Memories about Animal Friend—March 22, 2:15 PM, 2016
I evoke my own home bread memories about interactions with what we call “animals,” because we assume that we are the only thinking live creatures living on this planed. We are not. My affinity for animals of various kinds did not grow just from visiting the Roman Zoo during the long WWII winter and spring in Rome. Most of those inhabitants had been eaten or had starved, but not all. I was also alive and enjoyed making faces at them, using body language while feeding them peanuts. Those still live primates smiling and grinning as they made the Fascist salute or the Nazi one, were caged as I also felt caged in and by a world that had become alien to me.
Drawing came to me naturally, particularly when there were no children to play with anymore. My first drawings were of panthers and monkeys at the zoo. I also picked the stray feathers from the ostrich enclosure and also from where birds still circled the high dome - my grandmother used them on her hats. Waking up the turtles in the sunken reptile pool did not pay off; they appeared no different then before the War, when we lived on the villa-farm.
My grandfather had bought a three hundred old convent after he married my grandmother which was located a quarter mile from the Old Appian Road where the Romans drove chariots to go to the sea and to the Southern provinces - La Via Appia. The convent became transformed into a mansion also containing a first floor where wine making equipment and fermenting wine caskets lined the walls and rose probably 40 or more feet high. We lived on the second floor, while destitute peasants lived without any utility, including water, right under us. They served us in exchange for a “free home.”
Other peasants living further away in the vineyards and orchards had children who used foul language continuously (which I delight in using as my Grandfather and Father did). All cultures have their favorite, most florid expressions of anger. My favorite swear phrase was “a al diavole!” (“go to the devil”). And if a person was really obnoxious I would murmur “Va a mori ammazzato” which means “go and get yourself killed.” I thought it, but actually never said it. I was simply imitating the power people in my family.
There were no children within miles to play with, except for during a monthly carriage ride to a village up the Alban Hills to purchase food at the weekly market, while I was left to wonder about a large villa where a six year boy named Marcello and I would go into the greenhouses. We would pick and trade flowers and nobody ever learned what we were doing. That was lovely and I have loved flowers ever since! Otherwise, day in and day out, it was just me and Nerina the cat; the dog was always chained and did not count.
There were also about twenty rabbits, whose meat we ate once a week. I raised them by placing the rabbit with the biggest round head with a smaller rabbit with a longer head, which supposedly was a female, together in a closed cage. It worked. The male got on top of the female, held her neck with his teeth and she screamed. I knew what they were doing and wondered if humans did the same thing and I felt sorry for the female. Do I still feel sorry for the women’s lot? Perhaps things have not changed that much in the last fifty years in the world at large. Vasectomies are not popular! In any case, gender was not implied in my weakly search for the rabbit we would eat that night. The enclosure where rabbits freely roamed was about a hundred feet long. There were old branches, stones in it, and the remnants of a wall. The rabbits used the branches to hide under, and raise their young. Usually the animals were very friendly when I entered the rabbit yard; they heard me coming and knew I had some fresh poppy leaves or delicacies as simple as dinner leftovers, which the chickens would also peck at.
On the particular day, the rabbit was due for dinner, I would spot it, imagine its trajectory of escape and prepare to intervene at the right moment. The peasants were not very good at this. I was smaller and usually friendly, and the rabbits would not all immediately take off and hide - and this was the interesting part - the rabbit would not escape and run away if it was not yet inside my capture range, but would stomp its foot quickly and forcefully on the ground. As I watched, other rabbits stood on their hind legs, looked around, saw me and ran away from me. Something had alerted them to the danger.
At that time I did not know about sound waves travelling under ground, but the Rabbits certainly did, because all rodents have the finest hearing, except for ocean creatures and cats. I may be wrong, as the New York Times Science article explained today.
There is another category of winged animals, birds, which my mother and I raised when they were injured, like the bird my Mother brought from Germany. On the evening of August 30 1939, when Hitler invaded Poland and the border between Austria and Italy was closed, a bird was travelling with us from Germany back to Rome, Italy: it was a magpie! The bird was in a box held by my mother. She happened to be an admirer of Konrad Lorenz who raised geese hatched in his house without ever having seen their biological mother—I had never seen a magpie before: it was pretty, black and white.
