Stuff this

The taxidermist was having none of it. 

On assignment for a midsize city newspaper, I was interviewing the local taxidermist, a Mr. Martinez, stuffer of critters, asking him about his life’s calling: 

How did you arrive at upholstering bobcats and mounting them in hissing, menacing postures? 

What’s the taxidermy process? Do you only use the animal’s skin?

Is it bloody? Does it stink? 

That kind of crap.

Growing bored by Martinez’s predictable answers and feeling stifled in his stuffy workshop — a matchbox cluttered with mounts, models, skins and dead, static animals in dubious attitudes — my mind drifted.

Though I knew the answer, I asked Martinez if he could taxidermy my long-passed pet rat Phoebe. Sure, he said without a blink, though with a wink, as if a common eight-inch rodent would present any challenge.

Then, scanning the room’s carpentry, tanning and painting gear, I waxed inspired. Could you, I asked, stuff my best friend Ian and mount him in a fearsome pose, like an agitated grizzly? Martinez smirked, but he hadn’t heard my full pitch.

My friend is still alive, I told him. Is that a deal-breaker? Martinez snorted, shook his head and pondered how his lab’s chemical fumes had affected me. Surely he thought I was delirious. Or just dumb as a mounted wildebeest head.

But I really did wonder if he could taxidermy my dear pal Ian, a generous fellow with good skin and, hairy as a chimp, would look splendid posed in a loincloth, hunting a saber-toothed tiger in the Neolithic period. I picture this scene amid a Serengeti landscape in a diorama in a musty natural history museum. That, I think, is where Ian belongs. You’re welcome, bud. 

No and no, said Martinez, squashing the dreams of this faithful friend. Adds award-winning taxidermist Katie Innamorato: “It’s illegal to taxidermy or mount a human being in the U.S. While I’m sure it’s possible, the end result doesn’t seem worth the trouble. Human skin discolors greatly after the preservation process and stretches a lot more than animal skin.”

Gross.

You want gross? Ogle this:

That’s from the site Bad Taxidermy, a cheeky celebration of botched stuff-and-mount jobs, from the whimsically warped (a kitty fastened with giant angel wings, dangling from the ceiling, its face a mask of open-mouth terror) to the near-blasphemous (a quacking duck head popping out of the butt of a surprised baby lamb).

As Bad Taxidermy and its competing site Crappy Taxidermy illustrate, it’s simple. 

There’s good taxidermy:

And there’s grotty taxidermy:

From macho hunter displays to Victorian curiosity cabinets, taxidermy rarely goes out of fashion. Two books — “Crap Taxidermy” and “Taxidermy Gone Wrong: The Funniest, Freakiest (and Outright Creepiest) Beastly Vignettes” — are taxonomies of the mutilated and misbegotten, the bungles and blunders. Horrible hilarity ensues.

What is taxidermy, exactly? Real fur, jagged antlers, feral poses, glassy doll eyes and wholesale creepiness come to mind. (Also: reprehensible game hunters and their appetite for machismo-fueled slaughter.)

Essentially, says an expert, “taxidermy is a mix of many disciplines — sculpting, woodworking, sewing, painting, carpentry and tanning, to name a few.”

It’s a grisly craft. “The animal is first skinned in a process similar to removing the skin from a chicken prior to cooking. Depending on the type of skin, preserving chemicals are applied or the skin is tanned. It is then either mounted on a mannequin made from wood, wool and wire, or a polyurethane form.”

I’m of two minds: I absolutely hate the idea of killing creatures for egomaniacal trophies. The other part of my brain revels in the freakish Frankenstein concoctions sprung from twisted artistic souls, Gothy individualists in black, with scads of tats and a penchant for playing Bauhaus while making taxidermy scenes of iguana tea parties.

My pal Mr. Martinez is a more traditional practitioner of the taxidermy arts. As his workshop attests, he goes for big cats, woodland animals, spindly deer, exotic game and other heartbreaking visions. 

So he won’t stuff my friend, got it. Maybe if I modify my specifications so Ian could still be prepped and mounted without breaking any laws. Maybe if Martinez does something less human and more on the hybrid side — a hint of Dr. Moreau, say.

Maybe, just maybe, we can settle on this:

Animal magnetism

There’s a pet pig on our block that makes everyone who sees it do swiney swoons. 

