The Ideal Pet

C. S. .JENNISON, who lives with her husband and three daughters in Shelburne, Vermont, writes light verse and prose with equal facility for the ATLANTIC and other magazines.

I don’t know whose fault it is, but I don’t trust animals. In spite of this lack of faith on my part (or perhaps because of it) my children are always depositing one of God’s furred or feathered creatures lovingly at my feet and pointing out how it needs a home — poor thing. The fact that I too need a home — poor thing — interests no one. The children seem to feel that if I get to know enough animals I will grow to understand them. And my husband oversimplifies the case by insisting that my undemocratic spirit is just a matter of attitude. According to him, I have the wrong approach.

“The first thing you have to do,” he tells me, “is get over the feeling that all animals have a grudge against you.”

All right. Take cats. I suppose it’s an accident that every nice male kitten turns out to be a female who sneaks her young into the world on a pile of good blankets or in the drawer where I keep my best nightgowns. Another thing. I have one of those shaggy green rugs in the guest room. To a very nearsighted cat it might conceivably look like grass, although I doubt it. Anyway, it would take a pretty stupid animal to mistake it for a sandbox, which almost all of our cats have done. I have lost quite a number of house guests this way.

No home is complete without a dog. At the moment — which is a slack season — we have two. Shane, the red setter, has brightened an otherwise dull career by running deer, chasing cars, tangling with porcupines, and playing touch football with the neighbors’ ducks. Once, with his usual flair and imagination, he carefully selected my mother-in-law’s favorite imported silk slip from a whole line of clothes and happily tore it to shreds. (“Surely,” my husband asked, “you don’t think the dog chose that particular slip?”) Then there’s the problem I have whenever I get in the station wagon. Shane is never in sight when I start toward the garage, but as soon as I open the car door a hundred or so pounds of dog hurtles out of nowhere and beats me into the driver’s seat.

Our other dog, Bruce, is Shane’s son from a collie next door. Fortunately. Bruce inherited some lovable characteristics from his mother’s side of the family, and he is one of the few animals for whom I feel anything more than a tired housemaid’s concern. Sensing this partiality immediately, Shane began running Bruce over the hill and losing him as soon as Bruce’s puppy legs could hold him. My children tell me Shane can really smile. Why wouldn’t he?

It’s wise to keep a few chickens. We have a few. They are all personal friends of my twelve-yearold daughter; and they are always molting, setting, or too cold to lay eggs. In short, they arc on relief.

One day I came across my daughter reading a book out in the barn. She was sitting in a three-legged lawn chair, and beside her on an upturned orange crate rested a box of crackers, a half-eaten banana, and a coffee can full of laying mash. A young pullet known as Cheeper-bythe-Dozen was perched on her shoulder.

“She gets lonely,” my daughter explained, inclining her head slightly toward Cheeper. “Be quiet! She gets nervous, too.”

I started to move obsequiously toward the door. In doing so, I almost stepped on Cheeper’s younger brother, a young cockerel named Gregory Peck. Apparently Gregory was lonely too.

“Mother!” my daughter wailed. “You nearly walked on Gregory! Here Gregory, hop up on my lap.”

Gregory, whose voice was changing, made a sound like a rusty hinge and hurried past me. I found my way humbly out of the territory.

This little episode made me vaguely uneasy. It reminded me of the time I went to visit some relatives in Georgia, when I was a child. At least, I guess they were relatives. I was only six and the relationship wasn’t very clear to me. When I tried to clarify the point, my father said heavens, they certainly weren’t part of his family — they were relatives of Mother’s. Mother said they weren’t really relatives, just sort of very, very distant cousins; and my father said that was all right with him, so long as they stayed distant. Whoever they were, they were interesting.

The man and his wife, both of ripe but indeterminate years, ushered us into a big, cluttered room and waved us toward some broken-down chairs. The man wore green suspenders and a pair of old dancing pumps. When he spoke at all, he focused the discussion on his pack of hounds, a dejected group of four or five dogs who lay around scratching themselves.

The woman, who was dressed in shapeless but vivacious scarlet chiffon, served us Lea from a tarnished silver teapot and talked incessantly. I watched, fascinated, while nine or ten chickens stepped through one of the holes in the screen door and wandered casually across the room to pick up crumbs. The woman never glanced at them. Afterward. my brother said he saw one hen laying eggs in an eggcup in the dining room, but this could have been exaggeration.

My daughter, who is expecting more chickens and kittens any day now. says she guesses I just don’t love animals. This isn’t strictly true. I was quite fond of a turtle named Jackabuster, who spent the summer in one of the cellar areaways and used to sit up and beg for hamburg once a day. He lived his life, and I lived mine. I also had a good deal of respect for three lizards who lived in the basement one fall and managed their affairs in a quiet and courteous manner. And the goldfish weren’t much trouble until the night my youngest daughter changed the old dirty water in the bowl with some nice fresh boiling water from the tap. After that, they weren’t any trouble at all.

The larger animals may be long on personality, but they are certainly short on manners, and I happen to prefer a smaller type of animal. Something tidy and housebroken that doesn’t come in the door full of porcupine quills, fleas, and mud — and settle down comfortably on the pile of clean clothes I have spent the day ironing. Something that is a real pleasure to have around the house. Like a Mexican jumping bean.