Known by Creatures We Keep

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I live in a city secretly run by cats and dogs. If I am basking in the sun along the river, nearby there are dogs performing athletic feats as they catch Frisbees in mid-air. Certainly at the parks it is clear we must share and share alike: broad thoroughfares are filled with vocal, leaping, racing canines. Occasionally, a cat on a leash mosies by. When on daily walks in the neighborhood, however, an eclectic array of cats slink across my path with their snaky or fluffy tails swaying, as though sent out to evaluate the rabble on their turf. The dogs are seldom seen outside; they keep guard from the picture windows, but solemnly, as though carrying out orders though they would rather be napping. Now and then they bark like mad. I do feel for them. The cats and I live the good life, indoors and also unleashed (for the most part) in the city wilds.

I faced up to it a long ago when I moved to Portland, Oregon: I may be in the minority here. Felines and canines are just the tip of the heaps and gatherings of animals of all classes that are well-beloved by their human roommates and handlers. I have seen or heard of ferrets and minks, turtles, salamanders and snakes, birds of every feather, fishes from ponds and wild blue seas, exotic animals I can barely identify much less relate to.

One of my friends had pet white rats. Rats! They are the one thing that might induce me to get a weapons–at least a BB gun–permit. The friend and I are still close and it may be partly because the rodents are gone. (One was accidentally crushed beneath her foot in the night; the other, who knows? I know, a terrible fate. To you maybe, not me.) Now I share her car with her dog, Gypsy, who brashly objects to my presence until she recalls she knows me.

All these animals running around in addition to cougars, coyotes, bears, deer, fishes, ample amounts of insects, birds and so on that we see or hear within the city limits. It is the Pacific Northwest, known for dense, pervasive rainforests and mountains (for starters), after all. A  mini-frontier to many, and wild things’ territory.

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I should make it clear: all this observation is not indicative of a lack of interest or fondness of animals, wild or tamed. Not at all. It is true I was raised by parents who held the notion that animals other than human ought to stay outdoors and earn their keep, meaning, participate in field and barnyard types of activities. Provide sustenance to folks as required. Keep watch for trespassers and sound out an alarm. Even if my mother was friendly with some of them, she was dispassionate about their passing. My father knew nothing about domestic animals of any sort, having been raised in town by parents who did not harbor pets. I suspect he thought them a novelty, attractive and capable of good tricks at best, filthy and irksome at worst. He loved aquariums, the best zoos and wildlife seen from a car or train.

When I was growing up, one of my sisters, A., had a number of cats, despite our other sister’s allergies and the parents’ rule of zero animals allowed. Apparently they deemed felines acceptable since they daily roamed outdoors, coming in for dinner and seeking shelter from inclement weather systems. Plus, they cleaned themselves thoroughly and delicately. Even though I was five years younger, I well remember her four-footed friends. They curled up on our beds and gave off rumbling, warm responses when stroked. They played when I was bored. They sneaked around like spies and pounced on their targets with glee, even if it was a wayward dust bunny. I thought them smart and pretty but an aside in my life. For A., my sister, they mean more than I could have imagined until one by one, they died. We lived on a very busy street. The cats did not dodge cars well.  I discovered one, once pure white, bloodied and limp, and it was terrifying. A.’s grief cut through my innocence: so this was loss of what you loved. I felt it yet from the edge of things. These defenseless beings were so easily taken down by the same sleek cars she and I loved to count and identify by year and make from our front porch.

I can’t say any of this encourage me to have pets as an adult. Nonetheless, there have been animals living among my tribe over the years. I can see them run by: Twiggy, a whippet felled by a virus; Max, a huge wooly mutt, given up in a divorce; Buddy, a Brittany Springer Spaniel who eventually zigzagged away, back to the ex-husband’s country acreage only because our son begged. I think he was a hunter’s companion soon after which, I have to admit, is a better destiny than the city life he had lived with a family of seven though he adored playing with us and making us run when he slipped out.

Then there was Miss Mandy.

It was my youngest who saw the “Free Kittens” sign at the curb. I warned myself to not give in. Alexandra found the runt, of course, the one who needed the most love, the petite calico kitten curling up in her arms like adoption was a foregone conclusion. Because it had been a hard year that included a move to a new state, I relented. As we adapted to each other Amanda soon became Miss Mandy. That cat knew what she wanted, demanded it with precision so she was given her way despite misgivings. We should have named her Spitfire or Divine Miss M. I can’t say she was the sort of cat I always looked forward to snuggling at the end of a long work day. Her voice, for one thing: tinny, sometimes a whiny screech, not the voice of a beloved friend. She had claws to match–they would as soon find our flesh as the scarred couch legs.  Miss Mandy was not fully devoted, as sometimes she adored us both, sometimes she found us a nuisance and irritation or one preferable and the other worthless. I had not bothered to research the personality traits of calico cats, but Miss Mandy was certifiably temperamental.


Of course we kept her. She lived with us for seventeen years, long after Alexandra had left to sample the world’s offerings. For one thing, Miss Mandy was a fair mouser, though she liked to bring them in before harassing them for hours, then grabbing them and taking them back out. Or I had to catch them when she found it tedious. She often offered up a melodious purr, which we all appreciated once she decided our laps were coveted spots. She played, chimed in with cat opinions, lazed in the sunshine like a lady of leisure, and otherwise filled out lives with interesting moments. Not to mention scratches that hurt like crazy. But I was quite allergic to her, discovered too late.

When she finally left us, aged and feeble, Alexandra and I were overcome with sorrow. I was a little surprised. I didn’t fancy myself that sort of pet lover. Yet Miss Mandy had been quite the eccentric family member and would be missed a long while. Even now.

In the end, I do not want another creature living in my home, not today or tomorrow. There was the worry about the traffic and Miss Mandy ending up like the white cat. And I moved from house to apartment. I live a life both active and engaged by many passions (including some travel). I enjoy my spouse and my solitude. I like it this way. And I appreciate all manner of animals in city, forests, high desert, rolling ranch and farm lands, seaside. I extol their virtues, note their peculiarities. It seems their lives are sometimes parallel to ours, different as can be yet often not so far beyond. I marvel at this. I do see and admire you, cat and dog; you see, hear and smell me better, I know.

Meanwhile, my son has raised a German Shepherd-wolf dog. I am fond of his dignified and intelligent ways, his calm protection of my grandchildren. Wolfie’s quiet alertness pulls me closer; he rarely barks or howls. It took some time for him to let me smooth his fine head, hug his thick chest. Now we exchange affection and news. I note how he rests, rises, lopes, circling and shepherding before resting again. He lords over everything without a fuss. Wolfie may frighten some but we find him elegant, gentle, easy. I am very happy to visit him whenever I want. You would agree he is part of the family. But, then, I always wanted a Husky; he’s close enough for now.

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