Natural-ish Selection, Part 1. How the internet destroyed the family pet.

Part 1, Part 2, Part 3

Names in this article have been changed to protect the guilty.

The internet has ruined the family pet. When I was a kid, choosing our animal companion was a lot simpler. They were selected in various ways, none too complicated. Sometimes it was the adoption of a stray. Or by inheritance – a family member asking to take care of their beloved while on vacation, then never picking them back up.

A more sophisticated method was a visit the local SPCA. I felt so cultured with my sisters there, walking past kennels full of dogs, judging each one’s character. Like a vintner in a wine cellar, drawing a sample from a barrel with one of those turkey baster things, sniffing his product’s aroma. Only, the SPCA’s sweltering room and wet concrete floor had a slightly different odor. Such an eclectic mix of animals, large and small, short-haired and furry, sleeping and barking.

We expressed wisdoms such as, “His ears are too floppy,” or “I like the way that one wags its tail.” We’d usually settle on a German shepherd or black lab mix. Aren’t all dogs at the SPCA some sort of lab mix?

Then we’d take them home and let Darwin figure out if they were a good fit for the family. You see, we lived on a farm. There was no such thing as leash laws. In our family culture they were considered inhumane. Dogs had the run of the place and for them it was heaven.

If they visited the neighbors – let me quickly explain for city-bound readers. A neighbor qualifies as anyone “the next house over.” That could mean a half-mile to ten. In our case, it was “the next field over.” But for a dog, crossing a field was like ambling to the other side of a room. Neighbors were neighborly and they would let us know when our dogs visited, and all was well. It wasn’t uncommon to get a call during dinner.

“Marji?”

“Yes.”

“Digger is over here. He’s had a time all afternoon playing with our kids. Think he’s tired now and wants a ride home.”

Mom would nod to Dad, then he’d do the fatherly thing and scowl, put his fork down, hop in the car and go get the animal. Upon their return, sufficiently scolded, the dog would slink through the door behind him, head low, pretending to be sorry. We’d pretend to be mad, shake fingers, speak in deep tones, then feed him scraps under the table. That’s one lovely thing about dogs – they erase any evidence you didn’t like Mom’s eggplant casserole.

This is where Darwin came in with his theory of natural selection. Any dog whose karma melded nicely with others seemed to last. Sometimes we had as many as three in the home. If one was mean-spirited, the neighbors were still neighborly.

“Marji?”

“Yes.”

“Digger is over here again.”

“So sorry. What about Rex? Was he with Digger?”

A throat clearing. “No. Haven’t seen Rex for a bit.”

“Oh. You guys OK? I heard shots across the field.”

An uncomfortable pause. “Yeah. Just the boys sighting-in their shotguns for deer season.”

I asked Dad how you sight-in a shotgun. “You don’t,” he said. I got the message. But it was living on the farm, the circle of life, and I didn’t like Rex much anyway.

One Halloween we picked up my favorite dog, my childhood buddy. Mom dropped us off in town to trick-or-treat. We did both. This was right before Al Gore created the internet. Ignorant of the dangers, parent’s dropped kids off to walk the dark neighborhood streets all by themselves at night on Halloween, never worried about crazy things that could happen. They were more worried about us doing something foolish. If we got caught, other parents would call ours, no offense would be taken, and punishment would be swiftly delivered to our backsides through the highly efficient parental judicial system. To make a long story short, we took care to not get caught.

Walking past an abandoned two-story yellow house, a puppy ran out and followed behind, tripping over his paws. I stopped and rubbed his belly, ribs like piano keys through thin fur. I gave him a chocolate bar from my winnings. Only in later years did I learn that chocolate isn’t good for them. But I can tell you firsthand, they don’t care! He scarfed down that bar with tail wagging fast as helicopter blades.

After that, he wouldn’t stop following us. We tried to take him back to the yellow house, but he wouldn’t stay. A few other puppies were there, beneath a sagging porch, yet he refused to be dissuaded.

Mom picked us up in the station wagon.

“Can we keep him?”

“Heavens No! We don’t need another animal!” But he licked her hand and wagged his tail and we begged till the matriarch extended her scepter and ruled he could stay in the barn with my sister’s horse. “But he is never coming in my house.”

We’d bring his food out there and he’d trot out, tail raised, from beneath an old saddle on a hay bed he’d claimed his own. I named him Ring, after a dog whom my great-grandfather penned a book. The leather-bound hardback’s hero was black with a white ring around the neck. The main illustration inside the cover had him alert and athletic, sticking out his chest and facing down a raccoon. My Ring, similar only in color, grew short, long, and very round, especially after his visit to the chop-shop (now known as the neuter-scooter). But he was kind and unpretentious and even our extended family today remembers how lovable my Ring was.

He moved from the barn onto our house’s back stoop when I cut a hole in an upturned wooden box and plopped it there. That was home and he grew with it till his butt stuck out the entrance. Then one particularly cold night, sympathy allowed him in our door, where he lay on his side, stretched stumpy legs toward the radiant heat of the woodstove, and didn’t move for fifteen years.

The picture above is a painting my oldest sister created in the memory of my Ring. It shows him in his favorite summer spot, at the top of the stairs, keeping an eye on his family as they walked past. The painting still hangs today above the same place, at the top of those stairs.

Which brings me back to how the internet ruined the family pet, and how I, a six-four two hundred pound man, came to be holding a white cotton ball in pink collar with matching leash outside a truck-stop in the middle of Virginia’s horse country, begging it to hurry up and pee.

But that is for another post…

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