For a while my mother fed it by creating some rich saliva packed with bread and placing the bird’s beak into her mouth to feed it. It worked very well and after some time the bird ate what was offered on a plate. And some after that it was released from the heights of our great terrace which overlooked the Anzio beachhead, the summer residence of the Pope and St. Peter’s itself on the northern horizon’s edge where Rome was. The magpie took up residence on a very high fir tree facing the grand terrace.
Shortly afterwards, small objects, like a teaspoon, a fake broach and coins, started to go missing. My mother thought the maid was stealing, but this made no sense since the items taken were valueless. My mother asked one of the peasants to get a tall ladder and climb the fir tree, where the magpie was hiding. When he got back down, he had a large grin on his face. He had never seen so many shiny non edible objects in a bird’s nest! But my mother had in Germany. Magpies are attracted to anything shiny! As time went on, the magpie was later substituted by a sparrow, who also had lunch with us at the table until it was gone because the black cat, Nerina, came one day into the dining room, caught it, and ate it.
Nerina was the closest to a baby I could have experienced. I would place the cat in the doll’s carriage, cover it with a blanket and off we’d go. Who would want to play with a doll when you can have a live cat! And I would run up and down our long driveway leading to the Appian Road. We both loved that run. The cat loved it as much as she loved being placed on the swing. She would fly high and never fell off. Nerina‘s intelligence was a challenge for us. She had understood how pulleys worked in the cellar in order to keep the meat fresh (we had no refrigerator) and out of reach of the cats. She was seen grabbing the chord with her teeth and pulling the basket over to herself just enough in order to grab the meat with a paw and throw off the basket. As bombing in October 1943 came closer to our villa farm, we were escorted by a German convoy to Rome with the cat and 2 baby rabbits to keep me company. The baby rabbits had been born in the yard by a mother who soon died afterword. I found them, small, eyes still closed and ran into the shed where the cow was, milked them a little. The rabbits were housed in our kitchen where it was warm. Two of them survived and learned to poop in an appropriate corner of the kitchen, in a box.
As General’s Clark troops advanced towards Monte Cassino, a medieval monastery in the center Italy, we were already in Rome. Nerina the cat was flourishing, opening the oven and stealing meat again. The two rabbits were housed in a box on the terrace. I do not know what my mother fed them, because she was never in the apartment in Rome. She mostly lived and slept in the tunnel under the villa farm out of Rome trying to persuade the Germans who had taken over the command of the area, to move the cannons from the front of the house into the olive grove. The house was in the line of fire. The guns were moved. The house was saved. Four giant craters were later seen in the olive grove. The rabbits were forgotten and died of nephritis, and I went every day to the zoo to meet other reliable animal friends!
Decades have past, more then half a century has gone by. I do remember these instances as photographic images: seeing the inside of the kitchen in Rome, the inside of the one on the farm. As I grew up and older, I still saved animals from death, often housing them at first in a dry bathtub. There was a pigeon with a bad wing, housed in my bathtub until it could fly and be on its own. I was in my forties at the time. And then there was the peacock that had predeceased it. A friend of mine spotted it wandering in the street outside the San Francisco zoo after hours, while I was studying at Berkley. What a majestic bird! What was it looking for outside the zoo? Whom do you call? Cells phones were not available more then 55 years ago. My friend parked the car near the curb. I had a plan. We would catch the bird, place it in the car and take it back to the zoo the next day! …She was adventurous and I walked toward the bird easily, in a friendly manner, and caught it.. It was big with a huge tail, and we placed it in the back seat of the Volkswagen. Driving back to my apartment near the campus. Where does one put a giant peacock that probably poops also big time? In the bathtub of course! Where one can wash up easily after it leaves its droppings! The bird was used to people and very friendly after we drove it home across the Bay. It just sat in the bathtub, probably unable to get out. What do you feed a giant male peacock in your bathtub? What you are eating for dinner of course! It was pasta with tomato sauce. That it was. I still wish we had a video camera, because the animal was hungry, picked up the slithering pasta with its beak, then had to throw up its head to let it slither down its throat and swallow it! No Neapolitan I knew ever ate pasta that way!
The next morning I called another friend who was ready to drive to Los Angeles. She knew of friends who had a ranch. I was willing to drive our peacock on her way down and take it to them. The Peacock did not seem very intelligent. Their brain is also very small compared to their size, or so I thought at the time. – Now I know that brain size is not that relevent.
