March 2014 Review–Enslaved by Ducks: How One Man Went from Head of the Household to Bottom of the Pecking Order, by Bob Tarte

~by Michele Gregoire

Having laughed my way through Bob Tarte’s most recent book last year and reviewing it for this column I decided to pick up his first book, Enslaved by Ducks, for this month’s review. I was not disappointed in Tarte’s first work, published in 2004; his humorous writing style was apparent and in full form. (Although, Kitty Kornered was somewhat more amusing, his style having been further developed by the third book.) The author reveals additional details of his life in Enslaved by Ducks so the reader will know important information about Tarte and his wife that adds to and informs the story of their ever growing household of unusual pets, dominated by ducks.

Enslaved by Ducks begins with a dedication “To my wonderful wife, Linda, who somehow keeps the chaos at bay.” And the edge of chaos is the norm for every day in the life of Bob Tarte, as is evident just by reading the Cast of Characters that includes nineteen different indoor animals, most of which are birds. Add to the indoor menagerie the outdoor animals – fifteen ducks, two geese, and four turkeys – and it becomes quite clear that management of this large number of critters dominates the lives of Tarte and his wife. And all are deemed pets with which one or both of them have bonded relationships.

The book, consisting of fifteen chapters, begins with the acquisition of their first rabbit, Binky, who changed the author’s life forever. Tarte states, “When I ponder my pet-free past, I ask myself not only why I ever agreed to buy him, but also how a sour dwarf Dutch rabbit with few social skills ended up embodying an argument for more animals rather than none.” Binky was followed by additional rabbits, and the indoor collective eventually included five bunnies, three parrots, four parakeets, two canaries, a ring-neck dove, a visiting dove and starling, and two cats. Details of the various animals’ troubling shenanigans and problem behaviors abound throughout, as do the illnesses and injuries that plagued some of them. The book does include the loss of pets, but also gives considerable emphasis on the lengths to which Tarte and his wife go in treating and healing them. The true relationship between the author and each animal in his family is evident particularly in the extent to which he opposes his general personality tendencies to create or build appropriate and safe living spaces for all the animals and to save any of his sick or hurt creatures.

Tarte exposes his own psychological issues and treatment with witty explanations and depictions of visits with his psychiatrists, including the effects of medication on himself. An experience with his cat occurs when he began taking Zoloft. “The world and my outlook on it became suffused with light… Anxious to share my newly acquired Buddha nature, I strode upstairs and petted Penny. Neither of us exchanged a word, but as I stared at her, I received a revelation. I suddenly saw her as a being. Not as a pet or an underling, but as a complex personality. On the one hand, her face and eyes revealed the same trapped intensity as a human soul stuck in a physical body, but on the other hand her depth far exceeded any anthropomorphizing I might throw at her. She was limitless and unknowable, and I was honored to have her as my friend. Then I changed her litter and floated back downstairs.” His improvement and eventual lack of need for medication unfold as the book proceeds and the Tarte’s animal family grows and expands in species. The subtle suggestion, a subtext of the book, is that pets can help us heal.

Tarte mentions the religious aspects of their lives in the book, sharing that Linda is active in her church and readily talks with friends and acquaintances about scripture, as it comes up intermittently in the narrative. He also gives us a glimpse of his own religious upbringing and background when he related the illness and death of their Muscovy duck, Hector. When the duck became sick and was not likely to recover, “Linda’s friend LuAnne brought over a small laminated picture of St. Francis of Assisi with a prayer to the saint printed on the back – we called them ‘holy cards’ when I attended Blessed Sacrament School – and hung it on a ribbon over the convalescent’s pen. ‘It’s been blessed by Father Andresiak… I brought a bottle of holy water, too.’ While Linda held Hector in her lap, LuAnne looped a rosary around the duck’s neck, sprinkled him with the holy water, and prayed with my wife for his recovery. As always, Hector loved receiving attention from Linda, though I suspected that LuAnne’s Catholic rituals perplexed a duck whose disdain for water had always ruled out baptism.” While this did not save the duck it demonstrates that prayer was one element of healing and care that was sometimes applied along with physical treatments. And, as with everything, it provided another opportunity for Tarte’s wit, even if only in a passing brief allusion. “I can’t think of another duck who had as many admirers as our twenty-five cent Hector, and I just hope that the next world is solid enough for him to bite.”

Enslaved by Ducks is indeed another endearing and amusing work by Bob Tarte that I highly recommend. This writer is one of the funniest I have ever read and I am eager to read his second book, Fowl Weather, as well as to read Kitty Kornered again. That’s one of the beauties of his works – they are enjoyable to revisit, in whole or in part, whenever you have a desire to laugh. While sharing his life with animals that he truly loves he makes fun of himself, and in doing so reminds us that it’s good to laugh at ourselves.

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Dr. Michele Gregoire has been Chair of the Education Department at Flagler College since 2004 and a member of the faculty since 1988. She came to Flagler College from Georgia College in Milledgeville where she had been Director of Music Therapy for four years and prior to that she spent one year in the same capacity at Willamette University in Salem, Oregon. Dr. Gregoire earned her bachelor’s degree in Music Therapy at Florida State University, her master’s degree in Music at California State University at Long Beach, and her doctoral degree in Special Education at the University of Florida. She has conducted research and published articles related to music therapy and special music education, consistently maintains a strong record of professional conference presentations, and her current interests are historical research in music education, special education, and music therapy.

Dr. Gregoire has been involved in several professional organizations throughout her career, and has served in leadership capacities in most of them. She worked for ten years as a clinical music therapist and director of internship, specializing in developmental disabilities, at the beginning of her career and continues to provide consultation in both music therapy and special education to individuals and organizations.

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