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Wild Thing: You Make Animal Control's Phone Ring

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Recently, a three-foot-long alligator originating from Florida or Louisiana was pulled from the Chicago River. The reptile was described as "not aggressive, but dangerous" and "probably somebody's pet." Someone's pet at one point, until it escaped or was no longer wanted. One news release stated, "One chomp of its 80 teeth could cause a human to bleed to death in minutes."

Also recently, an official at Chicago-based Safran Metals found an intruder in the company delivery truck. "Here's this little guy as cute as can be," said VP Allan Baron, after catching sight of the fifteen-pound raccoon. He called the Humane Society. "They told me they were going to euthanize him, and I said, 'Forget about it.' "

Fascination with wild animals coupled with "country meets city" means that we have many predicaments on our hands. In my own Chicago neighborhood, it's common to see bunnies hopping down the sidewalk at any given hour. A family of possums lived under our porch until we found someone to relocate them, but for no small fee. Ouch! That bites! Still, like Baron, we didn't want to see them destroyed. We live only a mile west of Wrigley Field, not adjacent to an expansive park or forest preserve. Go there, or to the trails at the Peterson and Pulaski Nature Center, and the deer will come close enough to sniff your pockets, if you dare to carry something good.

Just the other night, as we played a game of scrabble on the back porch and listened to the Cubs lose, our tall, thick, leafy vines began to shake and rumble upward, until a furry creature with big dark warrior circles around his eyes emerged at the top and jumped onto our garage roof. There he was. Majestic. Muscular. Unafraid. Standing up tall.

My eyes were wide and hopeful. He's adorable! Can we keep him, I asked my husband? Without waiting for a response, I turned back to the raccoon. He must have understood because he came barreling back down along the garage in our direction, a little smile on his face, quite eager to join the family. No, go away, my husband yelled as he waved his arms. Throw something at him, he told me.

Contrary to popular belief, animals understand quite a lot; they are not stupid. And they have feelings, too. At my husband's less-than-friendly reception, Mr. Raccoon turned slowly away, head hung low.

Animals actually have quite a vocabulary and speak a variety of languages, including but not limited to body language, Pig Latin, and English. Dogs especially. They know what's going on.

Take our dog, Savannah. When the Cubs were losing, but had three runners on base, which would more than tie the score, one of our best hitters struck out, retiring the side, another lost opportunity. Savannah simply shook her head and let out a long, hard sigh. She turned her back to the radio and went to sleep in disgust. But ask if she wants to be a Sox fan instead and she'll give you that little twisted grimace, meaning, "Yeah, right."

The point is that animals are very intelligent but, like humans, they get swept away from time to time by emotions and ignore logic. The wild ones with big teeth make homes in the city when they should stay in the country. Raccoons intrude on games of scrabble and get their feelings hurt. Field mice pry their way through very small holes into houses full of blood-thirsty cats. And our furry friends learn from us human companions to believe in the unbelievable. Again, take our dog.

On the one hand, she's no fool, yet on the other, at the start of each season, she proclaims passionately, "this is the year we will win the championship!" as she parades up and down in her finest paraphernalia with great pride and anticipation. Only to be disappointed, again and again.


Our dog, Savannah, at the start of the Cubs season, enthusiastically donning her Cubby clothes.


Savannah, toward the end of the Cubs season, donning her long face and summer haircut, hat and scarf tossed aside. "Damn goat," she mutters.

Unfortunately, my husband only encourages this behavior. "Aw, don't be sad, honey" he tells her in a low voice, stroking her fur. "Well get 'em next year."

Anthropomorphizing aside, animals often feel the same way we do. Pleasure, pain, hunger, contentment, fear, pride - even happiness - are real to the entire animal kingdom. Some of the choices we make for animals, however, make me think we often forget this.

While on a research assignment for the Fed in the Everglades, I had some downtime and took a turn down a bumpy road toward a handwritten sign announcing "Exotic Wildlife Preserve. Open to Public." Exotic and wild is like country and western: wow! What's not to like? For $10, and after signing a waiver against claims of injury, I could view caged tigers, monkeys, an elephant - and more. I was nipped on the finger by a very large, unidentifiable bird, at least unidentifiable to me. Beautiful, yes. Tame, no. For an additional $10, I fed the baby bears. Grizzly Adams was one of my favorite TV shows growing up so I figured, why not? Cuddly. Lovable. Cute. So sweet, you could bounce them on your knees. The love ended once the food was gone. Very sharp, those baby bear claws!

On the bumpy road back, I felt conflicted about giving money to a place that cages animals that would probably be better off left in the wild, undisturbed. The owners of the preserve said these animals were all once pets that later became abandoned and unwanted and that if they did not provide a home for them, well, who would?

But in most cases, it's cruel to confine an animal in an unsuitable environment.

And it's especially cruel when, after being pumped with hormones and #2 corn, the environment is torturously cramped, and the final stage of confinement is being wrapped in plastic and thrown into a grocery cart.

Last week, Time magazine ran a story entitled "Getting Real About the High Price of Cheap Food" which began like this: "Somewhere in Iowa, a pig is being raised in a confined pen, packed in so tightly with other swine that their curly tails have been chopped off so they won't bite one another. "

Fast, cheap and easy is not a porn film; it's the new American diet.

In this century we're quite expert at producing great quantifies of food, faster and faster, cheaper and cheaper, more efficiently, and more artificially. Problem is, most of this so-called food isn't very good for us. In fact, it makes us fat and sick. We are not just talking about animal cruelty; the choices we make for animals are not always good for us, either.

I am not a vegetarian.

But science and current food production practices are turning me in the direction of less-and-better-meat - maybe no meat - although I admit that some of my leanings are not science-based.

As part of a speaking engagement, I attended an expo that included an animal rights booth, which offered free coloring books geared toward children. I opened the book to the first page. It said in gentle cursive: "The animals are our friends."

Waiting to be colored were a cow, a pig, a goat, a bunny, a mamma deer and her doe and several other animals. All had a twinkle of hope and innocence, but, at the same time, looked sad and leery. I felt confused.

I hesitated, then turned the page again. It said: "WE DON'T EAT OUR FRIENDS."

We've introduced a number of themes here: wild animals in the city, the perils of cheap meat, the emotional life of pets, animal cruelty, how to make children cry and turn them into vegetarians, and how the Cubs will never win a championship but we keep rooting for them anyway like we did the other night when they lost to the Nationals in an embarrassing 15 to 6.

Did we tie all our themes together neatly into one big knot? Not sure.

My friend Marcia said that reading this latest commentary of mine was like drinking Vino Verde instead of a hearty red: kind of light and wandering, drifting off without the usual serious undertones or clear focus but sure to get some comments because everyone at least has opinions about animals if not about all the other topics, with a heavy emphasis on all the other topics, as in too many.

With that, a few final comments to wrap-up.

First, it's the end of summer, and Vino Verde is quite refreshing.

Second, just for the record, I don't think it's wrong to eat meat, but anything with a face or a mamma should be treated humanely and with respect. We can be more conscious about our choices, and try to make better ones, if not for the sake of animals then for public health.

Third, with respect to squirrels in the attic, raccoons in delivery trucks, possums under the porch, bunnies in the garden, rats in the alley, foxes in the chicken coop - yes, whether we live in the county or the city, we need animal control. But since we are all part of the animal kingdom, whenever possible, let's first just try to get along.

And finally, with respect to red wine, relax: winter is coming.