BOOKS: Enslaved by Ducks

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, May 2004:

Enslaved by Ducks by Bob Tarte * Algonquin Books (127 Kingston Dr.
#105, Chapel Hill, NC 27514). 308 pages. Hardcover, $23.95.

Freelance writer Bob Tarte some years ago left the city and
moved with his wife Linda to a property in rural Mitchigan. Linda
started acquiring birds and Tarte found himself constructing cages
and doing all the menial work that went into caring for them.
When Tarte finally realized that he no longer had a life of
his own and that he had become a slave to a demanding avian family,
he wrote Enslaved by Ducks. Full of humorous anecdotes about the
interaction of various species of pet and farm birds with each other,
and with the Tartes, Enslaved by Ducks is a mine of information for
people who look after parrots and other birds. Years of patient
caring and literally painful learning have made Bob and Linda animal
behaviorists par excellence, graduates cum laude from the school of
hard knocks.
Enslaved by Ducks is much more than a mere recital of events.
The Tartes display an admirable ability to learn from experience,
and to achieve a better understanding of the psychology of their
birds and other animals. Their kindness and genuine empathy for
their various unusual pets encroaches deep into Bob Tarte’s limited
leisure time and causes him to suffer anxiety attacks. Linda Tarte
suffers a painful back strain that eventually compels her to sleep on
the floor.

But as Bob Tarte puts it: “Rather than blaming our animals
for adding complexity to my life perhaps I should thank them for
simplifying it. After all, they helped reduce the potentially
unlimited possibilities of existence to a series of tedious and
predictable daily routines. Nothing could suit the temperament of a
timid man better. Instead of laying ambitious plans for the future
or even building up a healthy clientele for my freelance writing
business, I could pack each day to the brim directing ducks in and
out of their pens, separating fighting rabbits, and keeping parrot
seed dishes filled.”


Although Tarte humbly ascribes his state of nervous tension
to his own personality weakness, we feel that he is unduly
self-deprecating. Burnout is an occupational hazard for any
committed animal welfarist, and years of running our own bird/animal
sanctuary and liaising with other sanctuarians have taught us that
chronic depression is both ubiquitous and virtually inevitable. The
more empathy for the animals, the greater the likelihood of the
depression and the deeper the anxiety felt. The bond between animal
lover and animal may be subtle but it is nonetheless real, and can
have devastating emotional consequences when broken by death,
escape, or release.
“After Bertha died, my initial sense of relief shifted to a
thick sense of gloom,” Tarte writes of one such case. “As sorry as
I was of losing the bunny, I was sorry for myself. I grew expert at
sitting stonily on the edge of the bed in half darkness or lying
sprawled on the couch with my arm cocked over my eyes. Motivating
myself to simply move my brooding to another room required the
gathering up of vast internal forces.
“You open up your heart to an animal at your peril. On the
positive side are the purrs, licks, contented quacks, the gleeful
hops onto your lap, and the electricity that leaps from their eyes
to yours. On the down side are the disappointments–not to mention
the inevitable deaths. It’s the parrot who hates you, of course,
and the cat who hides under the bed. It’s the trust that never comes
and the other broken bonds. Too suddenly and too often they leave
us. It’s then that we realize most sharply the subtle comfort of our
animal’s companionship.”
–Chris Mercer & Bev Pervan

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