The Usual, "Unusual Pets" I Have Had! Chapter 4
"It's all happening at the zoo"
Chapter 4 (of 5)
It was a few years before Simon and Garfunkle but for us it soon was all happening at the Zoo! I mentioned my taxidermy hobby earlier. When I first got my lessons one of the first lessons recommended to practise taxidermy on pigeons before tackling more aesthetic birds.The chapter even told you how to "humanely suffocate" the pigeon by applying pressure to it's chest with your hand, squeezing until the bird suffocated. Well when I read this it really didn't phase me because my mind was already conjuring up ways to catch a pigeon. What first came to mind was my hula hoop trap. And the best place I knew where there were flocks of pigeons was a granary near the Delaware River. We could see tons of pigeons there whenever we rode over the bridge to go into the city, so I recruited Butch to come with me and persuaded my dad to take us and our "equipment" to the granary early on a Saturday morning. Our plan was to stay all day and be picked up by my father around 5 PM. upon arriving we inspected the building and were surprised to find pheasants and other wild birds feasting on spilled grain. We staked out what we thought was an ideal spot where pigeons were congregating when we arrived. Turned out these birds were so wary of anything strange in their feeding area that they wouldn't come anywhere near our hula hoop trap. Could be there was so much for them to eat they just weren't hungry. An hour of watching in hiding, holding the string to the stick which held up the hula hoop with the two metal pipes propped on top of it was more patience than we had exercised in our lifetime. So we figured we'd give them time to get used to the trap while we looked around to see what kind of mischief we could get into.
The granary was a big building where grain was put onto and/or off of ships (never really saw them doing either though) surrounded by rows of railroad tracks spread out on the grounds. This was an old place on several acres and there were old half rotten railroad ties laying around between the adjacent tracks along with piles of junk and pieces of old sheet metal roofing. I guess operations were closed on Saturdays because there was no one around working the place. Naturally, the first thing I did was start turning over sheet metal and railroad ties looking for snakes or whatever might be living under them. The first railroad tie I lifted had a rat under it! I called Butch and we watched the rat try to hide in its tunnel under the tie as I dropped the tie in it's place because it was heavy. Butch said wait a minute and he looked around and found a two foot piece of pipe. He said here, I'll lift the tie and you get him. Butch lifted the RR tie and I went in to bludgeon the rat to death. To our surprise he leaped out of his tunnel and started running across the ground. I instinctively took off after him and whacked him on the run. He let out a squeal and flew 6 feet through the air...when he landed he was dead. What a rush!! Butch looked around and found another piece of pipe and the games began. One after another we flipped railroad ties and sheets of metal almost always revealing rats -usually more than one. Sometimes there'd be 4 or 5 and they'd scatter. It was a challenge to whack them all before they got away. We became very adept at whacking them on the run and a few times they'd stop and turn and jump at us squealing. Some were as big as a cat. .
As we slaughtered them we picked them up by the tail and threw them in a pile. The pile got so big we started another. The whole day was spent turning over every piece of junk we could find and whacking rats, running them down being sure to hit them before they got cornered because that made it harder, even dangerous to whack them. But what a thrill - we never had so much fun in our lives. When my dad showed up we were waiting with our hula hoop so disappointed that we couldn't get a pigeon. Dad didn't even notice as he drove by the two four foot high piles of dead rats we left behind...I often wished I could see the faces of any worker who may have arrived on Monday. We were the pied PIPEers of Philadelphia!
So what does this have to do with the ZOO? Well we still needed to get some pigeons! So Butch said he had taken the train and bus to go to the Zoo in the city. He said you can feed the pigeons peanuts at the Zoo and they would get close enough to catch.
Well my brother, Butch and I scrapped up some money for the train and the bus but Butch said the peanuts at the Zoo were expensive - so we went to the grocery store and bought some bags of peanuts. We put them in a little gym bag. Our plan was to go to the Zoo on a weekday when it opened because there would be fewer people there and feed the peanuts to the pigeons, grab a few, stick them in the gym bag and bring them home.
The three of us had to walk a mile to the train station, take the train into the city and then catch the bus to the Zoo. It all went fine getting there and was quite an adventure since I had never taken the train. Butch was right about the pigeons; they would even land on your arm. But the prettiest ones always stayed out of arms reach. We really wanted to grab a white one or anything other than the usual gray pigeon. We were on a side of the Zoo were there weren't any people when we pulled off our bird napping. By the time we used up the peanuts we had 5 pigeons in the gym bag. So we walked around the zoo a little and then headed for home. Little did I know the ride home was going to be a little more exciting than the trip to the Zoo.
