THE WILD SIDE

Perhaps because I am an only child, I’ve always been a lover of animals. Along with sparkly rocks and Brownie merit badges, I collected pets as a kid. I was allergic to cats, but experimented with any other kind of living creature I came across. I was often late for school because I hadn’t finished dressing up my Dachshund dog, Longfellow. I missed my debut at the pony show because I couldn’t get Sugar’s tail braided just right. I kept Lizzie, the little lizard that my father bought me at the Shrine Circus, on a leash tied to my bedpost for company at night. There was always an empty Sucrets throat lozenge box in the medicine cabinet in case I needed a tin coffin to bury an assortment of Gomers, the small painted turtles I bought at the dime store with my allowance. I still have a scar where my Amazon parrot Shakespeare shredded my earlobe. An ongoing succession of Goldies lived and died in the fishbowl. You get the picture.

In my early grown up years, I lived on a farm with my husband and two children. We had horses, sheep, cows, and goats, but unlike the rest of my family, I never seemed to be able to differentiate between pets and livestock. There were ducks floating in a blow up plastic pool in the cellar in the wintertime and orphaned baby lambs in the kitchen in the spring. When I moved to the Caribbean, my love of animals shadowed me. The first thing I did was adopt a flea-ridden puppy from under the local rum shop. But the idea of letting animals in the house, let alone sleeping with them, is virtually taboo in the West Indian culture. Thus, I was the talk of the village. ‘De white lady crazy, wi?’ My devotion to my dog probably cost me my marriage, but when I moved to my smallholding in the mountains, my Dominican mongrel came with me. Ophine was followed by a set of big guard dogs whose pups kept me in dry cash over the years, as well as a parade of chickens, a couple of pigs, a herd of goats, a hutch full of rabbits, and a horse, of course.

But let’s forget about pets and domestic animals for the moment and talk about wildlife. Because the louvered windows are always wide open and I never close the doors to the house, all kinds of critters come and go as they please. The Lesser Antillean bullfinch is by far the peskiest. Flocks of irrepressible Sonjas and Stanleys swoop into the kitchen at the first sign of food. If I leave my plate unattended, even for a moment, I regret it. Although there is plenty of chow out-of-doors, they fight over bread, dog rice, even throw down glasses of juice and milk, all the while pooping and sassing enthusiastically. One crazed little bird amuses itself by pecking the candles in the chandelier over the dining room table down to the bone. Another has decided to shred the covers off of magazines and paperback books, including those from the library! Just the other morning a brazen bullfinch knocked over an expensive ceramic vase that smashed to smithereens on the floor tiles. I tried hanging a bunch of ripe bananas on the veranda as a distraction, but the greedy little demons splatter sticky yellow mess everywhere. These birds are definitely out of control!

And it doesn’t end there. Dominica has 12 species of bats and I believe most of them live in my house, not to mention the hordes under the roof. At night, a gang of fruit bats takes over the hanging bananas, slamming into the fruit with such force that in the morning there is nothing left but slimy black skins. On a positive note, each insect-eating bat supposedly consumes 500 mosquitos a night, and the guano makes excellent fertilizer for the garden. But try explaining that to guests at a cocktail party who are admiring a piece of artwork that has dozens of bats fluttering out from behind it!

As far as reptiles go, the friendly Zandoli lizards that predate the ledges of the glass arches above the louvered windows are easy to live with. They stalk and pounce with such flair that they make me laugh, and they are very tame. But the invasive species from Puerto Rico with their bad attitudes and dinosaur-like crests are aggressive and extremely territorial—I’ve even seen them stand up to the much larger house geckos. Unfortunately, pasty white gecko feces is even more disgusting than bird poop, but they do a wonderful job of keeping down the roaches. When potential mates call to each other in the middle of the night, gkeck, gkeck, gkeck, it puts me in the mood for romance. (Talk about pathetic.) I’ve never had a snake in the house, but occasionally a tèt chien, Dog-headed boa, sneaks up on my chickens. I’ve even caught them red-handed sniffing around the puppies. Since I don’t have the heart to kill the beautifully patterned perpetrators, I give them a stern warning and then deport them to the abandoned Chinese hotel down the road.

They say amphibians are on the decline worldwide, and I believe it. On rainy summer nights, crapaud frogs, called mountain chickens in Dominica because they were once the national culinary dish, used to screech so loud that I was bound to wear noise-cancelling headphones to bed. Now they are virtually extinct, but I still have plenty of miniature gounouj, Tink frogs, residing behind my kitchen sink. They eat the slugs and bugs in the compost and serenade so sweetly that I can’t imagine being without them. The granddaddy of them all lives in my pantry; every time I see him he’s grown plumper. The good news is that I no longer need to spray bug poison around my food. My partner Kermit does an excellent job of destroying ants and the like.

Wild mammals are generally scarce on a small island, and Dominica is no exception. We have agouti, guinea pig like rodents who are vegetarian and sometimes raid the garden, and manicou, opossum who will eat just about anything including baby chicks. My big dogs like to hunt at night, and for a while each time I got up out of bed I stepped on something soft and furry. One time, a manicou who was playing possum crawled behind the headboard and started hissing as I was fluffing up the pillows! But I draw the line at rats and mice when it comes to my laissez-faire attitude with intruders. I’ve had two dogs and a neighbor die of leptospirosis, and I don’t want to be next. I also have zero tolerance for centipedes. If you’ve ever been bitten, you understand.

My question is this: How do you lock the animals out without locking yourself in? I love where and how I live, and obviously the wildlife was here first. So I guess I’ll just keep on co-existing with my feathered, scaly, and furry friends until someone comes and collects me from Camp River Ridge and puts me in a rest home.

© Kristine Simelda, 2017