Pets in Texas
As we pulled in to the nearly empty parking lot at the local cellular company in Snyder, Texas, my friend and working partner, Wyatt, remarked, “I think this is gonna be a special day.”
“Why, do ya think that?” I asked.
“Don't know—just a feelin’.”
Snyder was a small town just barely in the panhandle of Texas, in cotton and oil country. Flat and relatively barren, there wasn't a whole lot going on there that didn't relate in some way to industry. Wyatt and I were there working on a large telecommunications upgrade project. A couple of days' work and we would be off to the next small town in the network. This morning was all about finishing up at the Snyder MTSO (Mobile Telephone Switching Office). We were working with a group of four Japanese technicians who were supposed to meet us in the MTSO at 9:00 that morning. These technicians were experts who worked for the equipment manufacturer. We were there early to size up the situation.
As we walked into the shabby building, we were greeted by Jim, the local cellular technician.
“Hey, guys, how you doin’?” Unlike the neglected exterior, the interior of the building was new and spotless, and the floor was gleaming. “I'm fixin’ to go home to feed my pets, and I'd like for you guys to come with me. I have something I want to show you. How about it?”
I looked over at Wyatt, who always did seem to know when something interesting was about to happen, and we both nodded.
Wyatt looked at Jim. “Sure, we'll follow you. Wouldn’t want ta get lost in Snyder.”
“Cool,” said Jim, “let's go.”
He got into his cluttered, white, company SUV while Wyatt and I climbed into my bland rental van. Jim tore off, and we followed, straining to keep up. It seemed like he had some pressing emergency to deal with at home because he was driving like a rabbit runs: quick and all over the place.
“What d’ya think Jim's got to show us?” I asked Wyatt as we blew through a four-way stop. “It must be special, considering how fast he's driving.”
“I don't know. Maybe a fire?”
Wyatt always did have a dry, twisted sense of humor.
After ten minutes of speeding through residential areas and skimming past stop signs, we pulled into Jim's driveway. His house was a small ranch style home in a cookie-cutter subdivision.
“Come on, come on,” he urged as we piled out of the van, “you're going to love this.”
Just inside the front door, we were greeted by two overly-friendly dogs: a black chow and a rather small Doberman who treated us like long-lost family members, jumping and licking and making yips and nearly muted barks.
“Okay, okay, Sasha and Felix, chill out. CHILL OUT!” Jim was a big guy with a loud, commanding voice, and the dogs responded immediately, heads and tails down, silent.
“Rick, Wyatt, this is Sasha and Felix,” he continued. “As you can see, they're really happy to meet you.”
Both being dog lovers, we got right down on the floor with them, petting them, talking to them, scruffing the fur on their heads and backs. We assumed meeting the dogs was the payoff. While we were getting to know Sasha and Felix, Jim skittered about the sparsely-adorned room.
“Damn, Jim, you gotta go to the bathroom or somethin’?” Wyatt always got right to the point.
“No, no. I just want to introduce you to my other pet. He's outside.”
“Okay,” I said, "let's go meet 'im.”
We left our new friends and followed Jim through the tidy living room and close but cheery kitchen to the laundry room where the back door was located.
“After you,” said Jim as Sasha and Felix shot out the door.
Wyatt walked through, looking right then left, and stopped abruptly. I followed, wondering what caused him to freeze. Scouting briefly to the right, I saw a couple of tires and a bowling ball scattered beneath a sprawling pecan tree. A six-foot wooden fence enclosed the sparsely grassed backyard. I looked left and froze. Standing on top of an HVAC unit, front legs on the sill of an open bedroom window, stood a Bengal tiger looking right back at me. Instinctively, I stepped back.
“Don't worry, Rick, it's okay; he's friendly—and still just a cub.”
“Okay,” I said doubtfully, still uncomfortable in a very primal way, looking up at the tiger. “He's awful big for a cub, though.” Of course, I had no idea what “big for a cub” really meant, but at that moment it sure seemed true.
