A Way with Critters

by Tina Blue
December 20, 2000

          Do you remember Ellie Mae, Jed Clampett's daughter on "The Beverly Hillbillies"? One of Ellie Mae's most notable traits was her "way with critters." Virtually any animal, domestic or wild, would come at her call, and seldom was she seen without her entourage of "critters."

          My mom was like that. She loved animals, and animals loved her. Over the last twenty years of her life, she would spend at least two hours a day, often more, sitting on the large front porch, sometimes with Dad or one of her grandchildren, sometimes alone, feeding small wild animals.

          She kept a bottomless supply of peanuts, birdseed, and other goodies for her friends, and they would flock to her for handouts. She had regulars at her "diner." There were two chipmunks, several squirrels, assorted rabbits, and quite a few birds, all of which she saw frequently enough to give them names. Some of the squirrels and one of the chipmunks would even come up and take the food directly from her hand.

          Despite the fact that she kept a nice full bird-feeder out back, a number of birds preferred to get their snacks out front, as if they would rather eat in Mom's company. It was an astonishing sight--rather like the image of Snow White in the Disney movie. (At least the birds didn't perch on her shoulders and tweet directly into her hearing aids!)

          I used to tease her about giving so many handouts to so many furry and feathered beggars. I assured her that her fame as a pushover had reached at least half-way across the continent. "Why, just last week," I once told her, "I saw a squirrel by the side of the road near Kansas City holding a sign with an arrow pointing east, labeled 'Free Food--All You Can Eat!'"

          Because Mom and Dad lived in Pennsylvania and we were in Kansas, my children only got to visit their grandparents a few times. When my son Michael was six years old, he decided that Grandma Salvo was his idol. He would sit absolutely motionless for hours, watching in amazement as animals crowded onto Mom's porch to be fed. He loved hearing her tell about each one's personality and its little quirks of behavior. The special bond they formed that summer lasted for the rest of her life.

          My sister and her two children lived with our parents. Her daughter Naomi inherited Mom's ability to charm small, wild creatures. Even after Mom died, Naomi continued the tradition of feeding crowds of animals out on the front porch.

          In the morning, when she would come out to go to school, her fan club would be waiting for her. She had to toss a handful of peanuts to one side of the porch and then make a run for the car; otherwise they would follow her, and she wouldn't be able to drive for fear of running over them.

          I think I have a little bit of Mom's rapport with animals, though nowhere near as much as she and Naomi had. Certainly I love animals as much, and animals do respond very well to me. But there was something magical about the way Mom--and Naomi, too--charmed small animals, especially skittish little wild animals.

          If I had not witnessed it myself, I never would have believed it possible outside of a Disney animated feature.
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