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Monday, February 18, 2008


It's not unusual for us to befriend animals. But it always impresses me when animals take steps out of their wild nature to relate somehow to us. Forever after, I feel some sort of bond with these unique adventurers of a world through which I can only stumble. Here are a few of the animals I have known.


My parents took me to Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle several times when I was young. It was when Bobo the Gorilla was alive. He was enormous. Now the zoo has a beautiful man-made canyon where several gorillas are kept, but it used to be that Bobo was the zoo's only gorilla, and he was kept in a cell in the Ape House fronted by heavy glass, and about three feet in front of the glass was a metal bar. A sign told people not to go beyond the bar.

But, being a little kid easily able to duck and walk under the bar, I did just that, and walked up to this huge gorilla who was sitting on the floor by the glass with his back resting against the left wall of his cell. I was admiring him from only inches away. Eventually Bobo began looking at me, too; then slowly got up and ambled over to the other end of the glass and plopped down against the right wall. So I ran down to look at him again from only inches away. Bobo gave me a perturbed glance, slowly got up, and went back to where he had been. I followed him. So he got up again and moved over to the right. We did this for several minutes--the huge gorilla trying to avoid the little kid, and the little kid persistently pursuing him--until it got to be a game for both of us. I could tell that, although Bobo was giving me disgusting looks, he was enjoying it almost as much as I was. And people began gathering to watch us, until a crowd surrounded my patient and amused parents. The times I visited Bobo after that, after they had brought in Fifi, the female gorilla, unsuccessfully to mate with him, I always wondered if he was telling Fifi in gorilla language, "Oh no, there's that obnoxious kid again!"


When we were elementary school age, a friend and I were walking back to my house from Peace Arch Park in Blaine, Washington, and as we were passing the bowling alley, we saw that a dog had cornered something in the entranceway. I walked up to see what it was, and as the dog was slightly distracted, a sparrow suddenly fluttered up from the corner and landed on my arm! The bird was traumatized enough to feel safe on the arm of a child. The dog then strolled off, and my friend and I continued our walk with the sparrow on my arm, around the corner and halfway down the block. Finally the bird flew straight up from my arm into the branches of a tree overhead. I always felt so complimented that a sparrow flew to me for safety.


After graduating from high school, I went to Libby, Montana to make an attempt at independence, having gotten assurances of a job with the St. Regis Lumber Company. I rented a room, and the next day walked across town to the lumber mill to apply officially, confused enough by job-hunting propaganda to wear a black suit to a lumber mill. Despite the fact that I was apparently insane, they still hired me, to begin work the following day, and I left to walk back to the rooming house. Along the way, I met up with some tough characters who didn't cotton to the idea of a black-suited 18-year-old in the middle of a lumber town. They gathered around me and the biggest, meanest one confronted me front and center. I told them I had just gotten a job at the lumber mill and that's why I was wearing the suit, but he didn't seem impressed enough to change his mind about bruising and busting up what was inside the suit. Just as things were getting a bit worrisome, I saw a cicada drop down out of the tree above, and disappear behind the head of the bully. It was comical when his eyes opened wide, his mouth dropped open, and he began yelling and flailing his arms, trying to reach something that was in the middle of his back, under his shirt. His cohorts were all concerned about why their leader was suddenly dancing and hollering, while I said, "Well, I'll see you guys later," and quickly walked away unscathed. I've always been very thankful to that big insect.


While in the Army, stationed at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, Mark, a friend, and I would take off for adventures each weekend, never knowing beforehand what we were going to do. One weekend, during a hike, we found ourselves in the midst of a marijuana field and held at gunpoint by the two "farmers." Another weekend we hopped a freight. That same weekend we went down a river on a borrowed metal dingy, a voyage that lasted through the night. We got so cold that we built a campfire right on the floor of the boat. Sometime during the night, we heard the unique sound of a hoot owl--"hoo hoo hoo-hoo, hoo hoo hoo-hoooooooooooooot." And Mark and I began trying to imitate the owl. The owl called back, and we had a long "conversation" with it.

Several years later, out of the Army, I was hitchhiking with Omega, my dog, from Wichita, Kansas to Sultan, Washington, and got on the wrong road in Colorado. Discovering the right road was across a valley, I decided to hike directly through the wilderness, carrying my 50-pound pack. The valley was a lot wider than it looked, and after wading across the Platte River, having to carry Omega, it started to get dark, so I set up my tube tent to spend the night beside the river. That evening I heard the same owl-call Mark and I had heard in North Carolina, and I began imitating it. The owl and I called back and forth all the while I was setting up the tent, and finally, in the quickly darkening dusk, I heard the whoosh-whoosh sound of large bird wings. I looked up and saw the owl flying by just a few feet above my head, its large eyes reflecting light as it passed. It had come to see what sort of creature it had been talking with. And after seeing, the sounds of the owl were heard no more that night.


