Tag Archives: Pets

A Domestic Bestiary


First there is the TABBY, seventeen years old, spry but of poor temper. She will tolerate petting for only a moment, then it’s nature red in tooth and claw. She has a restroom all her own while the four human residents of the house must share one between them. She eats nuggets of dry cat food one at a time, fishing them out of a bowl with her paw. After several minutes she will vomit up the mess and eat it a second time. She is a connoisseur of banana and cantaloupe, and of whistling.

Until recently, six EARTHWORMS lived in a styrofoam bowl kept in the refrigerator. This past week they moved to large plastic water bottle filled with alternating layers of soil and sand and capped off with wilting lettuce. Their life and habits will be studied by the children who have, so far, named only one of them (“Wormy”).

Since time immemorial, the daughter of the house has kept SNAILS. We have two of them now and neither one cares for arugula. One of our former snails managed to escape from his jar. He made a slow-motion midnight dash across the countertop undetected and was never seen again.

The occasional HOUSEFLY slips in the front door for the purpose of keeping yours truly from sleep until I’ve risen in my pajamas to stalk the intruder with bow and lantern. After a half-hour of desperate combat, by a lucky shot with a rubber band, the infiltrator is blasted to fragments. The smudge of his spent biography is wiped from the wall without remorse.

In the kitchen is a mason jar of very small GUPPIES. These are pretty fish with nervous manners. They sparkle somewhat in the afternoon light and move by a strange choreography: keeping still for a moment, making a quarter turn, keeping still, turning, etc. If they are worried, they’re right to be. These guppies are maintained in our home only to serve as food for

The baby GARTER SNAKE recently purchased for my son, which is proving itself as poor a sport as the household cat. Garter snakes, we were told at the pet shop, do not bite. This is a lie. “Edward Shoelace” hadn’t been at home with us for fifteen minutes when he bit my daughter hard enough to draw blood. Half the day and all night long, the little snake buries himself in the dirt of his terrarium.

Finally, on the windowsill by the record player we have a colony of SEA MONKEYS (which is a heraldic name for brine shrimp). These live in a state of utter savagery and dissolution, constantly engaged in acts of cannibalism and incest. Their colony was founded a year ago and untold generations have come and gone. The population fluctuates between two and eight adults. Children are hard to count since they’re so small on hatching and are generally eaten by their parents. The few that make it to adulthood are the most depraved and enter wholeheartedly into perpetual sexual congress with their siblings and feasting after the style of Kronos.

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Notes on New Year’s Eve

The year closes with unexpected guests, unexpected gifts, and snapshots from a sixty-year-old funeral.

We found a grasshopper in the kitchen. I don’t know what usually happens to grasshoppers in winter time, whether they go into hibernation or simply die when it gets cold. I like to think that this one heard rumors of my daughter’s affection for all insects, snails and slugs, and so made a desperate trek through storm and hazard (he’s missing a leg) in hope of adoption. Which he’s now found. ‘Salty’ (from the Spanish saltamontes) is nicely set up in a little mesh insect cage on the counter, fattening on leaves of romaine and producing remarkable amounts of excrement. Really, you have no idea.

In the mail today I received a gift from Patrick Kurp of Anecdotal Evidence: a hardbound copy of Aldo Buzzi’s Journey to the Land of the Flies. I’ve been searching for this book more than a year. Mr Kurp recently mentioned picking up a copy, and I knew he’d written about it before. No wonder I can never find it, I joked, since you keep snatching up all available copies. A few days later I had an email to say that he was sending me one. ‘Merry Christmas,’ he wrote. Like a good many readers online and off, I was already in Mr Kurp’s debt. But for him and his blog, I might never have discovered Peter De Vries or L.E. Sissman or Eric Hoffer; without his encouragement, I might never have got round to reading Anthony Powell’s Music of Time or Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children. But this is the happiest sort of debt.

In The Way of the World, which I’m presently reading, Nicolas Bouvier describes an Armenian funeral in Tabriz (Iran) that he attended in the 1950s. It was December. A young Christian girl had poisoned herself for love of a Muslim Romeo. At the end of the service, after the whole congregation had filed past the deceased, the doors of the church were thrown open and the girl’s jewelry and shoes were publicly removed. Grim old women with scissors cut her dress to ribbons. This was no judgment on her suicide, but rather, according to Bouvier, “it was winter, season of dearth and grave-robbers: it was hoped that by these gestures profanation would be avoided.”

We had a wind storm the other day. The leaves that had collected on our porch and sidewalk and that still clung to the sycamores like stubborn memories of summer were caught up into the air (along with everything else not bolted down) and blown to God-knows-where. Next day the world out of doors was bare and clean. How right, I thought, that New Year’s should come to us in winter rather than spring. Laying the year to rest in a world stripped of  adornments, we’re better taught, I think, that sentimentality only steals from the past, that only empty hands are open to receive new gifts.

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The Semiotics of Cat Swatting

Cats, it appears, are always being batted at by broom-wielding matrons in old cartoons and fairy tale illustrations.  They have presumably done something to deserve it, or else the matrons in question, cheated of careers in hockey or golf, are re-capturing the glory of young girlhood at the expense of their domestic animals.  Roughly sketched, those always seemed to me the two interpretive possibilities. 

Now, however, I stumble on a third.  No sooner have I picked up the broom and begun sweeping the kitchen floor in the evening than our cat, from whatever corner she was dozing in, infallibly appears and puts herself directly in the way.  She has not, to my knowledge, been naughty; and I never cared for golf or hockey.  Nonetheless, I am instantly transformed into a crotchety matron (patron?) launching kitty from the kitchen.

This happens too often to be mere coincidence, and so I wonder if the old image of the cat getting batted with a broom is not, after all, a symbol of household transgression receiving its just reward, or of swatter’s regret for missed chances at sports stardom.  Maybe, instead, it’s a revelation of some unguessed perversity of feline nature: Maybe cats just like a good spanking now and then.

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Marginalia, no.80

There never was a man more amusing or fanciful than Giovan Francesco Rustici, nor one who delighted more in animals.  He had a porcupine so tame that it stayed under the table like a dog and sometimes it rubbed against people’s legs so that they drew them in very quickly.  He had an eagle, and also a raven which could say a great many things so clearly that it was just like a human being.  He also applied himself to the study of necromancy by means of which, I am told, he gave strange frights to his servants and assistants; and thus he lived without a care.

~ Vasari, Lives

It’s all in that “thus” of the final clause.  A prickly lapdog, a conversational bird, and enough proficiency in the dark arts to prank one’s servants and friends: the best description of the carefree life I’ve read in years.

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On Pets

The trouble with keeping a blog is that you sometimes have to feed it, and pet food costs money, and money is time, and time is scarce if you don’t want to neglect your other time-wasting activities, like working on your novel, which is still a joke but not as much a joke as it was, say, six months ago. 

Still, here it is, the little blog, whimpering in the corner with its feed-me eyes and tent-pole ribs.  Wasn’t pet ownership supposed to be a sunny afternoon pleasure rather than a pulsar of everyday guilt?  But indulgence dresses itself up as obligation in the end.

There are upsides to malnourishment.  Studies show that rats raised on near-starvation diets will ripen into veritable Methuselahs compared to those plumped up on sugarwater and fatty meats.  Even if the little blog isn’t, thanks to the Spartan rations, as round and cuddly as it might be, at least it isn’t completely debauched.

Anyway, I’m still here.  Stick around long enough and you just might get a Scooby Snack.

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