Being in a military family meant no pets for the first six years of my life. Early in her marriage, Mom moved back to her hometown of Watertown, South Dakota after Dad was called back to active duty during the Korean War, a fate for many soldiers, sailors, and airmen who already had battled through World War II. After he returned, we lived in trailer courts in South Carolina and Tennessee during his next two short assignments.
Yeah, even United States Air Force officers had to make do living like what some love to call trailer trash during an era when being in the military did not include much in the way of pay and benefits. The only benefit I longed for became owning a pet.
But the next assignment to West Germany meant living in a large apartment complex at Rhein Main Air Force Base near Frankfurt. None of these early living arrangements allowed for pets.
That all changed when we moved to Bowling Green, Ohio where Dad taught ROTC at a university. Dogs and cowboys ruled on TV during the 1950s. Heroic collie Lassie and German Shepherd Rin Tin Tin saved their humans during episode after episode. Maybe that’s why Dad got us three kids a puppy we called Sparky, named after the brave dogs from library and school books who rode atop fire engines and lived with the fire fighters at local fire stations in every town everywhere, at least in our minds. Life seemed wonderful.
Then one day Dad said, “Sparky ran away.”
Decades later, I began to wonder if that was his way of cushioning the reality that he had seen our pet’s dead body some place next to the busy road that ran in front of our house. But fear of knowing one way or the other kept me from ever asking. After Dad died in 2016, I asked Mom about it but she was uncertain about what really became of Sparky.
To salve our pain, Dad took us to a local hardware store and let us choose a small chick surrounded by dozens of others, all of them chirping and bumping into one another. It seemed that every Easter season the chicks magically became available as pets for kids. By summertime, little Henny Penny had grown halfway to adult size. Dad had a gift for translating adult logic into doses digestible by his children. He convinced my brother, sister, and me how: We have too small of a yard for Henny Penny to be happy. She belongs on a farm where she can roam free with lots of other chickens.
So he drove us to a nearby farm where she joined others of her kind. But something about that farmer’s hungry grin unsettled me.
Finally, what seemed like a slot machine handing out Dad’s assignments came up a row of nothing but cherries as far as I could tell. In 1961, we moved to Southern California, home to a surfing craze, Magic Kingdom, and introduction to what I would eventually conclude are God’s most mysterious creation – cats. Mom found us a pure bred Siamese. Her dark black face and paws offset deep blue eyes that seemed to radiate a message of: Don’t worry, humans, I have this situation under control.
Evidently, Snowball believed in all cats being created equal. She gave birth to a surprise litter of two Siamese who looked identical to her and a jet black cat with green eyes that we named Spooky because of its Halloween look.
The nearby Magic Kingdom of Disneyland and Disney Studios boasted animals possessing many human qualities so it seemed natural how our cats also did. In Disney’s films, pets became heroic. The Incredible Journey chronicled a true story of two dogs and a cat somehow traveling hundreds of miles to reunite with their humans.
Art imitates life, which imitates life.
At least it did for us during our next move from Torrance, California to Montgomery, Alabama. Snowball and her daughter Spooky crowded into our 1960 Oldsmobile station wagon to join our cross country trek. After we stopped at a motel for a night, Mom let the two cats out to use their outdoors bathroom. Snowball disappeared. So Mom talked to the motel’s manager and left our address for the new home Dad had bought in Montgomery during an earlier trip.
Our journey continued, minus one cat. Memory fails on all of the logistics of traveling thousands of miles with a cat, but I think we had a small litter box on the floor in case the need arose between rest stops.
In the middle of a desert, our car broke down. Long before the advent of cell phones, such an event left you at the mercy of Good Samaritans. One gave Dad a ride to the nearest gas station. After what seemed like hours, Dad and a mechanic returned, riding in a tow truck. A look under the hood and lightning striking a nearby telephone pole convinced the mechanic the repair could not be made by the side of the road or at his small repair shop, which lacked the needed part.
