Richard Louv

Recipient of the Audubon Medal

Author of the International Bestseller Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder

From the Blog

My Mother Was an Animal Lover

Excerpted from OUR WILD CALLING (Algonquin Books)

My mother called herself an animal lover. By profession an artist, she loved all animals — or most of them. Her eight-year-old son was studying to become a herpetologist, and she had a serious snake phobia.

One afternoon, the mailman delivered a box, about the size of a shoe­box, postmarked Silver Springs, Florida. Something moved within it. I peeled back a corner.

Curled up inside was large purplish-black indigo snake, a species now endangered. Just having that wild snake today, let alone selling it through the mail, would be a crime, and rightly so. But times were differ­ent. In those days, Boys’ Life magazine hosted advertisements in its back pages for all manner of wild animals that you could purchase by mail order.

I had been set on a raccoon. My parents suggested a compromise. Perhaps they knew that a raccoon’s personality usually turns from cute to aggressive after its first year. Despite my mother’s snake phobia, they went with my second choice.

The snake was about five feet long, and I loved it. It made the perfect accessory—worn like a cowboy bandanna or a noose around my neck—as I walked past the bridge club ladies in the living room. It seemed to fancy me, too. But there was a problem. Inside the mail-order box, the snake had rubbed its nose raw on the chicken-wire lining, resulting in a bad fungal growth. Temporarily brushing aside her phobia, my mother came to the snake’s and my rescue. It was an act of heroism.

Every afternoon for several weeks, I would take the snake out of its ter­rarium, sit on the edge of my bed with the snake in my lap, and pry its mouth open with my fingers. It never bit me. Approaching carefully, keeping her body farther away than anatomically possible, my mother would stretch her hand toward the snake and use tweezers to remove pieces of the fungus from its mouth. Then she would sprinkle the contents of a penicillin capsule along its teeth. I remember my father helping, too, but my mother was the one on the front line.

Given that this was a fungal, not bacterial, disease, the penicillin did not work, and the snake didn’t make it. I was heartbroken.

I perked up when a neighbor gave me a baby pigeon to raise. I kept Petey (of course!) outdoors in an open birdhouse that my father built. When I rode my bike down the street, I would sometimes hear a whooshing sound, and Petey would land on my shoulder and lean into the wind. Petey also liked to fly in the house, gliding through the living room, hanging a right turn at the dining room, hurtling into the kitchen, and dive-bombing into the sink as my mother washed the dishes. My mother always thought that was hys­terical. “Petey’s into the suds,” she’d say. She did not have a pigeon phobia.

We don’t hear the label “animal lover” much anymore. Or at least that’s my impression. In a cynical age, some people may find it vaguely embar­rassing. But not all, not yet.

The uncle with ten cats, the woman carrying the bejeweled teacup dog in a bejeweled bag, the pipefitter with the python, the farm girl who knows too soon that life will end for the prize-winning calf she loves, the fly-fisher who casts a fly just to watch the trout rise, the child who tells her hamster a fearful secret—all these are animal lovers. As was my mother.

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