My childhood was dotted with animals, both domestic and exotic. Sure, we had the typical lap dogs and farm cats, and the random chicken, horse, and goat. We bred and sold dozens of species of waterfowl from around the world; ducks, geese, swans, and even the odd peacock or two. At one point we had rabbits in a hutch, a pet mud turtle in a shallow bowl, a found baby raccoon and song bird that needed a bit of help before being released back into the wild. I myself would catch wildlife such as toads, salamanders, Garter snakes, and even house flies which I’d keep in my bedroom as pets for as long as I could. These things all came and went without much regard, but we also had two distinctly unique pets which, though briefly, were considered to be part of our family.
Max was a large blue and gold macaw. To the best of my recollection he entered our family when I was about the age of four. He was just a young baby when we got him, still in need of bottle feedings and training. My parent’s considered him their pet – each one claims that Max was theirs and liked them best. He quickly grew into an intimidating size, and his crusty, white, prehistoric face and large black beak and talons were enough reason for me to keep my distance. Within the first week that Max was introduced to our home he was given his very own bedroom – the room which was formerly my bedroom. While I was sent to share bunk beds with my bossy older sister upstairs, my father built a large cage for the bird to spend time in while the family was away. For the most part, however, Max liked to use his tall wooden perch, which was set up in the mostly unused corner between the dining room and the living room, where he had views of most of the central house and through both the North picture window which over looked the largest duck pond, and the smaller South windows through which he could watch my mother as she tended to her flower beds.
From a safe distance I would watch as he ate from the cups on either end of the perch. My parents would often give him table scraps. I remember that he particularly liked both spaghetti and green beans. I never quite understood the special treatment that Max received – even our dogs weren’t allowed to get table scraps.
His vocabulary was remarkable, but his best talent was impersonations. He did both of my parents’ voices with incredible accuracy – enough that his mimics fooled many people, myself included. I can’t count how many times my sister and I would be upstairs playing, or fighting, and the familiar call from our mother would echo up the stairs, “KELLY! PATTI! GET DOWN HERE NOW!” We’d exchange glances and whisper to each other, “What did you do now?” Then we’d tip-toe down the stairs to face our angry mother and whatever punishment she’d prepared to give us for whatever it was she’d caught us doing. When we searched the house without a trace of her, I’d look out the window and see her peacefully weeding in her garden, and that’s when Max would squawk and bob his head up and down while he laughed at his own joke. There was a story often told about another incident, when my father had been at his day job and my mother in the shower, alone in the house except for Max, or so she thought – she had come out wrapped in just a towel and found one of my dad’s friends sitting casually at the dining room table. Apparently Max had hollered out my dad’s greeting of, “Come on in!” so his friend let himself in, and upon finding no sign of the man who’d called out, sat at the table to wait for his return.
Where Max was ancient and intimidating to me as a child, I had no fear when it came to our other exotic house pet – Kitty, the bobcat. My dad knew an eclectic man who lived in the woods near Nerstrand, MN, who had his own collection of odd animals, such as penned wolves and a monkey. That’s how my dad acquired Kitty. When we got him he couldn’t yet open his eyes, and again my parents fed him through a bottle until he was big enough to eat on his own. He roamed the house like any pet cat would – though in our house, somehow, it was always a known fact that dogs were indoor pets and felines were outdoor critters. But they made an exception for Kitty. I believe my parents attempted to litter train him, but I think that it was mostly unsuccessful. He seemed to bond well with my sister, who was probably slightly more calm and gentle with him than I was at 7 or 8 years old. She and the bobcat used to snuggle together and nap. She claims that she’d often use him for a pillow. What I remember most about Kitty is his thick, soft fur, and the day that I discovered he’d taken a crap on my Chinese checkers board which was under my bed. I could tolerate his hissing at me, but that was the last straw, and I disowned him as a pet.
There’s a Polaroid of my sister, wearing a hot pink sweat shirt and thick, 1980’s eye glasses, holding Kitty up in an awkward, child-like way. He seemed perfectly content. His natural instincts began to take over his personality as he got a bit older. The brownish woven curtains on the living room windows were shredded from him pouncing and then sliding down them. That was when my father built a large wood and metal cage on stilts, and Kitty moved into the lean-to next to our garage. He’d pace back and forth, much like the large cats you can see in the zoo, only with more life. My parents would drop whole, raw chickens from the grocery store into the cage for him to eat every few days. It was easy to forget that he existed at that point, but I was happy that he was out of the house.
A fire broke out in our car’s engine one mid-December evening while it was parked in our garage, which was centered between our dining room and Kitty’s pen. My dad and I had been outside shoveling off the snow from the large duck pond, making the neighborhood ice rink as we did every winter. Just as the outdoor flood light went out, my sister emerged from around the front of the house yelling about a fire in the garage. My dad hopped into the car and backed it manually down the slight slope into the driveway, away from the house. My mother had been out Christmas shopping, and arrived home just after the fire trucks pulled in. Without even un-spooling their hoses they shrugged at the heap of ashes that the car had become. A casualty of living in the country in the winter, I suppose. The firemen had hung around for about an hour afterword, possibly taking down information for insurance purposes, but what I remember is that they were amazed by the bobcat in the pen next to our house, and asked my father a lot of questions about it with traces of jealousy and wonderment in their voices.
I don’t know what happened to either Max or Kitty. They weren’t my pets, and I didn’t share a bond with either of them. That, combined with the fact that all of my life pets had come and gone just as quickly, it had just never occurred to me to ask my parents a lot of questions about it. If I had to guess, I’d say that both of them were given to or sold to that same friend of my dad’s, Bill from Nerstrand, and from there they lived in captivity in someone else’s home. I’m not sure what the lifespan of a bobcat is, but Max will long outlive me if he’s taken care of. My parent’s continue their habits of acquiring pets and then growing tired of them – I’ve inherited it too, I’m afraid. While my mom kept trying out house cats and then releasing them, she’s seemed to finally settle on 2 rescued terriers which sleep in her bed. My dad has gone through rabbits, birds, and now currently has a small dog. He’s certainly more limited in his options since he lives in a town house. As for me, I’m still strongly considering building a hutch for some Angora rabbits while cursing at the screeching parakeets in my living room.
Patti Lynn Henry was delivered in a blizzard in February of 1984 by a drunk doctor who nearly fainted at the sight of a baby with a disintegrated umbilical cord. She’s faced countless tragedies, both real and imaginary, ever since. She’s a hostage of her home town of Northfield, MN. When Patti isn’t busy writing, she’s dressing her cats up in costumes and burying the photographs in her garden.