimate meeting with a 1,500-pound walrus named Belle, who had horrid breath and a mustache. She reminded me of my Aunt Veronica. Belle moved about by shifting her enormous rump from side to side. She looks cute swimming around in her habitat, but behind the glass wall of the exhibit, she is menacing.

“Will she bite?” I nervously asked the aquarist. “Oh, no,” she replied. “She is a sweetheart. But if she ever did get angry, she would butt you.” I glanced around at Belle’s enormous hinder. The aquarist saw my confusion and explained that walruses butt enemies with their faces. “They are very powerful and could do serious damage,” she said.

This is when it got weird. “Would you like to kiss her?” I was asked. “Just lean in there, Mr. O’Connor, and pucker up.” Not wanting to lose face in front of my family (no pun intended), I did as I was told. Belle didn’t kiss me; she sucked my face like a Shop-Vac. Then she let out a sound like a donkey in heat. “That means she really likes you!” Just my luck, the biggest female in the place has a crush on me. It was high school all over again.

I spoke with my daughter last night. “Dad,” she said, “when you and mom visit next week, we’ll have a session with Spike the rhinoceros; he’s adorable.”

“Wait a minute,” I countered. “You want me to drive 10 hours to meet some fella who is overweight, has an enormous nose and has a face like a deflated football.”

“Aw, come on dad,” she sighed. “You know every girl wants to meet a guy just like dear old dad.”