Because the repair would take most of the afternoon at a large repair shop in the next city, we retreated to a double feature playing at a nearby movie theater. Spooky? Mom had a handbag large enough to hide our green-eyed cat inside of it. Once inside the theater, Spooky crawled out and took her usual catnap on the cool floor of the air-conditioned building.
The rest of our trip proved uneventful.
A couple of weeks after arriving in Montgomery, the manager from Arizona let us know that a skinny, hungry Snowball had returned to his motel. Arrangements were made and Snowball travelled inside a small wooden crate on a train to join us. She arrived home minus fur from the parts of her body where she had rubbed against the inside of the crate during a journey more painful than incredible.
Cats being who they are, new adventures arose.
Within weeks of each other, Spooky and Snowball gave birth. Spooky had eight kittens and Snowball six. For some reason, one of Snowball’s teats became infected so her daughter Spooky became a wet nurse and somehow managed to provide enough milk for a total of fourteen hungry kittens, some her sons and daughters, others her half-sisters and half-brothers. Meanwhile, Mom, a registered nurse, used her skills meant for humans on Snowball. She wrapped a large cloth bandage around Snowball’s back and underside to protect the swollen teat and applied a salve and hot compresses until it healed.
Watching the kittens as they were born had been icky for us kids, in particular seeing the mothers lick the gooey mess off of their newborns. Watching strangers take them away to new homes, kind of sad. Two of those answering our newspaper ad of Free kittens, call… also took Snowball and Spooky. That left us with one kitten, named Snowflake by my sister.
Snowflake grew into adulthood and began venturing from home greater distances, which cut her life short. One evening I returned home after basketball practice and met nothing but turmoil. My sister sat at the dining room table crying harder than I believed possible for a ten year old. Between sobs, she spoke about her cat getting hit by a car.
Snowflake did not suffer. Apparently, her death was caused by a blow to the head because her body remained intact enough that Dad carried her to a neighbor who was a doctor. He massaged her heart without success and pronounced her dead.
A pet-less three years followed, including two years at Clark Air Base, Philippines, where not many on the base had the luxury of pets. Back in the States for Dad’s final assignment, Mom chose a petite white French poodle for our next pet. When Michelle went into heat, Dad helped a neighbor’s sniffing, inquiring miniature male poodle by tossing him over the fence into our small back yard. The neighbor’s sour expression and grumpy words signaled a reluctant approval.
As soon as they were weaned, the litter of three was offered for sale. Buyers wanted the two smaller puppies. But no one showed any interest in Pierre, who already had grown to twice the size of his siblings and would become one and a half times as large as his mother.
Dogs can be more high maintenance than cats.
While house sitting for my parents six years after Dad’s retirement from the Air Force, my wife gave Michelle and Pierre a much needed warm, soapy baths in a tub. They thanked her by immediately running outside to roll in dirt, which made her let out the loudest scream I have heard from her during my forty-four years of knowing her.
Based on what I’ve seen and read and heard, I’m convinced animals are more in touch with their Creator and so accept their limitations better than humans. One night, Pierre moved from Mom’s to Dad’s to my youngest brother’s feet, while they sat in the den. Pierre lay by each one for a spell, as if saying goodbye. The next morning, Mom found him dead from natural causes in the garage.
When our son turned eight and we bought our first house, he asked for a dog. Searching the want ads, we found one offered for free to a loving home. Ruffles appeared to be mostly a Belgium border collie, a line of dogs bred to be sheepherders. She lived up to her heritage by herding our small kids back toward the house if they wandered too close to the sidewalk next to the street. Incredibly patient, Ruffles ignored the neighborhood show-off, Sunny, a tomcat who loved to saunter across the street and roll on his back in the concrete gutter by our front yard.
Years went by. We adopted a pregnant stray cat who had jumped up into our van to give birth. Cabby and Ruffles became friends and avoided typical hostilities their kinds are famous for. More years passed.
