Where The Wild Things Are

DSC_4057compFWords and Photos by Liesa Cole


Most of us have at least one pet. According to the latest ASPCA statistics, some 63 percent of us, in fact, share our homes with one or more furry, feathery, or scaly companion. When you factor in the expense and manifold inconveniences of caring for a critter, it doesn’t make sense on the face of it. But as someone who has folded a pair of streetwise mutts and a feral kitty into the family, I can vouch for the irrepressible impulse to befriend a fur ball. The burdens of this arrangement are real. But so too are the rewards. Since developing an authentic bond with my animals, I have grown curious about this inter-species connection. How is it that some animals have made the leap from food source to source of companionship? Or even from stalking predator to cuddly snuggler? Furthermore, how is it that some of the same creatures that fuel nightmares for some make fascinating companions for others?

One person who ponders questions like these is Pat Shipman. He is a professor of anthropology at Penn State University and the author of The Animal Connection. Shipman says the “animal connection” is the process by which pets or livestock become companions and are treated as members of the family. His research suggests that this habit of inter-species bonding began 2.6 million years ago. (For more information, click here)

There is no doubt that humans have kept animals as pets since ancient times.  According to “A Secret History of Pets” (found at express.co.uk), the remains of a puppy have been found cradled in the arms of a human in a 10,000-year-old grave in what is now Israel. This is regarded as the earliest clear proof of the special bond between humans and canines. And although the dog may claim the title of “man’s best friend,” the kitty isn’t slinking far behind. Dating as far back as 7500 B.C., we have evidence of man’s affinity for the feline. A cat resembling an African wildcat was buried with a human on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus. As best experts can surmise, cats were first domesticated in the Fertile Crescent linking Africa and Eurasia. Later they were carried as pets to what is now Egypt and spread from there.

According to the most recent statistics I can find, there is a virtual tie between the percentage of cats and dogs we call family in the U.S. So many of us can easily answer the question, “Are you a dog person or a cat person?” But for others, it is a bit more complicated. All of this intrigues me. So I did what I always do when I get curious about something. I asked questions and made photographs.


Jeremy and Miss FangJeremy and Miss Fang

This teen has always been fascinated by spiders, in general, and tarantulas, in particular. When the obsession didn’t fade, Mom abandoned her apprehension and surprised him with one of his own for his 14th birthday. Jeremy and Miss Fang have been hanging out together for a couple of years now. Mostly, he enjoys observing her from her spacious aquarium digs in his room.  But when he does handle her, Jeremy takes great care to protect her from falling, which can be deadly. Even a short drop to hard ground can rupture a tarantula’s delicate abdomen, he explains. Jeremy knows quite a lot about spiders and shared many interesting tidbits with me.

Here are a few of my favorite recently acquired arachnid factoids: Though tarantulas don’t spin webs, they do produce silk and use it in ingenious ways to make trap lines that alert them when prey is approaching. Females also make silken cocoon wraps for their eggs. Fortunately, these creepy crawlers rarely bite humans. And when they do chomp, I am told the unpleasantness ranks with a bee sting. Also, I learned that tarantulas molt. Every so often, they step out of their exoskeleton a wee bit larger, shedding an outer layer that looks like a full, intact version of a tarantula. He showed me a shadow box on the wall displaying the molted exoskeleton. Yep, looks exactly like a whole tarantula. You would never know that it was hollow. It is hard to imagine that a teenage boy didn’t take advantage of the exquisite pranking potential of that natural wonder. Jeremy enthuses about what an exciting show it is to observe, should you ever get the chance. He also gets a thrill from feeding his spider. Once a month, some live crickets are presented to Miss Fang. After some doomed resistance, the little crustaceans are sucked empty of their juices, leaving hollow cricket shells behind. Jeremy offered to present this exciting bit of live animal kingdom theatre for my enjoyment. I graciously declined.

