Animals Are Terrifying

People who love them just do not understand.

Just look at those teeth.

Photo by IMNATURE/iStock

From the moment my husband got offered his dream job, one that would require us to move from Brooklyn to a mountaintop in upstate New York, I did not want to go. I told him our kids would miss their friends. I told him I did not want to be lonely. I told him all kinds of things, but I did not tell him the real reason: I am terrified of animals.

I believe there exists a silent minority of people who, like me, do not rejoice at headlines like “Gray Wolf Reintroduced to Yellowstone” and who walk briskly past dog runs in the park, who understand animals can be unpredictable, lethal, and ill-mannered. We are a secret, embarrassed group in this era of sweater-wearing dogs and viral kitty videos; not liking animals is practically a moral failing.

When I finally admitted my fears to my husband, he dismissed them as silly, the way animal lovers do. People who enjoy animals have no understanding for those of us who fear them.

Not wanting to let my fears stand in the way, we made the move, and my husband cheerily convinced me that it would not be as bad as I feared. In truth, it is worse. On the first day in our musty old farmhouse while my husband was at work, I walked around in rubber gloves crying and picking up dead mice. Within a week, my husband chased a snake out of our house. Within a month I was hidden under a comforter screaming while a bat flapped around my bedroom. Within a year I had run for my life from a rabid fox.

When the bear showed up, my husband sensed an opportunity. Preying upon my fears, he suggested it would be a good to time to adopt a dog. Cleverly, he asked me in front of my two young sons. Outflanked, I gave in. That’s when a macabre history came flooding back into my mind. When I was growing up, this is how my family’s pets died:

Rocky the Airedale: run over by a garbage truck on a January morning. My sister, then 9, discovered his frozen corpse and my father insisted from his office telephone that she pick him up and carry his body to the garage.

Jezebel the black-and-white stray cat: climbed into the warm engine of our carpenter’s pickup truck and was shredded when he started the engine.

Luther the pit bull: attacked our painter’s son by grabbing his windpipe between his jaws. Painter’s son had stitches and survived. Luther did not. He was taken away by animal services, never to be seen or talked about again.

Lady the beagle: two broken legs, hit by a car, euthanized when my father refused to pay $300 for its surgery but instead chose the “$40 option.” Side note: The veterinarian asked my father never to return. “$40 option” became code in our family.

Two pet rabbits, names lost to history: eaten alive in their cages by a ferocious predator, most likely a fox or coyote. A horrific scene discovered the next day involving fur and wire.

Audit the horse: given away after breaking my brother’s arm by kicking him off the fence.

Chekhov the blue-eyed, brown-eyed Siberian husky: hanged himself when he leaped over a fence with a rubber hoppity hop tied to his neck to keep him from running away.

Gorilla and Ginky the two toy poodles: given away? Fate unclear.

A visiting Russian wolfhound: My only memory of its visit is being trapped on the top of a sofa until my father woke and rescued me.            

Other dogs and cats came and went so quickly none of us can quite remember whether they died or were given away.

Once I said yes to the dog, I began to say strange and inappropriate things to the kids, like: “Dogs don’t live very long you know.” My husband finally gave me a what’s up with you look and said: “Why don’t we let them meet the animal before we prepare them for its death, OK?”

I nodded but know death is around the corner.

We spent hours looking over the dogs on a rescue website, and I kept returning to one: Jazzy Doo, a terrier and Lab mix. Something about her face told me we could be friends, or perhaps just frenemies. My husband and the kids picked up the dog the following weekend when I was out of town. They called me from the car very excited. “What does she look like?” I wanted to know. “Like her picture?”

“Yes, even cuter,” my husband said.

And even though I have a long list of reasons not to grow attached to this dog, including her name, which the kids do not let me change, I do. It is unavoidable. She is playful and obedient and protective. She instantly loves us in the way you imagine a rescue dog will. When my husband begins working very long hours, the kids and I feel safer and happier with Jazzy around. My best instincts tell me not to love Jazzy Doo, but she, in the fashion of the oft-rejected, works very hard for her love. It is her due.

Months later Maria, an old friend, one who shares my deep fear of animals, calls me. Her fears began when we were in kindergarten together. Maria tried to hypnotize the classroom cat, Mrs. Cat. Mrs. Cat reacted in anger to the amateur hypnosis by attacking the tool of the hypnosis, Maria’s finger.

Over the subsequent 35 years, many have pointed out to her that when you move an object back and forth in front of a cat, it most likely will swat the object with its paw, thinking it’s a game. Maria never accepted this explanation, preferring to believe that cats and by extension all animals were unpredictable, slyly malevolent, and deeply hostile to hypnosis.

Maria is an urban person to her core. She is a therapist and a lover of theater and the opera, of fashion and food. She has found my move to the country fascinating and highly improbable. She is surprised by my happiness here. When she calls, I am eager to tell her about Jazzy Doo, forgetting briefly our shared fear of animals.

“You got a dog?” she asks incredulously.

“Yes,” I say defensively. “She is very sweet and playful and protective of the children. She is half Lab/half terrier.” And to appease her I throw in: “And I have told the kids not to hypnotize her.”

“But didn’t you read the article on face transplants?” she asks.

“I haven’t,” I answered.

“Well, I would think twice now about owning a Lab if I were you.”

“But Maria, Labs are the friendliest dogs on the planet,” I counter.

“Just read it.”

I forget about our conversation until days later. When the kids are in bed, I search the magazine she mentioned for articles on face transplants.

As I read it, at first it is not clear to me what in the world an article on face transplants has to do with Jazzy Doo. Then the article describes the circumstances surrounding the world’s first face transplant. A French woman passed out for several days after taking a handful of pills. When she woke from this state, her first gesture was to reach for a cigarette, but she found her mouth unable to hold the cigarette in place because her lips were gone. She rushed to the mirror to discover that her dog had eaten off her face while she slept. She became the first person in the world to have a successful face transplant. The fate of the dog is left unanswered.

I laugh and fall asleep.

In the middle of the night I wake. From the bathroom light, I can see Jazzy Doo lying on the ground next to me. One eye open, eyeing me back. She looks slightly sinister. “Don’t even think about eating my face off,” I whisper.

My husband turns over and asks me what I am doing.

“Nothing,” I say. “Just saying goodnight to the dog.”