Everyone says your first love is the one you measure all others by. You know, you're young, naïve, impressionable – she's on the rebound, desperate and can't hold her liquor. But everyone's full of crap – the love that really stays with you is your first pet. In my case, a MacKenzie River Husky/Wolf hybrid that would have considered Cujo a nice snack and Balto a shameless fraud. In case you're just tuning in, the first love of my life and the standard against which all pets are measured is "Leader the Wonder Dog".
Leader and I were just about the same age – kind of a brother my parents didn't have to house train. He didn't have a name right away – the legend goes – because he hadn't named himself, which made sense to me as a kid because it obviously took him some time to learn how to properly use the crayons after he discovered they weren't edible. Plus which, as everyone knows, dogs have notoriously bad handwriting so I wasn't at all surprised it took some time for him to name himself. At the same time, however, I was suspicious of the whole Santa-Claus-down-the-chimney thing, but Leader not being able to write until he was older was bulls-eye stuff for me.
At any rate, he became "Leader" because he would invariably walk in front of you and seemed to know where you were going at all times. Of course, when you're a kid you don't have any place to go so from a probability and statistics standpoint the dog's topping the scale in the "WOW MOM – you won't believe what Leader did" department. At this point, I feel compelled to disclose I have never scored well in standardized testing, so the dog may not have been all that smart. But then again, if you were one of those Santa-Claus-down-the-chimney chumps, neither were you.
Leader would walk me to the bus, be sitting there waiting when the bus dropped me off, run around the woods with me, chase off other dogs and moose (this was Alaska, so chasing off moose isn't one of those special skills at the bottom of his resume), and slunk off to my room when we were in trouble (again, it wasn't normally Leader that got in trouble, but he'd occasionally take the fall).
This unpainted Norman Rockwell went on until I was 12 when an Army Sgt moved into the area, saw Leader making his rounds one day and shot him, thinking he was wolf. Leader died in my arms a week later and with him died my belief in a lot of things. After we buried Leader, my Dad (to his great credit), wandered down to the G.I.'s house and suggested that if he couldn't tell the difference between a dog and a wolf, my Dad might not be able to keep his own WWII flashbacks under control and could mistake a US Army uniform for a Japanese Imperial Marine's uniform. The guy moved (I suspect my Dad was somewhat less obtuse, but I liked the story as he told it) but it didn't bring Leader back. Nothing did. And if anyone tells you that time heals all wounds, let me assure you it doesn't, it only dulls them.
So, when my wife and daughter announced recently that we should just drop by a pet shelter and look at some cats, warning lights went off. All I could think of was Robbie the Robot, "Danger, Will Robinson. Danger!" We're just looking, kinda interested in what they might have, but we're not going to get anything. OK, well, if that's all it is, I'm in if there's snacks involved. I was promised a hamburger and a Roy Rogers (I like maraschino cherries, so what?) so off we went.
We get to the pound or pet shelter or whatever they're calling pet jails and my first indication that things had changed was that we had to register – fill out paperwork – to see animals no one else wanted. Are you jiving me? I have to apply to look at a throw-away pet – a pet that someone else already didn't want, and I have to apply to see it? R U kidding me?
No, not so much. In fact, "they" take this throw-away pet thingy pretty seriously and don't have much sense of humor about it, either – thank you very much. OK, so now that I've been told I may or may not be qualified to look at a used cat, I'm truly just along for the Scooby snack I was promised.
After a background check with the FBI's NCIC and the TSA's No Fly List, we were granted full access to the pets, but of course, were accompanied by adult supervision. R U jackin' me around? We need a chaperone to LOOK at a fleet of previously owned cats? Which of these doors gets me back into the parking lot?
We're waltzed around some 2 dozen cats or so and none of them are doing anything for me except delaying lunch. Then Laurie The Chaperone says we have one more cat – but he's in quarantine from the other cats because he has FIV. And she says it like I know what that means.
Me: "What's FIV?"
Chaperone: "That's Feline Immunodeficiency Virus."
Me: "Right. What's Feline Immunodeficiency Virus?"
Chaperone: "Well, it's kinda like HIV for cats."
Me: "HIV for cats. You mean the cat tested positive for kitty AIDS?
Chapeone: "No, feline HIV."
Me: "Right. So… ah… Where's your back door?"
Chaperone: "We don't have one."
Me: "Where do you want one?"
OK, I do NOT need to see a cat with HIV or FIV or any other IV. And, incidentally, why would anyone with even below average standardized testing scores want to adopt an FIV cat? Before I can say any of this, I've followed the troop into the quarantine room where this ratty looking cat ("Goliath") about the size of a small Ocelot is curled up in a cage and listening to the dogs in the next room bark. He's a train wreck but without all the excitement.
The dogs are barking so loud you have to actually speak louder to be heard. And not only is the cat FIV, he must also be deaf because the barking isn't fazing him at all. He kinda rolls over, gives us a look and is completely non-plussed. But he and I get eye contact and I think, uh-ho… this ain't just a regular cat. He knows something… he knows the odds are stacked against him – he's kinda sick, they got him off by himself, not many people come in to see him. He knows he probably ain't going anyplace. This is as good as it's going to get for him so "Hello and welcome to my world." And then I made the BIG MISTAKE.
I picked him up. If I hadn't picked him up, he wouldn't have head-butted me in the face or wiped his face all over mine. And then he just kinda relaxed and I realized that for some unknown reason, we just "got" each other. He seemed to know he was going home with us before we did.
Me: "Does he answer to his name?"
Chaperone: "He answers to the can opener."
Me: "Me, too."
Turns out he was a stray and someone gave him the name because of his size. He's about two years old, strong and healthy, and probably picked up the FIV in a fight with another cat. I'd hate to see what the OTHER cat looks like.
Apparently adopting a "special needs" cat takes some soul searching so they made us leave to think things over. I was ready to take him right then and started lobbying for a special parking permit, but the rest of the family suggested we make a show of "thinking it over" during which time we could go to the store and buy all the stuff he'd need.
We picked him up and on the way home named him Mac – for McKinley, the BIG Alaska Mountain. Yeah, I know – it's fashionable to call it Denali these days, but I ain't calling a cat "Den" and besides, I still call Mumbai, Bombay and Myanmar, Burma. And since he won't answer to Mac anyway, why quibble about what they're calling a mountain?
So, Mac is all settled in. Head butts all around, Mr. Calm about everything, happy feet when he gets petted, lays around the house like a dog (hates the bed we bought), and has pretty much taken over the house (we're thinking of putting his name on the mortgage). His fur looks a lot better, he's getting chow he likes and generally has lost that drug-through-a-bird-cage-backwards look.
And as if all of this wasn't weird enough, here's the "bookend", as we like to say in screenwriting: Mac NEVER walks behind you – he ALWAYS walks in front. If I didn't know better, I'd say he wants to be a leader.
I'm leaving some crayons out for him just in case.