I'd been planning to post a piece about how hard it is to be a parent these days, but after talking to my friend, Allie, I decided to switch my focus in order to make this point: Raising children in the new millennium is nothing compared to parenting pets.
Allie had stopped by my classroom to tell me she'd spent the previous afternoon filling out the paperwork to try to get her dog, Hank, into Doggie Daycare. She'd first made me promise not to laugh before she imparted that little gem; a promise I immediately broke with paroxysms of gleeful incredulity. What? Dogs now need daycare? Paperwork? Are we talking about the rolled-up paperwork you pop them with when they piddle on the patio? Try? This is possibly the most worrisome part. You now have to TRY to get your dog into something called Doggie Daycare? You mean there are qualifications other than humping the vacuum cleaner and licking their parts?
What makes this so difficult for me to understand is that, when I was growing up, we had a dog until it got run over. Then, we got another dog. Cats were something that slunk around the backyard dragging a sad expired squirrel until one of us kids let them into the house (the cat, not the carcass), only to have them be sent back out when a grown-up got home. My daddy said the only good cat was a dead cat.
Although I do remember that most dogs had rabies tags, which meant someone was taking them somewhere at some point to get some kind of shot, they didn't typically go to the vet unless they had barely survived being run over. In that case, they were begrudgingly thrown into the back of the car for a trip to get sewn up or to have something cut off. There were quite a few three-legged dogs on my street because of the above.
My childhood dog's name was Stubby. (I'm now perplexed about and a little embarrassed to admit this). Although Stubby held pretensions toward being a Cocker Spaniel, he wasn't even close. I can distinctly remember Stubby following me from block to block as we kids roamed the neighborhood in a manner children can no longer pull off. Whenever Stubby, who wasn't particularly bright or well trained, tried to cross a busy street, I would holler, "Stubby, watch out!", which he seldom did. That probably explains why we ended up calling him Stubby.
Back to now. I understand that young couples are getting fancy dogs in order to practice for when they have babies - kind of like a starter child. I'm here to tell you that can backfire. My daughter, Melissa, and her husband were given an English Bulldog for a wedding present by some well-meaning friends and her football fanatic father. Luther von Rufus (aka Sweet Lu) arrived in a crate from Russia (I thought he was supposed to be English) about 48 hours before Melissa took the pregnancy test indicating that her honeymoon was, indeed, a busy and fruitful one. Now, Melissa, Trevor, Miles, Georgia, AND Sweet Lu live in a two-bedroom house in Portland, Oregon. Poor Lu has gone from blithely snoring in a queen-sized bed to dozing with one bulbous eye open anywhere on the floor he can safely hide from Miles.
I began to realize things were changing a few years ago when my youngest, Molly, and I decided to adopt a kitten from the pound. Instead of going in, holding our noses, and pointing, as we'd done with former cats, we were told to pick one, in the comfort of our own home, from an online selection of cute and not so cute felines. After we clicked on the mugshot of the soon-to-be lucky recipient of our benevolence, we were asked to fill out a questionnaire. We should have known we were in trouble at that point. There were lots of items, some of which seemed to be trick questions. For example, we were asked if any of our prior pets had met with unfortunate accidents or, perhaps, an untimely demise. We said "no" as I felt that the statute of limitations had run out on Stubby. Then we were asked if our new cat would be an inside or an outside pet. We answered "outside", mentioning that "all God's creatures need sunlight and fresh air," something we thought would be appreciated, applauded, and approved by do-gooders smack dab in the middle of the Bible Belt.
We were wrong. After we were turned down in our attempt to adopt a cat that would probably be put to sleep within the next few days, we learned that pets left to their own devices in the great outdoors invariably just fool around and procreate until they or their offspring find themselves right back at the pound, a life-cycle circumstance steadfastly frowned upon by the SPCA.
Now that I live in Atlanta, I find it to be a great place to experience the absurdity of modern pet ownership. Walking in Piedmont Park is a treat as earnest dog owners pick up poop with biodegradable sani-bags and talk to their pets as if they were errant toddlers. I remember one beautiful Sunday afternoon when I observed a young couple pushing a pram (yes, one of those old-fashioned baby carriages) with a full-grown Mastiff sitting inside. The look on the human faces was a combination of "yes, our baby is beautiful" and "no, you don't have one of these." The look on the dog's face was "yes, I'm embarrassed" and "no, I don't know these people".
So, it seems the days for footloose and fancy free pet parenting are over and the same could be said for the animals themselves. I agree that pets need to be neutered and protected against those diseases that can shorten a life or make it less vibrant, but I question just how important it is for a dog who never leaves its home, daycare, or pram to be inoculated against rattlesnake poisoning.
And what about the freedom my childhood pets had during their short lives in the days before leash laws and health insurance for animals? Would that Mastiff in the pram trade his long careful life for a day of being Stubby? Does the cat in the condo window yearn for a juicy squirrel? Does the German Shepherd dream of Rin Tin Tin-like daring-do, and does the Collie ever hear the call of Timmy thrashing in the well? If Lassie were alive today, the only heroic feat she would have the opportunity to perform would be to retrieve her groomer's spritzer bottle if it fell on the floor of her high-priced salon.
Oh wow. For some reason, ending this thing is making me cry. I guess, in writing about people and their pets (then and now), I've remembered the animals I've loved throughout my life. So, here's to Pat Dog, Stubby, Cleo, Keeter (my ex's name for a myriad of cats), Henry the Benry, Sugar, Sheba, and Chloe.
Okay, I give up. Tell me how to apply for Doggie Daycare and more about that rattlesnake vaccine. I can feel a new pet coming on.
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