Monday, November 24, 2008

Four-legged Family Tree

My parents lost their beloved cat, Stewball, to kidney failure this past weekend. Though we haven’t lived under the same roof for more than 10 years, Stewball and his sister Puff hold a special place in my personal pet history. They weren’t the first strays I brought home - my apologies, again, Dad, for the flea-infested spaniel I invited into your back seat . . . oh, and the sodden shepard I schlepped across the state, also in your back seat - but they were the first who stayed.

They weren’t the first pets I ever kept, of course. I had a caterpillar (for about 4 hours), goldfish and guinea pigs and other small mammals. But I longed for a dog. Also a cat. Unfortunately, my father was violently allergic to both. Moving beyond companions that require caging looked unlikely, until the third grade, when desperation drove me to threaten to kill myself if we didn’t get a dog. That move scored me a border collie mix (Tippy) and a shrink (Dr. Schwartz). My parents were relieved when Dr. Schwartz assured them I wasn't actually suicidal, I just REALLY wanted a dog.

I should have been satisfied. But I REALLY wanted a cat, too. I indulged many of my animal loving impulses volunteering with animal rescue groups and working as a kennel attendant (aka pooper scooper) at a veterinary hosiptal. When two tiny kittens were abandoned there, I should have enjoyed them on the clock, leaving them available for adoption by any one of the many families who are always looking for tiny kittens. Instead, I brought them home and hid them in my closet.

At sixteen, I wasn't quite naive enough to believe my parents wouldn't notice. I just needed my mom - a lifelong cat lover who hadn't owned one since marrying my dad - to notice them first. This scheme was a grand success.: my dad was no match for my mom, my sister, me, and two tiny kittens. We named them Stewball and Puff, after the Peter, Paul and Mary songs he used to sing to us every night when we were smaller.

Stewball was most attached to my parents, and Puff to my sister, Kristin, so when I headed off to college the cats stayed at home. (Puff and Kristin have stayed together through Kristin's many moves since.) Once out on my own, I was finally free to accumulate animals without restriction. I started with Elliott, a Rhodesian Ridgeback who slept in my bed and shared my ice cream for several years.

Elliott and I shared a small duplex with a Chihuahua mix named Charles for awhile,

After finding a forever home for Charles, we welcomed Tiberius, a Rottweiler mix, for a few months.

My best friend Ginger and her cat, Jack, shacked up with us for a stretch.

Once I learned that Elliott adored cats, I adopted Rourke.

While in college, I continued to work at vet hospitals, which made aquiring new animals all too easy. Rourke was soon joined by Seymour.

And then Keller.

With Elliott finally past puppyhood, I was ready to add another dog to the menagerie, and brought home Romney, my first Dane. Although he'd gotten along well with other dogs until then, once Elliott determined Romney wasn't temporary, he became increasingly aggresive. Despite months of work with a dog trainer to overcome some dangerous issues, I couldn't bring him around. Romney already had a number of health problems, and so wasn't a good candidate for rehoming. Eventually I placed Elliott with another family with the stipulation that he remain an only dog; he thrived with them. Romney never seemed to mind sharing me or our home with an unfamiliar furry face, so after Elliott left us, I signed up to foster through the animal shelter and another local rescue group, and we became something of a revolving-door pet hostel.

First, we fostered Ezra.

And Ezra's sister, Kiri.

Then Sophie,

and her six puppies:

Emmett,Linus,Roscoe,Emma,and Gus.

We fostered for friends, too. Eli, a bullmastiff, who looked like a short, stumpy version of Romney.

And Willow, a husky/wolf mix who loved nothing more than to wake me in the morning by laying his cat litter-matted muzzle on my pillow.

It was a fur-filled few years (at one point I lived with 3 adult dogs, 6 puppies, and 5 cats in 1100 square feet).Other foster animals who weren't with us as long - Annie, the Dobie mix; Bob, the Pit Bull; and Ubu, the cat who never came out from under the bed - didn't make it into the family album, but they all left their mark on my heart.

Eric and I met in the midst of all this, and his embrace of my menagerie of mutts made me love him all the more. Eventually, after graduating from law school, getting married, and moving across the country, we settled down with our permanent pooch, Romney, and two cats.


and Anthem.

About four years ago, we decided it was time to liven things up again and Atticus (aka "The Monkey") joined our family. Romney patiently endured Atticus' puppyhood, shielding us from the worst of razor-sharp puppy teeth and playful swipes of paw. He was a magnificant friend to our whole family, the gentlest of giants. We lost him to liver cancer three years ago, and we still miss him every day.

These days, our house feels full with one busy toddler, two clingy cats, and one very needy Great Dane. Fortunately, they all get along exceptionally well. Violet understood "gentle touches" early on, and she lavishes the animals with them. She and Anthem adore each other; whenever we're nursing in the same room he's in, he'll lie down beside her or at her feet, and she'll reach out and stroke him while she nurses. She's become quite attached to Atticus recently, too, and now must go and say goodbye to him each morning before we leave (he doesn't get out of bed until much later). Though even just three pets can border on chaotic when compounded by a kid, it's absolutely worth it to watch them with her. Now to remind myself of that the next time the dog slobbers on her dinner tray . . .

In memory of Stewball, 1991-2008


Anonymous said...

What a great story! Thanks for sharing.

Ginger, Allen, Fern, and Horace the cat said...

Thanks for the pictures of my Willow Bean and Jack and Charles. I don't have any pictures of Willow on Guam so this was so nice to see. I love the story.

Mat and Kristin said...

That was fun to see all those little and big guys again! I think I met almost all of them. You just can't help but love them all.

Jenn said...

good to see that I'll be able to survive having three dogs (dalmatian, cocker and jack russell terrier) AND a baby! Hopefully my little dude will learn "gentle touches" as well :)

Nice to see all the animals you've helped over the years