Category Archives: Animals! Animals! Animals!

Madame

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Madame was a very small dog, although not the smallest I’ve ever met. While she was extremely cute, I didn’t immediately realize she was the traffic-stopping kind of adorable.

The job hadn’t originally involved a dog. The job had started out as a favor, or, more accurately, a mutually beneficial situation. My friend and her family were going away for the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day, and I was welcome to stay at their house while they were gone. I was welcome to luxuriate in their heat and their running water and their WiFi and their multitude of television options. In exchange, I’d make sure their cat had food and water and a tolerable litter pan. I wouldn’t have to leave the house for days at a time if I didn’t want to.

I was sitting on my friend’s couch when she got the email that brought Madame into my life. I was working on my blog and my friend was doing her paying job even though it was supposed to be her day off.

What does this woman want? she asked aloud in exasperation.

The woman in question was a former co-worker. My friend said the woman only contacts her when she wants something. This time she wanted my friend to care for her dog while she was out of the country for the holidays.

My friend said her family had kept the dog once years before. She was an old dog, my friend said, and not much trouble.

I’ll be here anyway, I told my friend. If you don’t mind the dog being at your house, I can take care of her. But tell your friend I want $10 a day.

Caring for a dog meant taking it for walks, which meant I couldn’t stay in the house for days at a time. I wanted a little monetary compensation for my trouble.

My friend said the dog had no teeth and ate wet food. I definitely want $10 a day if I have to feed her wet food, I told my friend. Picking up dog feces is bad enough, but a combination of feces and wet food is a lot of grossness to deal with. Yes, if wet food was involved, I definitely wanted monetary compensation.

The dog’s person was a little desperate. No one else she asked had been able to care for the dog, so she contacted my friend. I don’t know what she would have done if I hadn’t been available. I suspect she would have paid a kennel more than $10 a day. I suspect Madame would have been miserable all alone in a tiny cage.

I said I would care for Madame.

I met her on the morning of Christmas Eve. I arrived at my friend’s house early, while she and her family were still packing and preparing for their trip. Finally, they headed off to the airport, and Madame and I were alone.

Madame was a tiny chihuahua, black, although I’d imagined her as tan and looking more like a pug. I don’t know how old she was, but her muzzle was quite grey. She had big chihuahua eyes and big chihuahua ears, and her mouth was a little twisted due to her lack of teeth. She had stick-thin legs and a large pink bow on her collar.

When it came time for our walk, I found her comically thin leash and hooked it to the metal ring on her collar. She walked well on the leash, didn’t pull, altough I’m not sure if I would have noticed if she did. Like most dogs, Madame liked to stop and sniff. Sometimes if I was ready to move on and she wasn’t, she’d plant her feet and give me an ugly look. I could have easily picked her up and whisked her away, but instead I tugged gently on the leash and talked sweetly to her until she came along.

We were almost back to my friend’s house, walking on the sidewalk, when the car stopped in the middle of the street. It wasn’t a busy street, which is probably why the driver felt it was safe to stop, but still. Most people don’t stop their cars in the middle of the street.

That’s the smallest dog I’ve ever seen! the driver called out to me.

She’s pretty small, I agreed.

The driver and the passenger, both women with grey hair, both women who looked quite a bit older than I am, were gushing over Madame’s cuteness.

Is she full grown? the driver asked me.

Oh yes, I said. She’s actually quite elderly.

There were more declarations of cuteness, and I was polite, but I was ready to move on and get back to my limited-time house life.

She’s just so small, the driver said again. And she’s full grown? The driver was having a difficult time believing Madame wasn’t a puppy.

Oh yes, I said. She’s an old lady dog!

I’ve walked cute dogs before, but none of my other charges have ever brought traffic to a halt.

Is this dog cute enough to stop traffic? I took this photo.

Eek!

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I knew I was behaving like a stereotype, but I couldn’t help myself.

I was standing on the living room couch, shrieking at the top of my lungs after seeing a mouse skitter across the floor.

animal, apodemus sylvaticus, brownI don’t know how it happened, but at some time during my 16 years of life, I’d developed a fear of all things rodent. I didn’t think hamsters and gerbils were cute (although for some reason I could tolerate guinea pigs). I didn’t think mice were cute either, and rats were straight-up deplorable.

