With knife drawn and arms spread, Mike Milts faced the savages of the Amazon jungle who were slowly approaching him with machetes raised.
It was very like Tarzan, only in the Amazon, and it struck Mike at the time as ludicrous.
Dear God, he thought, nobody told me when I woke up this morning that today I'd die.
And for an anteater.
Mike is a New York vet who for purposes of spiritual nourishment (pet cats and miniature poodles take you only so far if you worship the ground animals walk on) was strolling through the jungle minding his own business, at least at first.
He came on a superb anteater, trapped and in a cage, surrounded by savages poking sticks in its eyes, having already damaged its leg.
Mike set a $10 bill on the cage and chased the tormentors off, when four big nonchasable types slowly stalked toward him with machetes raised.
The leader, at the last instant, dropped his machete and grinned. He said neither he nor the other savages had ever before run into an imbecile ready to die for an anteater.
Mike Milts is a vet whose animal hospital is in midtown Manhattan and like St. Francis (in a manner of speaking) he has permanent office animals like Clarence, the cat who turns on faucets and does not turn them off, and Subway who is, not to split hairs about it, insane even by cat standards and who claws everything with legs and never mind the size.
He has a very large sheepdog, and some other cats and animals whose name, rank and serial number I did not quite catch, being still bedazzled by Clarence and the probable Manhattan water bill.
I do recall that one of his hitherto unmentioned pets is a cat who was 18 years old when he inherited it, thanks to the lovely bequest of an old lady.
"Well nobody wants to adopt an 18-yearold cat," he observed, "so I thought I'd give it sanctuary for the few remaining days of its life. The cat is now 22, and there's nothing at all the matter with it." It may well out-live Milts.
He has a capacity (at the office) for 40 animals, and there are the usual distraught Beddlingtons and so on, in various stages of medical treatment, but when he got a new woman assistant she came roaring up:
"Are you aware," she demanded, "that 15 of our 40 places are occupied by cats that aren't paying a dime, but just sitting there waiting to be adopted?"
Well, no. He had not realized there were that many. But then they move along pretty briskly. Last year he gave away 600 cats, he said. But he's tough:
"Some people don't want an animal at all. They want a stuffed teddy bear with remote controls that you can turn on and make it waddle over and say woof. w
"You wouldn't believe. I get this phone call saying a dog has vomited on the sofa. And I say how long has this been going on, and they say why he vomited two months ago, too. But really. I vomit every two months myself. And I have to tell them look, you get a dog, he's going to vomit occasionally. It always seems to come as a shock."
He knew a dreadful woman with two Persians:
"She wanted me to eutaniza (kill) them," Milts said, "and when I askedd what was the matter with them she said nothing was, except she had her apartment redecorated and the cats didn't go with the new colors and fabrics."
Milts glared at me. Hell, I didn't call him to kill the cats.
"I found them homes," he said, softening his gaze, "with a woman whose apartment was not the right color for the cats, either, except she didn't give a damn."
He told me he once gave a zoo lion a vasectomy. Listen, that was very, very touch-and-go.
Milts is not anti-human, I speculated, though his sense of humor is what you might call animal orientated:
"They found a human leg in the polar bear's cage at the Brooklyn zoo," he said with what I am afraid was a sense of satisfaction. "Some guy thought t would be fun to climb in with them at night.
"In the other famous New York example, some idiot gave a gorilla a lighted cigarette and then, as if that was not dumb enough, reached in to take it away from him.
"That was Congo (the gorilla). He went Greeunphhh, and the guy was minus four fingers. The word went around the zoos of America, 'Animals 2, People 0.'"
He suspects a love of animals and a respect for them as living creatures is an acquired attitude, and while (he said) it is most evident among Anglo-Saxons, it has nothing to do with genetic inheritance, but has to do with affluence and education.
Animals, after all (who are neither Anglo-Saxon nor educated) can be beastly, as anyone knows who has ever observed a cat in action.
He himself grew up in Queens, that vale of Arcady within New York City, where in his childhood they still had dairy farms. He loved to go watch the cows.
From childhood on, he knew he would be a vet. He applied to Cornell and was accepted. Fortunately. Since it had not occurred to him he might not be acceted, and he had applied nowhere else.
He has numbered camels, elephants, wolves, zebras and other notables among his (presumably grateful) patients.
He ran into a fellow who took a one-bedroom apartment on Fifth Avenue at a very reasonable rent indeed. The catch was that he had to take care of the lion, owned by the prevous occupant who no longer wanted that responsibility and moved out.
Well what the hell. The fellow didn't want a lion, that much he knew. Still, good apartments are hard to come by. So he moved in and everything was going all right until a pedestrian looked up and saw the lion peering out this fourth-floor window and called the humane society. The upshot was Milts got it and it's now at Central Park Zoo.
Milts knows lots of stories, some of them so touching I would not tell them to you if my life depended on it. I myself resent being made to cry against my will.
Animal people, who are quite capable of pulling a dead guy from under the steering wheel of his newly wrecked automobile without thinking twice, tend to go all to pieces at the story of a little schnauzer who did this and that and was faithful until death. And for my part, I choke right up at Lord Byron's tombstone for his dog (a Newfoundland) that goes "beauty without vanity, bravery without ferocity," etc., etc.
And I never thought Adam had it so bad, bounced out of Eden, since he was allowed to take his dog with him.
But Milts, who is way, way, way goneinto animals, is aware that light attracts bugs, love attracts crackpots, and civilization itself is full of nuts that in a savage society would long since have been weeded out.
He had a lovely friend once, but affter his divorce he was not feeling up to serious commitments, as the phrase goes, and therefore cooled things down.
She sent him a nice scorpion, in parting, for his vivarium, to live with his pet tarantula.
She phoned later:
"You haven't been playing with the pet I gave you," she said, and hung up.
True. He had been feeding it crickets, but not by hand, though the girl said it was one of the harmless types of scorpion and could be hand-fed.
Milts investigated and found out the scorpion was one with fatal venom. The man who sold it said the woman got it away from him only by swearing it was for this learned veterinarian who would know just how to care for it.
The same woman phoned him still later and wanted to come visit him for a while.
"Have you forgotten you tried to kill me?" he asked with some anger.
"Oh, if you're going to be picky," she hollered. "I can't stand people who nurse a grudge."
So Milts has no illusions that animals, and those who love them, are all sweet little mawsey-muzzled lambs.
There is ugliness in the picture. Terror n the brew. Death in the pot. All that.
Well, I went home after several agreeable hours with Dr. Milts and was browsing through his book, "Only a Gringo Would Die for an Anteater," a rather odd title.
The wind had been rough, the bus had been packed. But after supper there was chocolate and my wife is making gradual progress on the wool afghan that's some day going to keep me warm. The house was all in bed, finally, except me and the Houndbody.
There was canned music. A lousy tenor singing Mozart like Sousa. Didn't bother the hound who is stupid as they come.
Then Margrete Klose with that sweet air of Gluck's, and old houndbody snored with equal gravity through that.
Now look here, the world is full of heroic struggles and great matters, and it's EVIL to know you don't want any more from life than Fraulein Klose going on about Orpheus and the lights down and the air still and the hound snoring. And the animal, indifferent to it, is very much a part of it.
A vet can be a clod. But most of them show considerable honorificabilitudinity. Somebody has to take care of sick animals, certainly. hCivilization (such as it is) never gets so grand but it requires animals, and civilization herself is obliged to say (with that Indian mystic who was pronounced fit for paradise only he had to go alone and said the hell with it) "not without the dog."
Or, I guess, the lion and the anteater.