December 2008

A passion for pets

By Suzanne Strazza

My mamma always called me “Ellie Mae.”

My pappa called me that too.

Now, so does my husband.

Ever since I was a little girl, I was the kid that brought in strays. Kittens, puppies, broken-winged birds, rabid skunks, weird neighbors. You name it, I wanted to give it a home and nurture it. It drove my mother up a wall. She is not the bring-home-the-dregs-of-society type. We were a one-cat, one-dog family. One boy, one girl, a golden retriever and an orange tabby.

We all behaved, including the animals, and chaos, particularly the four-legged kind, was not an option.

Therefore, all my attempts to play Nurse Jane to the rodents, birds and other strays in our New Jersey wilderness were thwarted before I could carry my latest flea bag into the house.

So when I grew up and began to have some say in what MY home would be like, it definitely included animals. After college, and finally completely on my own, Uinta came into my life. I had just been dumped by the love of my life (the first of many) and was a very lonely career girl in San Francisco. I went from shelter to shelter seeking solace and someone who was capable of loving me back.

I came home with the biggest orange tabby imaginable. He was my world, my lover, my best friend. He slept with me, ate my cereal and kept me company on desolate Saturday nights when I stayed home watching taped episodes of General Hospital.

Then, right as my semi-latent eating disorder kicked it up a few notches, his developed too.

This appeared in two ways. The first was that unless I physically put my fingers on his food in the bowl, he wouldn’t eat it. Without my gentle touch, his food bowl would remain full and his stomach empty.

The second piece was a bit more disturbing.

Uinta had the endearing habit of waiting for me to come home from work to poop. He would sit next to the front door, winding himself up like a top when he heard my footsteps on the stairs, then bolt to the litter box the second he got a sighting on my face. Often, in his excitement, he would miss the box completely, adding a little extra something to my welcome home.

Eventually, after many years, Uinta moved on. One would think that having had a mentally ill cat would shy me away from more pets, but it did the opposite. I realized that my purpose on this planet was to take in the mentally ill and twisted little creatures that God or whoever put in my path.

I began combing the shelters, gathering up the most pathetic, soon-tokeel- over cats and dogs. When my husband put a restraining order on my visits to the shelter, the strays began seeking me out.

There was the feral kitten who hid out in our elm tree for three weeks before practically falling out from starvation. Then there was the one that I found (when I was 9 1/2 months pregnant) crawling out of the nearby river, having escaped the bag full of his brothers and sisters.

There was the puppy, Samantha, who bit anyone who tried to get near me, and Reggie, who didn’t know how to bathe himself. Most important was Sally, the reservation dog who looked a bid like Spuds Mackenzie on crack. I was working for the tribe when I saw some teenage boys throw rocks at her. When I asked them to stop they said she was so ugly that they wouldn’t stop until she was gone.

W h o wouldn’t accept such a dare? Into my van went the mangy, tick-ridden flea bag, pregnant and afraid of doors. I called Tom, who was away for work, and said, “What do you think about a dog?”

“Shit. Suz, what have you done?”

We kept her. She was the best, most loyal dog ever and Tom was always thankful that I didn’t listen to him.

Which leads me to the pig and again, not listening to Tom.

One December night, my very pregnant friend Su and I drove over the hill to go to a movie. Now this is no ordinary East Coast, suburban hill. This is a small mountain pass 30 miles long on which the only signs of civilization are a perpetually closed ski area, a gas station that closes at 7 p.m. and a ranch that sports a sign declaring “I’d rather see a cow than a condo.”

Well, so would I.

As Su and I began the descent off the pass, the falling snow became blinding and thick as a down comforter. We crept along at 30 mph, not wanting to end up in a snowbank with her going into labor. Right across from the ranch, I spotted movement on the snowy shoulder.

My Ellie Mae radar signal sounded loud and clear.

“Su. Did you see that?”

“Yeah. What was it? A puppy?”

“I think so. We have to stop.”

Su pulled over and put her flashers on. I caught a flash of something small and frightened. I leapt out of the car and started running up the highway, blinded by snow and the pitch black. Su turned her car around to shine her headlights in the direction I was heading.

I got a glimpse of the paw prints in the snow, much too small and dainty for a dog.

