I grew up with only a few pets. We had two different cats, George and Hermann. The former was by all accounts a seriously tolerant, seriously big orange tabby that didn't mind getting his ear pulled or his tail gnawed by a teeny babe (namely, me). When he'd had enough, he'd just get up and mosey out the cat door to tromp around the neighborhood. The latter was a standoff-ish, no-nonsense "boy" whose previous owners had named "him" before "he" had a litter of kittens. They then dumped HER on my folks.
George sauntered off into history before I can remember, but Hermann came along while I was early in grade school. I was fairly high energy, and totally fascinated by this real-life member of Mutual of Omaha's Animal Kingdom stalking our den. To be clear, what I wanted was to pat the gray tabby soundly on the flank and chase it around like a dog, and then snatch it up and snuggle it like a stuffed animal. As you may guess, this was an arrangement Hermann was having NONE of.
Then, when I was eight, I realized that I was fast enough and clever enough to catch her as she ran around the house. After a couple of close calls, I finally caught … the worst set of cat scratches I've ever seen. Ever. Some families might have ditched the cat at that point, but Mom knew me, and she knew her cat: this was MY fault.
She taught me two things then and there. First, she impressed upon me the importance of good first-aid skills. Boy, did I bleed everywhere! (I kid, really, I didn't even need stitches.) Second, she made it very clear that animals are a lot like people, and have very specific things that they like and don't like. More to the point, WE don't get to pick what those are. "Do you like getting hit by people bigger than you?" she asked. "That's what your 'patting' feels like to her, you're so very much bigger than she is. Now imagine that the big, bad hitting person is chasing you! What would YOU do?"
After so calmly and clearly explaining what I was doing wrong (and, by the way, not passing out at the pint of blood donated to my clothes and the carpet that she would have to clean up later), my mother went on to demonstrate how to do things the right way. She had to wait two full days for the terrorized kitty to come out from under the pile of coats in the closet where she'd been hiding, you understand. But one evening as we were howling over Hawkeye and B.J.'s latest prank on the M*A*S*H nurses, Hermann hopped up and joined her on the couch.
Mom demonstrated how to be gentle, how to softly stroke her fur the right way, and how gently scratching the head and ears and back was okay, but don't touch that tail. When I went up to them to try and join in, the cat instantly fled, and I was sad because I knew that it was my own fault. Mom was encouraging; "Don't worry. One day when you aren't paying any attention to her at all, she'll come up to you, and you'll get your chance to try again."
Mom always knows best, as any smart man can tell you. I was doing homework in the living room one afternoon when the cat came walking past, within arm's reach. Excited, but remembering the last time (and the scratches, sheesh), I reached out carefully to let her sniff my hand. She did for a moment, and then calmly walked away. This scene repeated itself a couple of days running, and then finally my offered hand got a full head-butt of approval: "Pet me, dummy!" That moment of redemption combined with the joy of connecting with another living being marked me as a pet-lover for life.
A couple of summers later, Herman went out mole-hunting, and as outdoor cats sometimes do, she never came back. I guess she'd done what she came for and then moved on. But from the moment she and I connected, two things were clear: I was a "cat-person," and once I had a place of my own, I was definitely getting a pet like her. Or two. Or ... twelve?
"OK, but I'm drawing the line at twelve, what am I, a zookeeper?? YOU can go clean Mumford's cat box, you wanted another one so much....!"
Do you have questions or stories about the interactions between kids and pets? Hilarious first-aid stories, perhaps? Feel free to share them below!