[Kathy Bradshaw]

Animal Magnetism: An Addiction to Strange and Unusual Pets

09:00 July 08, 2021
By: Kathy Bradshaw

According to statistics, over half of Louisiana households have at least one pet, the majority of which are, not surprisingly, dogs, followed by cats. Sure, these garden variety pets are great animals—no one would dare say otherwise—but canines are commonplace. And cats, cliché. Hamsters? Nothing new. Fish? Been there, done that. But there are also plenty of people out there who prefer to be a little more creative with their creatures—who want to trade soft for scaley or paws for pinchers, or who would rather opt for fur of a different kind.

Here are the stories of several strange or unusual pets—from the exotic to the unorthodox to the unthinkable—and the people they rely on.

[Kathy Bradshaw]

Something to Crow About

For the past six years, Jude the Crow has called an apartment in Mid-City home. He lives with Shelly, a vet tech, who took him in when she found him hobbling about with a wing deformity that rendered him incapable of living in the wild. Though Shelly, better known as The Crow Lady of New Orleans, is committed to his care and feeding and allows him to take over her world, she is reluctant to use the word "pet." In fact, she feels it's really the other way around.

"Crows are not pets and should never be pets! You will find that you become the pet and the servant," she joked. "It is an act of service that I suppose was destined for me. I volunteered my time when I could not find proper resources for him, and he took to me rather quickly."

But living with a crow is no easy task. It involves a constant regimen of cleaning, upkeep, enrichment, diet, and behavioral modification. "One has to dedicate a certain amount of time, knowledge, and proper space for such a bird," she said. "Crows are very smart, sociable, and, much like having a toddler, stuck in the terrible twos who screams and poops everywhere! They require a lot of attention and responsibility."

Part of successful crow guardianship also involves coping with noise and a variety of destruction and shenanigans. For instance, Shelly says that Jude has a tendency to chatter with other birds in the yard and mock her laugh and her dogs' barks. He also has a fondness for feet-pecking. "Apparently, sandals are his arch nemesis," she said.

And the crow-based pandemonium is endless. "He likes to steal my paintbrushes and take off running through the house with them," Shelly said. "And he hates anything that is solid black, like, say, any shirt on the floor or bed. He will freak out, thinking it's a dead crow."

But he's also a fun guy who enjoys latex squeaky dog toys and playing fetch, and Shelly says he is very protective of her.

"Now I am owned by a crow, and my life literally revolves around him. And honestly, I wouldn't want it any other way," she said. "I love Jude, and I made a promise to give him the best care that I possibly could."

Proud as a Peacock

Burke Bischoff, who lives on the Westbank, once had a pet peacock for about 15 years. Bischoff says that it just wandered onto his family's property one day. "My grandma absolutely fell in love with him, so she started feeding him, and he never left." Just like the cat in Breakfast at Tiffany's, the peacock was never assigned a name and was referred to as just that: The Peacock.

As it turns out, peacocks don't make ideal pets. Despite their renowned beauty and swagger, they're rather mean, pompous, stand-offish, and noisy, and that beautiful display of tail-feathers is actually a sign of aggression.

"Yeah, he was esthetically pleasing to look at, but peacocks are usually not very friendly. You couldn't get close to him without him trying to run or fly away," Bischoff said. "Honestly, my grandma was the only person in the family who actually liked him."

And as further proof that peacocks aren't overly loyal animals, The Peacock even once attacked Grandma as well.

Bischoff adds that his feathered frenemy would wake him up in the middle of the night, crowing outside his window at 2 a.m., and Bischoff constantly threatened to ship him off to the Audubon Zoo.

[Kathy Bradshaw]

"If you want a pet just because it's pretty, go for anything else but a peacock," he said. "They're not nice, they're not going to be friendly with you, they won't interact with you unless you feed them, and they have the propensity to attack people whenever they feel like it. Save yourself a lot of sleepless nights and just look at pictures of peacocks on the Internet. You'll get about the same level of engagement."

Playing Possum

Due to regulations against making pets out of certain animals deemed wild, Tina, we'll call her, prefers not to be identified. She has a possum named Vivian, a raccoon named Olive, and a special-needs squirrel named Minnie Mouse. All of these animals were rescued—Vivian from a bus, Olive from someone's attic, and poor Minnie from a fallen nest. "Tree cutters cut the tree, and their nest was in it, and it slammed the ground," causing a head injury and corresponding brain damage that Minnie still suffers from, Tina explains, who regularly rehabilitates and releases baby squirrels. But Minnie wouldn't have survived on her own, so Tina squirrels away her now-pet squirrel in an aquarium in her bedroom.

Tina insists that all three of these critters are excellent companions. Both Olive and Vivian are essentially litterbox-trained. Three-year-old Olive plays like a dog, chasing balls and playing with toys and stuffed animals. She is as mischievous as most raccoons and reciprocates Tina's affections by leaving her a trail of chaos and debris to come home to on a daily basis. "She gets up on the counters and into the food," Tina explained. "But she makes me clean up the kitchen every single night. That's a positive!"

[Kathy Bradshaw]

Vivian, on the other hand, is pretty chill and doesn't do a whole heck of a lot. She does like to be scratched and petted and to smell Tina's face, and she is affectionate and an excellent listener. "She's very calm," Tina said. "I talk to her, and she just likes to sit up here and listen and watch you."

