THE WAY WE LIVE Animal House

There are two kinds of people in my neighborhood, animal-wise. There are the people who grew up on farms but now live in the city. And there are the people who grew up in the city and still live in the city.

The people who grew up on farms have very uncomplicated animal relationships. The former farm family across the street has a dog and a cat, for example, and both animals live outdoors. They’re good to their animals. But there arc very clear boundaries in their relationships with them.

Then, on the other side of the equation, among the lifelong city people, we have an entire range of behaviors, from the relatively harmless-those people who do things like arrange their vacations around their dogs—to the more exotic cases, like the couple who cannot stop feeding stray cats.

In the minds of these extremists, it’s all under control. They believe they know what they are doing. They are feeding (hem in order to tame them, in order to catch them off-guard, so that they can capture them, so that they can lake them to the vet and have them neutered, so that they can give them away responsibly as pets.

The problem is, by the time you do all that, the uncaught cats have had two or three litters of new ones.

I don’t know where my own household falls in the spectrum. Not in a good place. I suspect. At this year’s high point (or, as I think of it, this year’s low point), we had in our house one permanent dog, one visiting dog-in-law, one permanent cat (having foisted off the terrible one), one supposedly temporary bottle-fed kitten (found starving and freezing in the back yard), two cockateels (taken from a lady no longer able to care for them), two parakeets (one flew to my hand on the front porch and the other one was bought for company), one love bird (an impulse animal), a bunch of finches, three aquariums, including the one holding Fishy Wishy (the original household goldfish, now a huge carp), and a box turtle.

The turtle got sick, was taken to a turtle-olo-gist, cost us 50 bucks and died. Can you believe that? Fifty dollars.

The question, however, when this sort of situation presents itself to the city people- the sick turtle, the starving freezing crying dying kitten-is always the same:

What are you going to do? Let it die?

The answer, whenever this question presents itself to the farm people is:

Yeah.

But not the lifelong cosmopolites. To one degree or another, from the dog-vacationers to the manic cat-feetiers, the city people are all unable to come to grips with the finality of animal death.

Human death. Hey. No problem. We hear the gunfire driving home from downtown. It’s not something one enjoys, of course. Over dinner at a garden party on the Fourth of July, a visiting Englishman and I talk about guns and American cities. He says, “I must tell you, it’s not a thing 1 find very appealing about America.”

I say, “Me either. Got any suggestions?”

But the finality of death for human beings in the urban forest is a thing we accept with equanimity. If you do the following things: 1) never work, 2) always drink and take drugs, 3) pick fights, 4) break the law all the time, and 5) live in the city, you may well wind up dead.

We can deal with that.

But if it’s a kitten, and we’ve already got 120 pets, and the last thing the world needs is another kitten, and the former farm people are all looking at each other and rolling their eyes, it doesn’t matter.

Roll out the red carpet. Open up that checkbook.

The kitten must not die.

As a young reporter, I was the one they always sent when there was a story about a lady with 476 dogs in her house. I have done that story half a dozen times if I have done it once.

Elderly woman or elderly man, widowed and living alone. Compassion for the stray animals in the neighborhood gets out of control. Over a period of years, the house becomes a health hazard.

Neighbors intervene. Often the elderly animal tender is villainized-made out to be a sadistic dog torturer because she has all those dogs in her house and she never takes them anywhere on vacation.

One time when they sent me out to do the house-full-of-beasties story, it was about an old German bachelor farmer-his farm encroached on by a subdivision- who had gone a little dotty in his last years and had taken the cows in to live with him.

It was a dawn raid. The animal rights people had called the TV stations, so that there would be public witness to their heroism. They had a court order. As they loaded the cows into an 18-wheeler, the old man stood in the yard, sipping a breakfast of warm beer and crying softly, saying goodbye to each cow by name.

After watching the thrilling rescue. I sat in the house with the farmer (no easy task, believe me), and the two of us chatted over more warm beer.

“My barn fell down,” he said. “I heard them out there at night in the winter. I knew each one by her voice. I fell sorry for them, and I let them come into the house.”

He looked up from his beer and peered at me, aghast at what had just occurred to him-a point driven home by the morning’s weird events,

His lip quivering and his eyes brimming, he stammered. “I must be crazy.”

Ah, but only because you’re a farmer. If you were one of my urban neighbors-if you were a member of my own family, in fact-and you let the cows come live in the house, you would be doing the right thing.

What are you going to do? Let the cows stand out there all right and be cold?

It’s only crazy to think that way if you’re a farmer. For an urbanite, it’s heroic. And yet. isn’t it interesting? All of those people who came and arrested the old man’s cows were suburbanites.

Ah, we’ll never figure it out. We all mix it up-shield ourselves from the finality of death in one area of life, and then make ourselves totally vulnerable to it in another. Down with people, up with cats. Up with people, down with dairy cows.

It’s when we get old, I suppose, and death becomes the most important issue waiting for us on every waking morning, that (he walls of our arrangement tend to crumble. It’s easy to have it all worked out when we’re young and healthy and surrounded by friends and family.

All of which leads up to this:

You wouldn’t be interested in a kitten, would you?

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