Trixie, the pink lady with black spots, who’s shaped like an overinflated football or a throw pillow, clicks down the sidewalk, nibbling grass, snout and low-slung belly to the ground, attended by three canine pals of various proportions. 

It’s quite the gaggle, and neighbors can’t resist snapping photos, giggling and petting, as if Miss Piggy and Babe had shown up in the hood, snorting for truffles. (Watch the pig and her posse HERE.) 

You don’t often see people with squirrel monkeys wearing tiny doll diapers anymore — animal abuse is finally unfashionable — but you do see the random exotic critter with its human comrades, like Trixie, who will grunt chunky oinks to amuse the masses. 

George Clooney and Miley Cyrus have famously made happy house pets of pigs, and if they can do it … well, not so fast. Some fancy Google footwork will tell you pet pigs are very expensive to acquire and maintain. And they’re space-hoggers, tending to get ginormous and push you out of your bed and eat all your Froot Loops, despite contradictory claims by Wilbur and Piglet.  

I admit I know little about our local piggy, except that she’s a trendy potbellied or “teacup” pig, a pink porker with evolved social skills and an impressive tolerance of dogs and piping children. She’s housebroken and uses a litter box. Also: she doesn’t like carrots. 

But she appears to like people, probably because they lavish her with, say, corn cobs and tequila — and because they don’t eat her for breakfast. Trixie basks in the human attention. Like a baby panda, she’s a star, a crowd-pleaser, eliciting oohs, aahs and ha’s. Pig as people-puller.

Which brings me to an acquaintance I knew in Texas, an esteemed novelist and journalist, whose new book happened to earn a rave in this weekend’s New York Times. Actually, it brings me to his dog, specifically his sweet blonde Lab puppy, whose name escapes me. It’s been a while.

We were at a backyard party — my then-girlfriend Laura and I, the above writer, and a slew of good friends — and the writer brought his attention-starved puppy (with his attention-starved self). My girlfriend sprung to the dog, talked to it and stroked it. (This is the girlfriend who once dumped a beer on me. On purpose. Because she’s a genius.)

Writer guy watches Laura, and says this about his special new puppy: “He’s a real pussy magnet.” The writer beams a smutty smile. Laura’s cooing turns to booing. She looks like she bit into a lemon. I’m near enough to hear, but say nothing to writer fella, a burly chainsmoker, disheveled in look and manner. I don’t like broken thumbs. 

This digression about the magnetic puppy is to show how animals can reduce people to marshmallows, and make others crack profane for a wan laugh. (Is the dog also a penis magnet? Har-har.) It’s to show how human and beast forge singular bonds, be it pup or pig, because we all possess big, needy hearts, and everyone likes to be pet. And licked. 

I once had a crazy, lick-your-entire-face puppy that I would call an everybody magnet. Everybody loved her and she loved everybody and there was no stopping the mutual gush of adoration. She was in a perpetual frenzy that caused her to lick your tongue if you weren’t careful. A French kiss, Fido-style. (Was she a tongue magnet?)

It’s hard to picture Trixie, she of the stripper’s name and porcine puss, kissing anything that isn’t slathered in ranch dressing. There she is, flat snout fluttering, hoofs tap-dancing on the concrete in bountiful suburbia, surrounded by fawning people (the fans) and curious dogs (the flummoxed), and showered with organic love. I don’t know about my neighbors, but I think this humble pig is nothing short of a me magnet.

Wildlife, suburban style

Baby animals freak me out, startle me, and break my heart. They don’t even have to do anything — stop peering at me with those gigantic moist eyeballs; put down those adorable outsize paws — and they get me. 

The mini-critters make me kind of sad, what with their dewy vulnerability, peach-fuzzy squishiness, frantic suckling and flappy, floppy helplessness. (Human babies don’t have this effect on me. They have iPads and Elmo and rarely become roadkill.)

So I was walking through the big, bright, flora-flung idyll of my emphatically suburban neighborhood (Ward Cleaver, meet Ozzie Nelson), when I spotted a pair of bitty lost creatures on someone’s front lawn. I heard a faint squeak and took in a scene that could only lance my soul: two baby raccoons, blinking in the sunlight, gazing up a nearby tree, wondering, it seemed, where their mama was.

