I was raised by a woman who has many wonderful qualities. (Hi mom!) Animal appreciation is not one of them. Employing every trick known to kiddom failed to get me the dog I so desperately wanted. Mini ponies and teacup pigs weren’t really a thing back then – or if they were, I didn’t know about them – so I didn’t nag her about getting either of them. It doesn’t really matter. She would have said no.
She has a convenient story for denying me a pet dog. It stems from her own childhood experience getting the dog she and her brothers wanted. (Hey, no fair!) She claims that it wasn’t long before the novelty of the new family member wore off and suddenly all dog-care became the sole responsibility of her mother. Not wanting that same fate befalling her, she gave an immediate and unambiguous no each and every time I begged.
But this story, while certainly true (my mom doesn’t lie), doesn’t explain her general attitude toward animals, which ranges from apathy to antipathy, depending on the species. Over the years, even her own unspeakably cute and fuzzy grandchildren (our rabbits) have received tepid greetings from a safe distance whenever she visits. When I put a bunny in her lap (every person’s dream, right?), she visibly shrinks, reluctantly extending just one vulnerable finger to stroke his head under my judging gaze, beads of sweat forming at her brow. (For the record, my mother strongly disputes this involuntary fight-or-flight, central nervous system response.)
Frankly, I think my mom’s animal aversion is genetic. As far as I know, none of her brothers’ families ever had house pets, and my siblings have either willingly chosen animal-free lives or else gotten pets under duress or by circumstance. Certainly none of them ever said, “Alrighty then. I’m a grown-up now. Time to enhance my existence with a furry companion.” Even my brother, who joined me in the childhood dog pleas and was somewhat drawn to the idea of a hunting dog as an adult, was easily able to talk himself out of it, citing all the drawbacks dog ownership involves. This anti-animal gene, though, is strongest in my mother, and it’s expression takes on its full force when it comes to cats.
My mom hates cats. Being a neat-freak, the first thing she’ll cite is the fur, but dig a little deeper and the full extent of her disgust becomes clear: they’re sneaky, they startle you, they leave dead critters on the doorstep, and they make figure eights around your legs, which sends (the bad kind of) shivers up her spine. And the thought of a germ-infested cat on her sanitized kitchen countertops sends her into spasms of revulsion. In fact, she doesn’t just hate cats – she loaths them. And being an impressionable mommy’s girl, so did I. To be fair, she just planted the seed (and gave it plenty of water), but I had a couple of negative cat experiences growing up that fertilized my hatred.
The first occurred while in junior high. Seated on a friend’s couch that faced a long hallway on the other side of the room, I stared, frozen in horror, as her cat (which I had, up until that moment, painstakingly avoided) sprang down that hallway at break-neck speed, crossed the living room in a split second, vaulted over the coffee table, and leapt onto my shoulder on its way to whatever was behind that couch. A mere 13 years old, I became Wisconsin’s youngest victim of what’s known in the medical world as CATS (Cardio Animalis Terror Syndrome).
Another time, while on an outdoorsy family vacation at a mountain ranch near Gunnison, Colorado, my brother left his boots out overnight on our cabin porch. There were several “free-range” cats on the property and one morning my brother awoke to find that one of them had used his boot as a latrine. Naturally, I found this hilarious, but I also made a mental note of yet another way that cats are diabolical.
As a young adult, I had a job delivering concert tickets around the town I was living in. One stop was at the home of what many would call a “crazy cat lady.” I don’t recall how many adult cats there were, but she had at least six or eight unfettered kittens roaming around. Crazy cat lady left me standing in the kitchen while she went to fetch her checkbook. I happened to be standing next to a dining chair that wasn’t fully pushed under the table. The next thing I knew, several kittens were on that chair, and then they were on me! On my chest, my shoulders, my back, clinging to my clothes with their sharp little claws and mewing in a way that sent (the bad kind of) shivers up my spine. I let out a blood curdling scream. I almost certainly yelled, “Get them off me!” or something to that effect. I can’t really remember – the shock of the ordeal left some details hazy. I do know that the woman came running and released me from the coordinated, insidious feline attack. I grabbed her check and got the hell outta there, my cat hatred crystallizing as I sped away.
It wasn’t long after this traumatic event that I met the husband. Though readily smitten with his many qualities, I was dismayed to discover that he, having grown up with feline companions, was a card-carrying member of Team Cat. I quickly drew a line in the sand, declaring my allegiance to Team Dog. At that point it was merely an academic disagreement. We were renters and we were poor; pet adoption wouldn’t be happening anytime soon. Still, if this relationship was going to go anywhere, his cat fancy was something I would need to keep in check and, if possible, stamp out, all while trying to subtly lure him over to Team Dog.
Alas, it never happened. I never converted him, nor he me. This was during our time living in Montana, and one day shortly before moving to Minnesota, we found ourselves outside a pet store while ambling through the local mall. There were bunnies right at the entrance. I swooned over their cuteness. He mentioned the ease with which they can be litter box trained. Litter box trained? Really? Suddenly, a new seed was planted. But that’s a story for another day.
I left Montana as anti-cat as I’d ever been. It would take a new state and a new set of experiences to alter my entrenched view.
That, too, is a story for another day…