By Bob Tarte
Algonquin Books, 320 pp., $23.95
It's possible that I am the wrong reader for Enslaved by Ducks. Most of my thinking about animals as pets falls into the admittedly limited categories of dog people and cat people. I am a dog person. On a scale of exertion in proportion to affirmation, dogs come out on top. At least, my dog does. Cats poo inside and litter boxes smell, unless cared for assiduously. This is just my opinion, not a generalization. That's why there are cat people. And cat-bunny-duck-geese-parrot-dove-turkey-people, too.
Throughout Ducks, author Bob Tarte's menagerie expands and contracts, but ultimately adds up to 19 indoor animals, including bunnies, parrots, canaries, parakeets, doves and cats. The outdoor animals max out at 21, when the ducks, geese and turkeys are all counted. Helpfully, Tarte provides a list of a cast of characters that also includes the humans he encounters. Most prominently, and described with much affection, Tarte's wife Linda propels the story forward with new animal acquisitions and connects the more reclusive author with the wider community of Lowell, Mich. "Linda," writes Tarte, "measured the success of any commercial transaction less by whether she received fair goods at a fair price than by the length of time the store personnel spent chatting with her."
Tarte's subjugation begins when Linda brings home Binky, a bunny named for his attitudinal resemblance to the "sullen rabbit in Matt Groening's comic strip 'Life in Hell.'" Tarte adapts a beleaguered stance towards Binky's habit of chewing wood and wires, marking furniture with his urine and resisting attempts at being held. Tarte describes his trials with self-deprecating humor, but I never quite get the feeling that all the chaos and effort is worth it. He says it is, but I'm not convinced.
Included in the cast of characters under the heading "lettered humans," are numerous veterinarians and two psychiatrists. Between tales of fighting bunny brothers, interspecies bird mating, and interminable pen building, Tarte constructs a narrative around his struggles with anxiety and depression, and his subsequent treatment with Zoloft. (Though he is ambivalent about his mediocre treatment by doctors and his usage of antidepressant medicines.) Tarte is more comfortable with the ways his animals impact his moods; they make him happy--when he's not worrying about them--but more than that, it's the routine of each day that helps him maintain perspective:
"Rather than blaming our animals for adding complexity to my life, perhaps I should thank them for simplifying it. After all, they helped reduce the potentially unlimited possibilities of existence to a series of tedious and predictable routines. Nothing could suit the temperament of a timid man better. Instead of laying ambitious plans for the future or even building up a healthy clientele for my freelance writing business, I could pack each day to the brim directing ducks in and out of their pens, separating fighting rabbits, and keeping parrot-seed dishes filled. The notion that something other than folly might lie behind my acquisition of nearly countless pets brought me a tingle of joy."
Tarte creates memorable characters out of his animals; even his turkeys emerge with recognizable qualities. Enslaved by Ducks is often funny, and for readers who seek to explore animal-human relationships beyond the dog person/cat person binary, it may well be a satisfying read.