Posted: August 3, 2010 in animals
Tags: , , , , , , ,

MeganI was half asleep, napping on my day off after a challenging work week. The sleep research shows that we need to catch up on sleep, after putting out, by putting in 10 hours or so. I was catching up and so was Megan, nesting down at my feet.

Then I felt her weight on the covers, fur moving my way. It was a bit odd. Megan is afraid a lot, she is tactily defensive. It figures, with her past. My daughter Laurel, one day walking from jury duty to my office, found Megan on a block wall by a bank, eyes swollen shut –  a hungry, lost, crying kitten. Laurel called me; I came and got her and Megan in the car. We took her home with us.

Megan is now family; she lives within the walls, not on the wall, and she lives with all her needs met and more, yet she has never fully recovered from her time outside on the wall. She has her terrors, her abandonment issues, her eating disorder. She is now overweight. It’s interesting, the issues of our animals and our responses to them.

Megan is in therapy now; I’m her counselor. It’s working. That day on the bed, she crept up to my side, did that half turn that animals do before settling, and nested up against my side. I didn’t touch her; she would have retreated. We slept snuggled, her weight against my stomach, a familial closeness, hanging out together, both doing deep breathing. This is why we have pets; to have something to breathe in sync with that doesn’t make a fuss when we don’t do breathe right, or do anything small and insignificant right, the kind of ridiculous fuss our human companions tend to make over little things that don’t matter now and never will. Mark Twain quipped, “If man could be crossed with the cat, it would improve man but deteriorate the cat.”

I’ve always enjoyed animals, from the day I dragged the tom cat I named Red home and made him mine, to the time I crawled under the chapel to drag nineteen puppies out in a cardboard box, picking up each soft warm body, much to their mom’s dismay, and bringing them out into the light, into society, to the present as I live with two black cats who I generically refer to as “fur,” as in, “How was fur today?”

Something in us wants to find a creature, adopt it, and love it. It is the pleasure of domestication. My friend Tim has turtles, Vance and Adriana have birds, Natalie has a gecko.  Some like scales, feathers or a carapace,  but I prefer fur. My wife likes turtles and so we have several in our backyard. She and Tim talk turtles: worms, eggs, great escapes, stuff like that. I don’t really get it. What can you do with a turtle? They won’t fetch no matter how many times you throw a ball past them, and there is no snuggling; just gawking at the prehistoric, head-snapping  food lunge and a bit of hand washing if you pick them up — Salmonella.  From what I hear this rod-shaped, non-spore forming,  motile enterobacteria, isn’t that much fun either. It doesn’t make a good pet.

Tim is really into turtles. He has five of them, all of them  gifts from my wife. There was some hanky panky among the turtles in our backyard and we needed to off load the results. I saw some of the action; it looked like two Volkswagens had gotten into a wreck with each other. Tim adores his adoptees so much that he built a turtle habitat,  sparing no expense, making a kind of turtle condominium out of wood and screen. His turtles live in perfect conditions.  Dynamite, his favorite, is growing at an alarmingly rate, as if trying to live up to his name. To accelerate things, Tim sent off for worms and began farming them where he throws his garbage. I’ve seen this plot of ground; its terrifying. One shovel into the dirt will conjure up a massive, squirming ball of twisting turtle entrees. It takes a life, sometimes a lot of lives, to make a life. People with pets in need of particular foods end up trafficking in all kinds of less than appetizing carcasses — dead mice, live crickets and buzzing flies. I saw an ad recently on the internet for a reptile lunch box.

Early in Tim’s turtle adventure,  one of his cata roughed one of his shellish friends, who at that time was not much bigger than a quarter. The cat got the tiny carapace in its mouse and carried it  from the backyard and into the house where the tiny tortise was found on the floor looking a bit like a leaf dropped from a tree. Tim rushed home from work and off to the vet with his traumatized friend. The doctor examined it carefully with his stethoscope — respiratory concerns. When we heard about all this from Tim,  we hooted and hollered and made a lot of hilarious and derogatory remarks, but Tim took it all in with a knowing smile and lost nothing of his deep love and care for his terrapin friends. There is something in a modern man that wants a backyard farm, a suburban ranch and a creature or two to care for. There is something us all that values the things we raise. One of our neighbor’s dogs ate rocks, the rocks below the barbecue that the grease had dripped down on. The surgery bill? It was $900. They paid it —  true love.

One day when she was little, my daughter Laurel found a Gulf Fritillary, a Passion Butterfly who had just emerged from his chrysalis home with one of his wings badly wrinkled. The wing was deformed and so the butter couldn’t fly. She named him Jack. She told me she loved him. She held him on her finger; she prayed for him; we put him back on the passion vine from whence he came, but her passion was for him through that day and night.

That night as she went to bed, she worried over Jack. Jack was gone the next day, as butterflies tend to be. Recently, Laurel and I talked about Jack. Laurel is now 20. When we found Jack she was about eight or ten. The story is archetypal for us. We go back to it now and again, as if it were our Beowulf or our Iliad, the mythic past when Laurel loved Jack. There is a tenderness to the plot, a little girl, a disabled butterfly, a rescue and the poignant awareness that sometimes there is nothing that we can do. Such stories are social catalysts, linking family members together, amping the value of something important to them.  If only we were all loved like Laurel loved Jack.

