Volume 75, Number 9 | July 20- 26, 2005

Notebook

Urban animals: Doves, cats and one tragic turtle

By Wilson

Like Manhattan, Singapore is a prosperous island filled with skyscrapers and teeming with humans, but rarely do you ever see anyone walking a dog. I don’t recall seeing many disabled people there either. Granted, this Southeast Asian metropolis has a big zoo, tropical birds and numerous — psychologically damaged by the locals — monkeys; and each Sunday, men take prized songbirds to a special park where the singers compete with each other, a form of “American Idol” from the dinosaur ages. But aside from a handful of ex-pats that feed a minuscule amount of homeless cats, that’s it. And if you bring your own pet over there, Fluffy/Fido must endure a brutally long quarantine before they’re returned — hopefully uneaten. This place simply doesn’t “do” nature like the Big Apple — the contrast is startling, almost creepy.

Here, when there’s an early-morning fog, you can see giant seagulls coast down empty avenues and side streets, making graceful lefts and rights as if they were driving. In Singapore, a police state in many respects, they’d probably get a ticket for not signaling. Employing exceptional “inland” navigational skills, these creatures remind us that in spite of a harsh environment, we’re surrounded by water/part of nature. If you’re on a roof and haven’t had coffee yet, one of these things whooshing by is quite the wakeup call. Koyaanisqatsi.… Life into balance….

I love the mourning doves that perch on the weed-trees and fire escapes behind my building: one’s called “Mohawk” due to an obvious head injury and a popular haircut one block over on St. Mark’s Pl.; another dude (still nameless) looks like he has a chicken bone permanently lodged down its throat, sideways. After 9/11, an unusual/handsome, ring-necked dove even showed up — he was definitely not from the neighborhood, and I made sure he had plenty of food and water. And even though I’ve successfully managed to keep pigeons and their poop away from my humble abode, I miss seeing the trained flocks that used to perform in circles in the distance further downtown — yet another charming characteristic of a neighborhood killed off via gentrification.

This past spring, a sweet-sounding group of attractive starlings with exquisite and diverse “vocal” capabilities started to build a nest outside my living room window. Unfortunately, an indoor, four-legged, annoyingly loud Asian creature with blue, slanted eyes, bad breath and a head shaped like an upside-down triangle, scared them away. Worse yet, one of the birds kept forgetting where the new place was; every time he brought over twigs and dried weeds by mistake, a bigger bird — my guess it was Mom — would come by and berate him, singing bad songs. I felt like calling Social Services.

Equally criminal, my neighbor’s feisty 33-year-old turtle recently died — just days after visiting my apartment for the very first time. I’d almost adopted the little critter (we were in love) but decided it wouldn’t be good for his health/immune system: he’d grown up in a reckless environment with kids, little or no sunlight, Puerto Rican food, loud music, diabetics, stagnant air and lot’s of yelling in Spanish; he wasn’t used to fresh cold air, dust, aromatherapy, smoke, talk radio, full sun or cat dander. His owner said it was because her place was “freezing,” but I’m positive that his brief, onetime trip to my civilized yet environmentally inhumane apartment was the true C.O.D.

In the Lower East Side, an eccentric yet well-intentioned old lady in a polka-dotted housecoat has rescued and housed tons of cats over the years. I made a “documentary short” about her years ago, but could never release it professionally because she could get evicted. New York Dog magazine is the cat’s meow everywhere; and the last time I was at the veterinarian, a feral-looking girl was picking up her pet rat. Throughout the city, reptiles — including full-sized, bathroom-dwelling alligators — are huge. (I want a little iguana!)

With the exception of certain men, and one wayward seagull that stole a hotdog out of its bun and knocked over a soda before I even had one bite or sip — the predators at this beach had beaks literally dripping with blood-red ketchup, and acted like they were in a Hitchcock movie; I promptly reported the entire incident to the local Audubon hotline — most of my encounters with urban animals have been less mundane/morose/ridiculous. One time, however, I witnessed, and participated in, a senseless crime against nature that involved an East Village merchant, two Turkish brothers, North Shore Animal League, one cat and all humanity.

It was a nasty mid-’90s winter, and a neighborhood friend called to tell me he “took in” and adopted a homeless cat he found on the street: “I open the door, she go inside.” Concerned, I went over to his apartment, which was constantly under construction, and immediately noticed the animal had a collar and two — barely decipherable — tags. This was someone’s pet — Wilson to the rescue. After a series of urgent phone calls in which I was chastised by all parties, including the establishment where the cat had originally been obtained, I located the owner, who operated a nearby shop with dirty glass windows that I never went to, and offered to bring him over to my friend’s place.

But no one could locate the poor thing in my friend’s filthy, dangerous and catastrophic apartment, more than half of which did not have electricity. We looked everywhere/it was insane. “This place looks like a bomb blew up in it,” I said, to no one in particular. In the dimly lit basement, I gently interrogated my friend’s brother, who was making “ethnic” french fries, about whether he had “accidentally” let the cat out — he was new here, going through a phase and was scared of cats, even mine — and he swore to Allah he hadn’t. Just then, there was a loud crash upstairs/glass broke; the guy who was still searching for his cat had tripped on something in the dark. The brothers started arguing with each other in Turkish, and coming down a narrow staircase, the pet-owner (who I later named “Fat Pasta Bastard”) hit his head on a midcentury light fixture and started cursing in Italian. The french fries were burning, and “Fat Pasta Bastard” threatened to call both North Shore and the cops. I just wanted to scream. Nothing like this would ever happen in Singapore!

The next day, armed with a box of his pet’s cheap and unnutritious cat food, “Fat Pasta Bastard” went over and tried to entice a presumed (and/or) no doubt traumatized animal out of chaos, but there was no response whatsoever. One day later, in a final act of “humanity vs. insanity,” my friend found the cat — alive and well, trapped behind a plastered-up wall of sheetrock. Who let the dogs out, who, who, who.

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