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For the Love of a Duck (and a Goose, and a Starling, and a ...)
on February 18, 2009
ENSLAVED BY DUCKS joins the genre of books epitomized by James Herriot's stories of his encounters with all sorts of animals (and their owners) in his capacity as a country veterinarian and by John Grogan's MARLEY AND ME, which tells of one man's endearing relationship with one canine friend. These books are replete with humor and a bit of pathos and leave the reader feeling very fortunate to live in a world with such wonderful fellow creatures. The writer-narrators achieve quite a bit of the humor in these books by denigrating themselves just a wee bit, too, showing through their own experiences how we humans can be bamboozled and manipulated by the non-human denizens of this world, which are often very good at showing us that our vaunted human intellect is not always so superior!
For me, however, Bob Tarte's ENSLAVED BY DUCKS, though largely amusing and fun to read, does not reach the levels of the books which I've just mentioned as being of the same genre. To some extent, this may well result from the fact that Tarte writes mostly of ducks, geese, turkeys, doves, parrots, parakeets and starlings rather than of soft, furry, cuddly critters such as dogs, cats, horses or cows. To me, birds are not all that far removed from their dinosaur ancestors, and I've never been very successful in developing much fondness for them, although I enjoy seeing them at one of our feeders. Perhaps my feelings have something to do with the fact that, as a child, I had a healthy fear of headless chicken bodies flapping blindly through the air around me after my father wrung their necks!
Tarte's book does include a few episodes with bunny rabbits, and there are some references to his family cats, but various avians far outweigh all other creatures in the number of episodes and in the attention given to each.
There are a few other things, however, that are off-putting to me in the book, and none has anything particularly to do with birds. First, if the author is truly as inept, naive, and clueless as he portrays himself, then he is a valid object for either pity or derision, depending on the reader's attitude toward such people. For example, he tells of building a wire fence: "Not until I was two-thirds finished with the project and my hands were bleeding claws did I conceive of wearing work gloves and using pliers to twist the wire." It's one thing for a human to be innocent in the ways of relating to other animals for the first time but quite another to be unbelievably ignorant of the most basic concepts of using everyday tools for simple tasks.
Tarte also departs at times from recounting his relationships with his feathered charges to recount his relationship with psychiatrists, from whom he requests--and receives--mood-altering drugs. A patient prescribing for himself? A patient who returns to a psychiatrist whom he describes in less than flattering terms? One wants to grab Tarte and shake some sense into him.
The reader is further treated to pictures of Linda, the author's wife, praying fervently over the remains of a duck that had been gutted by a raccoon, proclaiming that the successful capture of another duck in danger of freezing was "a miracle from the Lord," and helping to hang a rosary around the neck of yet another sick duck while sprinkling it with "holy water." Although Tarte writes of such antics with some amusement, he mainly succeeds in showing his wife to be susceptible to (or a victim of) religious fanaticism. Now the reader wants to grab Linda and shake some sense into her! (I am reminded of William Owen's book WALKING ON BORROWED GROUND and of the uneducated folk who read scripture aloud in the belief that doing so will staunch a young man's arterial hemorrhaging.)
I felt that Tarte lost his focus on several occasions (his self-diagnosed need for psychiatric drugs and his wife's extreme religiosity, for instance) and that he used far too much hyperbole in describing his ineptness at the most basic of tasks. However, it would be a mistake to dismiss his book on these grounds. It does give the reader some insight in relating to other members of the animal kingdom, and it does so with a great deal of humor. The last chapter may also, if one has ever loved a four-legged or winged companion, bring a tear to the eye: "But find a clump of grass,... plop down on it and speak with a soft voice, and you might be rewarded with the close approach of a goose. She might even let you touch her. And you had better treasure the gift. Too suddenly and too often, they leave us. It's then that we realize most sharply the subtle comfort of our animals' companionship. It's then that we know that we can't live without them, even though we sometimes must."
While not the best book of its genre, ENSLAVED BY DUCKS is far from being the worst. If one enjoys the companionship of non-human creatures, and most especially if one keeps pet birds, then Tarte's book should provide quite a bit of entertainment and perhaps offer some empathy as well.