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Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Pests or Pets?

I’ve often compared my household to a zoo. In quiet times, there are eight organisms living here: two adult-humans, four child-humans, and two adult dogs. That's enough wild animals for anyone. Today, it felt more zoo-like than usual.

This summer, my girls entertained a bug phobia. (And I do mean “entertained” – I think they both found it very “entertaining” to defy me in such a round-about way.) Dutifully, I would send the kids outside only to have my laundry-folding attempts interrupted by blood curdling screams. At the height of summer, during those weeks with long, 20-hour days, bugs, particularly mosquitoes, are plentiful in south-central Alaska, so I listened to a great deal of screaming all day long.

Three-year-old Ellie was especially vulnerable, terrorized by the tiniest knat. She would demand to be let inside, clawing at the backdoor with one hand, clutching an bug-afflicted body part with the other. I would carefully examine her for blood or other damage, as any mother would, as she tearfully cried “BUUUUUG!” Of course, by the time she reached me, any ill-meaning insect would already be long gone and having its own post-traumatic-stress-disorder issues. (Bugs be warned.)

Let’s face it, though beautiful and deliciously mild, Alaska summers are short. Every second counts. Even so, after awhile it was easier to turn on the TV for Ellie than to encourage her to conquer her fears and get some fresh air and exercise. (Why does TV seem to be both the answer to and the cause of so many difficult parenting issues?)

Eventually, five-year-old Sabrina unwittingly gave me an idea that helped both girls control their fear, if not conquer it. As many young children do, Sabrina started collecting bugs. She kept them in a small cardboard jewelry box. I have no idea what kind of bugs they were, except to say they were black, winged, and the size of a grain of rice. Most often, they could be found outside crawling on anything made of yellow plastic, which in our yard constitutes a lot – the slide, the swing-set seats, and miscellaneous other kids’ toys.

Though we didn’t know the proper name for Sabrina’s bug, she called each one “Sally.” Exercising her innate motherly instincts, she provided grass for bedding and recreation. When I asked what her Sallies ate, she looked at me quizzically. Clearly sustenance was not part of her care giving. I warned her that all living things require food to survive. But the apparent demise of a Sally wasn’t overtly concerning to Sabrina. Philosophically, she would say, “I just keep her until she’s dead, then I find another one.” (This from a child who once dubbed a piece of scotch-tape stuck to the wall as her “hamster.”)

With the birth of “Sallies”, Sabrina’s encounters with bugs turned from terror to opportunity. (Really, this is a miraculous occurrence, given that “bugs” played a large role in Sabrina’s potty-training – someday I’ll get around to telling THAT story.)

Capitalizing on her sister’s change of heart, I was soon able to convince Ellie that there is a distinct and critical difference between “bugs” and “Sallies”. “Bugs” are frightening and fear inducing. “Sallies” are friendly and lovable (if somewhat revolting).

This concept has continued to develop.

Now, when an insect gets trapped inside the house, in order to promote its benignity, I refer to it as a “Sally.” This means, however, I am no longer allowed to kill it. It has been magically transformed from a pest into a pet. Hence the presence of three bugs currently residing in my house. One, a large, black horse-fly, has been dive-bombing my head for the past three days. (I guess I should be somewhat thankful I’m prohibited from killing it, because, before it was officially a household pet, I tried and couldn’t catch the damn thing.)

There is also the tiny crablike spider currently living on the space of wall above our kitchen cupboards. She’s been there several days, and moves from time to time – first above the sink, then to the area above the glassware, then making a long journey around the perimeter of the kitchen to the space above the formal china. The children needed to be reassured that the spider in this drastically new location was in fact the same “pet” as the sink-spider – whose name, incidentally, is NOT Sally, though I have completely forgotten what it actually is. (You CANNOT call an arachnid “Sally” – this is an unspoken but understood truth in our household.)

The third creature is an undetermined black spot twenty feet overhead in the topmost niche of our living room’s cathedral ceiling. The kids were once again concerned this might be a rogue “bug” in the house, but if only because of its inaccessible location I assured them it, too, is surely a pet.

