When I was a boy I was always glad that I lived in Britain, where there were no dangerous animals that might kill me. Yes, once upon a time there had been bears and wolves in the depths of the forest, but that was before my ancestors had so thoughtfully annihilated them all. Instead we had hedgehogs, wasps and midges (a tiny species of mosquito common in Scotland) and the occasional angry cow. And that was about it.
When I moved to Russia, things got more interesting on the deadly animal front. For a start, there were tigers, white ones even, but they were far away, and so I never encountered any. There were also wolves and bears, but alas, not in downtown Moscow- unless you counted the cops, of course. One time while traveling in Siberia I visited a religious community and the locals informed me that there were bears living in the forest that surrounded the village; however the beasts are so shy that hardly anybody had ever seen one.
On the other hand, I did encounter a lot of cockroaches, which, although not dangerous, are certainly vile.
In Texas, however, it’s a very different situation. There may not be many bears, but we face different threats, smaller perhaps, less likely to eat your face and brains, but dangerous nonetheless.
Consider the humble armadillo. This immensely stupid animal is generally viewed with good humor, partly because of its strange appearance, but also because of its curious habit of not running away when a car approaches. When armadillos get scared, they jump into the air, which isn’t much use if a colossal truck is bearing down on you. Harmless? Well, scientists recently discovered that armadillos carry leprosy, which is why if you ever stumble upon a dead one by the side of the road you should NEVER fondle or nibble on the carcass.
Another dangerous creature that calls Texas home is the coyote. Now I get coyotes mixed up with jackals, so I’m not sure what they look like, but I do know that they are such a threat to livestock that many Texan farmers keep llamas in their fields for the sole purpose of scaring them away. Coyotes are also a threat to human fitness fanatics: last year no less a figure than Texas Governor Rick Perry was menaced by a coyote while out jogging. Fortunately he was armed and shot the fanged beast in the head.
As I am not a rancher or a jogger I don’t worry much about coyotes. Instead I am concerned about those threats that are invisible or difficult to see, but which still pose a threat. Those creeping, crawling sources of atavistic terror such as scorpions, snakes and spiders.
For instance, a few weeks after I first arrived in Texas, I was out walking in sandals when a large, disembodied, and exceedingly hairy hand crossed the path mere centimeters from my toes. Suddenly I realized it was not a hand but a tarantula, which - if you believe the movies - are extremely dangerous. In fact, a tarantula’s sting can’t kill grown men, but its poison is still extremely unpleasant.
Black Widow spiders on the other hand do kill people, courtesy of a highly toxic venom, which attacks the central nervous system causing intense pain, profuse sweating, respiratory difficulties, violent convulsions and, finally, death. Apparently we have those too, which is why I - hitherto a friend to spiders due to their useful penchant for killing flies - now eradicate every eight-legged thing that crosses my path.
And then, of course, there are snakes - perhaps the most feared and despised of all God’s creatures.
I have never encountered a rattlesnake, although I know people who have (they recommend beheading the serpent with a hoe.) Last week however I opened the door to my house and beheld a strange beast lying on my welcome mat:
‘That’s a big worm,’ I thought.
Suddenly I noticed it had eyes.
And it was looking at me.
Fortunately I was wearing cowboy boots. I brought my heel down swiftly upon the serpent’s head.
The dazed snake looked up at me, thoroughly offended. Evidently I hadn’t used enough force. So this time I leapt up into the air and brought my heel down on its head again. And then I did it again. Cold reptile blood oozed onto stone; I kicked the lifeless thing into the bushes.
Now admittedly, the snake I killed was no bigger than a shoelace, but you never can be too careful, can you? When it comes to serpents I follow the old dictum: Kill them all; let God sort them out. And I recommend that should you ever encounter a shoelace with eyes, you do the same.
Just to be on the safe side.