I am not a pet owner. I’m not, I swear. If you see me walking a couple of dogs at 10 at night, don’t be mistaken. They’re not mine.
I have never owned pets. I have never been shopping for a pet. I have never said to anyone, “Hey, let’s get a dog.” Or, “Sure, a cat would be good.” These are sentences I have never pronounced.
I have nothing against pets. If a dog shows up and seems to need petting, I usually take care of it. I have nothing against pet owners, either. I just don’t understand them.
Dogs are touted as man’s best friend, and maybe they are. But they’ve always seemed a little shifty to me. Dogs might well be called man’s best friend among those who poop on the ground. That is, when man is lucky, dogs poop on the ground. Or man’s best friend who, given an opportunity, rolls in the decomposing corpses of rodents, or who snacks on cat litter. Dogs can’t explain to you why they do those things, but they do them with as much enthusiasm as they greet man at the door.
Cats are more dignified, of course. But in my experience cats are capable of cold treachery, expressed in mayhem against the indigenous creatures outdoors and in provocative urinary gestures indoors.
Both species tend to track in mud, knock things off tables, import fleas, and leave a thin coating of hair and dander (the pet fancier’s term for dandruff) wherever they live. Both of them poop in unfortunate places—on the ground, in a box, on the kitchen floor. Dogs and cats are conversion devices. They convert your money, lots and lots of it, over a year’s time, into poop. What else pets do is theoretical.
Of course, humans convert our money into poop, too. But then again, it’s our money.
Still, there I am, late at night, walking a couple of dogs on leashes. And they’re not mine.
The reason I’m walking them has much to do with a contract I entered about 21 years ago. I married, voluntarily, a warm-hearted woman who is a great connoisseur of both dogs and cats. She can distinguish them by breed just by looking at them. She stops to speak to them, even when they’re perfect strangers. She worries about them when she sees them left in sealed cars in a parking lot. And she insists on living with them.
When we married, she had pets, and wanted more than she had. Given our resources and responsibilities, to ourselves and to future human children, I thought it prudent not to invest much in subsidies to creatures of other species.
So, we compromised. We have only two dogs, one cat, and some indeterminate number of goldfish. Our compromise, as I’ve come to understand it, was that contrary to my original preference, we would have pets, but not more than three or four at a time. Not counting reptiles, birds, and fish, and domestic rodents.
Like many people in our neighborhood, we have other visitors. We sometimes share our roof with rats. (The belief that cats prevent rats and mice is, in my experience, wishful thinking, if not a wholesale invention of the cat lobby. The several cats we’ve harbored over the last two decades have prevented mainly robins and baby rabbits.) Anyway, dogs, cats, rats, and mice, they’re all furry, warm-blooded quadrupeds. Rats poop on the floor, just like our other pets do. Preference for one species of mammalian quadruped over another seemed to me mere prejudice.
I’m no Vulcan, though I have actually been called one. I spent much of my youth with a sensitive Weimeraner named Brigitte Bardog who used to follow me around the neighborhood, leashlessly, and hang out with me as I did yard work at neighbors’ yards. We were about the same age—she was a little younger than I was—but she died when I was 13, which everyone said was quite old. My theory about the man’s-best-friend business is that pets don’t last long enough to disappoint us.
After that, though, I lived alone for several years, in college and afterward, and somehow never pined for pets. There were times when I was bored or lonesome; it never occurred to me to contemplate, even in privacy: I shall find a creature of another species, perhaps one unacquainted with rudimentary hygiene, and induce it to live here in my apartment with me and buy it food regularly until it dies and must be disposed of .
I regarded pet owners with the same curiosity that I regard gamblers, wiccans, quilt collectors, apologists for the Confederacy, and people who play golf. It just seemed like more trouble that it was worth.
I never knew just how much trouble, though, before my intimate association with a pet owner. My wife owned a dog and a cat.
I’d hardly ever been around cats, and assumed their species might be much more agreeable than dogs. They seem cleaner and less effusively slobbery. But soon after my marriage I learned that the cat’s secret to cleanliness is tricking humans to clean up after him.
