I am not a pet person. I became a vegetarian for animal rights reasons, yet I have very little interest in animals. I mean, I admire (or coo over) them from a distance, like babies, but when it comes to actually owning one and taking care of its every need, I balk. Same with babies, by the way.
For all that, I’ve spent an awful lot of my life taking care of people’s dogs for pay. (Also their babies.) I recently took my most recent and probably last job of this kind, which put me face-to-face with many of my animal aversions. At the end of June, when I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to find a job (I did end up finding one, teaching summer school. I say “finding,” but really it just fell in my lap; someone else pulled out at the last minute and I was next in line. My campaign to live my whole life without ever having to do well in a job interview continues)…at the end of June, as I was saying, I decided to take a housesitting/dogsitting job to get a little extra cash. (All housesitting is also petsitting; housesitting=subletting + a pet.) I was to housesit for a professor and his rambunctious dog. We will call the dog “Fido” to protect the innocent (which, as you’ll see, does not include the dog).
Fido was indeed a rambunctious dog, and I am not a very assertive dogwalker. I’m not very assertive with people, either, but I like them a lot more (and I’m never asked to pull on their throats with a cord). Fido liked to walk through the tall grass of the sprawling ecological preserve that encircles the campus, and she didn’t always have a clear idea of where the trails were, preferring instead to drag me through swaths of tall, unkempt grass that, it turned out, was crawling with ticks.
I know ticks live in tall grass, but I had always assumed that there weren’t any in the ecological preserve, for the simple (stupid) reason that there were no signs saying, “Warning: Ticks.” Getting them off me was pretty easy, with the help of tweezers and a patient girlfriend, though every day while I was there I found a tick somewhere on my person or clothing, and for the first few days back at my place I kept compulsively putting my hand under my shirt to grab some phantom tick.
Getting them off Fido was a different matter; where I might get four ticks on me during a walk, she would get 25, and dogs don’t like it when you pinch their fur with tweezers. We were eventually able to get it down to a science, yanking them off without her even noticing, and, since ticks have hard bodies that will not be easily squished, dropping them into a pitcher full of water to slowly, slowly drown. Later, I realized that I could simply squeeze them with the tweezers after extracting them, and they would softly explode. My anti-cruelty stance notwithstanding, I found it very satisfying to squish these awful eight-legged monsters that wanted to stick their heads through my skin and eat my blood. Guess you didn’t count on my use of tools.
The other bug problem we found was with Julie’s least-favorite crawly, spiders. The otherwise very nice house we were in seemed to be infested with them, and every night I was put on spider-stompin’ duty. I usually try to keep non-bloodsucking bugs alive when disposing of them, but there were far too many for this to be feasible, and every night I would kill between one and two dozen, washing so many down the sink that the drain clogged. A few days in, we realized that the family’s leniency towards bugs in general might have been responsible for the infestation: the instructions they left for me mentioned that we might get ants (indeed, we did), and laid out the family’s policy towards them: “We just leave them alone. It’s their house too.” Pardon me, no. If it was their house, they would be paying the mortgage. If it was their house, you wouldn’t be paying me to house-sit; you could get the ants to do it for you. There were so many spiders, in fact, that we speculated that they were the family’s other pet; they would come home and ask, bewildered, “What happened to our spiders?”
So we had a number of run-ins with eight-leggers that were disgusting but ultimately comic. The stories of the four-leggers were not so pleasant. I had been told that Fido was friendly with people but not with other dogs, and indeed had gotten in a fight with another dog a few months ago. It was true that every time she saw another dog she tried to attack it, and I got quite adept at steering her away from dogs before she saw them. Even then, there were some near misses. Then there was a direct hit: another owner brought her much smaller dog too close to Fido, and they started sniffing each other. “I guess she’s being friendly,” I said, and at that instant Fido grabbed the other dog by the throat and began shaking him around. It took us about a minute to pry her off him, during which time the victim’s owner was knocked down. From then on, I walked Fido with a muzzle, which she hated and was constantly trying to scratch off; people understandably avoided us on the street, and I felt like an asshole. A couple days later, I saw them again (Fido was not with me, luckily): the other dog had to have tubes put in his throat to prevent infection.
Then, on the last day of my (by then excruciating) tenure there, I ran over a squirrel. It was darting across the street, and I didn’t put on the brakes fast enough, and there was that thump. I went back to clean it up and saw that it hadn’t been damaged at all, except for being killed; it looked like it was just asleep. I wrapped it tightly in two plastic bags–it was still warm, obviously–and threw it away. I never had to throw away a mammal before, and it felt like I was breaking the law in some way. I also suppose that this is the first vertebrate I’ve ever killed in my life.
That was actually what led to my long hiatus from blogging: this happened on July 7, the day of the bombings in London. And I was going to blog about it, but it seemed tasteless to be talking about a squirrel on a day like that.