Tuesday, October 07, 2003

Two huge tigers have held the headlines for the past few days, vying for our attention with Iraq and the Israel/Palestine/Syria complex situations.

Little thoughts for little minds, and little pants for little behinds: if the human situations have you stymied, why not de-stress and relax debating a less emotionally charged subject?

What the hell gives the right to any human being to keep a 300 lb tiger in a New York apartment?

Why do circuses still have animal trainers? Any animals at all, for that matter: elephants, lions, tigers, French poodles, fleas, even?

Before coming to America, many, many years ago, I had heard the myth of the alligators in the New York sewers, who had been released into the "wild" environment when they had outgrown first their fish tanks, then their bathtubs. It turned out this was not a true story at all, but a joke started by someone thinking out the logical outcome of what might be the endgame when a child innocently is allowed to choose an inappropriate pet.

I had a boyfriend once, who was very funny telling the story of his childhood, in an apartment at 54th and 7th in New York, where he and his brother had the "pet of the month". Wild pets which they had caught in New Jersey when they visited a friend of their mother's, and which they returned to New Jersey (and sometimes lost on the bus on the way out) the next time they went there, because their mother had said: "Enough!" You would have thought she would prevent this sort of thing by allowing them to have a small dog of their own (one of those "silly little dogs" referred to by Ed Viullamy when he said goodbye). But no: instead she allowed turtles, snakes, blue jays, etc., to come and go in an endless procession.

A few years ago I remember spending an afternoon with a group of people, where we also laughed so hard we almost pissed our pants, listening to a very funny young woman describing what it was like, when she was in college, sharing an apartment with three other girls, and her pet raccoon. Ah! Those night raids on the refrigerator! Oh! Those fights over slippers and other gear! I don't remember the details of anything, only how much we laughed.

Growing up with a widower father, we never had a real home when I was growing up. We only had a permanent address, a small Mews flat in the West end in London where we met our father when school let out. Both my brother and I were boarders. So, with our father living and working in Paris the whole year, a family pet was quite naturally out of the question. Our aunt Doll, who lived in the flat next to ours, had a pekingese dog called Ling, which she bred at regular intervals, so sometimes we enjoyed the company of gorgeous puppies for a while. They were pedigree pooches, with names on their papers like "Princess Ding Ling of Foochan Mao Xia", or "Duke Xia Xu Wu of Fao Tsung Chi", but we gave them imaginative names like "Blackie", "Brownie", "Whitie". It didn't pay to get attached to "our" dogs, because by the time we came home again for the next school holidays, they would have gone to their permanent homes. Ling always remained, it is true, but she almost never counted, really. She was... Well, she was a soppy dog.

My brother and I solved our "petless" problem by each making ourself a stuffed dog, made out of felt and stuffed with old underwear and socks that we begged everyone to give us. We made them leashes, too, and we had a certain way of "walking" them, which we did as if they had been real dogs, at Puck Hill in Hyde Park, where everyone else was a-walking their real live dogs. It wasn't the same as having a dog, but it was the best we could do.

So, I was almost forty when I got my first pet. A bird... A small green parakeet.

The choice of a bird came naturally because I have always enjoyed watching them and listening to them. They represent the joy of living for me, period.

When I was hospitalized for a few months as a teenager, my bed was on an outdoor terrace, 24/7, facing the North Sea at a place called Margate. There was a lot of weather, but not much else. I noticed the sparrows always showed up at the foot of our beds around teatime, hoping for handouts. I announced I was going to tame them, to get them to come up onto my bed and to take bread from my hand.

"Good luck, Cassius!' My neighbors laughed, "They'll never come!"

They called me Cassius because I was so skinny--as in "Yon' Cassius has a lean and hungry look".

After a few weeks, the birds were not only eating out of my hand, they would hang about my bed at all times, they had made it their playground. After the initial triumph came the retribution, as the little birds relieved themselves without shame onto my bedclothes, getting me into trouble with Sister D'Arcy, the ward dragon. Whenever they landed over my feet and looked like they were going to "do it", I would kick and kick to get them to fly off. By this time, however, they were so tame they couldn't care less, they would just stay put, chirping away and bouncing up and down on my kicking feet like gymnasts on a trampoline.

