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Dumb Andrew

This is the second in an informal series, The Vermont Animal Diaries, about the pets Kendra and I tended when we lived for a year in Vermont. Part One, Fat Stella, is here.

The gender breakdown of the animals left in our care was two female cats (Stella and Bala), one male dog (Oscar) and one male cat (Andrew). The first several weeks we spent living with these domesticates, I puzzled over their social structure and pecking order. Their individual relationships at first seemed tenuous and fragile, difficult to map, mainly because no obvious leader emerged, no supreme chief, ruling from atop their clan.

Stella was by far the smartest, and she clearly ruled the cat food bowl. But Bala was a mean old lady, with sharp claws and a short temper. Oscar, a terrier, had the strength, size, and speed advantage over all the others, and his raw energy made him the most wildly unpredictable. But we used a baby gate to confine him to the first floor—so the cats could have some peace away from him—which disqualified him as Supreme Chancellor. Unlike all the others, Andrew’s position, no matter where he was in the house, was clear: the absolute bottom.

Dumb Andrew

Oscar frequently attempted to assert himself over the others in typical canine fashion: the classic sneak-attack “dry hump” assault. While the other cats would thrash free as quickly as possible, clawing and biting and climbing beyond his reach, Andrew instead adopted an air of almost casual indifference. Apparently he had long ago decided that just “waiting it out” was a perfectly viable strategy. I made the mistake early on of thinking this approach was just a nonchalant, Oh well, better to live to fight another day. Later I started to figure Andrew maybe just kind of leaned that way—if you catch my meaning. However, after several months of living with him, I arrived at the clear conclusion that, rather than a brain, Andrew instead had some tiny bits of gravel rattling around inside an otherwise empty skull.

Kendra and I would be sitting studying, reading, or watching television on the couch together, when all of a sudden we’d be interrupted by a loud clack-clack-clack-clack! Startled, we’d look up and glance around, and here would come Andrew, walking stiffly across the wood floor, robot-like, apparently oblivious that he had his claws fully extended. Clack-clack-clack-clack!

“Andrew! Put your claws in!”

He’d stop, stare back at us blankly for a moment, glance down, appear genuinely surprised, draw his claws in, return his empty gaze forward, and proceed. Pat-pat-pat-pat. Eventually we got so used to it that we’d call him out from anywhere in the house. You could hear him upstairs strolling with his claws out, call to him, and he’d stop.

I don’t know whether from some injury he suffered in the Great Cat Wars, perhaps crossing some drunken gato in a border town barfight, or even the undesired side effect of a tongue extension à la Gene Simmons, but Andrew’s tongue seemed to be devoid of feeling. Frequently, we’d find him sitting, cat-normal in all other ways—except that his tongue would be dangling from his mouth. He wasn’t panting or anything. He just genuinely had no clue it was out. Have you ever heard that phrase, “Too dumb to come in out of the rain”? Andrew was too dumb to keep his tongue in his mouth.

“Andrew! Put your tongue in!”

He’d turn, regard you for a second, then suck it back in. Andrew was without a doubt the dumbest cat I have ever known in my life.

And every time I think back and remember him, I smile.

What’s the dumbest animal you’ve ever known? What did that animal do that made them, you know, “special”? Was their uniqueness the result of some unfortunate tragedy, or merely misfortunate DNA? If you could pick your perfect pet (any animal), what would it be and why?

Fat Stella

Today’s post will be the first in a short series that I’m unofficially calling the Vermont Animal Diaries. From August 1995 to May 1996,  Kendra and I lived in North Bennington, Vermont so I could attend graduate school at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in nearby Troy, New York. We rented a house from a couple who was out of the country during that time, part of our arrangement being that we would care for their three cats and one dog. For the next few days, I’m going to share them with you. Then on the last day, I’ll tell you a delightful story involving all three of them. Today is all about this porcine feline…

Stella was perfect. She was insanely soft and silky, and she absolutely lived for physical affection. She was the ideal specimen of a lap kitty in nearly all respects…save one: She weighed probably four times too much. When she would flop down on your legs for some attention, she was not unlike a good-natured Labrador or German Shepherd, panhandling for a love handout, with no concept of appropriate boundaries and personal space, and no frame of reference for her Bruhathkayosaurusian size. Stella was pleasant and big like that, except without all the mindless slobber and ridiculous hip wagging you typically get from a dog.

Fat Stella

Stella’s size actually played a significant role in her charm. She was soft as a plush toy not only because of her silky fur (which was luxurious), but more because of her generous folds of whale blubber. Stella could have fed a traditional Eskimo family and kept them in lip balm for the entire month of November. On a cold day, it was delightful to call her over, invite her onto your lap, and tuck your hands into her layers, kneading softly to warm your chilly fingers. And she liked it, too.

