Animals I’ve Known and Loved

“No se puede vivir sin amar.”  Or:  “You can’t live without love.”  So says Geoffrey Firmin (an anagram of “infirm”), alcoholic alter ego of Canadian author Malcolm Lowry and protagonist of his powerful novel Under the Volcano.  I would add that you also can’t live–at least not really–without animal companions.  I used to scoff at that politically-correct term, thinking it sprang from the early nineties era of gratuitous sensitivity, but the word “pet” is demeaning when you think about it.  I always longed to be the teacher’s animal companion, but more often than not I was too busy being the class clown–excuse me:  class terrifier of young children.  May we have a moment of silence for John Wayne–Gacy, that is?  (Pardon the Freudian slip–I’ve accidentally compared myself with a mass-murdering child molester who buried his victims behind the dry wall in the basement–not exactly your grandmother’s choice of a role model.)

“I’m really good at killing people.”  The quote is attributed to Professor Barack Obama, who was gloating about his burgeoning Predator drone program, and derives from a new book called Double Down, written by the same person who wrote the book Game Change (by the way, let’s retire that expression, shall we?).  It’s nice to know the president of my country has such high self-esteem.  His spiritual advisor wrote a different book about Barry-O’s religious faith, saying he devoted hours to placating the mourners in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.  Bully for him if he did.  Now all he has to do is spend the rest of his life doing likewise in all the countries around the world he’s droned (congratulations!  You know you’ve made it to the big time when you’re a noun that’s become a verb.  Put your hands together repeatedly and coffin up a storm).

The Obama quote (words of wince-dom?) I found on the Yahoo News website.  Next to it was a photo of a man hugging a lioness.  I clicked on the photo and saw it was a piece on a conservationist who’d cultivated a life-long friendship with said feline from cub-hood illustrated with several heartwarming photos.  It took the sting out of the president’s revelation that he delights in mass-murder (unless he was just kidding, and actually feels guilty, the way George W. Bush was when he pretended to look for those weapons of mass destruction under his Oval Office desk, the same piece of furniture Monica Lewinsky was leaning against when she got the stain on her dress, as she held onto the drawer where Nixon used to hide the same bottle of Scotch he used to anoint Kissinger for their secret rituals before the days of Bohemian Grove, the deluxe Republican getaway and summer camp for the big boys in Northern California covered so hilariously years ago by Spy Magazine, which even featured a photoshopped cover of a shirtless Kissinger with an equally free-spirited Merv Griffin, holding hands, smiling broadly, and wearing cocoanut brassieres as they skipped merrily along the way).

When my friend Lance and I were about five years old, a tame chipmunk that we erroneously dubbed a squirrel visited my family’s back yard and took turns climbing up and down people’s bodies.  We called him Nuts, which was probably a good name for him as the neighbor’s cat made short work of him, poor fellow.  It was the first time I remember learning about death.

Years later I had two pet rabbits named Harpo and Monty.  We also had a German shepherd named Max.  One morning as I was going out to feed the bunnies before school, I found that there hutch had been overturned.  Max stood sniffing their frozen corpses.  Of course, being a kid already prone to jump to conclusions, I instantly blamed Max and scolded him with tears in my eyes.  

That afternoon, after school, practicing croquet by myself in the back yard, I wound up the mallet and whacked the ball hard enough to hit poor Max in the ribcage.  If i were the dog, I would have bitten my face off, but he just looked at me sadly like Martin Luther King after his friend punched him in the face in a bar.  I ran up and gave him a big hug, apologizing profusely.

A few years before that I spent a couple of summers at a camp that had a nature program that was cool.  Mr. MacReady, the counselor in charge of that department, would lead the other kids and me into the woods to a creek where we tried in vain to catch water striders.  The place reminded me of the river in Deliverance, minus the homicidal and incestuous hillbillies.  We got to handle snakes, toads, and salamanders, along with some other kinds of creatures (sorry, my memory of which species is fuzzy).  There was also an alligator tank.  On the last day of camp, the intrepid counselors would actually get into the swimming pool with the alligators and swim around with them.  It was most impressive, as Darth Vader would say.

