(Written four years ago).
The world is hurtling precipitously to hell. Life savings and pensions are disappearing overnight into a merciless super-massive black hole of economic disaster. The number of people being laid off is staggering. The figures being tossed about in discussions of bailouts, deficits, and stimulus packages are even more unfathomable. Our own personal debt keeps growing like a malignant tumor, despite my best efforts to make it go away…And I just spent 800 dollars on dental care for a rabbit I’m allergic to, and frankly: not particularly fond of.
We’ve always been terrible pet owners and our pets were all, without exception, problematic. The trend started before I was even born with a couple of birds my sisters had. Besides being shockingly messy, they were coolly disloyal and abandoned my sisters without so much as a backwards glance the minute they spotted a cracked window. My sisters’ consolation prize was a turtle whose shell my mom assiduously scrubbed daily with a toothbrush in a fruitless bid to mitigate the unwholesome stench it emitted.
When my parents moved back to Korea from San Francisco for a few years with three children in tow, they were concerned that we wouldn’t be able to get enough protein in our diet. In America we had been raised with plenty of milk, cheese, chicken, and beef, all of which were almost impossible to find, and/or prohibitively expensive in Korea at the time. My father acquired a pair of rabbits to remedy the situation. We have photographs of ourselves feeding carrots to Veronica and Brownie through the bars of their hutch, our eyes wide with childish wonder and delight. One morning my dad called us outside. “Kids, look! The rabbits are having a wedding!” We ran out expecting to see Veronica dressed in a long white gown and veil and Brownie in cutaway tails and an ascot. We were confused and disappointed to see that Brownie had merely mounted Veronica and was jerking furtively with one beady eye trained on the growing crowd of spectators witnessing the consummation of his marriage bed. Soon there was a hutch full of Brownies and Veronicas.
I think it was Brownie Sr. who was first served up for dinner one night. When it was discovered that we had just eaten one of our pet bunnies, bloodcurdling keening alternating with howling recriminations sent sonic shockwaves reverberating around the whole neighborhood. My father quietly gave away the rest of the rabbits to a delighted neighbor that very night and that was the end of that. My dad had learned an important lesson: you don’t give names to your food.
His next idea was to buy some chicks. Of course, this time no names would be given. But we had also by this time acquired a dog, to whom a name most definitely was given. My grandfather rather grandiosely dubbed him Sodeka, for Socrates, Descartes, and Kant. Despite his extravagant name, Sodeka was unceremoniously kept in the yard tethered to a chain, just as all Korean dogs are. Any wisdom Sodeka may have possessed was in realizing he knew nothing. Perhaps he was even wiser than his partial namesake, because unlike Socrates, he grasped that the pursuit of truth and virtue were pointless. He wasted no time mulling over the ethical ramifications of eating defenseless baby chicks too stupid to keep far enough away. Cogito ergo sum? How about: My growling stomach tells me I exist, and I therefore deduce that those senseless birds won’t in a minute. Screw Kant’s categorical imperative, he was hungry, and the chicks were right there! Sodeka died a few years later when he got into the trash and ate some chicken bones. In his dying act, he proved the existence of retributive justice in the world.
When we moved back to America we acquired an aquarium, which became home (and hospice) to a rapid succession of fish, fowl, and rodent. The many, many fish all too quickly succumbed to spectacularly depressing, protracted deaths, despite my fervent prayers and earnest ministrations. I would admit my patients to the hospital isolation ward: a pickle jar filled with saltwater and warmed with my rickety old swing arm desk lamp that served as a heat lamp. It never helped. They would continue to float on their sides or backs until they finally took their last gasp. Only once, the fish my little brother named Charlene Tilton seemed to be on the brink of a miraculous, unprecedented recovery. Every day I could see that her body was slowly righting itself until one glorious day she finally regained her vertical position. I was Florence Nightingale! Clara Barton! Hell, I was Mother Theresa! The day I planned to present Charlene Tilton with her discharge papers, I rushed home from school to find that the arm of the desk lamp had slipped and the bulb was barely a centimeter over the water. Charlene Tilton had been poached to death. Oh, the bitter, bitter tears I shed over each and every one of those fish.
The next ill-fated resident of that glass house of death lasted for only a few days. Butch was an impossibly adorable, fuzzy little chick, hatched in an incubator in my brother’s second grade classroom as a terribly misguided science project about the life cycle. The teacher blithely sent Butch and his siblings off to their deaths at the hands of a dozen or so second graders without so much as instructions on what to feed the poor doomed birds. Butch chirped piteously all day long and would only quiet down when we took him into our hands, where he’d nestle contentedly and immediately fall asleep. Every time my Dad caught us in the act, he’d make us put him back in the aquarium. He said with authority (having grown up on a farm, after all) that our very touch was toxic to the chick and that we would hasten his demise. Maybe he was right, or maybe Butch just got too cold in the aquarium. I really don’t know what we would have done with a rooster in the heart of suburban Arlington anyway.
