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From Boy’s Life to Animal Torture to Ecology

The promise held in each Boy’s Life magazine was something I eagerly awaited for each month when I was a young man of eleven or twelve. It was not the articles (which I never read); it was not the jokes in the back (which I did read). It was the advertisements in the back that opened a world of possibilities that set my imagination running wild. For example, you could order x-ray glasses that would let you see through things (even clothes!). However, the usual novelties did not much appeal to me, not enough to order them anyway. At least I do not think I did. But I loved the animal trapping tools, books, opportunities for making money, and live animals that you could buy–like lizards and chameleons. Each advertisement opened a world of possibilities: wrist rockets, things to sell such as potholders or Christmas cards, or other ways earn fabulous prizes like bikes and radios. There were kits for building models of ships, Boy Scout paraphernalia, knifes (big Bowie knifes where an object of lust). The variety and magic of such possibilities opened new worlds to me. There were also the mysterious lists of military schools where you could send your boys. What would that be like? I wondered. You could order live chinchillas to start your own fir company, or earthworms to start a fishing worm business. After reading the jokes in the magazine, I would jump to the advertisements and pour over them carefully and individually—dreaming about which ones I would like to try.

I remember going beyond dreaming a couple of times and ordering something. The most vivid memory was a simple incubator with quail eggs. The incubator was a yellow half-sphere with a see-through plastic lid. A wire mesh held the eggs above a low watt light bulb. There were instructions for keeping the humidity right, for turning the eggs twice a day, and what to expect as you dutifully kept up your egg-caring duties. I kept the incubator on the fireplace mantle and faithfully carried out my care giving responsibilities. Not being very good at tracking the passage of time especially on the scale of several days, I was sure they should be hatching soon. But they never hatched and so I grew impatient and opened one of the six eggs I had so carefully attended. There was just a mass of egg yolk inside; as you would likely see if you cracked open in a chicken egg for morning breakfast. I left the rest for a day and cracked open another: same thing. It looked like my eggs were all duds. I decided to crack them all open. To my horror, the last egg I opened had a fully formed baby quail chick. It looked like it would have hatched in the next day or two. You would have thought this would teach me patience, but I do not think it helped. I thought of it as just bad luck.

From the magazine I also ordered my first HavaHart live trap. I caught squirrels, prairie dogs, all sorts of small mammals found near our home in Evanston, Wyoming, or around the many places we would camp, like Dead Horse where my dad attended patients as a social worker. Once, while at Dead Horse, I trapped a couple of chipmunks. I kept these remarkable creatures in a hamster cage for a year or so. They were never tame, and any time I tried to handle them they bit me. But the poor, captive beasts loved to run in endless circles on the wire wheel in the cage. They were kept on our enclosed back porch. I do not remember walking past them without seeing them both running on the wheel. The squeaky sound still plays on my memory. It never occurred to me that it might be cruel to keep these wild creatures, stolen from the forest in the High Rockies, in a small cage fashioned to hold domesticated mice. Maybe at some level I realized that the chipmunks were not happy. I was so happy they were there, however, it seemed to impose on them the same joy that I found in watching them. I cannot remember if they died or if I let them go, or maybe one died and I let the other go, that seems to ring true, but I am not sure.

My live-trap brought me into connection with wild animals in a way that would not have been possible in any other way. While now it would be seen as cruel and unnecessary, after all I was just doing it for fun, there was no grand scientific purpose in it, but it allowed me to look into the wild creatures eyes and see them as others—as a kind of self that was similar to me and yet different. While acting so contrary to all we know about caring for Nature: Let be, watch silently, enjoy without disturbing (which things I now do (mostly) believe), part of coming to know nature came from being in it. When I trapped these animals, I had to find and recognize places they frequented. I had to walk in their home and explore and come to know the places they lived. When I captured one, I would sometimes see a terrified beast cowering in a corner, or sometimes a snarling, teeth-bared, animal expressing an act of rage and defiance. Usually (except in the case of the chipmunks) I would watch them only for a short time, maybe show them to my brothers or friends, but then let them go. I wonder now if I would have become an ecologist if I had not been a trapper. Maybe, Boy’s Life did me some good even though I never read a single article.

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4 comments to From Boy’s Life to Animal Torture to Ecology

  • Cap

    I remember as a kid being in love with trees, and forests. I would spend hours in them. I would climb the trees, and walk or run through the forest. Enjoying the seclusion, and peace. It has been a while sense I have felt like that. I think I need to go camping or something. I may not have been to the animals like you had, but there was something about wandering in the woods that made me happy.

  • Cap

    Thanks for the great blog!

  • I did not know where to post this thought, but it seems worth making. One-hundred and fifty years ago today, Darwin and Wallace presented their ideas on evolution to the Linnean society.

    I appreciate your thoughts on live trapping. Part of my senior work involved trapping field mice to examine territorial behavior. It probably was not as exciting as trapping squirrels and prairie dogs. But, I did feel a connection with nature, not felt before or maybe since.

  • steve

    S.Faux, it’s funny how many of us started in the animal trapping business. Thanks!

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