Boots was the only dog I had as a child. He was mostly black, but he had white around his feet — hence the name — and on his chest.
Boots lived with us for only about a year when I was 9 or 10 years old. I loved him dearly and spent a lot of time outside with him, but when we moved — only about 10 miles — Boots didn’t make the trip with us. I will never know why. I will never know what happened to him.
When we were about to move, I asked my father where Boots would stay at the new house. The yard wasn’t fenced and it was in a subdivision, not like the house in the country where we had been living. My father didn’t answer my question — and I knew better than to ever again ask a question which my father ignored.
I never saw Boots again, which hurts me and angers me to this day. Years later — when I was safely into my adult years — I asked my father why Boots didn’t move with us and what happened to him. He claimed not to even remember. He seemed unconcerned that the child in me still needed to know what happened.
My father would have told you he loved animals, but he treated them more like disposable furniture. At least half a dozen times during my childhood, we got cats, but they were always dead soon. He didn’t allow animals in the house — under any circumstances — and little kittens who are dumped behind a house don’t necessarily know to stick around and wait until morning. They always eventually wandered away or were hit by cars — or else they disappeared without explanation at his whim.
It wasn’t that he was a monster to them, at least not intentionally. He was simply callous. If an animal stuck around and lived — survived being put outside from the beginning in busy neighborhoods — he would tolerate them for awhile. But they were always expendable. They were never important. They never mattered to him — and it didn’t matter to him that it hurt us each time we lost one of them.
He had a policy of not stepping out of the way of cats and dogs. He said that if you stepped on a cat or dog a few times, it would learn to get out of your way. To him, this was training.
During the same period when I had Boots, we had a couple of kittens. One day when he was bringing groceries in from the car, he stepped on this tiny kitten — and instantly killed this sweet creature. Yes, he had a bag of groceries in his hand, but he simply didn’t care. He didn’t intentionally step on the kitten, but he certainly didn’t take any care around them.
I remember him washing the blood off the carport with a garden hose. He expressed no remorse. We knew better than to ask him anything about it or express our horror. It was never mentioned again.
When I was a young adult, I didn’t know that I even cared about animals. Since I had never had the time to bond with a dog or cat long-term — especially since not a single one of them had ever been inside my home — I was ambivalent.
But when I was about 26, I knew my ex-wife wanted a cat. My younger sister had found a starving orphan kitten near where she worked at the time and I knew it would be a happy surprise for my wife.
We named him Oliver — after the Dickens orphan. Within six months, I could no longer imagine living without an animal in the house. Having him around made me happy.
My love for animals grew and grew from that day. I became a sucker for homeless animals and have had trouble over the years turning away those who needed homes. The most dogs I’ve ever had at once was five. The most cats I’ve ever had at once was 13. Both numbers are extreme even by my standards.
Today, I have one dog and five cats. They’re a huge part of my life. Especially since I live alone, it makes all the difference in the world to have living creatures here waiting for me.
I’ve had some cats in the past who were strongly attached to me and spend time in my lap all the time, but my current five mostly just tolerate me. Every one of them was a throwaway or was unwanted in some way. I just welcome the chance to give them food, water and love — even if several of them are still feral enough that they would prefer I leave them alone after I’ve brought dinner.
Lucy is the one who really shows me love. When I reach my front porch each evening, she knows it’s me. Maybe she knows the sound of my car or maybe she has associated my coming with the jangling of my keys.
Whatever it is, I can hear her on the other side of the door jumping and whimpering with joy when she knows I’ve arrived. This girl doesn’t hide her joy very well.
When I’ve had a lousy day, Lucy makes me feel better. She’s a calming influence. Besides, there’s a lot to be said for knowing that someone needs you. She’s always eager to get into our fenced back yard and play for a little while before she eats. Then she jumps onto the bed with me while I read or work on the computer — and then she watches her internal clock until it’s time to go for her nightly walk.
It’s a great life — for both of us.
My father was appalled years ago when I first allowed cats — and later dogs — into the house. He thought they were filthy and had no place in the house. He was constantly making little comments about it. And he was horrified that I’d let a cat or dog eat a bit of leftover food from a plate that was from our table.
I think you can tell a lot about people by how they feel about pets — and you can tell even more about them by the way they treat pets. A person who treats animals as though they’re disposable furniture — or just a nuisance — probably isn’t the sort of person I want to be around.
The worst kind, though, is the type who say they love animals — people like my father — but who show by their actions that they want only a few pleasant interactions and then they want the animals to be like inanimate objects which go into closets or some such.
I think a person’s attitude toward such pets will often give you an idea of the ways the person is going to parent his children. If he screams and yells at dogs and cats — expecting them to somehow understand English and behave unlike the creatures they are — he’s probably going to be similarly callous with his children.
Ultimately, my father treated his children in ways that were similar to the ways he treated cats and dogs. He claimed to love us, but we were to be his “prized cattle” to trot out for visitors. We were not individuals with our own needs and wants. He wanted what he could get from us.
During that year when I had Boots, he was left to run around outside the house. There was no fence in which he lived, so he roamed freely in the neighborhood. He also did what bored puppies frequently do. He dug a lot.
My father had planted some flowers at that house and we came home one day — after leaving Boots alone by himself all day — to find that he had been digging in those flowers.
My father flew into a rage.
Boots had no idea what he had done wrong. He was simply terrified when my father started throwing bricks at him. There were some large rocks and broken brick pieces — and my father chased him around the yard, yelling and throwing those bricks and rocks at the terrified dog.
I will never forget how panicked I felt and how much I wanted to help Boots, but there was nothing I could do. I was certain my father was going to kill Boots that day, but he somehow got away.
My father later explained that attacking Boots in this way was to teach him not to dig in his flowers, but even as a child, I wondered how a dog would make the connection between something completely natural to him — digging in the ground — and the terror he experienced from being attacked.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but I now understand that the person to blame was my father anyway. If you leave an animal with access to do something which comes natural to him, he’s going to do that thing at some point — without understanding it’s wrong. We’re the ones who are supposed to be rational. We’re not the ones who are supposed to be terrorizing the cats and dogs in our care.
There were a lot of parallels between the way my father treated our pets and the way he treated us. The longer I live, the more clear that becomes.
I dearly love my cats and dog. They’re a huge part of my life. They’ve taught me a lot about living and they’ve taught me a lot about how to treat human beings, too.
I wish my father could have learned these lessons from cats and dogs, but he was too busy making sure he could give orders — to the critters and to his children. I choose to live in a more loving way.
Note: The pictures of Lucy and Merlin can be clicked to show larger versions. I’m eager for the day when I can make photos of my children. Until then, these critters get all of my photographic attention. You can see more photos of them on their Instagram account. In the photo at top, Lucy is enjoying the back yard with me last week. Below, you can see her on a recent trip to gas up the car. The photos of Merlin are both in windows in my home office.