frankie allegra

Pet People

To my four-legged friends- past, present, and future

To say I grew up a pet person feels like trivialization. To put it another way:  ancient civilizations lived their lives around the sun; when it rose, when it set. I grew up living my life around animals: when they rose and when they slept. First it was Max and Tigger, then it was Cleo and Marie, and then it was Oliver. Now, it is Mr. Tumnus. Mr. Tumnus is the first pet who is uniquely mine; before, they were shared in terms of responsibility and love and paid for exclusively by my parents. Now, this cat depends on me and me alone for survival. I was initially drunk on the high of the responsibility; now, when I see his monthly pet insurance premiums hit, I feel quite a different way. 

What it means to be a pet person: I do not allow my fiancé, Will, to get into bed with me unless he is fully showered. Mr. Tumnus, for his part, licks his butthole with his small, leathery tongue haphazardly, traipses through his litter and beneath the couch, rolls on the ground at his leisure, and then crawls beneath the covers with me, rests his small head on my pillow. Three days ago, he woke me up at 4:30 am by sneezing directly on my face, and his little feline boogers went flying everywhere. I don’t have an explanation for why this is tolerable. 

My mother bought a new car in July. She insisted it be a convertible, even though she doesn’t like convertibles. My mother is anal and hyperactive; a convertible represents the ultimate waste of time to her—putting down the roof, putting it up when she gets on a highway, messing up her hair. Nevertheless, she bought a black Beetle with a black soft-top. Why? Because our family dog, Oliver, an 11-year old, gassy English Mastiff, likes feeling the wind in his enormous cheek folds. So, a convertible.

It is difficult to quantify the love my mother has for Oliver. When she gets home from work, you can hear her bellowing through the house: joia della mia vita and amico piu caro, which translate to “joy of my life” and “my best friend.” After an extended greeting to Oliver, where she throws her arms around his colossal neck and kisses him on his grey hard, she goes and gets changed out of her work clothes, and she and Oliver have cheese and a glass of wine together. Oliver has the cheese, and she has the wine. Then, and only then, will she say “Frank, we’re leaving,” which means they are going on a walk, and I am allowed to come. I have never been called the joy of my mother’s life, nor her best friend. Those titles are reserved exclusively for Oliver.

Oliver was initially my dog, which is to say, a dog bought for my enjoyment, but he became my mother’s dog when I went to college. My dad’s business surged at the time, which had him traveling nonstop for work, so it was just my mother and the mastiff alone in our house. This is when Oliver transformed from dog to son. Each day I was told new information about him: Oliver can speak Italian. Oliver practices telekinesis and knows when I’m about to take him on a walk. Oliver began going to the grocery store with my mother, with the top down on her old car, a PT cruiser convertible, because Oliver, I was told, enjoyed the feeling of the wind in his jowls. When I went home on breaks, I found what I had left, a dog, but my mother insisted that I couldn’t see what she could see. And it is true: I didn’t. I found a poorly behaved, earnest 200-lb beast who had my mother buying him personal packs of prosciutto, likely questioning his good fortune.

But Oliver did something we didn’t: he followed my mother like a shadow from room to room. When she wanted to take him on a walk, he went. When she fed him, he ate. When she sat on the couch to watch the news, he sat next to her. My sister and I were not as easy to control: we were in our late teens and early 20s, and college had given us gulps of independence, living in different states, making our own decisions, choosing for ourselves when we ate and walked and sat. My mother, being Italian, tried to treat us like our canine sibling: “it’s time for a walk!” She’d declare, flinging open my closed bedroom door. But I didn’t have a leash, and she couldn’t make me. We went to college, moved away, got boyfriends, did how and what we pleased. Oliver was different, Oliver stayed. He sat. When prompted, he could shake hands. 

Is this why animals call to us? Do we humans crave total manipulation over others, and this is why we procreate, and then, when our creations develop consciousness of their own, we turn to the next best thing, domesticated quadrupeds? I don’t know. What I do know is that Mr. Tumnus, no matter how much shredded mozzarella he eats, will always be small enough for me to pick up and carry, to move, to control, and this compactness is something I cherish. 

