In search of ponies: Critters offer children endless amusement

Sharna Johnson

“Hello, do you sell feeder ants?” I asked the lady who answered at the pet store.

“Put it back where you found it,” the voice on the other end of the line responded.

“Excuse me? What do you mean?”

“The horned toad. Take it back where you found it, you can’t keep it,” she answered.

In hindsight my call was a dead giveaway since not a lot of things depend on ants for their diet in these parts and ants are a food source that make it near impossible to keep horned toads in captivity, according to the lecture I got that day.

I did let the little fellow go, and I set him down close to an ant hill by way of an apology. Sadly, I admit I was an adult at the time — though in my defense it has been several years.

Growing up we always sought out wildlife — fireflies and tadpoles in jars, salamanders, turtles we found wandering, granddaddy longlegs, snakes, preying mantis’, lady bugs and more.

You name it, we caught it.

I can still remember all of us children gathered in a circle on the playground and the feel of a baby possums’ tail winding around my finger while we watched in amazement as he hung upside down.

Another of our favorite things to do was catch moles. We would see them tunneling near the top of the soil and put our hand in the way of the trail, then scoop it up.

Looking back it must have been torture to them, but blinded by the sun, the strange little guys would sit docile in our hands until we would put them back, then off they’d go, tunneling the other direction as fast as they could.

There’s something about the line between kids (adult kids too) and wild animals that just begs to be crossed regardless of economics or location.

Out of curiosity, I asked some folks from a smattering of different regions what wildlife they remember playing with as children:

• Muleshoe kid: Raised in west Texas, one man — for no good reason other than it was fun — remembers sneaking into barns at night and catching sleeping pigeons, which he then took home and raised in cages. There were also the tadpoles he kept in a fishbowl until his family went on a lengthy vacation and returned to a lesson in evolution and a near empty bowl. They never found the frogs but to this day he clearly remembers his mother being more than a little unhappy.

• New England kid: His brother had a penchant for raising wild caught critters of all kinds and their back yard was a “zoo” of cages and ponds filled with frogs, turtles, salamanders and snakes. One of his stronger memories involved a painted turtle, who, while he was holding it to admire its cute face, admired him back and latched onto his nose. Getting the turtle off his nose proved a challenge, he said, remembering that he shook his head from side to side like a dog but the turtle wouldn’t let go.

• Philippine kid: Living in the inner city, surprisingly he said there was no shortage of critters around. A lot of kids played with the lizards that lived in and around homes, taking them for pets, but what he remembers most was spider games. Kids would gather to pit their arachnid pets against each other in shoe boxes. They also caught jumping spiders, then rotated their hands around each other creating a treadmill of sorts. While the spider kept jumping forward, getting nowhere fast, it would create a web that wrapped around the kids hands — endless hours of fun, for the kids at least.

• Northern Michigan kid: Growing up on a remote dairy farm, wildlife was part of life. He remembers raising orphaned possums, skunks and baby birds. One night he encountered a bobcat in the milk barn, initially mistaking it for a large Tom cat until it jumped from a hay pile and made it out the door in two, lightening speed hops. After that, he started leaving the door cracked and setting out a dish of milk every night. Everything was fine until one night when his father, noticing the open door, discovered the bobcat in the barn. It was hard to tell who was more startled, the cat or the man, but he clearly remembers his father booming, “You did WHAT?”

It never fails, regardless of where someone comes from, where they’re going or where they end up, somewhere along the path there was a little fur or feathers. And those memories can bring a smile to the most hardened face.

Perhaps Shakespeare had it right in saying, “Nature teaches beasts to know their friends.”