The Pets in My Life
I’ve always been drawn to animals. When asked what animal I would choose to be other than human, I immediately think of wolf. But, since I can’t become a wolf or have one in my home, I’ve enjoy the companionship of dogs.
When I was eight and my father still lived with us, he brought home, what he said, was a direct descendant of Rin Tin Tin, a dog hero in a 1950’s family western TV series. We named this beautiful German Shepard, West. He was a perfect pet with one minor exception; he hated children. And, since my sister and I were children as were our friends, having a dog that growled at us and bared it’s teeth every time we approached, didn’t bode well for anyone. West was returned shortly after he arrived.
Mickey came next. My parents got him from a nearby farm when he was a puppy and he lived with us until he wandered off to some unknown resting place when he was seventeen. He was a beautiful Shepard Collie and while he was no relation, he was the spitting image of Lassie. In addition to his kind and playful attitude, he was a problem solver. We had an outdoor kennel for him but he dug tunnels under the fence and would sit on the front porch as if to say, sorry, I need to be free. When we tied a long rope to his collar and the other end to a stake in the ground, he turned around, backed up until he slipped the collar off, and headed to the front porch. So, we replaced the collar with a harness. And then we watched him from the window as he turned around, backed up, put one paw through the strap, then the other, slipped the entire restraint off and, well you know, proudly walked to the front porch. Finally, we would put him in the garage when we needed to keep him in (my mom didn’t allow dogs in the house). This seemed to work until we arrived home from shopping one day to find him sitting on the porch. The two-car garage door was closed and no one was around. The second time this happened we decided to see if Mickey had enlisted the aid of another or if one of my friends was playing a prank. We put him in the garage, closed the door, and peered through a crack in the basement door that led to the garage. He walked over to the side of the double door, grabbed the rope that hung to the side, backed up with great effort pulling the double wooden door up maybe a foot off the ground and then, released the rope and dove though the opening, as the door came crashing down. I enjoyed his antics but what I loved most was the companionship Mickey gave me.
While I was in college I met several dogs that came in and out of my life (and other dog loving students) at different times. Thor was a jet black German Shepard who would often come to the pond behind our dorm and loved to fetch the puck as we attempted to play hockey. He soon realized we wouldn’t follow him if he left the ice so he learned to run and slide, as he stayed close enough for the chase but never close enough for us to catch him without great effort and coordinated teamwork.
Wazu was a campus beagle who wandered daily for food and hugs and seemed to be one of the happiest creatures I’ve known. He would often join me on short local hikes.
Sam was a large mutt who would find me, often, and who would walk me to classes, wait for me to come out, and walk me home. In the extreme ups and downs of college life, it was comforting to know Sam and Wazu seemed to be there for me. I assume he gave many college kids a similar gift.
In my senior year, I happened upon Josh, a small, white, terrier mix who belonged to someone I knew but can no longer remember. For some reason he needed to find a home for Josh who had a personality that was compatible with everyone who met him. My future wife’s parents and Josh were a perfect match and home he went to live on Long Island. Josh was so friendly that when my in-laws’ house was burglarized, he remained in the house throughout the experience, with little to no trauma. In fact, we’re convinced he either unlocked the door for them or at least showed them around the house.
Soon after beginning my teaching career, the parent of one of my students offered me one of the kittens from her cat’s litter. My wife and I were both working and traveling about an hour each way so the idea of a self-sufficient cat seemed to fit the bill. Mew (short for Bartholomew), was jet-black, full of piss and vinegar, and used his claws, often. We were given the name of a retired vet who would neuter Mew for far less than the usual fee. You know the phrase “you get what you pay for?” With his shaky hands and uncertain manner and Mew’s fierce dedication to independence, we witnessed what looked like a movie scene where the mad scientist was chasing the cat from hell all over a large cluttered room with a hypodermic. Finally, in desperation, the former doctor (we wondered if he was ever a licensed vet) threw the syringe like a dart into the cat and then pounced on him to plunge the tranquilizer into his system. As fate would have it, it wasn’t enough and now we have a groggy but angry wildcat stumbling through the room as the determined doc reloaded for another dose. By now we decided it was too late to grab the cat and leave so we sat horrified as Mew was knocked out and neutered. After the surgery, the vet announced that our cat might not survive and needed to stay with him overnight. Convinced that this man who was nursing his bloody hands from the scratches Mew induced, was determined to seek revenge and make sure recovery was not an option, we put some money on the table, grabbed the cat and ran for the car. After a night and a day of care and attention, Mew awoke and went on to live a long and even more fiercely independent life.
Years later, I took on a second job managing an after-school center for elementary aged children. It was there that I met Cocoa, a beautiful bronze colored collie mix.
He lived in a small apartment with one of the kids in the program and the child’s mom. She would often bring him to the center to pick up her son and it was there that she mentioned she needed to give up Cocoa for numerous reasons. I brought him home for a weekend on a trial basis and while he and Mew had little to do with each other, Cocoa was hit with our two children. He was a mellow, gentle soul who loved everyone, including the neighborhood bully dog that would frequently beat him up every time Cocoa approached him. Not necessarily what you would call a quick study, but he added many years of pleasure and love to our lives.
