When we were growing up, there was a battle between us and our dad. What he wanted and what we wanted overlapped in that our yard was always filled with furry and feathered creatures. But in the end what he really wanted was a farm, and what we really wanted was a zoo. We wanted pets of every variety; cute and fuzzy, toothed and fearsome, hooved and winged. He wanted eggs on our breakfast plates, milk in our tin cups and meat on the dinner table.
It wasn’t a fair fight. I learned some of my first words from the chickens and turkeys destined for a Saskatchewan farmer’s market, but remember neither the words nor the demise of my clucking teachers. The battles I remember began in a dusty backyard in what is now known as the Khyber-Pukhtoonkhwa Province of northern Pakistan, where ducks were for dinner. We ate them with resignation, knowing full well that every curry or stew that didn’t come from the garden came from something that had once walked. The goat-milk custard for dessert was a more hotly contested issue. Spotted Milky and her son Cutie were delightful as furry companions. Cutie inspired mushy feelings of love and affection and we loved to run our hands along his silky back. Milky tested the courage of us who were barely taller than her standing on all fours, but shorter when she stood on her back legs. Milky, as our first fierce animal in the menagerie, taught us to face our fears and stand firm with grit and determination. Milky was great for those things, just as I imagine a tiger or an ostrich would be, but she was not a good giver of milk. She gave plenty, but it tasted like the dirty clothes hamper. Mom tried to disguise it in sugar and vanilla as some kind of delightful desert but we were not fooled. So the goats had to go, having failed to serve their farmyard purpose.
The donkey was a welcome compromise. She was a Christmas present our first year in Afghanistan, and no one ever threatened to eat her or to milk her. She was a farm animal in the sense of fitting into a broad category of farm animal, but she was more of a zoo animal in function: She was great to look at, she ate a lot, and she did very little real work. She believed my blonde braids were the delicious alfalfa and oat medley so desired by donkeys and spent much time chewing them. We tried to coax her into rides around the garden with a carrot on a stick but contrary to popular belief donkeys are brilliant and after a few meters she would catch on and dig in her heels, stretching her neck out like a giraffe and turning her gray lips into elastic extensions of her mouth to reach toward the carrot. We would gingerly move it out of the way but she had learned her lesson and refused to budge. Pouring cold water on her tail was even less effective. But she was a Christmas present, and she was beloved, and she stayed. She found her purpose in developing the work ethic of us up-and-coming teenagers who chopped her alfalfa hay and shoveled her shed.
The final battle was the Battle of the Bear. I was thirteen and Dad and I were on a trip together, crammed into the back of a Suzuki with a bunch of sweaty men. I was trying to contain my youthful energy into a decorum suitably modest for a girl in the presence of so many men the entire trip, so when we finally arrived at our destination I eagerly departed out the back, landing right in front of the hairy snout of a baby Himalayan black bear. It blinked at me, and its owner on the other end of the chain offered to sell it to me. I was still wholeheartedly committed to the Zoo concept and my heart leapt with joy. I turned to Dad, eagerly requesting his permission to begin the bargaining process with the man holding the bear’s leash. Without even batting an eye, Dad refused. I couldn’t believe he would say no if he thought it all the way through. It must have just been a knee-jerk reaction stemming from years of commitment to the Farm model of animal husbandry. Certainly I could convince him otherwise, so I asked the most convincing question ever invented: “Why?”
“Do you know how much a bear would eat?” he asked in return. “We would probably have to feed it a whole goat every day.”
I chewed on this bit of information, turning it over and over in my mind, looking for a way out. I couldn’t find one. I just kept thinking about all the people that daily goat could feed and my conscience couldn’t escape that reality. Finally I asked a question that would kill the Zoo Farm debate once and for all.
“Do you think it would eat the donkey?”
“Yes,” said my dad, visibly relieved that this discussion was over so quickly. With a longing look back over my shoulder at the bear cub, I picked up my bag and followed Dad into the guesthouse.