I Should Have Known I Was an Animal Lover When …

Currently, I am a professional pet sitter and dog walker, a bit of a change from former work I’ve done. I watch mostly dogs and cats, but, very recently, cared for a cockatiel, pet fish and even tadpoles. I’ve also given some care to backyard chickens.

I began reflecting on my former experiences with animals, and I realize I have quite a collection of interesting stories of my childhood pets, encounters with wild animals and more. Earlier, if you had asked me to describe myself, I would have told you that I was a writer, a dreamer or a creative person. All of these are true. I don’t know that I would have included “animal lover” in my description.

After all, I was an English major, not a veterinary science major. There was quite a gap in my life in which I wasn’t under the right circumstances to have a pet. I haven’t consistently been involved with animals in a major way, but there are little snapshots from my life that now indicate to me that I have always been an animal lover or had the potential to be so.

I should have known I was an animal lover when …

1) My Family Rescued a Stray Dog and Gave Her a Forever Home.

My dog, Trixie, with my cat, Frisky.

Lots of people have adopted rescue dogs and that is very honorable, but the story of my childhood dog is more unusual. She found us, more specifically, she found my three older brothers and my cousin while they were hiking at a reservation in New Jersey. She was an abandoned puppy, a mutt of some sort — the vet thought she was part fox terrier and part cocker spaniel — and was consisting off a diet of wormy acorns. She just began hanging around my brothers and cousin, and when Mom came to pick them up, she couldn’t resist her. We took her home, named her Trixie, took her to the vet, got her registered and dewormed, and she was ours. She was an energetic, bouncy, squirrel-chasing dog even to the end of her life.

Around the same time that Trixie found us, we took in a gray tabby cat named Frisky from a friend of ours. Unfortunately, we didn’t have Frisky long before he was hit by a car and died. Trixie and Frisky were friends though and voluntarily slept in the same bed and would eat from each other’s bowls.

You will notice in the list below that I’ve illustrated everything with stock photos. This is because, for most of my life, neither my family nor I were prolific photographers. Before I go on with my animal stories, I thought I would share a couple of photos from my youth where I am enjoying animals.

Nine-year-old me with my Aunt Linda’s dog Laddie
College-age me with my Aunt Lorri’s cat

2) I Had a Caterpillar, Frog, Toad and Even a Clam as Temporary Childhood Pets While on Vacation in the Adirondacks.

Photo by Byron Burns on Unsplash

My family took several woods and lake vacations when I was growing up. On one of these trips, when I was about nine years old, vacationing at Schroon Lake in the Adirondacks, I collected some unusual pets during the time I was there: a green caterpillar called Dumb Dumb, a toad named Teddy, a frog named Freddy and even a clam I called Herbie.

Dumb Dumb received his insulting moniker, because I was frustrated when he would not crawl on the stick I so handily offered him. I was discovering nature all around me, and I wanted to capture him.

It was my dad who discovered Teddy, the toad. He rowed my mom and me across the lake, and we found Teddy on the opposite shore. Dad scooped him up and put him into the rowboat. Back at the cabin, Dad created a little habitat for Teddy, pulling up moss and other natural materials to line a cardboard box we kept out in the screened in porch. This is one of the best childhood memories I have of doing something with my dad.

Later, Teddy gained a roommate, Freddy, the frog. The amphibian apartment didn’t seem to suit Freddy as well as it did Teddy. He seemed to need more water than the tuna fish can swimming pool we had. He also had longer legs than Teddy and was a good jumper, so he often made his escape.

Herbie, the clam, whom I kept in a Kool-Aid can filled with water, turned out to be a pretty boring pet. He did absolutely nothing. You are probably wondering 1) why I wanted such a strange pet as a clam and 2) if there were clams to be found at the lake, why didn’t we just eat this one? We had already been told that this variety of clams was not good for eating. To explain what was going on in my nine-year-old brain, I was hoping that Herbie would not be so boring and would do something like open his shell once in a while. That did not happen.

All the animals were released at the end of our trip, except for Dumb Dumb whom my friend and I buried by the swing sets. I remember seeing Teddy and Freddy hop off in opposite directions. It looked like they were not going to live out “Frog and Toad are Friends.” Sigh.

2.) I Rescued Three Gerbils from My Dog.

Photo by Silje Rosenberg on Unsplash

I never had any pet rodents, although my older brothers tell me funny stories about some pet mice they had before I joined the family. One of these is so funny that I will add it as a little story extra. I did get to take home my class pet gerbils for one weekend when I was in the fourth grade. I had my dog, Trixie, then, but I was not at all worried that this would not be a good mix. The gerbils would be in their cage, right?

