I’ve had a checkered history with pets. As a child, I was into dogs. What child doesn’t beg for a puppy? I got a puppy. A shiny little cocker spaniel named Taffy. We were inseparable until I was in junior high. Into the woods, across the fields and creeks, through back yards and alleyways and clambering down into the newly dug holes for new houses – Taffy and I went everywhere together except when I climbed trees, and then she waited for me at the bottom. I still remember the day my dad told me that Taffy had gone “to live on a farm.” By that time, I was more into boys than Taffy. Still feel a little guilty about that one.
At some point between adolescence and young womanhood, I read The Sword in the Stone and fell in love with an owl named Archimedes. Which has to be the only reason that, when I moved into my first decent apartment in Chicago, I bought a parakeet and named it Archimedes. I knew nothing of birds – was even a bit afraid of them and their sudden flapping – a pigeon had flown against my back as a child and stuck there, flailing against my sides with its wings. I think Archimedes sensed my fear. Perhaps that was why he refused to come out of the cage and sit on my hand, or my shoulder, or behave in any way that I imagined Archimedes would do. As for teaching him to say anything, not to mention anything wise, well … I gave up after a while and settled for changing his poop papers (something Merlin didn’t have to do), and seeing him fed and watered. And then I killed him.
I didn’t mean to kill him. We (I was married by this time) were going to my parents’ house for Christmas. I left Archimedes with lots of food and water for the weekend. Then I gathered up the bags and suitcases, turned the heat way down, locked the door and left. It’s always something, isn’t it? He froze to death. Still feel a little guilty about that one.
When I met my second husband, he had a black lab mix named Orphia. Orphia was a lovely dog. She was to my son Chris (who came with me into that marriage) what Taffy had been to me. There were many times when the only way I could spot my son when he played outdoors was that black dog sitting sentinel. There were many adventures with Orphia, and we loved her dearly, but she ended badly as well. There came a time after the divorce when neither of us could properly care for her and rather than put her down, I left her in an unreliable home. Still feel a little guilty about that one, too.
You might as well include Gimli, the cat, in this menagerie. Gimli was a sterling animal – my husband got him in the divorce. I’ve written about Buddy the Asshole Pony in this space some time back. There were also rabbits and chickens and goats and pigs, but we’re outside the pet category now. Except perhaps for Ophelia, the pig. Neither of us could take her in the divorce, so we had her butchered and ate her. I don’t feel guilty about that. There were no good homes waiting for Ophelia.
I became a cat lady when I moved to Seattle. First there was “Not My Cat,” the cat who lived on sufferance in my apartment complex, but hung out at my house. Not My Cat was a black cat who always ran to meet me when he heard my ankle bracelet bells coming down the alleyway – a couple of alleycats we were. Not My Cat was the first cat I had put down. Returning from a trip, I found him sick and mewling on the doorstep and took him to the vet. He was suffering from feline leukemia (who knew there was feline leukemia?), and I held him while he was put to sleep. I cried my eyes out for him, but not from guilt.
Then daughter Caroline brought home a tiny ball of orange fluff that she named Razzmatazz. Razz grew into a big beautiful muff of orange and cream fur. He was the first of what became a clowder of five: Elvis, Mamacita, Simba, and Yoda + Razz. There was a year when I signed all my Christmas cards “Barbara and the Pussycats.” I took them all to the vet for all of their shots – including the feline leukemia vaccine. Elvis was left with me by a friend who moved to Guam; Elvis later moved in with an old couple down the street. It’s possible my house was getting too crowded for him. Mamacita was left by a friend of Caroline’s who was going to come back for her and didn’t. She gave birth to Yoda, who we took to get spayed but got him neutered instead. Simba arrived when other friends of Caroline’s had to leave town - he escaped when we moved to this house and didn’t find his way home again. The others died more or less in my arms, and are buried or scattered under the magnolia tree in the backyard. I have no residual guilt from any of them.
There had been no dog in my life since Orphia, and I hadn’t missed one. They don’t go with apartment living in the city. They need training, they need walking, they need this, they need that. I had enough needs of my own and others in my life that needed fulfillment. Dogs were out.
But my daughter, Caroline, had always wanted a dog. When she moved out of the house, she got one, a pit bull, that lived up to all of my nightmares of owning a dog in the city. Eventually, she had to turn him back. Next up was a darling little pooch she named Stella. I fell in love with Stella too, but Stella didn’t live with me. Caroline’s boyfriend got Stella in the breakup – we still see her now and again, but it’s not really the same. When Caroline and her current partner, Greg, got Scout, they were also living away from home. Well, in their thirties, not surprising. But eventually, all things come ‘round again.
Caroline and Greg went into business together, making jam and selling it at farmers’ markets around Seattle. To make this possible, they moved in with me. So did Scout.
Scout is a rescue dog, found on the highway somewhere in California, a herding dog mix. She's compelled to nip at your heels, if she doesn’t know you very well. She barks like a banshee when people who don’t live here come to the door. I realize you probably don’t think of barking banshees, but I’m going for a sense of volume and screaming sense of urgency here. But she took to me, right away. Let me continue to live in peace in my own house. And accepted my housebuddy, Jose, when he joined us. So she knows who’s in her herd and who isn’t.
She barks at loud noises – including laughter and excited talking. We call her the fun police. I take her for her evening walks, when she seems to accept any and all other humans, but if they have dogs, it’s a different story. Remember the barking banshee description. It’s not so bad when the other dogs bark back, but kind of embarrassing when they don’t. It’s like your kid having a melt-down in the supermarket.
But as long as there are no other interruptions, Scout pulls me along at twice the pace I would ordinarily go, which I figure is good for me. Nose to the ground, investigating this clump of grass and that group of ferns – I’ve come to call it the Monster Hunt. “Where’s the monster, Scout?” I ask, as we hustle along. “That’s not a monster, that’s a dog,” when she spots one of her own. It’s a nice thing. We have a good time.
The best part of it is, I still don’t have a dog. She’s not my responsibility. I don’t pay the vet bills or buy bags of food or cartons of Frontline. I don’t wash her down when she rolls in the mud. She’s my grandpuppy, and I can pet her and spoil her and slip her treats her mother doesn’t want her to have, but when push comes to shove, she’s not my dog. And because of that, she’s one of the best pets I’ve ever had.