But we aren’t, and we don’t. We discriminate, badly, against some of the creatures. I know that I do. I demolished a wood deck in my back yard recently. We think of a deck as a nice clean place to set up a table and chairs and eat a la fresco with pretty plates, lemonade and barbecue. That isn’t the whole of it. A deck is a habitat, and if you don’t know that, try looking underneath. The underworld of a wood deck houses biota — molds and mildews, wood rotting bacterium, various species of bulbous-bodied black and brown spiders, termites and the larger creatures of ill repute, mice, rats, opossums, and skunks. It’s a motley lot of undesirables. But they live close to us for several reasons, one of them being that they keep us honest. They save us from an overly romantic view of the creation. I love a house cat and a backyard dog. But there is another, darker side to me. I’m death to spiders. Opossums don’t move me. When I took out my deck; I decimated the spider population on my square of suburban wilderness. I found some opossum bones in the dirt, but I didn’t grieve. When I was a teenager I shot a ground hog. That I grieved. I did it to impress my friends. Impressing people is overrated. I wish I could take it back.

But even our scientists rank the species and in this way perhaps they devalue some of them. They measure encephalization quotients, EQ’s, and some fur friends don’t do so well —  opossums. EQ is a amount of brain tissue plotted against total animal  size. Humans weigh in at 7.6; opossums fall far down the list at 0.2. It’s difficult to find a opossum who has gotten past preschool; they aren’t the brightest crayons in the box. You can catch one in the same trap seven nights running. It’s hard to get worked up over them, although the prehensile tail is pretty cool. I saw an opossum walk across the top of my backyard fence the other night. It’s about three-quarters of an inch wide. That’s good balance. But I didn’t want to snuggle him. Many people think of the critter as a large rat, but it isn’t so; it’s a small kangaroo, well at least in the same family, a marsupial. It is the only marsupial native to  North America. So there.

To an opossum’s credit he can fake his own death. I wish I could fake mine sometimes. This could be a useful way to extract myself from difficult situations, chores, arguments, social engagements I don’t want to attend, things like that. The opossum does it by falling over on his side, opening his  mouth  in a death-like grin, and letting saliva run out of the corner. Cool!

But we don’t want a fake. We want the real thing, a honest to goodness pet. We want to win something’s trust, woo something, befriend something, love something. We call our cat, Shanaynay, “friend.”  We call her feline housemate Megan, “girlfriend.” Something in us loves a fur friend, their softness on our finger tips, their peacefulness on our laps, their lack of judgment, their cuteness when they chase a string or a ball, their happiness when we arrive back home after a time away. Last night we found the cat’s toy mouse by the door from the house to the garage when we came home. Megan was anticipating a playful reunion. If only our human friends had such hopeful thoughts of when they might see us again.

When we adopted our cat Shanaynay from the animal shelter, she rode on the broom when we swept the kitchen; she rode on the vacuum when we hit the rugs. No fear. She has never had fear. She is so unafraid of us we can’t keep her off the counters. She looks for her black fur with big yellow eyes that are never afraid of us.  It’s good, no fear; if only we could all be raised in such a loving way that we had no fear. I hate it when we are afraid of what shouldn’t ever hurt us.

Megan has fears, but she is gradually overcoming them. I carry her up to the shower when I bathe. Sometimes she realizes what is happening and lumbers up the stairs after me, making her own way into the bathroom. As we begin, I put her towel down beside the tub, and she comes and sits on it. When I get out of the shower, she is there, waiting, and I get her back and sides and head a little wet with my hand. Her black fur forms immediately into little bundles, into fur tufts and fur locks. She lets me make this change to her, but then she quickly gets a little nervous over her new state of being and moves out of reach again, as we all do from the kind of touches that both thrill us and disturb us at the same time, the touches that tap into the wildness left inside of our tamed borders, what in still in us not yet domesticated. Megan moves apart an arms length to lick herself consolingly and calm her ruffled psyche. I dry myself and dress and then it’s her turn.

It’s a pattern, a drill, and she has it down. I pick up her towel, sit down on the toilet seat, and call to her, making the soft feline, chuffing sounds she makes when she sees a bird outside. This sound is primal, and I speak it like one speaking a language that they don’t pronounce correctly or understand fully. She dissembles, dallies, and then when she can wait no more she comes to me. I throw the towel over her and begin with her head. She can hardly bear it. She falls on her right side, always her right side, and she clenches the mat that surrounds the base of the toilet with her claws. Kneading the now bunched up stringy mat passionately, as if it were her lost mother found again, she begins to articulate the experience, to narrate the process. I go against her grain, pulling her damp fur back from how it naturally lies downs. This works, her fur begins to separate again. She wheezes. It feels the opposite of what she felt when she was lost on the wall. She begins to believe again, for a moment. She is so happy, that is until we are out the door of her safe place and off to the day again. Then some of her anxiety falls on her slowly drying fur again, and she runs from me and goes under the bed. Weird little beast.