Completely disregarding the growing mountains of evidence pointing to the fact that we were not meant to be the guardians of birds (and the fact that we still lived in suburban Arlington), my Dad ordered some quail eggs and an incubator from an ad he found in Field and Stream magazine. I can still remember the earthy, organic smell of the eggs. For a month we nervously tended the tiny eggs, turning them gently twice a day, and anxiously fretting that the little bulb keeping them warm would burn out. The hatching due date came and went. After a decent interval of grief, and once we got past the denial phase, my dad took the incubator out into the backyard and gently cracked open a few of the eggs. The little birds looked fully formed. We never figured out what went wrong.
Then there were the two gerbils named Pee Wee and Flea Bag. Once in awhile, I’d let them loose in the front yard. They would frolic about in the grass until I called for them. As soon as they heard their names, they’d come racing back to me. Maybe those brief interludes when they could feel the sun on their backs and the wind in their little rodent faces put forgiveness in their hearts, so that they returned to me even though I routinely forgot to feed them for days on end. Or maybe they made the cold, sober calculation that my negligent care was better than being eaten by a neighborhood cat:
“Yo, Flea Bag, that crazy chick’s calling us back. Come on, man, now’s our chance. Let’s do it! Let’s run for it, man!”
“Yeah! Let’s do this thing! Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, I’m fr–!”
“Awww sh*t, Flea Bag! There’s that damn cat, again. Damn it!! Come on, man, we gotta go back to the aquarium.”
“Dude, I’m so depressed.”
“Next time, man. Next time…”
Those gerbils never did make their escape. They lived to a ripe old age and ended their days in the aquarium. I sobbed when they died, belatedly regretting all the times I’d forgotten to feed them. My family tried to console me, assuring me that it was almost unheard of for gerbils to live as long as they did, but to this day I can’t think of them without pangs of guilt.
My dad thrilled us one day by bringing Fritzi home as a surprise. It was our first experience with having a puppy. We were completely charmed by the way he would wantonly flop over onto his back and proffer his tight, round, warm, velvety belly to anyone who would reach a hand out to him. When he was old enough, he too was banished from the house and sent to live in our backyard, where he became a barker and a biter. I couldn’t sit on our tire swing without him trying to take a chunk out of my side. I never held it against him. One day he flopped over onto his back as he had when he was a puppy, but this time a grotesque, pulsating red protuberance emerged from his penis. As he wallowed on the ground, dirt began to cling to its moist surface. My brother and I stared in wide-eyed horror and then ran inside the house shrieking: “Dad! Dad! Fritzi’s dying! Something’s wrong with Fritzi!” My dad lumbered out to see what we were squawking about. He took one look at Fritzi, and grunted “He’s fine.” He stalked back to his room and shut the door behind him, unready and unwilling to give us “the talk” that would explain what was going on with our unneutered dog. We were stunned and shaken. We could only look at each other in disbelief at my father’s callousness.
Otto was our next dog. He was the best worst dog in the world; he was gorgeous and hideous at the same time; the gentlest and most vicious animal I’ve ever encountered. Otto was a white and brown American Bulldog with a perfect, rakish diamond patch over one eye. He was an awe-inspiring seventy pound mass of rippling sinew and muscle. If you were ever foolish enough to sit down anywhere in his vicinity, he’d immediately come over and climb onto your lap as he had when he was a puppy, raking your legs with his sharp black talons, and innocently breathing noxious fumes in your face and splattering it with his big warm lolling tongue and the thick ropes of saliva that always dangled from his huge gaping maw. You’d push him off and he’d nonchalantly fix his gaze somewhere off in the distance as he’d slowly and casually scoot backwards again, until he regained his rightful place on your lap. Once he’d managed to reseat himself, he’d start lazily slapping your thigh with his big brown tail. You had to love that dog, horrible as he was.
The biggest problem with Otto was that he was absolutely terrifying and uncontrollable when he encountered other dogs. This comical, gentle, bumbling dog would instantaneously transform into a snarling, growling, demonic terror when he caught sight of any other dog. In a frenzy, he would strain at his leash so hard that his eyeballs looked like they were going to pop out of their sockets. The whites of his eyes would always be bloodshot for days after these episodes. As he struggled to break loose from the leash, he would start making alarming gasping and choking noises. Every single member of my family, with the exception of my mother who was too smart to ever try to walk him, experienced the trauma of being pulled to the ground and dragged by Otto, when he was trying to maul another dog. Only once, did he actually break free. My sister was walking Otto when a stray dog came loping up to them. Otto broke loose and grabbed the dog by the neck. My sister frantically tried to pull him off the other dog, screaming and hitting him with the end of his own leash as hard as she could. He was completely insensate when he was in this state, and it was only by accident that he let go of the other dog and my sister was able to regain control of him. Later that day she insisted that I come with her to look at the blood spatter in the middle of the road, where the fight had taken place.
