Thursday, March 6, 2008

Sam, and Other Animals

Ralph and Sherry Pierce, about 1952

I am forever grateful I was raised by parents who loved, or in my mother's case tolerated, all sorts of birds and animals. This photo from about 1952 is of my father and me and one of his pet crows. He occasionally rescued young birds who fell from their nests, but I think he sometimes kidnapped them. To his credit he never caged the raucous critters. He simply convinced them he was their best meal ticket and was rewarded with a summer of amusement before biology called them away to start their own families in the autumn.

In 1960 our local newspaper, The Elkhorn Independent, sent Wally Schultz to the farm to do a story about our animals. This is my younger sister Pat with "Sam" on her arm, me watching on. The picture isn't especially good, but the text of the old article, saved in a scrapbook, bolstered my memory of a summer straight out of Sterling North's novel, Rascal. The text of the clipping follows.

I was so caught up in the memory I decided to try a drawing of a crow, using an internet reference photo. I started with a graphite value drawing, then deepened the darkest values with black acrylic ink. I followed with a wash of indigo watercolor, not too dark, saving the highlights, and finished up with indigo and black colored pencil. It seems right to me, though no drawing or photo can capture the intelligence and energy of these relatives of ravens, jays, and magpies.

Pet Managerie Developed for Ralph Pierce Children
Wally Schultz, Elkhorn Independent, 1960

A menagerie of some proportions has been assembled for the enjoyment of the children, and the grownups, on the Ralph Pierce farm in Sugar Creek.

The collection includes three rabbits, a parakeet, a raccoon, a black crow, a fox, a turtle, and two dogs. In contrast to ordinary menageries, however, the animals and birds are pets, and with a couple of exceptions, have their freedom.

Sherry, 9, and Patricia, 6, daughters of Mr. and Mrs. Pierce, handle them with tender care, and Mary, 16 months, would like to if she could get her hands on them. Dean, six weeks old, simply isn't interested.

Mr. Pierce said he always made pets of birds and animals when he was a kid on the farm. His first crow followed him to school and was waiting for him when he came out after the sessions. He has trained four. The present crow, Sam, has been with the family about six weeks. He was taken from the nest and responded to feeding by being friendly right from the start. He rides on the shoulders of all members of the family, and even parked on your correspondent's shoulder while he was taking notes. "Sam" has his freedom and has been flying only about three weeks, but has stayed around the place.

Perhaps the secret of Pierce's success with the animals is the fact that he handles them as little as possible, never frightens them and lets them have their own way most of the time. The girls, and Mrs. Pierce, the former Carol Tess, who was a classmate of her husband in the 1948 Elkhorn High School graduating class, follows his program of training and they all share in the fun.

"Ringo" the raccoon, came to the farm about three weeks ago. Mrs. Harry Weaver, Rte. 2, heard a strange noise in her chimney and noticed the flue stop plate was pushed out in the kitchen on two successive mornings. Her son-in-law, Oral Ward, of Janesville, investigated and found baby raccoons. They were turned over to Pierce, who in turn gave one to Don Vincent. After a short period "Ringo" climbs up and sits on a shoulder, and gets along with the rabbits when placed in a pen with them. He prefers his freedom however, but stays close to home. He sleeps under the porch.

"Vixen" the fox was trapped by Pierce but she is confined near the barn. One dash for freedom lasted only a few minutes after Pierce coaxed her back with a weiner. She likes pigeons, which Pierce shoots from the barn roof, and all sorts of table scraps. Her odor prevents closer association with the family, and accounts for her banishment to the pen behind the barn.

Two black rabbits named "Smokey" and "Midnight" and a white who hasn't been named, are completely tame. The turtle, named "Myrtle the Turtle" lives happily in the stock tank, and "Pete" the parakeet, the noisiest of the lot, is the only one who enjoys the comfort of home.

Practically ignored by the Independent reporter were "Shep" and "Pluto" the shepherd dogs who modestly stayed in the background, probably reconciled to the fact that they are not as glamorous and newsworthy as "Sam" and "Ringo" and "Vixen," but they played an important role in protecting the rest of the pets from nocturnal marauders.

Schultz's story said nothing about the clutter of barn cats that our family kept, partially because Dad loved them, and partially because cats were necessary to keep rats from infesting the barns, sheds and corn cribs. The article was written too soon for the writer to hear about the thieving antics of the crow and raccoon, who often charged into the open kitchen door, hoping for handouts. I remember clearly tossing Fig Newtons out the screen door to persuade the animals to leave, then slamming and latching it to keep them outside where they belonged. The raccoon was fun that summer. He played in our inflatable kiddie pool, and would happily sit in the water with a Slo-Poke sucker clutched in his little black hands, washing it into a state of goo, then chewing the candy to bits. Even when his jaws were glued together with caramel he chirred happily.  I loved it.

1 comment:

Michael said...

Wow.... the fantasy childhood this suburban boy could only imagine! How wonderful. Loved the closing details of them charging the kitchen..... ! My mother was terrified of animals. We've raised our kids with cats, but no crows or foxes here, alas!