When Animals Become Family
Animals As Your Children
I remember when I brought my two kittens home, living in Memphis in 1996. It was something I felt I had to do, since 3 weeks prior, my other cat , Taz, had run away and I knew I’d never see him again. I felt crushing grief over it for a long time, but I thought if I got a new cat, it might help with my healing and help me move on. I recall giving the news to my 14 year old niece as I picked her up from school, and watched tears fall down her face as she was exclaiming, “But what about Taz?” I told her I felt it was best for me to adopt two kittens who really needed a good home and that I needed to move on. I didn’t mean to make her sad, but I’ll never forget her tears. It was too much to bear, so I decided to adopt both of them as I sat there cradling each one of them in my arms.
I’d always had
bad luck with animals growing up. When I
was 5 years old, in 1971, we had a poodle named Pepi. One afternoon, a telephone truck ran over him
on the street in front of our house in Tallahassee. Pepi had a fondness for jumping our chain
link fence. My father had gone so far as
to carve a 6 inch stick and hang it from his collar trying to keep him from
jumping over the fence by adding some weight to his collar. It didn’t work. I remember us bawling in the living room in
disbelief that he’d been killed. That
evening when my father came home from work, he wrapped Pepi in an old blanket
and put him in the passenger’s seat of my mother’s VW. I vividly remember seeing him lying there
dead with his red collar still on. I
don’t know why he put him inside the VW.
When we moved to Orlando in 1974, having a dog was not an option, but I desperately wanted one. At the age of 10, I moved to Nashville and I still begged for a puppy. One evening I came home from playing outside and in a box was a cute stray German Shepard/Rottweiler mix female dog, yapping away, trying to climb out of that cardboard box. I burst out crying because I was so happy that my parents finally decided to let me have a dog.
I named her Carmen, and she became my best friend for two years. She was very protective of me and once had saved me from a group of teenagers (I was 12 at the time) who were trying to come after me down a road near my house. I even managed to turn Carmen into a sled dog, because the two years we lived in Nashville, we got an unusually large amount of snowfall, so half the winter I spent having Carmen pull me on my sled down the street. Unfortunately, Carmen too had the bad habit of chasing cars but luckily never got hit hard enough to hurt herself. She was unusually intelligent, and even could climb trees and ladders. I even taught her to attack if I told her to.
At the age I was, I did not like cats at all, but wanted to be a veterinarian. My mother reminded me that as a young child, after informing her confidently of my future career plans, that people would have to take their cats elsewhere because I was only going to see dogs in my vet practice! I don’t think I would have been a very popular vet.
Then bad news came in summer 1979. Another announcement from my parents: We were moving to Jacksonville, Florida and had to get rid of the dog. I really didn’t understand why I couldn’t have just kept the dog since we weren’t renting, because my parents had bought a house in Jacksonville. Since I wanted to avoid getting yelled at, I decided not to press the issue any further. It was time to move again! We found a home for Carmen 50 miles south of Nashville at a friend of my mother’s who lived far out in the country. I asked my mother if I’d ever see Carmen again, and surprisingly enough, she was honest with me and answered no. My heart was heavy with sadness but I knew I couldn’t do anything about having to give her away.
We ended up living in Jacksonville until January 1981, when my mother and I moved to south Florida. I was still without a pet. We lived in south Florida for one blissful year with out my tyrant of a father and then once again, he told us we were moving to the backwoods, redneck, north western Florida town of Bonifay. Here it was January 1982 and we were back on the road moving to a place I did not want to go. By this time I was 15 and of course still had no say in anything so I sat dejected in the back seat on the ride up to north Florida, once again sad to leave behind the great friends I’d met in the only high school I ever looked forward to going to every day. I was going to have to once again enter a new, strange school in the middle of the year and have to start over making new friends.
In Bonifay, our family
rented a house way out in the country, down miles of dirt roads. This kind of living wasn’t exactly conducive
to happy living for a teenager, especially since one of my father’s favourite
activities was to get drunk and load his M-16 rifle and shoot at the pine trees
around the property. This always scared
us all, but we couldn’t do anything but watch him wide eyed from a distance,
occasionally glancing at each other with worry, but knowing we couldn’t do a
damned thing about it.
Somewhere along the line
I was allowed to have a mixed breed male puppy who I named Chad. My father enjoyed calling him all sorts of
bad names, hit and kicked him when he felt like it and said he was a stupid
dog, but I knew he wasn’t. I felt that my father was
the stupid one. I also owned a pet
rabbit I’d bought for $2.00 from a very poor girl who was my age at my high
school. It was a beautiful grey Angora I named Renfield.
Chad knew which bedroom
window was mine, and would prop his front legs up on the windowsill and look in
at me with his hazel coloured, pleading eyes.
I wasn’t allowed to keep him inside but I knew by the look in his eyes
he wanted to come in and sleep in my room.
