Wednesday, August 5, 2009

When Animals Attack

Photo by Trisha Shears, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

One of my first pets was a cockatiel named Mister. I don’t remember who got him for me or why (did I ask for a pet bird?), but he must have been given to me at about age 4 or 5. Cockatiels can learn to speak, but you have to talk to them slowly, since they speed everything up when they mimic. I guess I never had the patience to speak slowly enough, because Mister’s version of “pretty bird” was a garbled, unintelligible squawk. He did whistle beautifully, though. When someone walked into the kitchen where his cage resided, he would whistle “Reveille” for a few bars, and then segue directly into a wolf-whistle of appreciation. Somehow, I suspect my mother taught him that one. It was a great combo, always good for a laugh.

As a pet, Mister wasn’t ideal for me, since I was scared of him. Occasionally, my mother would let him out of his cage so he could fly around the living room. He would then land on my head, and I remember holding very still, fearing that he would attack me. He never did peck or claw at me, as far as I know, so this fear didn’t originate from personal experience. It came from the sight of my mother’s arms, scratched and bloody. She had to get Mister out of his cage so that she could clean it, and apparently, he wasn’t too keen on the idea, so she got pretty badly scratched until she started wearing thick rubber gloves for the task. I don’t remember her being frightened of Mister, and I don’t think she even viewed the scratches as terribly serious, but I was obviously unnerved by the idea that my pet would injure my mother. So, although I thought Mister was pretty and I liked his whistling, I saw him as a dangerous and unpredictable animal. We ended up giving him away when we moved to Florida.

In Florida, we didn’t have any pets (unless you count my off-brand pet rock), but I discovered that the pond near our house had turtles. They seemed to love hot dogs, so I lured them to the edge of the pond with bits of hot dog. I never did catch one, though; they were too savvy. Indeed, I later learned that turtles are dangerous creatures as well. My mother was driving me home in the van, and a large turtle was slowly crossing the road. My mother stopped the van, and rather than wait for the interminable process of the turtle getting to the other side, she went out to help it along. As she picked up the turtle, it whipped its head around to bite her hand and, startled, she threw it onto the side of the road. I had never seen a snapping turtle before, and had no idea they could bite. When we drove out later, that same turtle was crossing back across the road. This time, my mother just let him be.

The pet I really wanted was a cat, but my mother was allergic to cats. I remember being angry at her about that, in the unreasoning way children are. I often mused about how unfair it was that I couldn’t have a pet cat. In high school, I developed a cat allergy, so I never did get a pet cat, and I learned to carry antihistamines with me when I visit cat-loving friends. My brother wanted a dog, but our residence had a no-dog policy. He tried to sneak one home once, a beautiful German Shepherd puppy, but we had to give it away. She didn’t deny us other pets, though. In addition to Mister, my brother had two pet snakes in a cage in the kitchen who ate chunks of frozen fish (it took a rancid odor to let us know one of the snakes had died) and I had pet mice, rescued from a lab somewhere, in the basement. They froze to death when the basement door blew open in a snowstorm. I was angry at my mother about that, too, thinking that they wouldn’t have died if she had let me keep them in the main house.

I was often angry at my mother. I remember fights in which I screamed at her, leaning menacingly toward her at the kitchen sink. I would stomp off and slam my bedroom door as hard as I could. I was filled with intense fury, so much that I felt I couldn’t contain it. It burned through me and boiled out of me. I felt out of control, like a wild animal. Sometimes she yelled back, sometimes she just passively absorbed my hurled accusations. I have no idea what we fought about – what would have put me in such a rage? I cannot remember. Maybe it was just disappointment and lack of control over my life; I saw her as an obstacle to fulfilling my desires. I couldn’t have a cat because of her allergies. I couldn’t participate in that school activity because she wouldn’t be my chauffeur. I wanted, wanted, wanted, and she wouldn’t or couldn’t fulfill all my wants. Maybe I expected too much from her – don’t we all expect Mommy to be perfect? Yet, she is only human, and maybe I couldn’t tolerate her imperfections. I am deeply ashamed of these incidents; I wish I could undo the past and take them back. But at least my anger burnt out quickly, without much lingering resentment. Half an hour later, I would be calmly absorbed in a book, having forgotten the whole thing. My mother would tentatively tap at my door and we would each apologize.

Except for the fight we had the night before she died. I don’t know what made me so mad at her, but we had a big fight, and I stormed out of the house afterwards. When I got home, she was already asleep, and I never got the chance to apologize to her. My last words to her were angry and hateful. I hope she knew I didn’t really mean it, that it was just the wild animal in me.