NOWHERE else have I seen a family in which the pets were such masters, and the people their important, but lesser, subjects. For as long as I can remember, the daily schedules, needs and demands, and behavioral oddities, as well as naughty habits of the ever-changing menagerie we kept, were constantly catered to. Our lives were rearranged, grudgingly at times, to fit their temperamental schedules. Not surprisingly, we lost many of our favorite possessions to these creatures, which needed no words to get their messages across. When the youngest in the family found two baby birds lying in the street and happily brought them home for careful attention, we no longer had a yogurtmaker. Instead, we had an adapted homemade incubator capable of housing up to eight small birds in its round hotspots.
And while we nursed a squirrel back to health, our dining room decor included a huge wood and wire cage, perched on a rug of scattered birdseed.
Soft stuffed animals did not remain soft for very long. Eventually, the canines won custody - usually we no longer wanted these toys once they had been licked and chewed on, their fake fur dried into stiff peaks and their once-velvet noses bitten off. Occasionally a mournful cry could be heard as a child discovered a now almost unrecognizable possession lying in a pile of dust behind the sofa.
Leaving small or breakable objects within view was another violation of this animal kingdom's code of ethics. Anything small enough was promptly discovered and either eaten or played with until it rested in peace, more often pieces, somewhere never to be found again.
The fact that most of these objects were tasteless mattered not in the least -- if it can be swallowed, it will be, seems a general rule of claw for these remarkable creatures.
If we thought we were being clever by placing such objects out of reach, they would collaborate -- the cats would fondle anything they set their sights on, and the dogs would eat anything that crossed their path. Swatting at delicate knickknacks and pouncing on more hardy objects, they would watch somewhat distractedly as everything eventually ended up falling on the floor or into the mouths of those panting in anticipation below.
Hours of coming and going had to be regulated carefully, so as not to surprise a sleeping watchdog. After all, they're here to protect the family, Mother would say, and they're only doing their job. This generally meant strangers were graced with a friendly wag, while we, their faithful providers, were forced to maintain a respectful distance until permission to get close was granted.
So we sit on sheet-covered sofas, with grotesque, half-chewed bones of every size and shape littering flea-powdered rugs. And sleep in beds barren of stuffed animals, in rooms where shelves display nothing but unbreakable books, tooth marks visible in many of the faded bindings. To get outside, we must walk through doors tangled with dog lines, gently pushing cats away with our feet to prevent their escape, tripping over newspapers or stepping in food dishes. And we wonder why people don't like animals. But we can't imagine living without them.