One Saturday afternoon, I was inside the house when I heard Chad barking
frantically outside at the ground and I knew he’d found something but I didn’t
know what it was until I got close and saw it was a big King snake. Once the snake saw me and the dog, he shot
off to the woods. I praised Chad
for being a good watchdog and hugged him because I was proud of him.
Over most of the long lonely summer of 1982 in that brick house tucked against the woods separating a pasture, he kept me company while my brother, mother and father were working. For weeks at a time, I went nowhere and my job was to keep the house clean and do everyone’s laundry. Chad was my only friend. My only excitement during the day was to go up the road to the mailbox to see if I’d received any letters. It was really all I had in which to look forward to: my dog as my faithful companion, and the chance that there might be a letter in the mailbox for me.
Around the middle of that summer, I was once again given news that we were moving back to Jacksonville. My mother gave me the bad news that I would have to give Chad away. I spent the next few days crying, curled up in my bed in the afternoons, dreading having to give him away.
We gave the dog to a nice elderly couple who lived right off the interstate. Chad had a good new home inside a chain link fence and I was confident he’d be safe and wouldn’t be abused by his new owners. I was sad I had to leave him, but felt assured I’d be able to come back and visit him since I had relatives living in Bonifay and we’d come back there a few times a year. I watched the old white truck bump and shudder as it made its way down our dirty road, with Chad tied up in the bed of the truck. I felt horrible but stifled any sense of emotion in front of my family.
When July 1982 arrived, we were packed and on our way to Jacksonville for the second time. In the fall of 1982, I entered the eleventh grade and was 16 years old, back in a city I knew all too well and missing my dog. The good thing about Jacksonville was that I was in a huge city with a lot to do, instead of being stuck in the woods in Bonifay with nowhere to go and not much to do except shoot a BB gun at those fat summer bumblebees flying around in the backyard, or listen to my drunken father snore in the living room. At least some of the fistfights he and my brother got into were quite entertaining. In all actuality, they were terrifying.
At this point in my life, I was beginning to feel a deeper sense of loss, since every pet I’d had had either been killed or I had to give it away and every year or so, I had to move again. My lack of trust in my parents was ever growing, partly because of this consistent moving and instability, uprooting myself and having to leave friends behind, giving away animals I was deeply attached to, and the escalating violence that was happening in our house. Jacksonville was my home once again. This was the place where I felt my first, intense anxiety attack. My dog was gone and I felt displaced. I loved animals tremendously. Renfield was given a nice rabbit hutch in the backyard and I’d let him out to hop around in the grass. He could never replace the affection that Chad gave me, or the loyalty a dog could offer its loving owner, but the feeling of petting and cuddling that Angora rabbit like a baby when things weren’t going so well in my house was therapy for me. Animals provided me with an escape from turmoil.
While still in Jacksonville, my anxiety increased and I started worrying that for some reason, our house was going to burn down. I began to have nightmares about it.
At the end of one week, my father was on a severe and scary drinking binge, and my mother decided it was best we leave my father alone and go to Bonifay, about a 4 hour drive away, to visit relatives. My father was constantly falling on the floor, blacking his eyes, busting his head open, and passing out from being so drunk. He was still smoking at the time.
When we came back 3 days later, I was horrified at what I saw. My father had dropped a cigarette on the bathroom floor, the cigarette had been lit and apparently never smoked, and it had burned a brown, cigarette shaped mark in the rug but miraculously didn’t catch the rug on fire. In the living room, I found another cigarette that had been lit and apparently never smoked, completely burned down to the filter, lying on the cloth couch. It had burned another cigarette shaped hole in the couch but did not catch fire. I wonder to this day if he didn’t try to burn the house down on purpose, since most of the rest of the house had wooden flooring.
Towards the end of my junior year of high school in May of 1983, I was given the news we were moving to Pensacola after school ended. I’d just turned 17, and here I was about to enter my final year of high school. I was growing somnolent of being uprooted like a weed, only to have to go to my fourth high school, again not knowing anyone. The only good news was that I was allowed to keep Renfield.
Anger started becoming a normal part of my life by the time we’d moved to Pensacola in July 1983, and I knew I was carrying resentment for the constant moving from one strange city to another and giving away my animals which were such an important part of my life and my comfort, as well as faithful companions. I began to feel confused, overwhelmed, and lost, because I had no control over much in my life. While my father was physically and emotionally abusive towards me and even my animals, I knew I could always run to my pets when I was hurt and crying, and without them, I felt a sense of emptiness. My animals were the prime source of my affection, not my parents. Without my pets, I didn’t feel loved like I should have felt. Affection was not well known in my house. Instead, yelling and violence was the norm.
