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

Part 1, Part 2, Part 3

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

The internet has ruined the family pet. When I was a kid, choosing an animal companion was simple. Selection took place in a variety of 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 conveniently failing to pick them back up.

A more sophisticated method was a visit to the local SPCA. I felt so cultured with my older sisters there, strolling past kennels full of dogs, judging each one’s character. Like a vintner in his cellar, drawing a sample from a barrel with a that tool that looks like a turkey baster, analyzing his product’s aroma. Only, these musky kennels with dank concrete floors summoned a different odor. They housed an eclectic mix of animals, large and small, short-haired and furry, napping 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, though all appeared as if cobbled together by Congress.

Then we’d take it home and let Darwin figure out if it suited our family. You see, we lived on a farm. There was no such thing as leash laws. In our family culture such restraints were considered inhumane. Dogs had the run of field and forest. It was heaven.

If they visited the neighbors – let me quickly explain for city-bound readers: A neighbor qualifies as anyone the next field over. That could mean a half-mile to ten. But for a dog, crossing such distances was like ambling to the other side of a room. Neighbors were kind and would call if our animals overstayed their welcome. Mom was always nearest the phone when the phone rang, usually during dinner.

“Marji?”

“Yes.”

“Digger is over here. The kids have had a great time with him all afternoon, but he needs a ride home now.”

Mom would nod toward Dad. He’d drop his fork, mutter a few obscenities, then hop into the car. Upon return, sufficiently scolded, the dog would slink through the door, head bowed, pretending to be sorry. The family would return the gesture, feigning anger by shaking fingers and speaking in deep tones, but I’d feed him scraps under the table. That’s one lovely thing about dogs – they erase all evidence of Mom’s eggplant casserole.

But that is where Darwin’s theory of natural selection proved true. Did you catch it? Digger passed. Any dog whose karma melded nicely with others would survive. But if one was mean-spirited, neighbors would still be neighborly. The conversation would just go a little differently.

“Marji?”

“Yes.”

“Digger is over here again.”

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

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

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

Long pause. “Yeah. Just the boys sighting-in shotguns for deer season.”

Later, I asked Dad how to sight-in a shotgun. He scowled. “You don’t.” I got the message. But that was life on a farm. Darwin won a round, and I didn’t like Rex much anyway.

One Halloween we picked up a stray who grew to become my childhood buddy. Mom had dropped us off in town to trick-or-treat. We did both. Parents were still blissfully ignorant of the dangers of that holiday, so they simply abandoned their kids to wander the dark neighborhoods without supervision. If a child were to incur the misfortune of being caught in a trick instead of seeking a treat, the parental telephone tree would be set ablaze. No offense was ever received by the insulted party, for they knew appropriate levels of pain and punishment would be swiftly delivered to our backsides.

That night we had mainly been treating. Walking past a sagging, abandoned two-story Victorian, a puppy scrambled out and followed us, tripping over his paws. I stopped and rubbed his belly, ribs like piano keys through thin fur. I proffered a chocolate bar from my winnings and he scarfed it down with whirling tail. Only in later years did I learn chocolate is poisonous to dogs. He didn’t seem to mind. And he never returned to the old house. We tried to take him back, but he refused to stay.

Mom picked us up in the brown bomb, our faux wood-paneled station wagon.

“Can we keep him?”

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

We’d deliver his food when tending the stalls and he’d trot out, tail raised, from beneath a saddle resting 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 circle about the neck. The main illustration inside the cover had him alert and athletic, puffing his chest and facing down a raccoon. My Ring, similar only in color, grew short, long, and quite round, doubly so after his visit to the chop-shop. But he was kind and unpretentious and even our extended family recalls with fondness Ring’s loving nature. Even cat lovers couldn’t help but adore Ring.

He moved from the barn onto our house’s back stoop when I cut an access hole in the side of a wooden box and plopped it down there. That was home. He grew till his butt stuck out the entrance and ice crystals coated his fur each morning. Then, one particularly cold night, mom allowed him through our back door. He wandered near the wood stove, lay on the tattered rug, stretched stumpy legs toward the radiant heat, and didn’t move for fifteen years.

Pictured is an oil on canvas my eldest sister painted in his memory. It shows him resting atop our homestead’s stairs, his favorite summer spot to eye his family as they walked past. The painting still hangs in same space. It isn’t as proud the one gracing my grandfather’s novel, but he out-loved and outlived many that succumbed to the rigors of farm life…or neighbors sighting in their shotguns.

Which brings me back to how the internet ruined the family pet. And how I, a six foot-four, two hundred pound man, found himself holding a pink leash, clipped to a matching collar, adorning the neck of a tiny white cotton ball of an animal, poopy bag in hand, begging it to hurry up and decide on a spot for her to fertilize.

But that is for another post…

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