During another visit, this time on my own, to the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle, I carried my plaid zipper bag, a bag I had used for hitchhiking, and came upon an indoor cage containing a spotted Hyena. The strange-looking animal was lying forlornly in the rear of his cell, but when he saw my zipper bag, he suddenly perked up. He sat up and stared at it, then came up to the glass as close as he could get to me, all the while staring at my bag. I stepped up to the glass and unzipped the bag, and the hyena jumped up, putting his paws on the glass, very curious and excited. I took out things, one by one, and showed them to the hyena, and he was obviously fascinated with each thing. He was still staring after me when I finally walked away.


My Army buddy, nicknamed Bear, came to visit me when I lived in a cabin on Camano Island, Washington, and one day we rowed out into Utsalady Bay, with the intention of crossing over to either Goat or Inca Island, but the oars were no match for the current and we ended up drifting towards Stanwood. While out in the middle of the bay, I noticed a log floating nearby. It was apparently waterlogged and about to sink entirely; only its tip was bobbing up and down at the water's surface. I told Bear that it'd be too bad if a motorboat came by and hit it. We rowed on, and then saw that the log was still the same distance from us. "Good grief," I said, "We're not getting anywhere with this rowing. That log is drifting right along with us." Finally the eerie realization came when the log, coming nearer, had a face! It was a living creature, and it was following us! It got closer and closer, and finally I recognized it as a sea lion, a big one. It thought we might be fisherman and would toss out some food, I suppose. As we went along, we spotted another one, then another, all following us. Finally we moored the boat on a quiet beach on Camano and got out to rest from rowing. We plopped down on the rocks and looked out to see if our friends were still there. They were, and we were shocked and amazed to be looking at about twenty sea lions all looking at us!


When we lived at the Agate Bay trailer court near Bellingham, some neighbors took a trip and had my wife Micki take care of their many birds while they were gone. One of the birds was a crow in a large cage outside the trailer. Several times, in walking over to see how Micki was doing, I would stop to talk to the crow. Then one day when I came home from work, Micki and another neighbor were in a panic. Micki ran up to me and hollered, "You know that net we have? Where is it?" I found it for her as she told me that the crow had gotten loose and was up in a tree. How the two planned to catch it with a little net, I'll never know, but I followed them to the tree, across the driveway from the bird-lovers' trailer. As they walked toward the tree trunk, the crow suddenly flew down from a branch and landed on the pavement just a few feet in front of me. I squatted down and the crow ran to me, as if to say, "Please save me from those crazy women with the net!" I reached down and easily grabbed the bird, and carried it to its cage and put it in, to the amazement of Micki and her friend, and myself.


I've told elsewhere, especially in my blog, "The American Tarantula Society," about my friend, the tarantula, once the antagonist of my nightmares. Little did I know, when my first giant spider gracefully stepped out of the package in the back room of my high school biology class, several years before they would ever be seen in pet stores, that this creature would inspire me to write my first published book and to found the first American Tarantula Society. But there's one episode I'll tell about here.

One day I was giving a presentation to a group of Cub Scouts and their parents in a gymnasium. I was standing in the middle of the floor, with a little table for my papers, etc. The Cub Scouts were gathered on the floor around me, while their parents sat in the bleachers. I had my tarantula, Alice Brown, on the palm of my hand, and since there was no microphone I had to practically yell out my speech so all could hear. I hated public speaking, but did it for the sake of the misunderstood tarantula. As I was bellowing out my words, a boy sitting nearby asked, "Do they spit?"

I stopped to answer him in a whisper, "No, they don't spit," and went on to holler my speech.

"Are you sure they don't spit?" the boy asked.

"Yes," I whispered, "they don't spit."

And before I could continue my speech, he said, "Well she's spitting."

I then looked at my spider and was surprised to see venom drooling from her fangs and forming a puddle in my palm--so much venom that when I tipped my hand to look, it spilled on the papers on the table. Alice Brown was so upset, sitting on my hand while I shook from stage fright and shouted across a gymnasium, that she drooled venom. I was amazed. Trying to recover from the unexpected interruption, I used it to point out to the people just how friendly tarantulas really are. As sensitive as she was, and as obnoxious as I was being to her, mine could have bitten me; but instead she just spilled venom to show her nervousness. Everyone seemed to enjoy the event, and afterwards several of the kids and some adults came up to hold my extremely patient tarantula, including the boy who told me that she "spits."


We've had several encounters with raccoons. One even once managed to lift the lid enough on our garbage can to climb in, but since the lid was held on with bungee cords, it snapped shut, trapping the very distraught raccoon until we let him out the next morning. This same raccoon, a large and grumpy male, used to hide under the wooden step at our cabin door and grab at our feet as we walked out. Finally I made friends with him enough that he would take food from my hand. And one day I sat on the ground, reclining, and held the food at my chest; and the raccoon had become bold enough that he actually walked up my body to get the food, then quickly retreated.

