The animals I’ve loved have taught me far more than I’ve taught them. For example: Animal behaviorists say that cats are loners. And this is sometimes mistaken for proof that cats don’t care. False. I know this because I’m a loner, and the person that first taught me to care was a tiger-striped tabby named Zipper.
We moved to the L.A. suburb of La Mirada when I was seven. I was a dreamy only-child who lived in his head and had yet to find a friend. Then one day I heard screaming two houses up the block. I ran to see what was going on and discovered a man beating a skinny little cat with a broom. The man’s daughter had trapped it under a milk basket, claiming it followed her home. So the overstressed (make that evil) man decided “to teach the cat a lesson.” By killing it. Without thinking, I scooped it up and ran off.
We had nearly a dozen cats during the years I was growing up, and all distributed their affections equally. Except Zipper. I was Zipper’s hero. And he was my BFF (best feline friend). He walked me to the corner when I headed for school and met me there when I came home. He listened attentively as I read aloud under the covers, then put his head on the pillow beside mine and saw me off to other worlds. When my first human friend arrived, the lesson Zipper had taught me was clear:
A true friend is always there—to send you off and welcome you home.
A decade passed. I hadn’t cried in years. Somehow, whether due to a hormonal shift or the break-up up with my high school sweetheart, I’d grown a shell of emotional sterility, and had come to accept it as my new norm. But the moment I brought Ginnie (half Irish Setter, half Golden Retriever, all love) home from the animal shelter she began to chew away the shell.
At first I thought she was stupid because she couldn’t seem to grasp the idea of stay. She got sit. But if I moved away, she’d drag her padded posterior after me, being faithful to remain in a “sitting” position, until she’d reached her beloved.
When we ran out of money and moved back in with my parents, Mom bought a life sized stuffed German shepherd “just for fun” and put it in the den. Ginnie was heart-broken. She lay down in a corner and stayed there for days (now she got stay). I finally dragged the faux-shepherd over to her, and punched it to show I didn’t love it the way I loved her. She nipped it a few times for good measure, then adopted it as her pet, and was happy again.
When she died, I cried without reservation.
The shell was gone.
Flopsy-Jean Teemley was a chocolate brown Holland lop, and the first child my wife Trudy and I raised together. We’d only been married a few months when we spotted her in a bunny bin at a local pet shop. She was ridiculously cute. But she was also wild and afraid. Rabbits survive by running away, so she spent the first week in her new home cowering in corners. I complained to Trudy that I’d wanted a real pet, not an untamable thing that couldn’t love me back.
It wasn’t until our friend Mary ruffled Flopsy’s fur backwards that we discovered the key to her heart: she may have been of Dutch heritage, but she was a total fan of Swedish massage. Somehow, wildly aggressive rubbing demonstrated trust and affection to her in a way that nothing else could. When we did this she’d turn into a happily mesmerized bunny rug. Soon she was waiting at the door when we came home, racing excitedly around our feet, and performing “crazed bunny” leaps for our delight.
By the time our first human child was born, Flopsy was middle-aged. She was wary of this teetering creature, and soon resigned herself to letting it be the new household entertainer. But she was always near, a permanent member of the family no matter who else was added.
Flopsy-Jean was seven when she began to die. She’d remained in her hutch for nearly two weeks, refusing to eat or even sip at her water bottle. I went to check on her, fearing to find her dead. I put a few oats in front of her—nothing—then stood and started to walk away.
Suddenly there was movement in the corner of my eye. Somehow, after remaining motionless for nearly a week, Flopsy had managed to climb out of her hutch and drag herself over to me. I bent down and stroked her nose. She nudged my hand. So I got down on my belly, face to face with her.
And then, in as clear a “goodbye” as I’ve ever received, she pressed her cheek against mine and just held it there. I wept, told this formerly wild animal I loved her, gently cradled her in my arms, and then carried her back to her hutch.
By the next morning she was gone. But not from my heart.
It was the most profound communion I’ve ever experienced with an animal. I knew—knew—that God was speaking to me through her. What He was saying I’m still unraveling. That He means for us to love and learn from animals—certainly. But more, I suspect.