If You Give a Pet Our Home

Written by Graham von Carlowitz

It was mid-September. I was sitting on a bench outside the university library with my laptop out. I had started to type some notes about all the dogs I’ve been seeing on campus, which reminded me of my brother Kyle’s dog, Joey, who was once placed in a microwave for general amusement, though not cooked at all.

Then there were the squirrels, who manage to find a balance between being scary and scared — creatures with suspicious buck teeth and animals often more naïve than a baby.

I might keep one as a pet, were I ever to catch one. It’d be fun having a live nutcracker around, not to mention something as fidgety as me. We’d understand each other. I’d probably name him Stanley, although I’d reserve the shorter “Stan” for occasions of scolding, like when he pees on my new carpet.

“Aw, Stan. Come on. Look what you did, you want to clean it up? Do it again and I’ll get you a mini spray bottle, you try me,” I’d say.

Then again, it might be tedious work. I’d have to gather all his acorns and explain to his old friends that he’s too good for the outdoors now, sorry. Then there’s the taming process. I’d have to throw a leash on an animal whose teeth can tear through nuts and nylon alike, tell him to sit, flip over — the whole shebang.

I don’t know, that seems like a lot of work. There is the nutcracker element, but the only nuts I eat are peanuts, pre-cracked and transformed into butter. It also doesn’t help my case that I’ve never had luck with domesticating animals in the first place, as growing up with eight siblings often went hand in hand with neglecting any of our pets.

I remember our cats. We had a few when I was ten. They were named by my younger siblings Jackson and Kerrigan, who landed on the unconventional titles of Mrs. Bigglesworth, Snickers and Aziza. How we acquired the cats is truly a mystery to me, but I suspect my dad had something to do with it. He once scored a chocolate lab puppy — against my mother’s wishes — and woke his children up with it Easter morning.

My mom had only one dog before, a yellow lab named Gretel who had drowned in her bowl of water one afternoon. The bowl was clearly just too big for the pup, but I had a sneaking suspicion that my mom felt responsible, like little Gretel had drowned herself to escape the looming hell of living with her. She wanted nothing to do with our new dog.

His name was Gunnar, again named by six-year-old Jackson. Poor Jackson.

He must have felt a visceral bond with Gunnar. He was head over heels for Gunnar, who returned the affection by gnawing on Jackson’s legs every chance he got.

We’d get home from school and as we pulled into one of the long tutor driveways, he and Winston, yet another brother, would squeak with enthusiasm, “We wanna run all the way up! We wanna run all the way up!”

My mom would park the minivan and reluctantly unlock the doors, preparing herself for the inevitable. After they grabbed the mail for her, the two would race up the driveway. This happened every weekday, but Jackson never won. Ever. Gunnar was always there, eagerly waiting halfway up the driveway like a friend at the bus stop. He wasn’t one of those broad-smiling friends with his hands squeezing the straps of his backpack, but more like a bully friend, the kind you just put up with because he’s the only kid you know that’ll sit next to you on the bus. He beats you, or, in Gunnar’s case, chews on your leg to induce tears.

Maybe Gunnar just saw Jackson as he was — the runt of the male litter, the eighth boy — and acted accordingly, doing everything in his jaw power to toughen Jackson up. Or maybe (and more likely) Gunnar took out his anger, which he built up in his cage while the entire family was gone for eight hours a day, on Jackson. In a similar spirit of spiting, he had taken a shit in every room of the house, a fact we realized a few months after Gunnar had been “taken away.”

We were told he’d been taken to the vet, but everyone knew he had been put down, what with all the vicious biting and spiteful poops.

Jackson took it pretty hard. About six months after Gunnar was taken away — enough time to locate and dispose of all the turds he had scattered throughout the house — we began to find fresher, more pungent turds in the basement, where Jackson would spend most of his time.

Clearly, something had to be done to bring his grieving to an end. That’s when we got the trio of cats, whose combined mass was only half of Gunnar’s.

