Take dogs for a long enough walk, with off-leash time, and they will come home grinning and wagging. But when it comes to feeding dogs, don’t expect them to do your heart good. They wolf it down, whatever it is, with grave expressions on their faces, remembering when they were wolves. It’s not a fun thing; it’s part of an ancient pact. When it comes to feeding animals, I was brought up not to fool around.
Still, I am open to new experiences. A neighbor down the street here in New Orleans is a cockatoo named Iko. She hangs out on the inside of an iron-mesh gate, and will talk to you: “Hello,” “Iko,” and sometimes a wistful-sounding “Bye-bye” when you have turned to leave. Once when I was too slow slipping a dollar into the slot marked “Iko Tips”—I want to say she ate it. What she did was, she snatched it with her beak and nibbled it to bits.
Back in the seventies I lived alone in a New York City apartment, which is no place, in my view, to keep a dog. And I was traveling a lot. An ideal, self-sustaining pet for city dwellers, I read somewhere, was a gecko—a lizard that, if you gave it free rein, would stay behind your refrigerator by day and fatten itself by night on roaches. A friend of mine back home wouldn’t even say the word, called them r’s. The day I surprised multiple roaches in my toaster, I called a pet shop.
I know, pet-shop animals are generally overbred—but a lizard? On the phone I understood the pet-shop man to say, “Oh yes we have gecko.” In fact, there being some language barrier, he had understood me to ask for “Cat-go,” a brand of kitty litter. The only lizard in stock was nearly a foot and a half long. It had fin-like crests on its head and all the way down its back and tail. A basilisk lizard. A basilisk was an ancient creature in Greek and Roman mythology that combined elements of rooster, snake, and lion.
But this lizard didn’t look all that monstrous, and back then I had a more colorful lifestyle than I do today. “Will he eat
roaches?” I asked.
“Eat anything! Specially roaches!”
I brought him home and named him Basil. He would pop up unexpectedly, causing guests to cry out, “What th—” or something stronger. The basilisk lizard is also known as the Jesus Christ lizard, because it can run across the top of water (you can see one doing so, on YouTube, to catch a butterfly), but also for another reason, I would say. Every time he popped up, I liked him more.
My roach population, however, was holding steady. I tried attracting roaches into his range with dabs of cottage cheese. Didn’t work. I tried killing roaches and bringing them to him. Nope. I offered him scrambled egg, fruit, Vienna sausage. I thought anybody would eat Vienna sausage—maybe Basil was overbred. Couldn’t blame him for that. “The trouble with animals,” my mother used to say, “is you get so attached to them.” She may have thought that was the trouble with me, too, but at least I ate heartily.
The most chilling phrase I can think of, in regard to living things you’re responsible for, is “failure to thrive.” That is what it came down to with Basil. While I was off riding a raft through the rain forest of Peru, feeding bits of mango along the way to a marmoset and a macaw, a friend of mine stayed at the apartment and tried to feed Basil, but he died.
So no more exotic pets for me. I look for opportunities to feed unusual animals that other people take care of regularly. On the set of a movie I was working on, I fed an actress named Tai. You could hand her a cantaloupe, and she would eat it in one chomp. Or you could give her a package of M&M’s, and she would hold the package down with one foot, tear a corner off with her trunk, shake the M&M’s out, and eat them one by one. When you look up Tai’s page on the Internet Movie Database, you find this:
Trivia: Is an elephant.
Trivial only in the context of the movie industry. In the right habitat, Basil would have cut a wide swath.