As my wife walked home from the grocery store with Ruffles and our youngest son one day, a pit bull escaped through a front door and attacked our dog. My wife throwing cans of food at the pit bull did little to stop the unprovoked attack. By the time the owner pulled off his dog, Ruffles had a gaping wound on her shoulder.
The vet charged hundreds of dollars to clean and sew up the wound. The owner of the attacking dog’s callous refusal to accept responsibility for his pet’s actions by offering to pay anything cemented a growing realization in me that sometimes such people have less commonsense or compassion than their animals.
Within a year, Ruffles developed tumors and other internal problems. Unable to afford the cost of the vet’s offer of surgery, we instead had Ruffles put to sleep. Then Cabby grew sick and met the same fate.
Months later, a collarless dog pushed through our front door, which had been left ajar on a cold, rainy morning. After the veterinarian found no microchip or report of a missing dog matching this pit bull and terrier mix, we took her in. Our daughters named her Lacy. Several weeks later, a neighbor down the block surprised us.
“So that’s where Lucky went,” he said.
“Yeah, we got her as a puppy but were getting ready to take her to the pound when she disappeared. You can keep her.”
Next, a stray cat neighbors across the street had dubbed as Rosy meandered into our lives. She earned her keep by discovering a way into the attic through the garage where we kept her. Up there, she hunted the roof rats that infested our neighborhood because of nearby rice fields.
Time passed. Rosy also grew sick. After she was put to sleep, I buried her in our back yard next to Cabby. A few days later, Lacy dug up her lifeless body and, tail wagging, carried her to our back door.
By now, I had grown weary of cats and dogs and let my family know. “We already have had two cats and one dog put to sleep. I can’t handle this anymore.”
But one daughter wanted a kitten as her eighth grade graduation present. I relented. She picked out a Siamese tiger mix who kept me busy by climbing our orange tree onto the roof and getting stranded there. One daughter called her Mousse, as in chocolate mousse. The other daughter called her Cleo. I called her Moose because her large ears looked like a moose’s antlers, at least to me.
Early on, Lacy had bitten a neighbor’s kid who was playing roller hockey in the street. We paid for the kid’s tetanus shot and doctor’s visit co-pay. A couple of years later Lacy went after the hired man cutting another neighbor’s grass and bit the bottom of his jeans. Luckily, her teeth did not break skin.
Lacy cowered and I had to drag her on the lease when I took her to have her put to sleep. That left us with one cat.
I retried and my daughter let us keep Moose when my wife, I, and two disabled sons moved to be close to her aging mom and sister. For whatever reason, Moose no longer tolerated other cats, although she had been friendly to them for years.
If another cat came within 100 feet of her, Moose would yowl like a tomcat, even though she had been spayed as a kitten. Deep growling sounds. If the cat did not flee, Moose would chase it, climbing the six-foot tall backyard fences if necessary and running along the top wooden rails in pursuit.
When a small black cat with green eyes started hanging around, I’d shoo it away to try and discourage it from returning. Within a week, I began to find the paper plates holding remnants of Moose’s uneaten canned cat food that I buried around our citrus trees as mulch to feed the earthworms dug up and the food gone. At first, I suspected raccoons. But then I saw the small black cat eating from one of the plates. After consulting with the local animal shelter, I talked to a neighbor who had complained of the same stray.
“The shelter said the humane thing to do is to trap any stray cat, get it neutered or spayed, and then release it back into the same neighborhood where it was trapped,” I said.
The neighbor did not like the idea of releasing the cat back into our neighborhood and spoke of renting his own trap at a nearby feed store. He offered no further details for his plan. I borrowed a trap from an animal clinic and followed the vet technician’s instructions. For four nights in a row, the food disappeared from the inside of the unset trap. The night before the appointment to get the stray I had named Spooky neutered or spayed, I set the trap. The next morning the food remained, untouched, the trap unsprung.
Spooky had vanished. We never saw him or her again. I shared my regrets with Moose.
