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Before Animal Rights: A Few Animal Wrongs

September 23, 1993|JIM WASHBURN | Jim Washburn is a free-lance writer who contributes regularly to The Times Orange County Edition. T. Jefferson Parker's column resumes in this spot in two weeks.

It is a cruel calendar that brings us five Thursdays this month. As you may have noticed, T. Jefferson Parker's column, "Parker's Place," only runs in this spot on the first three Thursdays of the month. On the fourth he rests, and the fifth too, if there is one.

Like me, I suppose many of you are hanging on the outcome of his "to be continued" column last week, which left off in the middle of an adventure where his dog had just jumped into a swiftly moving river and T. Jeff was about to jump in after it.

Boy, I sure hope that dog is OK. I get weepy just hearing that '70s oldie "Shannon" about the drowning pooch.

My own pet adventures tend to be more tame. My cat, for example, also jumps where he shouldn't, like the other week when he jumped up on the dining table. It took a stern command from me to get him to retreat, albeit with a goodly chunk of my chicken burrito.

At night I suspect he hangs with the Crips, since he's always coming home torn up, with foreign fur in his claws. He's a scrapper, all right, costing hundreds a year to have his abscesses drained and ears sewn. Once he turned up with a broken foot, and he didn't like the splint one bit. He chewed it off a couple of times until I put Tabasco on the bandages. After that, he contented himself with thumping me in the head with it whenever he caught me lying on the floor, a position I do sometimes find useful after a long day at the office.

It actually was a cat that got me started in show business. When I was 4, my family had two cats, Grundoon and Tammy. The latter was a sickly tan thing with a digestive problem. I used to hang around the cat box and--I wish I were making this up--announce her doings as if it were a TV program, which I had titled "The Tammy Diarrhea Show." I hummed a little theme song and everything.

Perhaps it's a good thing my family didn't have any pets for a few years after that. Living in La Puente for a while, though, I was fascinated by the gophers in the yard that would pull three-foot weeds down into the ground. It looked like something out of a Chuck Jones cartoon.

My family did finally get a dog, a playful, roly-poly St. Bernard puppy, which unfortunately grew up. What a nice saint ever did to get a dog like this named after him is beyond me, because a St. Bernard is basically just 180 pounds of saliva with fur. This dog could merely brush by and you'd notice later on the school bus that you had a quart of warm slime--silvery like a snail's trail--adhering to your pant leg. I wore bell-bottoms at the time, so I can't really say that this made me look any dorkier.

One problem with a dog having such a liquid capacity was that it didn't leave much room for a brain. Sometimes Buck's two brain cells would collide and he'd get the idea to go parading, hurl himself at the gate with linebacker force and careen through the neighborhood. I would then "catch him," which meant holding onto his collar and getting dragged for blocks until he got hungry and headed for home. He got dumber with time and eventually took to biting kids he'd known and slobbered on for years. We had to put him down, and, as always seems to be the case, he was the most lovable dog ever as he drooled all over the interior of my mom's Audi on the final trip to the vet.

Bats aren't pets, but I feel I should confess my most shameful animal moment. Once, not long out of high school, I was camping with friends in Nevada and we set up camp in an unfinished abandoned house near an old mine. We'd swept the place out a bit and had the Coleman stove going when one of us heard a squeaking sound coming from a doorway, which had no door or hinges to account for such a sound. There turned out to be a bat nesting between the two-by-fours.

Once we started looking, we noticed the place was full of sleeping bats, in corners and nooks and even in plain sight hanging upside down from the rafters. It was creepy as hell, but not so much that we ceded possession of the house to its leathery-winged tenants. Instead, that guy prerogative took over and we slaughtered them, using firecrackers to disorient them and slingshots and sticks to dispatch them.

This was years before animal-rights consciousness kicked in, when bats were seen only as rabies threats and Bela Lugosi in transit. But even in the adrenalized thick of it when the bats were swooping about the room, we started feeling pretty wretched, though we didn't talk about it for some time after. We weren't killing them as a public service, but out of fear--the fear of the bats and maybe the fear that we'd never get the chance to do something so stupid again.

Not that it's atonement, but it was pretty much the same bunch of us that saved a steer a couple of years later. We were up on a Utah plateau one winter, on our way to nowhere to build a huge sundial (don't ask why; we didn't) when we saw vultures circling over a rise, ones that clearly had seen enough Westerns to have gotten the moves down right.

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