Written by: Kristine Simelda
Perhaps because I’m an only child, I’ve always had an affinity for animals. I’m allergic to cats, but I treasured all other pets my parents allowed me to keep as a kid. 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 my father bought me at the Shrine circus, on a string tied to my bedpost to keep me company at night. I saved an empty Sucrets lozenge box in case I needed a tin coffin to bury Gomer, the small painted turtle I bought at the dime store with my allowance. I still have a scar where my Amazon parrot Shakespeare shredded my earlobe, and of course, an ongoing succession of Goldies lived and died in the fishbowl.
In my younger grownup days, l lived on a farm with my husband and two children. We had dogs, horses, sheep, and cows, but unlike my rural neighbors I had a hard time differentiating between pets and livestock. There were ducks floating in a plastic pool in the cellar in the wintertime, and orphan lambs in a box in the kitchen in the spring. You get the picture. When I moved to the Caribbean years later, my love of animals shadowed me. The first thing I did when I arrived was adopt a flea-ridden puppy from under the local rum shop. Little did I know that the idea of letting animals in the house, let alone sleeping with them, was strictly taboo in the West Indies. 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 relocated to the mountains, my dear Dominican mongrel was still with me. Ophine was followed by a set of big guard dogs, whose pups have kept me in dry cash, as well as a parade of chickens, pigs, goats, rabbits, and a horse of course.
But beyond pets and domestic animals, my island home is full of wildlife. Because the louvered windows are always wide open and I never close the doors to the house except during inclement weather, all kinds of critters come and go as they please. The Lesser Antillean bullfinch is by far the peskiest. Flocks of Sonyas (females) and Stanleys (males) swoop into the kitchen at the first sign of food. If I leave my plate unattended, I regret it. Although there is plenty of chow in the wild, they prefer to fight over bread, dog food, and tins of tuna while pooping and sassing enthusiastically. One crazed little demon 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 paperback books, including those from the library! Just the other morning a brazen bullfinch knocked over a prized ceramic vase which smashed to smithereens as soon as it hit the floor. When I tried hanging a bunch of ripe bananas as distraction, all I got was sticky yellow goop splattered on furniture and tiles. These birds are definitely out of control, but I love them anyway.
Dominica has 12 species of bat, and I’ll guarantee you most of them live in my house. At night, a gang of greedy fruit bats take over the bird’s hanging bananas, sucking like soukouyans until there’s nothing left but slimy black skins in the morning. On a positive note, each insect-eating bat supposedly consumes 500 mosquitoes a night, and the guano is great for the garden. But try explaining that to a group of horrified guests who are admiring a piece of artwork that has dozens of bats emerging from behind it during a cocktail party!
As far as reptiles go, the friendly Zandoli lizards that predate the glass arches above the windows are easy to live with. They’re quite tame, and stalk and pounce with such flair that they amuse me. But the invasive species from Puerto Rico is aggressive and extremely territorial; I’ve even seen them stand up to the much larger house geckos. Unfortunately, gecko feces is even more disgusting than bird poop, but they do a wonderful job of keeping down the roaches, so I don’t complain. I’ve never had a snake in the house, but occasionally a tet chien, dog-headed boa, sneaks up on the fowls. I’ve even caught them red-handed sniffing around my 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 had to wear noise-canceling headphones to bed. Now they are virtually extinct, but I still have plenty of their miniature cousins, gounouj, residing behind my kitchen sink. Tink frogs eat the slugs and bugs in the compost and serenade so sweetly that I can’t imagine being without them. Their territory also includes the pantry where they destroy ants and the like so I no longer need to spray poison around my food. And let me not fail to mention the river crabs, cyrique, that patrol the downstairs bathroom. They’re always in a bad mood and can latch onto bare toes, but do keep the place squeaky clean.
Wild mammals are generally scarce on a small island, and Dominica is no exception. We have agouti, guinea pig-like rodents that are vegetarian and sometimes raid the garden, and manicou, opossum that will eat anything, including baby chicks. My big dogs like to hunt and for awhile, each time I got out of bed in the morning, I could expect to step on something soft and furry. Once, a manicou that was playing possum crawled behind the headboard and started hissing as I was fluffing up the pillows! But I draw the line at rats when it comes to my laissez faire attitude towards 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.
Thus, in the spirit of inter-species solidarity, my question is this: How do you lock the animals out without locking yourself in? Obviously the wildlife was here before me, and hopefully will be here long after I’m gone. So I guess I’ll just peacefully co-exist with my feathered, scaly, and furry friends until someone collects me from Camp River Ridge and puts me in a rest home. Meanwhile, the home front still provides plenty of interesting stuff to write about.