Before we arrived in Central Africa, I received over six months of training in various trades: carpentry, electrical, plumbing, refrigeration, roofing, tile, welding; we ran the gamut. For every imaginable building trade and accompanying hand tool, I sat in a shop and listened and fiddled until I had sufficiently connected the two.
But after a year and a half, I can see the course could use a bit of revision, especially for anyone who is Africa bound. I propose that it should include the following three classes: “How to Euthanize a Sick Animal”, “How to Remove a Bloated Carcass from a Crawlspace”, and “How to Dispatch a Rabid Stray without a Firearm”. The first two I pretty much figured out on my own. I do, after all, hail from the hills of Kentucky. The third was harder. You must understand, “Animal Control” in Africa is generally performed by hungry volunteers. As a result, there are very few strays. The few that remain are usually very sick. I love animals, and believe that said love includes responsibly managing your animals, including vagrants, and deciding for the best of all which ones should live and which ones shouldn’t.
We had been having trouble with strays coming on to our property. Our dog Queenie, a pleasant little mutt though she is, has not been fixed. The only doctor in town who could perform the operation was in France convalescing after radiation treatments. His prognosis was dark and stormy, and his assistant said he was unlikely to ever return to Bangui.
Since I am no more qualified to perform a tubal ligation on a canine than a colonoscopy on a pachyderm, I went with the next best option – sealing off the property. This was challenging, since we get lots of rain. Sheets, walls, buckets, call it what you will – copious quantities of water fall so hard and fast it is difficult to determine if one is the recipient of divine blessing or retribution. We don’t get storms; we get airborne tsunamis that are devastating and unpredictable. Putting grates over the canals that discharge rainwater under the fence would be dangerous, since it would only take a tiny bit of blowing vegetation to block the exit and possibly send thousands of cubic feet of water rolling backwards into our buildings. That was not an option.
Instead, I worked out a type of hinged gate on the main canal that could swing out if blocked by leaves or trash, but could not swing in. It worked well. The neighborhood tramps were foiled and forced to sire their flea bitten progeny elsewhere, and our innocent pup has kept her virtue thus far. That’s one point for the maintenance man.
But one remained undaunted and unimpeded by my efforts, a stray cat. For several mornings in a row, Jes and I woke in the wee hours to a cacophonous wailing right outside our window. She was tiny, mangy, dishwater gray, and blazingly in heat. She knew we had the finest tomcat around, and I might add, the prettiest. Sure, he’s a bit thick around the middle from all the pampering, but he’s healthy – a strapping, virile, worm free suitor, what every woman wants. And he always smells like herbal shampoo.
The scrawny libertine continued calling our Fritz, though unbeknownst to her he had been neutered and so was impervious and immune to her feline feminine wiles. We saw proof of this firsthand. One night, we heard the howling as usual, and looked out the window. There she was, prostrate in front of him, singing her bawdy barcarole at full volume. Fritz sat in the grass about three feet away, clueless and confused but mildly interested nonetheless. They actually looked really cute together, like a couple of teenagers from different sides of the track, stealing a forbidden kiss in the silvery moonlight. Twice she nuzzled her skeletal frame up against him in a bony “come hither” manner, and both times he batted the little trollop right across the chops.
The noise was not a problem, and I knew she couldn’t harm Fritz, but I was worried about what she might be carrying that she might decide to leave with us. With great certainty, we have the healthiest and happiest pets in all of equatorial Africa, and I didn’t want a stray to disturb that by leaving any unwanted gifts – be it scabies, rabies, or babies. The only real option was to trap her and give her to the African construction workers. Cat is a delicacy around here, and a gift of meat like that, however meager, is a powerful gesture of good will. Two birds, one stone.
I knew she liked to come and go through the drain pipes on the opposite side of the property. There were three in a row, each about six inches in diameter. I put a grating across two of them so she would be forced to choose the third. I took the only string I had, a few feet of moldering hemp twine, and tied a slip knot at one end. Outside the property, at the end of the pipe where she exits, I cut two notches in the edge of the pipe about half way up, and then I stretched the slip knot through the notches and over the top semicircle of the pipe. The other end I fastened completely around the pipe, so as she walked through and carried the slip knot with her, it would tighten around her neck and hold her fast until I could show up with a bag and some ether.
The next day I heard a ruckus outside the fence. Philip, a herculean Welshman who runs a carpentry crew on the project came looking for me. “Joel, are you looking for a cat?” Wow, that was quick, I thought to myself. “You won’t find her in your trap.”
As it was, she had been there this morning, neck in the knot, caterwauling and tossing herself about. Phil’s guys, marveling at the divine providence that had placed the string in just the right way so as to deliver into their hands this delectable specimen, had surrounded her and, dreaming of grilled kitty, were about to finish the job with a big rock when he stopped them. As he searched for me, the little dynamo twisted and pulled knowing full well that her life depended on it. Finally, the exhausted twine gave out, and with a fuzzy gray flash she bolted into the bush.
“You really should get some better string.” Thanks Philip, duly noted.
What I was more upset about was that she was no doubt wiser and it would be harder to catch her a second time. Though perhaps the lesson alone was enough; in the three months since she hasn’t been back.
Even more interesting was the effect this had on the Africans. As if walking away from my defeated device with the lamentably frayed twine in my hands wasn’t humiliating enough, I looked up to see scores of construction workers, clinging to the scaffold surrounding the renovation of the old building, all staring in my direction with their mouths open. I hung my head expecting a cascade of ridicule. But it never came. Every single one was beside himself in amazement; it wasn’t divine providence at all, the white man had trapped an animal.
