I’ve been writing a lot about dogs lately because they are so important in our lives. However, Katja and I have had lots of other kinds of pets too. Thinking it over, my conclusion is that dogs are definitely the best. I’ll tell you why, and you can see if you agree. (Caution to Sensitive Readers: This report is rated X because it contains horrors.)
After Katja and I lost Heather, our darling German Shepherd puppy, in our first year in Ann Arbor, there was a big vacuum in our lives. That Valentine’s Day I went to the Arborland Mall pet store to look for a substitute and wound up buying two brownish-gray mice. The salesperson cautioned me that one of them was pregnant, and I said that was fine because we wanted babies anyway. While Katja didn’t regard mice as an adequate replacement for a dog, she was pleased that I remembered Valentine’s Day, and she thought the mice were sort of cute. When the mother mouse produced a litter of half a dozen hairless, pink, eyeless babies, we both became enthused about our new teeny-tinies. I built them a multi-room cardboard house which I set on a TV tray in our bathtub so they couldn’t escape into our apartment. Because I was busy learning about social interaction in my graduate studies, I spent hours watching pairs of mice move about on an empty table top. They didn’t pay much attention to one another, and very few insights came out of my mouse observations.
We didn’t know anything about mice beforehand, but it turned out that they are capable of reproducing at three or four weeks of age. That was pretty exciting since, every time we turned around, we had a new litter of little mouselings. By May our bathtub colony had reached a population size about 80, and I had expanded the mouse house to a large multi-floor apartment dwelling. We got caught up in the frenzy of year-end graduate school exams, and I’m sorry to report that we became pretty negligent about taking care of the mice. I came home late one day, and it suddenly dawned on me that I hadn’t fed the mice in some time. Worried that they might be very hungry, I brought their container of food to the bathroom. I was in for a severe shock. At first I didn’t see any mice at all. Then what I did see was a large number of unattached mouse tails (apparently the only inedible part of a mouse). When I took the mouse apartment roof off, I found one huge mouse with a bulging stomach. Apparently all the other 79 mice had eaten one another in an orgy of collective mouse cannibalism until only one very well-fed animal was left. I called to Katja, and I won’t even try to describe her state of mind. We put the sole remaining mouse in a shoebox and carried it two blocks away to the special field where we often watched the Michigan Marching Band practice. We regarded the survivor as sort of a super-mouse, and we wished it well as we set it free. Sometimes I wonder if there might be millions of his descendants running about Ann Arbor today.
We moved to Cincinnati, first to the Williamsburg Apartments, and then to Clifton Avenue. Our landlords on Clifton didn’t permit dogs, so, as pet people, we considered various alternatives. My brother Steven, an ardent fisherman in Seattle, raised tropical fish as a hobby, and he described how relaxing it was to come home at the end of the day and watch them in their tank. We decided to give it a try. I quickly discovered that Steve was more adept at raising fish than I was. I bought all sorts of tropical fish, usually for 19 cents apiece, at the pet store in the Brentwood Shopping Center, but most of my fish only survived a week or two. I’d just keep replacing them every weekend so that we maintained a colony of 30 or so. December came, and we were scheduled to leave for Xmas vacation in Philadelphia. We asked our upstairs neighbors, Mr. and Mrs. Storelli (who were also the landlady’s parents), to take care of our fish while we were gone. The Storelli’s were in their eighties, had come over recently from Italy, and spoke only very limited English. They were uneasy about taking responsibility for our fish, but I assured them that there was nothing more to it that sprinkling some fish food in the tank each evening. Being sweet people, they agreed to do so. When we returned from Philadelphia, the Storelli’s came downstairs soon after we arrived. Mr. Storelli was very distressed and gave us an animated, barely intelligible account of our fish’s fate. The day after we’d left, the water in the tank began getting cloudy, until it finally turned into an thick wall of silt. The filtering mechanism had broken down, and all the fish had promptly died. I cannot tell you how despairing Mr. Storelli was as he tried to translate this tragedy in his broken English. He took us into the kitchen where he opened the freezer door on the refrigerator. There were 30 brightly colored frozen fish, neatly arrayed in a row on top of a folded paper towel. I tried to console Mr. Storelli by saying that all my fish died anyway, but nothing I could say lessened his sorrow. Our new hobby came to an abrupt end.
Katja took matters into her own hands. Several weeks later I came home from work, and there, hopping about the kitchen, was a chubby gray and white rabbit named Thumper. Katja has always had a great fondness for soft, fuzzy things, and she had located a young woman in Clifton who bred rabbits. Thumper cost about sixty times more than a fish (i.e., $12), but he did have a much broader repertoire of behaviors. He was not that sociable. But we were able to catch and grab him, hold him firmly in our laps, and pet him regardless of his wishes in the matter. Thumper actually preferred to hop around, sniff with his little pink nose, and leave little rabbit pellets on the floor. My father-in-law Buck suggested that we set up a business called “Power Poops”, offering packages of Thumper’s vegetable-based products to local gardeners.
Because Thumper’s other favorite activity was to chew on electric cords, we wound up moving him to a backyard hutch. After a while we bought our house on Ludlow Avenue, and our neighbor Bill built us a larger rabbit hutch on the back porch. When Thumper died, we replaced him with a small black rabbit who we named Blazer because of his exceedingly high energy level and speed. We only owned Blazer for one day. He was so wild that he kept jumping up to the top of his hutch until he managed to make his way through the small crack between the wall and the edge of the roof. We always imagined that Blazer had made his way to Burnett Woods and gone on to live a life of freedom and rabbit joy.
Katja then bought two rabbits who she named Sunbeam and Moonbeam, one gray and one black. I built an octagonal enclosure of window screens which I put on the side lawn and would sit there with the rabbits so that little children walking by with their parents could play with them. A friend told me after a few months that I had come to be known around Clifton, a neighborhood already full of eccentrics, as the rabbit man. Sunbeam and Moonbeam lived a quiet life in their hutch. One day we came home, and our neighbor Bill called over to us. He said that a pack of stray dogs had come up on our back porch and had tried to get at the rabbits. He had chased them away with a baseball bat, but he was too late. We looked, and the rabbits’ lifeless bodies were lying on the floor of the hutch. The dogs hadn’t been able to break into the hutch, but the rabbits had literally been scared to death. I took them into the house and thumped them sharply on the chest with my forefinger, hoping to revive their tiny hearts. Finally I covered them with a towel and set them aside in the basement with a vague hope that they might somehow return to to life on their own. They didn’t. We buried them in the garden, each with a pretty stone on top of his or her little rabbit grave.
Now that we owned our own house, we could have any sort of pet we liked. We decided we were finished experimenting with non-dogs. After an appropriate period of mourning, Katja bought a Bedlington Terrier who we named Winston. I will tell you about more about Winston on another occasion. Suffice it to say that he worked out better than mice or fish or rabbits. This is why I think dogs are the best.