Growing up, my family had various pets that play starring roles in my childhood memories. There was Sunny the Golden Retriever who bit everybody, especially children on swing sets. He would clamp down on our clothes, flying up in the air with us until we stopped swinging—then he’d go for flesh. After flunking out of obedience school, Sunny was given to a duck hunter my dad knew who later tried to give him back but Dad was done apologizing to Sunny’s victims.
We had better luck with Cotton, an Animal Rescue League mutt, who was the most lovable ball of dirty white fur you’d ever meet. Cotton never bit anybody and even got along with the cat, Dottie. Dottie behaved more like a dog than a cat, though—which we credit Cotton’s general affability and good nature for; we should all try to be like Cotton. Her only flaw was her love of chasing cars.
This was back in the 80s when leashes were only employed by the scared and snobbish. Dogs roamed our neighborhood until someone called them by name from their porch and told them to go home because it was getting dark—which was how they treated the kids in the neighborhood as well. Cotton would chase us from our home in Northpointe down Old Canton Road (which was two-lane or under construction to become a four-lane for much of this time) until we either gave up and let her in the car in the K&B parking lot; or if Mom had a good lead, we would see her give up and head home.
A dog walking on the sidewalk along Old Canton Road these days would result in no less than three Facebook posts and a dozen Nextdoor App postings about a lost dog spotted in danger. Cotton wasn’t lost, she was just beaten. She would be waiting for my mom in the front yard when she got back from taking us to school.
When Dottie, the wandering cat, had a litter of kittens (again—this was the 80s, even responsible owners didn’t always spay and neuter), Cotton was very attentive towards her, even carefully carrying a couple of kittens away to try to nurse them. Dottie quickly put an end to this, but didn’t exact any punishment; she knew Cotton was probably just trying to give her a break. She was a good dog.
There were other minor characters in the Calhoon house as well, some weirder than others—but our menagerie doesn’t hold a candle to the Ueltschey Family Zoo.
My friends, Rebecca and Michael Ueltschey, are pretty bright people. They graduated from UNC at Chapel Hill and make good choices in how they live their lives and raise their children—just not when it comes to pets. Michael will, no doubt, say Rebecca is responsible for all of their pet problems, but if you know Michael, then you know some of it is bound to be his fault too.
They started with a cat named Lucy who hated everything and bit everyone to the point of drawing blood. One might think this would make them hesitant to have more animals—that would be incorrect.
Their son, Tanner, found a saddleback caterpillar that looked cool enough to grace the cover of National Geographic and they promptly adopted him. Never mind that the saddleback caterpillar is covered in spikes which are connected to poison glands beneath its skin, and the pain and swelling from contact with them can rival or surpass that of a bee sting. Tanner named him, Tanner. It wasn’t until a few days later that they noticed things growing on its back.
The caterpillar had become the parasitic host for wasp larvae—and they were sucking the life out of him. Literally.
Winston the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel came next; he’s pretty normal—boring by Ueltschey standards. So, of course, they shook things up by next going with hamsters. Simon DaHamsta Ueltschey and his brother Theodore DaHamsta Ueltschey were welcomed into the fold together so that they wouldn’t be lonely.
Simon tried to save the family from the tragedy to come when he escaped his cage and was missing for three days before Michael found him running around the front yard. The brothers’ reunion was not the stuff of feel-good animal videos on the internet, but more the script of a horror movie.
Simon ate Theodore. So much for brotherly love. Later, when Simon was found lifeless in his cage by two 6-year-olds, the family decided karma killed him.
I tried to warn Rebecca about the hamsters, but she didn’t listen. My sister had two Pygmy hamsters when we were kids that turned out to be a male and a female. We had no idea the sex of the hamsters, or that you should remove the father from the cage or else he will eat the babies—which he did. The mother was found hanging from the top of the hamster wheel shortly after in what can only be described as a Greek tragedy-level, broken hamster heart. Hamsters bring nothing but Pet PTSD and awkward conversations with your children.
