Most children have an imaginary friend. As an only child, I was no different. Except that my friend was not another little girl to play with or an imaginary little brother. He was a dalmatian named Spot.
Now, this might not be so odd if I had been an only child in a home with no pets, longing for her first puppy after her mother read Dodie Smith's 101 Dalmatians out loud as a bedtime story. But my house had no lack of animals. We had a cat, occasionally two. We had two dogs: a labrador-husky mix named Captain and his best gal pal, some kind of black setter mix named Bess. I had a hamster named Herb after a Burger King commercial campaign. My dad kept fish tanks with fat ancient goldfish that were older than I was. At one point we had a mudpuppy.
Like most little girls, I loved Disney movies but I wasn't a Disney Princess girl. I had the VHS and read-a-long cassette and picture books for Lady and the Tramp and The Fox and The Hound memorized. I still cry at the scene with the poem when Widow Tweed drops Todd off at the nature preserve.
I grew out of my invisible friend stage and lost myself in friendships with new fictional critters through books. I would read them all, my cats Mittens or Murphy curled up behind my knees as I read by flashlight under the covers on my canopy bed long after lights out.
My favorite books were White Fang; Kavik the Wolfdog; The Incredible Journey; Beverly Cleary's Ribsy, Slider, and Socks; Ursula K. LeGuin's Catwings. Small animals were heroes in Bunnicula, Beverly Cleary's The Mouse and the Motorcycle and the entire Houdini series about an escape-artist hamster. My mom would play all the James Herriot books on audiotape on long car trips. Oh, and don't forget the horse books: Black Beauty, Misty of Chincoteague series, and all the Black Stallion books.
My late teen and adult life was relatively absent of animals and focused on my collegiate studies in foreign language and education until my husband (boyfriend at the time) bought me a bunny in 2001. My world had been missing a furry friend and Winston was my best pal. Eventually our furry family grew to include Ollie, Marshall, Gus, and foster friends.
I could say all the often repeated reasons that people love animals: Animals just get it. They don't know how to be immoral or mean. They are not passive aggressive. They have no ulterior motives, they just do what works. Tomorrow is a new day, all is forgiven, and they hold no grudges. Ultimately, you see what you get. They live in the present.
I help them translate our crazy primate way of communicating into their own language. But they help me so much more: Animals are my teachers as I strive to learn patience, compassion, presence.