The dog-sitter

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It was hard to get good help those days. The Brown family had a bear, a young one, mind you, to tend the children. The Nelsons, however, had a dog. You might say having a dog to keep the children company was to be expected, and it was, but not in this way.

Simon was a spaniel mix of some sort. They weren’t sure. It wasn’t like they got him from a kennel. He was found along with his littermates under their back shed one spring day, all mewling and trembling. All of them were cute, but only Simon was attuned to them.

They’d gone to check on the litter several times, admiring the way the mother was caring for them. This was probably her first litter, but she was doing great, like this was her favorite thing to do. The Nelsons had heard of animal mothers instinctually knowing what to do, and this one sure did. They wondered how it was possible that some “lesser” animal could know more about tending an infant than humans did. Maybe humans did know, they’d just forgotten in the race to be “civilized”. Maybe they still knew, very deep down.

They found homes for the rest of the puppies, but Simon they had to keep. He was too perfect to give away. They’d only briefly considered giving him a dog name like King or Spot, but no such name fit him. He really was like a human in dog form, so they gave him a human name. He was a full-fledged member of the family then, albeit one who slept in the garage.

That was until they had their third child. There was no time for taking off from work, no money for daycare. Mr. and Mrs. Nelson’s parents had died long before they got married, so there were no free babysitters to be had. So Simon would have to do.

He was normally a very serious and sober dog, but he became even more so when they put his uniform on. It was as if he knew he was on duty once they dressed him in his apron and cap.

Simon was the best babysitter they could have ever hoped for. He was alert to every cry and always made sure the baby was warm enough. He’d either drag a blanket over her or just lay down next to her.

There was only one problem. The baby thought Simon was her mother, and refused to even recognize her real mother when she returned home from work. It was as if her own mother was a piece of furniture that moved. She didn’t hate her mother – she didn’t even know her to hate her. Simon was all she’d ever needed and not even known it.

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Lost and found penguin

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Sara thought Petey was her brother, and nobody had the heart to tell her otherwise. They’d grown up together, after all. Sarah and her mom had found him hopping on the shoreline near their home in Athenree, New Zealand. Rockhoppers were all over the coast, but it was rare for one to venture into Shelly Bay.

They left him where he was, and her mom promised that they would check on him the very next day. The toddler wanted to take him home right then but her mom said they didn’t have anything for him to eat. Sara didn’t think that was a good enough reason because she knew the Four Square market was open. Mama had to admit she was worried that he might be lost and looking for his family. She hadn’t wanted to say that, not knowing how Sara would take it. Would she feel for him, be sad that he was alone, and then insist on adopting him right away? This was not a situation she wanted to deal with on a Tuesday afternoon. She just wanted to go on a wander with her daughter and then come home to afternoon tea and a nap, preferably in that order.

Sara was concerned, but not overly so, and Mama again assured her they’d come back tomorrow and check on him. She hoped that he’d be gone and forgotten by then. Children have such short memories, and sometimes that was a blessing.

The rest of the day passed uneventfully. Mama had forgotten about the little lone penguin by the next afternoon. But he hadn’t forgotten about them. As soon as she opened the garage door to leave for their daily walk, he was standing there in the side yard. Sara shrieked with delight and started to run towards him. She hadn’t forgotten about him at all. Mama called to her to stay away but it was too late. She was already embracing him in a full-on hug as only a toddler can. It was a hug that was a bit like a tackle and a lot like a reunion after a wartime deployment. Fortunately the penguin seemed to be just as enthusiastic, flapping his stubby wings and chirruping in high-pitched squeals. You would have thought they were long-lost friends if they were of the same species.

Mama stood there in amazement, taking in the scene. Maybe he had followed them home? They lived not far from the shoreline, and there weren’t any roads he (Mama assumed it was a he – how do you to tell?) would have had to cross. How long had he been there? Sara’s voice broke through her musings.

“Mama he’s here! Our Petey!” she exclaimed in delight, her face lighting up like the sun.

“Sara, sweetheart, we can’t keep him, he’s a wild animal. There are laws about this.” She wasn’t certain about this but it sounded very parental to say. “And Petey? Is that his name?” – knowing that naming a pet meant it was harder to get rid of it. Name it and keep it. Anonymous animals came and went, but named ones stayed. How did she come up with Petey? They didn’t have any friends or relations named that. It wasn’t out of any picture book they’d gotten from the library to read at bedtime.

“He told me his name was Petey!” Sara beamed, and she hugged him all the more. He seemed a little overwhelmed and on the verge of being smothered by this point, but overall still quite happy to be found. Mama wondered if Sara could translate his squeaks and chitters. “How did he tell you, baby?” She used her most reasonable voice now. This wasn’t in her plans. Daniel would be upset when he came back from his business trip tomorrow to discover they had adopted a penguin. Or a penguin had adopted them. She wasn’t sure.

“He told me in my heart,” Sara said, and letting go of her newfound best friend with one hand, she placed it over her heart to show her mom. Sometimes she had to point things out to her mom to make sure she understood. Even toddlers know that parents can be a little dense sometimes.

