Columnist Susan Wozniak: Animals’ family instincts come to fore as loving pets

Susan Wozniak

Susan Wozniak


Published: 05-28-2024 4:22 PM

Modified: 05-29-2024 2:33 PM

My kids were raised with pets. The first pet arrived before our first child was born. We had just bought a house and I wanted a dog, like the dog our neighbors owned.

She was named Boots, and was half German shepherd and half collie. Boots was a like a fairy tale dog who minded the babies napping in their pram, sitting protectively next to the infants. We visited a shelter where we were charmed by a young lady dog who was part German shepherd and part hound.

She was calm and stood quietly by the fence, watching us. There were two other shepherd mixes: one insanely eager and one fierce. Looking back, I think this gentle dog realized we were the best family for her, so she showed us how she behaved.

Riding to her new home, the dog, now named Sarah, tried to lick our cheeks. My husband told her, “Don’t worry. We like you.” The next day, while I napped on the sofa, Sarah rested in a corner. When I opened my eyes, she came over to me and put her head on my shoulder. She knew she was in a safe place and I knew she was a good dog by her patience.  My first-born often played on the floor with Sarah, sometimes napping with her.

Eventually, age was unkind to Sarah. After her death, another dog joined us. The kids named him Fortinbras, after the dog the Murry family owned in Madeleine L’Engle’s “Time Quintet.” There were also small pets: hamsters, rabbits, mice and a guinea pig.

When we divorced, cats became the pets of choice. Cats take charge. They express what they feel. Our first cat, who my youngest child named Abby after his second grade teacher, made certain each night that she deigned to sleep with each one of us in turn. She hated overcast and rainy days, and would hide in the armoire where I kept my sewing supplies.

She was joined by Sophia, the runt of a litter of orange cats, and her big brother, Dmitri, the alpha male. Delicate Sophia enjoyed being with humans, but Dmitri wanted the other cats to love him.

As all the pets were either spayed or neutered or else were the single member of their species, we never had furry infants, but we knew by their vocalizations and their expressions what they liked and wanted and what irritated them.

However, it was Abby’s death at 19 that taught us something new. Barely able to walk, Abby spent the last week of her life zipped into my son’s hoodie. When she died, he asked for fabric to make a shroud. From then on, the dead animals were wrapped in cloth. The wrapped pet was placed in a cardboard box. Not seeing them made the burial less painful. Flowers were laid across the box and the hole was filled.

As we stopped to say farewell to Abby, we noticed two baby bunnies hiding under a large shrub. Where was mom? I stepped quietly to the other side of the shrub. There at the far end of the vegetable patch was mom. She would nibble a bit, then raise herself up to look around. Satisfied that she was safe, she continued to eat. We quietly went back into the house.

I thought she must have some way of communicating with her babies.

Several years later, returning home after dark, I saw a fawn sitting on the road. I stopped and stood next to the fawn with a flashlight. The mother had been leading her fawn across the road. On the other side was a car whose driver also stood in the road to protect the little one. The doe had run into his car and continued going. I thought surely mom taught her fawn to wait for her. We tried to get the fawn to continue in the way her mother ran, but she turned and ran in the direction she came from. Whether doe and fawn were reunited, I do not know.

Now, there is a pair of starlings who have returned for years to the same location: a loosely hanging board on the side of the house. The parents feed the babies and always follow a zig-zag route. I can hear the hatchlings chirping by standing next to the wall on the second floor.

The pets have adjusted to living with humans. Sarah was the sort of fairy tale dog who cared for the children as she might have cared for the puppies she never had. In the wild, furry mothers care for their children, vocalizing to teach them what they need to know.

Susan Wozniak has been a caseworker, a college professor and journalist. She is a mother and grandmother.