A collection of essays, outdoor adventure stories, ruminations, wordplay, parental angst, and blatant omphaloskepsis, generated in all seasons and for many reasons at 64.8 degrees north latitude

Monday, August 22, 2011

Meow. Woof.


“Don’t let her in,” I warn.
            “Why not, Mommy?”
            “Because five minutes ago she was chewing the head off a squirrel.”
            The kid looks at the cat.  The cat, all innocence and shedding fur, looks at me.  If she is about to puke rodent brains onto the rug, she shows no sign of it.
            “Well,” says the kid philosophically, “Sometimes the dogs eat poop.”
Oddly enough, I do not find this to be a convincing argument.  The cat stays out.
I am frequently mistaken for a Pet Person.  This is perhaps a not unreasonable misconception, given that I have three canines and 1.3 felines (the fractional cat is seasonal, not dismembered).  I enjoy the company of all of them, although not necessarily all at once.  I appreciate Remus’s slobbery, high-impact, 60-pound-projectile style of affection just as much as Pippin’s snuggle-up-to-the-warm-laptop purring. I converse with all five animals, regardless of species and poor comprehension skills.  I do have pets, and I do love them.  Doesn’t that make me, you know, an animal-lover?  Why do I fight the label?
Maybe it’s just that I wasn’t raised to think of pets as integral members of the American family.  I can remember when I was first learning to read, I marched up to my mother with one of my favorite picture books, A Hole is to Dig. “You’ve been reading this wrong,” I accused, pointing to the offending page.  I’d been erroneously led to believe the words said ‘A dog is to play with’.  My mother did not apologize for her blatant falsification.  “Well, ‘A dog is to kiss’ is disgusting,” she told me.  I nodded.  She was right.  What the heck was this book talking about, anyhow?
Neither of my parents likes dogs much, and as a small child I was petrified of all dogs, large and small.  In part, I was channeling my parents’ feelings, but I also didn’t know any nice canines.  There was a particularly vicious little creature that we had to walk past to get to Main Street; one day it took a bite out of Mom’s leg.  The kids up the street had two dogs, but both seemed to be brain-damaged.  The small one skittered around spasmodically on the linoleum, and the big one barked and growled on a heavy chain, as if it might eat any child who strayed too close.  There were also some large, menacing strays that skulked around the colonial-era cemetery up the street.
However, the two retired ladies next door had a collection of cats, a few of which were neither neurotic nor megalomaniac. My sister and I begged and begged for a cat.  My mother told us our house was too small.  We moved to a new house when I was nine, and soon afterward, my dad took us to the animal shelter and let us pick out a kitten.  In retrospect, this was a pretty sneaky move, because in fact my mother’s primary concern had never really been the size of the house.  She just didn’t want a pet.  In her view, cats were unsanitary creatures that walked with litterbox-sullied paws on counters and tables, and added chores and complications to already busy lives.  She was, of course, perfectly correct.
Our cat was a gray shorthair named Smudge, with a squat physique and a permanently broken tail.  I loved her with unconditional dedication, and she rewarded me by obsessively chewing and kneading all my bathrobes.  I accepted as a given that she would never eat fancy food from a can, reign over us from an elaborate carpet-covered “cat tree,” or drink from a monogrammed bowl.  We trained her (using the shouting and throwing method) to stay off the tables and counters, disproving the notion that cats are untrainable.  Smudge used the great outdoors as her litterbox, and stayed outside or in the cellar at night, except – very occasionally – on nights when I was feeling miserable, vulnerable, or tragic, as only pubescent people can feel tragic.  Then, under cover of darkness and parental snoring, she was smuggled into my bed.  Smudge thrived on cheap Cat Chow, and survived long after I left home, went to college for four years, and joined the Peace Corps.  Although Mom may deny it, I caught her talking to the cat on multiple occasions.  Even in my absence, Smudge was loved – but she was never the cat of a Pet Person.