Trixie was so excited to see me carry those gerbils through the back door into our kitchen. She bounced up and down like she was made out of springs, bumping her head into the bottom side of the cage in my arms. That bump triggered a whole domino effect of crazy events. The cage door popped open. Three little gerbils made their escape and ran for their very lives towards my bedroom. I did not know what Trixie would do if she caught a gerbil, but I also didn’t want to find out. I raced Trixie, who seemed part greyhound at times, towards the bedroom and managed to catch all three by their tails before she did.

3.) I Picked Up a Cool Orange Salamander in the Poconos.

Photo by Tyler Donaghy on Unsplash

There isn’t any outstanding story connected with the orange salamander. At 14, I didn’t collect him as a pet, even a temporary one. It was just a moment of awe, where I plucked him off the tree where he was clinging, held him in my hand, admired his pretty color and put him back on his tree.

4.) I Found a Living Purple Starfish at the New Jersey Shore.

Photo by Mathis Jrdl

Similar to my salamander moment, I was amazed when, as a teenager, I found a small, living, purple starfish at a New Jersey beach. I had found dried starfish at souvenir stores before but never a living specimen right there at the beach. I was with a youth group. Another friend and I named him Sammy. We knew we had to throw him back into the ocean, but we were reluctant to do so immediately. We kept him by us in a bottle cap full of water for a little bit. He spilled out of the bottle cap somewhat, but it was a wider cap than some and was enough to keep him going so we could appreciate him a little longer before returning him to his ocean home.

5.) I Brought a Baby Turtle to a Chapel Service.

Photo by David Leveque on Unsplash

As a college student, I made a surprise discovery one time walking across campus. I stepped over what looked at first to be a dried leaf. Doing a double take, I realized it was a tiny baby turtle. I was on my way to a Christian ministry meeting, but I couldn’t ignore this little guy. I also remembered an interesting fact. Pet turtles were one of the few pets that, according to the student manual, were allowed in the dorms. So, I picked up the turtle and took him to my meeting where he was awed over by all the other students there.

Right after the meeting, we had an evening chapel service, since we were in the middle of a Bible conference. Attendance at chapel was required, and there were students there at the chapel entrances to check your name off the list, keeping track of attendance. Now, I had a dilemma. I knew I didn’t have time to go back to the dorm before evening chapel, and I had this cool little turtle I wanted to keep. So, I brought the turtle to chapel. I had to let him go while we stood up for the singing portion of the service, and I kept a close eye on him as he slowly meandered across the pew.

I named him Fred and got advice from a professor friend in the science department – I was a nanny to his children – on how to care for him. Unfortunately, Fred was not with me long, and I suspect I didn’t understand enough about caring for turtles and he wasn’t getting enough food. Still, I loved my time with Fred.

6.) I Fed a Wild Chipmunk from My Hand.

Photo by Alexander McFeron on Unsplash

My family continued the lake vacations even in my post-college years. After my brother Dan moved to Maine with his wife and family, lakes in the Portland area became a favorite vacation spot. On one vacation, we stayed at Raymond Pond. The owners of the cabin we rented talked about a wild chipmunk they named Chippy which they had tamed somewhat to eat seed from their hand. They kept bags of seed in the screened in porch and encouraged us to try it ourselves. We did, and it was great fun to have Chippy feed from our hands as we sat on a rock a little distance from the cabin.

One morning, Chippy hit the jackpot, discovering where we stashed all the extra seed. I discovered him in the porch, both cheeks filled to bursting with seed. I tried opening the door to let Chippy outside again, but the excited chipmunk got disoriented and confused and ran further into the cabin instead. I chased the poor excited thing, opening doors for him and trying to get him outside, as he ran around, spitting out a trail of seed wherever he went.

My Sister-In-Law Caught Me On the Floor Cuddling and Playing with Her Dogs.

Photo by Brandy Bellini on Unsplash

It was on another trip to Maine when Dan’s wife, Dorothy, noticed me sitting on their floor playing with their two dogs, a yellow Labrador named Latte and a Sheltie named Schnookums. I was letting them lie over me, petting them, rubbing their bellies and lavishing them with attention. Dorothy’s reaction? “Susan, you need to get a dog!”

I Began Following More and More Animal YouTubers.

Photo from Erin’s Ark channel on YouTube

Even before I was involved with animal work, I somehow began subscribing to more and more animal channels on Youtube. That may have been partly due to the last point, that I began populating my fictional worlds with more and more pets and animals, so I used the videos for information and inspiration.

