Hometown

Creature Discomfort

Not all pets are created equal

By Bill Fields

Among the sounds of a North Carolina childhood that linger many years later and hundreds of miles from where I heard them: sausage frying on a weekend morning; a lawnmower starting up and piercing the late afternoon quiet; a neighbor mom calling her daughters home at dark; the pop of ball in glove, over and over, once my arm got strong enough to make it happen.

But sometimes, out of nowhere, this one: Dad in the backyard at the end of the day, shaking a bag of cat chow like he was keeping rhythm in a swing band. It was the felines’ dinner bell, and they ran toward my father as if it had been a month since their last meal. That he diluted their milk with water from the hose mattered not.

Lucy and Linus arrived first, about the time I started school, kitten siblings from a litter belonging to one of Dad’s co-workers. Lucy was black and white; Linus was a gray tabby. It being the 1960s, and pet ethics not being what they are today, Lucy grew up to have a lot of kittens herself, her maternity ward usually a cardboard box from the ABC store. The stars of her offspring were Tuffy and Fluffy, each white with black accents. Fluffy’s fur was softer than a baby blanket, but she gave no quarter when wrestling Tuffy on my parents’ double bed, the cats’ favorite daytime playground.

Linus was a handsome boy, strong and athletic, until the big ice storm in the late 1960s, when he scaled a longleaf pine next door and was frightened to return to terra firma, choosing to howl a desperate howl overnight to the dismay of every house on the block. Once the sun was up Dad climbed a ladder, its rungs coated slick, to rescue him. Linus thawed out in front of a heat duct and thereafter seemed particularly grateful for the crunchy grub distributed daily at dusk.

If a boy didn’t have a pet dolphin in that era he surely had a dog, yet my canine experiences weren’t happy — certainly not like one nearby family who possessed an assembly line of dachshunds or another with a beloved beagle. We got Skippy, a midnight-black cocker spaniel, when I was in first grade but gave him away not long after we got the pet, when he kept nipping at passersby on Ridge Street.

I loved Peanuts, a Chihuahua puppy acquired when I was still in elementary school. Peanuts could well have been with me until I graduated from Pinecrest, if not for his early and unfortunate demise. My father created a flap in the little dog’s cardboard-box residence, but it got caught in the entryway one day while I was at school. I found Peanuts when I returned home from classes. He was trapped in the flap, his fate already clear.

Years later, as a grown man, I would have temporary co-guardianship of a couple of dogs, friendly cocker spaniels in one case and sweet but undisciplined Labradors in the other. The Labs were amazingly determined and creative when it came to anything involving food, to the point where they could even chew through a tin can. They forced us to tape shut the refrigerator door, lest we come home to a royal mess. With the bigger, stronger Lab on a leash one evening, it nearly dislocated my right shoulder when a squirrel suddenly appeared.

In the last couple of decades of my mother’s life — when she lived alone and could have, by any measure, used some company — I occasionally told her I had a cat or dog coming her way for a Christmas present. These teasings were not something that made her smile; her pet-managing days were long over.

I now wonder if mine aren’t, too. Occasionally my partner and I wish there were such as thing as Rent-a-Corgi, where one could enjoy a dog (the breed her family had when she was a child and that I have also liked from afar) for a couple of hours, then return it before any dog bites, bathroom accidents or vet bills.

If I were to ever own a cat, I am certain its cuisine would resemble that of my childhood felines rather than of the pets owned by a woman for whom a friend of mine cat-sat a decade ago. There were three dozen cats in a big house, and each got its individual can of wet food in its preferred flavor. The feeding stations were as long as the serving line at a K&W Cafeteria.

I helped with the horde one evening. I confess, without remorse, to not being worried if a cat that was supposed to receive tuna primavera instead dined on shredded wild salmon. And I walked out into the winter night thinking perhaps the only creatures in my house should be on Animal Planet.  PS

Southern Pines native Bill Fields, who writes about golf and other things, moved north in 1986 but hasn’t lost his accent. Bill can be reached at williamhfields@gmail.com.

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