They didn’t quite match his character, either. In fact, they didn’t even try. Rather, the cats did nothing. They meowed, sure, but that was only when we tried to incite anger by hissing at them. When approached by a threatening animal, they would sooner fall asleep than fight back, let alone indicate any intent of resistance.

My brother Tucker was the only one who forced them to display signs of life, though in doing so he pricked at my nerves. He would interrupt my private pooping time by swinging the door open and tossing a cat on my bare lap, most of the time Snickers, who was the smallest and easiest to throw.

“Ah, Jesus Christ. Damnit, Tucker. Get it the hell outta here!” I pleaded.

Tucker ruined my poops at least once a week, which meant that at least once a week, the terrified cat would scamper around the hall corner and to the front door in hopes of escaping its hell. They would all try to escape, squeezing through the front door the moment it opened. Even when it snowed, the powdery pine tree outside our door seemed like a safer option to them. After a few months, we took the hint that the felines wanted out and gave them up for adoption.

Excluding my mom’s miserable experiment with Gretel, my family was relatively successful in keeping pets — successful in that none of them died on our watch. Having said that, labelling us as a family that presented an environment fit for an animal to survive? No one dared say that, which is why it was funny when the elderly, kind-hearted Sandy approached my mom, her friend of 20 years, with a request a few years later. She asked that we take care of her albino terrier, Abby, whose white coat had grown gray and grimy with the years.

Kerrigan was Sandy’s goddaughter, so she stepped forward to assume responsibility while Sandy and her husband went on a cruise somewhere in the Mediterranean.

“Oh, we won’t be gone be too long, and look,” she explained as she bent down to Abby’s industrial-sized bag of food, “all you have to do is pour one scoop a day.” The sack, big enough to constitute a body bag and clearly enough to last a few months, wasn’t the only food.

“That’s right, the cans, how could I forget!” Sandy said in her sweet, “I can do no evil” voice. The cans, she told Kerrigan, were her food every other day.

Abby, one of the only pets captured on camera | Photo provided by Graham von Carlowitz
Abby, one of the only pets captured on camera | Photo provided by Graham von Carlowitz

Abby was low maintenance and not difficult to care for, though her vision was steeply declining, as it should after 12 years. One time, when I was bringing the limping dog inside from her failed attempt at peeing, I grabbed the metal knob of the door and pulled it open. Abby, leading the way, recognized the step she had to clear and confidently went for it.

Thud.

In her brazen burst of energy, she had missed the entrance completely, bouncing off the adjacent wood frame instead.

“Oh, oh, oh, oh, you poor demented thing.” I picked Abby up and carried her inside.

A few weeks into her stay, my family had come to a few conclusions: first, Abby never ate the canned food, now a rotting puddle; second, she suffered from cataracts, which clouded her eyes in an eerie way; third, she smelled worse than the puddle of canned food; and fourth, Sandy, who could do no evil, see no evil, had forwarded the burden of a dying dog to us — a savvy move, I thought.

Normally, this would have been a fun, if morbid, experience, but we were preoccupied by the stubborn life of another pet, Snowball. Side by side, the obese bunny looked like a younger, more lively version of Abby. She was one of those bunnies you win at a festival and expect to stop breathing a few days afterwards, leading a life no more extravagant than a goldfish. As it was, Snowball lived past the two-day deadline, and so we had to buy a cage and tend to her for nearly five years.

Again, it was Jackson who stepped forward to love the thing hated by the rest of the household. Though Snowball chomped on his fingers when Jackson picked her up and littered turd pellets throughout the house like mini signs of its appreciation (which Abby would mistake for treats), Jackson cared for Snowball to an annoying degree.

He would insist that Snowball had been without food for two or three days and demand that we pick some up on our way home.

“Do we really have to get it food right now?” we all said at some point. Winston would then say what we were all thinking: “For God sakes, it’s a bunny, why should it get food before us? Can’t we just, you know, let it die?”

