Or So it Seems … I Married a Zookeeper

“Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”
I Corinthians 7

It’s not often that I’m asked for advice on matters of the heart. But recently, a family member—I’ll call her “Liz”—commented that her boyfriend was “driving her crazy,” and she asked how Karin and I managed to get along for so many years.

“We have a relationship based on total equality,” I said. “We take turns being annoying.”

“No, really?” Liz persisted. “How do you make it work?”

Hmmm, I thought. What does make love last? I thought about the many ups and downs in our 31-year-marriage. Going the distance can be exhilarating, daunting, and rewarding. But if I could offer just one tip, what would it be? I drew upon that time-honored source of wisdom, the Hollywood romantic comedy.

“Did you ever see ‘Fools Rush In,’” I asked.

“When did it come out?”

“Mid 90’s, maybe.”

“I was six.” Liz rolled her eyes.

“OK. So you were watching Pokémon. Anyway there’s a great scene where Matthew Perry tells Isabel Fuentes: ‘You’re everything I never knew I always wanted.’”

“Who’s Isabel Fuentes?”

“That’s not the point. The idea is that relationships shouldn’t be dull. They ought to be playful, offering surprises all along the way.”

“Like the time you brought home an orange Volvo?”

“Hey. It looked great next to my neon-green Bus,” I said. “Get the picture?”

“Yeah, I guess,” Liz shrugged, put on her headphones, and cranked up Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera, “Love Changes Everything.”

***

Does love change everything? Or, as Mom used to say, does it “make the world go round?” It must. I think of all that I’ve done in the name of love—things I did while shaking my head and saying “I can’t-believe-we’re doing this.”

And it all started on day-one.

The Honeymoon

Karin and I hadn’t been married 24 hours when she took my hand, looked me deeply in the eyes, and suggested we do something “a little bit crazy.”

“Ooh.” I said eagerly, “sounds good to me.”

“Great,” she smiled. “So let’s go to the animal shelter.”

Really? I thought. We’d agreed on politics, religion, and ‘family planning,’ but apparently I’d missed the memo on one of life’s bigger issues—pet ownership.

Karin then used a line I’ve come to hear many times since. “Let’s go…. Just for fun.”

What the hell, I thought naively. No harm taking a look.

A short time later we were the proud adoptive parents of a golden Chihuahua mix, courtesy the Monterey County Humane Society. Since we got her on our honeymoon, we named her “Honey.”

Thus began our journey together as man-and-wife. The story can be recounted in many ways. There are the obvious benchmarks dates of kids’ birthdays, job changes, moves, graduations and such.

Today, for example, is the 31st anniversary of our wedding-by-the-lake.

But the calendar doesn’t reveal much. The REAL story of our time together is best told by reflecting back on the pets we’ve owned.

Married, Without Children

The last time I’d owned a dog was in the 8th grade. But marrying Karin brought a menagerie into my life. Honey wasn’t our only pet. We returned from our trip to the coast and took custody of “Romeo and Juliet”—the two meanest creatures ever to infest a cage. These peach-faced “love birds” were a wedding gift, and it wasn’t a question of IF they’d bite you, it was a matter of where and how badly. During our “angry bird” period, the local pharmacy saw its Band-Aides sales double. We finally ditched these little feathered agents of Satan, opting for something a tad bit friendlier, a cockatiel.

Cats came into the picture in the fourth month of life together. Around Halloween, a stray cat adopted us. We couldn’t afford to spay little “Tigger,” so we soon had a litter to dispose of. But they had to be wormed first. We had just enough cash to buy either a bottle of big pills, for adult cats, or a bottle of smaller pills for the kitties. We opted to get the small pills and give several doses to mom-cat.

I was the one dispensing the meds, and I can tell you that pushing more than one pill down an agitated feline is not conducive to leading a long and unpunctured life. About the third pill I lost my grip on Tigger, while one of my digits was still inserted in her mouth. The teeth penetrated clear to the bone.

That was the last time I ever medicated ANY of our critters.

Put Me In The Zoo – Children and Even More Pets

Unfortunately for me, all of our children inherited my wife’s love of animals. So they made a weekly pilgrimage to the pet store.

