Thursday, October 27, 2011

Animal Farm

The recent news story about a man in Ohio who set all of his exotic pets loose has wormed itself into my brain for about a week now.  I can’t get it out of my head.  Aside from the sadness of the predicament that this man presumably found himself in – that he felt the only solution out of falling behind in taking care of these animals was through letting them go and then suicide – the thought of man-eating animals running loose in the countryside gives me the shakes.  I have a slight fear of the outdoors due to wild animals (and wild people, for that matter).  I grew up in the country, where deer and groundhogs and the occasional bear wander around and ruin shrubbery or bird feeders.  Remarkably, I never got used to the idea of sharing a backyard with local fauna, even though it’s not a novelty for me.  I’m not comfortable with the fact that I may cross paths with a bear or raccoon while walking to get my newspaper.  This is why we live in the suburbs, where the wildlife is comprised of squirrels, rabbits, and birds.

(I’ve also watched Jurassic Park too many times and I think it might be plausible that a pair of Raptors have been planning their attack according to my normal outing schedule.  All I have to do is step outside and I will be ripped to shreds by their cruel, sharp, prehistoric teeth and claws.) 

Animals amaze and thrill me, and I respect them.  I respect their instinctual urges, their mating rituals, their glorious plumage and fur coats, and their adaptations to their homes.  To this point, I feel that they should live their lives in their own terrain and not in zoos or exotic pet farms, and not sleep on fluffy beds in our bedrooms, or swim alone in bowls with only a plastic pirate skeleton holding a sign reading “Show Me Your Booty” for company. 

I’m no stranger to keeping pets.  My family kept cats and dogs and the occasional hermit crab which, one by one, either ran away or was killed while crossing the busy highway in front of our house.  Our house was not conducive to outside pets, and at some point my parents decided to stop keeping them.

When my husband and I were dating, we, like many others, adopted a dog.  We called her Bailey, and she was the brattiest, sneakiest, cutest dog in the world.  She resembled a miniature pinscher, and we bought rescued her from this guy who probably stole her and who kept her in a cage with a full-grown Rottweiler that abused her by putting her head in its mouth.  She was full of worms and had a skin disease when we brought her home, but in no time we fell in love with her.  We took her everywhere, we dressed her up for Christmas, we bought her baskets full of toys, and we let her sleep under the covers with us.  She completed our little family. 

Then we had kids.

We were excited to show our children to her each time they were born, and she seemed to like them as well, if not as much as we did.  She loved the baby stages, where they threw food on the floor so she could clean it up.  Not so much the toddler stages, where they fascinated with her ears and little wiggling tail.  Bailey spent a good deal of time lounging in sunny spots on the carpet, out of the range of curious pinching fingers and clumsily stepping children.

As the kids grew, and needed more of our time and attention, Bailey’s status in the family declined.  No more did we allow her to sleep in our bed.  She was relegated to a bed in the corner on the floor.  Each night she’d hop on our bed and each night I’d yell at her to get down.  She didn’t understand why her rank had lowered, but I did.

It was because I felt I had enough to take care of.  It was like I expected her to know by now where her food was kept, how to change her water, how to let herself out to pee.  I had BABIES to take care of, for goodness sakes!  I didn’t have time for the dog.  Bailey, you have to go out AGAIN?  You want to sit here AGAIN?  You need to eat AGAIN?

I’m not proud.  The dog took the brunt of my fear and exasperation with being a new mom, at the time working from home, with all family and friends out of town, and a husband who traveled frequently for work.  I was goggle-eyed and overwhelmed, and the dog was the last thing I wanted to worry about.  My reaction to her was unfair, unwarranted, and yes, even downright mean.

Then Bailey got sick.

It was very sudden, and she started throwing up everywhere.  Mainly on the carpet.  We corralled her into the tiled kitchen, where she vomited food, water, and then bile.  We let her outside, where she hunched to pee, but nothing came out.  We called the vet.

The vet prescribed her a medication that I can’t recall.  She couldn’t keep it down.  We stopped trying to give it to her.

One day soon after, I woke up to thin trails of blood throughout the house.  Bailey was lying in her bed, trembling.  The blood trails went from carpeted room to carpeted room, little pools just off the tile.  She was urinating blood, uncontrollably, at the spots where she was most comfortable.  I called my husband, who had left for work already.  We quickly decided that I would call the vet and take Bailey in to be put down.

I stayed with her through the injection, and I cried the whole day.

When my tears were gone, I gathered up her bed, her toys, and other accessories and I threw them away.  I saved her collar and keep it in my bedside drawer. 

I vowed that I would never have a dog again.

That was almost six years ago.  I kept my vow – we have never again kept a dog.  But my children are wily beggars, and we have had other pets: fish, hermit crabs, a salamander, a kitten.  All but the kitten died (he discovered doggie-doors in the neighborhood and we decided to give him away to help with the hate-mail problem we began having).  Each death was sad for me.  We tried our best to take care of these pets, but they still died.  And I noticed that their lives weren’t really high quality.  Kept in cages and bowls, with few or no family members around, and no natural environment to speak of, I started to see that these creatures were living purely for my entertainment.  It made me feel selfish and wrong, so I decided that I can’t allow myself to keep an animal from its natural habitat just for my own enjoyment purposes, even if it is an animal that is specifically bred for our enjoyment.

I know pet owners and animal lovers say that their pets love them.  I know Bailey seemed to be happy with us, but I also felt sad that she was living with us instead of other dogs.  She couldn’t really communicate with us – she had to adapt her ways to get us to understand her needs.  Likewise, our little fish in a bowl swam in circles all day, and while it was cute when she seemed to follow us around the room when we’d feed her, I found it sad that she was in there all alone, with no one else around and nowhere to go. 

I feel the same about all those animals we see in the zoo and on exotic animal farms, ripped from their natural habitats for our enjoyment.  I can barely look at a mother orangutan in the zoo, huge in her age and power yet meekly and absently nibbling on a banana that a zookeeper threw into her “habitat” built with glass walls so that two hundred screaming children and I can peer at her.  I wonder what kind of lives the animals on that Ohio man’s farm could have had if they weren’t living in cages and pens, slowly starving because he was running out of money to feed them.

He set them free, and they died because they were a danger to the people who lived there.

I do not cry about dead deer on the side of the road, and I am not against hunting for food purposes.  I’m okay with using farm animals for food, work or transportation.  I am afraid of bears and would rather stay safely indoors where it is unlikely that I will ever meet one.  I do not want a pet.  This does not mean that I am not an animal person; actually, I wish they were free, that we didn’t breed them for mass consumerism, able to be bought in a department store, or at auction, or on a breeding farm.  I wish people didn’t use them for entertainment purposes, like fighting or racing.  I wish they were respected more. 

I know this is not possible in our world, and that it never will be.  My part is to avoid the pain and work of keeping a pet, and also the joy of having a companion who accepts me for who and what I am, at all times.  That’s fine with me for now.  I’ve tasted the bitterness of losing a pet that I never knew how much I cared for, and I know that even if my dog had a better life with me than she might have otherwise, making the decision to end her life, like that man in Ohio did with his pets, was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, and not one I’d soon repeat.



  1. Oh Andrea, this made me cry. I am reading it while listening to Daisy softly vomiting somewhere in the kitchen. There are so many emotions wrapped up in keeping a pet, exasperation and love and guilt.
    Sweet, silly Bailey - I thought of her the other day, that trick with the biscuit on the nose! Good dog :)

  2. Thanks, Miki... she was a sweetie. Dear, dear Bailey. How many times I said that on that day. :)