Over the weekend during that period, my sister’s cat slew a mouse, as cats are wont to do.  I told one of my fellow campers about it the next day, and he intoned, “I’m going to kill your cat.”  A day or two later the cat got hit and killed by a car (the second cat we had to meet such a fate).  When I mentioned it to the same boy, he said, “I killed your cat.”  He spoke with such cold intensity, for a moment I almost believed him.  If I hadn’t been a weakling and a nerd I would have kicked his fucking ass.  Maybe if I can somehow scrape up his name and current whereabouts, I can persuade Killer Obama to drone him for me.  “Shish kebab that motherfucker with a flaming missile up his unrepentant ass if you will, kind sir!”  By now the ex-kid probably has repented, unless he got hit by a car too, driven by the zombified ghost of my sister’s cat, humming “What I Did for Love” as he thumped against the windshield, tumbled over the hood, and crumpled on the ground with a bloody thud.

One day around that same era my mother brought our Scottish terrier Bridget back from having her hair cut.  Scottish terriers were a trendy breed at the time, no doubt pup-ularized by Toto of The Wizard of Oz fame.  The Broadway musical The Wiz was also a hit at the time, reinforcing the irresistible meme.  Anyway, our neighbor, Mrs. DeWitt (whose name would prove ironic, as you’ll soon see), who also had one, saw Bridget and failed to recognize her with her new hairdo.  She racked her brain, trying to figure out whose dog she was, and called everyone she knew with a Scottie short of Captain Kirk himself to try to locate the creature’s principal human companions.

Everyone, that is, except my mom.  At a loss for what to do, Mrs. DeWitt apprehended the dog and whisked Bridget off to the local pound.  When my mother called the dog’s name and didn’t get an answer, she had the presence of mind to call Mrs. DeWitt without having to go to great mental lengths, presumably being at a higher incline on evolution’s trajectory than the cretinous woman.

Before you could say, “Hey, what are neighbors for?”, my mother got in the car and sped to the pound in time to rescue the hapless Bridget, saving her from certain execution or adoption by some sadistic animal-hater named Gulch or other such Wicked Witch of the Westies (West Highland white terriers were also in fashion at the time).

I would have spent a long time hating Mrs. DeWitt for being such a putz, only I did owe her one thing.  Once while visiting her house (her son was a friend and classmate of mine, and they had a pool table), I was honored to behold the naked majesty of her teenage daughter Jen, who’d just emerged from the shower and neglected to close the bathroom door.  I was only six years old, but the revelation of ineffable female beauty was enough to make me decide not to marry Cathy O’Shea, who lived down the street next door to my dentist, who also had kids, with whom I once watched Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein on their TV while drinking Hawaiian Punch and eating Hostess Ho-Ho’s, Twinkies, and Ding Dongs.  (I’m afraid to confess they were all out of Tang and space food sticks.)

Returning to the untimely deaths of my two pet rabbits, I wasted time praying for their souls before going to sleep at night for a couple of weeks or months before moving on.  A few years later I got another rabbit, a cool customer named Mose.  I used to let him out of his hutch and chase him around the yard.  He never ran away.  He had it too good; you’ve got to love that Stockholm Syndrome.  Once I thought it would be funny to see how the family cat Jeckyll reacted to him, so I carried Jeckyll out to the hutch and held him up to behold Mose.  The cat didn’t look as if he were ready to pounce.  Instead, he just looked curious.  I decided to take a chance and open the door and let the cat in the hutch.  Much to my surprise and delight, they bonded immediately.  They nestled together, cuddled, and snuggled like the bosom buddies they’d suddenly become.

Just like that beautiful lioness and the human guy, reminding me that as far as I’m concerned, nature is God, and God is love.

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