I warmed toward dogs because the new house that won us Smudge also yielded a neighborhood patrolled by the doggy version of the Welcome Wagon.  Misty and Deacon, both golden retrievers, loved kids.  They loved all kids, including the kids who chased them or pulled their tails.  They even loved pathetic fourth-graders who were, initially, morbidly afraid of them.  Misty and Deacon had a buddy, Bacchus, so named because he’d been found abandoned in a bar.  Bacchus was an elderly three-legged mangy-looking little white dog of indeterminate breed but enormous good will.  He had more self-respect and intelligence than the goldens, but he nonetheless felt it was part of his job description to wait with them at the school bus stop in the morning for the elementary, junior high, and high school buses, and to meet each of these on their return in the afternoon. 
“Now can I let Pippin in?  She really wants to come inside.”  My daughter is still pleading the case of the squirrel-slayer. 
“Um, in a few minutes,” I temporize. Mentally, I add guilt to the list of reasons for my pet-ambivalence.  That squirrel is my fault.  I know cats and dogs are not part of the natural ecosystem in which we live – or any natural ecosystem, given how they’ve been altered by domestication.  Cats kill songbirds.  I know, I know.  Since I could no more keep an indoor cat than I could keep an indoor husband, I know I shouldn’t have a cat at all.  But in my own defense, we didn’t really get a cat on purpose.
The kids love the story of how we got Pippin.  Whenever they ask, I feel like the traditional keeper of an important piece of oral history.  I try to add different details each time I tell it.  “I wheeled my bike into the garage at work, just like I did every day… but on this day, I heard a little noise… a mewing noise…” I tell them how we put up signs, how we asked at the nearby vets’ offices, how we used the chip implanted in Pippin to trace her to a shelter in Anchorage and a former owner in Tok who left no forwarding address and no clues except for third-hand rumors of an allergic boyfriend.
If you are a hungry stray cat, an environmental non-profit is not a bad place to show up when the halcyon days of summer wane and the prospect of a Fairbanks winter chills your whiskers. 
“So you brought her home and adopted her!”  I am always beaten to the punch line. 
“Well, yeah.”  I might as well have “SUCKER” in Sharpie on my forehead.
Our other pets have similarly unpromising histories.  Togiak was an accident puppy in a mushing yard.  She was passed on to a teenage musher, a friend of Jay’s sister, but flunked out even there as a weakling.  Jay adopted her in 1999, when she was a submissive, shoe-chewing two-year-old – or was she three?  We’re not sure, and it’s not as if any of our animals have anything as lofty as licenses, breeding histories, or papers.  It turns out Togiak wasn’t really a wimp.  She just had a bit of a thyroid problem.  Twelve years and approximately 4,000 Soloxine tablets later, she’s pretty chipper for a crone in her dotage.
Polar was also born to mush.  There was never anything wrong with him physically.  He’s a lean, leggy athlete, and he can pull a sled like nobody’s business.  However, to the dismay of his original owners, he would much rather chase a tennis ball than win a race.  The entire concept of competition is lost on him.  But at thirteen, he’s still pathetically eager to please, and happy to help haul the kids’ miniature mushing sled.
Then there’s Remus, our pound dog.  We got him because we needed a little extra pulling power.  Remus is eight now but thinks he’s eight months.  He’s got a nice thick coat that gets him through Fairbanks winters with ease, and he’s tough as they come and oh-so-enthusiastic, but he’s built like a wombat.  His short legs churn through the snow and his tongue hangs several miles out of his mouth as he chases after Jay on snow bike adventures.  A forty-mile day is nothing to this guy, but you have to wait for him on the downhills.
And that brings us to Wingnut, who isn’t even ours, but who is so remarkably tolerant, by feline standards, that she doesn’t mind being shuffled from one house to another twice annually, and actually seems to enjoy being adored as only two five-year-olds can adore a cat.  This involves a lot of cat treats, but also a large amount of awkward lugging and some odd situations. 
“Maaa-maaaa!”  It was three o’clock in the morning.  My eyelids weighed fifteen pounds each.  I staggered into the twins’ room.  “Whuh?” I said, in the most comforting mumble I could muster.
“Mama, Wingnut is being too loud.”
“Too loud?”  If I haven’t already mentioned it, I was not at my sharpest.
“She’s purring too loud!”
I’m not sure how a child who can sleep through thunderstorms and coffee grinders could be woken by purring.  The cat was looking particularly adorable, hogging the Thomas the Tank Engine blanket in the toddler-sized bunkbed.  However, in this court of law, I was prosecutor, judge, and jury.  Out Wingnut went, because Mommy Wanted Sleep. 