When we first started dating, I asked Will if he was a cat person or a dog person and I don’t remember his exact answer, but he distinctly implied he was just a person. This did not sit well with me. In my world, you need to be either a cat person or a dog person, but ideally both. Still, I resisted an on-the-spot conversion, knowing those often failed.

Instead, I went the slower route: each time we saw a dog together in passing, I would do but I regularly did, which is shout “hi, doggo,” and get on knees to greet the canine— but I would bring Will to his knees with me. He petted a Great Dane behind the ears and admired the soft folds. He delighted in the Chow Chow’s black tongue, its red panda face. When we saw kittens in pet store windows, I’d quietly make voices for them, narrate their inner lives. We would spend weekends at the Washington Square Dog Park, first passing by, and then eventually sitting. When Will came to visit my family home, I showed him the acacia tree where our dog Max was buried, the cypress under which we buried Rene, Cleo’s magnolia tree. I think he began to understand the value in not just being a person, and then I saw the photo of Mr. Tumnus’s head buried into his feline mother’s side, up for adoption, and I texted it to Will and said “please.”

I had a plan: a cat was a gateway animal to my ultimate objective, a dog. Will would see just how easy cats were: they didn’t need to be walked, could entertain themselves, required little in the way of vet bills. He would soon want the alpacas and chickens that were a part of my larger plan for a full-on menagerie. I did not share this scheme with Will, but I did share the Amazon bill for Mr. Tumnus’s new bed, litterbox, and toys. 

Pets are having a moment. I don’t use Facebook much, but there is a Facebook group called Cool Dog Group that has 759,500 members, and I periodically check in. In general, I like what I see. Basically, people on the internet post photos of their respective dogs, and these photos garner likes and comments. “Our new cute Alfie,” captions someone on a photo of a goldendoodle puppy. “My sweet baby Mocha turned 15 and there was no better way to celebrate but to have a Quinceañera,” writes someone else, beneath a photo of a particularly crusty looking Chihuahua wearing a crown and a tutu. “Happy Birthday sweet baby,” comments someone. “Happy birthday cutie” comments someone else.” This corner of the internet is devoted to celebrating canines and the people who love them.

There are celebrity pets on Instagram. Recently, Grumpy Cat (2.6 million followers) died due to a urinary tract infection gone awry, and her supporters mourned. Other celebrity pets—influencers in their own right—wrote tributes to her on their accounts. I don’t know how, given the lack of opposable thumbs, but it was touching nonetheless. This housecat had a world beyond its house, a following, teenagers in other countries who would paint photorealistic watercolor sketches of her. Grumpy Cat has a fleet of merchandise, calendars, mugs, but she also had someone who loved her. Her owner, a woman named Tabatha Bundesen, was 29 and working as a waitress at the time her brother took a photo of her cat and posted it to Reddit. The photo become an internet sensation with over one million views in 48 hours, and within two years, Bundesen allegedly generated nearly $100 million from Grumpy Cat’s paid appearances, book deals, and modeling career, according to Business Insider

It’s absurd for sure but go Google a photo of Grumpy Cat (may she rest in peace). Tell me, what feeling does she evoke? How much is that feeling worth? By some accounts, it’s priceless.

The Proustian questionnaire has a question that asks, “What is the lowest depth of misery?” The answer, to me, is instant: watching our two beloved childhood pets, Cleo and Marie, get put down. To hear Cleo’s last sigh when the potassium hit her blood stream, to feel Marie’s old, tabby body go limp in my arms. To eventually leave them laying there in that small vet clinic room, and return home with one less family member. To pick up their ashes a few weeks later in a box so small it stupefied. All that life, reduced to so little. When my parents thought about putting our house up for sale a few years ago, my sister and I asked them if they could get Cleo and Marie’s cremated bodies to come with us; Cleo, buried beneath the magnolia  tree she used to lay under in the summer, and Marie, beneath the cypress she used to spend afternoons on, hunting birds. Our parents obliged, and the gardeners dug, but came up with nothing. Our pets were disintegrated, as were the boxes that hold them. “I thought the boxes were more like coffins,” my mother told me over the phone. How were we supposed to know? It feels right, to have Cleo and Marie eternally at the house they grew up in. We never sold the house. Correlation does not imply causality, but it implies something. Love, maybe. 

