My father grew up on a farm in Israel and it would seem that when he moved to suburban New Jersey, he tried to recreate that experience. Growing up we didn’t just have pets, we had a menagerie. Our household critters represented nearly every link in the food chain: fish, newts, parakeets, a parrot, 2 cats and 2 big dogs. Every animal was a natural enemy of the other. If left to their own devices, I’m sure there would have been problems, but regular feedings, attention and love were enough to maintain the delicate balance required to avoid a massacre.
Every once in a while we had a close call. On one memorable occasion, a parakeet flew the coop when we were cleaning his cage. Thrilled with his newfound freedom, he took off flying through the house. The cats chased the bird; the dogs chased the cats; two hysterical children chased the dogs; while the zookeeper, my mother, frantically followed behind hoping to prevent a tragedy. As birds are known to do, the parakeet eventually flew into the kitchen window, knocked himself unconscious and hit the floor with a thud. Before any of the humans could intervene, the nearest cat picked him up and ran under a bed. With some coaxing, the cat released the bird which came flying out from under the bed. My mom recaptured the parakeet from a curtain rod and put him back in his cage. Order was once again restored.
After that incident, I was very aware of the fragile nature of the ecosystem we had created in our home. Sometimes it was necessary to segregate the animals while we were playing with them. This was always the case when I wanted to play with my newts: Peanut and Dottie. Peanut was black with red marks on his or her belly. (I never did know the gender of my newts.) Dottie was green with three little red dots in a line on her back. Newts are not the cuddliest creatures in the animal kingdom, but they are amusing to play with. I would borrow my mom’s biggest Pyrex bowl, fill it with water then set it down on the floor. After shooing the cats and dogs from the room, I would remove Peanut and Dottie from their tank and put them in the bowl of water where they would swim and frolic. As I watched television, I would lift each of them out of the bowl and let them crawl around on my hands and legs. When I thought they might be drying out, I’d dunk them back in the bowl and let them swim around some more.
Peanut and Dottie lived luxuriously by salamander standards. They had a large tank with all the creature comforts a newt could want. I made a styrofoam raft for them to laze around on when they weren’t busy swimming in the water or crawling around on the rocks. They had regular meals and their tank was always clean. It was an ideal life for a newt, but Peanut had an adventurous spirit. One day when I woke up, Dottie was relaxing on the raft, but Peanut was missing. I got very upset and called for my parents. A search party was organized and we began looking for Peanut. In a two story house with wall to wall carpet, it was like looking for a needle in a shag covered haystack. Peanut couldn’t survive too long without being back in the water. Add to that the other animals that would have been happy to “play” with him and his chances of survival were grim. After a few hours, we abandoned our search and held a memorial service for my beloved newt. I tried not to think about how Peanut might have died. It was just too upsetting.
Several months later I was with a friend in our playroom downstairs. We were setting up a farm. I was making a corral while my friend sorted through a bucket of plastic animals separating farm animals from zoo animals. She pulled one out of the container and said, “This one is really cool! It looks like an alligator.”
I looked up from the work of setting up the farm and saw my friend holding what indeed did look like a small, black alligator. My eyes opened really wide and I grabbed the animal from her hands. I flipped it over onto its back and saw red spots on its belly. “That’s Peanut!” I shouted.
Clutching the dessicated, shriveled salamander, I ran to my parents to show them. “Look! We found Peanut!” I said thrusting my hand towards them. They took Peanut from me and did a cursory autopsy looking for bite marks or other obvious signs of trauma. There were none.
“Where did you find him?” they asked completely shocked and just a bit disgusted.
“He was in the toy box in a bucket of plastic animals. Maybe he thought those were his friends,” I said by way of an explanation.
“How on Earth did he evade the dogs and cats, make it down the stairs then scale the side of your toy box?” they wondered.
“If we put him back in the water, will that bring him back to life?” I asked hopefully, but I already knew the answer.
We solemnly walked to the bathroom to put Peanut back in the water and give him the proper burial at sea that he deserved.