Journey With Animals

Recently Kailana posted a new reading challenge (Four Legged Friends Reading Challenge) in memory of her dog, Sandy. The idea appeals to me – but I realize that I just can’t take on another challenge right now.  Despite this,  I did decide to post some memories about pets as requested by Kailana.

This article was first published at The Piker Press during the week of August 15, 2005.

Journey With Animals:  A Memoir in Honor of My Pets
by Wendy Robards
Copyright 2005

In the middle of the fourth decade of my life, I remember the animals who shared the carefree days of grade school, the tumultuous teenage years, the sprint through college, the painful stumble of divorce, and now the satisfying moments of the present. Despite the many moves (including two across the country), the various jobs and multitudes of friends and acquaintances, the animals have been there… a constant presence; an integral part of who I am. They remind me of my journey through the years.

In 1964, when people laughed at leash laws and dogs roamed their neighborhoods at will, my parents brought home my first dog.

Cindy (named for the coal black cinder color of her coat) attached herself to our family and became my constant companion for the next twelve years. Her mixed breed genes graced her with a sense of humor and an undying faithfulness. She followed my sisters and me everywhere we went and waited at our school bus stop each afternoon. I believe the arrival of the milkman proved to be the highlight of her days due to his habit of carrying donut holes for the dogs along his route. Cindy taught me how stubbornly sticking to a course of action and failing to learn from one’s mistakes can be painful. She suffered a broken leg when my oldest sister ran over her on a bicycle. She survived three collisions with cars. Despite her bad luck on the roadway, she only stopped chasing vehicles when the arthritis in her joints prevented her from doing so.

Other animals shared our household in the years of my childhood, including Becky (a three colored “money” cat whose doubled toed paws made her an expert mouser);  
Gilbert and Prunella the guinea pigs who mated incessantly and produced several litters of little pigs; Jock, a blond hamster with a propensity to escape his cage;

and two other cats named Samantha and Simon who came along right about the time I left for college. 

I entered the University of Rhode Island in the fall of 1978, eager to be on my own and away from the protective shield of my parents. I pounced on my new found freedom with great enthusiasm. I loved the cool New England mornings as I hiked through the campus to my classes. All around me swirled conversations of other young adults and the reeling, dizzying sense that I had finally grown up.

I think of college as the rat years. My dorm did not allow pets, but rats were easily concealed. They make excellent companions: bright, affectionate and trainable. Grete was a lab rat: white with red eyes. I met her on the first day of Behavioral Psychology, a tiny baby trembling in my palm. The sole point of the class was to teach the rats in our care to press a lever to get a drink. The professor instructed us to deprive the animals of fluids and food so as to increase their motivation for this task. Grete’s learning curve demonstrated nicely what happens when an animal is *not* deprived of sustenance and therefore lacks the desire to learn anything. My instructor frowned at the  tiny label with Grete’s name which I had pinned to the cage door; he seemed confused by the nesting materials I had supplied for her. Grete ascended from lab rat to pet in the dead of night. Horrified by the college’s policy of gassing all the animals at the end of the semester, I broke into the lab and whisked her away to the safety of my dorm.

After graduating college, I moved to Boston and adopted a cat whom I named Clint Catwood.  I believe Clint’s temperament derived directly from his father, an unknown Boston alley cat who must have been savagely territorial and independent. Silvery gray with olive green eyes, Clint lived his life for no one but himself. He acquired the unusual taste for Brillo pads which he ripped from their boxes and tore to pieces on my kitchen floor. He hated children and dogs equally. He let me know right away that walking on a leash through the city streets was not going to happen. I can still picture him falling like a stone onto his side after I fastened a little harness to his torso. Clint traveled from Boston to New Hampshire to Maine to California, back to Maine, and again to California as I moved about the countryside. He spent most of these road trips sprawled across the dashboard where he soaked up the sun and watched the world pass by.

During those years when it seemed I had no roots to hold me in one place for long, I owned three dogs (all of whom Clint despised). Natasha, a smallish German Shepherd, had a knack for destroying carpets, door frames and shoes. She taught me the fine points of dog training and the value of a good crate.

When she died at the age of three after being hit by a car, I acquired my second German Shepherd. Kodiak, a huge dog with over sized ears and paws, won me over with his kind and gentle heart.

He liked nothing better than to lay his head in my lap or sprawl across my feet on cold mornings. His single fault was an irrational fear of the wind whistling around the eaves. He is the only dog I know who has successfully launched himself out a second story window and survived with nary a scrape. When I moved to California (for the last time), I adopted a seven year old Elkhound/German Shepherd mix named Sussi who became Kodiak’s security blanket and best friend, and whom I fondly referred to as the “Pack Cohesion Coordinator” because of her skill at keeping track of the entire family.

Although I loved my dogs without bias, it is always Clint I think about when I remember those wandering years…a huge cat with a personality to match; a tough guy who rolled with the changes in my life. His death, at age fifteen from bone cancer, signified a bigger transition for me: the dissolution of a seventeen year marriage.

Divorce is like a kick in the stomach after a huge meal. The end of my marriage coincided with the loss of all three of my pets: first Clint, then Sussi, and finally my gentle giant, Kodiak. Like a drowning person, there were times I thought I would never surface to get that much needed gulp of oxygen. Once again, however, an animal came to my rescue.

