One of the great blessings of my youth was that I grew up hanging out in what amounted to a private zoo. It was my best friend Dan's private zoo; well, his dad’s, actually. Dan's family counted me as one of their own, and affirmed their affection by christening me: "That Damn Andrew."
Dan's father, Norm, was a breeder of exotic ducks. The main aviary he'd constructed enclosed a quarter of an acre, and under this chicken-wire dome dwelt ducks of every description, along with impeyan pheasants and guinea fowl in a paradise of tall pampas grass, pear trees, and small, green ponds. Other pens housed fancy pigeons, chickens, a pair of noisy otters, a pair of arctic foxes, a tegu, and a badger. House pets included the occasional ferret, a groundhog, a cat named Spaz, and a mynah bird who could whistle the theme to Hogan's Heroes. But the coolest critters of this suburban menagerie had to be the wallabies! I'll never forget bottle-feeding a joey, all leggy and hairless, cradling him in a heating pad between my knees.
Like any other habit, the wallaby binge starts out with just one or two. And then the next thing you know, you've got a mob of fifteen miniature kangaroos free-ranging in your backyard -- foraging, boxing, lounging with an expansive yawn beneath a shady tree, or stretched out on the cool, concrete patio indulging in a luxuriant belly-scratch; always keeping a wary eye out for Mike – the undisputed godfather of the mob, and punisher of escaped chickens.
He stood a good thirty-six inches tall, and when there were no more carrot chips left on the patio, he would lope up to the sliding screen door and rattle it mercilessly. Should a chicken escape its enclosure, Mike--following the example of his owner--would run it down, pin it with one arm, yank out a few handfuls of feathers, and then release it. Take that fowl beast!
Mike and his harem also enjoyed their own version of wallaby drive-in theater. One night, another of our friends had laid himself out on the floor in front of the TV, his back to the sliding glass doors. I had just stepped in from the garage, a cold Coke in hand, when a mischievous smile spread across my face. "Pssst!" I whispered, motioning to my friend to look behind him. He twisted his body and strained to see over his shoulder. Eight glassy orbs in fuzzy, alien faces stared back. He yelped and leapt to his feet, barely retaining control of certain body functions. I probably should have chipped in for at least one therapy session.
Occasionally, a neighbor would call to say "Norman, there's somethin' big in my garden. Is it yours?" Rounding up a stray wallaby was no small undertaking. The large gate had to be opened, and guarded. Traffic on 16th St. had to be stopped, and a small group of wranglers had to shoo the wayward marsupial back in the general direction of said gate.
Catching a wallaby was a different matter altogether; especially the time that one inadvertently spent the night in the back garage. The next morning it was discovered that she had eaten a package of d-Con mouse poison. It was imperative that vitamin K, an anti-coagulant, be administered as quickly as possible. The usual suspects were assembled--Dan, his dad, myself, Dan's big brother and a couple of his friends (collectively known as "the Mooses.") There was a large island of sundry stuff in the middle of the garage, with a path encircling its perimeter. Norm directed us to station ourselves around this aisle with our feet wide apart. Then he shut the big garage door and it dawned on me: we were eight guys shut in a tight space with a frightened creature which was - no kidding- capable of ripping our guts out in the blink of an eye.
Norm chivied her out of her hiding place, and off she went, bounding at top speed around the track, each of us making a wild grab at her tail as she sprinted between our knees. On the third lap, I got the timing right, seized the varmint and hauled her up, straining to hold her at arm’s length lest I be disemboweled. The wallaby, however, was surprisingly calm--until Norm took her. Then she went gonzo fuzzy buzz-saw! She was hurried to a holding pen, and given the needed Vitamin K. She made a full recovery, and I lived to tell the tale.
I have a treasury of stories from the good old daze at Dan's place--my home away from home. There are many which, though the statute of limitations has long expired, I cannot relate publicly - even if the names be changed to protect the guilty. These gems of memory may only be revealed in close company, over a steaming cup of peppermint tea.