Oh, no, was my first (and second and third) impression: One of the infants looked semi-dead, and I promptly thought I’d stumbled upon guinea pig-sized baby possums, hoping the still one was only playing dead. But no, Lone Ranger markings and all, these were scrawny, handsome raccoons, both very much alive. Desperate and scared, but animate.

Awash with relief, I kicked into mammal emergency mode. But just as I was about to dial animal control, it struck me to ask the home’s owner if they knew about the orphan raccoons on their grass and if anything was happening to rescue them. 

I rang the bell on the big blue porch and a voice on an intercom wheezed, “Yes?” I told the woman my concerns — cute animals are squirming on your lawn, perilously — and she assured me she knew about the hapless wildlife. 

OK, I thought. She’ll take care of it. So I moved on with a twinge of anguish and the haunting notion that my raccoon pals were doomed. Why? Because people are cruddy.

Not me, not when it comes to poor, innocent animals, be it a mangy street cur in Kathmandu or an extravagantly spoiled pet rat named Becky, who drank beer and snarfed, well, everything. 

Or the orphaned baby squirrel I nursed to health with an eyedropper after it fell out of a tree some time ago. A cat almost got that tiny fella, but I snatched it and nestled it in a towel-stuffed basket until a crew of thick-gloved pros took it to a chirpy, scampering squirrel sanctuary. 

Yesterday, the day after my raccoon encounter, I passed the same blue house. Morbidly curious, I scoped out the lawn area where I first saw the stray, ring-tailed souls. They were gone. I envisaged cat-on-raccoon carnage, until I was distracted.

A man was washing his car on the street. “Can I help you?” he said, unsmiling. I asked about the raccoons. “You were here yesterday?” he said, water spluttering from a hose he pointed aimlessly. “You talked to my wife.” Right, I said. 

The raccoons are gone, the man said. Animal control? I asked. Yes, he said. I gave him a thumbs up — something I’ve done approximately six times in my life — and thanked him. He nodded, turned, sprayed.

Oddly, I didn’t feel as good about it as I thought I should. Just picturing those precious siblings, sprawled in the sun, sniffing the air for their parents’ scent, did a number on me. There’s closure, but there’s not.

Somewhere nearby a mother raccoon is looking for her babies.

The raccoons look just like this little guy.

A terrible year for giraffes. (Yes, giraffes.)

So bear with me. This is about ill-fated giraffes and me tumbling down the rabbit hole of giraffe-y headlines — news, lots of news, most of it rotten. Weird, I know.

I have no special interest in giraffes, though I’m attuned to animal happenings, especially awful ones, like the fact that two giraffes died yesterday in a barn fire at a Virginia zoo. (Not heartbreaking enough? One of them was named Waffles.) 

A little shattered, I recalled another recent giraffe calamity involving a calf and its mother. That triggered another one, and another, before I went down the hole, doing research that snowballed into a litany of tragedies befalling the vertically endowed beast. 

While no giraffe aficionado, I happen to think the elongated animals are fascinating. With their noodly necks, liquid lope, crazy-quilt patterns, nubby horns and serpentine tongues, giraffes make an irresistibly bizarre creature possibly slapped together by aliens. They’re both equine and avian, a kind of lurching mammalian ostrich. 

And they have cruddy luck, at least lately. There was yesterday’s zoo blaze — I shudder — and so much more: 

  • In January a newborn giraffe at the Nashville Zoo was accidentally stepped on by its mother and died. It happened just hours after the zoo shared news of the calf’s birth to the public. The cause was “trauma to the neck.”
  • Five days ago at the Maryland Zoo, an 8-year-old giraffe named Anuli died unexpectedly. The animal had suffered stomach ailments.  
  • Hasina the giraffe died a week ago at the Los Angeles Zoo following an anesthetized procedure to remove her calf, which was in an “abnormal breech position within the womb.”
  • Three rare giraffes were electrocuted in February when they walked into low-hanging power lines within a conservation area in western Kenya. All three died.
  • Two extremely rare all-white giraffes were killed by poachers in Kenya. (This happened a year ago today.)
  • Last month a trophy hunter posted several gruesome photographs on Facebook showing her posing with the body of a 17-year-old bull giraffe she had shot and killed in a South African game park. The hunter is seen smiling while she hugs the giraffe’s corpse and poses next to his dead body. In one photo, she holds up the big bloody heart of the animal, smiling like a slavering psychopath.  