Once when I was about twelve, my family was leaving my grandmother’s house late in the afternoon. My grandmother lived on the outskirts of a small town surrounded by crop fields. She had a huge front yard, and I don’t know how many acres in the back. There was plenty of room for wild critters to live all around her.

On this particular day, as my family was about to walk out onto the back porch to say our lingering good-byes, we saw a horrible site. In the utility room accessible only from the porch, rats come pouring out of a metal trash can close to the door. I’m not exaggerating when I say “rats.” These animals were not mice. These were pointy-nosed, long tailed rats. There was not one thing cute about them as far as I was concerned.

I may be exaggerating when I say rats were pouring out of the trash can. In my first recollection, there were at least a dozen rats jumping one after another from the trashcan and running around helter-skelter as if they were trying to desert the proverbial sinking ship. But could there have really been twelve rats in my grandmother’s utility room? I know there was more than one rat, more than two, definitely more than three. I know I must be correct if I say there were between three and twelve rats running willy-nilly in the utility room and on the porch.

My grandmother kept a clean house, but she said she’d been having problems with the rats in the utility room. I think my uncle hadn’t been around to burn the trash, so the rats had taken over the trash can. My grandma moved the trash can into the utility room thinking the rats wouldn’t venture in there to get the garbage. WRONG! The rats had no problem going into the utility room to get to the trash. They must have made their move into the can while we were in the house visiting. When they heard us near the back door, they rushed out of the can in search of better hiding places.

I had never seen a live wild rat in real life, but I was certainly terrified by these. I’m not exaggerating when I say I was terrified. I was not just uncomfortable, not just bothered, not just scared. I was losing my shit. I was acting bat-shit-crazy. I was unreasonably, illogically terrified. I was immediately screaming, sobbing, bawling. I refused to leave the house and walk five steps across the porch, down the concrete steps, and across the carport to the family car. I simply refused.  My father had to carry me—still sobbing—to the car. I was too old—and certainly too big—to be carried, and my dad was not accustomed to indulging such foolishness, but he must have known I wasn’t going to leave if I had to rely on my own two feet.

The fear I felt was primal and deep. I was not just a little scared. I had moved into the realm of phobia.

(More than three decades later, a friend said maybe my fear of rodents was some sort of ancestral memory left in my DNA by people who had avoided the Black Death by avoiding rats due to a fear of them. This theory makes as much sense as any other reason I’ve come up with.)

On the day the mouse was in the house, I felt the same primal fear. I was afraid, and I wanted to be as far away from the mouse as possible. I didn’t weigh my options, consider my choices, then decide the sofa was the place to be. No, there was no careful thought process. I simply jumped up on the couch and began shrieking.

What was I afraid of? The only concrete fear I can name is the concern that the mouse was going to run up my leg. Is that even a thing outside of slapstick comedy? Has any mouse anywhere ever run up a human’s leg? Does flight ever bring a wild animal into closer proximity to the flailing, screaming bigger creature? Doesn’t the concept of “flight” necessitate movement away from danger?

In any case, there was no good reason for my fright.

It’s just a little mouse, said my annoyed mother.

It’s so cute, said my animal-loving sibling.

I’ll set a tramp, said my practical father.

I stood on the couch long after I stopped shrieking, long after the mouse had hid itself somewhere safe. My family didn’t understand, but to our reptile brains, sometimes the tiniest thing is really the biggest and most important.

Photo courtesy of https://www.pexels.com/photo/animal-cute-little-mouse-301448/.

Half-Wild Beach Cows

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When I was in middle school, my parents went on a camping kick.

I suspect it was my dad who decided the family should go camping. Why would my mom want to camp? It only made extra work for her: making sure everyone in the family had packed everything s/he needed for the weekend; packing every ingredient for every meal, as well as appropriate pots, pans, and utensils; listening to the children complain; gathering and packing necessary bedding and towels; washing sand out of everything when we returned from the beach.

