I may as well admit it now and get it over with: I am not a pet person. Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that I don’t like pets. I like them fine—I even love some of them . . . just as long as they aren’t mine. You may interpret this as shirking my petric responsibilities, where for many, according to American ethical thinking, owning a domesticated animal is virtually a civic duty if you are to be regarded as a dependable human being. I mean, do you have any idea what it cost me to acquire a Visa card without a pooch or a kitty as reliable proof of creditworthiness? I thought not.
At first I thought that this might be a genetic thing . . . not having a pet. As I recollect, I never once saw a pet in my mother’s old family photos, not even a duck (ducks came later). As for my father’s side of the family, I can only remember one pet for which he expressed any special affection, a German Shepherd named Jerry Sweetlips.
He . . . my father, that is . . . was wont to recount that as a lad in his mid or late teens in Denver, Colorado, his family during the winter months would warm themselves using a coal-burning stove. This was sometime in the early 1920s. Once the coal was exhausted, it would be carted to the back yard and deposited in a large, shallow ash pit. One day, Jerry Sweetlips, evidently a frisky albeit careless dog in those days, leaped into the pit, not realizing that there were still hot embers buried in the ashes, and severely burned his front legs. My dad, much distraught, sought to cure his poor dog by applying a salve he’d found in the family medicine cabinet to the burnt legs which he thought would help, wrapping the legs afterwards in clean cloth rags. What he did not know, however, was that the liniment only exacerbated the dog’s wounds, increasing its agony. My dad sat with Jerry Sweetlips, commiserating over the animal’s misery, the two crying together all the night long. To both their relief, Jerry Sweetlips survived the cure, but because his right front leg had been burned more severely than the left, for several days afterward he limped about like a peg-legged pirate. Eventually, Jerry healed completely with no further complications. From time to time, however, my dad would would ask his dog, “So, Jerry, how’s your leg today?” And Jerry Sweetlips, ever seeking sympathy and a kind word, would gamely begin to limp again on that leg, while my dad would pat him and scratch him behind the ears and say, “Oh, you poor, poor dog.” Jerry really ate that stuff up. Over time, however, when my dad might ask, “Jerry, how’s that bum leg of yours doing?”, Jerry would often respond by limping on the left one, having long forgotten that it had been the right leg he’d limped on originally.
I don’t know if I should append this, seeing as how it reveals what some might regard as a marginally macabre side to our family, but my dad and his younger brother George — my uncle-to-be 20 or so years into the future — on occasion liked to tease this long-suffering dog in somewhat the following way: One brother would sit on the living room sofa, while the other in a chair opposite. The unwary dog might be minding his own business lying between them on the rug, ostensibly dreaming of cat stew.
“Jerry, you poor, decrepit, flea-bitten cuss,” would call out my uncle, his voice sweet as treacle. “Sidle on over here so’s I can commiserate with your canine woes properly and scratch yer itches.”
Jerry Sweetlips, evidently forgetting previous similar set-ups, would awaken, flap his Teutonic herding tail gamely on the living room rug, and mosey over, presumably to be pampered by this charitable young man with all the humanitarian visage of St. Francis of Assisi. But as soon as Jerry reached my uncle, things went contrary to the poor dog’s expectations.
“Why you miserable cur,” would snarl my uncle. “How dare you come near me, you low-down, measly, mangy, horse-faced mongrel! Why, if I hadn’t more important things to do today, I’d beat you with a broomstick. Get away from me!”
Poor Jerry would then back away, aghast and trembling from this terrifying outburst. At which time my father-to-be would then come to his rescue.
“What! How can you treat our faithful comrade this way? Brother, have you not an ounce of shame, a jot of pity? Here, Jerry, come on over to me, boon companion, and let us speak you and I together of old times chasing cats and pilfering picnic meals from the neighbors and sweets from the candy jar. That’s it, boy, come stretch out your tired bones here upon my lap where we can properly palaver.”
