Before I can go to the beach, this is what has to happen:
1) The beehives must be checked so that nobody decides to throw another crazy honeybee block party while we’re away.
2) Belle the sick chicken must be cured via every home chicken remedy I can find on the interwebs so that she can be returned to the flock, which will be cared for by my aunt and uncle.
3) Sam the outdoor cat must be taken to the vet for boarding, because of the demon hell-cat who appears every night like clockwork to beat the tar out of him unless we let him in.
4) Dijji the cancer-dog must be dropped off with another aunt and uncle along with her prescription food and traveling pharmacy of doggie meds.
And those are just the critter things.
Sometimes I wonder what life would be like without a small zoo. Leaving home even for a night is a big production. A significant chunk of our budget is devoted to the health and happiness of the creatures who share our space. Sometimes, they are annoying, and often they are completely disgusting. My resume of bizarre skills includes cleaning up radioactive dog pee, performing MASH-style surgery on an egg-bound hen with a prolapsed vent (do NOT Google images, for the love of all that is fair and good!), and making things throw up on purpose because they have eaten things they shouldn’t.
Then, there is the agony. There is crying over a chicken who isn’t going to make it. There is staring into an abandoned beehive and wondering what could have possibly happened and what you could have done differently. There is running outside in the dead of night in your skivvies because you just heard Demon Hell-Cat ambush Gandhi Cat, who believes in passive resistance and is going to get his tail kicked and wind up in kitty hospital again. There is standing in the vet’s office, choking back tears because the vet looks like he might cry as he tells you that one of these days the cancer is going to get your dog, who is actually your first child but with more fur and arguably worse breath. There is making it to the car, the lens of tears distorting your vision, and finally losing it there in the parking lot as you acknowledge for the hundredth time that the creature you’ve shared most of your adult life with is mortal and will leave this life long before you’re ready to let her go, which is never.
But there are lessons in the pain and the grossness and even maybe in the unbelievable annoyance. Right now, as I’m writing, my four-year-old son is sleeping beneath a pile of stuffed animals, which includes two dogs, a fox, a teddy bear, and a bush-baby. This child loves animals. At three, he learned how to get the hens to let him pet them, and ventured fearlessly into the chicken house to pluck eggs from beneath nesting hens. He wears a tiny bee-suit to help me work on the hives. He has constructed a bug trap which he uses to catch and release any insect he finds inside the house. The other day, my husband had to stop him from catching a wasp. Yesterday, the kid actually caught a fly, and somewhere, Mr. Miyagi smiled. My little animal-whisperer asked me if I knew why he caught two ants. “So they wouldn’t be lonely?” I asked. “Yes,” he said. “I can’t speak ant-language.”
Our gross, annoying, heart-wrenching critters have developed an empathy in my wild-child that I wonder if he’d have otherwise. And they’re good for me, too. I am one of those perfectionists who’s so crippled by the desire for perfection that I will just stall out and sit in the middle of the kitchen floor, weeping, overwhelmed by the complexities of life and the awful hugeness of everything. When you live with animals, nothing is perfect, and you begin to feel just how silly it was to think you ever wanted it that way at all.
Every day, in the space between sunrise and sunset, the animals who live with me offer up little gifts of insight, if I am still enough to observe them and wise enough to understand.
Dijji the dog sleeps sprawled out on the sofa. She sleeps the sleep of the adored, and when she wakes, she will wake in one moment and inhabit that moment with all of her fifteen pounds. She will not worry about what has happened or what’s to come. She will pour every last ounce of energy into the wonder of now, the promise of crumbs, the flight of a bluebird across the lawn.
Sam the cat likes to sleep on the trunk of the car, in positions that suggest that he is not really a vertebrate. He sleeps the sleep of the clear of conscience. I know this cat, so I know that he is an unrepentant eater of children’s picnic food and tripper of humans bearing groceries. His conscience is clear not because he has not transgressed, but because he has decided that it is clear.
Emily the chicken still sneezes, despite a quarrantine, a barrage of natural remedies, and way too many hours spent online looking at websites that provide such helpful information as photos of what different kinds of chicken poop look like (I am not kidding. Not even a little bit). Nobody else has gotten the chicken version of the bubonic plague, so maybe, possibly, she just…….sneezes.
I stayed away from the bees today. I have learned from experience (because being warned is not good enough for me, apparently) not to work bees on a falling barometer. It makes them grouchy, and when 80,000 critters get grouchy, it does not matter how small they are.
I am grateful to the critters who share my life. I hope they are, too. They have me excessively well-trained to provide for their every need. Most of all, I am grateful for the connection they offer to the world as it is meant to be, to the rhythms and cycles of a day, a season, a year. The work I do for them is honest work, fingernail-dirtying work, the kind of work that chastens through sweat and the humility of service. You can argue that humans are somehow more “advanced” (an honor we’ve clearly won by inventing such useful things as toilet paper roll covers, nuclear waste, and crawling helmets for babies), but we are not more alive than even the smallest insect or microbe.
That is why I don’t think of myself as an animal owner. I’m really more of a student.
And, of course, a butler.