I have always been a soft touch when it comes to animals. It has gotten me in trouble and on occasion broken my heart.
My heart is broken today but it has also been reawakened.
On the 4th of July, years and years ago, my first wife and I were driving past Towson University when I saw a baby raccoon alone near the entrance. Without hesitation, I pulled the car over and went to the little fella. He had been abandoned and was sick and starving. He was curled up and about the size of my hand. He was probably only a week old and was all alone, so of course I scooped him up, named him Thomas Jefferson, and took him home. I got instructions from a vet and fed him with a dropper.
I became so attached over that first week that I set my alarm to ensure his steady feedings, and when he died very late one night I, without a second thought, gave him artificial respiration.
My wife was justifiably horrified and insisted I get rabies shots, which I did. Thereafter the joke in the neighborhood was “if you see a rabid animal, call Bob because he can bite back.”
My animal advocacy and militant, often imprudent, protection of animals was acquired early. When I was about nine or ten, I lived next to a high school which held a “Sportsman’s Show” to raise money for the school.
Somebody had blown up a wading pool and put 100 trout in it so that the “sportsmen“ could use barbed treble hooks to snag the trout, which were then promptly cleaned and taken home to be fried.
I was horrified by the cruelty and the thought that everyone of these trout was doomed.
I went back home to my the piggy bank. I returned with money and a net to buy three trout with my savings, but I did not want them killed.
I had a plan.
I filled up the bathtub in the third floor of our house, placed the trout in it and refused to take a bath until my parents drove my fish to be released in New Hampshire. After a week and a half of no baths, my parents became persuaded.
It got worse.
Back then, if you went to the circus, you could buy chameleons which had little strings around their necks and a safety pin to clip them to your shirt. They didn’t stand a chance.
I again emptied my piggy bank to buy as many chameleons as I could, and then housed them in an old aquarium. I built a landscaped jungle with little waterfalls and a window screen top for air circulation. That summer, I traveled with a tiny little fish net, so I could catch live flies for food. I concluded that the pet store food was not good enough for them. It was less organic than my free-range flys.
It got worse.
I cared for a small alligator that was shipped to me from Florida back when that was legal, and it lived in my bathtub until I, again, convinced my parents that life would be better for it at the zoo.
It got worse.
There were birds with broken wings, which I fed all of the bay scallops that were scheduled for dinner. There were these two kittens that I acquired while hitchhiking, when somebody had fed them both LSD so they were wet with sweat from fighting hallucinations. I named them Fruehauf and Brockway, the names of trucking companies.
One summer, we rented a house on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, and my job was to care for a pregnant cat that lived in a woodpile in the barn. Of course I was there when the nine kittens were born. I spent the rest of the summer forever getting them back to their mother in the woodpile.
Over time, my parents gave in and we adopted a black stray female mixed-breed who, of course, jumped the fence and had three puppies in the garage.
When I met my second wife 11 years ago, she had a one-year-old puppy named Winston, which made me love her even more. Several months ago, Winston developed tumors and problems with his lungs and hindered legs. Last week, we were told by our vet that Winston had only two or three months left.
My wife and I were scheduled to visit her family in Florida last weekend, but the vet told us that even though Winston could last for a few more months, it would be too stressful to board him at her kennel, given the noise and his condition. I volunteered to stay home with Winston so my wife could be with her family. Unexpectedly, Winston went into decline, and we decided the only humane thing to do was to put him down as soon as possible.
I was up several times throughout Sunday night to give Winston painkillers. The doctor came at 10:00 in the morning yesterday, sedated Winston, and then administered the shot. After we waited, she gently took out her stethoscope and softly pronounced him dead.
Winston knew my wife longer than I have, and they loved each other dearly. When she decided to put him down, even though she couldn’t be there, I recognized it was a sacrifice for her. There were tears, but she said she cared more for the quality of his life than for the pain she would feel not getting to see him one last time.
It is one thing to love animals, but it is another when you see the humanity of someone who sacrifices their feelings for those they love.