Jerry encouraged by such tender words of affection, would then head his way . . . only to suddenly receive the same opprobrium from my father that he’d received from my uncle. The two would hence go back and forth in like manner until Jerry Sweetlips finally wised to their nefarious shenanigans and refused to budge from his supine position on the living room rug. Unable to get further response from the dog beyond a whine or a warning growl, the two would then proceed to employ the same technique on their innocent four-year-old nephew Carl.
So you don’t think too ill of my ancestors who in later years turned out to be thoroughly genial people, albeit a tad weird, you must understand that back in the 1920s there were precious few entertainments and diversions for teenagers such as we have today to occupy our idle hours. Aside from listening to the radio at night or picking a fight with somebody after school, a boy had little else to do for fun other than tease the dog or a younger relative. As a matter of fact, my dad said with a certain amount of pride that as a kid some of his best brawls were after Sunday School. So, be a little empathetic.
As for pets that I was more directly affiliated with, years later after my dad married my mom and eventually produced three children, we had an Irish Terrier, three ducks, and a Manx cat.
My sister, at the age of five accidentally killed my brother’s and my ducks by asphyxiation, not yet aware that ducks do not fare well enclosed in an airtight box. My mother condoled our broken hearts and admonished our lust for revenge (i.e., the life of our sister in exchange, or at least her surviving duck), and said that she gave the two birds a proper Christian funeral, showing us their eternal resting place, two small mounds of earth in the back yard. We were still desolated, but there was nothing to be done. To assuage our grief, that evening and for the rest of the week, my mother served delicious roast chicken for dinner, something of a treat back then when mutton, rabbit, liver, and beets were our usual fare. Many years later I asked her about those alleged chickens, always a bit suspicious that she hadn’t been entirely on the up and up with us about them. Feeling that I, now well into adulthood, could bear the truth, she finally confessed that they were our ducks. I think it was the only time she had ever lied to us.
“We were poor back then,” she justified, “and I’ll be darned if I was going to waste two perfectly good birds by burying them.”
I nodded in agreement, but still felt a bit of a pang for her pragmatic deception.
Later on, when I was about 10 years old, our Irish Terrier died of accidental poisoning. She had eaten some castor bean that my folks had used as a fertilizer in the yard, not knowing then that it was a very deadly poison for both humans and animals. Hers was a horrible death, and I inconsolable, for she was a wonderful pet. I was so affected by this loss, and in such a terrible and dreadful manner for her to die, that I lost all desire to have another pet. It was too painful. When she was later replaced by George, our female Manx cat (named after . . . and by . . . the same uncle who taunted Jerry Sweetlips and nephew Carl), I broke out in hives. I discovered I was allergic to cats.
George—the cat, not my uncle—was a skittish beast, and probably as a result also her claim to fame. Being a Manx cat, George had no tail. Manx cats originated on the Isle of Man, which, according to Google Maps, ” . . . is a self-governing British Crown dependency in the Irish Sea between England and Ireland. It’s known for its rugged coastline, medieval castles and rural landscape, rising to a mountainous center. In the capital, Douglas, the Manx Museum traces the island’s Celtic and Viking heritage. The Isle of Man TT is a major annual cross-country motorcycle race around the island.” They make no mention of Manx cats, however. You have to go to Wikipedia for that information (at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Manx_cat ). There’s an accompanying photo of a Manx cat which is almost identical to that of George. The Wiki article mentions Manx cats’ elongated hind legs, which makes them extraordinary jumpers, and very adept at hunting rodents. George, being, as mentioned, a skittish cat, whenever startled would jump straight up at an enormous height. George, however, was dispossessed of the remarkable feline ability to right herself on four feet in a fall, and so while she could jump higher than I was at the time tall, she generally would land on anything but her four feet, more often than not on her head. She was also not in any way adept at hunting rodents, judging from the dearth of corpses.
