Bob Howell

You never knew what’s around the corner — especially around the house I grew up in. 

On my 11th birthday, my dad and mom took me to Panama City Beach as a surprise birthday present. I was told that we were going to look for antiques and have a family lunch. 

After eating some “beachy” food and walking through several antique stores, my parents sprung the real present — a beautiful, young skunk. After giving little thought to it, I named the skunk “Antique.” Looking back on the decision to have a pet skunk, I am a little baffled at my parents’ logic — to say the least. 

I don’t remember much about the brief time Antique lived with us. I had no experience handling skunks, much less preparing a place to house her. In fact, she was only with us about a week before she made her break for freedom. Several months later, a neighbor discovered Antique had taken up residency beneath the floor of their barn. Little did we know she would soon find a boyfriend and soon after she was in the “family way.” 

I lost track of her shortly after she set up housekeeping in the barn. So, we figured any young skunks spotted in the neighborhood were the result of the union between a country daddy and a beachy mama.

And that was just the beginning of the wild menagerie that would occupy our house on South Live Oak Street.

As a youngster my dad was the county coroner and good friends with the owner of the local funeral home. You may wonder what might connect all the wildlife at our house and the funeral home. It gets back to the pine boxes used to ship caskets to the funeral home.  

From time to time, I conned my dad into bringing home one of those shipping boxes. I would then cut away about half the lid and replace it with what we called hardware cloth –—which had half-inch openings. Throw in a couple of stout hinges on the wooden top, followed by about three inches of clay and sand mixture that covered the bottom of the critter box. Depending on the size of the critter(s) being housed in the box, I would dig out a shallow hole(s) to be filled with bowls of water. Each of the boxes rested on sawhorses, which made moving it back and forth between the garage and a covered cooking shed a breeze. 

Now that I had the boxes, what could I house in them?

I was fascinated by snakes — the non-poisonous variety. The biggest snake I ever had in one of my critter boxes was a pine snake. Relatively gentile and not very aggressive, I named this constrictor “Otto.” He was an all-around good guy.

Later, I was the proud owner of a snake that had virtually the opposite personality traits of Otto. He was a black snake. He was difficult to handle, loved to bite and was very aggressive.  I didn’t keep him long and neither did his next owner. I suppose it was really a case of “caveat emptor,” let the buyer beware.

A pair of baby alligators inhabited a critter box at one time until they literally outgrew their surroundings that summer. I don’t recall where I got the little gators, but I do recall how frisky they were during their time at the critter box estate. After assessing their on-going growth spurts and their need for lots of water to swim in, I gave them to the owners of Lake Geneva. The last time I saw them they were as happy as could be chasing down small fish and waiting for their hibernating season along the banks of the Choctawhatchee River.

And finally, we come to the fastest gestation period of any of our critters. The father of a friend was raising mice for scientific studies as a side business.  I got my mother to drive out to their company headquarters where I bought a pair of mice for $1. Within what seemed like a couple of weeks we had a large litter of the little hairless buggers running from one end of the critter box to the other. 

That calls for another caveat emptor –—especially when it comes to mice.

Here’s to you for better critter boxes and the animals we fill them with.

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