Philadelphia, PA – 1970s
I remember one season there were thousands of Monarch Butterfly caterpillars all over the place back the tracks on all of the trees. The Monarchs were making nests and laying eggs and the caterpillars were everywhere. I remember we’d catch them and collect them in jars and play with the little guys.
The monarch butterfly is one of the most recognizable and well-studied butterflies on the planet. Its orange wings are laced with black lines and bordered with white dots. Famous for their seasonal migration, millions of monarchs migrate from the United States and Canada south to California and Mexico for the winter.
The caterpillar of the monarch butterfly eats only milkweed, a poisonous plant that should kill it. The caterpillars thrive on the plant, even storing its toxins in their bodies as a defense against hungry birds. For decades, scientists have marveled at this adaptation.
One time my friend Micahel had a jar full of them and he had it on his bicycle. The jar slipped and hit the street. Suddenly, there were hundreds of caterpillars spreading out through the broken glass and crawling all over the street, his bike, and on him. It was like a writhing malignancy from a horror movie. He didn’t know what to do and was obviously alarmed, and simply rode off on his bike from the scene. I think one of the parents just swept up the glass into the gutter as all of his caterpillars made their untimely escape.
Some of us had pets like dogs. Mostly everybody had dogs on our street. German shepherds were popular back then. Think I’m kidding? I’ll name all of the dogs just on our block. The Hunzingers had Jason, a scary dog that always barked at us and most of us were afraid of him. But the baby of that family, Jenny, who couldn’t have been more than 5 or 6 at the time would go right up to the beast and tell him to settle down and he would. It was uncanny! She had power over that terrifying dog.
The Mitchell’s had a dog named Greta, Hersh’s next door had Gretchen, The Hanley’s had a Belgium Shepherd named Duke. That dog was enormous. He didn’t have to do anything. Just the sight of a dog that large was enough for you to steer clear of their gate. The McMeans had a chubby little dog named Happy, whom they would allow to go down into their cellar and do his business. It was a dirt cellar and they would just let him go down there and take a dump. Their next-door neighbors would complain because the smell was coming through to their basement. They later had a dog that was white with a little black spot on its side named Heidi.
We didn’t have a dog yet, and wouldn’t have one until 1978. You can check that out here:
Up the street, there was a family who had a shepherd named Carrot, who was very shy. Apparently, he got his name because he had big pointy ears, and the little girl who owned him thought his ears looked like Carrots!
I think the Zerbach’s had a dog as well but I think it may have been some kind of black setter. Not sure.
We had a box turtle that my dad had found up in Stover, PA which was a camping area my dad and his friends would hang out in. Probably just to get away from the city and smoke pot. But we had her for a while and I think her name was Elizabeth. Not evil, but I think she escaped at some point. (maybe she was simply returned to the wild.)
I had a lizard named Rex who looked amazing and cost me $14. He looked really cool and I felt like I owned a little dinosaur, but he didn’t live long.
I had white mice for a short period as well. They weren’t much fun. Like all rodents, they just run around in the woodchips in their cage and constantly crap everywhere non-stop. I think they were only .49 cents at the pet store and were probably only there as lunch for people’s pet snakes. Kinda sad.
Here’s a previously published story about rodents:
Our neighbor Sandy had a little green turtle or two. We had heard a rumor back then that there was something going on with those turtles. But I’m sure that was just a childhood myth.
That’s why you didn’t see those little turtles around anymore.
We did have fish for a short period of time. That was my older sister’s idea. It was a freshwater 10-gallon tank. I remember she had all of these lovely fish. The most beautiful being the angelfish that always looked so elegant. There were also a few other fish and a pair of what I think they called tiger barbs. Everything seemed well and good, but I think someone at the pet store should have known not to mix certain species of fish together in a confined area. Because at night the barbs would hunt the other fish and ended up killing everything in the tank.
This reminds me of another story. When we were kids we’d be at the seashore with our parents and in any gift shop back then you could find hermit crabs for sale. These cute, shy creatures are of the tree variety and not the ones I’d occasionally see in the surf on the beach as a kid. Those little cuties hiding in their moon shells. My parents bought us each a hermit crab that we got to pick out. I don’t know if I named my guy and I don’t remember if my older sister named hers, but my middle sister named hers Shirley Temple. We kept them all in a little cage in the dining room of our house in Philly. But again, containing nature has its consequences. (You’ve seen Jurassic Park. You had the technology to do it, but SHOULD you do it?) We enjoyed having our little hermit crabs and would take them out and hold them. It was cute, You’d pick them up by their shells, and place them in the palm of your hand. Once you touched them they would zip back into their shells. Then if you held them in your palm and were still, they’d slowly peek out and walk around. It was really cute.
But what I didn’t know at the time was that hermit crabs don’t grow their own shells. These guys acquire their homes by finding snails and ripping them out of their shells and just hijacking the real estate. Home invasion and a hostile takeover. We didn’t know any of that. When we acquired them, we probably just picked each crab based on the color and shape of the shells they currently wore when we got them.
But night falls and that’s when all of the bad things happen in the animal world. I think this is why kids are instinctively afraid of the dark. Because that’s when our ancestors were at their most vulnerable. You’re passed out one night and you open your eyes and some large predatory dog or cat is chewing on your baby. But I digress…
Kids are busy getting into different things all of the time. When you’re young the world is a fascinating new place that’s controlled by adults. Anything you can get into on your own always feels exciting and powerful. Maybe a few days went by and we weren’t paying attention to the hermit crabs. They’re primarily nocturnal creatures for obvious reasons and they don’t do much during the day, so after a week or so, they’re kind of boring.
Doesn’t the Shirley Temple hermit crab begin to systematically murder her cage mates and rip them out of their shells? Yea. I guess she was growing and was looking for a bigger shell to hang out in because hers was getting a bit snug around the hips. She killed the other crabs and then somehow busted out of the cage and left. We were all freaking out and of course my dad, the science dude comes to the rescue. He realizes she must be traveling along the baseboard and maybe somewhere nearby. So, Shirley busts out of her cage after killing her cellmates crawls along the tabletop. Falls three feet to the floor and makes her getaway. My dad finds her in the living room, like 40 feet away just cruising along to parts unknown.
I wish there were more to this story but wasn’t all of that pet murder enough?
Does anyone else have any interesting pet stories?
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