An Update on the Menagerie – Adding and Subtracting

Animals have always been a part of my life. My parents both grew up with animals: Mom with cats and fish and rodents; and Dad with the kind of dogs you read books about, like Lassie and Big Red, and against whom no dog is safe from comparison (particularly mine). When I was a baby, my parents traded a Winchester rifle for a beagle they then named Winnie. To this day, Dad regrets that decision and has sworn off beagles.

We’ve owned dogs, cats, guinea pigs, gerbils, hamsters, rabbits, birds, fish, geckos, and chickens. Nina wants a ferret, Jo wants a parrot, and I think a goat would be fun (because I’ve had to accept the fact that a horse, even a miniature, simply isn’t practical). I honestly don’t know what I’d do without at least one animal hanging around needing to be fed and fretted over. Animals also happen to be very handy when you want to bestow off-the-wall names on animate objects but wouldn’t dare give them to your children; names like Eruoclydon.

The stories we could tell.

I don’t know why I, with my attachment issues and unstable emotions, have time and again invested my love into creatures so short-lived. When I was five, Eli and I stood at the door of our duplex and watched in horror as a neighbor kid startled our cat out from under a parked car and into the path of a moving car. It was the only animal I remember my parents taking to get put down.

When I lost my guinea pigs, I was practically inconsolable. Maybe it’s why we almost never have only one animal about: if you lose one, there are others who can drag you out of your despondency.

Wednesday evening I learned that our household lost a few other pets. I was already feeling crummy from saying good-bye to Fay, who is leaving for college this weekend, when Mom called me. She had stayed home from church because Gram isn’t feeling well. Her reason for calling: my pet chicken had died.

Four years ago I didn’t even like chickens, but there I sat, in my car in the Walmart parking lot, bawling my eyes out over the loss of my favorite hen.

This hen, jokingly named “Lobelia” after an unlikable hobbit in Lord of the Rings, was the last of our original batch of chicks, most of whom had been roosters and thus did not last long. I had singled her out, named her (and forced the rest of the family to go along with it), and favored her. She was my gardening buddy, sensing immediately when I was preparing to turn up delicious worms and grubs, and knew when to move out of the way of trowel or rototiller and when to move in.

She had a questioning little cluck, complete with a head tilt, for whenever she wanted attention, and impeccable manners for a chicken. For a brief while she had a habit of launching herself onto people’s shoulders, where she perched regally, but she eventually grew too old for that and another hen took her place.

So I sat in my car and sobbed over a dead chicken, and then over one of the geckos Mom said had been doing poorly and had ended up dying while Nina is away at a youth retreat. And this time I had no beloved dog on whose shoulder I could weep over good-byes and chickens and geckos. Instead, I got Klondike bars and croutons and curled up with Digger. I’m relieved I don’t have to be home when Nina gets back; after the last gecko she literally was inconsolable, and it was unsettling to witness.

Pretty soon I’m sure Lobelia and the gecko will become fond memories, replaced by some new fluffy arrivals we’re expecting.

Because this family can’t own a female cat without ending up with at least one litter of kittens.

Despite almost always having one around, I’m not the biggest cat fan. I think part of it is because cats can sense people who aren’t willing to bow to their authority as the center of the universe, so it’s kind of a vicious cycle of distrust and disrespect between felines and myself. Cats are a bit too moody and anti-social for my tastes, too. Mom, however, adores cats.

When I was six or seven, our cat Calamity (<- true story) got outside and ended up getting pregnant. The result was a litter of three or four kittens, each one claimed by one of us kids. I got a gentle gray female and Jo claimed a pudgy white kitten she had a habit of holding by the neck.

That litter was unintended, but it was not the same story with our next cat, Bunny. We had stumbled upon her while on a hike in a city park, and her name came because, as soon as she was home, she hid under a dresser and got covered in dust bunnies. From the start Bunny was temperamental, though she had the redeeming quality of being one of the only cats who would sit on shoulders. She was more Eli’s than anyone’s and practically lived rubbing against his head.

As she and her temper grew, Mom came up with a solution: let her outside to get pregnant, because female cats calm down after they’ve had a litter of kittens. Great plan, Mom*. All we got were five kittens (seven, really, but two died), one of them mentally disturbed and cross-eyed, and a cat who was now temperamental and fiercely protective. (I have memories of sleepless nights with kittens in the ceiling to prove it.)

We haven’t had a female cat again until this past Christmas, when we got two. I’ve already introduced them, but a few things have changed: the younger, short-haired cat, Tip, is a good mouser and very cuddly, while the older long-haired Judy is clingy and moody**. And it was Judy who first figured out the trick of busting through the window screen to get outside.

For a while I was hopeful that she wouldn’t come back. We have holes in the corners of at least three window screens and the screen door.

Tip followed in short order but was soon in the habit of returning inside after only a brief jaunt out and about. It took Judy a couple of days to decide we were worth returning to, and then only because we had a reliable source of food.

But it was not Judy who started to look very stout lately. It was our cuddler, Tip.

“I think she’s pregnant, Mom,” I said a couple of weeks ago.

“No,” was Mom’s immediate answer, despite evidence to the contrary: increased appetite, less energy, and even more demands for attention than normal.

So we waited, some of us in amusement and all of us less than thrilled at the prospect of more kittens to deal with. I hadn’t heard anything definite by the time I left for house-sitting, but Jo updated me later. “Oh, she’s definitely pregnant. She’s getting fat.” Which is saying something, because both of the cats are pretty small in general.

Mom has accepted the inevitable and is already searching for homes for our upcoming arrivals. Goodness knows we don’t need another cat, much less multiple, and I don’t like to think about how my dog will handle the stress of kittens.

I’ve lost count of the chickens, but the number of critters running around our house is somewhere around 30 and about to go up. I don’t know what I’ll do when I eventually have to move out. “Outside the city limits” is top of my priorities in a house, because at this point I will pretty much need some chickens. If there’s enough property, I might even see about that goat.


*Mom has tried to suggest that this all-natural approach will work for my dog as well. I shot that one down without hesitation.

** Yes, these are aliases. You’d have to know Judy’s real name to understand how clever I am, while “Tip” is close to that cat’s real name and also the name of the main character in The True Meaning of Smekday, which I just finished reading.


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