As soon as I heard about Hurricane Harvey, I started worrying about the animals. The ones tied up in backyards, the ones waiting on roofs, the ones peering out attic windows. I hoped it would go better for them than it did in 2005 when according to the Louisiana SPCA, tens of thousands of pets died.
On the way to a donation page for the Houston SPCA a couple of days ago, I saw hopeful photographs: two dogs, waiting patiently in a boat. A very pissed-off-looking, one-eared cat, swimming in oily brown water. (Cats swim?) A golden retriever refugee, heading down a rain-slicked road, lugging a 25-pound bag of dog food in his mouth.
The smile put on my face by these images was quickly washed away by news of a 25-year-old boy who died trying to save his sister’s cat, D’Artagnan. As he waded through the water to the house, the current from downed power lines was drawn to metal plates and pins in his once-broken ankle and he was electrocuted. “We’ve all decided that no matter what we said, he would have gone anyway,” his grieving mother told the New York Times. “That was just his nature.”
There are people who get that, and people who cannot. My daughter Jane and I fall on opposite sides of the divide. “Isn’t it more important to save people?” she asked.
No one would argue with that. But back in 2005 when I read about the New Orleans evacuees stranded on the side of a highway, having refused to get on a bus without their dogs and cats, I understood. I would try as hard to save my pets as I would my children, and I have little doubt I would risk my own life. But Jane’s question seemed to be what I would do if I had to choose between her and the dog.
It turned out she has not seen Sophie’s Choice, so I recounted the plot, though I’m not sure she found this reassuring.
How can it be that my daughter and I are so different in this regard? In searching for a way to understand it, I came up with the idea that Dog People are something like God People, in that the ability to experience a profound interspecies bond is similar to the capacity for religious belief. Both Dog People and God People believe they are in a two-way relationship, believe their love is reciprocal, and when necessary to fill in the other side of a two-way conversation, can readily do so. It’s a similar kind of loving imagination, or imaginative love, otherwise known as a leap of faith.
Maybe I understand people who believe in God better than I think I do.
More likely, I’m offending them even more deeply than usual.
What is different about gods and dogs (and by dogs I also mean cats) is that both the dependency and the loyalty of the animals is real and demonstrable. We don’t just think they need us, and trust us to meet those needs – it is a physical fact. And surely you know the story of Hachiko, the Japanese dog whose owner, Eizaburo, had a cerebral hemorrhage at work back in 1925? Hachiko went every day for the rest of his life to meet the train at 5:15, and a statue of him stands in Shibuya station to this day.
Do you think Eizaburo would have driven away with Hachiko tied up in the yard?
Just as my fourteen-year-old miniature dachshund was supposedly a gift to my son, the one-year-old orange tabby was a birthday present for my daughter, and I didn’t mean to steal either one of them, though I inevitably did, because I can’t restrain my pack-forming ways.
Really, the cat ended up being a gift to the dog more than anyone else. The dog is old, and can no longer be toted hither and thither as he could in spryer times. So now he has company. He has a pallet of pillows and blankets by the front door from which he takes up watch when I go out, and now the cat curls right up beside him, sometimes draping her peachy paw over his long, whiskered snout. It is a viral YouTube video around here with Lovey Kit and Lovey Pooch, as I call them, along with many, many other silly names.
Since we got the cat, a year ago, the rituals of our pack have become even more pronounced. In the morning we all go downstairs, and the cat watches the dog go out for a pee and waits for him to return, and then they have breakfast, and then everyone takes up their spots on the couch. I type and read; they lounge and snore. We love this job.
To the horror of those who prefer not to come in contact with a dog tongue, I have unusually low boundaries with these pets and find it hard to be disgusted by anything about their bodies. When I open a coconut yogurt, we share it three ways. The cat daintily laps from a little blob I give her, the dog gets a few bites from the spoon, then carries off the container when I’m done, finding another five minutes’ worth of yogurt in there.
It’s hard to go out and leave them, and I avoid it as much as possible, but it’s almost worth it to experience the joy of our reunion. There they are, keeping vigil by the door, and then —suddenly — oh my God, look who’s here! She came back! Ecstatic wagging and nose-touching and leg-rubbing ensues.
At night, all troop upstairs — I carry the dog because he is too old and too short in the leg to make the steps and the cat shows how much faster and more agile she is by bounding ahead of us. As the dachshund burrows under the blankets to the foot of the bed, as dachshunds do everywhere, the cat stalks the moving lump with great seriousness and attention. Then she settles herself into her favorite spot on the other pillow, though sometimes in the night she gets lonely and pads over to drape herself across my face, purring to wake the neighborhood.
The comfort derived from all this, from my life on the animal channel with my cuddly, non-judgmental friends, is hard to exaggerate.
My neighbor across the street has two cats with whom she has a similar interspecies dynamic-slash-obsession. When she goes out of town, which is not too often because she is a bit of a recluse, I feed Plum and Pumpkin for her. She has sent me detailed instructions and photographs of how to feed a cat, in case I do not know. And though she has already told me many times that she will not survive if I let the cats out by accident, she always tells me a few more times, just in case. It’s a lot to put on your cat-sitter. But she cannot help it. And she knows I know.
If the rains come to Baltimore, my neighbor and I will be the crazy ladies on the roof surrounded by animals and believe me, we won’t get into the helicopter without them. People and pets of southeast Texas: you are in our hearts.
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