Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Living The Big Sky Life: Dr. Doolittle Raised A Duck Hunter

As I’ve mentioned before, Chef and I grew up together in The OC surf city community of Huntington Beach, California. We have, in fact, known each other since we were about six years old; and as far back as I can remember, Chef’s dad was the local veterinarian who treated my family’s pets whenever they needed treatment, which wasn’t very often.

What I didn’t know growing up was that, although his father’s day job was that of animal doctor, Chef’s father wasn’t interested in bringing his work home by having a house full of family pets. Because Chef was never permitted to have a pet of his own, his minimal hands-on exposure to domesticated household pets was limited to a big tom cat that was never even allowed inside the house. Consequently, the bulk of Chef’s beliefs about animal caretaking were compiled, not from experience, but from years of subjective and desensitizing vet-isms occasionally uttered by his emotionally detached father at the dinner table.

It wasn’t until we arrived in big sky country with my daughter’s cat, Newt, that I discovered just how inflexible and unrealistic Chef’s compilation of animal doctrines could be.

Newt had a twin brother, Ziggy, who didn’t survive the coyotes of south Orange County. Where I come from, anyone who has a cat has no business leaving it outside after dark when the coyotes emerge from the hills looking for dinner and a midnight snack. And bringing them inside before nighttime is still no guarantee of their safety because poor Ziggy got snagged in the middle of the afternoon.

My youngest daughter was about six years old when she named and claimed the 8-week old Newt as hers. He was devoted and docile, and he was without question her favorite doll. She was known to regularly wrap him up in a tight receiving blanket like a new born baby and place him in her doll’s cradle to rock while she sang and talked to him for hours. More than once did I walk into her room only to see his round green eyes widen and look up at me pleadingly from that cradle, yet he never made a move to hurt her. Never a hiss, never a scratch.

But when Newt arrived in Whitefish, Montana with us in May of 1992, he too became traumatically subjected to a new way of life, and that included non-negotiable principle #1 of Chef's animal doctrine which firmly declared that cats are nocturnal animals who belong outside at night so they can hunt and wallow in all of their nocturnal-ness.

Talk about kitty culture shock. This new lifestyle was completely contrary to every reality Newt had known since infancy, and while he managed to get through those initial warm summer nights with little trouble, all of that changed at Halloween when the first snow fell and the temperatures dropped to freezing. Newt stubbornly tested Chef’s rigid animal ideals all winter long. And not to be outdone by a cat, Chef remained callously committed to dismissing Newt’s pitiful manipulations, as if the cat had nothing better to do than fake his uncontrollable shivering. There wasn’t a lot we could do as Chef repeatedly rejected Newt’s loud front porch cat-pleas to exchange the icy outdoors for the sanctuary of a house heated by a wood stove. The best option we had at the time was to sneak Newt into the house when Chef was at work in the evening, but overall, it just wasn’t a frontline battle priority when we were all struggling to acclimate to a new situation.

Unfortunately for Newt, he wasn’t the only one suffering from culture shock, and in the name of new home peace promotion, I felt I had to be selective about the battles I picked. My hair crusade undoubtedly led the battle charge, but that first year of being squeezed into the Unabomber bungalow saw us all making challenging compromises and personal sacrifices.

Being left out in the cold that first winter eventually triggered some dormant, yet instinctive, survival mechanism inside of Newt’s brain, and I watched him go from domestic docile housecat to wide-eyed wildcat intent upon survival in the wilderness. It only got worse when we left downtown Whitefish and moved into the home on the range where there were no limits to his domain, or to the always present life-threatening risks posed by roaming wild creatures.
Anyone with open acreage and horses knows that flies and mosquitoes are a fact of life, hence the ceiling fan. Nothing keeps flying insects at bay inside of the house better than the turbulence caused by a ceiling fan. And anyone with open acreage and horses also knows that mice are a fact of life as well, hence the cat. Having a couple of good mouse-cats in the yard is essential for keeping the rodents at bay and out of the house.

We may not have had horses like our neighbors, but our fields were filled with voles (aka field mice), and thankfully no rats. Ten acres was a lot of territory for one cat to do vole patrol on so it wasn’t long before Newt got a baby black buddy named Inky. Chef built an insulated protective cubby inside the garage for the cats to use at night, but Newt refused to occupy it. He preferred to alternate between the neighboring hay barn belonging to Steve and Sue Ellen and the attic in Paige Ochenrider’s garage. Inky, on the other hand, knew no different and grew accustomed to staying out at night in his cubby without complaint. Although he was known to have a motor mouth most of the time, Inky usually spoke with the purring voice of a contented cat. And the louder he purred, the more he drooled.
Newt and Inky weren’t the only sentinels roaming our property however. They shared the range with Chef’s yellow Lab, Bucky. Bucky was a gift given to Chef by Jack and Deanna Frazier, his employers and the owners of Jack’s Diamondback Restaurant and Casino, several months before we moved out of the Unabomber bungalow. Jack and Deanna had gone down to a Labrador breeding farm in Creston (near Big Fork) to select the 8-week old pup for Chef, and frankly, they couldn’t have bestowed it upon a more grateful recipient. Chef may have grown up with a veterinarian for a father, but for the first time in his life, he found himself responsible for raising and caring for his very own dog.  

And like any new parent, Chef wanted to do everything right. The critical voice of his father’s vet-isms interrupted the natural course of my life with pets once again. This time it took the form of principle #2 of the animal doctrine which firmly declared that bad dogs are almost always created by bad owners.      

Bucky had as much pressure put on him to be the perfect dog as Chef placed upon himself to be the perfect owner, and those perfect standards were clearly set by Dr. Dad. My father-in-law wasted no time in warning Chef that Labradors have a tendency toward hip problems, and the best way to minimize this problem was to never let your Lab become overweight. So Bucky’s diet was strictly regulated from the beginning to always keep him lean and fit. No snacks, no treats, except when Chef was training him to retrieve dead ducks from our pond on his quest to create the perfect hunting dog. I’m happy to report that Bucky did not disappoint his master when duck season arrived.   

By this time, it should’ve come as no surprise to me that Chef didn’t believe it was right for a dog to have roaming privileges inside of the house. OK, whatever. I’m all for well-behaved, house-trained pets, but I’ve never needed to restrict their mobility within the house in order to achieve that. Good thing Bucky was basically an outdoor dog anyway. What Labrador with his own pond and plenty of room to run wouldn’t be? He had a secured pen with a dog house to sleep in at night, but when he was allowed inside the house, Chef confined him to an ugly green carpet remnant placed strategically on the floor between the dining room and the living room so that Bucky could see everything going on around him.

Obviously the cats were harder to restrict once they were inside the house, but Chef made sure that we all knew there were no exceptions to principle #3 of his animal doctrine which declared that no cat should ever be allowed on top of the bed he slept in because to discover a cat licking itself on his pillow would be the lick of death. Our cats weren’t stupid. If they were going to lick themselves, they made sure to do it in my daughter’s room when Chef wasn’t looking. And the only evidence he ever had of their grooming habits took the form of regurgitated hairballs left violently at his feet.
Living The Big Sky LifeTM
© by DK King

1 comment:

  1. I can see why Chef was eventually put in the dog house himself! xx


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