But with death springs renewal. Just this year four zoos — in Tennessee, Texas, California and South Carolina — welcomed newborn giraffes to their menageries. It’s so very “Lion King,” the circle of life and what have you. 

But what of all that magnificent doom, packed into such a snug stretch of time? How did the zany giraffe — a creature that exists and looks as if it doesn’t, a sage notes — so earn the wrath of the cosmos? It can’t be the way it contorts into a nimble tripod when it drinks from a pool. Or how this vegetarian swirls its 27-inch-long tongue around sky-scraping leaves and branches.

Can’t be all that, since these are things of beauty and wonder. The gracefully gangly giraffe, that evolutionary whatsit, is apparently just having a terrifically bad year. I hope it tapers off, because the more time I’ve spent with the animals the more my affection has grown. They’re goofy, gentle, surreal and almost mythical. Wrote a poet: “The man who believes in giraffes would swallow anything.” That sound you hear is me gulping.

Loving animals, doggedly

As I was scratching the dog’s belly today, he squeaked out a tiny fart that I excused him for since, as far as I know, he can’t speak English and isn’t versed in basic human etiquette. I kept scratching and he emitted customary groans that I tend to interpret as vague doggie ecstasy. Sounds coming from both ends, très stereophonic.

Cubby the Wonder Mutt likes to lie on his back, supine, head tossed back, eyes squinched, rear legs spread-eagle, his pee-pee out in all its centerfold glory. He’s a good dog, as they say — always “good,” never “great” or “fabulous,” why is that? — even if he resembles one of those diabolical pygmy hellions, an Ewok. Compare, contrast: 

OK, not exactly, but sometimes I glance at him and scream in fleeting horror.

Animals, like ol’ Cubs, are always on my mind. For some reason, I’ve been watching more YouTube junk than normal and it seems like half the videos are prefaced with ads for heart-curdling, soul-gutting animal causes. 

They’re the kind that show emaciated puppies and starving bony horses and shivering dogs with so much eye goop they can barely see. It screws everything up. I don’t even feel like watching the video I was set to watch after those damn commercials. 

They get me every time. So there I go, helplessly dropping cash into the coffers of PETA, the Humane Society and other groups, like the crazy one for abused donkeys in India and the World Wildlife Fund’s stupendous adopt an octopus program. 

And I recently joined the ASPCA’s modest monthly membership, which amounts to an obscenely affordable 63 cents a day. I told them to save resources and keep the free t-shirt, which would only wind up as a dust rag. Pretty soon, thanks to all my donations, I’m going to own about 14 complimentary animal calendars that I really do not want.

I think I’m so nuts about animals and their welfare because I was raised with a rotating menagerie of pets: dogs, cats, rats, turtles, fish, rabbits, hens, salamanders. And I was scarred by “family” films like “Old Yeller” and “Where the Red Fern Grows” that only make you love animals more and hate sadistic filmmakers. Even “Charlotte’s Web” planted a screwdriver into my heart, and she was just a crummy spider. (Even now I don’t kill spiders. I scoop them up and plop them outside.)

I hate to rate my animals, but since Cubby is in the other room probably flashing the neighbors on his back, I present the best dog my family ever had, a black Lab dubiously named Spooker. That’s her below, the one flicking her tongue. (I’m the one with the righteous tiger slippers; my brother Craig sports the scandalous red onesie.)  

Usually when I profess my love of animals I essentially mean dogs. I care a lot about monkeys, mice and manatees, but I can’t say I love them. Even as tykes, you can see how much we love our big black Lab, our companion, our third parent, protector and pal. Dogs are furry clichés: loyal, cheerful, eager, bursting with unconditional love, even if that means the occasional, totally misguided leg hump. That’s a pretty good package. 

Cubby fits the bill. He sort of represents all animals for me — penguins, porpoises, platypuses, the random narwhal — and so by caring for him I’m embracing the whole animal kingdom. 

That sounds super corny, and re-reading that sentence makes me shudder. But it’s true. Cubby contains multitudes. He’s small in body, big in heart. He lavishes affection on us and only asks in return walks, food, and heartfelt belly rubs, the kind that make him groan and wheeze like a 79-year-old with emphysema. Sometimes if you press just right, he produces the tortured warbling of bagpipes. Then he slowly passes out.