“I wish I had tried to catch Spooky sooner,” I told her as she sat on top of her carpeted cat condo. “Then we could have continued to feed Spooky, get it shots, and –”
Moose’s expression changed until she looked like Yoda from Star Wars. The song Born Free, which I had not heard in years, began to play inside my mind. It told of an orphaned lion cub raised by humans and then released back into the wild. It was as if Moose had planted the song.
Six months later, another stray started loitering in our backyard. Once again, I borrowed and set a trap. This time, none of the food was touched. Embarrassed, I returned with the empty trap to the clinic. A long line of people with caged cats and small dogs and leashed larger dogs stretched outside its front door. A lady behind me brought three cats crouched inside carriers.
“How did you catch them in a carrier without using a trap?” I asked.
“You just stop feeding them for two days and put the food inside the carrier,” she explained. “We live out on the delta and people dump cats and dogs on our property all the time so I bring the ones I can catch here to be neutered or spayed. One night, my husband found a dog whose throat had just been cut. He chased after the man who had done it but he got away in his car.”
The woman inside the clinic who refunded my deposit for the trap was sympathetic.
“I live out in the country,” she said. “Sometimes when the traps I set have caught the stray cats, someone comes along and opens the trap and lets them go.”
By now, a possible sibling had joined the young orange and white shorthair stray cat I had named Daniel Tiger. Because the second orange and white cat had long puffed out hair, my wife called it Fluffy.
This time our timing seemed perfect. After catching Daniel Tiger in our cat carrier, I took him to a local vet clinic. Because the regular vet was on vacation, his substitute was available for operations.
“The regular vet is booked for months in advance for surgeries,” a vet technician told me. “If you can bring your other stray cat in by 10 a.m. tomorrow, we can fix it too after we operate on Daniel Tiger.”
We caught Fluffy, whose long hair had kept us from determining its sex. When I picked both cats up the next afternoon, the vet tech smiled. “Fluffy is a boy,” she said. “Both these cats are so affectionate when I hold them.”
“I know,” I said. “They seem pretty tame. We’ve been wondering if someone else has been taking care of them too or if they belong to someone. But if we didn’t get them neutered, they might have had hundreds or thousands of descendants.”
The vet tech nods. She says she owns a ranch where dozens of cats and dogs are dumped off.
Within a day of returning to his neighborhood, Daniel Tiger did not show up with Harry (what my wife had renamed Fluffy) for their usual early morning breakfast. After two days of no Daniel Tiger, we posted his photo on a Facebook page devoted to lost and found dogs and cats in our area code, which covers several counties. One commenter to our post suggested we also post on the site Nextdoor, which is designed to connect those who live within blocks of each other. We did.
A day after Daniel Tiger returned, a man who lives a block away contacted us through Nextdoor. I hurried to his home and caught him as he was pulling out of his garage in his car.
“Hi, I’m Steve and we’ve been trying to take care of two orange and white stray cats. My wife said you’ve been doing the same thing?”
“Yeah,” he said as he shook my hand. “I noticed how they’ve been fixed. We’ve been feeding them for about four months now. They come in through the cat door we have for our two cats and like to sit next to me at my desk. We’re probably going to move to Dallas to be close to our kids in the next two years. I was telling my wife that I don’t want to have to move with four cats.”
“We’ll take care of the two strays.”
During the lengthy process of going from disliking to tolerating to trying to help stray cats, I sensed somehow God was using it. You know, how The Lord works in mysterious ways…
Was the Lord using them to change me? Moose had changed. She now watched over Daniel Tiger and Harry by chasing off any other cats that came near them. I had been called a curmudgeon because of my posts at a writers’ website I belonged to. That had only served to strengthen my dislike for any who dared to disagree with me.
“No wonder that famous best-selling author I read about calls herself a misanthrope,” I growled to my wife. “Maybe if I become a full blown misanthrope, I can be rich and famous too.”
At last, it dawned on me.
“Maybe God gives us animals to take care of and love to teach us how to love people?” I asked my wife, who has always understood such things better than me.
She smiled with the kind of expression cats and dogs reserve for humans.