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Thailand's Animal Planet

Benjamin Malcolm

Home Sweet Zoo

In Thailand, one does not necessarily need to head to the great outdoors to get the full nature experience. The great outdoors, in point of fact, comes to visit you.

My home in the rural province of Chiang Rai, in the far north of Thailand, is the perfect example of this — it is for my wife and I, a 365-day, 24-hour sound, smell, and sight-fest of "Wild Kingdom" and "Green Acres" up close and personal, filled with incoming and outgoing specie and sub-specie of insect, lizard, and bird.

All this closeness to nature is quite different from my experiences in the mostly hermetically-sealed Eastern United States, especially in Washington, DC, in which seemingly everything that lives outside has been killed, moved to the outskirts, or persuaded through heavy chemical applications by stocky men in white overalls, not to enter human-land. In New England, my home for 20 years, I was used to seeing most insects and animals during the springtime and summer when they had thawed out of their blocks of ice; indoors was the exclusive domain of the domesticated.

This doesn't mean I have no appreciation or knowledge of the natural world, however, for I grew up in a diverse family of birders, biologists, and ardent conservationists. During my childhood, I spent several weekends every summer at my grandparent's house in Hillsboro, New Hampshire, canoeing, hiking, camping, and helping clear trails through the forest, while an hour of every Saturday was spent crushing cans and sorting plastic in my garage in preparation for the family's recycling runs. There is more than a tinge of green in my blood.

With all these streams feeding my past, I am faced with finding a way to float on the challenging river of this boisterous Thai ecosystem. I am a man who, after six years of living here, can count himself as both Asian Buddhist and American control-oriented, an environmentalist in essence who still wants to keep some elements of Animal Planet at arm's length. In short, while I enjoy the diversity about me, I am also damned tired of cleaning the gecko shit that accumulates randomly all over the house.

Breakfast with the Birds, and Fish Tank Buddhism

It begins in the pre-dawn darkness.

Around 4 a.m., I wake to the sound of field mice scratching away in the attic and walls. This goes on for 15 to 30 minutes, before they quiet, apparently scared by the oncoming sun or the hellish yowling of a neighbor's cat in my yard. An hour or so later, another neighbor's rooster jumps onto my compound wall, scuttles to a place just underneath my bedroom window and gets into a crowing match with a friend of his several miles away. This is rural Thailand's version of an alarm clock, an appetizer of sound before the daily main course of nature's symphony.

And … it's annoying as hell.

While my wife sleeps soundly away beside me (all Thais seem to have a general ability to sleep through anything), I flop about the bed, willing it to shut up, hiding my head futilely beneath the pillow; finally I take direct action, running downstairs to drive the flapping rooster off my wall with a hail of pebbles from my yard. Luckily, it gets the idea that it's not welcome on my wall, moves to another location not under my window and begins all over again. I log at least a few more minutes of blessed sleep as dawn breaks.

The avian theme continues into the morning. As my wife and I eat breakfast on our porch, enjoying the morning mist over the mountains in the distance, woodpeckers, swifts, warblers, and other birds begin calling to each other in the trees next to the house. Compared to the preceding cacophony, these mellifluous chirpings and cheepings are a tonic to my soul. There are any number of bird species around our home, (about 10% of the world's known species live or migrate through Thailand), and there is even a caged peacock several houses away which caws sadly off and on during the day.

This is the reward for living in the country, the natural music of the day which drives me forward with its rhythms, the direct antithesis of the painful pre-dawn screeching. For me, birdsong is to animal noise what blues and jazz are to music, soulful and a little mournful, with bits of emphatic guitar and bass (the lively chirps and the caw of the peacock) to drive the beat. It also brings memories of having breakfast in my grandmother's kitchen, and watching the chickadees flit about the bird feeder on the windowsill.

As I continue to crunch through my muesli, yogurt, and fruit, my neighbor walks his cows out to the charred rice stalks of the local field. The bovine bodies waddle along in rhythm to the pleasant tinkling of bells, adding to the sense of morning serenity that has begun with the birdsong.

This is where I feel most in tune with my surroundings.

In the mid-morning, I feed the fish that swim about in the giant red stone tank next to the entrance to the house. The water is so murky (and has been that way ever since I've owned it) that I never see the fish, but after I put some food in the tank, I catch a glimpse of tiny mouths coming to the surface long enough to gulp down pellets of food. These are the only "pets" that we have, and one of the only interactions I have during the day with animals that I actually control.

It is also very instructive, for this simple action, reflective and quiet, is my morning reminder of Buddhism, the driving engine in the subconscious of most Thais, who believe, "thou shalt not deprive any living thing of breath." However, monks are the only ones that carry this to its logical extreme, going out of their way not to hurt any creature.

I learned and practiced Buddhism when I stayed at Suan Moke Temple in the south of Thailand, attempting a Buddhist 15-day meditation retreat, and saw plenty of signs advising me on proper Buddhist etiquette. Among other things, the billboards reminded people to watch their step (to avoid trodding on ant trails), to clean their cells carefully in order to avoid hurting any dozing snakes, and to wave attacking mosquitoes off their arms instead of squashing them. I could see the Albert Schweitzer-like beauty of this thought, but found it difficult not to kill the mosquitoes that landed on my skin, and either flicked them off, or crushed them silently without making a loud slapping noise. It seems I can only go so far with my monasticism.