We got on the bus and sat in the back. The bus was only about 1/4 full. I decided to open the gym bag and look at the pigeons. This is when I discovered that they were getting wet...pigeons don't sweat but they perspire through their air sacs and breath the perspiration out their mouth. The pigeons were all wet from the condensation of their breath inside the zipped gym bag. So I kept the bag open to give them air. In the light the male pigeons decided to start cooing. People were looking at us as we stared anywhere but at the gym bag. As a karate wing chop fight broke out in the bag (pigeons use their wings like karate chops when they get aggressive at each other, a fact I did not know) amidst the cooing one pigeon decided to fly out of the bag. There we were in the back of the bus amidst the sounds of pigeons cooing and flicking their wings at each other and then all three of us frantically reaching into the air to grab the pigeon that had escaped. Once we got it under control we sat there like little angels looking out the windows or anywhere but at the gym bag, which continued to make unusual sounds, for a gym bag. When we got to the train station we all but ran from the bus, fearful that what we were doing was something that could get us in trouble. Then we had to deal with the train ride home. Well by then we knew what to expect so it was a little noisy but uneventful.
Once home I attempted the technique described in the taxidermy lesson to kill one of the pigeons, squeezing the life out of it with my bare hand...it was terrible and I stopped a couple times before actually killing the bird. I began to realize I couldn't do it. Then, as it was trying to take it's dying breath the thought came into my head of resuscitating this bird. I stopped. I then released all the pigeons and resigned myself to concentrate on road kill for practise.
You may ask, "What does all this have to do with unusual pets?" The whole pigeon experience piqued my interest in pigeons which lead to my cousin giving my brother and I a pigeon coop and and a couple pairs of racing pigeons to breed, a sport he was involved with. And so racing pigeons joined the ranks of my menageries. My brother lost interest in the pigeons though so I pretty much took care of them although he would never relinquish his claim to half. The two pairs were expensive birds that had racing track records and from years of breeding them I eventually had quite a flock. Then it came time to go to college. Since they were half my younger brother's I commanded him to take care of them while I was away. Well, a month of cleaning the pigeon coop was all he needed to decide he had to get rid of these birds! I came home for thanksgiving only to discover my father (who had no love loss for pigeons) took my brother and the pigeons to the farmer's market livestock auction a month after I left for school and sold the whole lot for a whopping $6.00. Unfortunately the buyers returned my brother. :)
Oh yes, my brother was taking care of Bougalou too! (if you call teasing him by holding onto his peanut taking care of him). Before I left for college I put Boogalou in the crow aviary by the cellar steps. The aviary had a lower enclosure where I had put a hollow log upright for the squirrel to sleep in and he could go onto the roof of that enclosure which was the aviary. Alongside of the section where the squirrel slept was a pigeon sick bay of 1 foot square cubbies with dalpin doors. All this was under one shingled roof on top of which was the aviary. Boogalou had gotten so fat that when I tapped on the sliding glass door to his cage he would stick his head out the hole of the log he slept in. If he saw my brother he'd pull his head back in the log and stay there (I wonder why?). If he saw me he would pull his head back in and then you would see histwo front paws pop out of the hole, then his arms, then his head and the rest of his body would slither out like toothpaste out of a tube with his hind legs stretched out behind him...he had grown so big that was the only way he could go in and out of the hole! When he came out, then he would go nuts playing with me. If he was out and my brother tried to touch him he'd get bit!
When I arrived home from college I brought with me a box that was sectioned to hold small bottles, but in it I had placed a couple dozen little brown bats I had taken from an abandoned coal mine while hibernating in the mountains where I went to college. I put them in the pigeon sick bay next to Boogalou as mom would never let bats in the house - I told no one about the bats. My plan was to mount them over the holiday in poses so they could be clipped on your shirt or jacket hanging upside down with their head up and teeth showing. some I stuffed so they could be hung from a nylon string flying in your dorm room (I had orders from students in the dorm). I also planned on keeping a few for pets. Well the squirrel had never tried to gnaw out of his pen, but the night I got home he could hear the bats rustling in the sick bay next to him and his curiosity got the best of him. He gnawed a hole in the side of his pen and ripped open the cardboard box of bats. The next morning I woke up and looked out my bedroom window to see bats circling my back yard! I looked down at the Aviary where my crows used to be, and saw Boogalou standing on top of the box of bats, picking them out of the box one at a time carrying them to the dalpin door of the sickbay and throwing the bat's to the wind. I ran down there as fast as I could, opened the dalpin door and Boogalou continued to give the bats freedom not even paying attention to me!