Only about ten years ago, while in Philadelphia, did I have my last bathtub guest. I was picking herbs in a parking lot. Trees lined the Southern edge. As I was moving through the weeds, I heard chirps. Yes, there were two red colored birds, not yet very red, perhaps females, battling among the tall weeds. I went back to the car, got a paper sack and placed them into it. The night before a terrible wind had broken tree branches and probably shaken the nest in the maple trees where these two adolescents were nesting. The mother would not have been strong enough to bring them back up after their fall. I knew that at the times cats were also roaming the premises. The birds would have had a short life. The chirping paper sack was placed on the floor of the car and I drove home. As I drove I felt movements in the bag. One of the birds had escaped and was now sitting on my lap. The other was hiding. As I arrived at the “big house” where I lived, I wondered how I would get both of these birds out without having one of them escape into the tall ivy. I placed my bird-lapdog into the now empty paper sack and closed shut. The other bird was not visible, but As soon as I opened the car’s door, it leaped out of the car and vanished into the ivy — Good by bird!
The guest bathroom on the second floor would be most appropriate. Before letting the bird out of the bag, I hunted for old newspaper, then very gently lifted the adolescent bird and placed it into the tub’s floor. It just stood there, gazing at me! No, it could not fly out, it was not in flying form and I would have to teach it how to fly. I am trying very hard to remember the name I gave it, probably “Baby-By.” Can’t remember. I gathered branches and placed them on the windowsill and the bathtub. The next problem was: what to feed it? Italian pasta would not do this time. Worms, of course, canned worms from the pet store, what else??? The bird was hungry and liked my menu although it was still motionless, except going up and down with its head.
“Baby-By” as I later referred to the bird, needed to learn to fly because I had no intention for it to spend the remainder of his life in a bathroom! It had company: itself. It would need more. At times I left it sitting on the sink and it looked at itself in the mirror. It starred at itself. I knew it had never seen itself before, but now it did! It inspected itself first, but not for long. Quite swiftly it had recognized that it had something to do with itself but that it was not, like it, a live bird! There was no fear as he later looked at himself and less and less over the following days.
I had left the window open, with the screen down. Surveying the yard below was most interesting as he moved around the windowsill. Work had to be done. The bird needed to exercise his wing muscles and move its wings. I placed the bird on my index finger which it did grip tightly, then I raised my hand up and his wings would start moving slightly, then suddenly I would lower my arm while going down and its wings spread out fast! Doing these exercises very often helped it fly out of the bathtub.
It certainly had a good time and often sang. It was a lovely robin’s song of which I understood nothing except that it came from pleasure, and I sang back my human song and whistled. I would get up in the morning, go down two floors into the garden at the foot of his open window and whistle and sing my song. Within a few seconds the bird would sing back its song to me and kept singing until I had reached the second floor and entered its door. Then it clapped its wings, and would do some low flying! What a pleasure in such communication! Somewhere in the hundreds of disk I still have, there is one with its picture, and also a short video. Some day I shall find them and place them with this piece of writing.
There is a great debate these days whether animals even recognize themselves! I wonder who asks these questions, it must be only someone who has never raised one. Birdy-by not only recognized itself, but also myself and also one who might be alien and dangerous. My son, Andre, had come in from New York one day and came to see the red bird. As he stood by the open door birdie looked at Andre from the sink’s edge. Within seconds the little bird who could barely fly, flew straight hitting Andre on his chest! It obviously perceived Andre as an “enemy,” although Andre was similar to me. Andre was a person like me, but different and unknown to him. The bird had sensed the unknown as danger.
I recall now when I first noticed how a small sparrow recognized my mother. She was at the time still feeding birds from her balcony. One day as I visited with her in the Italian Alps, walking down a road in the woods, I noticed that there was a sparrow walking backwards in front of us, keeping pace and looking at mother…” Oh! “She explained, “its Pfitzi, whom I feed on my balcony every day! “ She dug into her pocked and threw it some pine seeds. The bird ran between her feet and ate them, then flew away. We were far away from her balcony, it was wintertime and only her face was visible for recognition. ---Ever seen a sparrow’s skull? Tiny… but there is life saving knowledge and a lot of memory in there. Read about parrots if you doubt me!--- New York Times, Science Section :Tuesday, March 22, 2016 : Pretty Smart Bird.