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Jack Simpson: Wild animals made good pets in the Depression

Jack Simpson

Jack Simpson

Back during the Great Depression, times were tough. We couldn't afford new clothes, let alone a fancy pet. It was in that small Pennsylvania mining town where I lived that I learned more about wild animals than ever I thought I would.

Dogs and cats usually cost money. If not for purchase, then later for vet bills. Wild animals were easier to acquire but you had to be careful in handling them.

We had hunters in our family who went to the woods for meat to put on the family table. They were always coming across small animals in the forest and brought some home for pets.

I have had raccoons, opossums, flying squirrels, groundhogs, snakes, rabbits and all manner of critters as pets. We would raise some of the animals and later release them back into the woods. Most never saw the inside of any animal hospital and never visited a vet.

My uncle Ed was deer hunting one cold winter day and chanced across a small groundhog. He brought the animal home for me to care for. Too many years have passed for me to remember what name I gave him, so I'll just call him GH for now.

GH liked to eat berries, grass and grains. I have seen him eat bugs as well. Grandmother fed him some of the lettuce from her garden and this seemed to make him very happy. GH knew the fox and the dog were his enemies; and, when he saw either of these animals, he sought my protection. He also didn't care for Uncle Ed taking a few of his hairs for making trout fishing fly lures, but that was the way it was for this favored woodchuck.

GH actually lived not too far away from that famous animal called Punxsutawney Phil. As far as I know, the two never met and GH didn't ever predict if we would have six more weeks of winter.

Grandmother kept warning me to keep that woodchuck out of her garden. It was fine for her to feed him lettuce, but she knew well that GH could quickly decimate her other plants. Of course, she did not wish this to happen.

Things have changed over the years. People now are more prone to let nature take its course and probably fewer wild animals are adopted. There are rules and regulations and often permits are required to keep orphaned animals. It is illegal in most states to keep endangered species.

Back in my youth in rural Pennsylvania, we were soft-hearted and considered ourselves conservationists. From the forest we took needed food, but when possible we protected abandoned young animals and returned them to the woods. We felt this was, in a way, giving back.

Fish and Wildlife officers must have felt we were doing the right thing because they never came knocking at the door with citations. We did interrupt nature by saving helpless animals from predators or from starvation and death.

Jack Simpson is a former educator, veteran, author and a law enforcement officer. His column appears each Friday.