As my first marriage ground to a halt, I immersed myself in a life long dream of training a search and rescue dog. I began to look for a puppy with high drive. Drive in a dog is equivalent to a Type A personality in a human.  Nothing deters a motivated dog from its goal.  Specifically, they are ball crazy, and possess intensity and initiative to “get the job done.” They strive to complete the game and get the reward. I looked at a lot of puppies over the course of several months before finding Caribou, the runt in a litter of three and the only female.  The moment I saw her I knew I had found my canine partner.

Her bright eyes never left my face.  She charged after the squeak toy I threw, pounced on it, killed it with a quick shake of her head, and returned it to me without hesitation.  She was a big dog in a puppy’s body with no lack of confidence. Little did I know, Caribou would not only become my first certified search and rescue dog, but she would introduce me to a wonderful, gentle and amazing man…by falling in love with his dog, Argus. On that bright, autumn day in the mountains near Lake Tahoe, in the year I celebrated my fortieth birthday, two dogs play bowed, danced, tugged a stick, and romped through the woods.

“Who owns this dog?” I asked.

“Me,” Kip said.

We married two years later.

My life has a comforting rhythm to it these days. The dogs wake me at dawn for breakfast, then settle in for their mid morning naps as I write. Outside the red tail hawk soars above the pines and the air smells like cedar and sunshine as it drifts through the open windows. My hand floats down to scratch Argus on the ear; I glance at Caribou, her paws twitching in a dream; and I feel blessed by the animals who have shared their lives with me, who have taught me about joy, patience, independence, and loyalty; who I am certain have given me far more than I have ever given them.

**Addendum: Since this article was written, Kip and I have added two cats to our family: Maia and Gizmo.

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    • Anonymous on September 12, 2007 at 15:07

    How adorable! This was a great read, and you have had some wonderful animals! Thanks for sharing this.

    • Anonymous on September 12, 2007 at 15:08

    That was me, Kailana. I apparently have never commented on your blog before!

    • Anonymous on September 12, 2007 at 18:21

    Glad you enjoyed it, Kailana!

    • Anonymous on September 12, 2007 at 20:20

    Wendy, this is a beautiful piece! I loved hearing about all your animals and also getting to know you and your personal history better.

    • Anonymous on September 12, 2007 at 20:54

    Thanks, Laura – I’m glad you enjoyed reading it 🙂 Animals are such a huge part of who I am!

    • Anonymous on September 13, 2007 at 01:22

    Thanks for sharing the article and the pictures with us, Wendy! I loved it! It is so true how animals are parts of our lives and families and how much they give to us. It made me remember the pets I grew up with over the years.
    I grew up with dogs, cats and rabbits around, but after I moved out to live on my own at age 18, I didn’t have pets for more than ten years. I didn’t realize how much I missed having pets around until I met my current boyfriend almost three years ago. He had two cats (one of them has died since) and I immediately fell in love with them. The boyfriend and I lived together for a while, but that didn’t work well, so I moved out. Since then, we have done some sort of shared parenthood. Nirvana, the cat, lives with me now most of the time, because I lead a more regular life when it comes to being home and being able to feed N and clean his litter etc.
    I miss N when he’s not around. He makes me laugh out loud so much and I get some ‘exercise’ by chasing him around and playing his beloved hide-and-seek.
    I know now that I will always try to keep a pet if my circumstances allow me to.

    • Anonymous on September 13, 2007 at 09:56

    Myrthe: I know exactly what you mean! Gizmo loves to play hide and seek too – she runs past me making this “mountain lion roar” sound and gets me to chase her. Then she hides. If I walk away, she bursts from her hiding place, runs at me, whacks me with a paw and then flees again! It makes me laugh out loud!!

    • Anonymous on September 14, 2007 at 10:41

    Hi Wendy,
    I enjoyed reading this. Your writing is poignant and beautiful, Clint and Kodiak and Caribou seem to jump right out of the article! I followed the link to pikepress and read some more of your work there – Loved the articles on Bear Mountain Fire and Swedish cookies.

    • Anonymous on September 14, 2007 at 16:10

    I loved every word. A wonderful, wonderful piece. And I think the best bond between people is if they are animal lovers.

    • Anonymous on September 14, 2007 at 18:59

    Thank you for the compliment, Reader from India! And thank you for visiting The Piker Press and reading my other articles and stories 🙂 I’m glad you enjoyed them!

    • Anonymous on September 14, 2007 at 19:01

    Nan, thank you for your kind compliment 🙂 I agree – bonds between people and animals are very, very special indeed!

    • Anonymous on September 15, 2007 at 22:16

    Aw, I love animals so much! Maia and Gizmo are incredibly cute. I’m sure they’ll be happy in your household. 🙂

    • Anonymous on September 16, 2007 at 12:20

    I think they are, Dew! Gizmo is right now parked on my lap (which is where she is EVERY morning), purring and gazing at me as I type. It is nice to be so appreciated!

    • Anonymous on September 24, 2007 at 08:06

    I loved this article. I, too, clicked on The Piker Press and read more there. I thought what you wrote about guacamole was delightful. Because of what I’ve read here today, I have tagged you for the writers meme on your “five strengths as a writer.” Details here:

    • Anonymous on September 24, 2007 at 09:19

    Bonnie – THANK YOU so much! I’m flattered 🙂 Glad you enjoyed both this article and my guacamole article!

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