When my parents and I lived in Quito, Ecuador in the 1950s, the Amazon jungle wasn\’t what it is now: fragile, endangered, dying the death of a thousand cuts. Instead, it was a dangerous, fierce, human-hating place that you had to vanquish, or die.
The Ecuadorian government would sell you hundreds of acres of forest for a few sucres. But only fools took up the offer. One of them, the husband of my math tutor, had accepted the government\’s deal and was now rotting alive (mosquitoes, amoebas, leeches, niguas that would crawl under your toenails and there expand until the nails fell off), getting drunk and going mad in his hacienda in the sweltering forest east of the Andes. Every night, while he slept exhausted after a day of chopping paths with his machete, the jungle would stretch green tendrils over the newly-cleared ground, and within a couple of days, the path had vanished.
The only people who could survive in the forest, we were told, were the native tribes–some of which had never been seen by white people–who were forever fighting each other and shrinking the heads of their decapitated enemies.
Nevertheless, my parents and I did occasionally dip our toes in the ocean of green that extended from the eastern slopes of the Andes all the way to the Pacific. And whenever we parked our 1944 Dodge on a village square, the inhabitants would approach, offering samples of the local fauna for us to buy.
For the first trip, however, my parents decided to trust the public transportation system rather than the old Dodge. We rode in a colectivo, a kind of minibus crammed with people and their parcels and chickens. As soon as we arrived at our destination, a scarlet macaw was thrust into my mother\’s hands by its eager owner. The bird was the size of a half-grown hen, all head and massive beak and trailing tail feathers. His plumage exuded a curious, acidic smell. He perched on a broom handle, and when jostled uttered blood-curdling shrieks. To us Europeans, accustomed to starlings, sparrows, and the occasional hoopoe, this was the most extraordinary bird we had ever seen.
As for the macaw, the moment he saw my mother he fell passionately in love. All the way back to Quito, as the colectivo bounced on the cobbled Inca roads, whenever we tried to relieve my mother of the bird and the broomstick he would begin his ear-splitting protests, not stopping until he was restored to her.
In Quito, he lived on a perch in the backyard. Whenever my mother came out the kitchen door he would flutter down from his perch, waddle over to her, and rub his head against her leg, his eyes half-closed in ecstasy. He never had much use for the rest of us. He lived for a good while, and then we found him one morning, dead of a chill, or of longing for his native jungle, or of unrequited passion for my mother.
On another trip to the Amazon we ended up with a pair of toucans in a cage made of twigs. They were very young and obviously sick, and they barely made it back to Quito before expiring. They were succeeded by a sloth, who was so disconcertingly slow-moving that one day we concluded he was dead. My father drove him to a taxidermist to be stuffed but, just in time, the sloth blinked and languidly extended one long arm, and was reprieved.
At about this time the second violinist of my father\’s quartet was given a meltingly adorable ocelot kitten, all broad paws and wide eyes. Since the three single members of the quartet shared a house with my parents and me, I was sometimes allowed to pet Pepita, who all too soon morphed into an intractable dragon, spitting and clawing at whomever approached her. At one point she contracted an infection, and it took the entire quartet to hold her down (taking care not to injure their musician\’s hands) and administer the sulfa drugs that the vet had prescribed.
The final, most extraordinary acquisition was a marmoset. We had just arrived in the then small village of Puyo and were standing in the perennial tropical drizzle when a man approached and said, pointing to a woman behind him, \”I have an animal for you.\” My parents, in the course of our travels through those impoverished regions, had occasionally been offered children, and they thought for an alarming moment that he was referring to the woman. But when she lifted her long, black hair we saw, perched on her shoulder, a tiny monkey the size of my hand.
I was so instantly besotted that I couldn\’t utter a sound. My father looked at me, handed the man some coins and, wonder of wonders, the little monkey was mine.
|In the jungle between Puyo and Baños, February, 1956|
Back in Quito, the marmoset turned our house into her personal amusement park, swinging from coat to coat in the hall closet, detaching with great effort the inner soles from our shoes, undoing my shoelaces as I sat doing my homework, and stealing pencils which she would heft over her shoulder and hide in a corner. At mealtimes, she would hold a single banana slice with both hands like a hamburger and munch away. When the sun went down she would snuggle under my sweater, uttering soft, bird-like twitters. At night she slept next to me on a doll bed, inside a sheepskin bag that my mother had made for her.
She lived with us for two years and then, one day while my mother and I were at home, she fell into the toilet and drowned before we could rescue her. Her death left me as bereft as if I had lost a sibling.
Often at night I think about that trail of little dead bodies that we left behind during our years in Ecuador. What were we thinking? The fact is, we weren\’t. Or not in the way that we now think about animals. We fed them and housed them and gave them rudimentary veterinary care. But we didn\’t think about their needs as truly sentient beings, capable, like us, of missing the companionship of their own species, of languishing for lack of freedom, of perishing of nostalgia for home.
Except for some breeds of marmoset, all our former pets are now on the endangered species list. By 2030, if the present rate of deforestation continues, more than a quarter of their jungle will be lost to logging, mining and oil drilling. If you think of the planet as a living, breathing organism, the desecration of the Amazon will be equivalent to cutting off half of one of its lungs.
The macaws, toucans, sloths, ocelots, and marmosets will die, not one by one like they did at our house, but by the millions. And when all the green has turned to brown, we will know that the human race has finally vanquished the Amazon.