Josh, who had been living with my in-laws, joined Mew and Cocoa after my father-in-law died and my mother-in-law moved to an apartment. The three got along well and each, in their unique way gave us joy and affection that would last beyond their years.
Fast-forward to a time when many things had changed, all three pets having lived twelve, fifteen, and seventeen years were gone and our children were now adults. My wife and I were no longer together and I was once again ready for another pet. My adult children came to visit to help me find an appropriate rescue dog at a local shelter. The match was instantaneous as we all agreed that Jeb, a three-year old black scrawny mutt who was a mixture of Shepherd, Newfoundland, and Rottie was the one for us. After we brought him home the kids went to visit their mom. When they returned they gave me a newspaper clipping of a rescue dog being advertised as needing a new home that their mom had clipped for me knowing I was in the market. Unbelievably, it was Jeb, the same dog we had just brought home. If it’s meant to be, it’s meant to be. Jeb, who grew to over one hundred healthy pounds, exceeded his life expectancy and died well into his seventeenth year.
Now there’s Duke. His alluring photo on a dog-rescue website captured my interest and that of my partner. He was being shipped up from a kill shelter in West Virginia to a pet supply store for adoption on a first come, first served basis. The doors opened at nine but we were advised to come early, as there might be a crowd. So, despite the heavy snowfall that morning, we arrived shortly after seven only to find twenty-six other pet lovers waiting on line, in the snow and cold with almost two hours left until opening and more and more people arriving every few minutes. When we were finally allowed in to meet the dogs, we waited while one of the hopeful adopters was getting to know Duke. When she stepped aside we sat by his side and were hooked. A member of the adoption team approached and asked if we wanted him, we were clear in our desire to have him but mentioned there was another who had expressed an interest and we didn’t know how the process worked. After a quick check of the list of visitors that was written in order of arrival time, it turns out we were one place in front of our competition. We later found out that the person second in line had also come for Duke but fell in love with another dog. Another case of Karma?
Now it’s just the two of us as we give each other comfort and companionship during these limited times for social interactions. I am so thankful for this guy. And, so is my former partner who Duke happily gets to visit from time to time.
I Paws for a Moment…
When we moved into Queens I was 5. My dad and mom got us a dog. We named him Tim and he was a sweet mutt. But never having had a pet he scared me cause he moved fast and licked everything! Shortly after that my brother “found” a puppy and brought him home and now we had Tim and Tiny. I got over my fear and picked up a few cats over the early years. Tiny and Tim died when I was entering high school, and my dad bought a pedigreed German Shepard he named Baron Ludwig Von Vlushinger, better known as Sarge! I picked up a few parakeets along the way and several goldfish. One lived in a round flat bowl for 6 years and was big enough to eat by the time he passed. We called him Goldie. That was the story of my early years through high school.
In my senior year of college I snuck a puppy into my apartment every night for 4 months who moved with me to my first teaching job and our first house. He met a rather unfortunate demise at the hands of my neighbor who shot him one day and never told us. We found out months later and moved into the big city of Kingston immediately after. My wife surprised me with Dagmar when I got my masters degree. She looked like a black Irish Setter. Dagmar lived with us for 17 years. She was a sweety and learned to love the kittens and strays my kids brought home, including a great chocolate lab mix called Daisy! He came along with a beautiful all white kitty named Pegasus who lived a long and healthy life many years after moving to Woodstock. All my pets were family members! My last dog came after my wife and I split. Julie was a Shepard mix and I found him one day driving through the country when I saw a sign saying, “PUPPIES.” How can you pass something like that!
Fast forward- years go by, the dogs passed of old age, I retired and was moving to Vermont to own and operate an inn. Couldn’t own dogs cause they wouldn’t insure you if you did. But I managed to adopt two beautiful little kittens who loved mingling with the guests!
Fast forward again to the present. Sold the Inn, moved back to NY and for the first time EVER I am alone with my two kitties. But I missed having a dog! So I began my search. I went online, visited shelter after shelter , nothing! After over a year of searching I had given up but had some quilts from the inn that I wanted to donate and went to my local SPCA to help them out and just casually asked if they had any puppies. I was told they just took a mom and 3 pups in the day before. They let me into the play room and released all of them. I sat on the floor and this one guy came over to me, crawled in my lap and laid down. The rest is history! But this time is different. In the past there were other people playing with them and feeding them, usually my dad. They were always his dogs. Then my kids were there and played with them and I was at work. Suddenly there was no one but me and my little pup! Nothing took me regularly out of the house. Devon followed me everywhere, if I sat down he sat on me. If he was hungry he let me know, if he had to go out he pulled my hand. Suddenly we were reading each other’s body language. He began to sense my moods and knew when to stay away and when to cuddle. It was a whole new experience with my dog. I never shared this with my previous pets because there were always other distractions. Then came COVID-19 and Devon and I have become the best of friends. We finish each other’s sentences! Without him I’m not sure how I would have made it through the sheltering in place. I will forever be grateful to him. He is my buddy!
