Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Pictoral Guide to Childhood Pets: Part I

My sister in law and her family got chicks three weeks ago.

They found a coop on Craigslist and are building a fence around the yard so these little ladies can have free reign.

Spring makes me miss having a back yard. Especially one big enough to house multiple pets.
As a kid, I had lots of animals. It was a good move on my parents' part; my siblings and I learned responsibility by having various critters dependent on us for food, water, and exercise. Plus, the animals doubled as home school curriculum. I brought my rabbits to a science fair, wrote essays about pet care, researched how to train my cocker spaniel to heel (so he could attend Youth Fair at the local fair grounds), and regularly checked out books from the library on animal husbandry. I loved it.

Whimsy the Silver Tabby was our first "real" pet. We had two gold fish for a while (Paul and Silas) but they didn't require much care from us, nor did they offer any significant interaction (I remember being traumatized at age four when we flushed their tiny dead bodies down the toilet). Such is the life of a gold fish.

Emily (age 5) and Ian (age 3)
Whimsy, on the other hand, was a pet we could hold. When she let us.

Crawling out of the enamel pot our Christmas tree sat in
She was aloof as I recall, but we loved her just the same.

I did not identify myself as a cat person until much later in life.

The spring I turned six, we got ducklings. They lived in our bathtub until we (Mom) couldn't stand the stink anymore. They moved to the back yard where they lived long and happy lives.

L to R: Thundering Typhoons, Perquacky, Cookie Wookie
Every morning when I opened our sliding glass door, I'd call "Here ducky ducky duckies!"

Without fail they would respond in unison, "QUACK QUACK QUACK quack quack!"

They knew cracked corn was on the way.

As adults, they made semi-secretive nests and laid eggs. Duck eggs are HUGE. We used them for baking. It took me a while to understand why they would never hatch: we owned all females, no drakes (another teachable moment).

Cookie Wookie nesting

Finding fresh eggs in the backyard is high on my list of childhood delights.


Annie, a spaniel mix, was our first dog. She was mildly tolerant of living with a big family. My memories of her are eclipsed by the circumstances surrounding her departure: she bit the neighbor kid and had to be put down. Love and loss became a cyclical theme of pet-rearing.

Age 7

My very first rabbits were a pair of New Zealand whites named Silver and Moonlight. Typical for the breed, they were pure white with pink eyes. I adored them.
As rabbits are wont to do, they multiplied fast and furiously. I let them graze in the yard in the summer and thawed their frozen water bottles in winter. I sold baby bunnies every spring for many years as a kid.

Bunny babies at science fair
Olivia (age 2) Emily (age 9)
The biggest predators to my back yard warren were the neighbors' dogs. I lost more than one furry friend due to the neighborhood rottweiler, doberman, and Australian shepherd. It was devastating. The biggest loss was one afternoon I let all of the rabbits out of their hutches and left them to graze in the yard. I didn't realize the dogs were off their cable-run next door until it was too late. Mom and Dad told me to stay in the house while they buried the dead. I don't think there were any survivors. That was a painful lesson.

Between the ages of 7 and 15, I owned multiple rabbit families. A few favorites stand out:
  • Velvet (a litter-box trained, de-clawed lop who had previously lived in a nursing home)
  • Marigold
  • Clara
  • Whidbey
  • Nutmeg 
  • Nutmeg Junior
  • Raven


On our 3/4 of an acre, the portion of our back yard furthest from the house was hard to maintain. It took a long time to cut the grass with our push mower. Left unmowed too long, it sprang up with waist-high pasture grass, tansy, and black berry bushes. My parents' solution: goats.

Weeds and tall grass! Eat to your heart's content!
Ironically, Tall Tail and Cinnamon only wanted grass that was out of reach. They were strong and stubborn, and muscled their way out of their (large, expansive, lush) pen more times that I can remember. Poor Dad had to fix our fences and gates frequently.
A rare moment of peace between goats and Dad
(only because he's feeding them grain)
Silver and Cinnamon relaxing in the shade
In general the goats were unfriendly, ornery, and unruly.

Notice the caption Mom wrote in my scrapbook:
"Making friends (?) with new goat, Cinnamon"
That didn't stop me from including them in play time. I invented a game called "Bundles." I pretended to be an orphan who escaped from a cruel orphanage, or a pioneer traveling west on the Oregon trail, or the eighth von Trap child, escaping Austria across the Alps. I would wrap my earthly possessions in a table cloth, strap the bundle to a goat's back with an old belt, and traipse around the back yard in the throes of my compelling plot line.

In the winter months, "Bundles" included riding the goats until they bucked me off into the snow.
Up hill both ways. In the snow.
This seemed like a fair trade off to me because once the weather got cold, the goats' water froze solid and had to be replaced. I filled 10 gallon buckets in the bathtub and had to hoist them over the frozen gate.

Not my favorite moment of pet ownership.