"People hate possums, and I don't understand why," she continued. "They eat 5,000 ticks a year. They kill poisonous snakes. And they can't get rabies, and they can't transfer rabies. They're good animals to have around."

Chickening Out

Chickens are not a particularly unusual animal—on a farm. But when your chickens live in your back yard in a subdivision in Slidell, it's slightly more unconventional. Not only that, but most chickens are raised purely for their meat or their eggs, and very rarely for their companionship. Ask almost any farmer how he feels about his chickens, and while he may express fondness, few would consider them pets. For Barbara Roberson, however, it's a different story. "Chickens are very easy to bond with," she said. "They're good company."

And although it's ill-advised in certain circles to count one's chickens, Roberson has five, and they all have names. "I figure that once you give an animal a name, it's your pet," she added.

[Kathy Bradshaw]

Roberson's pet chickens are Ruby, Truffles, Downy, Brownie, and there's also a black one that, despite appearances, is called Blondie. "Because she's really dumb," she said. "And chickens aren't very smart to begin with. But she's extra." (Or would that be eggs-tra?)

Roberson is highly devoted to her chickens. She's set them up with posh digs in her back yard, having converted her now-grown children's jungle gym into a chicken coop, complete with an upstairs wooden area with straw-lined laying boxes—the chicken equivalent of the penthouse suite with a roof deck.

Her chickens lay between three and five eggs a day, which Roberson collects and uses to cook or bake. She enjoys these ethically sourced, super-fresh, unusually delicious eggs from her unusual pets. But more than that, she really enjoys her chickens. "They're fun to watch and to have around," she said. "Chickens are very underappreciated."

"She spoils the chickens," her daughter Madalyn said. "She worries about them more often than she worries about anything else."

[Kathy Bradshaw]

Get Your Goat

Just over a block away, Roberson's neighbor Stacy Fredenburg has an entire menagerie of creatures. Between her, her husband, and their daughter Trini, the family is the caregivers for—five dogs, three goats, 10 chickens, two giant African spurred tortoises, a bald python, and a crested gecko, all of which live in their house, back porch, or back yard. Although Fredenburg dedicates as much as seven hours a week to their care and feeding and must sacrifice such luxuries as vacations and furniture in the name of her pets, she's not complaining.

"I love them. They're my hobby," she said. "I have just one kid, so I need more things to care for." And nearly all her pets are rescues, so she also feels that she's doing a good thing by taking them in.

Each of the animals has its own unique charm. Theo, the python, is a "good dude" who will just hang over your shoulders and gives good neck massages. Thor, the gecko, lives in a coconut in Trini's bedroom and pretty much stays out of trouble. The two massive tortoises are named Leo and Brutus and each have their own separate section of the back yard. Brutus, the older of the two, is probably 50 years old and weighs 120 pounds. Although these tortoises do have a sometimes-uncomfortable affinity for human feet, and their clumsiness and girth can often cause destruction, they mostly spend time eating greens and minding their own business. "They're kind of just lawn ornaments," Fredenburg said.

The goats—Maddie, Ezra, and Ophelia—are clearly among Frendenburg's very favorite pets. Maddie, the oldest, is 13 now, and Fredenburg adopted her when she was just two weeks old, then bottle-fed her until she grew out of it. Fredenburg swears that goats are friendly, affectionate, and social animals that will "talk" to you in their own goat-like fashion.

"I recommend getting a goat," she said. "They're the easiest and cheapest pet you can have, and they don't bite."

[Kathy Bradshaw]

Craw Your Way to the Top

Amy (not her real name), who is a self-professed "crazy crawfish lady," is obsessed with these crustaceans. She has an ever-growing collection of crawfish-themed accessories and décor and also has four live ones as pets—two Louisiana crawfish (named Boudin and Atchafalaya), a Florida blue crayfish, and an orange dwarf crayfish. They live in fish tanks (separated) and eat shrimp pellets.

The first crawfish Amy adopted was rescued from a boiling pot. Now, she mostly gets her craw-panions straight from the pond. "I have a crawfish farmer friend outside of Breaux Bridge, and I go to visit him at least once a year and come home with a new friend or two" (the blue and orange crayfish came from Petco).

[Kathy Bradshaw]

Crawfish don't play well together. They are very territorial and will kill each other if kept together in the same tank. And unlike betta fish, which have these same murderous tendencies, crawfish are far more mobile and can figure out how to get to each other, even if kept in a divided tank. They also manage to escape from their aquariums and can go impressive distances after doing so, even after falling off a kitchen counter and down an entire staircase—and survive.

Amy's longest-living pet crawfish was Etouffée, who hung on for over a year. But unfortunately, they don't always last so long. Amy says that she frequently comes home to a crawfish massacre. "I have had more crawfish murders than I care to count; a couple deaths from molting; multiple breakouts, at least one of which ended badly (I think the cat got him?); and multiple lethal tank malfunctions," she explained. "Lots of crawfish drama, lots of tears."

Oh, Deer!

James and Dorothy Whitaker in Ponchatoula have had pet whitetail deer (think Bambi) for 20 years now, and they currently have 12. The deer live outdoors in a gated waterfront community—a fenced-in 4-acre pen with a pond. And the little ones get to be indoor pets for a while. "When the baby deer are born, we can bring them into the house to love on," James said. "It's interesting how they fear nothing when they are born."

He says that when people learn that they raise deer—which requires a permit—they want to come by their property just to see them. "They are beautiful animals to watch," he said. "It's just fun to watch them live their lives."

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