Dad and El Gordo

Okay, I promised to tell the story of my father and El Gordo, and so I shall, because all I’ve been posting lately is auctions and moving stuff, and it’s time for something that’s actually FUN.

Way back in the late eighties, early nineties, my father had a ranch in the hills south of San Diego.

He did not ranch sheep. Or goats. Or pigs. No, nor cattle, nor llamas, nor bison nor ostrich.*

He ranched rats.

(Man, y’ever notice how your childhood sounds way weirder when you try to explain it to people?)

He got into it the natural way–he liked snakes.

See, like many people who like snakes, he had a snake, and then he had a few more snakes, and then he had rats to feed the snakes, and then the rats made more rats, and as inevitably happens, the rats breed faster than the snakes eat, and you sell ’em back to pet stores, and suddenly you’re a small business owner.

(He actually did very good work with boa constrictors, and was the boa rescue guy for a good chunk of Southern California for a few years. Snake rescue is a tough field that doesn’t get nearly enough love, because while there are many fewer boa constrictors that need homes than, say, kittens, there are also exponentially fewer people who will give them homes. And there’s serious care involved–few things will require the highly specialized care that a twenty-foot long, badly neglected constrictor will need, and very, very few people able or willing to provide it. Dad also did “Snakes Are Our Friends” presentations at schools when I was a kid, which culminated in another funny story with a lost snake at my elementary school, but that’s one for another day.)

So one thing led to another with the rats, and eventually he had something like three thousand rats in hundreds of aquariums in a large barn, multiple hired hands, and was supplying pet stores and such throughout the region.

My first jobs were all feeding and watering rats and cleaning rat cages, which, now that I suddenly and belated put two and two together, is probably the reason that I paint mice and rats more than anything else. Huh. Interesting. (Despite the fact that few of the rats were socialized to humans, for obvious reasons, I was never bitten by a rat at any time. They’re great little animals, and if you treat ’em well, as these were, they tended to be very pleasant. Mice, now…mice nipped me quite a bit. Mice are jerks.)

Now, when you have that many rats, some of them are going to get out. This is inevitable. Dad would put out live traps for the strays, catch them, and return them to their ratty homes.

So one day, it’s late in the evening, he’s wrapping up the last of the business, and goes around to check the traps. He finds one that’s sprung, picks it up, and goes “Oof!”

His employee, who’s name has escaped me, turns to see what the problem is

“El Gordo!” says my father, hefting the cage. (In Spanish “fat one” or something similar.)

Said employee lifts both hands like a man at the wrong end of an AK-47 and backs away.

With a rising feeling of dread, Dad lifts the live trap, and looks…directly into the beady black eyes of a very pissed off skunk.

He says that he said “Oh, no….” but I will guess that there might have been some other words not suitable for publication.

Now at this point, he was sunk. My father loves animals with the practical love of someone who actually works with them, and although he might shoot a skunk if it were caught in the act of raiding the henhouse, he would never do anything like that with a skunk in a trap. That’s just not cool. It couldn’t get him in the trap, but he couldn’t leave it there. He had to release the skunk, and fairly quickly, before it got too stressed out and did something horrible.

In fairness, however, it looked less stressed than very, very angry.

He placed the trap in the middle of the gravel parking lot, well away from human habitation, and studied the problem from all angles, but there was really no help for it. He had to open the trap and let the skunk out, and because of the kind of trap it was, with a door on a spring, he had to hold the door open for it.

Unnamed employee had fled the scene, as anyone in their right mind would.

He set the trap down, got a stick, took a deep breath, and flipped the trap open, holding it up so that the skunk could emerge.

The skunk came out. Dad dropped the stick, took one step, and the skunk whipped around and nailed him directly in the chest, at point blank range.

It is hot in Southern California. He wasn’t wearing a shirt.

And so, arms spread wide, smelling like the hind end of hell, intoning “Clear the shower…clear the shower…” in the lifeless monotone of the damned, he staggered up the hillside into the house, where all residents had clear warning of his approach and fled before him.

My father, to this day, is an animal lover, despite extreme provocation. He’s no longer in the rat business.

*He did have a couple of pigs and some pygmy goats and a cow or two, at varying stages, but that wasn’ t his main business.

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