A Llama Walks into a Dentist Office . . .
It’s true. It even says so on my voter ID card — Registered Bleeding Heart. Despite my parents’ best efforts.
I sniffle through the morning paper. I pull over to hear NPR’s StoryCorps — in fear that I’ll crash my car. I sob during movies like Overboard. It’s a comedy starring Goldie Hawn. She gets temporary amnesia and then designs a mini golf course. A real tear-jerker.
And when it comes to animals, my heart operates at full throttle.
Dare I say it, my love for animals is primal? Yes. Because I like the word primal. Because primal makes me think of living in the jungle like Tarzan — with a pet lion.
I want to have a pet lion.
In the 1980s, Sesame Street frequently ran a video segment that led me to believe it was normal for a child to have a pet llama. Just like I’d always dreamed. And, not only that, it was normal to take him to the dentist.
I want to have a pet llama. I want to take him to the dentist.
I grew up watching 60s movies and reruns. As such, I wanted a horse like Mr. Ed, a dolphin like Flipper, a bear like Gentle Ben and a Monkee like Davy Jones.
While other kids were collecting stamps, seashells, model airplanes and boogers, I was the kid collecting animals. Cats, dogs, fish, rodents, birds. My list would continue had my parents been open minded.
I was always saving money for something toward The Cause. A hamster mansion, a cat castle, a bird gymnasium, an iguana, two horses (minus all necessary overhead costs) and an African Grey parrot. I wanted to place a donation jar at the grocery store checkout stand but my mom thought it was in poor taste. Secretly, she probably feared my success. Because who wouldn’t give pocket change to help a kid buy a naked mole rat? I would.
I valued every one of my pets, no matter the size. I once asked our vet to remove a nickle-sized tumor from my hamster. I’m proud to report it prolonged Cleo’s life by six weeks. Which is like sixty years in Hamster World. Soon after Cleo’s lumpectomy, I heard a stand-up comedian say that taking a hamster to the vet was like taking a Bic lighter to a repairman. It hurt. It hurt bad. Especially when the audience laughed. Especially when my dad laughed harder.
I also had two chameleons. Actually, if you’d care to know, they should be called by their true name, anoles. Yes, I know you don’t. But you should.
They were cantankerous lizards and I knocked myself out trying to keep them happy. For one, Willie and Wilhelmina detested the mealworms I bought for them at the pet store. Every time I’d toss down some worms, they’d peer up at me with one eyelid flipped open and a defeated look that said, This crap again? I hate this hell hole. Then they’d ram their heads into their glass reflections for the next two hours. I fretted they might go in the way of my fish Oscar who’d kamakaze’d himself into our shag carpet. So for three years I caught fresh bugs for them in my backyard.
My caretaking wasn’t always this admirable.
My cockatiel Luigi once surprised us all by suddenly laying eggs in his cage. Isn’t that adorable? I’ll admit it. It repulsed me.
I was 14 and still making sense of my own strange bodily functions. Then I had to witness a bird acting out Wild Kingdom in my bedroom, squawking in heat as she rubbed her butt against her toy bell. Following this obscene display, she’d disappear under her newspaper liner for hours before coming out to reveal a new egg.
After that, I could hardly stand to look at “Lucy” (as she was called going forward) without feeling utter contempt. Like a calloused Cold War-era parent, I wanted her out of my sight. I wanted to ship her off to a convent, somewhere that would straighten out her madness, somewhere where she couldn’t shame me further. Lucy died young — and peacefully in her sleep. I like to think that anyway. Maybe she died of a broken heart. Or maybe from an STD. I heard you could catch those from sitting on toy bells.
By that I mean — I had already been scratched, bit, licked, kicked, hairballed, butt-sniffed, leg-humped, swiped by a partially digested nylon leash covered in feces, drooled on, farted on, puked and regurgitated on (not the same), peed on, pooped on, poop-puked on and puke-pooped on (not the same), gassed in the face while tending to a hanger-on, moulted on (skin and feathers), and possibly birthed on (I’ll never know for sure). More times than I care to count. I’ve estimated 5,431,932.
At times, my human kids seem easier. My earliest memory as a new mother is sitting on my bed, nursing my newborn daughter (in what is supposed to be a clean environment) as my cat scooted her soiled bottom across the length of my bedspread. Just far enough away that I couldn’t kick her off, but just close enough that I could see her trail.
There’s no baby book designed to preserve this “first” moment. So I wrote it down under “Potty Training.” July 26, 2007 — Next to the cat’s used toilet paper, you ate your lunch. It really fit well there when in two years I could add, You ate the cat’s litter for lunch.
Ten years ago I saw a doe-eyed dairy cow at a state fair. Later that week I ate a hamburger that appeared to be winking at me. It had the same dark lashes. I never ate at that restaurant again. And I stopped eating mammals that day. Since then, I’ve been waiting for a tiger shrimp to also look at me in a way that’ll melt my heart, that’ll make me not want to tear off its legs and baste it in garlic butter. That hasn’t happened yet. Segmented eyes really are a curse.
When I met my husband, I brought with me a humble dowry of one elder cat who traveled with her own emotional baggage. He married me despite this.
At some point early into our marriage, our four-legged brood began increasing at an alarming rate, tripling in size in only a year. An observing friend said he expected to one day come over and see a pony in our backyard. When he said that, I had to hide the fact that it had only been days prior that I’d watched a PBS show on a miniature horse named Patches (here).
Patches was house-trained like a dog, wore kids’ sneakers on his feet and helped blind people run errands. I thought he could help us too. Maybe help take care of the other animals.
Today we maintain a scaled-back menagerie of only two cats and a dog. But that includes a 19-pound Maine Coon named Matilda with the upkeep equivalent of a head of cattle. We found her at a dog shelter. She was supposed to be a greyhound. She may have eaten him.
Last week I took our kids to a pet supply store to kill time. We’ll just walk around and entertain ourselves, I thought. We’ll watch a mouse nap in a ceramic mushroom, a fish eat its young, and then marvel at a self-cleaning litterbox. Then we’ll call it a day. Instead, I locked eyes with Henry and couldn’t leave his side for ten minutes.
As I watched him run around his cage, defecating on himself in an endearing move to get my attention, I immediately knew he was personality-plus. He was no ordinary rabbit. He was Bugs Bunny on crack. After a few minutes, I expected him to disappear behind a velvet curtain, emerge with a tiny cane and top hat and lead off a vaudevillian rendition of You Ought to Be in Pictures.
He was just that charming. Or perhaps he was just that rabid.
The adoption sign near his cage said his previous owners hadn’t cared for him. His eyes were matted, his snaggletooth yellowed, and even after he got my attention he continued to defecate on himself. Clearly, he needed love. And I’m certain he needed me. And maybe a couple of pairs of sneakers. And probably a good dentist. And definitely a miniature horse to take him there.