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Wild Things

As a child I had the usual pets. But the feral critters I "adopted"—from chameleons to hermit crabs—were much more exciting.

By May 2003Comments

HIS NAME WAS COWBOY, AND he was big and hairy, with mean, dark eyes. He wasn’t likable; he made people nervous, and they kept their distance. But something about him kept their attention too: his inhuman stillness, maybe, coupled with an unnerving sense of watchfulness. His only endearing quality was that he was decidedly bowlegged, which is how he got his name, as he wasn’t really a cowboy at all. He was our pet tarantula.

Although I’m hazy on the details of where we acquired Cowboy (somewhere in the Panhandle, on one of our meandering Sunday drives), I do have a memory of laughing hysterically with my mother and siblings as, safely ensconced inside the station wagon, we watched my father try to coax Cowboy into a coffee can, only to jump into the air every time the spider sprang in his direction. Why my father had decided to corral Cowboy I don’t know; I suspect my little brother, Bill, had begged him to catch what was, even for a tarantula, a hefty specimen. At any rate, we kept Cowboy for a long time in a terrarium in the family room, where he seemed content and where we used to gaze at him for hours. (He was a “pet” only in the noun sense of the word; Lord knows we never touched him.) My sisters and I used to try to convince Bill, the baby of the family, that gosh, no, he wouldn’t get in trouble if the terrarium cover were somehow left ajar and Cowboy crawled into the living room during Mother’s bridge club meeting.

My family had plenty of traditional pets when I was growing up—dogs, cats, parakeets—but they were never quite as exciting as those we caught ourselves. In the fifties and sixties, no one protested the removal of bugs or reptiles or mini-mammals from their natural habitat. (Such an objection would have been about as popular back then as an admonition to “eat less beef.”) One advantage of growing up Texan in those days was a ready supply of pocket-size wildlife, especially in spring, when harmless little critters like Texas brown snakes, anoles (a.k.a. chameleons), and garden spiders were suddenly everywhere. The most popular—probably because they were gratifyingly catchable—were horny toads, which seemed to swarm around the back yard then the way fire ants do now. Any Texas kid, seeing one of the little lizards break cover and dash across open ground, felt honor-bound to give chase.

My sibs and I had a steady succession of pet horny toads, which we generally freed after a day or two at the Cigar Box Motel. The exception was Horatio. He was the Brewster County of horny toads, a chunky hunk of lizard some five inches long and half as wide. His size made him look even spinier and bristlier than his smaller brethren. We loved Horatio and took him for regular walks in the back yard, where his feeble attempts at escape were easily thwarted. Then one night, as I recall the incident, his dinner of red ants turned on him and stung him to death, and I cried.

Today it is downright illegal to own a horny toad: The species properly called the Texas horned lizard has been decimated by urbanization, pesticides, and other modern ills. Scores of other wild animals are also safeguarded by the state. You can’t pen up or try to domesticate a passel of game animals and fur-bearing mammals as well as turtles, lizards, snakes, frogs, and toads. But you don’t have to eek out a living in your own home; you can still get rid of most household pests—mice, spiders, door-to-door salesmen—with impunity.

People now know that it’s better for wild animals to be left alone. But a century or so ago a far looser philosophy prevailed. The state’s history is full of stories of feral fauna as companions, business partners, and more. In 1857, for example, while stationed at Camp Cooper in what is now Throckmorton County, Robert E. Lee wrote his youngest daughter that “My rattlesnake, my only pet, is dead. He grew sick and would not eat his frogs, etc., and died one night.” My maternal grandfather, an ardent admirer of Lee’s, might have revised his opinion of the general had he heard this. Gaga, as we called him, felt it was his God-given duty to shoot any rattlesnake he encountered. When he drove around his modest South Texas ranch, he habitually stopped at any good-sized stand of prickly pear, a favorite rattler hangout, and got out of the Jeep to circle it, .22 at the ready. More often than not, we’d hear the ping of the rifle. After Gaga died, we found four gallon-size jars full of rattlesnake rattles in his attic.

A lifelong hunter and fisherman, Gaga had a pet alligator of sorts. Every summer, when we kids arrived in Bay City to visit, he and my grandmother would drive us out to the ranch and he would pull over by a certain roadside canal to see Little Willie, a scrawny creature whose eye bumps barely showed above the water. Poor Little Willie never seemed to grow. I think I was in high school before it hit me: Little Willie wasn’t a single reptile. Gaga knew from experience that that particular canal was a favored gator nest and that in the summer we’d almost certainly see a baby there.

