The Call of the Domestic

Remember the Looney Tune in which Bugs first accidentally met the Tasmanian Devil, and went to research his dietary habits, and the lengthy encyclopedia list went something like “eats alligators, aardvarks, cats, bats, rats, stoats, goats … and especially rabbits”? That litany is about what my mom sounds like when she gets on the subject of childhood pets. She grew up in a tiny town in SE Oklahoma, her dad raised and sold horses, she and my uncles were all nature lovers of some description and the upshot is they always seemed to be running some kind of poorly advertised nonprofit zoolet, an ad hoc menagerie of dogs and cats and turtles and snakes and at least one skunk and one raccoon that I know of.

[Sidebar: She’s also the woman who once tried to convince my sister and I to while away a summer afternoon the way they used to in the good old days: by catching a Junebug (with your hands!), tying a string around one of its legs and then letting it fly around while you held the other end of the string. I had a couple of philosophical objections to this plan, namely (b) that’s not remotely entertaining, (c) we as humanity have actually invented other pastimes that are entertaining, and most importantly (a) the most fundamental rule about insects is that they never touch your skin. Not ever. God. Anything at all with more than four legs does not belong in tangible proximity unless you’re in the act of swatting a mosquito, and yes, that includes butterflies. It’s all fun and games until they crawl under your skin and lay eggs. Yes, I’ve seen the X-Files episode “War of the Coprophages” – it took me about three days to climb down off the metaphorical ceiling. Why do you ask?]

But apparently the Noah tendency is either a product of environment or skips a generation – while the aforementioned sister kept the occasional turtle in a cardboard box (turtles smell, by the way) and spent one summer raising a trio of guineas (guineas smell, by the way) in the backyard, that was about it for the exotic pets among we three siblings. (Sisters smell, by the way.) We did stay pretty well supplied in more traditional pets, though …

FISH

Only briefly. One Sunday somebody at church hit on the brilliant idea of giving away goldfish as prizes in Sunday School, and it was on like the Falun Gong; try to imagine my mom’s face when we came pelting out to the car clutching a dozen Ziploc bags and screaming “Mommy, Mommy, look what we got!” That’s right, 12 Ziploc bags containing goldfish, zero aquaria. So we stopped at Wal-Mart on the way home, and we kids were goldfish owners for the next few weeks until all but two of the fish had successively leapt out of the tank to their deaths on the carpet-y depths below, at which point my dad drove us out to Cedar Lake and we released the survivors. Where, presumably, they promptly got eaten by hawks or died of nature shock.

BIRDS

Two, also briefly. For a couple of years, one of those uncles I mentioned earlier bred parakeets for a living, so both I and my elder brother got one as gifts. His lived until Christmas, when it was hopping about the house and choked to death on a dropped M&M; mine (poor little guy) had a pretty good run until the day I let him out of his cage and he flew straight into the ceiling fan.

DOGS

Several, with great affection and enthusiasm.

* Mister was a pit bull, thoroughly devoted to my preadolescent brother and (unfortunately) to chasing cars. I barely remember him; he got hit by a pickup when I was about 4 or 5. After that, we were all about Dalmatians –

* Dexter was a quiet, friendly but undemonstrative dog who seemed reasonably content for years until he ran away to cherchez une femme: a stray Chow lured him off into the wilderness and he just stayed gone. He eventually showed back up almost a year later, half-starved and riddled with parasites; he only lived a couple of months afterward, but we were grateful for the closure. That was actually his second dalliance with the breed; our next-door neighbors had a female Chow and an insufficiently impermeable fence, and though they were pretty upset you cannot imagine how adorable Chowmatian puppies are.

* Victor was a huge, lean, long-limbed beast who was filled with enthusiasm for almost everything (except baths) – he loved racing into the pasture behind our house to frolic with calves; he loved chasing rabbits (although after he caught one, ate it and promptly threw it back up, he always gave them a head start); he loved running around for its own sake. (It’s a good thing we had so much countryside around us.) While my mom was cooking, he would stand on the air conditioner, walk his forepaws up the side of the house until they rested on the kitchen windowsill and whine until she came over to talk to him. He loved riding in cars, and considered it a personal mission to heave the highest possible percentage of his enormous frame out through the window, even after falling out once. He loved rawhide bones, but only if you held one end and let him drape himself over your lap while he chawed away at it – if you let go, he’d let it drop to the ground and stare reproachfully at you until you picked it back up. He died of old age when I was in college; I’m not sure I’m entirely over it yet. He was a wonderful pup.

* Daisy (we didn’t name her) we acquired from a lady who had bought a dog for her apartment and only later learned with surprise how big Dalmatians could get and how much space they craved. She was a chunky, waddle-gaited little fireplug, perpetually nervous of the unexpected and very much a homebody; she survived Victor by a few years but never got over losing him either.

* The litter of 8 puppies produced by Victor and Daisy, who collectively made for an extremely busy and surprisingly tick-filled summer. (Seriously, I still don’t know where all those ticks kept coming from.) We gave them all away except for the tiny, underdeveloped runt, but she didn’t make it. This was several years ago, but I do occasionally wonder where Princess (my favorite of the pups) is now and whose chest she’s napping on.

CATS

There were one or two neighborhood cats over the years who developed the habit of drifting over to our porch because they got fed better Chez Gill. My dad, it turns out, is the sort of person who staunchly insists that he doesn’t have a cat and doesn’t want a cat … while regularly and conscientiously putting out scraps and a water dish and in cold weather a blanket-lined box for any cats who happened to stop by, you know, whatever.

So I thought of myself as a dog person until a couple of years ago, when my wife and I decided that since we weren’t home enough to get a puppy we should go to the Humane Society (that is, in fact, a plug: you should totally adopt a pet from a shelter) and get a kitten instead. And if you think I started this whole post in order to fold my arms and proclaim that Ace the Cat-Hound is the best cat of all the cats, you’re wrong.

I started it to say that Victor was a great dog. And Ace the Cat-Hound is the best cat of all the cats. Snap.

STEVE GILL is unusually tall, has a B.A. in Letters and a minor in Classics from OU, drinks a great deal of coffee and openly delights in writing, editing and catching the occasional typo for Slice – especially since his dream career (millionaire layabout in a P.G. Wodehouse novel) is notoriously difficult to break into. He's probably trying to think of a joke about pirates right now.

Categories: Bits and Pieces, Steve Gill