I’ve been thinking a lot today about parenting and how it applies to animals…including those of the human variety.
It’s funny, but I’ve never liked thinking of myself as the ‘mother’ to my animals, even though it’s obvious that my overdeveloped maternal instincts play big role in my relationship with my horses as well as the smaller critters in my care.
I will never forget a moment years ago when I was squatting next to Red, a delightful old TW gelding that wound up at our place. I was doing something with his hoof, and at that moment I was really able to sense the power inside the big old horse and how he was carefully keeping it in check for me.
Red was a huge gelding–not only did he stand 16.2, but he also clearly had that old-blood Midnight Sun frame–big bones and big hooves.
I remember telling my friend Kyya about that moment with Red later, and how I felt like he had been acting almost fatherly toward me. She nodded, and said, “Horses have a lot to teach us.”
I have a ton of fantastic stories about Red, but one of my favorites is the time a kitten (who was trying to get my attention) tried to climb one of Red’s front legs as if he were a tree. He flinched, and his head came up–but he never moved. Heart in mouth, convinced I was about to witness a cat get stomped to pieces and worried I was going to get hurt in the process, I carefully pulled the kitten off Red’s leg. Red dropped his head in relief and turned to look at the kitten in my arms.
Now that is a great horse.
The cat problem where my horses live is so severe that thinking about it turns my thoughts black in an instant. A well-meaning woman across the road feeds cats, but doesn’t get any of them fixed, so I have had to deal with dead kittens in my water trough, kittens that are blind from chlamydia infections, freezing kittens, dead kittens in the haystack, etc. This spring I asked my husband to live trap and shoot some of the cats we had showing up at the barn. The barn is a favorite place for queens to have litters because there are lots of places to hide, and I just can’t seem to harden my heart against suffering baby animals.
You’d think I’d have learned my lesson by now. The last time I brought a wild kitten home, we spent hundreds at the vet getting him healthy, but he’ll always have problems with his sinuses due to the infection damage. Ray also turned out to be a special-needs cat who is interested only in fighting. Our other cats dislike him so much you can almost see read their minds whenever he bounds onto the scene…oh shit…not HIM again.
In other words, the flowers-and-hearts “rescue” stories often don’t have a happy ending when you’re dealing with kittens from half-starved and inbred mama cats.
Right now there is a tomcat at the barn that I’ve named Scout. The last of three brothers that were born in the barn last year (the other two have disappeared), he finally decided it was OK for me to pet him a couple of months ago (this after nearly a year of me feeding him). After he figured out he liked it, he became so affectionate it was hard for me to get my chores done without him tripping me up every ten steps.
Then he hurt his eye somehow. I suspect he’s got a cheatgrass seed in there, but there is no way to get him to the vet without outright trapping him–I would have to treat him like a wild animal– and of course it would be a field day at the vet’s. And of course I’d pay to have him vaccinated and fixed, and he’d either have to come home with me and be terrorized adjusting to my heeler and living with five strange cats, or I could take him back to live in the barn, where he’d probably get killed or run over within the year–and then I would inevitably feel guilty for spending all that money on a cat.
The past several days I have spent about a half hour each morning carefully maneuvering Scout into exactly the right position so I can quickly nab him by the scruff with my right hand and put Terramyacin in his left eye with my left hand. Keep in mind that my timing also has to be perfect–any unexpected noise during this operation, and the deal is off. I have fortunately figured out that if I do my mama-cat trill just as he’s thinking of exploding, he’ll go limp again and I can buy myself a couple more seconds.
Anyway, I’ve just about used up all my goodwill with this cat, and it breaks my heart. He stays at arm’s length now unless I’ve got a food bribe. And even though his eye looks better, I know there is probably an underlying problem that’s not getting addressed that I will be powerless to fix and that I will continue to feel guilty about until I do something about it.
And though I’m helping him, I also get to feel like I’ve betrayed him as his friend. You know, it really sucks to be a human being and have to walk this line between “I’m your friend, and I love you” to “I have to hurt you and make you uncomfortable for your own good.”
And speaking of that, my role as a human parent these days is a complicated and unpleasant one as well. I have 17-year-old twins who have yet to make looming decisions about college. They fight with each other like weasels. They put off chores. They stay up too late. They argue with me about everything from the right way to deposit a check to whether or not I should remind them of when they’ll be going to basketball camp.
Watching them deal with that potent mix of arrogance and insecurity that’s endemic to being a teenager almost kills me. For one thing, I remember how painful it is. For another thing, they annoy the crap out of me.
And then sometimes when I get a glimpse of the men they’re becoming, I feel like I can hardly breathe. After all, their maturity is an inescapable reminder of my own mortality. But at the same time, their beauty, power, and kind hearts are my only real legacy.
My animals won’t outlive me, but my children will.