The red-tailed hawk is a perfectly evolved predator of equal parts sinew, sharp points and speed, with 2-foot wings that beat the air like rotors. When it looses an ear-splitting shriek, without analogy in the human world, some animal-brain part of you instinctively recoils like a rabbit in its approaching shadow.
Jacqueline Menish (pictured with Archimedes the owl) doesn't have that luxury. As the Nashville Zoo at Grassmere's resident "bird lady" — as she's known to the thousands of young visitors who see her educational shows every year — she must maintain her cool around an array of creatures equipped with strategic weapons for surviving in the wild. At the same time, she must keep inquisitive humans from intruding too far upon the personal space of her animals — including Crash, the zoo's challenging red-tailed hawk.
"I'm not afraid of her, but I'll just say I'm very aware of her abilities," says Menish, who's worked with animals for 25 years. "I tell people if they can work with Crash, they won't be intimidated by another animal."
The hawk, she says, is a definitive example why people shouldn't try to raise wild animals as pets. Fed by humans, it bonded with its owners, but not in a submissive human-pet way: It regarded its supposed masters as rival hawks, treating them with the same territorial aggression. Preventing such perversion of natural instinct is part of Menish's educational mission, more vital than ever since the zoo posted record attendance of 600,000 visitors last year.
She passes along this message in three shows that emphasize native Tennessee animals, conservation — and most popular of all, "extreme animals" ranging from quill-covered porcupines to a Flemish giant rabbit the size of a small ottoman. The zoo's animals have already been "spoiled," in a way, by human interaction. She helps train them to accept the care they'll need for the rest of their lives, from receiving shots to feeding.
It's a calling Menish has felt ever since she volunteered at the former Cumberland Science Museum as a Middle Tennessee high-schooler. From there, she worked in vet clinics, landed a college internship at the Cincinnati Zoo, then a job at the Columbus Zoo, and eventually the Nashville Zoo (when it was still located in Joelton).
Over the years, she's handed superstar zookeeper Jack Hanna animals on Late Night With David Letterman, and she's worked with a childhood hero, Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom's Jim Fowler — whom she watched field fans' endless "Let's watch Jim wrestle the angry puma" jokes with resigned grace. She's also been allowed inside "Little Bavaria," the surreal Las Vegas inner sanctum of Siegfried & Roy. (Siegfried was more welcoming, if you're curious, but Menish says Roy had "the most amazing rapport with animals I've ever seen.")
Menish, who seems (forgive the term) unflappable even when only a thick metal sheath keeps a Eurasian eagle owl from sinking its powerful talons into her arm, remains fascinated by the complexity of animal behavior. Most misunderstood, she says, are vultures — intelligent, social avians whose brains are always calculating. Oddly, she says, it's the scariest-looking animals that are often easiest to get along with — like the gentle-natured porcupine, which welcomes strokes on a nose as soft as the felt bulb on a microphone — while "ooh, cute!" creatures such as the mischievous kinkajou can quickly show their teeth and climbing claws.
And if people really want to help that baby bird that fell out of its nest, don't try raising it in a shoebox in the laundry room. "Put it back in its nest," she advises. As for hawks, keep a respectful distance. "Don't ever stare down a hawk," Jac Menish says. "You'll lose every time."