Did Rebecca learn her lesson and stick to cats and dogs? No, of course not. While on vacation in Florida, without Michael it should be noted, Rebecca adopted Pete the Bearded Dragon. Pete looked like something Khaleesi of Game of Thrones would be dropping by to add to her brood at any moment.
Pete was a sickly dragon from the start. He wouldn’t eat, so Rebecca syringe fed him until he was stronger. Then she taught him how to eat the live crickets she purchased twice a week. Bearded Dragons have delicate internal thermostats, so Rebecca changed the lightbulbs in his heated cage twice a day to keep him warm.
All this love and care, and the $200 vet visit, weren’t enough to overcome metabolic bone disease and his passing hit the family hard. Luckily, they had Tux to comfort them during their grief. Tux the cat was adopted on the same Florida trip in a moment of temporary insanity while purchasing worms for Pete the dragon at the pet store. I hate it when I accidentally buy a cat when I only meant to buy worms for my lizard. Michael was thrilled to have his family back from vacation, not so much the two new additions. The good news is Winston the dog loves Tux the cat and they wrestle daily. Tux always wins but Winston doesn’t mind because Pete never wanted to play with him.
Over here in my house we just have Weeza, the most patient Springer Spaniel you’ve ever met. We named her after Ouiser Boudreaux of Steel Magnolias, but this was before smartphones made spell-checking movie character names easy and we had no idea our phonetically-correct spelling was so inaccurate. Weeza forgave us though, as she has done every time we’ve brought home another tiny, squalling human that eventually dresses her up in costumes and tries to go for a ride on her back around the den. She’s a good dog.
My husband has wanted a hunting lab since I was pregnant with our second child. I told him I would soon be delivering a human puppy that wouldn’t be potty-trained for a couple years and we could talk then. I’ve bought time with this excuse through the arrival of three babies, but my time is running out and even I’m not crazy enough to have another kid just to avoid a puppy. Weeza is 12-years-old and losing her eyesight.
As much as I don’t want to add a puppy to our chaotic life, I know that springing one on her once she’s blind would be a horrible way to thank her for her years of love and patience. The kids would be thrilled if we got one—because it would mean they get a kitten. My husband is a smart man, but his attempts to be devious often backfire. He told our kids they could have the kitten they’ve been begging for as soon as he gets his puppy.
This was his attempt to get them to harass me into agreeing to the puppy—it did not work. He grossly underestimated my ability to tell our children ‘no’. But Weeza’s eyesight has moved the puppy up the timeline and if we are going to get a puppy before Weeza is blind, then we have to get the kitten before then too. All of this logic smacks of Ueltschey-like rationalizations, and I’m starting to understand how you accidentally buy a cat with your worms.
My friend, Katie Lawrence, recently posted a picture of the newest litter of kittens rescued by her mother. A stray cat named Scarlett that lives in her mother’s neighborhood has thwarted all attempts to catch her for years. She’s a wily one and fertile—she’s had several litters of kittens that the neighborhood ladies have found homes for as they continue their efforts to catch Scarlett and have her spayed. I don’t want a kitten; I have enough creatures to keep alive and I’m just not a cat person.
I wonder if Rebecca ever thought of herself as a dragon person, or poisonous caterpillar person? But cat person or not, it seems I’m about to be a cat owner. By the time this article is published, the Quinn family will have brought home one of Scarlett’s brood and I’ll be kissing the last of my sanity goodbye. The kids will want to name her something terribly obnoxious that includes ‘Sparkle’ or ‘Unicorn’; but I’m going to push for ‘Rebecca.’ When this all goes horribly wrong and I need to find the kitten a new home—there’s no way a sucker for pets like Rebecca could turn down her namesake.
Elizabeth Quinn makes her home in Northeast Jackson with her husband Percy and four children.