I was innocent of the process. I’d heard of litterboxes but had never encountered one up close, and assumed they were emergency gear for use by disabled cats in shut-in situations: kennels, nursing homes, submarines.
Even after I learned that it’s beyond cats to excrete outside, like a dog, and that almost all cat owners, including my wife, kept a tray of cat litter, right there in the house we shared, I assumed it was just one of those things the pet owner would take care of. I put it in the same mental category as feminine hygiene, something I would never be asked to assist with.
I learned about them rather quickly, soon after we were married, when my wife was pregnant. I learned, less than a year after learning the horrible truth about the necessity of cat litter, that a pregnant woman is not supposed to clean out cat litter. It turns her baby into a cretin.
Anyway, I looked around. The dog didn’t look like she was going to do it. (Though I later learned that many discriminating dogs do regard cat litter as an excellent hors d’oeuvre.)
So for about nine months I was the sole cleaner of the cat litter. I was told it needed to be cleaned daily, and did so. I scooped the little cat turds with the slotted plastic shovel, dredged out the clumps of coagulated urine. I distributed fresh litter in the tray, and at the end of the week dumped the whole thing out and started over.
I cleaned my first tray of cat litter before ever allowing a cat to sit in my lap. That may be an unusual sequence.
I see pictures of me holding my baby the day he was born, and I wish my grin were a simpler thing than it was. The fact is that the day of my son’s birth was dramatic and positive for two reasons—one that I was a father of a healthy son, and one that my cat-litter cleaning days were over forever. I thought about both happy results that day, so in the photographs I’m not sure which result I’m smiling about.
But the following day I learned some further information. It seems there’s a school of thinking that nursing mothers shouldn’t clean cat litter, either. So it was back to the trenches.
I tried to find reasons to believe it was worth it. Everyone of a certain age, having married and started a family, thinks of the old Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young song, “Our House,” about the flowers in the vase and the cozy room, “with two cats in the yard.”
I’d been a fan, but I began to think of Crosby and company as naive hippies. Their song offered no hint of the awful consequences of two cats in a yard. If it had, the next line would have been “and birds grotesquely marred.”
See, the cat I spent so much time and dignity cleaning up after was spending her non-excreting time developing a reputation as a serial killer. Sometimes a mole, more often a baby bird, brought to the porch. I’ll never forget the sunny Easter morning that I walked out the back door and found, in the green grass, not Easter eggs, but the brightly colored portions of several dismembered bunnies. Our cat had apparently found a whole bunny family.
“She’s a hunter,” my wife said, in the same nonjudgmental tone you might say someone was a Capricorn, or a Republican. I would have preferred the rabbits. I came to understand there’s a certain amount of denial that comes with cat ownership.
Meanwhile, we had dog dramas. One Labrador could escape from any harness to get into the neighbors’ garbage, strongly favoring dirty diapers. We finally gave it away to a kid who lived on a farm. Another, bought from the pound, showed in X-rays to have two different kinds of buckshot in his rear end. Over the years, I came to understand how it might have gotten there.
That was Martin, a fluffy mutt that looked like a cross between Lassie and a weasel. Martin was incredibly fast, and lived for the thrill of escape. Once, my wife and kids were out of town, I was home alone, and went to a friend’s party, a rare indulgence. I came home exhausted at about 3 in the morning. I arrived home wondering whether I could stand up long enough to brush my teeth before collapsing exhausted on the bed. And as I opened the front door, Martin was off like a rocket.
What the hell, let him have his fun, I thought. I went to bed and almost fell to sleep. Several times. The whole problem was that Martin came back. He would come back, and sit in the front yard, and bark loudly at burglars, squirrels, and birds. Maybe there were burglars. I’d like to think there were, for Martin’s sake. But I suspect it was squirrels and birds mostly. He had a high, nasal, urgent yelp that erupted suddenly, as if he were being tortured by Communist dogs. He seemed capable of waking neighbors within a 30-house radius. I lay there and counted my angry neighbors, like sheep.