I am in law school, and four days before my biggest writing assignment of the semester is due and two days after Mr. Tumnus has become my new roommate, I am watching him as he attempts to drink out of my water glass on the desk. He is putting his little paws on the lip of the cup, his little whiskers dotted with drops of water as he dips his head in, when he pushes a bit too hard and the entirety of the glass spills on my computer. I scream, I tilt it upside down, and then I see Mr. Tumnus huddled in a corner, startled by my shriek, and a lifetime of rage melts away. I comfort my kitten for his mistake, and when I pay the $480 to resuscitate the machine, I do not charge him for it, metaphorically or literally. If anyone else gave me $500 worth of computer damage, it would be payment plus interest for emotional distress. But this is the thing with pets: when they chew our phone chargers to pieces, claw the couch, gnaw the edges off coffee tables, the anger is short or not at all. They are faultless because they don’t know any better, or if they do, we pretend they don’t. Perhaps we all have con artists living in our homes, sleeping in the corners of our beds. Either that, or angels. 

The allure of animals is heady. When I am chosen as the person whom Mr. Tumnus plunks his furry bottom on during the NBA Finals, I experience a joy that radiates from within. Better than a peach on a summer afternoon, locking eyes with a stranger across a bar and knowing it wasn’t an accident, a hot shower after a long day, and nearly every other cliche. This small creature with a brain and soul all his own picked me from a group of other TV-watchers. This is cause for celebration. When they sit when we tell them to, when they cozy up next to you in bed, when a butt-licking tongue reaches for your face— these are the moments we crave, because they tell us our care is not all for naught, that it matters, that we are seen.

Pets are a luxury, but nobody thinks of them like this. And yet it’s true; an animal on a farm works, makes you money. A pet just spends it: vet bills, food, toys, a sitter for when you are out of town. My mother and I went to Rwanda last April and she asked our guide why nobody had dogs. He laughed and said: “We can barely feed our children.” I willed my car seat to devour me.

In other countries, pets are not only valued, but sensationalized: look at Hello Kitty in Japan. Hello Kitty depicts a Japanese Bobtail cat with a red bow on its head and no mouth, and by 2014, the Hello Kitty franchise was valued at about $8 billion a year. When asked why Hello Kitty has no mouth, spokespeople for her company creator, Sanrio, replied: “she speaks from the heart.”

What is the difference between an owner and a parent? It is hard for me to say. An owner has command of a brute, an owner tames. An owner possesses. A parent creates, and a parent nurtures. This is as far as my brain takes me, but here is what I know: Mr. Tumnus gets combative when I clean his shit out of the litter box. He doesn’t want me to take it out, and so he tries to swat the little green shovel out of my hand. I crouch, I plead with him, I lock him out of the bathroom and hear his little paws pounding on the door. In these moments, I question who owns who.

It is all too easy to become a pet person. Some are born this way, with their first babysitter being a Rottweiler named Max and a cat named Tigger, like myself, and others transform. I see Will’s metamorphosis, slow but sure. Now, when we see a dog walking down the street, his eyes light up first. I watch him hold Mr. Tumnus as he sleeps like a work of art, and I watch him kiss his furry little cheeks with the tenderness of a father with a newborn. Bit by bit, the fur sticks to his heart. Maybe that’s a metaphor, but also, our clothes are consistently covered with fur.

Will and Mr. Tumnus initially shared a mutual skepticism for one another, but gradually, affection eked in. Their bond was formed over the unlikely instrument of a hard drive: Will worked on his computer while Mr. Tumnus slept on the heat-generating machine. I would leave them in this position in the morning on my way to school and come back to find them in exactly the same positions at night. Soon, a paw would be absently stretched over Will’s wrist, or I’d find Will’s hand touching the velvety back crevice of Mr. Tumnus’s ear. I knew my dreams of a menagerie could one day be realized when Will sat me down and with grave severity told me that he worried Mr. Tumnus was lonely, would I consider a second cat?

