Friends with Benefits


On Merritt Island, residents were once protected by Annie, a 20-ton, fire-breathing dragon vintage 1971, until her ultimate collapse in 2002

Sometimes at an outdoor cocktail party when the pinks of early evening have turned to purple, the time that some Florida folks call “dark-thirty,” I suddenly feel it before I see it – a cloud of bats flying from a neighbor’s attic or the bat condominiums that our community maintains at its perimeters, swooping down above my head in a directionless flutter, their tiny faces like impish homunculi in a Bosch painting. The bats are small, not nearly as large as a fruit bat with its three-foot wing span. In fact, they’re more like three inches, similar to the bat described by James Joyce in Ulysses as “a little man in a cloak he is with tiny hands.”

Despite a sophisticated system of sonar, the bats come very close. My guess is that they are as curious about me as I am about them. I know skinks are; I see them stop in their tracks to look up at me with slow blinking eyes. So is the black whip snake coiled in my bougainvillea, watching me with torpid turns of its head as I sweep the patio.

We are all bound together, of course – involunary guests at a timeless cocktail party: bats, fruit flies, skinks, whip snakes, even the boiled shrimp skewered on toothpicks and waiting on a platter beside the lemon half that will hold the toothpicks. We share bacteria, we share electrolytes, we share habitats like my host’s attic, probably sublet by a colony of bats. We even share behaviors. The night heron bobs its head in greeting. So do we. We defend our homes with locks, fences and an alarm system that rings someplace in Utah. The fiddler crab, which spends his life scraping the sand around his burrow, defends it with his big claw, his chela, held aloft like a jai-alai player’s cesta, poised to attack any male who crosses the path to his front door.

If you include both wildlife and household pets (there are an estimated 65,000 pets in Indian River County), we are totally outnumbered by animals, some as tiny as the three-millimeter trichoplax walking up the side of an aquarium on its cell whips. In case there weren’t enough animals around, we manufacture them, like the 35-foot-high, 65-foot-long concrete and steel dragon called Annie that was installed with propane tanks in its belly at the tip of Merritt Island. For 30 years, the 20-ton seagreen monster belched a 15-foot flame over the Indian River every Fourth of July until its collapse in 2002.

Read the entire article in the February 2012 issue

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