Miss Fang and Jeremy seem to get along just fine, as you can see. And it was fascinating to meet her. But I don’t think I will be in the market for a pet spider anytime soon. Or ever. (No offense Miss Fang. Because as spiders go, you are an absolute doll.)


Jamme and Kiba1AJamme and Kiba

For Jamme and her family, Kiba the ferret makes an ideal pet. And that is not surprising when you learn a few interesting facts about these cuddly weasels. For instance, did you know that ferrets have been domesticated for thousands of years? Evidently, paintings of ferrets on leashes have been discovered on the walls of ancient Egyptian tombs.

Also, ferrets have no instinctive fear of humans. They are quite playful, when they are awake, which isn’t very often. These long and lithe furries are inclined to slumber 22 hours a day. But don’t be fooled by these quiet and snuggly members of the mink family. When they are alert, they are busy and mischievous, often sneaking into small dark spaces and hiding little treasures they palm from all over the house.


hamlet and CandiFCandi and Hamlet

When Candi heeded the hankering to procure a precious piglet some seven years ago, the breeder swore the little squealer was a miniature potbelly that would top out at 35 pounds. Well, add a zero and you get closer to the impressive mass of this swanky swine. (Evidently, fudging on actual adult proportions is not an uncommon occurrence in pig peddling.) But as Hamlet continued to swell way past expectations, so did Candi’s affection for him. Over the years, she has lovingly adapted to his special needs rather than bequeath him to the butcher, like so many others have done in similarly overwhelming situations. This has meant placing carpeted runway paths throughout her home to prevent him from slipping on the hardwood floors. Because let me tell you, if this hefty hog slips and falls on a slick surface, he can’t get up. It also means frequent forays to Costco for bulk batches of fresh spinach and melons and Nutter Butter cookies (his hands-down favorite treat).

And Hamlet knows how to throw his considerable weight around. More than once, Candi has returned home from a business trip to find a petrified pig sitter seeking safety on top of the washing machine. Apparently, Hamlet can be intimidating when he wants more Nutter Butters than he is allowed in a single day. On the upside, she tells me that he was the easiest pet to house train that she has ever had. I am told that the swine outranks the canine in the I.Q. department. Oh, and when an unwanted and unsuspecting salesman shows up at the door, Hamlet can send them on their way in a hurry just by greeting them.


Kim and the Monkeys

Kim will tell you that for as long as she can remember she has wanted a monkey. Now, she has three simian sidekicks. While her husband, Paul, was slow to accept the idea of sharing his abode with these adorable apes, he has since turned the spacious garage into a full-blown primate playroom. Trapezes and rope ladders and all manner of enticements dangle from the ceiling to stimulate and consume the copious curiosity and energy stores of these guys. Kim says that it is like having “triplet toddlers that never grow up.” The mutual affection and trust between man and monkey is evident and well-earned. Kim is a devoted stay-at-home monkey mama, tending to and playing with her busy brood all day long.

It is easy to be enchanted by these enchanting creatures, but having a monkey member of the family is definitely not for everyone. There are many horror stories of ill-advised humans, ill-equipped to meet the manifold needs of these incredible animals, resulting in disturbing and cruel neglect. It is for this reason that animal activists are attempting to ban monkeys as pets in the state. I understand and share their concerns.  But as far as this family goes, I can vouch. These monkeys have it made in the shade.

While everyone represented here is a devoted and responsible caretaker and companion to these critters, there are far too many tales of people who treat animals, especially exotic ones, as ornamental attention-getters. Please do not mistake this story as a suggestion to adopt an animal of any sort if you are in no position to properly care for and respect the unique needs of that particular animal. Do your research carefully. Avoid irresponsible breeders. In fact, I suggest starting at your local shelter first, where so many quality animals are discarded every year by humans who rushed in on a whim. Rescuing an animal and providing a well-suited and loving environment for your new pet is a great way to initiate a bond for life.

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