The white man is an unusual species of man: lazy, complaining, and always soft to the touch. He is the one who eats pricey food in handsomely wrapped hygienic packages, the one who can’t sleep on the ground or squat in the bush, or carry his own luggage more than ten feet (and certainly not on his head), the one who relies on motor powered vehicles to haul his burgeoning carriage around – this white man – had devised a trap and, in a matter of hours, caught enough food for himself, four children and possibly two wives. Unfazed that his prey had escaped, he walked away confident that he could do it again.
That’s when the muttering began, excited and hushed, “The white man hunts like a pygmy!” I smiled and basked momentarily in my newfound stardom, then returned to the workshop and thought nothing more of it.
About a month later Papa Jean, who does the grounds keeping for the Construction Office, came over to Bethel looking for me. He is a self-effacing and intensely likable older brother, widowed for many years and recently remarried.
“Joel, I need your help.” His face was stricken and serious.
“Sure Jean, any way I can.”
“We have a fox that’s visiting us at night. He’s tearing up the vegetable gardens and ripping open the garbage bags. Can you stop him?” My reputation was getting around. I nodded smugly and cradled my chin, in a combined gesture that said I understood, commiserated, and he had come to the right man. Even while he was explaining, I was nodding and thinking how a look into my DNA would no doubt uncover genetic traces from another pioneering Kentuckian and able woodsman – the late, legendary Daniel Boone.
While my ego was still effervescing, I began to realize what this meant, and it struck fear into my heart. I had just finished building a raised garden for Jesenia, not just any garden, a square foot garden modeled after my brother’s in the south of France. His was a veritable food producing paradise, a compact cornucopia, and I wanted the same. We haven’t eaten lettuce or watermelon or peppers or even a vine ripened tomato in a year and a half and I couldn’t wait for the broken earth in my backyard to finally give forth its bounty. In the same instant I imagined vegetables exploding from the fertile ground, tilled by my very own lightly callused hands, only to be plundered into the paunch of one beady eyed, wily fox. The vegetable thief had to be stopped.
There was another reason for concern. Some foxes also eat cats. Sure, it’s not often. Mostly they like insects, mice, moles, and as noted, veggies. Maybe this one didn’t like cats. Or maybe he was just waiting for Fritz to gain a little more weight. Foxes don’t habitually eat cats and prefer to look for an easier catch. These were all good points, all supporting the improbability that our kitty would see his end in the clutches of a midnight bandit. We could rest well; he was unlikely to be attacked, I consoled myself.
But here is the most salient point – once would be enough. Given the choice between the skinny, street-savvy strumpet and our flabby, fillet-fed tabby, there’s little doubt he would come after Fritz. Given chase, she could slip into and out of very small spaces; Fritz would simply cork the hole and lay there prone, waiting to be devoured. Foxes are opportunists, and I was sure by now he had noticed our pampered puss. It was time to move.
“Jean, if we catch this animal, what will you do with it? Do people eat foxes here?”
“Absolutely!” was his toothy-grinned reply. His eyes beamed at the thought of meat. “They are delicious!”
I did a quick check online to verify if any indigenous foxes were on the endangered species list, lest our caper transgress an international convention. The endangered list for Central Africa is quite long, but foxes are nowhere to be found. In fact, they are thriving. Notwithstanding, this particular fox’s chances were not looking good.
Together, Jean and I surveyed the crime scene. By the trash cans there were torn garbage bags and litter strewn about in a hasty search for tasty morsels left within. A faint trail of fresh rubbish pointed back to the point of entry and egress. Not far away was a hole in the fence, a gutter, which he had no doubt come through. I found some better string this time and gathered the tools to set the snare. This one would have to be sturdy enough to hold him till the morning, yet sufficiently invisible to fool an experienced prowler.
Before erecting the trap, I thought better to ask Jacky, the Construction Overseer, if it was okay. Construction is based on a separate property, and he alone has the last word as to what happens there. Jean was already salivating and dreaming of rubbing salt into the roasted canid, nevertheless, we had to stop the mission and get permission first.
Jacky’s office door was open, so I gave a quick courtesy knock and strolled in to find him behind his desk.
“You want to do what?”
“Not me. Jean. ” I eat chickens and cows.
“I’m pretty sure it’s not a fox. I get up at night when I hear the noise and it’s always the neighborhood dogs. Seems like they’ve recently been evicted from their favorite nighttime haunt . . .”, his voice drifted off introspectively. “Anyways, just tell Jean to pound a few pieces of re-bar into the ground to cover the hole. That should keep them out.”
I broke the news to him. “Sorry Jean, this one will live to see another day.”
His shoulders drooped and he wandered away deflated, like a flatulent balloon that finally expels the last of its air and plops into a dusty corner. Cheer up, buddy. As a consolation prize, if I ever catch that blasted cat, she’s yours.
Speaking of whom, we’ve begun to hear her again. Slinking about in the predawn silence, the persistent siren calls from behind the bars of the swinging canal gate, beckoning Fritz to leave the safety of our fence for a brief and rapturous interlude. Never brave enough to come inside, she sings to him at a distance, unrequited and alone. Patiently, mournfully, she croons of true love, slow walks in the moonlight, and the litter that might have been.