When I don’t feel like explaining my quirks, I hide the weird parts of myself to fit in. Also, for the benefit of other people. I’ve found an easy to way to alienate yourself is by being fascinated by insects, snakes, fish, or other animals. You know this feeling if you’ve ever pretended to feel grossed out or freaked out by an animal and ignored the part of you that wanted to hold it, protect it, or inspect it.
I looked at living things with a fascination. I would take in their many different body parts, the way they moved through their environment, and how they experienced the world around them. My grandma would take me to the butterfly pavilion in Philadelphia. As a pre-teen, I was overjoyed to open a large rubber glow-in-the-dark beetle as a present from her. She also gave me a bug catching kit. The monarch butterfly migration flew right through my mom’s parents’ backyard outside of Austin, Texas. My maternal grandparents also had a pond full of catfish, and several fishing holes to catch crayfish. My grandma would supply us with raw bacon. We would tie the bacon on a string, feed it down a muddy hole, dangle it, and wait for the string to be pulled. When we pulled the string out of the muddy hole, small red claws had latched on. We boiled a few but released most.
I kept a gecko when I was young. In middle school, I found a garter snake in the yard, bought a cage and proper supplies, but it escaped back into the wild shortly after. I was sad for me but happy for it. In high school, my friend had a sugar glider and a tarantula. My best friend in high school and I decided to raise a pair of white mice. We were told they were the same sex. They were not. Babies were made. Lots of ’em. I owned a white rat named Molly in college.
A couple months ago, my in-law’s housekeeper said she found a spider in our shower. She said she was so scared. She, Deaven’s brother Doug, and Doug’s babysitter were the only ones home. The housekeeper had to get the babysitter who was home to get rid of it. I sympathized and said, “Oh no. How scary!” I had to pretend to feel freaked out by a story of finding a spider suppress the thoughts of, “I wonder what it looked like and what kind it was.” Luckily, she said the babysitter moved it outside.
When I was young and the internet was but a twinkle in someone’s eye, I watched National Geographic VHS tapes. As I grew, I studied biology and googled anything that interested me. I found education was the great equalizer. The more I knew about a creature, the less I feared it. My fear of any creature boiled down to a few questions:
- How likely am I to encounter it in the wild?
- What, if anything, could I do to make them mad or feel threatened?
- Could they kill me?
I also categorize them in my mind by “things are dangerous because they are easily provoked” and “things that take a small amount of venom to kill me”. Years of panic research have provided me with a thorough guide of what to fear if encountered and how likely I am to die. Therefore, when my mom cleaned the warehouse and said she found lots of spiderwebs full of black widows, I steered clear of the warehouse. She slapped them down with a broom.
We lived in the same house until I was 12 years old. We had two golden retrievers, Rose and Charcoal. My best animal friend growing up, besides our dogs, was my “pet” frog Shelley. We had concrete steps leading up to our house. Dirt had eroded on one side, leaving a narrow but deep hole beneath one of the steps. Inside lived a family of Texas toads. Everything about them fascinated me. The toads weren’t slimy but had bumpy skin. When I would pick up Shelley and pet her, it felt like I was reading Braille. She had greenish, golden eyes with horizontal black pupils that seemed to recede in her head when they were touched. She had long toes to swim. Contrary to popular belief, it’s not possible to get warts from touching toads, though I’m sure Shelley may have wished that was the case when I would grab her from her home. Shelley was the largest toad. Whenever I wanted to play with her, I would grab our water hose, stick the end inside her home, and
flood it turn it on. Ah, ignorance is bliss. She would soon hop out and into my outstretched hands. I would play with her for hours.
With regards to Shelley, my dad will happily tell the story of how I came inside one afternoon, screaming for his attention. My eyes were wide as saucers. My lips were trembling and puckered. When he asked what was wrong, I replied, “It’s Shelley. She’s on the roof!” “Well, how did she get up there?” he asked, trying to hide his smirk and stifle a laugh. “She JUMPED!” I told him. The truth was, Shelley and I (less Shelley, more me, as her choice in the matter was obviously limited) had been playing a game where I repeatedly threw Shelley up in the air and caught her. She stuck the landing on the last one. My dad quickly grabbed the tall metal ladder from the garage. The roof was steep, but he had climbed it many times putting up Christmas lights. I, being afraid of heights, received updates by yelling from the safety of our front yard below. “Did you find her?” “Not yet.” Then a few moments later I hear, “Got her!” Don’t call PETA yet, because she was alive and unharmed (on the outside). Mentally, I’m sure she had a journey; I hope she disassociated. My dad returned her to me, and, from them on, Shelley’s acrobatics were limited to jumping in the grass.