My relationship with Little Willie was strictly visual. I had a more hands-on experience with a smaller swimmer, this one a saltwater denizen. My grandparents frequently took us to the beach at Matagorda, where we played with hermit crabs, those shy little soft-backed crustaceans that hide out in empty shells. (Denton’s Phyllis George had hers with her in Atlantic City when she was crowned Miss America 1971.) I once headed home with my recently adopted Hermie in tow, but unfortunately I left him in a bag of whelks, angel wings, and other (unoccupied) seashells. Soon, the house reeked of my failure at pet ownership.

Hermie, like Horatio and Cowboy, exemplified a good rule of thumb for any pet, wild or not: It should be smaller than you are. Two of Texas’ best-known historical pets violated this law, and it comes as no surprise that their owners were male. Judge Roy Bean, a saloonkeeper and justice of the peace in Langtry, had a pet bear named Bruno. Bean habitually chained the bear (perhaps to avoid the regular evisceration of customers at his watering hole, the Jersey Lilly) and, to increase sales, encouraged visitors to buy bottles of beer for Bruno, who would glug them down. Some biographers claim that Bean even tied the animal to the foot of his bed at night. Needless to say, Bean was a bachelor.

Charles Goodnight was not. The Father of the Panhandle was the first rancher to keep a herd of wild buffalo, but the idea actually came from his wife, Molly, who in retrospect was one of Texas’ earliest animal activists. Distressed at her husband’s mass slaughter of buffalo—their pelts brought a pretty price in the 1880’s—she begged him to spare some of the calves. Goodnight then decided to breed the wild bovines with domestic cattle to develop a meaty hybrid. The sire of the herd was Old Sikes, for whom he developed a great affection, largely because the buffalo’s tireless, er, humping quickly produced a herd of some two hundred “cattalo.” But Old Sikes had a regrettable fondness for charging cowboys and ripping out barbed wire. On Christmas Eve 1886, after an embarrassing incident in which the bull chased Goodnight himself out of a pen, residents for miles around enjoyed a banquet featuring 964 pounds of barbecued buffalo.

Goodnight would be grilled for that action today. Certainly I’d never dispatch an animal instead of simply letting it go. But I confess to having cold-bloodedly held captive many a creepy crawlie; I could never resist my children’s pleas of “Can we keep it, Mom?”—whether “it” had four legs, six legs, or none. But it has been a long time since we adopted a wild thing. One morning, back when my two sons were quite young and quite fond of practical jokes, I woke up and—ouch!—stepped on an earring on the bathroom floor. In fact, there was a suspicious number of earrings scattered all over the place. I turned to put them all back on my jewelry shelf, where the boys had placed a large rubber snake to scare gullible ol’ Mom. I laughed out loud as I reached out and grabbed it—and it stuck its tongue out at me. I suddenly found myself two rooms away, emitting a high-pitched, high-decibel keening that instantly woke up my family and our four houseguests. Responding to my pointing finger and my babbling (“Snnn—snnn—snnn—”), they tumbled into the bathroom to marvel at the three-foot-long Texas rat snake. One friend had brought her video camera and filmed the action as another friend (male) wrestled the snake into a pillow case. Throughout the video I can be heard in the background, shrieking, “Omigod! Omigod! Omigod!”

Being more committed to motherhood than to herpetophobia, however, I let my sons keep the snake as a pet. They called him Rudy, short for Rude Ill-mannered Snake, because he had arrived uninvited (how, I still don’t know; isn’t that scary?). With many a squeal, we transferred Rudy to a large, empty aquarium. We decorated it—hastily—with rocks, sticks, and dead leaves, covered it, then weighted down the lid with bricks (say, fifty or sixty). Then we read up on snake care and regularly bought Rudy mice to munch, pretending at the pet store that each mouse was itself a potential little friend (“Let’s call him Twitchy!”) until we realized that most rodents are, in fact, bought as snake chow and the clerk was not going to report us for cruelty to animals.

But after a few months, Rudy was clearly not doing well. His color was ashy; he ignored his din-din. The boys agreed: Either his pet days were over or he would be. We lugged the aquarium out into the yard and tipped it over. In a flash, Rudy slithered out and was swallowed up by the grass as easily as he had swallowed up his tasty Twitchys. He was heading home.

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