A good dog indeed. No. A great dog. How about a fabulous dog.

Fido meets the face mask

What, social distancing with the dog? Six feet apart? Are we going to scratch his belly with a broom stick? Throw the ball and ask him to please not return it, or to drench it in Purell first? And, pshaw, a mutt mask, too? How is he possibly going to blithely lick his loins?

Fortunately, most of this scenario is wryly fictive. Yet we tried the face mask and the bristling, headstrong Cubby was having none of it. He ate it. Cubby, so marvelous he should wear a cape, isn’t falling for all this preventive Covid-19 twaddle. He scoffs, nay, woofs, at it. 

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Not Cubby. Just a stunt dog.

Is he being irresponsible, a paragon of screw-you selfishness? Is he following in the paw tracks of our dear leader in all his voluptuous stupidity? Is Cubby, heaven forfend, a far right anti-vaxxer, who protests outside capitols to “liberate” shut-down states? Is it OK to put down a dog that is spry and healthy but whose mind is politically poisoned?

We go too far. The dog is none of that, despite his puzzling penchant for “Fox & Friends.” He’s actually kind and magnanimous. He’s wise, thoughtful, deep. He’s voting for Biden. He’s a good dog.

Rossy is a good dog, too. Who is Rossy? This is Rossy: 

rossy-blog-768x576-1.jpgRossy, in a word, is a charity case. A sickly street dog, Rossy was taken in by the brimming hearts at Animal Rahat, an India-based rescue sanctuary for all manner of “beleaguered animals,” which I previously mentioned here. Rossy is goo-gooed over by visiting school children and hangs out and plays with the local menagerie of misfits over acres and acres of open land. 

This pampering paradise “allows elderly and ailing animals to be retired from lives of daily toil” and rescues imperiled pups and other critters from assorted accidents (falling into wells is a big problem). Nursed back to health, dogs and donkeys and camels and cows roam free, routinely fed, bathed and lovingly socialized. 

As he watches me type this, Cubby’s curly ears prick up and his head cocks to the side. We are in a donating mood during this deepened charitable moment when giving is grace. 

I lean toward animal causes — local shelters, the Humane Society, ASPCA, PETA, Animal Rahat — all of which have plucked my heart strings with the virtuosic brio of Eddie Van Halen playing “Eruption.” It’s music to my ears.

Himself a rescue pup, Cubby is also pledging gifts to these groups, his furry families, though I’m not sure what he can contribute; he’s rather broke. Could it be the tooth-scarred bully bone? The moist, balding tennis ball? The mini Yoda doll, both squeaky and skeevy. (Dog slobber — destroyer of worlds.)  

It doesn’t matter. I’ll spot him with my monetary donations. Watching me is a good lesson in altruism during these darkly divisive times when much of the country is in suicide mode — no masks, frolicking on crowded beaches, flagrant body contact, toting large guns in packed public spaces — and the “president” advances brain-exploding lies, toxic misinformation and Machiavellian myopia.

Speaking of individuals who elect vanity over safety, Cubby still won’t wear a face mask. Even the mailman wears one, and his arrival at the porch is a cue for Cubs to shed his angelic image. He rockets off the couch, furiously scratches the paint off the door, barking and howling uncontrollably, like a very pissed-off banshee. It’s nearly cinematic.

We sigh. We yell. We shake a fist.

Hey, Cubby. Cut the crap.

Pin the tail on a good cause

I don’t care what they’re doing, where they are, or what condition they’re in — donkeys unfailingly crack my heart. That includes old brooding Eeyore, even if his despondency seems almost willed, like the chump shrugged and gave up and became a droopy black cloud of clinical donkey depression. (How does chipper Pooh put up with him?) 

Eeyore, a stuffed animal held captive by Disney, isn’t my concern. It’s real donkeys, which always look pitifully downcast, afflicted and abused. I’ve seen them in Egypt, Turkey, Syria, China, Thailand, India, Mexico, Morocco. These distant relatives of horses are exploited largely as beasts of burden, weighed down with pound after backbreaking pound of cargo, whipped and lashed, mostly in Asia and Africa. In China, which owns the bulk of the world’s 41 million donkeys, donkey meat is a delicacy. (Alongside cat, dog, rat, shark, horse, snake, porcupine, raccoon, deer — it’s a hell of a menu.)