“Not really. Right now, he’s about six and a half feet long and weighs 350 pounds. His name is Shere Khan, from the Kipling story. Full-grown he'll reach ten feet long and top out somewhere near 1,000 pounds.”
I'm not sure if Jim thought that would be reassuring. It was not. But as I continued to look at Shere Khan, I relaxed just a bit. He was magnificent. His head was a golden orange that faded to near white at the tip of his tail. Irregular black stripes accented the orange from eyes to tail. He was lean, but not skinny, with piercing, intelligent eyes.
“Come ‘ere, Shere Khan,” called Jim, and sure enough, he came, which was both impressive and terrifying. He flowed more than walked, his muscles rippling under that breathtaking coat.
Wyatt and I exchanged an uneasy glance, as the tiger cub ambled over to us. Incredibly, he was wagging his tail like a dog. Since neither of us had ever been this close to one of the planet's top predators, we weren't sure of the appropriate protocol. Should we freeze? Maybe inch back into the house? Walk over to greet him? Run screaming and terrified, never to return?
In the end, we had no time to do any of that. Shere Khan flowed up to Wyatt and slid his enormous head right under his left hand. He wanted to be petted! Wyatt obliged, tentatively at first, then with gusto, scratching under his chin and behind his ears. Buoyed by the fact that Wyatt was still alive and fully intact, I joined in, haltingly at first. Soon, though, we were both petting, and then playing with that 350-pound infant tiger that acted more like a puppy than a kitten.
“See?” said Jim. “I just knew you'd get a kick out of this. He’s really a sweet animal and loves to play. See those tires? He spends hours battin’ them around, but his favorite toy is that bowling ball. He smacks and chases it all over the backyard.”
“Yeah, Jim, he is a sweetie,” said Wyatt. “What the hell do you feed him? It must be a whole lot of somethin’. I hope he's not hungry now!”
“I fed him before I went to work,” replied Jim with a chuckle, “so, no, he's not hungry now. I feed him five whole chickens a day. I'm not sure what I'm gonna do when he gets bigger and needs more food.”
While Jim and Wyatt were talking, I continued to play with Shere Khan, starting to enjoy myself. His fur was thick and incredibly soft, and he used his front legs like human arms, grasping, and holding. We started kind of wrestling, getting more and more rowdy. Shere Khan grabbed my right leg and started mock biting my foot. We were having a blast! I was playing with an actual tiger! What could be cooler than this?
Suddenly, as I bent down to scratch the tiger's belly, Shere Khan, who still had my foot in his mouth, chomped down. Hard. Real hard.
He wouldn't let go, still applying an uncomfortable amount of pressure. I must not have thought I was going to die because my life didn't flash before my eyes.
Shit! This thing's reverted! It's gone wild and gonna bite off my foot! Damn, I'm unlucky! I can use my belt for a tourniquet. Help!
“Shit, Jim, make this thing let go of my foot! Now! Now, dammit, now!” Hysteria crept into my voice.
“Shere Khan, stop! Let go!” Jim was clearly starting to freak out as he tried, unsuccessfully, to extricate my foot.
Then he laughed, which I thought was completely inappropriate given the circumstances. He kicked out his right leg. I thought, Don’t do that, you idiot, he’ll take my foot for sure. But he wasn't kicking Shere Khan, he was kicking at Sasha, and pretty soon Shere Khan released my foot, much to my relief. I scrambled away, thankful I still had all my parts, but fearful of removing my tiger-holed shoe.
Remember Sasha, the chow? When Jim regained his breath after his laughing fit, he explained what happened.
“Sasha craves attention, and she's real jealous of Shere Khan, so when we were playing with Shere Khan and not her, she did what came natural—she snuck up and chomped down on Shere Khan's balls. That's when he bit your foot!”
