"Outside of a dog, a book is man's best friend. Inside of a dog, it's
too dark to read."
-- Groucho Marx
Pets are amazing things. I have three, myself -- two adopted, one that has
been with me since he was six weeks old and weaned. The two that are adopted,
of course, catch most of the grief. This is a pretty good sign that I would
have been a bad stepfather; the cats don't understand the names I call them
when their mother isn't around (and sometimes when she is); given that they
have claws, teeth, and active urinary tracts, that's probably a good thing.
The attraction to domesticated animals is a mystery to me, to this day. I love
my cat; I would be torn up if something happened to him. But I don't get it.
It's one thing to feel that way about my wife; we have conversations, we share
laughter and tears, we have belching contests. Well, I have belching
contests; I win by default. But Cassidy is not a talkative cat, and he and I
don't have a similar sense of humor. He doesn't read, and he has yet to express
any interest in learning a musical instrument. At the end of the day, I'm lucky
if I've gotten a headbutt from him, and that's if his food bowl is running low.
But none of that changes the way I feel; if he died tomorrow, I couldn't just
go to the Humane Society and pick up a replacement cat. It just wouldn't be
I haven't always been this way. I used to hate pets, the same way I'm not too
fond of 5 year old kids: sure, there are moments of cuteness, but that's only
because they belong to someone else. Cats did nothing for me; hamsters and rats
were fun for a few minutes, but ultimately one-trick ponies (so to speak); goldfish
are boring, ferrets stink, and lizards are too high-maintenance. And dogs --
that one goes back to my childhood. My kid sister and I were out with my mother
for a walk around the neighborhood with our next-door neighbor's collie, and
we were attacked by a pack of wild dogs. Threatened might be a better word;
there was no physical contact between the dogs and my sister or myself (though
the collie did scrap a little, if memory serves). But half a block seems like
forever to a little kid, and it's even worse when you have your kid sister and
are told not to run, no matter how scared you are.
Now it's 25 or so years later, and dogs are okay with me. My mother has a dog
now, and as much as it growls at me, I know that's a defense mechanism (she
was apparently mistreated as a puppy). My in-laws are dog people -- all kinds,
in fact, from a little wiener dogs to hunting dogs. I'm to the point where I
wouldn't mind having a dog myself -- nothing big, a Scotty, maybe, or a Beagle.
There's something ridiculously cute about seeing a dog sleeping with it's head
on the cat, or watching the cat lick the dog clean.
Did I say cute? I meant -- er... oh, hell, I meant cute. Like you don't think
the same thing...
People seem to have a lead over pets by a hair. I've known friends to skip
meals to feed their pets; there are a lot of people that I know that have cut
vacations short so they could get home to their animals. I won't even start
on the people who enter their pets in shows, or who treat them like they are
human. Well, okay -- I will. How many of you really think that your dog cares
how his hair looks that day? Do you really think that the designer sweater is
going to make them the talk of the town? And for you first time pet keepers
out there, the cats are going to choose the couch over the forty dollar scratching
post everyday of the week. Might as well get used to it.
The attachment is strong. It may be superstitious, like the royalty in ancient
Siam keeping cats as pets -- and guardians. It may be based on an inability
to relate to other people, or a slight touch of insanity (every one knows the
crazy lady with nothing in her house but an armchair, a TV set, and eighty cats,
right?). Hell, even Superman has Krypto, the Supercanine, to help him fight
Lex Luthor and fetch his slippers at night. Everyone loves funny animals --
nothing else explains the moderate success of the trainwreck that was
Cats and Dogs.
On the flip side are the animal haters. I'm not talking about the people who
put their dogs into pits to fight for money, or the ones who kick cats, though
they're out there, and deserve to have hideous things done to them. Let's see
how they react when you put a cherry bomb up their butts... No, I'm talking
about the people that are like I used to be: afraid of dogs, allergic to cats,
rabidly uncomfortable around housemates of the non-human variety. These, of
course, are the people that pets like the most, the ones that the cats will
rub mercilessly against and that dogs will lick until restrained. It's a law
of nature, like cigarette smoke inevitably drifting towards nonsmokers. These
are also the people who look at you like you've lost your mind when you bring
home a Saint Bernard, because, after all, Cujo was cute and friendly at the
beginning of the movie.
My wife has lost two pets in the past month. Both belonged to her parents,
though they had been around for a while, and she was close to them both. The
cat, Nilla, lived out a good life; she died of a tumor, but it was nearing her
time anyway. Hoss, on the other hand, was hit by a car this week. Nilla was
a little mean-spirited (if she had been a person, she would have been the crotchety
old grandparent that just wants to be left alone), but she and I bonded quick
(apparently, she wasn't really fond of males, according to my wife, so this
was a little odd, but cool). Hoss was the opposite. He was a big old dog, I
think about ten years old or so, but not threatening (though he was certainly
the right size to be). He was generally found sleeping on the sofa (even if
someone was on the sofa, sleeping with him), or looking up at someone at the
kitchen table, with his begging eyes on.
It's been odd for me, not only because I react a little more detachedly than
most people to death, but because these are animals. Not to say anything about
my wife's sorrow; in fact, I make these observations personally. I barely knew
Hoss and Nilla -- I only visit my in-laws once a month or so, weekly at most,
so I didn't see them that often, let alone grow up with them. But I still notice
the loss; I feel it. It's not something you think about until it happens, but
it has happened, and I can't help but think about it.
The one thing that I keep coming back to is the old saying, "You don't
know what you've got until it's gone." That, and, "If you love someone,
set them free. If they come back, set them on fire." But the loss of Hoss
and Nilla is a reminder that nothing is permanent in this world. The things
that give us happiness are taken away as quickly as they are given, and usually
without notice. When something or someone is there for you every day of your
life, you don't question it; you eventually take for granted that they'll always
be there. When they're gone, the memories of the happiness melt away gradually,
along with all the others. It's something that we can all correct, with a little
effort and awareness.
So here we are, at the end of another column, and I've only made passing reference
to comics and Stephen King. But that's okay, though, because Hoss and Nilla
were good folk, as much family as pets. Those of you that don't like animals
are missing out. Sure, you don't have to take a dog for a walk in forty degree
rain at 4:30 in the morning, or sweep hairballs the size of the cats they came
from from under the bed. You also don't get companionship that is unconditional
(well, outside of food, water, and a little attention when you really need to
finish the book that you're reading). You don't get to see your pets do things
like fetch bottlecaps, smile a very human smile when you some home, or sleep
on your wife's pillow with a paw on her cheek.
You're also less likely to wake up to the cat from Pet Sematary sitting on
your chest with a claw in your throat, but those are only dreams. My wife swears