TOWN N' COUNTRY
There's a smudge of cherries jubilee on the beak of Lacey the duck.
The red lipstick came from Sandra Griffin as she comforted the 3-year-old Muscovy.
"You have to be good for mommy because mommy loves you," she had whispered in Lacey's ear.
Griffin, 70, knows what some say about the Muscovy duck.
They're nasty. Vicious. Aggressive. They splatter sidewalks with poop, spreading disease.
She knows some may think she's crazy. She's taking that risk here, bringing Lacey to a neighborhood park, in hopes that people will see another side to the Muscovy.
Seriously, would this be a story if she slept with her dog?
Yes, Griffin sleeps with Lacey. The duck, who as it turned out, is a male, nuzzles as close as he can get to her and she tries not to move, she said.
In the morning, she wakes to kisses on her face and ears. He sleeps in a diaper fashioned from a men's sock and a sanitary pad. She calls it a flight suit. She attaches a leash and takes Lacey for walks.
Griffin has other pets. Dogs, cats and birds, and two more ducks. She loves them all the same. But it's Lacey who she says runs to the door when he hears her car in the driveway. It's Lacey who follows her around the house. And it's Lacey who she wants you to know as a sweet loving pet.
For Griffin, the love affair started when someone gave her the orphaned duck three years ago.
"If you told me then, I wouldn't have believed it," she said. "All I can tell you is I guess I've become a duck lover."
Sandra Griffin grew up not far from where she lives now.
First Ybor City then West Tampa and then, when she was 11, her parents bought 44 acres off Hillsborough Avenue in Town 'N Country, and farmed tropical fish. The land was wild then, and her mother was scared of the rattlesnakes. So Griffin's father taught her to shoot. She killed more than 300 rattlesnakes over the years, she said.
She married at 16 and moved 2 miles west of her parents. There, she raised five children, feeding them from the land, she said. Their chickens, goats, cows and even an Angus bull would do anything for Griffin, said her daughter, Linda Brandt.
In her late 20s, Griffin said, she slept with her goat in an abandoned car for the last week of its pregnancy. As it struggled through labor, she reached her hand into the goat to turn the baby and lift it out.
"It was one of the most beautiful moments of my life," she remembers.
• • •
Soon after Griffin got Lacey, she went searching on the Internet to learn about the Muscovy. She found stories of the Incas of Peru keeping them and pictures from across the country of Muscovy ducks dressed in clothes and wearing leashes. She learned that a newly hatched duckling bonds with the first species it sees. For ducks (and geese), it's called imprinting.
Griffin believes Lacey thinks she's his mate. When her son Kenneth Fuerst, 39, gets too close to his mother, Lacey bites him. Lacey sits next to Griffin on the couch while she watches television. He goes with her on Thursdays when she delivers meals to people who can't get out. He plays outside in the back yard, splashing in a kiddie pool.
When Griffin opens the back door, Lacey's webbed feet slap the floor as he comes back to her, "as if he hadn't seen me in a thousand years."
"His wings are out. He's running out of breath beak open and so excited. I make a big fuss and he wags his tail, and I grab him and hug him, giving him kisses and then he struts. Oh, he struts so glad to be back inside."
• • •
Life can be dangerous for a duck.
Griffin has a rottweiler and a boxer and Lacey can't get too near. Last year, she said a hawk swooped down on him in the back yard and attacked. His feathers still haven't grown back.
"I didn't think he was going to live," Griffin said.
That's when he started sleeping with her, she said.
But perhaps the biggest threat is humans.
About 20 wild Muscovy ducks used to live in Griffin's neighborhood, said Sandy Streit, the president of Pat Acres Estates Civic Association.
They disappeared last fall. Streit doesn't know what happened to them.
Another of Griffin's ducks, Luiciano, who came at the same time as Lacey, flew out of her yard in October and also went missing.
Some speculate the ducks were shot by a trapper and sold for meat. Some are glad to see the ducks gone, saying their sidewalks would now stay clean.
Griffin says a little poop doesn't warrant death.
"What does that say about your soul?" she said. "The Muscovy has been lied about. They describe them as vicious and aggressive and they're afraid of everything."
• • •
A sign that reads "Wildlife Crossing" may have forecast Griffin's future.
In the spring of 1999, she and her second husband, Arthur Griffin, were driving around Town 'N Country to look at a house on nearly an acre, a few miles from Tampa International Airport.
They stopped at the sign and a duck crossed in front of them, trailed by ducklings.
The couple decided instantly this would be their home.
Ducks are permitted there as pets, said Cpl. Daniel Connell of the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Department, as long as they are not neglected or abused.
Griffin keeps them inside as much as possible.
In 2003, when her husband died, the couple had one pet, a toy poodle. Soon after, she took in a cat. Parrots and cockatoos followed. Then came more cats, the dogs and a few chickens.
• • •
Brandt said her mother always has a cause. At one time, it was helping to improve the Head Start program, and another, abuses at the Hillsborough County Detention Center, after she was appointed by the governor as a member of the Human Rights Advocacy.
But these days, Brandt worries about her mother. She fears she is stretched beyond her means, physically and financially. Griffin spends $225 a month for pet food, which she draws from her Social Security benefits and small pension from Tampa Electric, where she worked for 20 years.
"She can't say no," Brandt said "It makes her happy."
• • •
Last month, Griffin took in a new duck to replace her missing Luciano.
She named her newest rescue, a wild duck, Luigi. On the fourth day at Griffin's house, he was wearing a diaper.
Elisabeth Parker can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3431.