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I Can See Your House From Here, v 2.26
© Kenn McCracken

"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 the same.

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 it.

RevolutionSF comics editor Kenn McCracken was a Bichon Frise in a former life, and really resented the haircuts.

logo ©2002 John Muth

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