Nature of the Beast

Thursday, December 6, 2012

A pet without a pedigree

Recently I read an article in which the author described the relationship she had with an unusual, and at first glance, undesirable, pet -- a baby rat. Apparently a baby rat is cute in ways that an adult rat is not.

I could understand, because the article brought back vivid memories of my own unlikely pet experience -- that of Willie, the squirrel my brother Earl and I raised from a baby. Willie, the squirrel, lived among us for over two years.

We were a ranching family, raising cattle and sheep, and growing grain crops like rice and barley. We had several dirt roads criss-crossing our acreage. One day our father accidentally ran over a ground squirrel. These squirrels were quite prevalent on the property, and were looked upon as vermin...certainly not as pets.

In this case, however, the teensy-weensy infant squirrel darted frantically back and forth over his mother's body, making a sound close to that of a kitten mewing in confusion and desperation. Dad, perhaps experiencing a rare state of guilt, decided he would bring the little guy home, allowing my brother and I to at least give him a soft bed upon which to die.

Earl and I jumped into action, employing a doll bottle and warm cow's milk in an effort to provide nourishment. We took shifts, feeding the tiny rodent every three hours, even during the night. We used an old Velveeta Cheese box lined with a soft fabric for a bed, and covered his naked little body with an old washcloth.

His eyes were not yet open, and he was about the length of mom's index finger. It was impossible for us to know how old he was. No one expected him to live through the night, but live he did -- that first night, and the next, and the next.

Once we were sure he would make it, we named him Willie, and he became yet another pet within our menagerie.

Every pet generates many warm memories. Willie loved two foods especially -- nuts (no surprise there) and Fritos. Given either of those items, he would stand up on his back legs and nibble for what seemed like hours.

Dad would come home at night from working in the fields and poke an almond down into his breast pocket or a big Frito under his leg. Willie would go crazy in his effort to retrieve the foodstuff.

We spent hours enjoying entertainment provided by the little rodent. He had his own room -- a storage area that was never finished when we built our house, with an old couch. He tore the underlining off and pulled the stuffing out. He slept in that space and hid his stash of tidbits to tide him over for the winter, as well.

Willie never went into hibernation, however, and it was heartbreaking to see him literally starve himself during the fall to in order to "squirrel away" food for the harsh cold days that never came. Willie loved the warmth of the fire and spread himself over the hearth like a tiny squirrel rug, body flattened out, legs splayed, and head flopped toward one side.

Ahh, he lived the life of Riley, but the one thing he did not have was his freedom, and for a wild animal, the outside world calls unceasingly.

One day, Willie was able to get out the front door when it was inadvertently left ajar. This one mindless act offered Willie his first window of opportunity, his one chance at freedom, and he took it.

All opportunities come with a risk of danger, and in this instance, Willie was met head-on with another of our pets -- Jack, the dog. To Jack, Willie was like any other rodent -- a varmint to be exterminated -- and Jack did his job unflinchingly. Willie was no more.

Willie taught me that the love we feel for a pet is not generated by the pet itself, but comes from the heart within. The type of pet matters not, the love generated is the same. Willie was just as good a pet in that regard as any gorgeous cat or dog with the finest of pedigrees.

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Darlene Simmons is a transplant from California, landing in Eureka Springs in 2008. She comes to journalism after a long career as a R.N., public health nurse, and nursing professor. She holds a Master's Degree in Nursing and has been published twice in professional journals.

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