Although Stella was not the strongest of our landlords’ three cats, she somehow had her bluff in on the others. I guess she was like that one fat kid on the playground who, although he’s not actually tough at all, is simply bigger than everybody else, so he’s just accustomed to getting his way. All of the cats shared their food from one large bowl in the upstairs bathroom. When we’d pour food at feeding time, that clanking was like ringing the triangle on a chuck wagon: Everybody came bounding in, immediately circling up to start gobbling like greedy pigs at a crowded trough.

Everybody but Stella. Because the bowl was upstairs, it required physical exertion just to get there, and she’d have you think her moseying was because she was the kind of classy gal who prefers to take her time. She would instead meander slowly into the room and draw up for a long pause, regarding her peons with abject disgust. All eyes around the bowl would rise to meet her icy empress stare, and jaws would begin grinding even more staccato-like, more swallowing than chewing. Once Stella had determined everyone had had enough, she’d wobble toward the bowl, and everybody else would scatter for higher points, looking down from a safe distance, hoping she’d leave them at least a few crumbs.

She had her bluff in on us, too. We hadn’t been living there very long when we discovered what kind of a person Stella the cat really was. Kendra was lying in bed one morning, trying to sleep in a little. But the sun was up, and Stella required maintenance. She crawled up on Kendra’s chest and purred softly, occasionally dobbing her nose on Kendra’s chin. When Kendra didn’t respond, Stella escalated to phase two, gently patting Kendra’s cheek with outstretched paw. When Kendra told her, “No, Stella. Not right now,” Stella had to lay down the law. She extended her claws on that paw and tapped again. She was gentle and did not scratch, but she conveyed her clear warning. This was her shot across the bow, if you will. And Stella’s obedient human woman responded, untucking her hands from underneath the covers to accommodate her queen.

Stella was perfect.

Did you ever have a perfect pet? How did they communicate their desires to you? Were you their slave—as you know you should be—or were YOU the boss? Don’t you ever wish our animals would treat US with the same kind of plush welfare lifestyle we lavish them? What might a world where WE were the pets look like?

Hunting Dumb

I know just enough about guns to be dangerous, perhaps even lethal, provided you’re a small, defenseless animal. But the hunter’s mystique has always escaped me. Remember in Red Dawn when C. Thomas Howell killed his first deer, and Patrick Swayze had him drink the blood? “Once you drink that, you’ll never be the same.” (Turns out Swayze was right. C. Thomas Howell’s character ended badly.)

When I was about 11, I killed a toad, more or less with my so-called BB gun. My BB “gun” wasn’t even a Daisy. It was an off-brand from Sears, something like Daizee.

“Sears makes Craftsman. They know what they’re doing,” my dad insisted.

Evidently, skills with tool manufacturing don’t carry over to firearms. It was such a weak little thing, I could actually see the BB as it left the barrel, my naked eye tracking its pathetic downward arc. I could have done more damage shovel-throwing a handful of BBs like an orangutan. (As a father of two boys now myself, certainly I can see the wisdom in providing these wild, smelly heathens with a neutered “weapon alternative.”)

Anyway, after emptying my entire firearm into this toad’s back (to pretty much zero effect), I ended up mercy-killing him with a hoe and burying him in the backyard, sobbing the entire time. I could have written an opera about the experience. (I may yet.)

Another time, when I was a teenager, my dad sent me out to kill a skunk just behind our backyard. We had this mulberry tree in our yard whose branches hung over the chain link fence, and this skunk was just hanging out under it outside the fence, eating berries all afternoon, aloofly ignoring our dog—who was inside the fence losing his mind.

I had to wrestle the dog, dragging him into the garage to lock him up. (Not that that was hard. He was a 16-lb poodle.) Then I sneaked stealthily along the outside of the fence, a sniper on a special ops mission. I raised our 12-gauge, channeled my inner seasoned marksman, and BLAM! The skunk found itself startled, standing suddenly before God’s Throne of Judgment.

(Random aside: Don’t you just HATE that gauge is spelled like that? Every time I read it, I can’t help pronouncing it “gouge.” I  have to write it out to remember how to spell it. I always type it as guage first, then fix it when that doesn’t look right.)

Meanwhile, back here on earth, I went for a shovel to carry off the carcass for proper burial. When I flipped the skunk’s body over, I couldn’t find any blood—not a single drop. Turns out I had hit it with precisely one piece of shot, directly in the temple. (Evidently wasting the other 13,999 pieces of shot.)

Unfortunately, I was also unnerved to discover that she was (or rather, had been) a mama skunk. Covered with swollen nipples, she clearly had babies somewhere who had tasted the last of her milk. No doubt she was so ravenously hungry she’d risk a crazed dog because she had little mouths to feed back at the hole. So not only had I committed skunk matricide, but I had also unwittingly offed an entire litter of helpless infant skunks. Behold the mighty hunter!

I pictured her patiently taking a seat in one of the lovely mahogany chairs in the waiting area outside God’s courtroom, insisting she be allowed to wait for me to show up before she would tell her side. (Just one more thing I’m gonna have to answer for.)

What about you? Do you LOVE killing things? Tasting their blood? Dancing around the empty shell that once housed a living soul? What’s your great hunting (or vermin) story?

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