I can see the parallels at my home. When changing the water on my fish tank, my landlord will spend hours making sure, through the use of nets and his own hands, to save each and every fish, no matter how small. This is the noblest ideal of Buddhism in action, the essence of Suan Moke. I try to imitate this, but I also find when I transfer the fish from the old water to fresh, that I often can't stop the smallest and the weakest from whirl-pooling down the drain. I have tried to rescue as many as I can, but there are a lot of them, and they are very small, only the length of my fingernail. I can live with the fact that I haven't saved all of them.

For me, I have attempted the ideal of Buddhism and added the Western practicality of Darwin, and this forms its own compromise. I have yet to explain this to the landlord, however.

Afternoon Shadows and the Need to Feed

The challenge continues with the heat of the day.

From the late morning to the late afternoon, every creature does its best to avoid the sun in Thailand. The best places to go, apparently, are the cool areas of our home. Thus, as I prepare my coffee and wander about during the day, I come across lines of ants making their way into cracks in my walls, gecko lizards sprinting about the ceiling, long-tailed skinks darting into our kitchen, and the neighbors' mangy dogs trotting about our yard looking for water.

Since I'm occupied with other things, I'm all for the "live and let live" philosophy during the day. The creatures that run around at this time aren't waking me up or trying to draw blood from me, so the daylight hours are a time for peaceful coexistence. But there are exceptions to this. On more than one occasion, I've caught a neighbor's dog digging through our kitchen trash, and I've had to chase it out of the house and close the gate, shutting down the borders to my house. This only keeps the big animals out, however, and thus only marginally effective.

Early in the afternoon, as we eat lunch, I usually see one of my neighbors ambling out toward the nearby woods with a long-barreled rifle, intent on the prospect of flushing small game and birds out of the brush and gunning them down for dinner.

The gentle world of the Thai temple thus meets the all-too-human grumble of hunger. Thai culinary prowess and appetite dictate that most things can be eaten and should be tried at least once, especially if they are combined with a nice curry sauce or are deep fried. The most outlandish example of this are the scorpions, crickets, and other insects, which are caught, tossed in hot oil until crispy, and then displayed in neat rows under heat lamps in most Night Bazaars. One province is famous for eating dogs, and then there are certain nationwide Chinese predilections for "health" items like tiger penises and bear gall bladders which are resulting in whole species being hoovered into extinction across Asia.

I have never been that adventurous with my eating, having never tried dog or tiger penis, but have downed insects on occasion. One time as a volunteer, a student of mine showed up at my door with a bag full of beetles, which he proceeded to clean and then toss in a frying pan (as a special good-bye treat in celebration of my upcoming departure). When I closed my eyes and forgot what I was eating, they tasted like chips, a few of them gooier than others. It's also not necessarily what you eat as how you eat. The "Lao-version" of the ever-popular Som Tam dish (papaya salad) includes salty field crab and fermented fish paste which I can barely stomach. I try to eat vegetarian as much as I can, and I have never tried an exotic Chinese cure, other than herbs, so I count these as positives. But I do eat meat, and therefore contribute to the carnivorous route of the animals of the world.

Also, I notice that while the overall "live and let live" approach of Thais does seem to carry over to the care of most house pets, (villagers let their dogs, cats, and chickens do their own thing, fornicating with each other at will, and visiting neighbors' houses at any time of the night or day), there are certain species that are not included in this gentle philosophy, namely large snakes and poisonous insects, because presumably these creatures are capable of taking breath away from people (forming essentially a Karmic self-defense "get-out-of-jail-free" card). Snakes, especially, receive no love from the Thais and are the cause of most phobias in this country. If a cobra or python is sighted, neighbors will band together, form a stick-wielding posse, corner it, and take turns clubbing it to death.

While I'm not terrified of snakes (I'm more of an arachnophobe), I have seen my share and thus have developed a healthy respect for them. My kitchen seems to be a popular area for most wildlife, and one night, after I paused "The Last Samurai" on my DVD player and went to get some water, I opened the screen door and almost stepped on a foot-long garden snake taking a stroll across my kitchen floor. I have also found them in my water tank, underneath my patio door, and out by the spirit houses. Another time, as a volunteer in the deep south, I turned on the light as I entered my house, and saw a two-foot long cobra shimmying away from me. I could have just as easily stepped on it if I hadn't bothered to turn on the light.

The afternoon ends with a symbolic act. My landlord, after hours of careful maintenance of life in the fishbowl over the weekend, will leave bits of poisoned field crab shell about the house in the late afternoon for the field mice, probably reasoning, as I've heard before, that if the animal "chooses" to eat the poison, then you haven't actually killed them. I feel better about my actions with the fish each time I see this. I don't hunt the mice myself, but I also don't stop the landlord.


