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 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 shouting two houses up. I raced to see what was happening, 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 (correction, evil) man decided “to teach the cat a lesson.” By killing it. Without thinking, I screamed, “No!” then scooped up the cat and ran off with it.
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. Period. 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 at night, 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 because of some 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 this 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: She couldn’t seem to grasp the idea of stay. She got sit. But if I moved away, she’d drag her posterior after me, technically maintaining a
“sitting” position, until she’d reached the object of her affection.
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 like I did her. She nipped it a few times for good measure, and then adopted it as her pet, and was happy again.
When she died, I cried without reservation.
The shell was gone.
To read Part Two, click here.