We started the kids off with fish. I was told that little-fishies don’t live all that long, and so we’d be out of the critter business before you know it. The person who fed me this bald-faced lie worked at the pet store. I suspect he’s now a politician.

Fish did provide Karin and I our first practical lessons in parenting—provide each species with its own living space or watch the large devour the small. This is how we came to own a five-bedroom home.

Once we were through our fish-phase, we had leftover “habitats.” That’s how we came to have crabs, lizards, snakes, mice, rats, gerbils and even a guinea pig. Our kids’ bedrooms had more wildlife than some state parks.

Most of these animals didn’t care for their tanks any more than I did. They expressed this opinion by escaping into the wilds of our front room. So little snowball the hamster disappeared into the couch one day, and provided the newest all-family game show: “Pet Rescue—Special Operations Unit.” This is where you spend an entire afternoon chasing a critter from one piece of furniture to the next, staying one step ahead of the cats, and dismantling each chair, book case or sofa without doing violence to little “Snowball.” If you think this sounds bad, the re-runs were worse.

Then there was the time that Shirley-the-invisible-gopher-snake went missing for a couple of days, terrifying our exchange student, until she was found wrapped around the TV.

The snake, that is.

Bigger but Not Better

As the kids grew, they wanted “real pets.”  At one point all four of the kids had their own cat, and we became familiar with complex cat social-interactions. Basically, they all hated each other. This made for some interesting moments when each kid wanted to hold his-or-her cat and watch TV. But the most memorable “cat event” came when we returned from a six-week trip, and found the “Jasmine” had been locked in the house. Fortunately, a neighbor forced entry and saved the frazzled feline, but not before she attempted to burrow to safety through the carpeting. This made our return something less than magical, and I wondered aloud to anyone who’d listen.

Pets…. why do we do this to ourselves?

All of our animals wanted to live in the great outdoors except, of course, for those that were specifically intended to stay outdoors. We had free-range chickens that would dash into the house whenever they could, probably because the kids would sneak them in to sleep with them. One bird in particular, Henny-Penny, was adamant about bolting into the garage to lay her eggs in our laundry basket. We usually indulged this, but one morning the bird was forgotten until Karin heard it squawking and beating its wings against the garage door.

Karin let her in, and the bird dropped its egg the second she reached the basket. Upon inspection, we noticed that the egg had a ring around it—a pressure ridge—from being held in place while she waited.

Poor Henny.

Dogs, A Woman’s Best Friend

But through all this time, the most notable, steadfast and loyal pets were our dogs. For 25 years we had collies. We got our first, “Candy,” just before our oldest child was born. She was the dog that our kids grew up with. She, and the later ones, belonged to everyone in theory. But as soon as they needed fed, or the yard cleaned up, well, then the dogs were like the secret agents on Mission Impossible—everyone disavowed knowledge of their existence.

Everyone… except Karin. She loved those critters enough to make sure they were cared for. Yes, we did work with the kids on responsible-pet-ownership. But it was a losing battle. During our kid’s teen years, I’m not sure I’d trust them with a Pet Rock.

So one-by-one the pooches all became “Mom’s dogs.” Not only did she tend to them, she took them through obedience school, some multiple times. Often, they minded far better than the kids.

The Almost-Empty Nest

As the kids moved out, the animal population fell off. The fish are gone, the hamsters and rats are departed, ditto the birds. There’s a few cats hanging on, but even so, I assumed that the day would come when I’d outlive the last of the cats, and we’d live in an animal-free zone. I hoped we could re-discover what color our carpeting really is once you strip away the fossilized layers of fur.

I’m pretty sure it’s not tan-and-white.

But then fate intervened. Three years ago, we were in the mountains, sightseeing, when we came upon the Siskiyou’s County Animal Shelter.

“Let’s go in.” Karin turned on her biggest smile, “just for fun.”

I laughed. “Sure,” I said. “But we’re NOT going home with anything.” I felt a false sense of confidence. After all, we still had a dog, Gracie.

“Of course not,” Karin agreed.