As I was saying, my first pet was a parakeet. I bought him at Rockefeller Center from a Mrs. Belmont.

Mrs. Belmont was a character. She had been a showgirl in her youth, one of the famous Ziegfeld girls, but she had always loved birds. Once upon a time, she was asked to train 300 parrots for the promotion for a Mae West movie: the birds would be in the lobby of the movie theaters, and they would call out: "[Wolf whistle, wolf whistle]... I'll bet she does!" The Hays committee, or commission, or whatever it was called, heard about it, they said it was too suggestive, and at the last moment, all the parrots had to be taught something else, like: "Here she comes!" As you may imagine, this did not work out, the whole idea got scotched and 300 speaking parrots came onto the bird market. I can see people having friends over for an evening, sitting at the dinner table, and trying to keep a straight face and pursue a serious conversation, with a large colored bird screaming in the background: "[Wolf whistle, wolf whistle!] Here she comes! I'll bet she does!" This scene repeated three hundred times over throughout the United States. Since parrots live a very long time, for all I know, it may still be happening today.

Anyway, at the time I got my bird, I had a boyfriend living with me. We picked the smallest bird in the cage, the shy one in the corner.

"What do you want to call him?" my boyfriend asked.
"Yes. It was a character in the Goon Show. They were always saying "Shut up, Eccles", and he would repeat "Shut up, Eccles!" If I taught him to speak, he would do a small goon show for us."

So, shy little Eccles came home.

Mrs. Belmont had to tell us to let him settle in, and for three day, Eccles kept up his shy act and cowered in his cage, looking very nervous and frantic whenever I approached with seeds, water and friendship. The carpet around the birdcage area became thick with bird debris, and on the third day, I'd had it.

"I don't care what he thinks, I'm going to Hoover up this mess..." I didn't care what the boyfriend might have to say about it, either.

Now, to explain: I don't vacuum, I "Hoover", it's my one lifetime brand recognition. So I pulled out the Oreck and Hoovered.

As soon as the noise started, little Eccles was hopping around his cage and singing with all his might! You would have thought spring had sprung.

"Well, I guess that's that" I laughed, "We'd better call him Hoover." Then I had another thought and added: "J. Eccles Hoover".

"J?" asked my boyfriend.
"J for genius" I responded.

Eccles was a small genius indeed: he sang parakeet, he spoke goon, and he learnt pigeon from the pigeons that sometimes hang out on my window ledges. It was a joy to have him sit on my shoulder, cuddling up to my neck, and cooing little pigeon noises into my ear.

Eccles did learn to say "Shut up, Eccles", he owned the apartment, he had many places which he enjoyed in a distinctive way (like the place over one closet door, where he liked to make a hole in the wall, again and again, which I would spackle and paint, again and again). He became very possessive about the telephone because he believed it was there for one purpose only, to call the weather man, and he was in love with the weather man. If you set down the phone on the table, he would go up to it and coo into the weather man and do his seduction dance. It became almost impossible to have any phone conversation with him around, as he attacked you to try and get the phone out of your hands, and you would be trying to say something serious, and then you would be flapping your arms and yelling, "Stop it! Get away from here! Stop it! No....No.... Not YOU, I'm not talking to you, I'm talking to Eccles...Stop it! Stop it! No... No... Not you! Go on... Go on..." "Pardon me?" Eventually, you learnt either to put him back in the cage before attempting a phone call, or else to sneak them in when he was in the bathroom, where he had his favorite mirror.

Eccles for a long time was the best friend in my life. For a short while, I can even say he was the only one.

One day that I was buying bird seed, I noticed a small hamster running about in the store window. It was a beautiful and irresistibly fluffy golden hamster, and I bought it for $4.98 plus tax, along with about $60 of specialized hamster gear.

I named him Mister Chouchou and kept the name even when someone told me he had to be a girl (no balls).

Two days later, my doorman gave me a second hamster, which he had found in the doorway outside of our building. It was very skinny, with a dirty white stripe around the middle of its body. It was very fast, hard to catch and even more difficult to hold, and I didn't really want to take him in, poor little "street rat", but I did. He also turned out to be a girl and I named her Miss Froufrou.