Strangely, that all made sense to me. But still. Once Sasha was safely shuttered in the house, Shere Khan returned to his playful self. It took me a little longer.
“Hey man, are you okay?” asked a concerned but still chuckling Wyatt.
“Yeah, I think so.”
I took off my punctured right shoe to examine the damage to my foot, which was throbbing a bit by now. There were two puncture wounds on top, not deep, along with the beginnings of a spectacular bruise. No lasting damage. I considered myself very lucky.
Still leery of Shere Khan’s self-control, I watched Wyatt and Jim play with him while I put my sock and shoe back on and thought about what had just happened. Shere Khan bit me! I can't believe it! I was bitten by a tiger and survived. Who can say that? I mean, how many people in the whole world can say that? Just thinking about it took away some of the sting of the puncture wounds, which were not too bad.
As I put on my shoe, Wyatt rolled around one of the big tires, and Shere Khan batted it away. Then the tiger started batting around the bowling ball like it was a ping-pong ball. Suddenly, Shere Khan froze, except for his enormous head which began bobbing up and down rhythmically, up…down, up…down.
What the hell, I thought, is he doing? Is he having a seizure? A fly on his nose? Some weird tiger ritual? I followed his intent gaze, realized what was going on, and it made me shudder. In the adjacent neighbor's backyard was a trampoline near the wooden fence. Bouncing on that trampoline was a maybe ten-year-old girl, her head popping above the fence, up…down, up…down. Instinct. It was chilling.
That and the fact I was bitten made me wonder: how in the world was it legal to keep a large predator like this in a backyard? In town. In a residential subdivision of Texas.
“We'd better head back to work, guys,” said Jim. “The techs are probably waiting for us. And speaking of them, I have an idea. Why don't you bring them here after work? Seeing a tiger up close will be a great tale for them to take home.”
“Yeah, if they don't get eaten,” I muttered.
“Oh yeah, that's a great idea, Jim,” agreed Wyatt. “We'll bring 'em over about six if that works for ya.”
“That will be fine. There's one thing you should know. Shere Khan will size these guys up and decide which is the most afraid. Then he'll mess with him!” Jim laughed. “I've seen him do it before. This'll be great!”
Wyatt and I got back into my van and drove to the MTSO, reliving the “tiger” experience as we went.
“Wasn't that just the damnedest thing you ever did?” I asked Wyatt. “And can you believe it's okay to have a tiger in your backyard in this town?”
“Yeah, that was cool for sure. I wonder what pets other people have in their backyards. Wolves? Apes? Pythons?” Wyatt asked. “The hell with THAT!”
“So how's your foot, anyway? You know, you oughta have that shoe framed or stuffed or something.”
“My foot's okay, but it's a little sore—no big deal. Pretty sure I’m going to have a big bruise, though. You know, I think I could stuff and mount that shoe myself, but then I'd have to buy a new pair. Maybe next time.” I laughed, pulling up to the last four-way stop before the MTSO, allowing another car to proceed. “I wonder if the folks in that car know there's a tiger loose in their town?”
We pulled into the parking lot, and Wyatt said, “I'll ask Mr. Uno if his team wants to go to Jim's after work. I won't tell him why. Just that it's a surprise they'll all enjoy.”
“Great! Knowing those guys, they'll be up for it.”
And they were.
“Hey, everybody, glad you could make it! Come on in.” Jim was a happy and gracious host—with a hidden agenda.
“Hello, Jim-san. Thank you for inviting us into your home,” said Mr. Uno. Attaching “san” to someone's first name adds a level of respect, like Americans adding “mister” to a surname.
After introducing Mr. Uno and his team, Mr. Abe, Mr. Honda, and Mr. Maekawa, to Sasha and Felix, we again walked through the house to the backdoor.
“I have a special surprise for you,” said Jim. “Let's go meet my other pet.”