Sara’s mom wasn’t sure how to take this. Was her daughter making things up again? Or was this a sign of a mental illness? It was hard to separate the two sometimes. Was this why so many artists and writers went off the deep end? This wasn’t going so well. She was supposed to be the adult, after all, supposed to be in charge. Toddlers weren’t supposed to run the show, although they often did. Adults just thought they were in control. Meanwhile, toddlers determined when and if they slept, and where and how they ate. The fact that Sara was an only child amplified her power over her parents.

It was not long before Petey became a member of the family. He lived outside, however, so he wasn’t a full member. Mama thought it was safer all around to not bring him inside, and the weather was always mild where they lived. She was concerned that if they brought him in they’d have to notify the animal control department. But if he lived outside, they could still think of him as “wild” and he could come and go as he wished. If they brought him in there might be shots and laws to be considered. Plus, there was always the thought that it wasn’t fair to keep him in. Daniel, once he got home and was consulted, remembered a roommate he’d had in college who’d kept a bird in a cage as a pet. He’d always thought there was something cruel and vain about that, because birds aren’t meant to live inside like dogs or cats. They are meant to be free. Penguins were birds too, after all.

Sara’s parents started to think of Petey as their second child, and while they never said that out loud to friends or coworkers, they were never so bizarre as to refer to him as their “featherbaby”. He was an animal, a quasi-pet. They loved him, but he wasn’t human.

Except to Sara. She remained the only child that Mr. and Mrs. Fullerton had, so she didn’t know any different. To her, Petey was her younger brother. It didn’t matter to her that he never learned how to speak English and never went to school. She understood that he was a little different than her friend’s siblings, and she was OK with that. All of her childhood she looked forward to going home after school and getting to see her best friend, who still waddled about in the back yard, still pleased as punch to see her.

“Furbaby”

Please for the love of all that is holy in this world, stop calling your dog or your cat your “furbaby.” I get it. I get that you don’t want to think of your dog or your cat as a pet. He or she is like a member of the family. But a dog or a cat is not a child, no matter how fondly you think of it.

You didn’t give birth to it. You weren’t even pregnant with it.

You don’t have to save up for its college education.

You can leave it alone in the house when it is very young and not get arrested.

It won’t ever call you at 3 a.m. for bail money.

It won’t ever ask for keys to the car.

The only crossover is that perhaps you might find out one day that it is unintentionally pregnant – but there too, the comparison ends. You would go to jail if you advertised in the newspaper that your daughter’s children were “free to a good home.” Then, let’s consider those people who are dog breeders. They sell the offspring. That too would be illegal if they were human.

Please. No more “furbaby.” Let the term die. It is bizarre.

“Free to a good home”

How often have you seen a message like this?

“Free to a good home. We are moving and we just can’t take Fluffy with us. She’s been fixed and she has all her shots. If she isn’t adopted in a week I’m afraid to say we are going to have to take her to the shelter.”

Or something like this – “Now that we have a new baby, we just can’t keep Spot. He’s really friendly but we just don’t have time for him.”

While I cringe at the new term “furbaby,” perhaps it is useful here. A pet is a member of the family. Fluffy and Spot were chosen to live at home, with you, by you. No, they aren’t children in the true sense. You don’t have to deal with morning sickness or labor with them. You don’t have to have someone with them until they are 12. You don’t have to save up for their college fund. You might have to worry about them coming home pregnant, but unlike real children you can prevent that problem with an inexpensive operation.

But they are family. They are dependent on you. They need you. You provide their food and shelter. You provide a home for them. Dogs and cats and any other pet are not accidentally in your home. You chose to have them there. You can’t back out and “take them to the shelter” when you find that you don’t have the time or patience for them.

Because “take them to the shelter” is just newspeak for murder.

Sure, some unwanted pets get adopted at the shelter. But most get “put to sleep,” or “put down.” Translation – killed. Does this term make you wince? It should. We are operating under a fantasy that when we take our pets to the shelter they will be adopted and loved. The shelters are overfull and understaffed. There aren’t enough people who come by to adopt. Pets that are there after a few days are killed. Is this fair for you to do to your pet, your “furbaby”? Oh, you might say that you aren’t killing Fluffy or Spot, but killing by proxy is still killing.

Do we do the same with our children when they get to be too much? No? Then why do we do it to our animal children? They are just as dependent on us.

Some people think they are giving their unwanted pets a second chance by releasing them out into the country instead of taking them to the shelter. Surely Fluffy and Spot will revert to their original non-domesticated nature and do just fine. I have a friend who lives out in the country and she assures me that she sees the results of this kind of thinking all the time. Fluffy and Spot don’t suddenly learn how to hunt for food. Instead, they become food for coyotes. Actually, they are lucky if this happens. Otherwise, they suffer a long slow death from starvation.

If you can’t commit to at least twelve years of supporting a dog or cat, don’t get one. They aren’t mandatory. You aren’t required to have one.

If you do get a pet, get it fixed as soon ask possible to prevent an unwanted litter. I’ve heard that guys are the least likely to get their male dogs fixed. They seem to take it personally that their male dog has no testicles. Trust me, dogs do not suffer from the same gender identity issues.