Back in ‘86 my mom and a group of her friends had become oddly interested in the cookies called Animal Crackers. They would have Animal Cracker parties and trade the different animals with each other like little kids playing with trading cards.
It didn’t stop there though. Mom’s interest in animal cracker related things grew and eventually she convinced my Dad to spend every penny they had on a small zoo in another city. One that we would live in. She dreamed the place would be called Animal Crackers with a big shiny red and yellow sign out front and all the zoo animals she and her friends had been crunching on including lions, zebras, elephants, tigers, monkeys, hippos, and giraffes.
I’ll never forget the feeling of excitement I felt when we first drove up to our new home, Animal Crackers zoo. I will also never recover from the the devastation I felt when I realized that my parents has bought a broken down and abandoned puppy mill, and I had to live in it.
Hundreds and hundreds of filthy dogs inhabited rusty bent wire cages. Hundreds of others were stacked in stinking heaps along the sides of the driveway. Mom looked upset. She had been lied to by the previous owners who had told her that the place would be cleaned up. Dad told her they’d figure something out. He was either an optimist or delusional. I’ve never figured out which.
Years later, when I read the book Fierce Invalids from Hot Climates by Tom Robbins he wrote that “Pucallpa was the dead dog capital of South America” and I laughed because I always felt Animal Crackers Zoo was the dead dog capital of North America, but could never put it into words.
The majority of the dogs were filthy jumping toy poodles with matted hair and bald patches. Only a few of them were even large enough to be considered dogs. Most were just puppies. I’m not sure how they were even surviving under those conditions. The stink was like nothing I’d ever experienced. The closest I can describe it as is a combination of burning hair, ammonia, and lilac perfume. And the dogs looked like chicken carcasses with some brown yarn glued on them in places. I couldn’t believe this place was my new home.
My parents had sold our old house, and had spend everything and more on this place. We had no choice but to live there.
We parked the car and checked out the house which really wasn’t too bad inside, just really dusty and in need of a paint job and some new carpets. They had kept the dogs out of there so it was not as bad as I had expected.
I did notice a few oddities. when I was choosing my bedroom. There was a dead fish on the front porch roof which I noticed while looking out one of the bedroom windows. Then we found a treasure chest in another bedroom which was filled with sand and cigarette butts. A pirates ashtray. Out back, the area fenced off for a yard was filled with huge empty turtle shells. I imagined the owners had been catching snappers down by the river and making turtle soup to sustain themselves, but in truth there was no river. Where turtles that large came from is still a mystery.
My parents worked hard on this place for years, eventually nursing the dogs back to health and cleaning the place up the best they could. M sister and I went to school and tried to live normal lives. Never bringing a friend home out of embarrassment. We lived in what would be considered the ghetto of town which was bad enough, but to live in the dead dog capital was something we couldn’t let anyone find out about, and nobody did.
As far as the zoo goes, my parents never could get the proper permits to own any of the zoo animals they wanted. A real zoo was out of the question , so they cleaned up the cages and made it into a yard area where they kept various motorcycles, camping trailers, black buckets full of bolts, and rusty car jacks. They only real zoo animal they ever got was a Chimp they adopted who I do believe may be half human. This guy could smoke a pipe, wash dishes, dress himself, he even got a job bagging groceries.
My parents “adopted” Willie when he was just a baby chimp and he lived in the house with us. They always treated him like he was a regular boy and not a monkey. Willie, did you brush your teeth? He did. Willie did you clean up your room? He did. Willie can you come help put away the laundry? He did. Willie actually did more around the house and was a better kid than my sister or I ever was. If Mom had asked any of those questions of us, the answer would have been “no.” I guess that’s why they still keep him. He’s 35 now, and I’ll be damned if it wasn’t’ bad enough that he’s better behaved, he’s also more handsome than me too.
So instead of a zoo we got a dead dog junkyard, and instead of a lion, we got a Humanzee, but in the end it all worked out and I have the nightmares to prove it.