Sleep trumps cuteness any day, in my book – and this may be another good argument as to why I am not a Pet Person.  I have an unreasonable knee-jerk reaction against over-romanticizing.  When I say that, I mean in myself.  Sentimentality seems like a perfectly understandable trait in other people, at least in moderation (I draw the line at non-ironic velvet Elvises and Hummel figurines).  If Facebook is anything to judge by, I have a fair number of sentimental feline and canine aficionados among my friends.  I appreciate this – and in the case of Matt, who raises guide puppies for the blind, I humbly kowtow.  My friends’ dogs do genuinely cute stuff.  Their cats do genuinely cute stuff.  Their YouTube video-link-animals do cute stuff, which in moments of extreme procrastination I have been known to actually watch.  I’ll admit, my pets do cute stuff too -- usually right before they vomit squirrel parts.
Giving up on the idea that I will relent and let in the Pippin, the kids are attempting to shower affection on Wingnut.  Unfortunately, Wingnut is feeling about as playful as I would if roused at 3 a.m.
“The cat doesn’t want love right now,” I tell the girls.  “See, her eyes are closed.  She wants to nap.”
“How come cats take so many naps?”
“Because they’re different from people.”  I remind them of the vast and fascinating array of behaviors in the animal kingdom. Some animals hibernate.  Some live in packs.  Some have dozens of babies at a time, and don’t bother to take care of any of them.  Some eat nectar. Some eat road kill.  “Remember all the true books about animals we’ve read?”  Such books triggered our first forays into the nonfiction section of the library.  The twins wanted to know what real animals did – how they lived, what they ate, and what their poop looked like.
 “Yeah.”  The kids are thrilled to know that every species, including our own, is gloriously unique. “But…” they return to an old complaint, “how come there are so many kids’ books with animals that aren’t real -- only amfomorphic?”  I teach them words like “anthropomorphic” so that they will be branded as hopeless geeks in kindergarten, and will have no hope of ever achieving a normal social life.
“I don’t know,” I say.  To me, it seems boring and pointless to write a story with bears or rabbits as protagonists if they talk, wear clothes, and do nothing that is even remotely bearish or rabbit-like.  If the story is about kids playing at the beach, why can’t the kids be kids, rather than badly drawn aardvarks?  I’ve always preferred stories like Watership Down, which attempt the much more interesting and challenging task of writing about animals from a perspective that is distinctly non-human and includes details such as eating their own droppings.
And there, finally, I get to the crux of the issue.  In my mind, stereotypical Pet People are those who have forgotten that part of the joy of relating to animals is embracing their other-ness.  I don’t want my pets to be human.  I don’t want to cook meals for them, dress them in coordinated outfits, give them haircuts, or take them to psychotherapists.  I also do not want to argue about whether dogs are smarter or cats are smarter.  For one thing, this question is akin to asking whether one prefers Team A or Team B (comprised of very rich athletes none of whom are actually from City A or City B).  In both cases, the wrong response will get you in trouble, and a flippant comeback will offend those who feel Very Strongly about the issue.  But even more importantly, I think the question is utterly irrelevant, because “smart” always seems to be defined in human terms. 
I can’t locate half a cookie in a pile of rotting leaves by smell alone.  I can’t catch shrews with my bare hands, sleep naked in a pile of straw at forty below, leap onto shelves at three times head-height, run sixty miles in a day, or find my way home through the forest on a moonless January night.  I also have trouble providing companionship, comfort, and hours-long hugs to those I love without excessive analysis, judgment, conversation, and expectations.  Cats are good at being cats. Dogs are good at being dogs.  I, on a good day, am semi-adequate at being a human.
Of course, there is a price that comes with that other-ness.
“Mommy?  Can we let Pippin in now?”
She is a cat.  She chews on squirrels.  Sometimes, the dogs eat poop.
Mentally, I relax my woefully narrow definitions.  I understand the value of this furry little carnivore in my own life and the lives of my family, so I guess that on my own terms, I am a Cat Person.  And ok, fine, I’m a Dog Person, too -- even if “a dog is to kiss” still doesn’t quite float my boat.
“Go ahead,” I say.  “Let her in.”


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