But if she is weird, she is weird in the way that all of us creatures are weird. She is weirdly wired to need a social network. If she could, she would be on Facebook, Twitter and Flikr. And she would do this because it is safer than physical contact., but sometimes it is and sometimes it isn’t.

Actually the animals, of course, aren’t all safe. I knew a girl who told me one time that her worst fear was being eaten alive by a large animal. I had never thought of that before; it is frightening. She had some really good curves and should, as things turned out, have been more afraid of herself and her own kind.

I have run from animals, dogs, snakes, goats. We had a billy goat when I was growing up. He had a mean streak in him. The word on the street was that he had been abused or teased. It was my job to feed him. While doing my duty, I kept myself at the edge of the length of the chain that tethered him. I’d set his pail just within his reach, then scram. One day he came to the end of his chain and kept coming. Not sure how that happened, but I didn’t stick around to find out. I’d said some fairly mean things about his mother, and he hadn’t forgotten.

At the place of safety, where he usually had his neck jerked, where he was usually reminded quite nicely of his rank, he experienced the joy of Montresor in Poe’s story “The Cask of Amontillado,” a savored revenge realized. And yet before he reached me, I wasn’t there and the chase was on. He asked me as we went along what I had said about his mother, but I couldn’t remember in that moment when I was trying to think of something to compliment him on. The brain is like that; our judgments and our mercies are compartmentalized, and when we are harsh we are harsh and  our compassions can’t seem to lay a gentle hand upon the raised arm and calm it down again.

I headed for the cabin where my dad was meeting with some other men. The thing was that when I arrived at the front door, Billy was drooling on my back, so I took an alternate route around the building, yelling as I went past the windows. The second time around, I think, my dad came out and the course of the war changed directions again. Billy was had, by the horns, which made perfect handles, and the mood between us changed again. It came to me, what I had said about his mother, and so I answered his question.

“Your mother smells like a goat,” I replied late.

The fun with pets lies in part in the surprises, with those unexpected moments when a kind of crazy happens. Once when we were little, one of the family’s Boston Terriers ran into the room startling the cat who proceeded to launch straight into the air while the dog ran right under it, the dog running under the cat in the air, the cat coming down on the other side of the dog. We hooted, hollered, yelled, “Did you see that,” and didn’t forget it.

One Christmas we bought two angels for the front yard, about three feet high, covered with lights. At the heart of each angel was an electric motor that slowly flapped their wings. It rained; I brought the angels in, plugged them in and enjoyed the show. So did the cat, and on one particular series of wing flaps, she attacked.The angel went dark, the cat lit up, and with tail smoking she exited the room, fast. Every Christmas when I take the angel from its box, I note the orange wire nut and remember the fun and tell the story when I get the chance.

Perhaps, however, the essence of a particular pet lies not so much in the events of their lives, but in their personalities. We  have had our share of weird cats. Ruby was peevish, bit people, walked sideways into the furniture, saw things that weren’t there, and we gave her back to her foster mom. Indiana Jones was a black and white fluffy ball of madness, white whiskers exploding from above his wild eyes — Dean in On The Road — launching off the couch and into thin air with no apparent destination in mind, a beat zaniac, crazy for the night, a gone little guy. We locked him in the garage one evening to protect our sleep, and he broke out and we never saw him again. I thought of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s, “Live fast, die young and leave a beautiful corpse.” Indiana did, although the corpse was probably not that beautiful once it finally rested in peace in the coyote or fox that ate him.

And Shanaynay, what a personality she has. I have never lived with a cat as social, as tactile, as friendly as  her. When I go up to wake up my daughter Rosalind in the morning, Shanay is sleeping under her arm. When I go back down to work on my laptop, Shanay comes down to find a place on my lap. If I won’t let her, she sleeps on my lower legs. When we lay on the couch in the evenings and watch TV, she comes to lay on someone chest. When we leave the house, she weeps. When we come home she is at the backdoor to greet us.

When my wife goes to bed, Shanay likes to sleep by her head, put her front feet on her neck and knead. When we drag a string on the end of a pole, she tears after it; when it goes airborne, she does too. When we drop it, she picks up the string in her teeth and drags it to our feet for more. When I run after her, she runs from me, her tail up, crazy with the chase. She runs to her scratching pole and rips it up, then takes off behind the couch with a wild look in her eyes.

With her expanding repertoire of fun behaviors, our names for her have also expanded. Sometimes I call her dogs because she acts like a dog, and sometimes I call her Shindog Millionaire,which is a variation of dogs that came to me after I saw the movie Slumdog Millioinaire. Sometimes we call her Lafonda from Napoleon Dynamite. Sometimes Roz calls her Shanaynay, Lafonda, babies, cresent roll Hasper. We can tell what we value by the number of names we have for it.

When I come home at night I am genuinely glad to see her. She is my domestic livestock, my black leopard, my little bit of jungle, my friend. Something in me wants the warmth, the fun, the companionship, the touch. It is back to touch. My cats are soft. That pretty much gets it for me. And when they don’t sit on me, they sit by me, lying on the floor below my soft chair, always facing toward me, giving the catish slow blink, being there, with me. That counts.

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