I opened the door to let Martin in, but he would dash away. It was a game, kind of like base-stealing. I would see a patch of white in the shadows of a distant neighbor’s yard. Martin would stay there until I closed the door again, whereupon he would return to the front yard and resume his no-tolerance policy toward squirrels. My neighbors were, I was convinced, calling the cops by now.
Wearily I got up and remembered a tactic my wife had employed. The only thing Martin liked better than sprinting around the neighborhood at night and barking at sleeping birds was riding in the car. So my wife would drive slowly around the neighborhood until Martin appeared, and she would give him a ride in the car.
I’d been critical of it as a waste of gas, but at 4 a.m., it seemed the only thing. I got in the car and drove slowly around the neighborhood. About a block away from our house, I found Martin, cavorting with another, quieter dog, a sizeable shaggy creature with some Irish Setter about him. I pulled up and opened the back door. Martin ran down to the car, his face full of fun, and sat on the street to watch. As his companion got in my car.
So, there I was, failing to retrieve my wife’s dog. Now I had another, larger, smellier dog of unknown legal status in my car. And he looked like he was ready for a ride. And I wasn’t even a pet owner.
It was dawn. I gave up on sleeping. I sat on the front porch. Martin showed up and sat about 30 feet away. And barked at everything that moved. Go away, I said. Please. I began to throw gravel at him. It was all I could do.
I was exhausted. My shins were covered with flea bites, and my house smelled like a kennel. Housecleaning became a point of contention because much of the necessary cleaning seemed pet-related; the vacuum-cleaner bags seemed full mostly of animal hair. Worse, we were spending far more on pets than we could afford to spend on beer.
I began nursing a secret motto: Pet Free by ‘93 . But it was a slogan without a strategy. When 1993 came, we actually acquired a second dog.
To be fair to my wife, she has tried to accommodate my aberrant non-pet-fancying ways with unexpected compromises. We’d been watching obscure old British comedies on TV, and I happened to remark how funny it would be if there were a dog named Nigel. We’d been drinking rum drinks, and it was one of those nights when everything seemed funny.
A few months later, when a stray wandered in the door, we might well have called the pound, which was my suggestion. But my wife declared a compromise, and named it Nigel.
When one dog died, I said please, please, let’s not get another one ever. So my wife went to the pound and got one. She said the other one, the one that wandered in the door several years before, needed company.
But here’s the genius part, the compromise: the particular dog she selected was one that was similar to the dappled houndish dogs she’d seen in photographs of my family’s old Williamson County farmhouse, circa 1915. The new dog was historic, which she knew I’d respect. And it was my family that picked him, after all. It wasn’t her fault if my ancestors liked that kind of dog. So, she got the choice of obtaining another dog, but she let my ancestors pick the approximate breed.
My wife declares these compromises, and I have learned to be grateful for them. And she is quite certain that I secretly like that particular dog, our sixth, even if I disliked all the others.
Meanwhile, we find warm puddles in the kitchen, the hallway, the bedroom floor. And we’re never sure which one it was, one of the dogs or the cat. Each has his or her own individual issues. The cat, we’ve observed, is inclined to urinate on certain pieces of furniture. The couch, the bed. We’ve had to replace or reupholster several cushions. We eventually learned the only certain way to prevent her from peeing on the couch is to tilt the cushions vertically. It works; but then, it’s not particularly useful for sitting. It’s said to be a small price to pay for having a cat.
We’re told the cat’s trying to express dissatisfaction about something, or her psychic pain over some slight. When my wife leaves town on a business trip, the cat has been known to take it personally, and urinate on her pillow. Of course the cat’s never certain which pillow is which.
My wife never gets angry at the pets, but works daily to improve their lives.
In the end, our pets convince us they’re not so bad, for pets. That’s how animal logic works, and it’s an effective argument. If only it could work as well for husbands.
My wife’s a busy woman, and less intolerant of excretory surprises than I am. So, most nights, I walk the dogs. But make no mistake. They’re not mine. I don’t know where you got that idea.