The thing about living in a big family is that food is scarce, and if you are hungry, it’s your fault if you can’t find anything. You are left to fend for yourself. Applying this logic to pets, though, doesn’t really work.

But there were exceptions.

This is how we came to enjoy Frank’s company. He never complained about a lack of nutrients in his diet, never whined because we didn’t pet him or even consider holding him, but maybe that’s just the nature of raccoons. In the summer of 2013, my dad got into a grilling groove, barbecuing every other night. Since he was so active, he thought it a waste of time to clean anything up, citing the merits of accumulated flavors on the grill after a few days as an excuse. This did not account for the mound of denuded ribs tossed in the grass, but we let it go because of Frank.

At first, he would just nibble at the scraps, slowly building a taste for habanero barbecue sauce. Then he noticed how we habitually left the screen door open and took this as an invite. Frank would let himself inside like a friend who knows he’s welcome and make his way to the nightly offering found in the kitchen garbage bag.

“Holy shit guys, come check it out,” my dad said the first time he spotted Frank in his upright snacking position. Jackson, Kerrigan and I leaned over his shoulder from the edge of the family room.

“How cute!” Kerrigan said. “We should name him!”

It was name by committee, and “Frank” won by a landslide.

Considering the hilarity of a bandit animal with a name best fitted for a 65-year-old, my dad exploded with a single burst of a laugh. Startled, Frank snapped his head and matched my father’s gaze for a second. We were all on edge, waiting silently, captivated. Then the raccoon returned to his rib, proving his loyalty, at least for the time being.

With Frank, there were no expectations of entertainment, as there had been with previous pets. He could come and go as he liked, lining up his visits with each barbecue session. We all accepted his routine with fervor, save for my mother, the voice of reason.

“You’re all going to get rabies in your sleep,” she foretold, “and when you do, I won’t take you to the hospital. You hear me?”

I didn’t understand the severity of this threat, of rabies in general, until recently. I listened to a Halloween edition of “This American Life,” a radio podcast, and learned through a hysteric survivor of a raccoon attack, Michelle, how rabies is quite scary. After wrestling with the raccoon, she eventually beat it to death with a stick.

The story of Frank thankfully ended without any beatings, as he never succumbed to a fit of rabies while in our presence. Sad, as I really was curious to take my mom up on her threat.

What if a few of my brothers and I awoke one morning to find each other snarling and foaming at the mouth? Answers vary depending on the brother.

If it was Tucker, I might think he had swished some of our shampoo around, using his mouth like a mini washing machine, and dismiss the urgency of the matter. But if it came to biting? Clay is the most-likely candidate to do so. His excuse could very easily be retribution for all the times I bit the meat of his hand when I needed to rid myself of that odd urge to clamp my mouth onto flesh.

If we responded with indifference, as I expect we would, we’d probably have died, and Frank would succumb to the kiss of death, too.

Considering his death got me to thinking about what my family’s pet cemetery might look like, what with the additions of both Snowball and Abby in 2014.

Abby was more fortunate, as she eventually returned to Sandy and died from old age.

Snowball was less fortunate, to put it incredibly mildly. Tucker had found her dead in its cage one day in December. It seemed that, after Frank had left, we grew increasingly forgetful of Snowball’s food ration — Frank had left in September.

You might call it neglect, to be nice, but Snowball’s death was more than that — it was practiced neglect, a shameful skill in most cases, but we proved that it can also be a trait passed on from a mother who forgot about her dog.

The neglect shone brighter post-mortem. Tucker grabbed Snowball, her cage and all, and carried her to the back porch, where she was treated like a boring homework assignment, left to be taken care of later. In this case, “later” amounted to three months, or the rest of winter.

When spring came around, the lifeless cage provided a nice juxtaposition to the blooming life that surrounded it. Trees danced in the wind, squirrels bounced gleefully about and a rotting Snowball was caught in the middle of the scene.

It was the correct spot for our pet cemetery, amid all the life and chaos of the world — our world, right on our back porch.

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