Today, our household added yet another temporary pet to the zoo. This one, however, instilled much greater wariness into the girls, if only because of its excessive size. (The boys were typically easygoing and unfazed.)

Our next-door neighbors are lovely people who, in two years, we should know much better than we do (I can’t even remember their last name most of the time). These folks own an absolutely gorgeous Bernese mountain dog. (If you haven’t heard of one, picture a Newfoundland with the coloring of a rottweiler, with a long fluffy tail. Or see the picture located above.) Riley (I don’t even know if this is the correct spelling) is a couple years old, a spayed female, who is very smart and very social, and because four of her five owners are currently out of the state, with the fifth working all day, has discovered numerous ways of escaping her backyard enclosure in order to make human contact.

Last night, upon my return home from work at the gallery (http://www.stephanfinearts.com/), at about 10:30pm, I let out a bloodcurdling scream of my own when I opened the door of the Outback and there was this HUGE FACE right there panting at me. It was Riley, and we spent about 20 minutes of knocking and walking, trying to get her either back indoors or in her backyard. No one was home, but just as I was ready to give up and bring her into my own yard for safekeeping, the daughter of Riley’s owner (does that make her Riley’s sister?) came home, and Riley was saved.

Sure enough, this morning at 9:30am (I’d been downstairs for all of five minutes), Ellie said, “Mama, that dog is outside again.”

Sure enough, Houdini had escaped again, and between the knowledge there was no one at her house and we were having a severe windstorm, I dragged her into my house. (This was much harder than I’m making it sound. Though by the end of the day she was exuberantly bounding through my front door at the merest call of her name, that morning she must have thought was going to make horse-food out of her. She kept trying to wrench away from the grasp I had on her collar, and found her teeth a useful tool in doing so.)

Meantime, I discovered Riley is the perfect dog. My border terriers, Juneau (age 10) and Seamus (age 8 ½) are scavengers, bad-mannered and indolent. But Riley, though the top of her head was the same level as the countertop, was a perfect lady, never once grabbing the five-pound block of Tillamook while I made grilled cheeses, or jumping up on a single kid. She didn’t bark once all day (come to think of it, I’ve never heard her bark EVER). She knows all her basic commands and ceaselessly wags her beautiful bushy tail. She smiled so much that Jack, my seven-year-old, asked complainingly why OUR dogs never smile. Though she seemed uninterested in using the “powder room” outside, neither did she take care of business inside. She was a delight, always by my side, gazing adoringly at me with her mahogany eyes, and nuzzling my leg with her muzzle (as if she were a small horse.) She let Evan sit on her, Ellie feed her, and completely avoided a terrified Sabrina.

Of course, it’s always a stress to have a strange animal in your house - especially one that outweighs your one-year-old by at least 75 pounds. I made sure I knew where she was at every second, and never left her alone with my kids or dogs. But, she never once did a single thing that caused concern. I must admit, I am a little in love. When the owner’s daughter finally returned home from work, I offered to watch Riley the rest of the week, but she graciously declined.

I’d always admired Riley from a distance, daydreaming about having a Bernese mountain dog of my own someday. I am delighted to report that she is more lovely and delightful than I would have imagined. I am sad she won’t be with us tomorrow or the next day. The kids were sorry to see her go as well (though I’m not sure Juneau and Seamus minded – tough competition.)

Even though she only lives next door and I can see her any time, I will miss Riley. A dog like her is one in a million.

Oh well, back to my regularly scheduled zoo. At least I still have plenty of Sallies.


At 12:58 PM, Blogger fatmammajamma said...

So what do you call your spiders? They freak me out...as do most bugs. I'd probably be there with Ellie screaming to get in too.

At 2:15 PM, Blogger Gateway School and Learning Center said...

I want Riley to come live at my house! I wonder if Sabrina taught Abigail about fostering bugs or if Abigail taught Sabrina? Abigail does the exact same thing. Abigail has also named many things Sally for about the last year. Our girls are peas in a pod.


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