The Usual, "Unusual Pets" I Have Had! Chapter 1: The Beginning
Preface: Where am I now?
Retired now and enjoying it...but not exactly in a conventional way. I wonder, am I in my second childhood? Some joy these days comes from reliving my childhood when animals and the outdoors were my love and my youthful curiosity was unabated. Those were the days, when finding a 15 lb. snapping turtle crossing the road or bringing home a porcupine from a vacation to the mountains made you the talk of the neighborhood; discovering that while walking to school, finding a dead squirrel on the road with teats full of milk meant that I could climb the nearest tree with a squirrel nest in it and save the orphaned baby squirrels; getting a call from a friend when the tree removal company they hired discovered baby raccoons. Taxidermy lessons through the mail suggesting to practise on pigeons led to my pigeon chronicles. Bats made great taxidermy subjects, and interesting pets! After taxidermy came falconry and owls.
Oh yes, there were snakes of all kinds along the way of my youth, salamanders, lizards, turtles, toads and a giant bullfrog with one eye. Wild skunk encounters from my youth eventually led to de-scented pet skunks and a pet arctic fox. Adulthood lead to conventional companions like dogs and cats and parrots, but it wasn't long until they gave way to other species of fox and exotic cats. Oh, and of course horses, to which I owe my separated shoulder and chiropractor bills.
Even as I escaped childhood it seemed I encountered unusual animal situations every where I went. There was the nest of baby barn owls in the belfry of an old campus building being demolished, the great horned owl that fell from the tree in our backyard in the middle of winter. So you see a certain melancholy is derived from reminiscing about the animals in my past and the lengths to which a child would go to satisfy his curiosity about animals. If you never experienced an obsessive love for animals and nature then you are probably bored to death already. So I am writing this for those kindred hearts who as little children may have talked to the trees and the animals and growing up were so mystified by the diversity and wonderfulness of nature they wanted to bring it home with them (rightly or wrongly) to learn and experience all they could about it (or anyone who is just looking for a chuckle).
"Let me be be clear." (where have we heard that before?). I do not condone taking wild animals for pets or any other reason and this narrative is not to be construed as a "how to" do that ... to the contrary it can be a demonstration of how not to do. These 5 Chapters are just some of my experiences with the usual, unusual pets. I hope you find it entertaining.
Chapter 1 (of 5): The Beginning
My mother said when I was born I was the skinniest ugliest newborn baby she had ever seen, and she, being a Navy RN, having worked in a maternity ward, had seen a lot. But there was a reason. She was 36 hours in hard labor with me and eventually I had to be born by cesarean section. Evidently the doctor could not be found at first and when he arrived there was the distinct smell of alcohol on his breath. As I have been told the ordeal had exasperated me physically using up any baby fat I might have had and they were concerned I may not live ... but my mother took me home and nourished me to the point that in two weeks the doctor and nurses couldn't believe I was the same baby they delivered.
Maybe this birth instilled in me a special appreciation for living things, who knows, but my mother said when she would wheel me outside in a stroller I'd look at the trees and watch every movement of birds and branches in the breeze. She said I'd point and talk baby talk as if I was talking to the trees. Little did she know at the time that along with her baby was coming a menagerie of animals that would tantalize and torment her 'til her dying days!
My first love was snakes...mom said when I was 6 months old she had me in the yard on a baby blanket for a while as she hung laundry out beside me. When she finished she watched me for a while, then collected me and brought me into the house. When she came back out to take the clothes off the line, in the exact spot where I had laid was a 3 foot snake curled up on the grass and ready to strike. An omen? No one knows, but as far back as anyone can remember I was fascinated with snakes, read all about them and new about them all! I had all kinds of snakes at one time or another too.
I'll never forget I was in the back yard making mud pies with a friend (and mud hershey's kisses, my specialty) when I heard my mother screaming in the kitchen - I ran up the porch stairs and into the kitchen to see that she had closed the dishwasher door on my 1 1/2 foot long green snake (it had escaped in the house a week prior and must have slithered into and then out of the dishwasher when she opened the door). Mom saw him when she was closing the dishwasher door and there he was half way up the side of the closed dishwasher door pinched in the middle and swaying up and down with his mouth wide open. Mom, bless her heart, was standing a couple feet away screaming not knowing what to do.
