One Couple’s Seeds of Pet Parenthood

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Last night, my wife, Susan, and I woke to rain tapping the flue above the fireplace we never use. The rhythm broke my dreams and swept me back to the childhood night I was cuddled in bed while grandma read me a story as the raindrops plinked the gutters.

It’s still raining this morning in Encino, California. Susan is off to meet a client. I’m sitting on the couch. Baubles of rain cling to the underside of our balcony railing like ripe fruit.

Our Lilly, the Boston terrier, is curled up next to me on the couch. She doesn’t like to go out in the rain. When she does, she shakes herself off as if she’s saying No, No, No real fast. I assure her we’re not going out anytime soon. Instead, I tell her the story about when Susan and I first thought about adopting a four-legged pet.

*****

April 2012. We’d just toured a European Impressionists exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and were strolling the grounds when we stumbled upon a pet adoption fair. Seeing the sheer number of abused and abandoned animals, I felt loathing for my species. Stories of animal cruelty had always crept beneath my skin, taking root like a fever.

But go to an animal shelter to adopt? Wailing and barking bouncing off the slate gray cinder blocks. The rising chorus of despair. How to pick one precious face over another. Squint hard. Can’t think. Gotta get outta there!

Perusing the adoption fair was almost as provocative. Watching row after row of deserted dogs paraded out onto a stage by well-meaning hawkers made me woozy. There were wire-haired terriers, matted malamutes, sinewy pincers, and scruffy spaniels, some pacing in repetitive frenzies, others sulking with their sagging snouts balanced on their paws, still others staring blankly as if devoid of hope.

How did their lives come to this?

Adoption volunteers told us why people surrender pets. Pees on the Persian carpet. Chews the slipper - then poops in it. New baby on the way. Too old. Too hyper. Destroyed the amour. Moving, pets not allowed. New job means late nights at the office. Cute pup grew into a super-sized chow hound.

Just. Didn’t. Have. The time.

Is a companion animal merely a mirror-mirror-on-the-wall to a preening king or queen? A surrogate to while away the time until the right human comes along? A way station where they gorge on pizza and corn dogs and pitch the paper plates into the dumpster before merrily driving away? That “mirror” has feelings! That “paper plate” supported their cravings!

I gnashed my teeth. But what could I do about it? So I was going to take on the task of training a dog to sit, stay, come and heel when I lacked the confidence to flag down a busy waiter? No way I was going to play father to a fur-child who would expose my lack of authority. The very thought of it sucked the breath out of  me.

My breath was returning when one volunteer corralled us and set a forlorn two-year-old Chihuahua mix on Susan’s lap. 

“Samantha” stood stiff, her legs locked and trembling like four tiny trees in a petrified forest, but she soon relaxed and turned her head around as Susan caressed her. My heart pounded in my ears and my hands turned clammy. Could this be a “love connection?” Were our lives about to change again?

Susan handed Samantha to me. I held her gently, but she turned away. I rubbed her chest and softly chanted her name, but she remained aloof. I put her on the ground, cuddled next to her and used my endearing repertoire of sounds to charm her savage breast. But she would not engage. Would Samantha’s standoffishness melt with time or did I somehow evoke a painful memory?

Either way, Samantha and I were no love match.

We walked away: Susan mildly disappointed, I relieved – for the moment, anyway.

In Judaism, if someone saves a single life, they’ve saved the whole world. Is the same true for four-legged life?

*****

In mid-story, Lilly jumps onto my shoulder and licks my ear. Her need to go potty triumphs over her hate of the rain. I tell her Don’t worry, sweetheart, that’s not the end of the story. You’re here, right? Maybe if it rains again tomorrow . . .