But the most moving experience with a raccoon was when Micki found a baby one on the shoulder of the highway. The confused creature's mother had been hit by a car there and killed. Micki picked him up and brought him home to the shed in the woods where we were then living. As the coon grew, he became more lovable and more loving. When I came home from work, he would run up to me and climb right up my body to perch on my shoulder and cuddle against my neck--one of his favorite places to be. But when he was half grown, he got sick. Since it's illegal to keep wild animals for pets in the State of Washington, I hesitated bringing him to a veterinarian. Finally he got so sick that I drove him to the Woodland Park Zoo and carried him in to the zoo's vet. After getting bawled out for bringing a sick animal into the zoo, and explaining to the vet my hope that if they can cure the raccoon they can keep him for the zoo, the vet went ahead and examined him. The raccoon had distemper, and to try to cure it at this point was very expensive and not very hopeful. He suggested putting him to sleep. They gave him the fatal shot, and then left the room, giving me privacy to sob like a baby as I held my lost friend.


Here are three stories, the first one cheating a bit, because it's about someone's pet dog. However, this dog understood the wildness of a dog pack and had influence over it, and so impressed me to no end. There was a dead-end gravel road on my newspaper route in Sultan, Washington, and I had to ride my bicycle to the end of it and back. Halfway down the road was a house where six dogs lived--six dogs who loved to chase my bike--six dogs who would have enjoyed nipping at my lower legs. But there was also a seventh dog who lived there, one that liked me. This dog would wait faithfully for me each day at the beginning of the dirt road, and would run alongside me as I rode my bike. The other dogs would all come to chase me, but this dog managed to keep them from getting close enough to bite me, even if he had to bite them to do it. Thanks to him, I was never bitten on that road.

Many years later, while attending the Wichita Drafting College in Wichita, Kansas, I commuted to school on a bicycle. Once while riding under the freeway overpass near the downtown area, I saw perhaps twenty large dogs sleeping on a plot of grass beside an on-ramp. Only one was awake, and looked like he was keeping watch. I thought that was so bizarre to see so many loose dogs in the heart of a large city, and wondered just how wild they were. So I stopped riding and quietly got off my bike. I put the kickstand down, and walked slowly towards the pack. The watchdog stared at me, then growled, and suddenly all the large heads perked up and stared at me, and all growled! I backed up apologetically toward my bike, not even daring to get on it, and walked away pushing it, with the bike between me and the dogs. When I returned from school, the pack was gone. I was impressed, having experienced that splash of wildness on such an organized canvas.

Not long after moving to our present house here in Branson, Missouri, a dog pack came through our yard. It was ominous. All the dogs were large, the leader was obvious, and they were now wild and unsociable. The pack was seen here a couple times, during which time we kept the kids inside. Some of the dogs were aggressive, except for one who approached us several times and seemed to keep the rest of the pack from bothering us. She was healthy looking, a golden mix, with the spotted tongue of a chow. Eventually the pack moved on, but this dog stayed behind. She hung around our house and slept out in the middle of our front yard, rain or shine. We called her Marsha.

As time went by, Marsha dared to sleep on our front porch, but she would never enter our house, nor did she accept our food. She would go into the woods next to us and find her own food, each day dragging out a rabbit or squirrel, etc. She was wild, but friendly, and very patient with the children. But since she was so independent, I wondered why she had left the pack and had otherwise adopted us. Finally I threw the question out online, and an animal behavior expert responded, saying only, "Maybe she's pregnant."

Sure enough, weeks later it was obvious, and by then Marsha had finally accepted some food from us, but still usually hunted her own. And she dared finally to enter our house, for brief periods of time. When the day arrived, Marsha hopped up onto my favorite recliner--the most privileged place in the house--and gave birth to seven puppies.

One puppy died a few days later, and we found homes for the others, and Marsha remained with us for years--a very faithful and good dog, the most intelligent dog I've ever known. She even made a friend of our neighbor, who had always disliked dogs and once even threatened to shoot our dog if she came into his yard. But Marsha had a way about her, and after a while our neighbor was even offering her food on his deck. He later told us that Marsha is the most polite dog he's ever seen. He said that every time he sets down a dish of food for her, she would go over and examine it, then go up to where he was sitting and put her head in his lap to thank him, and then return to the food to eat it. Occasionally Marsha would wander alone, and miles away be picked up by animal control, and we'd have to bail her out of jail. And then she would stick close by us until the next call of the wild came that she couldn't refuse. The first time she was picked up by animal control and we went to get her, we were surprised at how healthy she looked and how shiny her coat was. We mentioned this to the keeper at the pound, and he said that it was because of the good food they fed the dogs there, and he showed us what it was. When we were leaving, I expected Marsha to run out of there, happy to be free, but she suddenly turned around outside the door and walked back in. I watched as she went over to the keeper. He squatted down to pet her, and she put her paw up on his thigh. She was thanking him. Eventually Marsha disappeared entirely, and we could not find her in the pound this time. If alive, she has the skill to be totally independent. I like to think that maybe she's moved on to make yet another family very happy by her love.

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1 comment:

  1. What a great group of stories, Dale. I can relate to a few of them. Isn't it strange how a brief encounter with a wild animal can have such an impact on you?