I didn't know any hard facts about hamsters, all I knew is that I knew nothing of Miss Froufrou's origins and didn't want to run the risk of her being sick and contaminating Mister Chouchou, so I didn't put them into the same cage.

Miss Froufrou went into a plastic tub, with a window screen for a cover and a large book to keep it weighted down, because she kept jumping up to try and get out. I gave her one of my rice bowls filled with seeds, and another one filled with water. I put the whole contraption beside my bed and had the satisfaction, every time I woke up during the night, of hearing the steady "chomp, chomp" of little teeth crushing crispy goodies. In the morning, the bowl was empty. I have no idea how long she had gone without food.

Each time Miss Froufrou tried to get a drink, she dunked herself into the water bowl, and by the end of the week, her white fur was perfectly clean and she was presentable and could be handled.

After two weeks, I thought I might introduce Mister Chouchou to Miss Froufrou. Both of them were quite tame by then, and I thought maybe they could become roommates.

When I set Miss Froufrou at the door of Mister Chouchou's open cage, however, something shocking happened. Froufrou went forward slowly, whiskers abrisk, and Chouchou suddenly stood up on her hind legs, looking exactly like a sumo wrestler about to attack; she hissed and snortled, and then lunged at Froufrou like greased lightning, and the two of them went spinning into a snarling tropical storm at full speed. I reached in and pulled them apart, poor little Froufrou had been bitten in the butt and was bleeding.

Whatever the truth might have been about Froufrou's background, in my mind she was clearly the victim, and in fact Chouchou didn't have so much as a scratch. I told him off roundly for being so rude to a visitor. I never put them together again.

Eventually, Chouchou died very young, without being sick at all, as far as I could tell: it all happened within a few hours, late one Sunday afternoon. Miss Froufrou, the "street rat", flourished, however, and eventually I bought her a huge cage, with lots of games. She gave me and everyone who met her a lot of pleasure, she had a beautiful personality, she was funny. Even my ex boyfriend loved her: he looked after her when I went to Japan for business once, and when I came back to collect her, he had given her one of his tennis socks. "I was quite taken with her", he explained.

Hamsters don't live very long, unfortunately, two years is about the maximum. I was very upset when Froufrou died, but after a period of mourning, I got Fifi.

Fifi should have been called Miss Houdini because she never stayed in the cage. The same cage, incidentally, that had been so good for Miss Froufrou. One night, I decided to stay awake to see her get out: it was amazing to see this small Idaho potato sized hamster ooze through the bars that could not have been wide enough to pass a pencil through.

Fifi's rule was that of a freedom tyrant: the cage was on the floor all the time, gates open. She came in at night and ate, drank, and enjoyed the exercise wheel, it was her spa moment. The rest of the time, she lived, like a tiger, wherever she wanted in the apartment. She had areas under the bunk bed where she set up Korean fruit stands, very neatly propped up against the wall, little nuts and berries set up neatly and almost artistically. She climbed up and down the bookcases. She chewed through all the electric wires and disconnected the clock, the stereo, the telephone, the lamps. She destroyed one entire corner of a Belgian wool carpet (luckily not an heirloom quality rug). One night that I was peeing in the bathroom, I had the feeling of being watched, and there she was, in the bathtub, all wet and shivering, standing on her hind legs and looking at me. I grabbed a dry face cloth and dried her off, she growled at me but did not bite. Then I let her loose onto the floor and she flew off. I never figured out how she had got into the bathtub, it must have been heroic and I wish I could have watched it.

That year, everyone in my building, everyone on my floor except me, was plagued by an invasion of small, black mice. I never saw one, because my premises were patrolled by a wild hamster. I was so thankful to Fifi that I didn't have to experience the glue traps, the spring-loaded mouse traps, the various exterminating products, all those really horrible gadgets that it's so much better, really, to do without.

When Fifi died, I never got another one. She was a hard act to follow. I still remember her with a great deal of fondness, the beautiful feeling of waking up in the middle of the night to find a small fluffy hamster sitting on my bare shoulder, so comfortable, serene, at home, doing her toilet in a very leisurely manner, preening and scrubbing away, very thoroughly, whiskers and little nose working cheekily.

Well, I don't have pets any more. I have more to say about this, but this is all for today.
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