Here are a few of my favorites …

Topi the Corgi — Short little films starring Topi in almost human situations, sometimes featuring his long-haired chihuahua buddies.

Vlog After College — Ryan vlogs about his daily adventures, always with his Corgi sidekick, Gatsby.

Griffin Frenchie — The adventures of Griffin and his Frenchie roommate, Haru.

Crusoe the Dachshund — Little stories acted out by voiced and costumed dachshunds: Crusoe, Oakley and Daphne

Doug the Pug — Song parodies, costumes, spoofs, all sorts of fun things starring Doug the Pug.

Erin’s Ark — British teen, Erin, shares about how she cares for her pets: guinea pigs, gerbils, bunnies, cat and dog.

Hello Denizen — Fun channel with hamsters in miniature scenes, bunnies that fly planes, iguanas that go bowling with their tongues, etc.

Tiger Craft Squad — Very creative videos with hamsters, cat, bunnies, chinchillas, other animals, in adventures with remote control cars, Lego creations, mazes and more.

Peekaboo Parrots — Features several birds, but the star is a yellow Indian ringneck parakeet named Bowie who has a voice like Elmo and says such expressions as “Tickle, tickle.”

Mr. Max TV — Max is an entertaining cockatoo with attitude.

I Began Populating My Fictional Worlds with More and More Pets and Animals.

Photo by Marcus Wallis on Unsplash

Jack Donegal of the “Jack Donegal Mystery” series has a beagle named George, and Grace Darby, who will have her own mystery series, has a Corgi named Shelley. Gradually, neighbors, supporting characters and even suspects had pets and not always either dogs or cats. My story worlds have a lot of single people, and I guess I feel like single characters need pet companions. Also, doing comedic writing, animals seem to bring comedy to situations.

My brother, as a kid, bought a pregnant mouse and hid it until Christmas as a gift.

My brother, Bruce, apparently, walked himself to a store that sold pets among other things. There, he bought a mouse, a pregnant mouse, as a gift for my brother Tim. Bruce didn’t understand the mouse was pregnant. Maybe, the cashier didn’t know it either. Who sells a mouse to a kid though?

Bruce hid the mouse in its cage in his closet, since it was a Christmas gift. Before Tim could get a Christmas surprise, Bruce got a surprise when several blind, hairless baby mice began wandering around his closet shelf. They were so small, they slipped through the bars of the cage. Bruce had to wake up our parents and explain the situation.

My Family and Other Animals

My Family and Other Animals is the first title in The Corfu Trilogy, memoirs of British naturalist, Gerald Durrell, who is captivated by nature and animals and the study of them from a young age. It is the inspiration behind the Masterpiece Theatre series, The Durrells in Corfu

I haven’t seen the PBS series. I have seen trailers for it and was intrigued by them, partly because I was attracted to the period feel and partly because I have enjoyed other Masterpiece Theatre series. After reading the first book in this trilogy and after reading more about the PBS series, I’m intrigued but cautious. I can’t imagine I would like the show more than the book … which I enjoyed very much. I’m not saying I would not give the series a chance, but I know words would be pared down to dialogue — which may or may not be true to the book — and it would be missing all of the beautiful narrative language from the books.

I knew I was in for something good when even the book dedications in the opening pages were full of humor. The title, of course, is also light and funny, suggesting that his family was just another species of interesting animals to be studied. After reading a chapter or two, I persuaded both my mother and father to read it and helped them download the trilogy for Kindle. Amazon prime members can read the Kindle version of the trilogy for free. The trilogy  includes Birds, Beasts and Relatives and The Garden of the Gods. 

I am an Amazon affiliate, and, if you purchase through links on this site, I may get a little commission. 

I thought Dad would like the book, because the main character, the writer himself, Gerald or Gerry, is a boy with scientific curiosities, much like Dad, and I felt Dad would appreciate the humor. The story also involves a few boating adventures I thought my father would like. I thought Mom would like it, because she often prefers biographies to fiction, and she enjoyed James Herriot’s books. While Durrell’s and Herriot’s style and subject are a bit different, they do have a few things in common … animals and funny anecdotes, which mostly involve animals. Neither parent has yet finished the first book, but it seems, so far, that my recommendation to them is a good one.