In what I thought was a
sense of rebellion, I refused to get my senior picture taken and refused to buy
a class ring because I thought they were all just a waste of money and a
shallow attempt at trying to preserve the shallow and fake people who permeated
high school. With high school number
four notched on my bedpost, I felt no one would have cared if I had my picture
in the yearbook or not. Lacking the comfort of stability and settling down, I
no longer cared about much. I’d just given up trying to forge anything
permanent. At this stage, I started feeling the first pangs of depression gnawing
at my brain. I remember sitting on the
corner of my bed on school afternoons, just staring at nothing, and wondering
why I felt so dejected.
I did make friends at the fourth high school I went to, but I wasn’t committed to anything or anyone for fear of losing it all again. It was an act of self preservation. I was attempting to prevent myself from experiencing more feelings of loss.
I didn’t feel Renfield could help me much anymore with my feelings of loneliness or lack of affection, but I still was glad to have her. Towards the end of my senior year, Renfield fell sick and died. I found her stiff as a board inside her hutch early one evening. I remember running back inside hysterical over seeing her dead inside that hutch. It was a gruesome feeling to try to get her stiff, stretched out body outside of the hutch door so I could bury her. I recall how I struggled with her stiff hind legs to get her out the hutch door.
After high school, my parents bought a house on the other side of town. My father permitted me to get an English Shepard. He stressed to me that this dog wasn’t going to be just mine. I was so glad again to get another dog. After about 3 months of age, the puppy contracted Parvo virus, and died. I was heartbroken. It was ironic that although the dog wasn’t mine specifically, according to my father, I was left with the vet bills and had to bury the dog in the backyard. No one bothered to help me bury him or offer emotional support. Of course then, the dog conveniently became mine once I dropped his dead body wrapped in an old towel in the ground.
One weekend, we drove over to Mississippi to visit relatives. My aunt and uncle owned a beautiful lop-eared rabbit named Gimpy. His name was actually tattooed in his ear. They really didn’t have time to care for him anymore, so they gave him to me. That rabbit was so amazing. I would take him on the swing and hold him like a baby, and he’d fall asleep in my arms. Winter came soon enough and I had built a smaller hutch to keep him in the garage with blankets so he wouldn’t freeze to death. He kept jumping to sniff the top of the cage, and making a strange jerking motion. I saw him do this a couple of times and noted how odd that was.
The next morning, I got him out of the smaller hutch and let him run around in the living room to get exercise. I noticed that his head was tilted to one side and he was acting as if he were dizzy. I became alarmed and realised I had to take him to the vet. After an examination and x-rays, the vet gave me the unfortunate news that he’d broken his neck and would have to be put to sleep. I blamed myself long after that for his death, just ruminating that if I just hadn’t put him in that other hutch he would have been fine.
In 1986, my parent’s
marriage began to fall apart and by spring of 1987, my mother was divorced and
moved into another house with her new husband who owned a tomcat named
Tunafish. At first I wasn’t too fond of
that cat, but grew to love it and came to the realisation that cats weren’t as
bad as I thought. In fact, I started
holding that cat and hugging him just as I’d done with all of my dogs and
rabbit. Since Tunafish was a tomcat, his
life was cut short by some unknown cause.
Outdoor cats have usually half the life span of an indoor cat, which can
live up to 16 or even 20 years. Once day
he disappeared, never to be seen again.
From that time on, I became a lover of cats. Once I moved out of that house, I took a kitten with me named Paloma. She ended up having feline leukemia and I had to have her put to sleep. Once again I bawled my eyes out, feeling so bad for that little kitten and experiencing yet another loss of an animal to which I’d grown attached.
A few months later, I
found a stray black kitten with a broken tail and took him home. This cat was so intelligent he jumped up on
the piano one night as my mother was playing it, and began pushing down the
keys himself as we all stared in disbelief.
He also once did this with my guitar strings. I named him Taz because he acted like a
Tasmanian devil on occasion. He moved
with me to Memphis
and disappeared one year later. That was when I adopted the cats I have now
and have had for the past 10 years. I’m
grateful to have had these cats as long as I have, because of my previous unfortunate
experiences attempting to keep animals.
The beauty of owning animals is that they will never judge you or insult you, and love you unconditionally. Besides that, they are a great form of therapy. I’ve always been shocked at how easily some people can dispose of animals like trash and feel no sense of guilt, remorse or loss in their lives. Animals are faithful, affectionate and loving creatures. I find it amazing that they are capable of displaying jealousy, anger, and affection. They must have a little bit of human in them. I know mine do. And, I hope to keep them for a long time.
I’ve been told by people
who have never owned pets before that they cannot understand why I would get so
upset over losing a pet. Although I view
these types of people as a bit cold and insensitive, having heard such remarks
as “So what, it’s just a dumb animal,” there is a part of me that tries to attempt
a sense of compassion for them, because I feel they’re missing out on something
special. To me, it’s like trying to get
through life without the pleasure of music, because my animals are music to my