I remember it vividly because it is the only time I ever saw that dang snake open it's mouth! I removed it and aside from a slight kink in its body it did fine - the rubber seal on the dishwater door kept it from getting too badly squished.
There were two creeks one on either side of the neighborhood which we lived in. Carp would swim up these creeks from the Delaware river to spawn and the kids from the neighborhood on the other side of the creek would stand in the water by the banks with a pitchfork. The carp would spawn along the shallow banks and swim right between the kids' legs as they easily speared their dinner with the pitchforks.
My favorite pass time was to put on my jug belt and grab my onion bag net, don my shorts and old sneakers and head for the creek. I was known by some as the jug head long before I ever heard that term applied to a marine. My jug belt was an old army belt with mayonaise jars tied to it and holes in their lids. My net was a plastic onion bag threaded onto a wire coat hanger which was stuck into a 6 foot long 3/4 inch pipe left over from those my father used to weld a set of monkey bars for my brother and I to play on. I'd walk down the middle of the creek kicking up rocks and catching anything that swam out from under them, eels, tadpoles, crayfish, darters, mudpuppies...you name it, I had a mayonaise jar for it! When my belt was full, I headed home to put what I caught in my aquariums.
Mom was ok with the aquariums but would not allow me to bring other animals in the house after El Greengo invaded her kitchen domain...so when I brought home deer mice, shrews and voles (field mice) that liked to nest under pieces of wood or cardboard in the nearby fields that were becoming a dumping area, I had to conceal them ... in the basement! My father brought some heavy wooden boxes with lids made of 1 inch thick wood home from work so I used them to house the rodents I was bringing home. I hid the boxes under the cellar steps where my mother had other things stored. Yep, you guessed it ...she was looking for something and opened one of my boxes when I heard her screaming in the basement ...I came running down the stairs and she was hysterical about the nest of voles she discovered in the box under the steps. Although she didn't know I had put them there at first it was strike number two!
Well I fed the voles, deer mice and their babies to my snakes. Shrews require food day and night; even going hungry for a few hours can be fatal to a shrew. Little did I know at the time they must eat at least their own weight in food every day to survive, so naturally my shrew died the first day.
It wasn't long until I moved onto birds. We'd feed the birds in the yard to attract them, sometimes throwing bread on the lawn. So I did the box with a string and stick trap for a week with a pile of bread under and around it but the birds were too wary and would not go under a box. Besides when I pulled the string from the kitchen window it would lift up of the ground and scare the birds away before it pulled the stick out but since no birds would go under the box I didn't discover this for a while. I had to devise a better trap.
When I discussed my problem with dad, he came up with this solution. We took a hula hoop and covered it with black mosquito mesh (black was less visible), propped one side of it up on a 16 inch long stick attached to a string which we ran into the cellar way and through the cellar door. It took a week for birds to get used to the hula hoop but once a couple got brave enough to tackle the pile of bread under the hoop others quickly followed - the first catch we had nailed a dozen starlings at once, but the hoop was so light it bounced up off the ground and some got a way. So we took two of those left over monkey bar pipes and used them to weigh it down. Perhaps a little over kill but it worked. I would cage a bird or two when we caught them, either grackles, starlings or sparrows but I soon found they wouldn't eat and in three days would die. That just wouldn't do...so I built a rack of three cages I kept in the cellar way. I would keep a bird in each cage releasing each one at least every other day and replacing that one with a new catch. I'd get up every morning at dawn and sit in the cellar way before going to school, peeking over the edge of the cellar way wall to see when to pull the string.
So I always had a bird to show my friends. - then one day I caught a bird that had the brown head of a sparrow and the body of a black bird...I thought it was a cross of some sort and I had made a discovery! This inspired me to look it up in a bird book. Next to my Guide to reptiles and amphibians and mammals now was found a guide to birds with wonderful pictures. Eventually I thought I new every bird there was in the area and impressed my friends by naming the birds by their songs. This bird I just never remembered seeing in the book, but it was there. The sparrow "hybrid" was actually a brown headed cowbird! Hey, I was only 10 or 11 at this time, what did I know? I knew what a cow was.