September 14, 1999 in Features

Food for thought: Feeding live critters to other live critters can be an unsettling experience

By The Spokesman-Review
 

Sometimes there is nothing more alien than being at home.

Especially when you’re house-sitting, and home belongs to someone else.

But perhaps there is no better way to evaluate your own sense of home than by living in someone else’s.

I did that earlier this summer when a friend needed someone to stay at his house while he vacationed with his family.

When I arrived, details were waiting for me on the kitchen counter: Water the flowers, collect the mail and newspaper, walk the dog, feed the dog, bird, lizard and guinea pig and make sure they have fresh water.

Lizard, huh? That sounded pretty neat, I guess.

The mission briefing ended the same way they all do: “Help yourself to any food you like. See you when we get back.” Blah, blah, blah, and so forth.

Let’s see. Three-bedroom house, a backyard deck, washer and dryer, food, and no one to complain about the loud-as-a-locomotive hip hop music I love so much.

All of these luxuries at the disposal of a 23-year-old college student? Do the math: This was going to be better than “Star Wars: Episode I” on opening night. Or so I thought.

Then the house closed in.

Front door locked. Living room crowded. Kitchen starved. Bathroom flooded and hallways shadowed.

It was like someone one else’s home was shrinking in on me.

When I opened the refrigerator, the food just didn’t look like food. It wasn’t moldy or anything like that. It was food. I knew it was food. I mean, what else would be in the refrigerator? But it was a strange kind of food in a strange arrangement in a strange kitchen.

Living in someone else’s personal space certainly makes you appreciate your own, even when you’re like me and don’t have any.

It was my first day on the job and, amid all the freedom, I was feeling utterly trapped.

All the silence in the house was driving me Norman Bates. Then Leo, the dog, and Sweetie Pie, the bird, started making music of their own.

La la la la la.

Chirp, chirp.

Arf, arf.

La la la la la.

Chirp, chirp.

Arf, arf.

They were taunting me.

I thought if I listened to a Jay-Z CD I could drown out Sweetie Pie’s song, but the clever little cockatiel was wise to my plan and ruined it by chirping on beat, but out of key.

When I switched to jazz, the bird just seemed all the more encouraged. While the caged bird was singing, Leo, the cowardly K-9, was in the front room barking at invisible cats outside the window.

With the circus erupting on the main level, I thought it was a good time to visit the quieter captives on the second floor.

Gertrude the guinea pig and 18-inch Rex the African plated lizard resided in their respective bedrooms, well, their owner’s bedrooms, Jim’s kids.

Neither one was much for singing. Once again the silence was taking over. So I tried to make small talk.

Rex is a bit of a recluse, has calm demeanor and eats live worms and crickets. He was hiding under a rock in his tank when I knocked.

He pretended to be asleep. I figured some dinner might lure him out of hiding.

Here was the moment of reckoning.

Every day I was to feed Rex seven meal worms and seven crickets.

The worms were disgusting, with little stubs like a caterpillar amputee. Not very fast, not very bright. Every hungry lizard’s dream.

The crickets understood what was going on. They knew the cage was the safest place for them, because as soon as that lid opens, a hand swoops down like the claw in “Toy Story” and one of their cousins disappears.

They know. They run from the claw. They fear it. They know it is the harbinger of their doom.

For one week my hand was that claw. I reached into the cricket tank, cornered myself a timid little insect, and felt it squirming around in my closed fist until I dropped it in Rex’s tank.

The cricket would run to the farthest corner of the tank and, for the last moments of its life, nature’s rule - survival of the fittest - was the only absolute.

Sooner than later, Rex flashed his silky tongue, and it’s curtains for the cricket.

It was a disturbing real-life episode of National Geographic, uncut.

I watch the first couple of shows, but I have to admit, the gratuitous violence started to eat at me. I’d be staring at Rex with a civilized disgust that such a savage lifestyle was in a controlled environment.

I tried to explain my discontent to Rex.

I said to him, “You know, I realize it’s not your fault. But don’t you think there is something wrong with keeping an animal in a cage and keeping him alive by keeping other animals in a cage until they are fed to the first animal - alive?”

Rex didn’t answer. He just looked at me, his mouth caked with cricket guts.

I continued with my lament, pointing out the irony of keeping a flying animal in cage.

Rex gave me an apathetic look.

I spooned a worm out of the foam cup it was farmed in and dropped it into Rex’s cage.

He bit it in half and flung its innards around the tank until he was thoroughly entertained, munched down the remains and wore the gore around his mouth like a trophy.

“Oh sure, tough-guy lizard can take on a bag of guts with no arms, legs or skeletal structure. Well, just watch.

“One of these days all the crickets and meal worms of the world are going to rise up from their oppressive role in life. And they’re gonna start right here at this tank. So take that.”

I dropped Rex another worm.

I think we both felt better after that conversation. I was coming to terms with my guilt for having a hand in the cricket’s demise. and Rex seemed a little more sociable for the rest of week.

Leo still barked at invisible cats. Sweetie Pie sang the blues. Gertrude did whatever it is that a guinea pig does.

I guess the whole debacle was just a lesson in life I had to accept. Worms and crickets, like cows and chickens, live just so other animals won’t die.

For one animal, a cage is a cage. For another, it is the only sanctuary it will ever know.

For the human animal, especially one in college, having no cage to call home can be just as confining as living in one.


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