My own worst Otto experience occurred when I came home from college for summer vacation one year. He was so difficult to handle, my parents would wait for one of us to arrive back home so that we could deal with his vet appointments. It was time to take him for his rabies shot. When I got to the vet’s office I left Otto in the car and went in to explain the situation. They agreed to open a door leading straight to the exam rooms allowing us to bypass the lobby filled with other dogs and cats. He was hoisted onto the table, and when the needle went into his muscle, he didn’t flinch, there was not even the briefest pause in his heavy panting. They let us leave through the backdoor, and as I walked him back to the car, I was congratulating myself for having gotten through the ordeal without incident, when a droopy basset hound dropped heavily from his car onto the pavement. Otto lunged. The leash was wrapped around my legs and I was flung onto the asphalt and dragged first on my back and then on my stomach through the parking lot, until I was finally able to stop him. I drove home bleeding from both sides of my shredded body, and from my sandal-clad feet, where his sharp nails had punctured the flesh when he jumped onto them. Later, big paw shaped bruises appeared, lining up perfectly with the bloody holes.
Like all our dogs, Otto was exiled to the backyard. We begged my dad harder than we ever had on behalf of any other dog to allow him to stay in the house, although of all of them he was clearly the least fit to be indoors. My dad was unshakable in his belief that a dog’s place was outside. Otto had a doghouse and a decent sized pen. He didn’t seem to mind being outside too much, although he wasn’t crazy about thunderstorms. From the window we’d watch his silhouetted form lit up again and again with every lightning strike. He’d leap off the roof of his doghouse, his ears flying out from his head like batwings, his huge mouth wide open as he tried to catch each bolt of lightning.
One day there was a freeze warning. The newscasters suggested that even outdoor pets should be brought in on this particular night. We knew it was hopeless to petition my dad to let us bring him in. Instead, we bought Otto a sweatshirt and wrestled it onto him as he wriggled and writhed away from us. We put a warm blanket into the doghouse and attached the optional flap that had come with it. Then my siblings and I tried for a good half hour to coax him into the doghouse. He stubbornly kept popping out of it as soon as we got him inside. As it grew dark and the snow began to fall, we started crying out of frustration and worry for our atrocious, yet dearly beloved dog. My father came out to get us. He roughly shoved Otto into the doghouse and marched us back into our own house. The next morning we ran out to check on the dog and were devastated to discover the blanket and sweatshirt lying in a heap outside of the doghouse and the naked Otto lying motionless on his back on a patch of ice, his legs held stiffly in the air. As we ran to the frozen corpse, he suddenly awoke and leaped up to greet us with his usual graceless joie de vivre.
When my sister and her husband moved to Atlanta, Georgia, they asked my dad if they could take Otto, and he agreed. Thus began the long arduous process of rehabilitating him. They flew him to Georgia in a large crate. At the airport, they were heading to the baggage claim area when they heard a loud commotion. There was a crowd of panicked baggage handlers shouting and yelling at each other. Not one of them was willing to touch the crate that was rocking back and forth and emitting a terrifying low rumbling and growling. My sister and her husband rushed up to Otto’s crate and the rocking immediately stopped. The growling noise was replaced by whimpering and the sound of Otto’s tail happily slapping the side of his crate. When they got him back to their house, the first thing he did was to bound up the stairs and make a beeline for their bedroom. He leaped up onto their bed and released a gallon of piss right in the middle of it.
Clearly, he was going to need some transitioning…They decided to keep him in the garage until they could get him housebroken. They bought a space heater, a magnificent down vest and a brand new bed and set him up in style in their garage. When they got back home from work that first evening they discovered that he had ripped his bed to shreds. He had also managed to get the vest off and had torn it to pieces as well. Furthermore, he had deposited a gigantic steaming turd right in the middle of it.
At the very first opportunity, they took him to be neutered at last. The surgery was performed so late, that for the rest of his life, poor Otto had a dark, wrinkly, flaccid sack that flapped pathetically between his hind legs. Georgia is possibly the state where bulldogs are mostly highly appreciated. My sister and her husband would routinely be stopped by admiring people who wanted to know what kind of dog Otto was. One day they were out walking him when they heard the sudden squeal of tires. A man jumped out of his car and declared that he had to have Otto’s services as a stud. When my sister told him he was neutered, he stamped his foot in impatience and disgust and said: “What you do that for?!”
It is a credit to my sister’s vision and saintly patience that Otto finally became a well-mannered house dog. My sister and her husband eventually had four children long after Otto died, but for many years Otto was their only cherished, (if not begotten) son. They filled albums and albums with photos of him. I’m hoping that the charity they showed to this seemingly unreformable dog will cancel out the sacrilege they committed in referring to him for all those years as: “The Baby Otto.”