It was to the beach we went on our first few camping trips. This beach was not a white-sand beach in Black White MosquitoFlorida or the ruggedly beautiful coast of Oregon. No, the beach we frequented was the nasty oil-slicked beach of the Louisiana Gulf Coast where the water was brown, trash washed up on the sand, and the mosquitoes were huge. This beach was ugly, but it wasn’t very far from home, and camping there was free.

Our first camping shelter was an old-school canvas tent. I suspect my dad got it, like so many items from my childhood (scratchy wool blankets, BAND-AID® brand adhesive bandages in bulk, Mercurochrome) from a discard pile of mythic proportion from his days in the National Guard.

After a few trips to the beach, my dad liked camping so much, he decided to buy a tiny camper to pull behind the family truck. He bought the camper from an old couple, and it was only after he got it home that he discovered the pressboard it was made from was mostly rotten. My father dismantled the camper down to the frame, then replaced every bit of wood and every scrap of insulation before putting it all back together again.

As far as I was concerned, he could have saved his energy. I had no desire to camp. There were no showers at the beach, no hairdryers, no flush toilets. To young teenage me, the beach was barbaric.

I can’t remember how many times my family went camping at the beach in our refurbished camper. I only remember the night of the half-wild beach cows.

A friend of the family had come with us. She was in her 60s, flamboyant, liked board games, and was patient with my sibling and me. I have not idea why she wanted to spend her weekend at the beach.

The family friend was supposed to sleep in the screen ten, but my dad built the campfire too close to it and melted the screen. No way could she sleep in a tent with a huge hole in it; the mosquitoes would have carried her away. Instead, she had to sleep in the camper with us.

It was already tight quarters in the camper at night. The kitchen table folded down into a double bed; that’s where my parents slept. My younger sibling slept in a bunk that folded down from above the table. (My mother was afraid my sibling–a tween at the time–would  roll out of bed and meet death on the camper’s floor, so she crocheted a huge net to stretch across the bunk.) I usually slept on the cushioned bench across the front of the trailer, but on this night I was relegated to a pile of blankets on the floor so our elderly guest could have what barely passed for a twin bed. If I was uncomfortable–and I was–I wonder how our rather large friend managed to stay on her narrow bed.

animal, black and white, cattleNo one was sleeping well when the commotion started outside, but we were soon wide awake. We heard animal noises and hooves hitting the ground, and it was all very close. It was so close, we began to hear and feel thumping on our camper. The camper swayed and rocked as one or more big somethings bumped it.  In the distance we heard humans yelling. What could possibly be going on out there?

My dad must have grabbed a flashlight and shined it out the window in order to report: cows. They were half-wild beach cows, let loose to graze, I suppose, although there wasn’t much in the way of tasty grass where we were parked. It must have been open range out there, and the cows were allowed to move about freely on the beach.  We had come into their territory, and they seemed none too happy about it.

I don’t remember how long the attack lasted, but we couldn’t get back to sleep after the cows moved on. I don’t think any of us got much sleep that night.

In the early daylight of the next morning, when we emerged from our little trailer, we saw the aftermath of the visit from the cows. Tents and temporary clotheslines had been knocked down. People must have spent a long night in cars to escape mosquitoes and marauding bovines. What else can you do when half-wild animals knock your tent on top of you while you’re sleeping in it? My family had been lucky to have a sturdy camper to keep us safe.

 

Images courtesy of https://www.pexels.com/photo/black-white-mosquito-86722/ and https://www.pexels.com/photo/animal-black-and-white-cattle-close-up-551618/.

Shelia

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When I was a toddler, before my sibling was born, my father worked for a pet supply company. Free stock photo of reptile, exotic, snake, constrictorSomehow his pet supply connections led him to bring home a boa constrictor named Shelia.

I don’t remember Shelia, but throughout my life both of my parents recounted the story of my love for her.

At the time, my parents and I lived in a farmhouse on my grandparents’ property. The farmhouse is part of my earliest memories, and I remember it as big, although it may have only seemed big because I was so little. In any case, the house was big enough for Shelia to have her own room.