Turning to South America a dozen years later, I married into a Bolivian family that owned an orange tom cat and a brown and black female dog which was a cross between a Beagle and a Dachshund and looked like a sawed-off Doberman. The cat, whose name was Otto, spent most of its nights prowling the neighborhood in search of a fight, and return home in the morning looking like it had gotten the very worst of the scrap. It never came into our house, and I suspected that it was more feral than domesticated. One day, Otto did not return home, and after two weeks we gave it up for lost or dead. But then he suddenly reappeared, only he looked like he had nearly drowned in somebody’s oil barrel. My wife and our maid, both wisely protected from cat claws and teeth by long rubber gloves that reached past their elbows, washed the poor animal the best they could, cleaning away as much of the gunk from its body as possible. But I think the indignity of being exposed to warm water, soap and a scrub brush was too mortifying for Otto to endure, for the very next day he disappeared, never to be seen again.
Our dog lasted for a number of years, and was really a lovely little animal. However, she yearned to live indoors, while I yearned for her to remain outdoors. My wife and stepchildren didn’t mind in the least for her to be inside the house, but I was of a different stripe. Every time I would send her packing outdoors, she would figure out a way to sneak back inside. It became a game between us that entertained my family enormously. She was a pretty smart dog, though, probably smarter than I, for she would wait until I left the house to go to work, and then cleverly with paw and snout open the screen door to our kitchen and spend the day inside. When she heard the squeaky gate in the patio open, she knew I was on my way home, and she would tear outside, the screen door slamming loudly. When I would round the corner of the house, there she would be, sitting sedately outside, a halo of angelic innocence floating above her floppy ears, though with a smug look on her face. When she finally passed on from an incurable liver disease to that Great Kennel in the Sky, it was right in front of me while I was tending the garden. And it gripped my heart like I least expected. A week or so later, I dreamt of her gazing upon me with her sad, sad eyes, and I woke up weeping, lamenting too late that I’d not allowed her to stay indoors with us.
To end this petulent story (forgive the pun), a word should also be said of Oqolón (sounds a bit like oh-go-lone), the progeny of our above-mentioned pooch of highborn Anglo-Teutonic pedigree. He was, on the other hand, the result of an ill-conceived (again, forgive the pun) whoop-de-doo with our next-door neighbor’s dog of baseborn mongrel lineage. While his mother was smart, Oqolón was hopelessly pea-brained. But that was not because we named him Oqolón. That was because of his appetite. Oqolón is a Quechua word meaning glutton, and this dog was capable of eating anything, and lots of it. With one peculiar reserve, however. He would flat out refuse to touch his meals unless and until one of us would go out in the back yard where his food dish was located and begin to water the garden in his presence. Yes, water the garden. Only then would Ogie eat [we called him Ogie for short]. Thus began a war of wills.
“Ogie, here’s your dinner,” we would announce as sweet as sunshine to an animal with the intelligence on par with a door knob.
Ogie would first give a startled jump like someone had just hurled a brickbat at him. This reaction would incense us, because no one had ever once raised a hand against the beast, much less a brickbat. He would eye his food plate warily as though it had been laced with strychnine, then cast a fishy glare at whoever had brought out the concoction. If said person retired to the house without further ado, Ogie would summarily spurn the meal and wander about the yard looking sulky and betrayed. The following morning when any of us checked outside, Ogie’s food remained untasted.
“Too bad, Ogie,” we’d admonish. “That’s all you’re getting until you clean your plate.”
In the afternoon, we’d find the dish still untouched, now drying out and attracting ants.
“It’s your call, you silly dog!” we’d insist.
Ogie’d favor us with a look somewhere between woebegone and wilful.
When evening came and the plate still sat as before, we were at once outraged and concerned that the damn dog continued to carry on its stubborn hunger strike. Dire threats, shaking fists, and frightful expletives invariably ensued, but without the least result. The dog would not budge. In the end, ignominiously routed, one of us would begrudgingly unwind the garden hose, continue muttering imprecations, turn on the water and begin sprinkling the lawn and flowers. And Ogie, thus inspired, would happily leap to his food and wolf it down without pause, no matter how old, base, insect-infested, and dried-out the meal.
It’s a terrible thing to be bested and shamed by a canine village idiot. This is why today I am not a pet person.