February 2017

Loving the Animals of the World

Author: Denise K. James

I lost the banana spider that lived on our back porch during a Lowcountry cold snap this winter. Over coffee one morning, I looked out at her web, saw her legs crumpled and knew right away that she was gone. Unlike most people, I felt a twinge of sadness at the poor spider’s death. I attribute this sadness to the fact that I’ve never owned a proper “pet,” that is, a cat, dog, guinea pig, bunny or the like. Therefore, I tend to bond with the animals of the world. Fortunately, the animals of the world (including other people’s pets, wild animals, bugs and arachnids) are plentiful.

My childhood was woefully lacking in a kitten or pup to grow up alongside me. I did have a younger sister, five years my junior, and together, we attempted to lure stray cats into the backyard, establish connections with the neighborhood German Shepherds and trap unsuspecting critters that were best left alone.

For example, we had a pet caterpillar once. His name was George Washington, Jr. and he was a cute, fuzzy little guy, doomed to die at our hands, most likely suffocated inside his plastic bag house. We loved him, of course—even gave him a proper burial after he was gone. Thus the years of our youth passed by with no real pet, only tales of the old family dog, Rex, who lived at our house before we were born. Eventually I graduated high school and became a college freshman, never having had a boyfriend, a drunken night out or a dog to feed at sundown.

Times have changed of course. I’ve fed lots of dogs and cats in my adult years, mostly belonging to good friends and housemates. Still, the glaring truth remains that I have never personally owned a pet.

And, just as people become anxious when I tell them I’m single with no kids, they’re anxious when I announce my lack of a traditional furry friend. I’ve been urged, more lately than ever, to adopt a kitty or doggie in order to enrich my life, and I’ve considered it. I even fostered an entire cat family last September, a mom and her two kittens, while my roommate was traveling for work.

It was a spontaneous decision. I left my office early, drove to the nearest animal rescue shelter and sat in a plastic chair for at least an hour-and-a-half, waiting for someone to bring me a cat carrier with a family inside. While I waited, I spoke to the other hopeful foster parents in the room and was surprised to discover that I was not the only first-timer. We traded abbreviated versions of our fears and reasons regarding reaching out to animals in need, until one by one we departed, four-legged houseguests in tow.

My own mother cat and kittens stared at me suspiciously as a smiling employee handed me the carrier, but I felt satisfied with my choice; they would warm up soon enough. I gingerly set the carrier on the back seat of my car and drove home, rounding corners more carefully than I thought possible. I didn’t want to upset or scare them. I think I even played soothing folk music.

Once we got to my house, I coaxed them out of captivity, fed them an enticing meal of wet food, and prepared a litter box. Though I’ve had plenty of roommates (and plenty of cat roommates), these three seemed special, somehow, and I sought to be a kind and gentle hostess. I was thrilled when they all started exploring my bedroom and when the babies wedged themselves in my bookshelves, peering out from between literary classics and short story anthologies. I have to admit, I temporarily became one of those Internet cat people, snapping photos of their undeniable cuteness for the world to see.

So they hung out at my house for a couple of weeks, meowing nonstop late at night, nuzzling me when they felt like it and swiping litter recklessly around the bathroom with their paws. I still think about them—mostly the mother cat, for whom I felt a special affection. (My friend Mandie, a veterinarian, advised me not to adopt the mother cat due to her health problems.) I have not fostered since, but my laundry room has a half filled bag of litter and some cheap cat toys just in case I do.

As far as dogs go, well, given their popularity amongst my family and friends, I have no shortage of pooches to visit, even dog sit. There’s my friend Mandie’s lab mix, Loca; my Uncle Joe’s springer, Pepper; my Uncle Philip’s boykin, Cocoa; my friend Michelle’s goldendoodle, Zeus; my friend Jenny’s greyhound, Kiawah; my friend Joy’s beagle mix, Roux; my coworker’s Yorkie, Piper—you get the idea.

But I don’t bother to talk at length about the dogs or cats I’ve come to know and love whenever friendly conversationalists question how, exactly, I’ve made it well into my 30s without calling a pet mine and mine alone. As far as I’m concerned, any living animal counts as my pet, from horses that draw carriages in the Lowcountry to the banana spider on my porch.

Perhaps I don’t care for them in the sense of tending a food dish in the evenings or combing them free of excess dirt and fur, but each animal, small or large, that crosses my path, finds a space in my heart, which has the room to spare, never having had a single “pet” to fill all of its chambers. I wish well and want the best even for creepy, unattractive beasts, like the possum that lurks around our neighborhood at night. Maybe, deep down, they all remind me of George Washington, Jr. I hope somewhere, somehow, he’s become a butterfly. 

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