Now that we were skilled trappers and could collect any number of species in a given week, the question was what to do with them. It came to me while on a school field trip to the San Diego Zoo. It was my first visit to a zoo. It was amazing to see the array of magnificent animals I knew so well from watching another of my favorite shows, “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom.” Marlin Perkins and his trusty assistant, Jim Fowler, traveled the world and each week featured a new adventure, or to be more exact, a forced encounter with exotic animals. They were out in the muck or the brush wrestling alligators, running from elephants or wriggling out of a potential death-grip of a python or anaconda that got the better of them.
At the zoo’s reptile house, the snakes and lizards peered from within glass displays that replicated their natural environments. And then I remembered—the old TV in the garage, it was just the thing we needed. We gutted the inside of the TV and tacked on screens in the front and back. After cutting half the top off and replacing it with a weighted board, we placed it out on the back patio. We filled the bottom with dirt, pebbles and stones. In the corner we planted a clump of grass next to a Beaver-tail cactus and set in a bowl of water in front of it. With a few specimens we’d have the second best reptile exhibition in San Diego.
We captured a couple Sagebrush Lizards, a Skink, a Pocket Mouse and a good-sized scorpion. We figured they’d love their new abode. It was an impressive San Diego eco-system complete with a pond. That first day or so life in the “Desert Kingdom,” as we called it, was hunky-dory. The mouse hid under the grass, the scorpion claimed the dark under the stones and the lizards preferred clinging to the screens. The Skink sat on top of the stones panting or slept behind the cactus. We caught some crickets and dug up a few worms and threw them in at night.
It was an ecological disaster.
The exhibition started to stink. The over-watered the cactus was wilting in the corner. The scorpion killed the little mouse; the skink, we surmised, ate one of the smaller lizards and most of the crickets and worms drowned in the water. The scorpion was immediately evicted and the skink let go soon after, when the other lizard disappeared. A couple crickets were the only surviving occupants. Joe decided, because we had plenty of room in the desert kingdom, he would get us a new tenant on his own.
Across the street were plenty of ground squirrels. Some of them friendly, especially if you threw them some nibble food. Joe coaxed one over with some Cheerios, and threw his tee shirt over it. In the ensuing Jim Fowler-esq struggle to overcome it, the little beast bit his hand. Joe was used to pain, and a little bite was nothing to him. Victorious, he carried the bundled squirrel back, and let it loose it inside the box. The squirrel went totally berserk and tore the place apart trying to jump out. It left fist-sized dents in the screens, upturned the water bowl and knocked over the cactus. It eventually calmed down after we stepped fearfully away.
“It’ll be all right, I think…”
“Yeah. I’ll get some more Cherrios,” Joe said as he casually inspected his bloodied finger.
“What happened?” I asked.
It was anything-but nothing.
When my parents found out Joe had been bitten by a squirrel, they went berserk. It didn’t help matters when the squirrel went nuts again when they went out to take a look at it. Seeing the big fuss Joe changed his story to: “It’s just a scratch…”
I heard something like, “Jesus, it could have babies!” Actually, it was, “It could have rabies!”
“Rabies — what’s that?”
They dragged Joe inside immediately to wash his finger off with every disinfectant we had in the house. Numerous frantic phone calls were made as my parents paced back and forth in the kitchen. In a matter of minutes the Board of Health, the SPCA and the Animal Control Bureau were on their way to our house. Joe sat disgruntled out on the patio in one of the comfy Price Is Right chairs with the floral motive. Two cars and a big truck pulled into the driveway and the people were escorted through the house to the patio. The gathering took turns solemnly inspecting Joe’s finger and the crazed squirrel. Each official personally interrogated Joe, or tried to, as he glared back at them with mulish reticence.
I watched from inside, waiting for one of them to start beating him with a blackjack or make him drink some truth serum. Joe confessed, kind of, non-verbally, that it might be a bite, with a nod of his head. He was informed it didn’t matter; a bite or scratch was enough to be contaminated. It was incredibly fortunate we had the squirrel. The Animal Control Bureau people carted up the furry perpetrator and took it away to be tested for the rabies virus.
IF the thing had rabies, Joe faced a series of inoculations, maybe up to eight shots in his stomach. Joe had to sweat it out, (no he didn’t want to do that) because it would be mistaken for a fever, one of the terrible telltale symptoms. Within a week, signs of nervous system damage could appear. There’d be no frothing at the mouth, like raccoons and dogs exhibited, but disorientation, hallucinations and seizures could occur. Eventually paralysis would set in. Joe might drop-dead any minute with a heart attack or go into a coma that could last for months… kept alive with the help of life-support measures.
Joe thought it was funny. As soon as my parents turned their heads or left the room he’d feign a seizure or grab his heart and keel over. Half way through the next week the report came back on the squirrel. It was perfectly healthy. The Desert Kingdom was thrown out in the trash, but I saved the cactus. The only specimens I was allowed to bring home after that were cactus. A Golden Snake, a Cotton-top and a Hedgehog, joined the Beaver-tail as part of my desert garden in the backyard.