Well, I love pets, but dislike the term ‘pet’. I prefer ‘companion’ – or even ‘familiar’, if we can get past the supernatural subtext — or ‘partner’, if the animal is purpose-bred or used for a functional project, such as hunting or herding. The point is that there ought to be an implication of choice, mutual benefit, and some autonomy in the relationship. Pet seems entirely too one-sided.
That said, a healthy relationship with an animal companion is amazing. For a young kid, it teaches respect and responsibility – but more important: empathy and love. At least that’s how it worked with me through a succession of cats, dogs, guinea pigs, turtles, chameleons, and one surprisingly large lab rat (Rosemary). But my favorite companions have been dogs – and I’ll focus on three.
The first was a slap-happy, peripatetic Boxer provided by my uncle, after my Dad’s German Shepard (Dick) passed away. My parents asked me to name her – and without any hesitation I said “Juno Virginia”. I don’t think they expected that moniker from the four year old sitting in the back seat of the 1950 Plymouth. They laughed and the name stuck. Juno was an outside dog who was generally tethered in the dirt floor, detached garage. Letting Juno off the leash would result in a neighborhood manhunt – she was an official flight risk. Happy to follow her nose, she would have reached the Pacific quicker than Lewis and Clark – I should have called her Juneau, Alaska! Over the years, we have received postcards from Juno in a number of exotic places.
A longer term companion through grade school and college was a Dachshund titled Baron Dach von Spritzen, AKA Doc, AKA Rug Rocket. Doc’s last appellation was derived from his habit of sliding across the carpet on his belly. He would rev up, tuck up his front legs, and surf the rug, sliding past my brother and me as we watched TV or played a board game. Doc literally rubbed all the fur off his chest. When we took Doc out in our small runabout in Great South Bay, he would launch himself like a canine dolphin through the shallow water, leaping rather than swimming. Doc had a zest for life and lots of affection to share — how could you not love such a being? He was both friend and confidant. I’m reminded of the Kingston Trio song, ‘Speckled Roan’: “I used to ride a little old speckled roan. I told him lots of things I wouldn’t have told at home”. I shared all my thoughts with Doc as he laid his head on my leg in-between surfing sessions.
One Thanksgiving I came home from college and called for Doc – but no Doc appeared. My Mom confessed that she had let Doc outside to run instead of walking him, as was our custom. He ran into the road and was killed. It’s hard to tell which of us felt worse. I missed the old guy terribly – and the subsequent animal boarders did not begin to fill his absence. There was a succession of nasty, abused rescues my softhearted Mom brought home: Chico (AKA the Couch Cobra), Charlie, the four-legged prostate (AKA the Urinator), as well as the canine formerly known as Snarl – who didn’t stay long enough for a naming ceremony.
However, good things eventually happen. After Linda and I were married, we rented the first floor of a house overlooking the Hudson. Our next door neighbor was an elderly lady who was in the process of moving back with her children – she begged us to take her dog, a Collie-Shepherd mix she named Beauty. We rechristened him Toby and he was a pleasure. Toby was likely between a year and two when we received him and subsequently moved with us through several relocations over twelve years. Initially, Toby stayed outside in a fenced-in area, until our upstairs neighbor came home drunk and left the gate open – and then backed over poor Toby with his truck (he later confessed what had happened). We came home to find Toby huddled on the open porch, quietly enduring the pain. The vet reset and put a plaster cast on one broken leg, but his tail was permanently damaged – no more wagging to signal his mood. Toby made up for that by swinging his hips when happy… playfully batting our three year old son – and us around.
We had plenty of adventures… our second move was to a farmhouse near a large forested ridge and next to a stream. Toby and I tramped the many deer trails, hill and dale, summer and winter. Old Toby thrived — he loved to be outdoors. Yet he stayed close and showed no urge to follow Juno into the great beyond. However, as he aged, he began to have fits: epilepsy was diagnosed. When he started to meander in confused, tight circles, we knew he was pre-seizure. Phenobarbital would usually do the trick. Toby seemed restless with our last move to a more constrained neighborhood — whether it was the increasing bouts of epilepsy or lack of woods to wander, I’m not sure. He had moved indoors during cold weather and one day pushed the porch door open and vanished. Two weeks later the NYS Thruway Authority called to say they found his body miles away.
Perhaps he made a decision to exercise his freedom – maybe, he was in the midst of another confused seizure. Either way it was a heartbreak. We had a family pow-wow and reached consensus that we would not try to find another dog. The end game was just too rending.
However, that did not stop us from enjoying our friends’ animal companions. Without a canine companion, I’m so aware of the number of household dogs. Many are professional yardbarkers and I wonder if they are trying to say “Set me free!” These days I’m partial to animals who can find their calm like Hen’s Duke or my friend Steve’s Jonesy. I miss sitting on the outside steps alongside an alert, but peaceful dog, the two of us augmenting our senses in the early morning or late evening natural world.