We toured the facility, a tidy but noisy place.

“Isn’t it sad,” Karin shook her head. “What will happen if they don’t get homes?”

Karin lingered before one cage. It held what can only be described as full-grown love-child of a polar bear and a horse. It ambled over to us, laid its head against the cage, and began licking Karin’s fingers. A shelter worker sidled up to us while Karin and I looked.

“Her name’s Lucy,” the worker said.

“What’s wrong with her neck?” Karin pointed to a drainage tube protruding from a bulge.

“She was a mess when we got her. Looked like she’d been in a fight. We also found a dead puppy stuck in her birth canal.”

Karin looked shocked.

“Yeah,” the worker continued. “Lucy would have been a goner if the vet hadn’t worked on her.”

Karin continued to pet Lucy, and I retreated over into cat-land, hoping she’d follow me.

But she didn’t.

True to her word, though, Karin left Lucy, and we drove home. This could be the end of this story, except that, about a week later, a snowstorm just happened to descended upon Shasta. One of our daughters, Rebecca, just happened to need a ride through the bad weather to a wedding in Mt. Shasta, so we just happened to bring Karin’s little Subaru wagon back to Siskiyou county. And, with to kill time, we just happened to drive by the shelter.

“I wonder if Lucy’s still there,” Karin said.

“Lucy who?”

Karin looked at me with that you’re-not-fooling-anybody look.

“Just for fun?” I asked.

Karin bit her lip, and reached over for my hand.

So we pulled into the lot, and walked to the shelter. There, sitting in the lobby, without a tube or a bugling neck, sat Lucy. She was nuzzling another dog. The shelter worker recognized us.

“You’re back.”

“And look who’s still here,” Karin said, ruffling Lucy’s thick fur, “out of her cage, too.”

“She’s our temperament tester,” the worker said. “She gets along with everyone.”

“I’ll bet Gracie would love to have a companion,” Karin said, looking at me. “Now that the kids are gone, I think she’s lonely.”

I crossed my arms.

“It’s a bad idea,” I said.

Karin looked away.

“One of these days you’re going to want to travel,” I said.

“We can get a house-sitter,” she said quietly.

I groaned, and then watched as Lucy leaned against Karin, who bent down to rub the dog’s nose. Lucy planted a big dog-kiss on her cheek. Lucy then tilted her head, fixing her big, brown doe-like eyes on me.

“Have you ever seen a dog like this before?” Karin asked.

“You sure it’s a dog?”

The shelter worker, smelling a potential placement, jumped in.

“She’s part Great Pyrenees, and part Anatolian Shepherd,” the worker said.

Karin stood, quietly rubbing the dog for a long, long time. She finally spoke.

“It’s crazy, but I love Lucy.”

I sighed. “I know.”

“But we don’t have to,” Karin said.

“I know.” I said.

“But I think you’ll love her, too.” Karin said.

“I know.” I said, walked over and patted the dog. “She’s everything I never knew I always wanted.”

“You’re a softie,” Karin said. So I wrote a check for $82 to the shelter—a dollar a pound—and the three of us left together.

We returned to pick up our daughter, having bopped around for several hours.

“What have you two been up to?” Rebecca asked.

Karin beamed. “Look in the back of the car.”

The windows were steamed up, but she could see a large animal moving about.

“What’s THAT?” Rebecca asked.

“That’s Lucy,” I said. “We’re moving her into your bedroom.”

Of course Lucy didn’t get her own bedroom—yet. But she’s been a part of the family now for years, and has brought us all a lot of joy.

Messy? Yes. She sheds, and her fur could carpet an entire ski-slope.

Bothersome? Only when she’s digging swimming-pool sized holes in the back yard or eating wooden mini-blinds.

Would we have her if I’d “put my foot down?” Probably not.

But there’s one thing I have learned from living with an avid animal lover, a woman who can forgive pets and people just about anything this side of violent behavior, is that love is all that the “good book” says. It’s patient, kind, and keeps no accounts. And Hollywood’s Matthew Perry got it right, too, the best parts are often those that you didn’t see coming.

Just don’t be surprised if they arrived covered with fur.

