A Little Help Being Human

Anyone who liked this column should have read "The House Dog's Grave," by Robinson Jeffers. Contact Isaac at [email protected].





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One of the toughest parts about renting in Berkeley has been the inability to keep pets. It's amazing how much the visit of a stray cat can brighten the day-but it's also agonizing, because I know there's no way I can take care of him. The best I can do is pet or play with him until he loses interest and walks on.

My family's relationship with the animal kingdom goes back as far as any of the extant Clemenses or Gages can remember. We've got a soft spot for animals, especially the outcast or the invalid.

My mother's parents adopted a white bulldog set to be "destroyed" in the name of genetic purity. Instead, Juno was flown up from Los Angeles when he was no larger than my grandma's hands. After he grew, Juno helped raise my mother.

We adopted Wicket, a maniacal Shih Tzu, after her abused childhood. She tangled with our giant Alaskan malamute, Frosty, one day and ended up completely blind with a rebuilt jaw. Putting her to sleep would've seemed the obvious choice, but anyone who saw how excited she got when we held and petted her would've immediately dismissed the notion.

Our cats are real prizes. When I was a child we had Googol, who had been raised by raccoons. She ate her food with her paws, and when she died the kittens of the newest generation curled up on top of her body and slept until it was time to bury her. Emily loved to sleep on top of the cable box because it was warm, except she tended to fall off it and the top of the TV whenever she fell asleep. We even had a cat who had 36 toes.

My grandfather's cat, Happy, lived to be at least as old as I am now-22. He was an antique with a completely rebuilt urinary system, and he seemed to take the greatest delight in licking people's toes. When Happy died, we adopted Nubbins from the SPCA. As Dad recalls it, "Nubbins demanded we choose him. Even though Grandpa was comatose by this time, we brought the cat home, and he jumped down in the kitchen and ran through the house, jumped up on Grandpa's bed, curled up next to him and laid his paw on Grandpa's chest. It was simply astonishing."

Nubbins had to have an abscessed fang removed-now whenever he purrs, he drools. He's also taking aspirin for a heart condition, the senior feline of the house amid a host of strays: Software, who came into our household with a tag and phone number for a software company in Texas; Grim, a smoky beast who's learned how to pull the house doors open and had to have his tongue stitched together so he could eat; and Valentine, who Dad saw taking care of kittens at the vet while Nubbins was getting an MRI.

Why do people spend thousands of dollars to treat their sick pets? Why do some pay for obituaries in the newspaper, or even to have dead pets cloned? Maybe because having animals makes us better people.

We take care of animals because they're smaller, more perfect versions of the best things in human beings. They train us, teach us about love, the responsibilities of providing for another, and they teach us about grief. Maybe one reason we feel tenderness for pets is because we are their protectors, and because the arc of their lives is brief. We love them so that they too will say, like the English bulldog Haig who speaks from his grave outside Robinson Jeffers' window,

"Deep love endures

To the end and far past the end. If this is my end,

I am not lonely. I am not afraid. I am still yours."

It's about commitment-commitment to foot the bill for the surgery that'll save our cat's life. Commitment to helping our old companion stave off leukemia. Commitment to hand-feed an unstable goldfish who is on his last legs. Animals are our friends, and we do all we can for them. And when that's not enough, when it's time for them to be put down, we stay right there with them until the end.

I just hope the end doesn't come while I'm away.

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