Family lore has it that, in my father’s bachelor days, the man proudly owned a dog named Muffy, a yappy little shih tzu whose staunch refusal to be housebroken earned no love from the woman my father was dating. When Dad finally worked up the gumption to take a knee and request his beloved’s hand in marriage, she agreed to spend her remaining days with my father but, alas, could not extend the same offer to Muffy. The caveat issued pretty much boiled down to “It’s me or the dog.” And so, possessed of a heavy heart, my father found his pee-prone dog a new home with new pieces of furniture for Muffy to mercilessly defile, and only then was he free to trade nuptials with his new bride. A few years later, the dogless couple had a son, and that’s the story of how I got here.
Which is to say, Dear Reader, that this pet stuff matters.
Consider this: Had my father chosen Muffy over my mother, there would be no “Rodney Wilson” to write this piece. You’d be poring over an in-depth exposé of Warehouse District Guppy Farming or a Healthy Hamster Buying Guide right now. I mean, can you even imagine?
Luckily, after fate’s pendulum swung in my direction and away from poor Muffy, I enjoyed a childhood enhanced by friendships with family pets that didn’t end in “Sophie’s Choice”-like doggie dilemmas. There were always fish like Jake the Snake and Stoney in the tank, a mother-daughter pair of tabbies named Fluffy and Binky on a bed, short-lived hamsters like Janet and Frank in that clear plastic ball thing and an unbroken line of stray turtles from the lake down the hill (all named Pokey).
Ask an adolescent me if we were “pet people,” with the species hoarder implications, and I’d surely have taken a break from picking feline hairs off my sweater to balk, but it’s because I couldn’t fathom an alternative — I simply could not comprehend that some people enjoy lives devoid of animal companionship.
Now, as I look over to see our tuxedo cat Sullivan curled up on my tween daughter’s lap or glance at Charlie the ancient chocolate Lab sleeping a few yards from my feet, I realize I still can’t comprehend such a thing. The truth of the matter is, we’re pet people. I am a pet person.
Gone to the Dogs
“Pet person” is often used as a synonym for “dog lover.” It makes sense — with their pathological need for love and sternums just begging to be squeezed into a sleeveless argyle sweater, canines reflect many of the traits humans like to see in our own species. (If you’ve ever experienced a cat’s chilly indifference or suffered arm-length scratches from trying to clothe a feline, you know the plight of cat people is an altogether different beast.)
But while our pet-prejudice toward dogs is understandable, it’s not universal; many pet owners are not, in fact, dog people. It’s true! There are rat people, snake people, bird people ... and there are “anything but dog” people, which is how you’d describe my family during my formative years.
Blame it on Muffy’s lingering memory or the pursuit of that miniature poodle who, when I was in first grade, made me lose my lunch on the arms of a neighbor rescuer, but no dog enjoyed a place in my childhood home. The closest I got to canine companionship was an occasional game of tennis-ball catch through a chain link fence with Bandit, the mint-breathed terrier next door. A few of my aunts and uncles owned dogs, but those beasts were imprisoned in far back bedrooms when I was on premises, out of concern for their prone-to-dog-induced-panic nephew.
My eventual dog ownership was not inevitable.
But Charlie, our chocolate Lab, isn’t just any dog. Seemingly doomed to dislike by his predecessor, a barky beagle whose utter contempt for newborn sleep earned him a new home, his hangdog personality nonetheless won my family over. Charlie’s not perfect — to the contrary, it’s his laundry list of imperfections that somehow combine to define his appeal: He’s epileptic with a tendency to destroy the kitchen once every couple of months; he has a persistent stink that survives every bath and grooming effort; he randomly runs away a few times a year; he lays around 99 percent of the time, always settling his 70-pound frame in the busiest walkway; and he drools — there is seriously so much drool.
Owning Charlie has solidly placed us into the “dog people” sub-category of pet lovers. We still have other family pets, to be sure. We’ve owned as many as four cats at one time, have a miniature angora she-bunny named Kenny Rogers, and my wife just brought home a bag of goldfish this morning — but Charlie’s ushered us into the dog hair-matted inner circle of animal companionship.
If we’re looking for some human socialization, we can hop in the car and head for the dog park; if we need some exercise and fresh air, we grab a leash and take a stroll around the neighborhood; if we want to talk about patchy hair loss and persistent dermatitis, we take him to a pet superstore to chat with fellow dog people.
Not that we do any of these things with any real frequency — Charlie’s about as keen on leaving his spot in the walkway as his borderline-agoraphobic owners are on leaving the house. He’s a perfect writer’s dog, content to dream of bygone days as a breeder’s cherished stud while I sit across the room making up adventures that pale in comparison to Charlie’s real life experiences.
For the Love of Fur
With a houseful of animals in constant need of cleaning, food and sleeveless argyle sweaters, I sometimes pause and wonder why the hell our species, with our hard-won ranking at the top of the food chain, would choose to voluntarily tether ourselves to life forms that consider the kitchen garbage can a treasure trove of magic and undiscovered mystery.
In these moments, my eyes will drift back to Sullivan the cat, providing unwavering companionship to a very under-the-weather little girl. My gaze will shift to Charlie, whose inconvenient positioning in our walkway forces us to slow down and run a hand across his eternally-greasy scalp. And before it’s even asked, I have the answer to my “Why?” question: We need pets to stop us with a saggy-eyed look, to occupy our laps and keep us sitting instead of running to the next thing — to just be there.
Because for all our Homo sapiens hubris, with technological advances and senselessly complicated schedules, we can’t seem to evolve out of our one true weakness: We need these furry friends. We’re pet people.
/ Rodney Wilson is an Ohio-based freelance writer and co-owner of Scribbles Coffee Co. in Kent. In the few hours left after caring for household pets, Rodney can be found slumped over a laptop, writing a young adult novel and listening to Taylor Swift.
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