From The Erbo Files
Sunday, March 4, 2012

Sabrina has a very nice article up about pets today, in which she talks about her cat Deamon, my late cat Miss Star Kitty, and our present cat, Her Serene Highness, Princess Penelope Ponderosa Pollyanna Peachfuzz ("Penny" to her hoomans). But "pets" doesn't necessarily mean "dogs" or "cats." Let me tell you about some of the non-traditional companion animals our family has had.

Back when I was much younger, I and some of my brothers had allergies to animal fur and animal hair, which precluded pets like dogs or cats. So our first real "pet" was a California desert tortoise. They're easy to take care of as pets; they mainly eat vegetables such as lettuce, green beans, spinach, and similar, as well as fruits like apples, grapes, and bananas. In a pinch, they even graze...and they can also be rather fond of rose petals. Our first one of those, we acquired while I was still in elementary school and we were still living in Cerritos. We named him "Homer," or "Homer T. Tortoise" in full (the "T" standing for "The," of course). Naturally, as a member of an endangered species, Homer has to be officially licensed by the California Department of Wildlife; he even has a "license plate," a tag affixed to his shell inside one of the back leg openings.

We weren't even the first members of our extended family to own tortoises; my grandfather had two, "Norman" and "Ralph." Norman was a mean bastard of a tortoise; he tended to attack humans that got close to him. By this, I mean he'd walk up to you, start bobbing his head at you (which is a sign of tortoise aggression), and, if you failed to move, head-butt your ankle. Male tortoises have a projecting edge along the front of their lower shell that they use as a weapon for this purpose. It's a big deal--if you're a tortoise. It's not always easy to tell a male tortoise from a female one, though; "Ralph" turned out to be more of a "Ralphina," as my grandfather found out when she laid eggs. At least one of them hatched, too, into a baby tortoise that my grandfather named "Lil' Toot," or "L.T." for short. (He put it thus: "E.T., go home! L.T., stay here!" )

Now, when I was in high school, it was one of my tasks in the morning to feed the tortoises before getting on the school bus. One morning, I walked out back to the tortoise pen, set up for Homer so he wouldn't try to dig his way out of the back yard, and saw a tortoise resting just outside the pen, against the wall of the house. I thought Homer had got out of his pen somehow...but, when I picked up that tortoise, it was obvious he wasn't Homer. For one thing, this tortoise had yellow eyes; Homer's eyes were brown. I checked the "tortoise house" inside the pen, lifting up its hinged roof to look inside. Homer was still in it, sleeping peacefully. I went back inside and told my father and stepmother, "We have a visitor." The visitor stayed, and was duly named "Jedediah T. Tortoise" by my father. (The name came from a story he'd told my stepmother about the legendary "Masked Tortoise," I think.) Male tortoises are territorial, if you hadn't guessed by my description of Norman, so Jed wound up getting his own pen. Sadly, Jed eventually contracted "bubbly nose," a sort of tortoise pneumonia, and despite Dad's and a local vet's best efforts, passed on. His legacy, however, was immortalized by an obituary of sorts in the Los Angeles Times.

Our family eventually increased the "tortoise herd," bringing in some other tortoises from people who'd kept them for awhile and then passed them on to us. The additions included several females, such as "Lolita" (so named because Dad thought she needed a bit of a "floozy" name), "Rosa Mae" (named after a famous hooker in the California mining town of Bodie), and "Bambi Maye" (named after a classmate of one of my brothers who probably should have been a hooker, with that name). Homer and Lolita (we think) eventually got together and did what tortoises do naturally, and we got a clutch of eggs of our own, which my father transferred to a terrarium set up as an incubator. He wound up with three live hatchlings, named "Olin," "Mary," and "Bull" by my brother Stephen. They all grew up into full-sized adults; Pamela even got to meet both Mary and Homer, when we went down to Poway to visit the family sometime before we got married. (I walked up to Homer and called his name, and he responded by turning and walking towards me. Somehow, that tortoise remembered me!) I believe they're still there; tortoises live longer than human beings, so it's entirely possible.

Nor did we stick exclusively to tortoises. My stepmother Donna had worked with a wildlife rehab center before she met my father, one that rehabilitated birds of prey. She kept one in her home, a sparrow hawk (North American kestrel) named "Gabriel," after the archangel, since he was prone to making "announcements" with his voice like Gabriel blowing his horn. After she and my father got together, Gabe came to live with us, and I acquired the responsibility of feeding him. Gabe's usual diet was beef heart, although he also enjoyed the occasional mouse or baby chick (pre-suffocated by my father and frozen for easy, prefab meals). Gabe and I got along; he would sometimes perch on my hand (with me wearing a leather glove, of course--those talons are sharp!) and bob his head at me or preen himself, both signs that he liked me. He would even let me gently stroke his feathers, and didn't bite me or anything. Gabe passed on several years after I met him; he was an old bird, and had had a rough life (in a zoo) before Donna took care of him. He died after having had a good meal, too, in the form of a baby chick. Donna and Dad later got another one to take care of, a female they named "Mariah." (No, not after Mariah Carey; they were thinking of the song "They Call The Wind Maria" from the Lerner and Loewe musical Paint Your Wagon. The "Maria" in that title is pronounced as if it were the currently-popular spelling "Mariah." ) Mariah was mostly Dad's bird; I didn't interact with her much, and she has since passed on as well.

Then there was the time my college roommate Dan kept and bred angelfish...and even sold a number of them back to the pet store, a pet store which later burned down in the Painted Cave Fire. Or the time my girlfriend of the time got a pair of anoles, and then foisted them off on me; I kept those silly lizards in my apartment for years, feeding them crickets. But since then, I've been almost boringly conventional, having had three cats, the aforementioned Star, Maui (who went to Finland with Pamela after we split up), and, of course, Penny. But not all pets have to be that conventional; as you can see, I've dealt with my share.

All things bright and beautiful,
All creatures great and small,
All things wise and wonderful,
The Lord God made them all.
Anglican hymn, circa 1848



Fun stories. Very well written, as usual.
Copyright © 2012 Eric J. Bowersox, All Rights Reserved.
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