The Animals in Our Midst

God created Adam, perhaps because He needed something to do. Then He created Eve, because Adam needed something to do, or someone to know. They dwelt in the garden, which was fruitful and lush. All was pleasant there, until that unfortunate incident with the apple, which obliged Adam and Eve to leave the garden and make their way in the wilderness. The forest was dark, cold, and forbidding. Strange terrors lurked there. To still his fears, Adam befriended a wolf. Or perhaps the wolf befriended him. It’s not important how this alliance came about; what matters is that it has endured. Ever since then we have had animals in our midst.

With animals such a vital part of the family, it seems only natural to include them in the family history. I have not done so until now, but perhaps it’s time to remedy this omission. Many families have pets—dogs, cats, hamsters, even the odd ferret or corn snake. A pet shop here in Calgary stocks beetles. I’m told they make wonderful companions.

Our creatures stand in foil to us, casting our foibles in sharp relief. We feed them and train them; they guard our homes and perform tricks in return, or shred our furniture and soil the carpets. Mostly what our animals do is instruct. They demonstrate loyalty and cussedness, just as we do. They exhibit agency and will, which we must accommodate even as we exercise our own powers. When your child takes care of a pet, it teaches responsibility. When we confront their excrement and dander, animals teach us that all living things have bodily processes, which cannot be denied. And when they die, they remind us that no body is invincible.

We had many pets when I was growing up. Mostly we had dogs, because my father loved them. We also had hamsters and mice and the occasional goldfish. Most of our pets had brief lives, which suggests that we had little flair for animal husbandry, although we were attentive and responsible.

The first pet I remember was a miniature dachshund named Max, which bolted through the gate one day as I returned home from kindergarten. A stranger fed Max a bit of meat laced with ant poison, and he came home and died on our lawn, after terrible convulsions. The babysitter who was taking care of me that day wagged her large finger and told me that Max’s death was all my fault.

After Max we had a rabbit named Fulton and a beagle named Ranger. I can’t recall which animal entered our household first, but I know which one left it first: Fulton, after being pursued and maimed by Ranger. Then we had a mutt named Missy, another bolter, who was struck by a car on one of her excursions. Missy coexisted briefly with our one and only cat, which we named Cat, and which stayed with us until it scratched my sister’s face. When our family’s normally affable pediatrician learned that a cat had left those marks on my sister, he folded his glasses, looked directly at my mother, and said in a steely tone, “Get rid of it.” Then the cat was gone.

After the cat, my family entered its pet owning heyday. Yielding to his love of massive dogs, my father purchased a sand-colored German shepherd, which he named Max, after our unfortunate dachshund. Max was an intelligent, gentle animal with soulful dark eyes. My father, brother, and I grew very attached to him. My father took Max to the park every day, where they socialized with their friends, human and canine. But Max died young, a victim of hip dysplasia, that quintessential German shepherd affliction. We put him down at two years, an occasion for copious weeping. I wrote a maudlin poem. This is what animals teach: in the first instance, to love, and in the second, not to take yourself so seriously.

After Max we got another German shepherd. Dutch was more handsome than his predecessor, but less charismatic. This dog also died at two, felled by some rare cancer. I recall less weeping on the occasion of his passing. Then we obtained Victor—or was it Viktor?—yet another shepherd. This animal was noble in pedigree but ignoble in behavior, sound in body but clearly off his rocker. Viktor scaled the fence every July 4, frightened by firecrackers. He attacked other dogs in a snarling rage. My father was afraid that Viktor might lose it completely one day and attack a human, so he gave the dog to a man who lived by himself in the countryside.

We picked up another dachshund during this era, a keen-faced canine woman named Minnie, who was a present to my sister on her sixth birthday. Minnie was smart and playful, an eager chaser of tennis balls and connoisseur of the belly rub. She and my sister were inseparable, but Minnie, a cunning survival strategist, was really everyone’s best friend. Minnie was also fruitful, whelping a litter of pups in the basket we kept in a utility room. (She would have birthed her pups on my parents’ bed had I not shooed her off.) The pups were small, wiggly creatures with their eyes squeezed shut, avid for the teat. Minnie seemed stunned by her labors and was slow to bite off their umbilical cords. But they all made it, borne along by the life force that courses through us all.

We kept one of the pups, a handsome but imbecilic male we named Barney. We gave a female to my Uncle Jay, who named it Phydeaux. Barney challenged one of the German shepherds for a scrap of meat one day and died for his temerity. Phydeaux lived with my aunt, uncle, and cousins for years, instructing them in survival, loyalty, character, and the primacy of shit. Phydeaux also bore a litter, but I can’t say for sure what happened to those pups. I recall another small brown dynamo named Pumpernickel, which perished in the maw of a ravening coyote. Pumpernickel might have issued from the line of Minnie and Phydeaux. But my hands are full of genealogical riddles these days, and I really have no wish to inquire.

© 2015, Andy Kubrin. All rights reserved.

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