I was reminded of the donkey plight — I generally try to banish thoughts of wretched pack animals — when I was distracted by an online ad for the Indian animal sanctuary Animal Rahat, which rescues cows, bulls, dogs, birds, camels, snakes, donkeys and more from rampant hazards, neglect and abuse across the despairing subcontinent.  

2007-03.donkeys-hauling-bricks-at-brick-kiln-4.jpgThe ad spotlighted donkeys, which, as mentioned, I reserve a soft spot for. Photos of emaciated, crestfallen, injured animals accompanied a plea to sponsor donkeys for as low as $12. That donation would provide vaccinations and antibiotics for 30 donkeys. I immediately clicked my PayPal account. (The donation funnels through PETA, which sends it to Animal Rahat.)  

The creatures have it as bad as imagined, and worse. Says Animal Rahat: 

“It’s a common belief in India that ‘beasts of burden’ don’t need as much nourishment as other animals, so they are commonly left to scavenge through garbage piles to find food scraps. It’s only a matter of time before our vets are called out to provide these neglected animals with emergency treatment after they swallow plastic and sharp objects.”

I read more, I donated more. I’m in the mood. I know this is Covid-19’s moment, but animal causes are in perpetual panic. The virus is exacerbating the situation. I’ve also given money to PETA, two local animal shelters and the SPCA. I’m sure I’ll do more.

The damn donkeys. They captured my heart, with those big dewy eyes, pointy vertical ears and stout mini-horse bodies. The mounds of bricks strapped to their backs didn’t hurt. Maybe I’m a pushover, a fool. Maybe I’m one of them, just an incurable jackass. Fine.  080319-8-blog-3-768x576.jpg

(“Rahat,” incidentally, means “carefreeness” or “insouciance” in Urdu. I like it. For more about Animal Rahat, go here.)

Dogma of the dog

I’m pretty sure Cubby the dog doesn’t believe in many things — God, playing dead for treats, how wonderful I am — though I’m convinced he believes in some things. Like meatballs and bully sticks and tummy massages and bedtime snuggles and brisk walks and peeing on the rug. He’s a good dog. And like most good dogs, he’s ridiculous. Neurotic, but nourishing. 

Rescued from a shelter, Cubby has, in the past year or so, learned how to act like a tried-and-true doggy, a small, curly-haired mutt with a pleading gaze and a tail that swoops up and over into a large Spaghetti-O. 

He now knows how to worry a bone, chomp stuffed toys, play tug of war with said toys, scurry after the bone when it’s tossed then make you chase him around in a game of try and get it, sucker. All this is heartening. He’s maturing. He’s getting sillier. 

But I think he’s deeper than all that stock dog stuff. Cubby is a wise old soul, beyond his four or five years, attuned to his lot in life, his place on the totem pole of existence, and, with a melancholy tinge, his impermanence.

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No, I don’t believe in God. Death, yes.

This struck me last summer, detailed in this blog post, where I observed: 

“The dog seeks the meaning of life, this is plain from his searching brown eyes, furrowed brows and the alarming way he wipes his butt across the carpet. Freud’s pleasure principle manifests itself in his frequent calls for belly rubs. Sartre’s existentialist theory, which states that our individual responsibility in defining our own lives is almost debilitating in its enormity, has the dog a little down. Knowledge of his own mortality is something of a buzz kill.”

Cubby may be a Buddhist. He is mindful and meditative, his solace arriving many hours each day. (Some call these naps; I call them rumination, deep cogitation, mini comas.) He is a passive soul. Barking he does sparingly, almost exclusively when the mail comes, then he claws the paint off the front door and cries like an aggrieved banshee. It is the yelp of an injured Indian spirit, whose dead have been gravely molested. Then he shuts down, curls up, and ponders the teachings of Siddhartha and the joys of a good tennis ball.

We wonder. What does this animal believe in? Tasty bones, yes. Death, alas. A vigorous rub behind the ears, certainly. Bacon Beggin’ Strips, no doubt.

Yet the question resounds: Can animals really believe?

Cats — pshaw; they believe in their own supercilious godliness. Forest dwellers — a humble group deeply in accord with nature’s bylaws, true believers. African wildlife — a hot mess, as seen on “Planet Earth,” strictly heathens and satanists that believe in ritualistic bloodletting and organized torture on the Serengeti.

