Pets can be such a meaningful and fun part of our lives! Oscar joined me a few days ago and has been such a joy. He’s a sweet black and tan Cavalier King Charles Spaniel. Many people love telling their favorite pet stories in their memoirs, or even want a small book produced as a tribute to a beloved pet after the pet passes on. I planned for Oscar and researched breeders and drove a few hours with a friend to pick him up. But the pets of my childhood were often acquired in a more haphazard way. Are your pets by design or by default?
Pets by Default
Shakespeare was a black blur thrown furiously across the front yard almost into the street. Actually the black cat hadn’t been named Shakespeare yet, she was just a stray my brother Larry had picked up at a picnic and smuggled home. Have you ever heard a mad mom shriek? My mom was shocked to find a cat in my brother’s bedroom. The cat was no match for mom and was trucked down the stairs and hurled across our yard in record time. The cat ran into the bushes and was retrieved by Larry who quietly snuck her back up to his room.
The next day my brother was ordered to take that cat and get in the family car. Sisters Laura, Leslie and I loved drama so went along for the ride. We were headed to the pound, in mom’s mind the logical place for strange unwanted animals found in her house. As our car turned into the parking lot, the sound of gravel scrunching under the tires added to the cacophony of dogs barking. There were no other cars. Great timing for the cat, the pound was closed! But mom was determined, grabbed the cat and started walking up and down the chain link fence, I guess looking for the cat section. She called out, but no one appeared. She actually tried to throw the poor thing over the fence; I can still see that black furry body flying through the air once again. But the cat landed lithely on all fours and ran back to Larry who gathered her up and nestled her under his jacket, rescued again. Mom knew when she was beaten. It was a quiet trip back home except for the rumbling purr in the backseat. That cat was very elegant, all shiny black with bright gold eyes, a white star emblazoned on her chest. She staked out our yard and was good at keeping stray dogs at bay so she stayed… by default… and was formally named Shakespeare.
We got pets by default, or maybe our family had trouble with commitment. Our first pet was a beagle named Andy and we ended up trading him in for my baby sister Leslie. Andy used to drag mom around by a leash, never was quite sure who was walking who. My brother Larry was 8, no match for Andy when he tried to walk the dog. What good is a dog that no one can take for a walk? The leash stretched taut as Larry thudded to the sidewalk, arm outstretched by the sheer force of the scent crazed beagle in olfactory heaven chasing a teaser rabbit. Actually we had Andy and Leslie both for awhile but Andy couldn’t stand her crying and asked to move to a farm. Or was it Leslie who did not like his howling to the moon at night? However the story went, Andy was history.
Do rodents count? We were more committed to our wee pets, perhaps because they didn’t live as long and didn’t require a lot of commitment. Larry had a gerbil named Pythagoras who had a love/hate relationship with Shakespeare. I had a mouse named Algernon who was debilitated by a science fair experiment and was finally humanely euthanized by my granddad who clobbered it with a shovel in our backyard. Algernon was followed by a gerbil named Hippocrates. Shakespeare found this influx of prey intriguing so Pythagoras lived lofted in his cage dangling by wires from the rafters in the basement. Not sure how Hippocrates survived in his cage in my bedroom but I was saddened when his brown tail fell off. Perhaps he was stressed by the gold cat eyes peering in? Hippocrates ran like the wind on his treadmill but those gold eyes never receded safely to the distance. Yeah, that could be unnerving enough cause for his tail to fall off.
Then there was Elephant, another small creature requiring little forethought or commitment. I was lucky to be a kid back when it was still legal to get a baby chick for Easter. She was a cute, yellow handful of fluff and I called her Elephant, Ellie for short. But I was amazed by how fast that chick grew and rather perturbed when she morphed into a gangly chicken with long white feathers. The cuddle factor and most of the cute factor was gone, much like a toddler growing into a preteen. I kept Elephant in a cage rigged from plywood and chicken wire in the backyard and was at a loss to know what to do with her. She just hung out pecking disgusting stuff out of the grass and was no longer a nice little handful of fluff. Ever try to pet a chicken? Not very satisfying; the peck factor was a big turn off. The sweet peeps became clucks, a sound highly overrated. Elephant ended up having a guttural cackle like the witch in Hansel & Gretel. But Leslie would actually chase Elephant around the yard and solved my indifference by forgetting to close the lid on the cage. From inside the house I heard growling and hysterical clucks and screams. I ran out, but was too late to save Elephant. Our dog ate her, smugly licking his chops after a nice chicken dinner, white feathers wafting in the breeze. Leslie was screaming in the background, she said later it was more out of fear of what I would do to her than witnessing the violent death of Elephant. Sister Laura was screaming just to be part of the scene; her quiet nature was often upstaged by drama queen Leslie. Laura’s scream did play well that day.
Yes, it was our dog that ate Elephant. Our neighbors across the street had a beautiful gray spotted German pointer named Smoky. We weren’t sure who the dad dog was, but Smoky had a litter of adorable black and brown puppies. My brother and sisters and I were allowed to carry them around and agreed on a favorite pup and named him Barney. Laura was particularly smitten. Soon Barney was at our house more than the neighbor’s and Shakespeare seemed to like him, so he just stayed. By default. By then I was old enough to have a boyfriend named Andy. I never liked Barney as much when instead of greeting Andy politely by offering him his paw; he embarrassed me by trying to mount Andy’s leg. I blushed. Andy shoved Barney away and stammered. What do you say after that at the tender young age of 16?
They arrived by accident, hung from the ceiling, had their tails drop off, were replaced by the latest baby, devoured by the pet next up in the food chain, clobbered by granddad, and vented sexual energy in embarrassing ways. Andy (the dog, not the boyfriend), Shakespeare, Pythagoras, Algernon, Hippocrates, Elephant and Barney were part of our family, loved, or not so much, for better or worse.