Friday, May 8, 2009

Loving animals

Loving animals was not a significant part of our household as I was growing up. Oh, we had a dog -- a high-strung puddles-on-the-floor-during-every-thunderstorm cocker spaniel. Her name was Lochinvar, because my mother's ancestrally Scottish family had dogs named Lochinvar for 150 years. But Locky was really my mother's dog, despite having arrived under the tree "for little Diggitt" when I was three.

Duke the Dog accompanied me when I went off in 1970 to see America before it burned, and lived with me on West 81st Street until I moved to London. Katie Cat lived in my London house and gave me my first real experience of an animal's idiosyncracies.

But I am indebted to Lydia's dad for insisting that we get a ferret so our little girl could have a pet. In a household with allergies, cats and dogs were out but he had read that ferrets were allergen-free. So following up an ad in the Pennysaver, he and three-year-old Lydia met some strangers in a parking lot and for $50 received a cage and Ferris (whose name was immediately changed to Ferrous, in honor of the Steel Valley). Inset picture: postcard ferret that looks a lot like Ferrous.

Over the next ten years, we had seven ferrets altogether. Once we started we just couldn't stop! The only thing cuter than one is two. The only thing cuter than two is three. The only thing cuter than three ferrets is four ferrets! Lydia and I used to drop into a pet store in Central Avenue just to look at their ferrets -- as if when we were out on errands, we needed a ferret fix.

The owner asked me one day, "Don't you already have a ferret?"

"Actually, we have four," I answered.

He fixed his eye upon me. "I hear they do best by fives," he said.

Dr. Tepper, the local vet, said to me one day, "You're not the kind of person I would expect to have ferrets, " he said. I asked him what he meant.

"Oh, ferret owners tend to be ... you know, anti-establishment types," he explained. He was too nice to say, you know, trailer trash. Ferrets are not found in upper-middle-class households; probably the stench of the poacher is on them, from Europe, and will never go away.

Ferrets can always be found in the pockets of Dan Mallett, the poacher/detective in Frank Parrish's short-lived (alas!) series of detective stories. Except when he "be thieven or wenchen," as his mother would say. Dan Mallett is without a doubt the most attractive good-and-bad guy in all of detective literature; in the books no woman can resist him and goodness know I couldn't either. He loves his little guys although so far as we know, they are nameless.

The etymology of ferret is Latin or maybe Anglo-French, but whichever word it comes from, the meaning was thief (same root as furtive), and in fact many of our stories about Ferrous, Eric, Popper, Boudicca, LeWeasel, Tequila,and Sherlock come from their thieving. Thieving or not, all our stories relate to their curiosity or sense of fun.

Fun? Once, on the Friday that spring break started, our neighbors were to leave for Paris but a blizzard hit. They couldn't get to the kennel, so they asked us if we could take Charlie the Yorkie overnight and deliver him to the kennel the next day. So Charlie came for the night to a house with four ferrets. They had a field day with Charlie! One after another would creep out with a clear "Let's play!" message. The ferret would run, Charlie would chase, and the ferret would dash into a hole at the bottom of the couch. Charlie would run around to the back of the couch. Then he'd reappear with a great big question mark over his head. Then another ferret would appear and chitter at him, and it would start over. Finally Charlie caught on that somehow ferrets went to a place he couldn't get to ... but it was clearly fun for the ferrets while it lasted. And it lasted for nine days because we never took Charlie to the kennel ... it was just a hoot having him around.

So why do I bring up small animals? Because of this article about veterinarian Dr Chris Carskaddan, whose mission is clearing for entry into the U.S. the pets that our soldiers have adopted overseas. It acknowledges so much: the big acknowledgements are the humanity of our soldiers and the need for us all to be in touch with animals.

And the post several days ago when I included the video of the laughing rats? Terry responded saying that's a good reason for being vegetarian like she is. I'm working on it, folks. Most of the time now I don't eat anything with a face either. I'm not proselytizing; eating lower down the food chain is a greener way to live as well.

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