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Javid Dabestani was walking through his Council Bluffs living room recently, deep in thought, when he veered a tad left and smacked into a bighorn sheep from Kyrgyzstan. He rubbed his forehead and kept walking.
“A little headache,” Javid says. “No big deal.”
For the past three years, Javid, his wife, Brittany, and their two young children have lived in a lakeside home owned by Brittany's family. The price is right, and they have plenty of room for their growing brood, and for that the couple are eternally grateful.
There is only one hitch: The house is also home to lions and wolves and bears. Also a bison. And a musk ox. And a gemsbok oryx, which sounds like a Dr. Seuss creation but is actually an African antelope hung on the wall nearest the kitchen.
“I think there are 35,” says Brittany, looking around at the collection of stuffed animals and mounted heads that cover nearly every square foot of wall and floor space in the spacious family room. “Oh, nope ... 37.”
She has missed the two dik-diks — easy to do, since a dik-dik is a mini-deer about the size of the family's house cat. She smiles. “Easy to lose count.”
Brittany's dad used to hunt pheasant and quail. A quarter-century ago, he decided to go bigger. He applied for hunting permits, went on safaris and bagged animals on every continent except Antarctica. Most were stuffed and shipped to this lakeside home.
In 2009, Javid and Brittany moved from an apartment into the house, where Canada geese are mounted over their bed.
Many of us, including me and my wife, can relate to the experience of moving into a first house after years spent in apartments.
To me, it felt too big at first — too open to the outside world.
In the apartment I slept through blaring sirens and rumbling trains and the man shooting pool in 502. The first night in our house, I jolted awake at nearly every wind gust and creak of the floor.
When I ambled down unfamiliar stairs to get water, I saw my trusty old wooden bookcase sitting by the couch.
When Javid did this, he saw a lion stalking the love seat.
“A little weird,” Javid admits.
But within weeks, he and Brittany stopped noticing the antlers, horns and claws that jut from every nook. Javid walked newborn Charlotte through the house when she fussed, pointing out the creatures. Here is a porcupine. Here is an elk. Here is a piranha.
When Charlotte started to talk, she said mama and dada.
Her third word: caribou.
By year three, the couple had grown so used to their digs that they often failed to warn first-time guests. One neighbor stepped inside the front door and screamed. She proceeded to walk around the living room muttering, “Oh, my gosh.”
Friends' reactions have ranged from “amazement all the way to disgust,” Brittany says.
Many friends are vegetarian or vegan. Parties often turn into debates about the ethical treatment of animals. The hosts mostly listen and point out that the lion near the love seat attacked a village, and that the rhino head is a replica.
It's mostly respectful disagreement. “Quite the conversation starter,” says Javid, who works as an inspector for an inventory finance company and sometimes drums for popular local band Icky Blossoms.
(I'm keeping the house's location general, and we're not running a photo, because the couple worry that not all disagreement will be respectful.)
What's interesting to both Javid and me is how time turns the unfamiliar — even the bizarre — into something else.
Eventually you greet the wind gusts and the gemsbok oryx like old friends. The sound of floor creaks and the toddler petting the porcupine and the intense pain you feel when you bang into a sheep's horn late at night — it becomes home. It becomes ours.
Javid and Brittany will move when they save enough money. They think Charlotte, 2, and younger brother Rhett will be shocked to learn that not every living room holds 37 animals.
“Maybe we'll get some taxidermy,” Javid says. He looks around. “Just not this much.”
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