“Su,” I screamed, “I think it’s a cat.

I’ll get it.”

Then, it leapt out in front of me, right into the beam of the headlights. PIG.

A small one, but still, a pig.

I dove after it, grabbing it around the waist. It bit me.

Terrified, I ran back to the car, my pride wounded way more than my hand.

“It bit me.”

“Pigs don’t bite.”

“I swear, it bit me.”

“Good God, Suzanne, I’ll get it.”

I really in good conscience shouldn’t have let the pregnant woman chase a pig on the side of the road, but conscience be dammed, I let her run after him for a while.

After about 15 minutes, we were running out of steam. As we leaned against the car watching the critter run up and down the shoulder of the highway, snorting and squealing, a snowplow came barreling down on us. We ducked our heads as it ran by, turning white with the blinding ice. When we looked back up, the piglet was gone from sight.

The plow had buried him!

We ran over, saw where he was trying to unstick himself and threw a jacket over his body. Su scooped him up and we tossed him tinto the back of her car and headed right over to the ranch.

Realizing that it was very late, we hesitated about knocking. Working ranchers usually go to bed with the sun. But we figured they would be happy to have their little piggy back.

“Hi, we have your baby pig.”

“We don’t have pigs.”

Silence on both ends.

“Do you want a pig?”

“No, but thanks for offering.”

I called Tom. “Honey, guess what I’ve got?”

Su, the pig and I got back in the car and started driving home.

Tom was going to get on the phone and call the DOW, Animal Control, the sheriff and a friend of ours who did have pigs.

Su said that she couldn’t take it home to her house because her dogs would kill it. She dropped me off at my house. In Town. No yard, and very close neighbors. She then took off like a bat out of hell.

My saintly husband just shook his head, half grinning, an expression I have come to know and love.

The boys were up, all kinds of excited about a pig in the house. They named him Snowball.

We put him in a laundry basket in the bathroom. Bowen reached his hand out to pet Snowball and he started snarling and snapping at my 2-yearold’s hand.

I called the pig-friend.

“Eric, how do you tell the difference between a pot-bellied pig and a baby regular one?”

I could hear his brain scream CITY GIRL from 60 miles away.

“Eric, he’s trying to bite us.”

“Suz, he’s not trying to bite, he’s a baby. He is probably just trying to nurse. Let him suck on your fingers. Feed him some corn mush and call me in the morning.”

Well, that pig was not nursing, but because Eric said he was, I repeatedly (and stupidly) let him clamp down on my tender digits.

Having no mush, I mixed up a batch of organic polenta and tried to spoonfeed him.

Pigs are called pigs for a reason. He was scarfing, snuffling, slinging polenta, rolling in it and slurping it. All at the same time. The kids got grossed out and went to bed.

Tom patted me on the head said “I love you” in that exasperated tone that lets me know that I am really testing our marriage vows and headed to bed also. I slept on the couch outside the bathroom, listening to the sound of the monster that had invaded our home.

Next morning, we loaded up Snowball and drove over to Eric’s house. This was one foundling we were not going to keep. When we got to Eric’s he looked into the back of the car and scratched his head.

“Damn, I don’t know what that is.”

Feeling slightly less pathetic, I suggested that he pick Snowball up and take a good look.

Eric climbed into the back of the car, speaking in soothing fatherly tones, then suddenly shouted, “Shit, he bit me!”

Ahhh, totally redeemed.

We passed Snowball on to Eric’s family. Their 8-year-old named him Fireball.

Six months later, Eric’s wife, Laurie, invited us over to say farewell to Fireball.

As we drove to their house, I asked the boys, “Do you understand why we are going to their house?”

“Yeah, they’re going to kill Fireball. Do you think we can have some bacon?”

So much for my concern about shocking them with the reality of where food comes from.

The bacon was delicious. Given that on the day of his death, Fireball weighed close to 600 pounds, it was obvious that he was not a potbellied pig.

I still bring home the occasional stray, but I am really trying to keep it limited to cats that purr and dogs that don’t bite. I am learning. Not so much that there are animals that I don’t want to nurture, but that there is only so much insanity I can inflict upon my family before they all leave me abandoned and homeless.

Suzanne Strazza writes from Mancos, Colo.