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Hug Your Herd

There are days I feel like a rancher: I get up before the sun, before the blood has gotten to the frontal lobes, and the first thing I do is feed the herd. The cats supervise as I mechanically hand out hay and pellets to nine guinea pigs and then the rabbit. After a quick stop to make a cup of crappy instant coffee, I give the cats their first dollop of wet food and supervise them to make sure there’s not so much stealing. My house runs on a schedule of feedings that ends with a wet snack for the cats and more hay for the critters before I go to sleep. Long before the pandemic and long after, these rituals have provided a framework of normalcy for the whole day. Of course, there’s more to it than that.

I don’t get up because of the noise of the herd, or the hungry cat insistently pawing at my face. I get up because I have committed to caring for these living things that depend on me for shelter, food, water …everything. Besides, they’re part of the family; I want them to thrive and have happy lives. There are definitely rough days where we say the same thing all parents have said to their kids, “It’s a good thing you’re cute!” but on rough days, you’ll feel a paw reaching out to give something back. Cats feel when someone is sad or sick (or allergic) and they try to help. Cats don’t know they lower your blood pressure almost instantly, but I think they do know that if they curl up on your lap and purr, your problems seem much less important.

I have to say that this past year, while we’ve all stayed home living with fear, uncertainty, and the abject terror of running out of toilet paper, I am so happy that I share my home with 13 pets and five other humans. Wherever I go in the house, I’m never quite alone. You can tell a rabbit your secrets; they won’t rat you out. You can whisper your dreams to a guinea pig and they’ll stare at you in wide-eyed wonder. And a cat will quietly sit with you even if you have nothing to say. Okay, sometimes cats can be jerks and give you a judge-y look but then try to rescue you from the shower. I wouldn’t recommend anyone crowd their house like I have. It was not my intention. We have just not been able to say no to refugees who had nowhere else to go.

When a pair of aging guinea pigs landed in my dining room in the top half of a car-top carrier from the ‘70s, I furrowed my brow in an effort to look stern. They looked like something a small child would draw, like potatoes with big black eyes and two sets of bird legs. I could see they were old and kind of ragged. Their names are Caramel and PFU –short for Pink Fluffy Unicorn, which is what we get when a committee of 4th, 5th and 6th-graders comes up with a name. And they thought he was a girl (I can relate, but that’s a different story). I’m not a monster, so the sternest thing I could say was, “Make the boy take care of them.” That was two years ago. I don’t think they’re going back to class. Honestly, I didn’t know what to say, because I thought my wife and I agreed that we already had enough pets.

We had intentionally gotten three cats and a rabbit. The initial plan was to get two cats. The first one came to us from a neighbor whose youngest was horribly allergic. The second two cats came when I got a call saying that our daughter was standing in the PetCo adoption area, holding the paw of an orange kitten through the cage bars repeating, “I want this one.” And this big-eyed kitten had a brother with big ears, hiding behind his smaller brother. Of course I said, “Oh, just get both of them.” The rabbit was a product of our son standing in the family room with watery eyes, promising to love it, and clean up after it and squeeze it and he would absolutely die without this specific rabbit. Winter now lives right where he was standing, under the TV, next to the fireplace.

We’ve never regretted the pets we planned for and those who landed in our house by chance. They are a constant source of love, amusement, empathy and much more. At least once a week, my wife texts me a cute picture of any combination of the cats snuggled with each other or with one of the kids. From the next room. I may be a sucker for a mammal in need, but I can help them greatly by doing something that costs me relatively little.

My wife and I have had pets continually since before we were married. They were our starter children, then our children’s first friends. Now, they are the children’s children. Everyone babies the fur-babies because they return the love manifold. Our pets have provided us love –both conditional and unconditional– and they are each a focus for our attention, affection and yes, money. Most days, I’d rather spend money on cat litter than another clever t-shirt that will end up on my kids’ floor in a week. The rabbit doesn’t need braces; she just needs hay and sticks to keep her choppers healthy. And I’ll gladly heft a 25-pound bag of guinea pig pellets into the dining room because it makes the piggies ‘popcorn.’

One of the fun things about having pets is being able to use terms like ‘binky’ or ‘popcorn’ or ‘snurgle’ in polite company. When a rabbit accumulates a certain amount of joy, they release it by jumping straight up –a binky! This can happen anytime: in the middle of a run, while eating, whenever. It’s like it happens TO them. Guinea pigs do the same, but it is semantically different: popcorn. Seeing an overflowing of happiness like that is amazing, because you know it’s sincere. Cats snurgle or ‘make biscuits’ on you when they feel complete trust and happiness.

For those of you keeping score at home, that only accounts for six pets. Another class piggie landed in the dining room a year later. His name is Cookie and he looks like a constantly surprised baby badger. He didn’t stay the new kid in town for long.

Not much later, a pair of refugee humans moved into our house. We won’t count them in the pet column because I am NOT going to pay for their vet bills. It’s a long story, but two of my son’s friends were kicked out of their house and needed shelter from the pandemic. As I tell everyone; if you had to pick two teenagers to come live in your house, these would be the ones.

One of the two new kids has a boyfriend. He’s also a good kid, but he eats too much. And he brings home strays! Very late one night, I heard a ruckus downstairs. I can’t really describe the ruckus because it didn’t sound out of the ordinary. I believe a group of teenagers is called a ruckus, like a swarm of bees or a troop of monkeys. I slept through it, with a cat or two laying on my knees.

In the morning, I found yet another guinea pig in the dining room, this time stuffed into a cage we’d used for a now-departed hamster. The boyfriend had found her loose in a park while walking his dog. He brought her to the first place he could think of with the facilities to feed her. By this point, I had stopped trying to put my foot down. Peanut was very sleek and very round. She had five babies, three weeks later. I must admit that the birth was amazing. I’ve seen humans born and it’s gross. Peanut didn’t make a sound during the entire process. Her economy of movement was like a tea ceremony. My wife happened to hear the first baby weeking (that’s one of the sounds guinea pigs make) and we all gathered to watch. Five times she got a strange look on her face, reached down, and pulled a baby out with her teeth. She quickly cleaned each baby in turn and then sat down as if there had always been five sticky, noisy copies of herself hopping around. It was like a magic show. Ta-da! Thirteen!

Magic doesn’t last, but relationships do if you work at them. We have spent a lot of time this past year learning the personalities and idiosyncrasies of our pets. One cat will bless me when I sneeze. Another will play fetch and the third prefers to sleep in bed like a human. In the afternoon just before they get salad, the piggies start a trilling that sounds exactly like a penguin colony. The rabbit demands (and gets) petting from every passerby in the family room, but panics when she’s picked up. Having learned this and so much more about each of the pets has made the isolation easier for all the humans in the house. If you’re going to seal yourself in the house, seal yourself in with a pet, or 13. They’re a reason to get out of bed in the morning, happy to receive your time and affection and pay it back with interest. A video call is a good tool when you can’t be with a friend, but petting a cat’s sun-warmed tummy is a renewable resource. Hug your herd and be grateful they are in your life. I’m sure they’re grateful that you’re in theirs.