None of that for Cubby. He’s a fuzzy little wiseman. He should be wearing beads and vestments and lighting incense. He is a philosophical creature; don’t let his crazed, leg-scratching greetings fool you. When you gaze into his small eyes, worlds are revealed. One’s heart softens and the soul cracks open. He is telling you something, and not just “Get the leash, I gotta poop.”

Was it Nietzsche who said “The better I get to know men, the more I find myself loving dogs”? Or was it Harpo Marx? No matter. This is an inversion of the master/slave equation, wherein the master (you) succumbs to the overpowering ardor and joy provided by the slave (doggy). That is this dog’s wisdom. He has our number. And he calls frequently. Collect.

Cubby’s beliefs are better than his bite. In his canine universe, he is disciplined, devout, enlightened. He has found meaning and purpose. The dog is, indeed, dogmatic, a mutt with a mind. And, uh, yes, that’s him over there, avidly licking his genitals.

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Sun, sand and a menagerie of bashful animals

I don’t do sun and fun. Yet here I am in breezy, easy San Diego, Calif., for a shortish vacation with the extended family — mother, brother, nephew, et al. Seven of us total. 

Why do I shun the pool and the Pacific? I sure didn’t used to, particularly growing up in oceanside Santa Barbara, Calif. There I was like any splash-happy, wave-plunging kid, giddiest reverting to a primal state of fluidity, getting soaked, sandy and sun-baked.

I think I just grew out of it. By my teens, living in the temperate San Francisco Bay Area, I loathed the heat, anything over 75 degrees was excruciating. And it still is. I’m a 40s and 50s kind of guy. Fall and winter are my homies. Jeans, jacket, scarf — the ideal uniform. Shivering is my version of sweating. (Sweat is my kryptonite.) I aspire to be an Inuit.

Against my nature, but not my will, I’ve been cajoled to one of the beachiest places on the planet. Briny water everywhere. The profusion of palm trees — Christ. Boats and bikinis, flip-flops and fish, pink flesh and pervasive pastels. It’s Coronado Bay, San Diego.

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I actually sat poolside — in the shade, with shirt and sneakers firmly affixed — this afternoon and survived. I had a book (Peter Orner’s new, remarkable short stories “Maggie Brown & Others”) and the laptop (the resort, yes, resort, has spiffy wifi) and a beer and an al pastor taco, so it worked swimmingly, if you will. Then I repaired to my room for some AC time, even though the temps all week are in the mercifully mid-to-low 70s. 

I begged off the beach. The six of them headed out to sit on sand beneath yawning umbrellas and presumably tiptoe into the chilly sea. I had no business there, as much as I love sharks. But the chances of a shark sighting were as good as those of me not being bored out of my skull plopped on mushy sand under a giant parasol. (Instead, I’m writing this. I bet you wish I went to the beach.) 

When many of us think of San Diego, the mega-famous zoo (known as the world’s best) and SeaWorld spring to mind. In other words: creatures, critters, cetaceans, crustaceans. Now, those I can do. Captive animals crack my heart, but at least the respected zoo sustains “natural” habitats and breeds endangered species. And even the ethically iffy SeaWorld has banished its dubious in-park breeding and tawdry theatrical whale shows. (Shamu — rhymes with boo.)  

Today was San Diego Zoo day, and it was about as thrilling as watching a flock of pink, and a few juvenile gray, flamingos stand on one preternaturally long and spindly leg and snooze, or projectile poop, or, in the case of the gray downy youngsters, stumble and wash and act as adorable as can be. When flamingos are a highlight, well …

27845391521_03f8fb4be8_b.jpgBesides being reminded on a double-decker bus tour around the park that hippos are “the most dangerous animals in the world” (for some reason, I find that exhilarating) and that some wolves smell like seething skunk bud, mostly the day consisted of trying to locate animals in their enclosures. Craned necks and dashed hopes were major exertions. It was the land of the empty habitat. 

There’s one alpha gorilla sitting tall and proud, and there he goes, vanishing behind a rock. There’s a sole polar bear sleeping up on a hill, partially obscured. Ah, I spy a pygmy hippo — 90-percent submerged in a pond. And so on. Zoos might be the most exasperating animal experience available. Go to a mall pet shop to see more furry mammalian action. 

