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THE CALL OF THE NOT-SO-WILD
Bil Gilbert
December 18, 1967
Cheerful, loyal, brave and obedient, wild pets are easy to housebreak, and only occasionally will they break up your house. In short, you just haven't lived till you've lived with a skunk
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December 18, 1967

The Call Of The Not-so-wild

Cheerful, loyal, brave and obedient, wild pets are easy to housebreak, and only occasionally will they break up your house. In short, you just haven't lived till you've lived with a skunk

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Because, among other reasons, they seem so harmless in comparison with the predators, nibbling vegetarians and rodents are often tried as pets. (Appearances can be deceiving. In 35 years of handling everything from shrews to lions, the worst injury I have received was dealt by a jackrabbit who confused a carrot I was offering him with my thumb and took off the end of it—the thumb.) While it is usually true that these salad caters are not belligerent, their very passivity works against their being satisfying pets. Because they are generally hunted, the normal, instinctive reaction to unfamiliar situations in mice, rabbits and ground squirrels is fear and flight. Many of them are simply too shy to adapt well to domestic life, to develop much curiosity, affection or trust. Among the delightful exceptions are the tree squirrels. A young gray squirrel, for example, raised on a bottle, will be as much at ease and behave as naturally in and around a house as he will in an oak grove. For some tastes, pet squirrels may act a little too naturally. One that we kept for several years (or, more precisely, cohabited with, since he roamed freely) seemed to regard the whole upstairs of the house as one large but convenient squirrel hole. This beast, named Tim, spent much of his time burying acorns under the hall carpet, with the result that walking from, say, a bedroom to a bathroom was like teetering across a field of irregular ball bearings. Also, squirrels (and most rodents) are accomplished gnawers. Tim, for example, had two private passages from the yard into the house. Both were holes under the eaves that he chiseled by himself without any help or encouragement from anybody else.

Flying squirrels are perhaps the most attractive tree squirrels. Weighing only three or four ounces, these animals have enormous, liquid eyes, a plumed tail that looks something like the oversize antennae of a moth and incredibly soft and silken coats. Flying squirrels are less inclined to chew and hoard than others of the family, and in many ways make an ideal, small, orderly pet for a small, orderly household. Being strictly nocturnal, they are content to sleep away the day in a small box or cage. At night, if given their freedom, as they should be, they will entertain themselves and nearly anyone else by gliding softly, unobtrusively about a room. For some inexplicable reason these beautiful little animals are among the most easily tamed of our native mammals. A squirrel taken from the wild as an adult, after a week or so of hand feeding and gentle attention, will glide to your shoulder, curl up and go to sleep trustingly in a coat pocket. These creatures are the Tiny Tims of the animal world; not only do they look trusting, they are trusting.

Another study in animal innocence, but on a much grander scale than the diminutive flying squirrel, is the white-tailed deer. For obvious reasons deer are not apartment (or even suburban) pets. However, the reasons often do rot seem obvious to deer. Many tame deer (bottle-fed fawns) I have known are preoccupied with getting into the house, getting into pockets, even getting into laps. They are gregarious, social animals by nature and when tamed want to spend as much time as close as they can to their tamer, whom they apparently regard as just another deer with a curious posture. Not only because they are affectionate to overly affectionate, but also because they are such graceful, handsome animals, tame deer dress up a rural lawn or field handsomely. It is true that if you have a nice-looking deer about the place it is unlikely that you will have nice-looking petunias, lettuce or sweet corn. Also it should be remembered that where fawns arc in the spring, there are very likely to be hunters in the fall. There are a good many tragic stories involving pet deer being gunned down, virtually on their keepers' doorsteps. Finally, after they are sexually main re. buck deer are strong, dangerous animals, dangerous even for old and close human friends.

Another largish animal as common as the deer but with a bad domestic reputation is the red fox. It is said that foxes are vicious, absolutely untamable beasts. This is usually said by those who have somehow managed to pen up a terrified adult animal, or have taken a pup and chained it by its neck until either it died in misery or its captor's desire to stare at the prisoner was satiated. Despite these notions, being associated with a fox (if taken young, kept in fairly open surroundings and treated as one would treat a puppy) can be a remarkable, instructive and thought-provoking experience.

The most memorable fox I have known was a vixen named Sylva who came to us one spring shortly after our German shepherd had whelped four pups. Sylva and the pups ate together, slept together, played continuously together throughout the summer in our relatively isolated and secure mountainside yard. Though by August she weighed only a quarter as much as the shepherds, the vixen led them, confused them, teased them and put them down much as a tough, shrewd, aggressive slum kid might a group of plump, decent-minded but somewhat overcivilized country-day-school boys. For example, she discovered to her delight and their frustration that, as a kitten can be lured by a piece of string, so could she lead a pup by dragging her tail provocatively in front of him, running just fast enough to keep out of reach. She would use this trick to pull one pup away from the group, then lose him in the hedge or turn and tumble him on his back in play. She was more agile and enduring than the dogs; more alert and sensitive to what she saw, heard and smelt; and her reactions to these stimuli were a shade swifter than theirs. The difference between Sylva and the pups was that her reactions and responses were honed by a wild heritage, as theirs were not.

This, of course—the perhaps romantic, nostalgic but nevertheless genuine desire to know, sense and admire the feral—is the essential motive for making the intimate acquaintance of wild creatures. To cite as evidence and explanation but one incident: on August nights in the summer of Sylva, we would sit quietly on a stone wall at the edge of the garden watching the vixen, her tail held like a banner, prance, pirouette, pounce in play, moving on infinitely light feet and with breath-stopping grace over the grass that was wet with dew, luminous under the moonlight. Quite simply these were moments of great joy. Elegant, alert, magnificently attuned to the world around her, the little fox created an esthetic experience of high order and worth. The same can be true of a gnawing squirrel, a waddling skunk, a running deer, a feeling raccoon or even, if I were forced to it, I might admit, a fainting possum.

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