I grew up not just in an animal friendly household, but an animal integrated household. From the time we got our first cat when I was very young, we always had companion animals and sometimes we had many of them. They were as much members of our family as us children and most of them had human names. Dave. Annie. Mark. Barbara. Tom. Leroy Brown’s name was a product of our time, having come from an old Jim Croce tune. I know there are people who are not raised with companion animals and who don’t consider themselves “animal people.” I respect that lifestyle. But I simply cannot imagine a life without animals. Studies have shown that they help us live longer, lower our blood pressure, keep us more active than we might otherwise be and provide us truly unconditional love which we often do not have in many of our human relationships. Life is simply all the richer, more joyous, more hilarious and yes, more heartbreaking, as a result of sharing our homes and our waking hours with the companion animals we love.
I spent most of my childhood in a single home in a suburb in northern San Diego and I spent some time there very recently. Mom and dad have both been gone from us for six years and the house has reached an age when it is easier to sell now than a few years from now when upgrades will be required. I lived in the house a number of times as an adult, but I no longer see it in quite the same way. For me, the house was the place where we made our memories and not the place where they remain. Don’t get me wrong; I still view the house as my childhood home and letting it go is not easy. It’s just that the time had come to spruce up the house so that it can be a home for a new family who will make their own memories there.
My siblings and I converged on the house recently to do some last minute fix-ups and cleaning (with the vital help of our very able spouses). As I was cleaning shutters and vacuuming the new carpet, I reflected back on the many years spent under the same roof with animals and all the lessons learned along the way. They taught me about responsibility and compassion. They taught me about humor and joy and the value of living in the moment. They taught me about acceptance and tolerance. They taught me about sharing and selflessness. And yes, they taught me about loss and death.
At the same time the animals were teaching me lessons, our parents were doing the same. All of our companion animals were either adopted or rescued. I didn’t even know that commercial dog or cat breeding and sales existed for decades; I just assumed everyone who had pets had rescued them or adopted them. Mom was helping free roaming community cats long before those descriptions became common. She helped a free roaming cat she called “Elvis” for years, as well as a cat she simply called "E.C." (for Extra Cat). When a bonded pair of ducks came to spend time in our little suburban yard year after year (Bob and Marlene, of course) we were taught the value of letting wild animals just be and allowing them to live in peace without our interference. Our parents’ love of all animals extended far beyond the walls of our childhood home to the vast spaces of the San Diego Zoo and the Wild Animal Park (which is essentially a breeding facility for wild and endangered species). They were benefactors for the lion exhibit at the park and a plaque outside the exhibit bears their names. Each acacia tree at the facility has its roots in the seeds smuggled into the country thanks to what amounted to a “ covert op” schemed by mom to get acacia seeds from South Africa with the help of her boss on one of his mission trips with his church. Dad was a huge fan of the California Wolf Center in Julian which not only houses wolves but works to introduce them back into the wild while working with ranchers to develop cooperative relationships to protect both livestock and wolves.
I am grateful for the time I shared with our parents in my childhood home in the company of companion animals. I am grateful for the way I was raised with the help of animals and guidance of my parents who taught as much with actions as with words. I am also grateful that I helped prepare the house for the transition to a new owner so I could say my own farewell of sorts.
While I was busy in California, a co-worker of mine decided to adopt a young free roaming cat from our colony which lives near my office. I had found the small female cat as I was putting out food for the colony just before my trip back to San Diego. I brought her to my office to wait for a rescue group to arrive and word soon spread that I was harboring a visitor. The bond between “Latte” and Sha’Lena was obvious from the time they met. I have since learned that Vivian, Sha’Lena’s young daughter, has usurped her status and now Vivian and Latte are inseparable. I am sure that Vivian will grow up learning the same lessons I did so many years ago and her life will be all the richer from the bond she will share with a young cat who just happened to cross my path and who is now Vivian’s best friend.
Our first open house was this past weekend. As is the case in many places in southern California, the house was in demand because of the area and the schools. We have decided to sell the house to a single mom who is relocating to be closer to her parents who can help with her young son.
It is only fitting that our buyer is a veterinarian who has an older dog and two cats. I think mom and dad would be thrilled. Let the memory making and lessons to be learned begin.
Life is fleeting and precious.
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I am an animal welfare advocate. My goal is to help people understand some basic issues related to companion animals in America. Awareness leads to education leads to action leads to change.
image courtesy of Terrah Johnson