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Looking out my Backdoor - Living at-with-inside the zoo


After a whirlwind trip around eastern Montana last week, I’ve settled in a room with no view but, more importantly, with private bath, at my daughter’s new home in Glendive.

At times in our lives, circumstances dictate in unpleasant ways. Their last home was a mice-infested hovel with a black-cloud grimace.

This home, also an older farmhouse, welcomes one with arms wide-open. It perches on the edge of Glendive with expansive field and yard surrounding it, spacious room for family, the zoo and Dee’s two grandchildren, Harper and Kyla, who come to run and play Sunday afternoons in the backyard.

My daughter, under the pretense that the animals are all for her younger daughter, Antoinette, has managed to acquire, accumulate and adopt the following: one horse, four dogs, three guinea pigs, one fat cat, approximately 13 chickens (the number varies since a hen went broody), a yellow lizard, three French hens, two turtle doves and a partridge in a pear tree.

Yes, a yellow lizard. Dee’s husband, Chris, is a saint.

The zoo. Let me describe.

A horse is a horse, of course, of course, and Jilly is a sweet little brown mare who has an entire grassy field in which to run, plus a three-walled shed for shelter.

Four dogs run in and out; Burley, a medium-large mix, Sweet Pea and Cutie, fifteen-pound chihuahuas that are longtime family members. Add Bella, a black lab, adopted this week when her owner died.

Antoinette works hard to integrate Bella into the pack. Bella loves to fetch the ball. Burley, older, wiser, more sedate, watches Bella as if she has lost her mind. Why would anyone spend an afternoon chasing a slobbery tennis ball? Good question, Burley.

When we gather around the table to eat, all four dogs ring my chair, waiting with visible hope and drools, for me to drop them a morsel. All four dogs ignore everyone else. Why me?

The second day of my stay, Whiskers jumped onto my lap, demonstrating acceptance. She often keeps me company, lap-style or perched on the chair back behind my head. Whiskers rules the dogs with disdain.

Three guinea pigs, Oreo, Zeus and Twix. Nocturnal critters, they take up cage space (3-foot by 5-foot cages) in a quarter of the spacious front room. Oreo, the smooth haired one, is anti-social and merits his own abode. The fuzzier two-some share an even larger two-story mansion. Timothy hay tends to creep out of the wire cages onto the living room floor. The word “barn” comes to mind.

Toothless, the yellow lizard, is, uh, interesting. Quite social, he loves to be held, wants to see all the happenings. His large glass “environment” with drop lid is also in the animal corner of the front room. His best bud is Whiskers, the cat, who should know better than to keep such low company.

My daughter Dee (she blames Antoinette), has always wanted chickens. Last year she began collecting chickens, adding one or two at a time; managed to keep them alive and warm over the winter. Alive and warm and laying, by the way, no mean feat in frigid Montana.

The chickens are all different breeds, beautiful, colorful. One hen is white but with a unique sort of top-knot. Four are of a fluffy floosie type, resembling can-can dancers from a traveling burlesque show. The one rooster, Coco, struts around the chicken yard all cocky in attitude, ruling the roost.

At last count, chickens total 13. One of the hens went broody so the number varies. Yesterday another egg hatched. So far, so good. Three fuzzy black peepers follow mama as if bungee corded to her wings.

Each bit of poultry has a name. I won’t be here long enough to learn all the chicken names.

I have personal issues with that rooster. I tell him in strong language laced with lard that he would look good, crispy-fried, on the Sunday table. He walks a wide berth around me.

The new dog, Bella, thinks I am hers. And Whiskers just settled into my lap.

“No, thank you, Sweetie. Let’s pet the lizard later. I’d hate to spill hot coffee on him.”


Sondra Ashton grew up in Harlem but spent most of her adult life out of state. She returned to see the Hi-Line with a perspective of delight. After several years back in Harlem, Ashton is seeking new experiences in Etzatlan, Mexico. Once a Montanan, always. Read Ashton’s essays and other work at montanatumbleweed.blogspot.com. Email [email protected]


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