Evenings of Entomology

It ends with the evening.

The tone is first set by the sounds of the insect orchestra out and around the house that picks up just after dusk, a million-body menagerie of hums, buzzes, whirrs, and drones. During TV Prime Time, a colony of black ants makes a diversionary thrust on our downstairs bathroom, swarming the toilet bowl and white tile, collecting God-knows-what, while another colony leads the main assault on our kitchen.

On the walls, the giant tokay lizard couple, which we've nicknamed "Lunky" and "Lunkette," and their myriad lizard children, kick things into high gear, flitting about the periphery of our house, lunging and snatching at the multitude of bugs that are banging on our screen windows, trying desperately, as all bugs do, to mate with our fluorescent lights. We have not invited these lizards into our house, of course. They have simply crawled in from the outside, after a long afternoon sleep, part of the parade of zoology that makes our Casa Su Casa.

I've got mixed feelings about this. While I encourage their help with insect control, they often jump out of places and scare the hell out of us, and they also shit all over the place. The tokays and geckos are not toilet-trained and they usually release little bits of black scat (with a distinctive white bubble at the end) all over the house. The tokays in particular seem to have chosen the porch as their bathroom of choice, leaving a pile of scat behind them for us to find in the morning. The bird song is beautiful, but I often have to close my eyes to enjoy it to avoid seeing the mess on the railing.

Tokay lizards are interesting creatures. Not only are they always in a bad mood (an official lizard collection society page on the internet called them "aggressive"), they are huge (at least 12 inches in length) and most importantly, noisy, as they scream out the word "tokay" to each other at random points during the day and night (Vietnam-era GI's apparently interpreted this sound as "fuck you," and thus named them the "fuck-you lizards.") Lunky prefers the shelving behind the TV for some reason, and enjoys appearing suddenly and lumbering along the wall to some nearby wall-hangings as we are watching a movie. The sight of a 12-inch lizard crawling out from behind a TV is a jolting experience that I've learned to live with and even anticipate, yelling at Lunky after he tries to scare us.

He is also, again, my reptile ally in my ongoing struggle with the insects.

Thailand is an entomologist's dream-world (there are 6,000 species here), and one can almost delineate seasons by what they are doing. The rainy season is their turn to run the show, and anything that can crawl, walk, slither, and slime comes in to escape the flood waters, creating a veritable Noah's Ark of shared sleeping quarters. For the seasoned observer, there are stages to the rainy season. The beginning of the "Big Wet" is marked by the flying winged creatures, which cluster at doorways and light bulbs and die by the end of the first week, while the midpoint is a potpourri of visiting snails and frogs and a cloud of mosquitoes. The final stage, the grand aria of the insect opera if you will, is manifested by the ant colonies that have come into your house, and the rice-like ant egg sacs that have been carried out of the rain and into your clothing.

The two sides of my nature are at a crossroads here. I have spent the day appreciating Thailand's myriad connections to the natural world, the inside/outside scheme of things, and the grander Buddhist concept of "not taking breath" away from living creatures, but I still fight like the devil against the insects. I'll feed the fish, ignore Lunky, let the dogs wander in and out of the yard, but in the end, I draw a firm line with them, the American stepping boldly to the foreground ahead of the temple monk.

The battleground has often been fierce. One time in the south, during the rainy season, I came home to find an entire colony of ants building a nest on the inside of some shutters in my living room area. I sprayed the entire area, and the nest of ants rained to the ground, the sound of their bodies hitting the floor in some David Lynchian syncopation with the rainfall outside. Another time in the south (insert "during the rainy season" here), I came home to find flood waters moving through my house, and quickly moved my shoes onto the stair landing. In the process, I turned one shoe over, and a big, black mother scorpion plopped out, with her brood of white, translucent baby scorpions on her back. I turned the shoe back over, and pounded the life out of all of them. It's a vicious war, and I only manage to draw even most of the time.

And yet even against the insects, I find signs of compromise, of trying to develop a peaceful strategy with the multi-legged creatures. While my more assertive nature turns to a large family-size can of insect spray in the most desperate circumstances, dousing incursion routes into the house and nuking emerging ant-holes and egg way-stations, the Buddhist side of me washes dishes instantly, puts garbage bags well away from the house, and also hides, covers, and refrigerates the food, denying my fellow creatures this temptation.

The two worlds of man and nature, of me and nature, collide, co-exist, and spin off each other from the morning to the evening, and in the middle of the night, I find my balance, as we go to bed.

I lie awake briefly after we have turned the lights off, ruing the expected pre-dawn feathered alarm clock, listening to the chewing of the mice in the attic and Lunky's reverberations about the house, and feeling the itch of a random ant crawling on my leg. I swat the ant, and toss and turn for a while, lying awake (as my wife moves into deep REM), trying to affect an American's peace with the over-stimulated Animal Kingdom. And then, all of sudden, I'll hear the lonely caw of the peacock again, a Blues song in the night, I am at peace with things, my mind moves back to the porch in the morning, and I find myself in harmony with the world around me.

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