When I was growing up, nothing was more fun than catching critters and keeping them as pets. There was a lot of fun to be had collecting ants and putting them in a jar full of sand, watching them go to work, tunneling like mad. Lizards were great fun to chase and capture...and of course there was the great butterfly experiment of 1973. My mother was completely caught off guard when she opened my bedroom door to put away my clean laundry and discovered about fifty or so assorted butterflies and moths (my best friend and I weren't picky) enjoying my hospitality.
Of course, she was a bit less understanding about the twenty or so mice that chewed their way out of the cardboard box beneath my bed...
I told Carla that the cardboard was a BAD idea...
Still, while lizards, bugs and rodents were rather intriguing, nothing was more fun and challenging than a day spent mudpuppy hunting.
What is a mudpuppy you ask? Well, some people argue that they are an Axylotl and some say they aren't. Because I'm not a biologist, I'll just tell you what they looked like to me. They were mutants...sort of a cross between a deformed salamander and a tadpole. They have the head, gills and tail of a tadpole...but then Mother Nature got all freakish and decided to stick a few appendages on them just to make them interesting.
My best friend, Carla, was an expert mudpuppy catcher. My mother didn't care much for Carla because my friend always knew how to have fun...the kind of fun that my mother would always warn me would end in my death. "Don't go in the desert...you'll get bitten by a rattlesnake and die!" or "Don't go running on the tops of the cinderblock walls between everyone's houses or you'll fall off, break your back and then you'll be paralyzed for life...and then die!" were a couple of my mother's favorite dire predictions. Carla would have nothing to do with my sissy fears and at ten years of age, being somewhat bulletproof and more influenced by my friend's opinion than my mother's admonitions...I would rather have risked death than be thought a wimp. Somehow I survived.
Carla knew all the best spots for mudpuppy hunting. How these rancid pits of standing water managed to survive a desert climate is still a mystery to me. The more nasty and murky the water...the greater the chance of catching the elusive mudpuppy. At first I was a bit squeamish about stepping foot into the foul-smelling ponds that Carla led me to. The mud on the bottom oozed between my toes in a rather slimy way as I inched my way slowly along, testing each footstep before putting it down. I couldn't be sure if mud would be the only thing I would encounter since it smelled like a cesspool and held a few discarded tires that protruded from the oily surface at random intervals. I was glad my mother didn't know about these pools I was currently wading up to my scabby kid knees in or she would definitely be predicting my imminent demise by disease.
Once we'd located a promising hunting ground, Carla would place her finger over her lips to indicate the requirement for complete silence. This was no time to fidget either. Ripples in the water would ruin the chance of a successful capture. For long minutes we would stand there, bent at the waist waiting in total silence, not twitching a muscle. Finally, we'd be rewarded for our efforts with the telltale sound of a mudpuppy kissing the surface for air. Quick as a flash, Carla would locate the source of the smacking sound and strike. I was in awe of her talent. Before my own brain had even registered the sound, Carla would plunge her arms in up to her shoulders and nab the mudpuppy with her bare hands. With a smile of pride, she'd hold up her catch cupped between her hands before depositing him into the communal bucket of pond water to be sorted out later.
My own skills were not as honed as those of my best friend. After many unsuccessful attempts at mudpuppy wrangling, I had to admit I was completely frustrated and for the remainder of the day Carla relegated me to spotter status. I didn't really mind though since I'd held one of those mutant creatures while it was in the bucket and didn't really like the slimy feeling one bit. Carla, however, felt I was missing out on one of the greatest experiences in my life and came up with a solution.
We needed a net.
Mudpuppy in capitivity
Lucky for Carla and I, we both had older sisters who happened to be best friends too. It wasn't important that they were best friends though. What was important was that they were sixteen years old and wore pantyhose. It was a simple matter to "borrow" a pair of pantyhose, use the scissors (which I walked with because my mother told me if I ran with them I would impale myself and bleed to death), and a wire hanger to fashion one that would work nicely. It took a bit of practice with the net, but before long I was catching mudpuppies nearly as quickly as Carla.
Catching mudpuppies was a lot more fun than actually keeping mudpuppies. Once we had a barrel full of them, we really couldn't find anything very exciting to do with them. Sometimes we would keep them for a few days, release them back into the water just so we could catch them again. This strategy was reconsidered when my mother thought the water in the mudpuppy barrel was a bit chilly and moved it into the sun. Boiled mudpuppies don't smell very good.