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.