Two weeks later, we adopted Ernie, an anxious and deeply abused one year old cat with a genetic mutation resulting in an extra toe on each paw. I no longer feel so far off from my aspirations of alpacas. 

The way I see it, pet people sit on a spectrum. There are those that are anti-pets, people who were raised without animals, people who don’t greet dogs, and their depraved like. I say this jokingly but also semi-seriously; it may be a hot take, but I think everyone should be raised with a pet. Learning empathy and understanding for a different creature, to pick it up gently and properly, to shovel its shit, is a valuable lesson for a child, in my opinion.

Then there are the average pet people, those that call themselves owners instead of parents, who see an animal more like a college roommate than a child or friend. These people generally don’t give their dogs human food, or their cats Christmas presents. These people are what society deems normal.

Then there are, shall we say, the slightly more fanatical. I fit this classification. As a relatively friendless child, I memorized and read the American Kennel Club Guide to Dogs daily, which led to a ludicrous skillset of knowing nearly every dog breed recognized in the mid 90s. I light a candle for Mr. Tumnus’ birthday and have been known to leave dinner parties so as not to leave him by himself for too long. 

There are those that are beyond the pale, considered freaks. My mother’s old colleague, for example, a woman with the last name Soares, pronounced “Soar-us,” who is the parent to a 300-lb behemoth names Dinah. Dinah Soares, get it? She desperately wants you to get it. This woman runs Dinah’s Facebook page with daily updates, and what’s more, spends her retirement making Dinah’s meals. Dinah eats better than some two Michelin star restaurants. A recent meal of Dinah’s, as seen on her Facebook page: turkey neck with microgreens, kefir, and veal liver, garnished with edible flowers. Another post inquires, “if Dinah wrote an autobiography, what would the title be?” I don’t judge people like this, because I too could picture Dinah writing a book after a plate of puréed blueberries and alpaca. This is how I know I am a pet person. Animal lives in my veins. 

Perhaps we love our pets so much because there is a sad truth buried beneath their existence: in most cases, you will outlive your precious Sparky. This creature will come into your life as a kitten or puppy, and one tragic day years later, you will take it to the vet and walk away empty-handed. It is, as far as humans are concerned, a truncated lifespan, childhood and adulthood and seniority compressed into a canister of 15 years. But isn’t death what makes life beautiful, why we find more pleasure in fresh flowers than fake ones, this very fragile thing that consumes so much poetry, so much anguish, so much joy? 

I don’t know what I will do when Mr. Tumnus dies. Weep, definitively. But this cat carries so much more weight in my life than his 20 pounds can belie. The truth is that love is not word enough for it, for what I have for him. Awe is more apt. He is never embarrassed, never harps on his failures, always follows his impulses, showers those he loves with affection and isn’t afraid to ask—no, demand—alone time. He treats himself well and rarely gets angry. He doesn’t like brushing his teeth, but then again, no one’s perfect. He is a small man clad in orange fur, and he is often the best part of my day. 

I now understand my mother’s fixation with Oliver, what joia della mia vita truly means. When Oliver invariably passes on to the great beyond, we will mourn him the way others, those that aren’t pet people, those that are just people, mourn a family member. Scorn us if you please. But all dogs go to heaven, and this will comfort us. 

In the meantime, if ever you find yourself in Northern California, keep an eye out for a black Volkswagen Beetle convertible. Maybe you will catch a glimpse of one of my favorite sights, my mother and Oliver coming back from the dry cleaner or the grocery store. Perhaps you will see them whizzing by, two heads: one, blonde, desperate to be loved, and the other, old, infallible, and fur.

frankie allegra is a California native and newly minted attorney. Her essays have been published in Joyland, The Fanzine, The Briar Cliff Review, The Blue Mesa Review, Prompt Literary Magazine, and The Gyara Journal. Her one-act play “The Auction” was performed in Vivarium Theatre Company’s Lost and Found Festival in Chicago. She is a graduate of Northwestern University’s nonfiction program, where she studied under John Bresland and Eula Biss.