My mother didn’t care much for Shelia. Whether this was related to her own mother’s fear of snakes or just because snakes aren’t cute in a cuddly, mammalian way, I don’t know. Whatever the reason, my mother’s dislike for Shelia earned the reptile a place in a room with door that shut. My mother had nothing to do with her.

Little toddler me, on the other hand, loved Shelia. Whenever my dad went into the room to see Shelia, I wanted to go with him. I was particularly interested in Shelia’s feeding.

Shelia lived in an aquarium in the spare room. When it came time to feed her, my dad dropped a small rodent (hamster? gerbil?) into her aquarium home. The rodents, also procured through pet supply connections, would run over Shelia where she lay curled in her tank, practically frolicking over her coils until she slowly, slowly squeezed out their lives.

One day it was time to feed Shelia. My mom wanted nothing to do with the procedure, but I happily followed my dad around while he made preparations. We went into the room and Dad dropped the rodent in with Shelia. I don’t know if we stuck around to watch Shelia put the squeeze on it.

Some time passed after my father and I left Shelia’s room. My dad went about his business, then realized he hadn’t seen or heard me for a while. He casually checked with my mother to determine I wasn’t with her. He looked in my bedroom, but I wasn’t there either. He noticed the door to Shelia’s room was open just a crack. The open door got his attention because he was always careful to close the door completely and securely when he left the room.

He opened the door and saw me climbing into Shelia’s tank. Family lore has it that I had one fat little toddler leg in the tank when he found me, and I was just about to swing my whole self in. Apparently, I loved Shelia so much that I wanted to be right there in the tank with her.

(As an adult, I wonder why there was no cover on top of that aquarium, or if there was, why a toddler was able to remove it.)

My dad lifted me away from the tank. He told me to never go into the room without him again. When we left the room, he made certain he closed the door securely behind us. (Maybe some sort of lock would have been a good idea as well.)

My dad let some time pass (days? weeks? I don’t know) before he nonchalantly mentioned to my mother how he’s found me climbing into Shelia’s cage. My mother—of course—freaked out and demanded he find another home for the snake. My dad contended Shelia had been harmless because she’d just eaten. She was satiated and sluggish and uninterested in a toddler who might have been about to lie on top of her. My mother countered by asking what might have happened if Shelia hadn’t just been fed. My dad didn’t have much more to say. I suppose I was small enough and Shelia was big enough that she could have squeezed the life out of me had the conditions been right.

My dad used his pet supply connections to find Shelia a new home.

Image from https://www.pexels.com/search/boa%20constrictor%20imperator/.

Why Did It Have to Be Snakes?

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Click to viewLike Indian Jones, my grandmother hated snakes. She and Indy could have started a support group for snake haters, maybe Snake Haters Anonymous (SHA) or the Society Against Snakes (SAS).

Like most hatred, my grandmother’s came from fear. She was afraid of snakes, deathly afraid of snakes. Her fear might have been a phobia. Sometime in my grandmother’s life, her fear had grown to hatred, but the fear was still there too.

My grandmother was something of a pioneer woman. Born in the nineteen teens, she lived through the Great Depression. As a kid, I didn’t realize how cool the woman was, but looking back on her now—Wow! Every year until she was in her 60s, she planted and tended a huge vegetable garden. In the fall, she canned the produce for winter eating. She sewed her own clothes (always pants with matching tops—I don’t recall ever seeing her in a skirt or dress) and knew the way to kill a chicken for a gumbo (hang it upside down from a fence until it relaxed, then whack its head off with a sharp butcher knife). She was a fantastic cook; I’d give a toe to taste her aforementioned gumbo again, and every year for Christmas, she made the most luscious six (or was it eight?) layer coconut cakes. Once I watched her pluck a small game bird my uncle had shot; she submerged the carcass in boiling water, then pulled it out and removed the tiny feathers. She raised seven kids, then lived thirty years as a widow after my grandpa died.

MawMaw was a woman who knew how to prepare for tough times and live through them when they came. I wish my parents had packed me off to spend summer vacations with her so I could have learned her homesteading ways. Instead, I spent my summers in my family’s air conditioned mobile home, reading fiction and longing for a boyfriend.

