I Bought an Amazonian Toucan in Peru
I’ve never really been one to take to guts and gore. I fainted dissecting cane toads at school, cried for three hours when our van in Khao Lak hit a chicken and made a former boyfriend refund an African Safari video game called Big Buck Hunter. But it wasn’t really my fault – I just never had the chance to acclimatise to blood. Hell, my wannabe-Quaker mum was so anti-violence that I wasn’t even allowed water pistols as a child. Instead, she gave us squirting plastic carrots, eggplants and zucchinis; a move I blame for the untreatable phallic fixation I developed later in life.
I’m the same with dead animals, and can only ever really touch meat when it’s well done (okay, deep fried), drowned in sauce and plopped on a crisp white dinner plate. So to me, the Amazonian markets in Iquitos, Peru, were like something out of a massacre. Tables groaned with dismembered monkeys, the concrete floor was stacked with skinned tortoises and minced capybara hung from hooks. I walked through the market stalls in a daze, my mouth hanging open in a permanent gag (an expression I later regretted when a fly that had been buzzing around a carcass landed on my tonsils). I dry retched and closed my eyes, willing my sense of pride to overcome my sense of smell. I stumbled awkwardly through the remaining goods on offer, walking like Rick Ross and trying to pretend the blood pooled on the ground was just spilled cab merlot.
Somehow, I emerged at the end of death row fully conscious, and found myself in a meat-free section that I could only guess was themed “entertainment”. 1980s children’s videotapes sat in baskets alongside bleached Disney pyjamas and the occasional chess piece. Nestled in the middle of all the fun and games was a toucan on a rope. It didn’t exactly look like the friendly little creature on packets of Fruit Loops, as its colours were all wrong, but I’d read What Bird Is That? — it was definitely the same creature.
I was delighted. Not only did this mean I had just won a long-standing argument with my friend Clare about whether or not toucans are extinct, but more importantly, this was my Ranger Stacey moment: my time to shine. I would release this poor toucan from its captor and save it from a life of being holed up in a cage in some ex-pat brat’s house, or worse, served on a bed of rice. I was going to be like the Mother Teresa of the Amazon, only slightly heavier and a little less old.
I approached the vendor and enquired how much the pet toucan was in a combination of broken Spanish and interpretive dance. “Ocho soles,” she snapped impatiently, untying the bird from the chair she was sitting on. “Es un bebé.”
The baby bird squawked and feebly flapped its wings, trying to get away from its captor, but she hovered her foot above it threateningly and it wisely decided to shut up. I paid her the equivalent of $3AUD and walked away smiling, my new pet perched on my arm. I was now the proud owner of an exotic bird – the type I could smuggle in a suitcase in a chunk of pipe and sell on the black market for thousands (only I wouldn’t, because I’m Ranger Stacey). I petted it affectionately and it snapped at my finger, drawing blood and most likely giving me an infectious disease.
As the miniature toucan did what most babies do, and emptied its bowels all over the sleeve of my white lace dress, I suddenly realised I didn’t have the remotest clue how to save it. This was the Amazon – there was no Currumbin Sanctuary I could deliver the bird to; no one to teach it toucan life skills and release it into the wild. I had enough trouble with babies of my own species, let alone those of the avian variety. Did birds breastfeed?
I looked around desperately for something to feed it, and my eyes fell upon a rotting banana for sale at my feet. I politely paid about nine times what it was worth, peeled it and shoved it in the toucan’s line of vision.
Have you ever read Aesop’s fable about the fox and the stork and the spatial dilemma each animal encountered when trying to drink out of a narrow vase and a shallow bowl respectively? Well, that’s pretty much what happened next. The toucan’s beak was so long that it just couldn’t get the banana down its throat, no matter how hard it tried or how forcefully I mushed it in its face. Being both a thoughtful and caring guardian, I decided to eat the banana myself instead, and began to frantically look for my Peruvian friend Hulber to ask him what the hell to do next.
Around half an hour later, after the toucan had shredded at least 30% of my dress with its claws, I found Hulber hovering around some weird powdered hallucinogens at a witch doctor’s stall. I explained my purchase and the banana dilemma, and he looked at me incredulously.
“Don’t you know how to feed a toucan?” he asked astonished. I mumbled something incoherent about an old pet budgie I once had, but before I could finish, he’d scooped a mango off the ground and peeled back its golden skin.
“Hold its beak open!” he commanded. I plopped the bird in my lap, squatted in the mud and prised its jaws apart. If my toucan didn’t like me before, it really fucking despised me now, and tried its best to make my fingers resemble the offcuts section of the meat market. Hulber tore off bits of mango flesh and tossed them in his mouth, chewing them up finely before pushing them deep down the bird’s throat till it gagged. He looked at me with his eyebrows raised as if to say, “Der, you dumb gringo.”
We played mother-bird-baby-bird for a good ten minutes, feeding my toucan all manner of exotic fruits before hailing a peddlecab and driving far off into the jungle. I stroked the bird the whole way, devastated that we were already to be parted after such a short time together. After untying its leg from the rope, I bent down and bade it farewell, placing it gently in the undergrowth next to a lifetime supply of masticated mango. As we drove back to the market, Hulber told me that the bird was pretty much a lost cause, and would most likely die in the wild 15 minutes later.
Nevertheless, I still felt pretty fucking good about myself.