My dad was a horse dentist, so it checks out that we had an eclectic mix of animals around the house growing up. (If you’re going, “What is a horse dentist?” then I’m going, “A dentist for horses. He files down their teeth and sometimes uses pliers to pull out rotten ones, and occasionally the horses bite your dad’s earlobe almost all the way off, and you come home from school and he’s sitting at the kitchen table surrounded by wads of bloody paper towels while he waits to go get it sewed back on.”)
Some of the animals were fleeting visitors, and cannot be classified as pets. These usually took the form of box turtles which we’d find slowly crossing the road.
Other times, they hung around a bit longer. For example, there was GP, our pet falcon. (Because of course we had a pet falcon.) My dad somehow got big into birding, and he’d go up to Bears Den primarily to do bird watching with other binocular-wielding enthusiasts, but sometimes he’d come home with an actual bird. I’m still not really sure about the process of getting started in falconry, but if I’m remembering correctly, you basically have to steal birds and Stockholm syndrome them into helping you hunt. (Which is admittedly v. fucked up.) Anyway, GP lived in the shed behind our house for a while, but he eventually flew away for good. (Good for him! Unless he died, in which case that’s a bummer.)
Yours truly and Mr. GP
Then came the lizards. I was five or six when my dad secretively brought home two leopard geckos and stashed them in our playroom downstairs. (The perks of having an alcoholic impulse shopper as the patriarch of your household. Quinn, my sister, named hers Holiday after the Madonna song. I named mine Jason after the Power Ranger.) He told us not to tell our mom about the purchase, so obviously I told all our neighbors instead. There was one night at dinner when I needed to use ye olde water closet, and going downstairs alone to use it was scary AF, so I asked for an escort. My mom volunteered, and both my dad and my sister looked at me incredulously, because apparently no one had closed the door to the playroom, and the jig was about to be up as it was located directly across from the bathroom. It was too late, and Maureen saw the glowing terrarium. (Oh fuck.)
Yours truly and the geckos
She was mad, but not any madder than she had been at any of the other pets he’d brought home without permission, like our dog Freckles, for instance – a German Münsterländer Pointer who showed up on our doorstep without warning when I was two. And after the initial reptile fury wore off, Michael got bolder, and started coming home with bearded dragons and blue tongued skinks. We had to feed them live crickets and meal worms; even though there were other reasons my parents got divorced when I was nine, I would have completely understood if Maureen had called it off for the creepy-crawlies alone. When they eventually did split up, he started keeping snakes. (Genuinely baffling to me, but to each his bizarre own.)
I always knew my dad liked animals, but there’s a difference between someone who likes animals and someone who actively seeks out weird pets. I don’t know if being able to care for something small somehow makes it easier to swallow the fact that your life is unraveling around you, or whether it was genuinely just impulse interests and purchases that brought all these creatures into our home. Either way, I have not been inclined to keep so much as a ficus (let alone an animal of even the smallest proportions) in my adult life. (Living with Doctor Dolittle was more than enough.)