But the weather remained agreeable — low-70s — so things meteorologically were dreamy. And they sell beer all over the place. (Wait, $9 for a can of Corona — where are the hippos when I need them?)

I don’t want to complain. I saw frolicsome monkeys and fat pythons and some Chaplinesque penguins, not to mention a guy dressed in a ragtag rhinoceros costume posing for pictures who made legions of unsuspecting visitors uneasy.

But where, I direly wondered, were the real rhinos? And giraffes? And hyenas. And, come on, the platypuses? We spotted, nestled in thick foliage, a koala. It was like seeing a child’s stuffed animal stuck in a way-up tree. It wanted nothing to do with us, the cranky marsupial. That’s what happens when you sleep 22 hours a day.  

A leopard showed its spots — for about 34 seconds. Then there was the funky smelling wolf — a total no-show, just a nose show. The macaques — same. Empty habitats are like unfulfilled dreams, dollar bills set on fire. Enter the gift shop and suddenly the animals are fluffy, smiling, en masse, thriving. A simple magnet of a magnificent mountain lion or a whimsical t-shirt of a rhinoceros (“Save the Chubby Unicorns”) about makes it all OK.

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Radiance of the pet rat

If you want to see a rat drink beer, click HERE. I’ll wait.

That’s Becky, my long-ago pet rat, whose both alarming and comical omnivorousness knew no bounds. Seriously: zero. 

She’d chomp broccoli, rubber bands, towels, chickpeas, cheese, books, dog food, t-shirts, pizza, gecko lizards and crawly cockroaches. She’d guzzle wine and the above beer. 

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Becky shares pizza with a pal.

She once bit into a small tube of Super Glue. In a miraculous stroke, the glue was so old it had evaporated. The alternate results would have been grisly, even fatal, I’m certain.

Rats, like honey badgers, don’t give a crap.

But they are as smart, sweet, social, endlessly curious and affectionate as any animal, be it a dog, cat, piranha or wildebeest. 

They play and wrestle, come when called, chill on your shoulder, build crafty nests from newspapers and less innocuous sources (like the fluffy guts of your sofa or that pricey box of Q-Tips), play fetch, groom with OCD avidity, swim, delight in belly rubs lying on their back, and so much more. Oh, and hoard. How they hoard. Hide all small valuables. (Becky stole my watch once. It took days to find.)

They’re like super pets that delight, entertain and nourish the heart and soul. As I’ve quoted in these pages before, rats are “cleaner than cats, smarter than dogs.” Whoever said that is just about spot-on and probably lives with a thousand rats and the authorities are onto him or her. A reality TV show is coming soon.

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Becky going head-first into the glass, tippling a fine (cheap) cabernet.

Pets hold spiritual qualities with their power to elevate and expand one’s being. But, like dogs and cats, rats do it with a special, irresistible elan, magnetism and downright adorableness. Still, it’s different. For one, they don’t fart.

With their silky, curling pink paws (tiny starfish), twitching whiskers, itty-bitty tongue and translucent ears, gently nibbling buck teeth and enormous hearts, they’re lovable buggers.

Those thick wiry tails that whip around, made strictly for balance, are something else. The creatures squeak in pleasure and, science has proven, giggle like little girls. When treated right, Prozac they don’t need. (Though they’ll eat that as well.)

Like sharks, rats are exquisitely evolved specimens. Get this: They can collapse parts of their skeleton to squeeze under doors and through tight cracks. I’ve seen it. They are quicksilver with fur, superheroes with a super power, lacking only a cape and a ridiculous moniker.

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Still life: Becky

An image I cannot shake: Becky drinking wine by dipping a paw in the liquid and licking the paw, like a cowboy drinking from the Rio Grande after days without water. (Her boozing was judiciously supervised — I only let her get a nice taste.)

And yet … well, rats will obliterate you. With a life-span of an average of two and a half years, they desert you far too quickly. They become your best friend and then, like a relationship gone bad, they end it, they vanish. They die. Usually it’s a respiratory disease or, more likely, cancer. It rips you to shreds.

Becky’s death was excruciating. I spent a lot of time and money on her, all of it beautifully worth it. Still, she had to go. She’s probably tearing up heaven, nibbling angel tunics, nesting in holy beards, gulping sacred wine. Being a worthy rat, not giving a crap.

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RIP Becky