The Lightkeepers' Menagerie|
Stories of Animals at Lighthouses
Elinor De Wire
Pineapple Press, 328pp, $21.95
I am breaking a cardinal reviewers rule here by choosing a book published in 2007. We are generally limited to new work--two years and younger. I have my reasons; being recently dog-less is one--I slurp up animal stories these days. But the stories in this book are, for the most part, unusual enough to bring pleasure, even amazement, as long as you're an animal lover.
De Wire has traveled broadly in the United States and Canada to collect these stories of light house pets. She is well connected to both animal rescue and light house preservation organizations which further bolsters her research. And where she hasn't traveled, she has researched. Her prose is serviceable. The book is encyclopedic in its geographic range as well as the types of animals featured. China, Vietnam, the South Pacific, Australia, Europe and South American countries had lighthouses. The lighthouses had pets, or mysterious companions, or edibles, from both land and sea.
The first of eight chapters describes the types of domestic animals most favored by human keepers of the light before automation. Often the keeper's family accompanied him on the post and dogs and cats were plentiful. They performed a number of services besides mascot and companionship; watch dog and rescue were other important functions (as was ratting or mousing, depending on the island population). Some dogs fished for a living, others shared their masters' catch. Others were able to forecast weather, or there humans were able to interpret their reactions to incoming weather.
Dogs have been on the Boston Harbor Light since it was first built on Little Brewster Island in1716. In 1997, Sammy, a black lab, was assigned to the light. Perhaps redundantly, he was assigned his own life jacket, but he wasn't wearing it when he accidently fell 50 feet from the light tower stairway. (He got up, wagged his tail and looked at his Coast Guard master as if to say "oops".)
Cats were also popular companions, who also moused. Companion duty might not include being used in aerial experiments, however. The Daniels family was assigned to the St Augustine Lighthouse during the depression. Smokey, the little girl's pet was dragooned by her brother one day to help with an experiment he had devised. Climbing to the catwalk of the lighthouse, he strapped on the homemade kitty parachute he had made and dropped the cat 168 feet. About half way down the parachute opened and Smokey landed without bodily harm. He headed for the palmetto scrub and it took him almost a month to decide to return to the family.
Horses could be found around most light houses, used for pulling coal carts, people carts and plowing on the larger pieces of ground. They transported goods from ship to station and back and building materials from ship to station site. Often, when a new light station was built, the barn was up before the house.
Domestic animals are the subject of about half of the book. Then De Wire turns her attention to farm animals at lighthouses. Hens, chickens, turkeys, pigs, sheep were all lighthouse denizens. Then the book wanders about the world in search of stories of sea creatures and lighthouses. At this point, De Wire seems to have lost sight of her subject. Save the last chapter for a rainy night in the future. It's interesting but it should have been a separate book.