The actor's vice that almost killed me

Actors can get pretty much anything. Just for doing their jobs, they have easy access to drugs, sex and millions of dollars in loaner jewelry. It can get addictive. The attention, the affection, the free stuff.

I really believe in being truthful about your past, so I feel the need to come clean. There was one perk that I got totally hooked on:

The access to animals.

I got to meet all kinds of cool animals. Trained monkeys and dogs. Dolphins and killer whales. Walruses and baby cows. This tends to happen at places like Sea World, where you get your ticket comped because you do some publicity shots. You hold/hug/feed a cute animal and they put the photo in a glamorous publication like the Orlando Sentinel or the Sea World Annual Report.

I must admit...holding a penguin is a crazy high.

Here is a photo of me indulging in my most dangerous actor perk:


Eventually, as is the case with many overindulgences of Hollywood -- all that petting got dangerous.

I was working in Florida when I was about 16 and couldn’t stand the thought of spending another weekend in Orlando, dodging tourists and that omnipresent fucking mouse. So, a few friends and I went to this river that was a hot spot for manatees and one of the few places where you could swim alongside of them.

Since I had bottle-fed one of them for a photo-op, I considered myself a manatee expert. I educated the others on the pertinent details of their size and demeanor. They are about 10 feet long and 1,000 pounds which can be intimidating but I wasn't concerned. They are essentially very sleepy underwater cows. I knew what I was doing. I'd been an animal junkie for years.

Because they are nearly extinct due to boat propellers, there were specific park rules for manatee interaction: you could only use one finger to pet them. So, there I was with my mask and snorkel, swimming in this murky river and petting the manatee with my one finger. His body was warm in the cold river, with coarse, bristly hairs that sprung from his thick skin. The mixture of muscle and blubber beneath was surprisingly solid, I had expected his flesh to give way, like an aquatic Stay Puft Marshmallow Man.

The manatee in question sweetly cuddled up to me and grabbed my arm in his little flippers. “Little flippers” is true, proportionally speaking, but they were still shockingly strong and bony and large enough to envelope my entire arm. His long eyelashes batted at me as we bobbed along the surface of the river.

All this inter-species snuggling looked super cute at first through my mask and snorkel, mostly because I could still breathe. But then the manatee, while still hugging me, went into a maneuver that, if done by a crocodile, would be termed a "Death Roll." He sank down to the bottom of the river while still holding my arm tightly in his flippers. He rolled around and hugged me in what seemed to be merriment on his part, but was absolute terror on mine.

I didn’t know what to do.

Could I maintain the parks rules and just poke him with one finger until he lets me go? I wondered if my film insurance covered drowning by manatee. Would my death be reported in Daily Variety? Would they use my 8x10 headshot? My current headshot wasn’t that great. Certainly not for my obituary.

I tried to remember if the Sea World employee had said anything about manatees during the photo-op that might be useful, but it had mostly been about trying to get the animal turn his face more towards camera and for me to keep my hair out of the way.

I tried to pry my arm loose. It’s surprisingly hard to pry things underwater. The ranger didn't say anything about not using our feet on the manatee, so maybe I could just gently...kick...him. But do I really want to be the girl who kicked an endangered species? Would it say "animal abuser" in my obit alongside the bad headshot?

This was becoming ridiculous, I was starting to get really dizzy from lack of oxygen. Finally,  my thrashing must have indicated to this sea monster that I was not enjoying the cuddle as much as he was, and he released his paddle arms and let me go.

I gasped to the surface like I was in Jaws and climbed back into the boat. My friends hadn’t noticed my lengthy submerged absence.

“Aren’t they cute?” Everyone squealed.

I decided that my quasi-celebrity creature-petting should be conducted with an animal handler and several photographers around. It's best to have witnesses.

I'm not gonna lie. I'm glad I quit the game - but sometimes I miss that penguin rush.

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