How Animals Teach Us to be Human


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. imagesI 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, GoldenIrishManhattanPuppy4and 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.

bunnyminilopSuddenly 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.

Much more.

About mitchteemley

Writer, Filmmaker, Humorist, Thinker-about-stuffer
This entry was posted in Culture, Humor, Memoir, Story Power and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

35 Responses to How Animals Teach Us to be Human

  1. Donita K. Paul says:

    Oh, Mitch. This brought tears to my eyes. My pets have saved me on several occasions, Not from death but like a cool drink of water while abandoned on a desert island, they’ve given me the refreshment of soul that I needed. Thank you for this reminder that God’s creatures are His to use as He deems fit.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. mitchteemley says:

    Thank you, and Happy New Year, Donita!


  3. Kelly Anne Liberto says:

    If only we could be more like them~ “only less drooly”…still cracks me up. 😀

    Liked by 1 person

  4. barbara says:


    Liked by 2 people

  5. Susie Ries says:

    I had a dog , Flossie, for almost 18 years. Faithful friend. Would cry if you were gone for a day or if you just backed the car out of the driveway and pulled right back in- we did this to test her! 24 hours or 30 Seconds for the same crying-wiping-Her-eyes reaction. If I was sick, she was on the bed. She would stand back and let all
    Our other dogs and/or cats eat first. When I went off to Ohio university she was old, blind and deaf. My parents came to Visit, took me Out for ice cream ( what?) and as mom walked me to my dorm, told me they’d had Flossie out to sleep. I remember running screaming to my room Without saying goodbye to my poor mother. I still dream about that dog. She was perfect .

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Matilda Novak says:

    This was so Good, Mitch….Heart-meltingly good.
    Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. aunnielauren says:

    Entirely lovely. I adore the photos of these loved ones!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. mitchteemley says:

    Reblogged this on Mitch Teemley and commented:

    There’s something about pets and this time of year…


  9. Laurie Welch says:

    I could cry buckets over dog and cat lives and deaths, my own animal companions and others’, but I think this is the first time I ever cried over a rabbit. And I am not ashamed….thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  10. toutparmoi says:

    Thank you, Mitch. Lovely memories, lovely writing.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Nancy Ruegg says:

    Thank you for sharing these precious, heart-touching memories. If nothing else, our pets teach us unconditional love and loyalty–even kindness. As for Flopsy-Jean, perhaps her cheek-resting gesture was to tell you that all would be well and she will be waiting for you in heaven (Romans 8:19-21).

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Such a fantastic tribute to what animals teach us. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  13. BARBARA says:


    Liked by 1 person

  14. Animals are so unpretentious, and their emotions are always genuine. No wonder we get so attached to them.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. What a sweet post. Ahhhh. 😉

    I’ve learned a lot from animals too, and I do think God often speaks to us through them. It’s no accident that dog is God spelled backwards. Our latest is a jack russell we acquired right after my husband’s brother passed away. Sure enough the dog was born on my husband’s birthday ….and shared the same name as his brother.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. ray stiles says:

    Hi Mitch, your stories are so personal and thought provoking. I was particularly touched by your story about Flopsy-Jean Teemley. Did you read to you children the classic adventure novel Watership Down?

    I particularly enjoyed reading bedtime stories to my kids, but I would have never thought about writing fantasy bedtime stories for children. How brilliant, fortunately my childrens mother was an avid animal lover and we had may cats and what seams like hundreds of aussie pups that we bread from two really wonderful Australian Shepherds, and a couple rose breasted cockatoos and an arabian and paint quarter horse and not to paraphrase groucho out of context, but… ” I’m going to find another woman I don’t like and buy her a house with a barn full of farm animals too”.

    Anyways, I never realize you actually lived in La Mirada, since my family moved to La Mirada in 1968 and I seem to remember when we first met shortly there after you were living with your parents near the Los Coyotes Country Club in Buena Park. I can still remember the exceptional response for the Daily Planet’s original songs at the Los Coyotes Country Club and that really bizarre gig at some nightclub in south central LA as the new opening act for Solomon Burke. I feel like that gig was the beginning of the end for the Daily Planet?

    I am also curious to know about your high school sweetheart that broke your heart, since you know I went through a similar break-up with my high school girlfriend? I was thinking about calling Marc to find out if he had any clues to figuring out what happened to Rory and Beverly Dickinson, but maybe knowing more about your high school sweetheart could help Marc get us another step closer.

    Peace and love from your real smart car friend!

    Liked by 1 person

    • mitchteemley says:

      Watership Down is one of our favorite books, but, no, we never read it to our daughters (our oldest, Mandy, has read it on her own). I’m not surprised you’ve had an animal-rich home over he years. I thought we’d met a La Mirada High. No?


      • ray stiles says:

        I think you had already graduated from La Mirada High, we must have either met through Jeff Ward, who lived across the street from where I lived with my parents Tacuba Dr, on maybe through Marc, since he was best friends w/ Jeff Ward, or maybe through Teri Wise?

        So, based on your store above, the question remains the same to get us another step closer to finding Rory and Beverly, was your high school sweetheart that broke your heart Toni Wise, since Teri and I also frequently double-dated with Toni and Marc? :^)


  17. ray stiles says:

    dang, I hate typos!!!


  18. My FAVORITE post of the week. I love your heart. ❤

    Liked by 1 person

  19. Lucie says:

    Lovely post, Mitch…The Princess introduced me to animals (especially cats) and I have to admit…my life is much enriched by them. As I write this, My Boo Boo is curled up next to my arm..

    Liked by 1 person

  20. Ray Stiles says:

    I thought you wanted an update on the whereabouts of Rory Dickenson?


    • mitchteemley says:

      I do, indeed, Ray. Please to let me know if/when you learn anything more. (WordPress only allows me to respond once to a comment.)


      • Ray Stiles says:

        Oh, okay, then please dm me on fb… I’ve been trying to find out what happened to Rory from when we backpacked from Tahoe over the Donner Pass to Tualamy Medows in Yosemite. He was actually on his way to explore Alaska, but for some strange reason he decided to go home with me.

        Liked by 1 person

  21. Hi mitchteemly. Its ashame people do not respect animals! Thank you so much for liking my poem ‘Perfection!’ Peace and Best Wishes. The Foureyed Poet.

    Liked by 1 person

  22. smzang says:

    You had this reader crying right along with you. I have a 13 year old long haired tabby.
    She still plays like a kitten and is plump as can be (just shy of 11 pounds). She has been
    a part of my life for so long, I can’t imagine saying goodbye to her.

    Liked by 1 person

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