In 4th grade, my teacher had an assortment of animals living in the classroom, including two boa constrictors. I would hold them when given the chance. Every other week, she would feed them and ask the class if we wanted to watch. I went to a small private Christian school, so my class was probably 10 to 15 students at most. I’d have to dig out the old yearbook for the exact count, and it’s 1,700 miles away and in coronavirus quarantine at my parent’s house. She would have us gather around their tanks, bring out live rats, and drop them in the cages. We would gather around and wait. Only one person in our class chose not to participate. She would sit outside of the classroom door until it was over. For this particular showing, I had a front row seat because I was the shortest. Our teacher lowered the rats in the cage. The snakes flicked their tongues and slithered a bit before waiting to stalk their prey. My classmates and I looked on, trying to be as quiet as possible. Before long, the rat was walking on the edge the of the cage. It was eye-level in front of my face. We made eye contact right as one of the boa constrictors struck it down. Its eye popped out in front of me. I don’t remember screaming, but I did. I do remember a failed attempt of laughing it off that turned into hysterical crying. Mostly, I was shocked. I had seen it happen before. It wasn’t the death that bothered me, but the fact that I was looking an animal in the eyes, one of which vacated its socket, during its demise. My teacher asked me to leave the room while the other snake ate. To save myself further embarrassment, I sat out of the rest of the feedings.
That’s right. I talk a big game. I will move the spiders and most creepy crawlies to the backyard or farther in the backyard if necessary. I had to call my sister to remember the details of this story. We both agreed this is how it went down. I was living with my sister and brother-in-law in their house. My brother-in-law worked two weeks on, two weeks off in west Texas, so my sister, the dogs, and I were the only ones home this night. Lauren and I stumbled upon a tarantula, which are common in Texas. We hadn’t seen one in the wild. My sister was pregnant with her first child Harrison. When we saw the tarantula, we both decided it was best if it wasn’t near the house. I would relocate it with a shovel. The plan was to shovel underneath it, gently pick it up, and give it a soft toss into the neighbor’s yard. Well, as it happened, I clumsily wielded the shovel and ended up maiming the tarantula and had to put it out of its misery. This was tough for my sister and me. We had basically named it and given it a backstory. We were stunned. My sister, who I had rarely seen shed tears, started crying. It was my first glimpse of the power of pregnancy hormones. We held a moment of silence, after which I dug a shallow hole and deposited its body inside.
This made us think of another funny story with Lauren at her house. We were standing outside talking near her garage. She was holding her daughter Hazel on her hip. She was barefoot because she was standing on the warm sidewalk between her house and the garage. As we’re talking, she lifts her foot because she feels something on it. We look down and sitting atop her foot is a huge tarantula hawk carrying a freshly stunned tarantula for dinner. She screams and shakes her foot. Predator, luckily, flies away with his prey. We googled tarantula hawk. For those wondering, the tarantula hawk is a spider wasp. Adults feed on nectar. The female hawks bury paralyzed tarantulas alive to be food for their young. The tarantula hawk was made famous after a biologist instructed anyone stung by the wasp to “lie down and scream”. I say this in the most loving, understanding, appreciative way: they are winged creatures who bring destruction, pain, and death. They are aggressive. They would be on my list of wasps to watch from a far distance. We considered ourselves lucky.
The last story is the most recent and arguably the most embarrassing, but you can be the judge. It took place on June 11th, 2019. On our road trip from Texas to Canada, Deaven and I took our time. We planned stops for places that interested us, especially national parks. Deaven has always loved the desert, so I knew Joshua tree was a must-see. We stayed for a night. When we entered the park, I wanted to take her to Keys View. We drove down the winding desert roads and admired all the Joshua trees around us, the beautiful sunshine, and the heat of the desert. As we were parking at Keys View, we noticed signs warning of bees swarming the parked cars. We noticed some buzzing around a few cars, so we chose to (I made us) park farther away.
For some context, I had only been stung once by a bee, earlier that year with Deaven when we went to swim in a nearby spring. The bee zigged and zagged straight into my leg as I walked by it. Deaven, unaware of what happened, heard my cries of pain. In between gasping for breath and wincing with pain, I told her I’d been stung and to “get thestinger outofmyleg”. I pointed to an area of my leg and Deaven began the search for the stinger. After two milliseconds, I grew impatient, grabbed the tweezers, and yanked it out myself. I hadn’t even told her what stung me. I didn’t have an allergic reaction. We had a relaxing swim. I then learned from my sister that a person may not have an allergic reaction until the second sting. My previous move, when I saw bees coming, was to dart aimlessly. I would would outsmart the bees and make them wonder what was wrong with me. I would quickly backpedal while humming “uuuuuuuuuhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh noooooooooooo.” Cool, calm, and collected is not in my vocabulary.
So, when I saw the bees around the other cars at Keys View in Joshua Tree, I kept a wide berth. We walked up the path, took in the view, and walked back to the car. On our way back to our car, we heard the screams of a young girl trying to evade the bees around her car. Her dad had to drag her to the car to put her in. Deaven and I chuckled. Oh, how foolish I was.
We laid eyes on our car. In our twenty-minute walk, bees had swarmed our car. I’d like to tell you it was like the swarms seen in dramatic movies where they were covering every inch of the car but it was 30 or 40 bees. I had been driving and went to the driver’s side door and promptly said, “Nope.” I handed the keys to Deaven, and she got in the car. She thought it was funny when I kept stepping toward the car and then backpedaling. I had done it four or five times before I thought I was never going to sit inside our car again. I was wearing sunglasses. As one does, and, as I would have done if our roles were reversed, she started taking a video on her phone. Meanwhile, I’m outside the car quietly sobbing. The second she saw the tears leaking under my sunglasses, she stopped taking the video and apologized profusely while I told her to start driving to see if it deterred the bees from following. It worked, and I hopped in the still slightly moving car and away we went. We both had a good laugh on the car ride back.