Gerald Durrell and his dog, Roger Source: Pinterest

I mentioned earlier that the book is set in a past time period. It was tricky for me to exactly place the period for the setting at first. I don’t remember reading mention of any years, but there were a few clues. One of Gerry’s mentors, Dr. Theodore Stephanides, fought in World War I. The book mentions “an ancient Dodge” and a gramophone and other references to the technology of the time.  At first, I placed the period somewhere in the twenties. Then, I read on to a scene where the mother of the family was described as wearing a frilly and old-fashioned bathing costume which the daughter describes as looking like it were from 1920. I was able to place the period more precisely when I learned from durrell.org, that Gerald was born in 1925. The first book describes happenings while he was ten years old which must then be 1935.

Gerald Durrell with owl, Source: Daily Mail

The book is divided into three sections themed by three villas where the family lived in Corfu: the strawberry-pink villa, the daffodil-yellow villa and the snow-white villa. Their reasons for moving each time, at least the way they are described in the book, are all humorous. The family moves from England to Corfu, because they are all ill and the eldest son, Larry, suggests it, seemingly on a whim. The climate would be better for their health. The second time, they move to a larger villa, because Larry, who is an aspiring writer, has invited seven or eight of his artistic friends to stay with them. Later, they move to a smaller villa, because an annoying relative from England wants to stay with them and they need an excuse not to take her in. 

My father, after beginning his reading, got curious about the island and did some armchair exploring via Google maps. He found a location on the island labeled as the Durrell Family White House. I can only suppose this is the snow-white villa. If you go to the link, you can explore it yourself, get a good view of the villa and the sea and a sign that says, “White House Restaurant.”

Here is a view of the sea from Corfu, looking towards the Albanian coast. 

Corfu, looking towards Albanian coast. Source: Google maps.

Many of the stories in the book involve Gerry’s family, not just the animals that interested him … thus, the title. He describes his eldest brother Larry as someone absorbed with books, taking two cases of books with him to Corfu, and writing, always typing away at his typewriter. It did make me wonder if Larry became a successful writer or if Gerald became the writer of the family. I did find out that Lawrence Durrell published several books as well, both fiction and travel writings, including the Alexandria Quartet

His brother Leslie is described as someone obsessed with outdoorsy sports like hunting and boating. He does build Gerry a boat as a birthday gift, which Gerry names the Bootle-Bumtrinket. I really wondered at the meaning of “bumtrinket,” since the boys’ mother seems a bit shocked and embarrassed at the name, and because I know “bum” is Brit-talk for butt. The only definition I could find is that a bumtrinket is “an annoying person.” 

Sister Margo is described as someone very concerned with her appearance and worried about her weight and acne. Gerry himself becomes fascinated with wild life and spends a lot of time, being outdoors and studying insect life, bird life and other animals. He is frequently bringing home insects in jars or other small animals he finds and keeps as pets. In this first book, you will meet his dog, Roger, a tortoise named Achilles, a pigeon named Quasimodo, a scops owl named Ulysses, a gecko named Geronimo, a mantis named Cicely, some magpies, simply called Magenpies based on their Greek friend’s pronunciation of the bird, a gull — Larry calls it an albatross — named Alecko and a baby donkey called Sally.

More dogs join the family, including two messy puppies named Widdle and Puke, and their mother’s dog, a Dandie Dinmont terrier named Dodo. There are also some un-named animals, and animals that Gerry simply observes but doesn’t capture. You’ll learn about Quasimodo’s eccentricities and love of music, doing his own version of waltzes and marches to music on the gramophone, Achilles choosing body parts on which to practice mountaineering and the trouble it caused when Dodo becomes popular with all of the male dogs in the neighborhood.

Gerald Durrell with tortoise and pigeons, Source: Daily Mail

The writer does a wonderful job of interspersing stories of his family drama, often goofy incidents, with descriptions of his natural history discoveries. I sometimes wondered at his powerful memory of detail in these early events of his life. I think I found the explanation, as Gerry had a series of tutors, and one of them encouraged him to note down his observations of nature and also to keep a diary. 

I would recommend the book for those who love animals, enjoy travel writing, enjoy funny stories involving family life and animals and for those who enjoy beautiful, descriptive narrative. Here is an example …

“This doll’s house garden was a magic land, a forest of flowers through which roamed creatures I had never seen before.  Among the thick, silky petals of each rose bloom lived tiny crab-like spiders that scuttled sideways when disturbed. Their small translucent bodies were colored to match the flowers they inhabited: pink, ivory, wine red or buttery yellow. On the rose stems, encrusted with green flies, ladybirds moved like newly painted toys; ladybirds pale red with large black spots, ladybirds apple red with brown spots, ladybirds orange with gray-and-black freckles. Rotund and amiable, they prowled and fed among the anaemic flocks of greenfly. Carpenter bees, like furry, electric-blue bears, zigzagged among the flowers, growling fatly and busily…”