All Creatures Great and Small

If evolution really works, how come mothers only have two hands? ~Milton Berle

I noticed the red hooded house finch as it darted past me gaining and losing altitude from a beak filled with long pine needles.  He was clearly in the process of building a nest. Off just to the side of the house came a cheerful warble and series of chirps.  A female finch was obviously supervising her mate’s construction of her spring nursery.

“I think a bird is building a condominium on our front door.” I shouted as I came inside. I turned around to examine the wreath with its arrangement of dried flowers and bird nests filled with artificial gray speckled eggs.  I could see how a finch could be fooled into thinking this was perhaps a perfect spot for public housing.

“Oh, my,” my spouse smiled approaching with curious approval.  She frowned. “Not exactly the most convenient location.” She pointed to the base of a fresh cone of tightly constructed twigs, green needles and mud.” A solitary speckled turquoise egg had tumbled out and now rested precariously on a ledge of uneven stained rattan.

I moved closer.” Oh, don’t touch it!” She whispered. Within minutes there was a sign on the door reading ” Birds Nest – knock lightly or use side door.” Mother Nature was now in charge.

Upon arriving home from work later in the week, family court was in session. “I didn’t do it.” was the plea from my youngest son who was being arraigned on one count of egg manslaughter and two counts of contravening a direct order to use the back door.

I had to give him credit. He had obviously been watching the Discovery Channel. “Listen, mom.  Birds lay more eggs than they need because some will die. It’s part of nature.” Yet, my spouse was already deeply attached to her feathered sister and her four unborn children. She knew Moms drew the short end of the stick. Occasionally, we would catch glimpses of the male finch, only to see him fly off to watch highlights of ESPN through someone’s den window or hang around a bird feeder talking to cardinals.  Like all males, he was always off somewhere when things happened.

As I watched the mother of my children open her heart to yet another dependent, I could not help but smile at the timeless ties between all mothers and the extended families of pets and animals that they are forced to adopt over the course of a child’s life.

Not a day that went by in the house of my youth that a boy would not come home, cupping some mysterious maimed, captured or presumably lost life form and beg the eternal question, “can I keep him?”

My mother dreaded these encounters – – the filthy child replete with earnest, Wild Kingdom expression. She had endured this “Groundhog Day “movie time and again. It always concluded with her feeding, caring, emotionally attaching and then eventually flushing, dumping or burying the pet of the month.  A pet’s lifespan might be reduced by one-half when it was introduced to our house of four boys, sadistic cat and determined dog.  By week two, the animal had usually been attacked, dropped so many times it had brain damage (that’s amazing, your lizard is so docile) or starved from neglect.  Invariably, it fell to our mother to make the last few months of the animal’s life as comfortable as possible. Caring for pets was just another thankless footnote in the fine print that she had failed to read when she met and married her dashing second lieutenant in 1955.

Our home was a living farm. Each boy’s room was adorned with some live animal – – an ant farm with red ants encased in a plastic window, a fish bowl or terrarium with a reptile that was always hidden under a dry branches or a rock.  There was a brief period of turtles that was cut short by a libelous article in Ladies Home Journal about diseases turtles carried including salmonella and e coli.  Since she knew we had not washed our hands since LBJ was President, turtles became amphibians non grata in our home.

There was a rodent period with rats, mice and hamsters.  A hamster is essentially what you get if you breed a rat and a mouse. They lived in expensive translucent plastic cages joined by tubes and habitation spaces called a Habitrail.  At one point, my brother had four hamsters moving through a complex grid of adjoining cages, tubes and running wheels – – until the cat discovered how to knock the tubes off and proceed to harvest the chubby hot dogs one by one across a long hot summer afternoon while we were at the beach.

When the inevitable last breath bubbled from the lips of a pet, our mother was there like a funeral home director to make arrangements. In a period where heads of state funerals were often shown live on TV, we held a public burial for our kangaroo rat who we had made the mistake of housing with our common gangster house rat.  No one knows what words were exchanged but the next morning, we found “Oz” without his head and Fritz covered in blood with a ” hey, he called me vermin and nobody calls me vermin” look.

We used kite string to lower Oz into a two-foot hole.  Given his condition, it was closed casket. We somberly returned to the house, ate some Oreos and reflected on the good times we had with the kangaroo rat for all of the two weeks that he had been in our family.  We were learning about life and death.

The 70s was a Wild West time for pets. In many houses, mothers actually allowed snakes as pets.  There was one problem: serpents always escaped. My mother drew the line at snakes.  She loathed them and refused to even entertain an earthworm after hearing of a Burmese Python that escaped into its owners house (the son apparently did not tell his parents that the six foot snake had flown the coop), ate the family cat, and was finally captured after it slithered under the dining room during a dinner party with a huge bulge in its mid section.

Our mother understood that caring for pets was essential to a child learning responsibility.  Perhaps the most dominant trait she hoped to teach was to subordinate oneself to a greater purpose, person or cause.  She knew pets could teach us how to unconditionally care.  I am certain my mother resented every poop scoop, litter box, meal worm, salt lick, fish feed, and squeaky hamster wheel moment of it. Yet, like all moms her feet went in one direction – – forward — for a kid, for a dog and even for a slimy, brown newt.

Fast forward to Finchville 2010. I hear a grand commotion and screaming. “Dad! Dad!” My son is yelling.  “The bird flew in the front door and the cat has it!” More emotional shouts as my wife, daughter, her boyfriend and our two sons are attempting to rescue the bird. The cat’s tail is twitching in triumph as the mother finch struggles in her mouth. My spouse asserts herself. ” Crystal, let her go!”

The cat is stunned with the scolding when she had expected praise.  The stunned mother finch falls to the ground and flies erratically into my daughter’s bathroom. For the next hour, the animal rescuers try vainly to coax the bird out of the tiny upstairs bath. Judging from all the arguing and yelling, it is not going well. I am annoyed, as it is looking inevitable that I am going to be asked to play Animal Control. My daughter’s boyfriend has been banished into the dark front yard and instructed by my wife to warble like a male finch.

As I walk upstairs I hear him tweeting outside (lucky your buddies cannot see you doing this) trying to coax the bird outside. I enter the bathroom and stoop down to grab the bird as it flaps to the other side of the room and hits the wall. My wife squeals, “Oh, don’t hurt her.” I finally cradle the bird and toss her into the night. As I turn in triumph, she proceeds to fly right back into the illuminated window.  As I reach to grab the bird, my wife turns off the light thinking the light was confusing the bird. I now cannot see a thing and proceed to crash into my daughter’s shelf.  Perfume and shampoo noisily cascade to the floor.  “What are you doing in there?” my daughter yells from outside. More crashing.  “Turn the light on! I cannot see a thing!”I finally catch the finch and drop her into the ebony chasm of the front garden. My wife runs downstairs to see if the brave girl has returned to her dimpled blue eggs.

Hours later, we finally see her tiny head poking out of the nest. She is back safely – for now.  My spouse is exhausted but content having helped her feathered friend to save her fledgling family. The crisis has passed. As we talk across the darkness at bedtime, I can hear her exhaustion and relief.  “What a scene that was. I hope she and the babies are alright. As she falls asleep, I recall the old Yiddish proverb, “God cannot be everywhere at once.  That is why he invented mothers.”

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