I never asked my grandma what she was scared of. Maybe she had a whole list of fears. I knew she hated snakes because my mom knew and told me. It became a joke with me and my mom and my sibling. MawMaw is scared of snakes! Isn’t that funny? I’m sure MawMaw didn’t think so.

One time my mom told us that MawMaw was so scared of snakes, we shouldn’t even say the word. For years after, instead of saying the word “snake,”  we’d spell out “s-n-a-k-e.” Even when we weren’t with MawMaw, we would spell the word to each other. Don’t let MawMaw see this picture of an s-n-a-k-e. I hope MawMaw doesn’t find an s-n-a-k-e in the garden.  I was a child at the time and thought this spelling was great fun, but now I wonder what kind of passive-aggressive bullshit my mother was up to. It’s not kind for a grown kid to make fun of her mother’s phobia.

I wish I had known my grandmother better. I know she had a green thumb. I know she was a great cook. I know she was always kind to me, and I know she hated snakes.

Snake image from https://classroomclipart.com/clipart/page-18/Clipart/Animals/Reptile_Clipart/Snake_Clipart.htm.

Rattlesnake

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The Man has his own rattlesnake story.

We were in New Mexico, house sitting for a friend during the week leading up to Memorial Day.

Our friend lives way out in the sage, past the last of the power lines, at least a mile from the nearest neighbors. His place is three miles from the highway, down a dirt road, ten miles from the nearest convenience store. He uses solar power to run his television and his mini-fridge, and he shits in an outhouse. He’s way out there.

Our friend’s brother was dying, and our friend wanted to drive out to California for one last visit. He needed someone to watch his place and feed his big dog, goat, and donkey while he was gone. We were the only friends he trusted to actually care for his critters and his place, and he offered to pay us well if we would help him out. We agreed, because we wanted to be good friends, but also because we needed the dollars.

Using the outhouse wasn’t such a huge problem, but plumbing wasn’t the only amenity lacking. Our cell phones got no service out there, and our friend had no internet access. He did have a landline, but an unexplained and annoying hum on the line made even a short conversation virtually impossible. The Man and I were out there cut off from everyone but each other.

I spent a couple days writing blog posts by hand in a notebook, but when eight or ten were written, I needed to use the internet to schedule them. I drove about 15 miles to the public library in the village nearest to our friend’s home. The library had fast, reliable WiFi, and I enjoyed working there. I wished the library was open longer hours, but noon to 5pm five days a week was all the village government was paying for.

I went to the library several times during our house sitting engagement. Sometimes The Man came with me and sat in the van and used the internet on his phone. Sometimes I went alone and left The Man and Jerico the dog back on our friend’s land.

One day when I’d gone to the library alone, I returned to our friend’s place around 5:30. I found The Man in the sunroom lean-to built onto the side of the school bus living space.

How was your day? I asked him.

I took this photo of the rattlesnake The Man killed after it moved into the sunroom.

He led me outside and pointed to a headless carcass hanging on the fence.

I had to kill a rattlesnake, he said.

The Man had been working in the sunroom all day, making leather and stone bracelets to sell. He heard a buzzing and wondered if it was a rattlesnake, but then decided, no a rattlesnake would rattle not buzz. He looked around the room anyway, but didn’t find any snakes, rattle or otherwise.

About an hour and a half later, Jerico trotted into the room through the open door, and The Man heard the buzzing again. This time when he looked over toward the door, he saw a rattlesnake coiled up in the corner next to the door where Jerico had just entered.

The Man called Jerico to the back of the room and told him to Stay! Whether because of the serious tone of The Man’s voice or the smell of the snake, Jerico did as he was told.

The Man grabbed a metal pipe and used it to crush the snake’s head. He wasn’t happy about killing the snake. He hates to harm any living thing, but having a venomous snake in a room frequented by people and a dog was just too dangerous.

They shouldn’t call them rattlesnakes, The Man told me, shaking his head, because they don’t rattle, but I guess “buzz snake” just doesn’t sound as good.