I got the box out and ran into the basement with it. There were four bats left which I quickly put into an empty aquarium and stuck something over it to keep them in. When I went to tend to Boogalou I saw that he had gnawed through the wood partition to get into the pigeon box. He didn't harm one bat but was simply giving them their freedom. I played with Bougalou a while cause he was happy to see me and fixed the hole he gnawed.
While I was doing this my mother had come down into the basement to do the laundry. The washer and dryer were at the end of the basement where the cellar door to outside was, by my aviary. Déjà vu...I heard screaming in the basement and I opened the cellar door to see my mother running away screaming as four bats were circling the basement. In the commotion of that morning I had not secured them well, the top I put on the aquarium had fallen off ...and well you know the rest.
Skipping ahead a couple years later back at college, I and my roommate rented an apartment in an old farmhouse that had been converted to apartments. It was a 20 minute ride to school and we just loved being out in the country. It wasn't long after moving in we discovered the house was known as the snake farm and we were told to be sure and check the basement every night before going to bed. To me this news came as a blessing. However my roommate felt differently about snakes. We were both biology majors and had a small menagerie that included breeding hamsters, a cat named Cinder and a couple chipmunks Cinder had brought home to us (Cinder never killed anything but would bring whatever she caught in the window and present it to us or she would hold it til we came home if we weren't there).
It wasn't long 'til the snakes started appearing. First i caught a couple black snakes around the yard. Some black snakes were nasty, some weren't. Some would be fine as long as they were on your body or in your arms but as soon as they were off your body they would become nasty. I would put the nasty ones on the ground in the yard and practise cornering them and grabbing them before they'd strike. i learned they really weren't that fast and got very adept at handling them. When curled up and disturbed some black snakes will shake their tail just like a rattlesnake. If there is anything touching it like dead leaves (or the side of a metal filing cabinet as one day I discovered in our den) it will sound like a rattler.
One morning our phone rang and neither of us wanted to get up to answer it cause we had gone to bed late. We slept in the same room with separate beds. My roomy got up ran across the bedroom, jumped and went into the living room to answer the phone. He hung it up, ran and jumped again, and got in bed. Jumping in this old house shook the whole floor and my bed. Half asleep I said what is the jumping about. He sat up in bed and said I think I jumped over a snake! I leaped from bed and sure enough there was a 6 foot black snake stretched out on the floor in the path to the phone.
Then there was the night when I went down the cellar to check for snakes and found a three foot copperhead stretched out on the dirt floor of the basement. I had a snake stick down there and used it to pin the snake and pick it up grabbing it behind the head, mouth wide open with fangs sticking out. Bringing it upstairs I found my roomy on the phone talking to his hometown honey. He was in shock seeing me with this snake. I said go get me a laundry bag and he did as I said. I said open it and he did. As I lifted the snake to put it in the bag he threw the bag to the floor and said I'm not going to hold that while you put a copperhead in it and you are not keeping that snake in our house! I didn't have time to explain to him why this is how you handle a snake so I said grab that empty aquarium with the screen top, we'll put him in that on the porch. On the porch we admired the beauty of this snake who must have just recently shed because he was shiningly beautiful.
It was dark and as usual Cinder was right there with us looking at the snake in the porch lighting. I suggested we feed it a hamster but roomy was against that. I said to roomy it's too bad we don't have a mouse to feed it and Cinder turned and looked at us, then leaped off the porch into the darkness. We looked at each other saying nothing but I know we both thought what is that cat up to now? I kid you not, within a minute Cinder came up the porch step with a live mouse in it's mouth, set it on the porch and held it down with it's paw as it looked up at us. I grabbed the mouse by the scruff of its neck and put it in with the snake and we watched 'til we got tired and went to bed. By the morning the snake had eaten the mouse. We decided in the morning to take the snake to the biology lab and see if they could use it.