DUCK SOUP: Something Froggy and Fishy and Free

I was a frog-in-the-pocket kind of kid. Between my everyday woodsy suburban surroundings, my Boy Scout adventures, and vacation time on the shores of Lake Michigan, I had ample opportunity to stuff my pockets with snakes, beetles, toads, owl pellets, birds' nests, bits of bone, turtles, shells -- all manner of natural material, both living and dead. Mom was tolerant, even encouraging, and must have seen the educational value in my foraging.The attraction to natural wonder was there -- innate perhaps -- but an environmental ethic and compassion lagged. I don't recall any intentional cruelty, but I was surely thoughtless at times, and for many years.As a Boy Scout camp counselor I taught Nature, Bird Study, Reptile Study, Insect Life, and Soil and Water Conservation Merit Badge classes - leading small groups of fellow Scouts on early morning searches for warblers and woodpeckers, or tramping through swamps looking for snakes. We had a summer-long collection of captive critters used for teaching, inmates kept for a while and then released.One day I caught a 5 foot long diamondback rattler and proudly deposited it in a secure cage in the Nature area, happy to have a live example to show to my students. (Once you look closely at a live rattlesnake you can never again mistake a non-poisonous serpent for a rattler -- and one of my life-long efforts has been to dissuade folks from killing every snake, on sight. Better still, kill none -- there is a time to every purpose ... but I digress.)In short order the Camp Director huffed and puffed into my HQ and demanded I decapitate the snake immediately. Where I saw a teaching tool he saw a serious potential liability. I did the deed, with an axe, as he stood by, fuming. The sick-to-my-stomach feeling lingered for years and doubtless fertilized my inclination to Question Authority. More concretely, I brought no more poisonous snakes into camp, and when a young Scout fished in his pocket and dropped a small coral snake on the table one day ("What's this?" "Deadly," I answered.), I hastily returned it to the wild.Later I had a part-time job at a tropical fish store, drawn to the work by the same froggy fascination, but put off by the quantity of death involved. The fish trade like most of the pet business involves high mortality. Occasionally whole shipments of fish arrived dead, more often a substantial portion were floaters or died in the next few days. Each morning before opening the first task was removal of the deceased from each of fifty or so tanks - such morbidity being deemed bad for business.It wasn't until years later that I learned that bird, lizard, snake, turtle, fish, and monkey collectors routinely wreak death and destruction on wild populations of their target species. Somehow, I was still tangled up in needing to possess. I wanted to own nature -- lock it in a cage or cram it into an overcrowded fish bowl -- to enjoy its beauty while ignoring its plight. When disease sprang up in crowded aquaria I did what my boss did, what poultrymen and ranchers do, I doused them with antibiotics and thought that germs were the culprits instead of my own misguided imprisonment system.Later still, long retired from the cruel hobby of caging and cooping wild ones, I helped a re-habber nurture wounded and orphaned songbirds. A sad task, that one, demanding hourly feeding of gaping, ravenous little nestlings, cute in their gangly way, and almost every one doomed. A little training is insufficient, no matter the good will.And now I doubt if any imprisonment is valid. Zoos are painfully depressing, and even those which tend to the invalids -- the auto victims, the hunter-maimed, the endangered -- just don't work for me any longer. The cougar pacing behind the bars, the chimpanzee gibbering and flipping its lips, even the dull eyed fish in a big public aquarium, are serving life sentences for ou r amusement. It is not education, it is tyranny.Now my hands are in my pockets and the frogs are in the pond. In one small way I have finally grown up.

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