There’s an old family saying coined by my grandfather that goes, “You know I never did care much for people, but I sure do love critters.” It’s generally followed by one relative or another telling a story about a dog or cat they’ve rescued and an overly dramatic tale of heroics and bravado that went into it. Likely there’s an aggrandizement of what they said and probably a threat or two to what they’d do to anyone if they caught them abusing that animal again. (My favorite being, “I’d push them off a cliff and piss on their remains.” [We’re a violent minded bunch, OK?])
I suppose some families volunteer together or have family outings, maybe they gather for Sunday dinner or around the TV to watch the football game. Not mine. We like to haul all our dogs from various sides for the family out to my grandparents’ farm, where they have anywhere from four to seven dogs, two or three horses, goats, a couple of cats, and whatever black snake has crawled in this week. You can’t hear yourself think, much less hold a conversation, as a giant herd of dogs are running amok, the horses are hollering, the cats are screaming, and there’s normally at least three people shouting across the fields for various and sundry dogs who’ve wandered too far. It’s chaotic. And wonderful.
I’ve had a lot of four-legged critters wander through my life; from an ex-Park Police horse left in a field to rot to a wolf-German Sheperd mix that was going to be put down; various barn cats, puppies galore, stubborn Labradors, tenacious Pitt-mixes, hard-headed ponies, gluttonous fish, multiplying gerbils, a biting bunny, and a few overly friendly mice and squirrels. In retrospect, I’ve had more animals in my life than people friends, and in most cases, they’ve meant more to me than most of the people I know. The same holds true for most of the family. It’s a bit of a running joke that in my mom’s list of favorites it’s the dogs, then the kids; or that my sister loves her dog more than her boyfriend, and how sometimes the only thing that gets my cousin through her chronic illness is her drama queen beagle. It’s funny, but it’s also true.
Perhaps not everyone would find it healthy, this devotion to our animals or forsaking of humanity. It’s admittedly a bit David Thoreau of us, but I’ve never really known any other way. Most of us would rather spend a Saturday around the house with the dogs than go out on the town. I talk to my dogs as if they can speak back (and they do, often and vociferously) whether I’m home or alone or not. I’ve never seen any proof that they do not have as much personality as people when more often than not the mutt’s doing her best reenactment of Paul Revere’s ride whenever the lawn guys show up. It’s also rather impossible to be lonely if there’s a puppy or kitty snoozing on my lap. In light of that, it’s hard to feel like I’m missing out on whatever may be happening on a Saturday night when I’m already surrounded by love and laughter.
These animals—my beloved dogs, the cat that says “hee-haw” instead of meow, the fish that eat out of my hands, and the ponies that used to let me nap against their sides—have enriched my life in every way. They’re sassy, spoiled, and stubborn creatures who are as much my family as my blood relations. They are there for me when I am sad, they brighten my day just by existing, and without them my life would feel empty. I despair of moving away from my homestead one day not because I’ll leave my family, (I can pick up the phone and chat with them) but because the dogs will be left behind. And in turn, I’ll be leaving one of the biggest parts of me behind with them. It’s hard to turn your back on unconditional love and not feel like you’re losing more than your gaining.
One day when I move away and my grandparents pass, I know I’ll be showing up on my parents doorstep with a car packed with dogs, parked next to my sister’s own car full of a motley mix of mutts, corgis, pigs, and hedgehogs. Maybe one day there will be grandchildren, the next generation to be stepped on and run roughshod over by the family pets, and they’ll know their parents love them too, but the only one with a get out-of-jail-free pass will always be the dog. They’ll grow up in a chaotic house where some cat will inevitably knock the holiday ham on the floor and the dogs will eat it and ruin dinner, a rambunctious puppy will topple a Christmas tree, and the tradition will live on in it’s odd four-legged way. Frankly, there are worse ways to grow up.
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