Robb has enjoyed writing and performing since he was a child, and many of his earliest performances earned him a special recognition-reserved seating in the principal’s office at Highland Elementary. Since then, in addition to his weekly column on A News Cafe – “Or So it Seems™” – Robb has written news and features for The Bakersfield Californian, appeared on stage as an opening stand-up act in Reno, and his writing has been published in the Funny Times. His short stories have won honorable mention national competition. His screenplay, “One Little Indian,” Was a top-ten finalist in the Writer’s Digest competition. He has two humor books in print, The Doggone Christmas List and The Stupid Minivan. Robb presently lives, writes and teaches in Shasta County, Northern California.

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Robb Lightfoot is a humorist, author and educator. He and his wife raised a family of four kids, a dozen or more dogs and a zillion cats. He has enjoyed writing and performing since he was a child, and many of his earliest performances earned him a special recognition-reserved seating in the principal’s office at Highland Elementary. Since then, in addition to teaching at Shasta Community College, and his former column on A News Cafe - "Or So it Seems™" - Robb has written news and features for The Bakersfield Californian, appeared on stage as an opening stand-up act in Reno, and his writing has been published in the "Funny Times". His short stories have won honorable mention in national competitions. His screenplay, “One Little Indian,” Was a top-10 finalist in the Writer’s Digest competition. Robb presently lives and writes in Chico where he manages ThinkingFunny.com. He also hates referring to himself in the third person, and will stop doing so immediately. I can be reached in the following ways: Robb@thinkingfunny.com PO Box 5286 Chico, CA 95928 @_thinking_funny on Twitter
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13 Responses

  1. Avatar Fay says:

    Thank-you for a lovely story. It made my morning. Also brought tears.

    Congratulations on your 31 years together!

  2. Avatar Ginny says:

    Wonderful story. Thank you!

    If one can love an animal, then they are a good human being! You are!

  3. I bought Karin a Roomba a few years ago for Mother's Day. Of course I maintain it. We get enough fur out of that thing to spin a skein of yarn from here to the formerly-known-as-a-planet Pluto.

    But I can always see how good I'm doing by whether Karin talks to me or the dogs first in the morning. I can tell you that the dogs are SELDOM in the dog house.

  4. Avatar Sheila Barnes says:

    I laughed and cried while reading this! Thanks for a wonderful story!

  5. Avatar `AJacoby says:

    Whether I find a bit of myself in your writings or not; whether I agree with you politically /religiously or not; whether I understand your point of view or not; whether a particular piece makes me laugh/cry or not . . . doesn't matter. One thing is for sure: I never, but NEVER scan your pieces,. I read every word to the very end. that means something in my pamphl . . uh . . . book!

    • Avatar Rebecca Lightfoot says:

      Wow. Thanks. This one was long…. Yet there were OTHER moments that I cut from it. There's the era-of-the-birds, and chickens-that-met-unfortunate-ends… and on and on. We had a sad story of moving to a new neighborhood and a dog went missing. We looked all over, and then realized the coyotes or a cougar probably got it. 🙁

  6. Avatar Ken Fitzgerald says:

    Congratulations on 31 years! This is a wonderful story of your love for eachother.

  7. Avatar Rebecca Lightfoot says:

    You know this piece cracked me up, but I still wanted to reiterate it. Thanks for putting up with all of us and our plethora of pets. They'll continue to be in my memory, and present, since I won't be pet-less so long as I can help it. Also, I like how my scrapbook designs were included in these pics. Wonderful story Dad (as always). =)

  8. Avatar Erin Stuart says:

    Lovely story, made me cry (again) over every dog and cat I've ever loved and lost. Thank you.

  9. Avatar Lynne says:

    Congratulations! Thank you for your sweet story!

  10. Joanne Snyder Joanne Snyder says:

    You're the best! Living with and loving this amazing woman and accepting who she is and then writing such a beautiful piece about her love of animals. It's astonishing to me that there are other mammals on earth who really like to live with us and be part of our families. Wonderful article.

  11. Avatar Amanda says:

    Oh wow, the pictures!