Where the Wild Things Are

Hunting rare game on the island of the filthy rich.

The sun was still hanging above the mansions to the west as I cruised beach-rimmed South Ocean Drive on my way to Amici for its weekly Wednesday celebrity bartending fundraiser, this time for the SPCA Wildlife Care Center.

I figured this would be the perfect opportunity to infiltrate the Palm Beach crowd. A co-worker had suggested a nightlife excursion to hunt for rich men. But once the plans were made, she blew me off. So I found myself alone in my little coupe on my way to happy hour at the chichi Italian ristorante and bar.

Once there, I beelined it for the information table.

Tony Gleeson

"We don't adopt out dogs and cats, but if you need a llama or an African kinkajou," Sonia explained when I asked about the special services of the Broward center, whose function also includes the rescue, rehabilitation, and release of native wildlife.

"Or," she continued, "if you need someone to come pick up a 22-foot reticulated python in your backyard or that emu running down the street."

Or, evidently, a seven-foot raccoon. Rocky, the center's mascot, entered the back patio, and Sonia directed him out to the sidewalk, where temperatures were in the upper 80s, so he could wave to traffic in his full-body, fake fur costume.

I guess prevention of cruelty to a human disguised as an animal isn't covered under the SPCA Center's mission statement.

Gater 98.7 DJ Keith van Allen was behind the bar as I sipped my vodka tonic and absorbed the happy hour culture. I could easily figure out the home team from the visiting one merely by clothing choice. The society ladies wore expensive, season-appropriate colorful prints and event-inspired animal-embroidered sundresses and skirts — including kitschy Lilly Pulitzer — with coordinated tops and sandals.

The rest of us, society interlopers, were easy to spot. Many had overdressed. (In South Florida's heat, who — besides a junkie — wears long sleeves in May?) Some sported fun but cheaply made tropical wear. And then there was yours truly, who — in an effort not to stand out — had dressed in all black.

"Next time I'll know what to wear to one of these things," I said to the woman next to me, Jane, whom I mistook for a mainlander since she was dressed in a relatively run-of-the-mill knit cami and wore (gasp!) costume jewelry. Later, I learned she was actually from Singer Island — a ghetto by barrier island standards.

"You look great," she reassured me.

"Look around," I suggested. "The only ones wearing black are the servers."

She conceded the debate with a nod.

As I was sizing up the fashion-class distinctions, I noticed a tray-holding hottie with spiky blond hair. He was looking at me every time I glanced over. Finally, I met his gaze and was momentarily frozen by his ice-blue eyes.

When I snapped out of it, I sighed. Maybe fitting in with the help wasn't such a bad thing after all.

I turned away from the object of my distraction to meet David. Sporting a Jimmy Buffett look, the center volunteer told me a tale of moving his "zoo" from Queens to South Florida. He'd driven with seven animals — two dogs, five cats — with nothing but a scissor gate to confine them to the back seat of his car.

"As soon as I got to the Holland Tunnel, it was chaos," he remembered. "I had cats on my head, cats on my shoulders, cats under my feet."

I withheld the gratuitous joke about being up to his neck in pussy.

After a relatively uneventful stint behind the bar, van Allen turned his post over to Toni May, host of WXEL-TV's South Florida Today. Dressed in a green dress with a perfectly matched necklace of emeralds, she looked impeccable.

Jane's friend Aimen sure thought so. He ordered a Jägermeister shot and passed a $100 bill, instructing Toni to keep the change for the wildlife charity, an action he repeated many times over. His blond shaggy hair, dark tan, and deeply lined face hinted at his passion: making art from litter collected on the beach, which he uses to teach environmental etiquette to schoolchildren.

"He caught a sailfish today," Jane reported, assuring me no fish were injured in his sportsmanship. "Catch and release. Always."

Exactly the sort of program I envisioned for my server stud, who was making his way over with a tray of pizza samples. As he approached with his eyes on me, I looked away and felt my face grow hot. I shook my head as he extended the tray.

Soon, I met a foursome of guys with just two names: Chris and Andrew.

"I hate animals," said one of the Chrises, a conservative-looking fellow with a liberal streak of self-importance. "I do love a good steak."

Why the ill will toward four-legged friends?

"I had a Jack Russell, but I gave her to the ex-fiancée," he explained with a look that suggested the two would be happier alone together. "If there's going to be a third in a relationship, a kid's OK. But not an animal."

Ah, that explained the hostility. Cock-blocked by the terrier.

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