I was tingling with excitement, knowing just how surprising the backyard scene was going to be. Jim and Mr. Uno walked through the door, and I held it open for Mr. Honda, Mr. Abe, both obviously curious, and Mr. Maekawa. Mr. Maekawa went through the door a bit hesitantly, a little skittish.
Mr. Honda reacted first, his eyes blinking wide and a big smile lighting up his face, chuckling as he saw Shere Khan. Wyatt walked over to Shere Khan, petted him, scratched behind his ears and rolled one of the big tires for him to chase. Shere Khan was much more interested in the new people in his domain, though, and only made a half-hearted attempt at the tire. The humans were all in awe-inspired silence. Wyatt boldly walking right up to the tiger and petting it, visibly reduced the tension in the air. Except for Mr. Maekawa, that is. He was plainly freaked out, unable to take his eyes off the tiger, nervously bouncing around, keeping Mr. Abe between him and the animal. Shere Khan came up to me, snuggled his massive head under my right hand. Apprehensively, at first, I petted him. I had mostly forgiven him for the foot incident, considering the circumstances. Then he began playfully bounding around the backyard, but I noticed he kept looking at the new humans, especially Mr. Maekawa.
About that time, Mr. Uno asked Mr. Maekawa something I didn't quite catch, which diverted Mr. Maekawa's attention from the tiger. Shere Khan made his move.
It was really something to watch as Shere Khan silently—yes, silently; it was amazing for an animal that size—stalked Maekawa, who had no idea the tiger was fixed on him. I got my camera ready.
Shere Khan flowed around and through the edges of our group, keeping Mr. Maekawa in sight. Then, quick as a hummingbird, he attacked Maekawa from behind (click), capturing him with his front legs (click), taking him to the ground and rolling (click).
“AAAHHHHHH!!” screamed a hysterical Maekawa, caught and unable to escape.
On top now, the tiger looked into Maekawa’s terrified face, and licked him, released his grip, and sauntered away to bat the bowling ball around the barren backyard!
Jim burst out laughing. Wyatt and I exchanged a glance and chuckled nervously, pent-up tension slowly dissipating. The Japanese techs giggled, anxiety written on their faces.
Mr. Maekawa, visibly shaken, got up and dusted himself off, a twitching sheepish smile interrupting the terror behind his eyes.
“Mister Maekawa, are ya hurt?” asked Wyatt.
“No, Wyatt-san,” replied a still-trembling Maekawa, brushing the Texas panhandle dust off his jeans. He was a good sport about it, shaking hands, getting his back slapped, and sharing a much-needed laugh. He even managed to pet Shere Khan a few times after he gained some composure.
A couple of days later, our team split up to work on other parts of the project. Wyatt and Mr. Maekawa headed north, while Mr. Uno and I went west. Mr. Honda and Mr. Abe were called to Dallas.
I didn't meet up with Wyatt and Mr. Maekawa again for five or six weeks. In the meantime, I had the film of the tiger adventure developed. The three shots of Mr. Maekawa and Shere Khan were spectacular! Knowing I would see Mr. Maekawa again, I had doubles of the photos made.
“Hey, Wyatt, how you doin’?” I asked.
“Great! How 'bout you?”
“Not so bad myself.”
“Hey, Mr. Maekawa, how are ya?”
“Hi, Rick-san. I am good.”
“Oh yeah, I have a present for you, Mr. Maekawa. Here.”
I handed over the three copies of him and Shere Khan in their embrace. As he looked at the pictures, his eyes got big, and his face erupted into an enormous smile.
“Thank you, Rick-san, thank you!”
What a tale he had to tell—with evidence to back it up.
About the Author
Rick Joy, recently retired Quality Engineer living in rural Indiana, always longed to be a writer but lacked the courage to try. Now he tries. He is refining his voice and enjoying the journey. His story, “The Beauty of Horses” was recently published in Fiction on the Web, and “Surfin’ Indiana” was recently published in the online publication, Soft Cartel.