My parents’ families had no experience of having pets. Neither my father nor my mother had any animals in their households when they were growing up–and I don’t believe any of their siblings ever acquired any pets. Our pet history began by pure chance. One summer day, when I was five, my mother was ironing clothes with the window open and a canary flew in.

She immediately called my father, who was at work, and told him of the incident. He told her to close the windows and the door to that room, which was the bedroom I shared with my brother. He came home from work, carrying a small birdcage, let himself into the room and somehow caught the bird, popping it into the cage.

The next day my father reported the found bird to the local police station and put up a few circulars on our block in Brooklyn. But there was no telling how far the bird had flown, and nobody ever called to claim him. That day, my father came home from work with a large birdcage and canary supplies, including seed, a stone for him to sharpen his beak on, and whatever else the pet shop owner had told him he needed.

The canary, whom we named Chirpy, was our first pet. We knew he was a male because he sang, as only male canaries do. He fit rather well into our household and caused relatively little trouble. I liked having a pet in my room, and I frequently let him out to fly around the room. He always went back into the cage eventually, probably because that was where the food and water were.

Chirpy was probably not a young bird, and he lived only two or three years after we acquired him. But my parents enjoyed having him around also, and they saw that caring for him made me and my brother act responsibly. Soon, while Chirpy was still alive if I remember correctly, they bought a pair of hamsters, whom we named Timmy and Tina. They were fun to play with and we took good care of them. I remember one day when my little brother came running into the kitchen, shouting, “Mommy, mommy, little pink things are eating Tina!” We easily found homes for the little pink things, since hamsters were popular pets.

I also remember that, after Tina died, Timmy somehow escaped from his cage. We searched the apartment for days. Then, one night, I woke up, hearing my father in the kitchen singing, “Timmy, Timmy.” He’d heard noises behind the refrigerator. Timmy didn’t respond to his name, of course, but he did eventually come out and wound up back in his cage. Hamsters live only two or three years, and after Timmy died we didn’t get any more hamsters.

After Chirpy died, though, we had a birdcage to spare. My parents decided we needed a parakeet, whom I named Butchie. He was a dreadful pet, the only one I’ve ever had that I didn’t like. As with many of his species, Butchie liked to greet the dawn by shrieking loudly. By then I was old enough to read up on pets and one book recommended putting a blanket over the cage at night. But it didn’t work. I doubt if lead foil would have kept that bird quiet. As a result I was chronically sleep-deprived during a crucial period of my childhood. Maybe that’s why I’m only five foot five now. (Or maybe it’s because my father was five foot one.)

Budgies do like to fly around the house, so I had to release Butchie from his cage frequently. Budgies often land on people’s shoulders. In his case that was a cause for dread, since he liked to bite earlobes, a very painful experience due to his sharp pointed beak. He also liked to land on heads, where he often deposited little blobs of birdshit. The only ways to remove them were to wipe and then take a shower, or to wait until the blob hardened.

I think I gained a lot of maturity taking care of Butchie. I realized I was responsible for his care and I always fed him promptly, made sure he had plenty of water, cleaned his cage, and let him out for frequent exercise. Still, I must admit that the morning I found him lying on his back on the floor of the cage, I wasn’t at all sad.

I don’t remember the exact times when we acquired or lost these pets. But the arrival of our dog was a major enough event so that I will never forget it. We used to spend our summers at my father’s parents’ hotel, the Hotel Lorraine, in Sullivan County, New York, where my father and his siblings served as unpaid labor. It was no fun for them, and it was hell on my mother, who missed her friends and all her musical activities in New York. But for my brother and me it was paradise. The summer before I turned ten, 1952, my father decided that we could have a dog. Some dog in our neighborhood in Livingston Manor had had a litter of puppies, about half cocker spaniel and half dachshund. My brother and I had been reading a Wonder Book called “The Four Puppies Who Wanted a Home” over and over. The puppies in the book were named Trixie, Dixie, Pixie and Nixie. Nixie, the smallest and cutest, was the last one to find a home. Of course we named our new dog Nixie.

While Nixie was born in the country, she soon became an apartment dog, since that was where we spent ten months a year. My mother, who had been quite unhappy about the idea of having a dog, turned out to be an excellent and willing dog trainer and she participated enthusiastically in the process of housebreaking Nixie.

Nixie was my constant companion throughout the remainder of my childhood. For some reason I had the primary responsibility for walking her, although we were a family of four and the others often took her out. I remember with regret that sometimes these “walks” consisted of taking her to the corner and back, although good walks were all the way around the block. Nixie often slept with me. She was as gentle and kindly a dog as ever lived. I cannot remember any time when she caused us any trouble or grief, until she died. During our long rides to and from the Hotel Lorraine, Nixie would sit on the back seat of the car. When my brother Kenny or I got tired, she would let us use her as a pillow while we napped. She obviously loved our summers in the country, which ended only two years after we got her when my grandparents sold the hotel. But she always seemed happy to be around us, and she brought a great deal of joy into my life. She certainly helped set a norm that would remain throughout the remainder of my life to date: I have a dog. Usually two.

Nixie was almost the last pet we acquired during my childhood, but we wound up with one more when I was in my early teens. My mother was teaching kindergarten by then, and if I remember correctly it was another teacher in her school who had a large box turtle to give away. My mother took the turtle because she thought her schoolchildren would enjoy caring for it. But they didn’t, so she brought it home.

There was never any way to determine the turtle’s gender, but I always thought of it as male. He got his name through a surprising ability he had to climb up the side of a couch and sit on the seat. I named him Hillary, after the great mountaineer Sir Edmund Hillary. Much to my surprise, Hillary took an obvious liking to me. The couch-climbing behavior occurred when I was sitting in the music room, reading a book or studying. He would walk into the room, climb up the side of the couch, and sit beside me. At night, he would always go into our bedroom and lie under my bed. He would stick his head as far out of his shell as he could when I was paying attention to him, so that I could pet his head, which he apparently loved.

Alas, Hillary’s exploring proved to be his undoing. One day, when I was not home, he wandered into the music room, part of which had just been painted. There was no door on this room to close it off. Apparently the paint fumes killed him. He was dead when I got back from school.

Nixie lived until I was 20 and left home. I was planning to take her with me to the apartment in Brooklyn which I took with my new family, my soon-to-be-wife and her three children. But the growths my mother noticed on her stomach turned out to be terminal cancer, and she was mercifully put to sleep.

The impulse for remembering my old pets came from an e-mail from a friend, mourning the loss of her dog. I thought about my pets and decided to list all the ones I could remember. Including a couple who were in my life briefly, I came up with a list of 25, which I found surprisingly large. Even remembering the pets of my childhood took all this space! (and without any photos to post). So I’ll probably be writing soon about my later pets.

2 Responses to “Pets of My Childhood”

  1. Emma Green Says:

    I enjoyed reading about your previous pets. Hillary the turtle sounded like an amazing little guy. I haven’t ever heard of a turtle who took a particular liking to anyone. That is really unique. I had a few pets growing up, and my life now wouldn’t be complete without animals in it!

  2. Nancy Furstinger Says:

    Lovely, Leslie, and I’m glad to have inspired such wonderful memories despite the sad circumstances (losing two beloved dogs within 1 month and 1 day). I enjoyed reading about your assorted menagerie, and learned a tad more about you, too. Now you’ve inspired me to start tallying up my own long list. I’ll look forward to part 2, and hope you include some photos.
    A house is not a home without a dog, preferably two…I just took my own advice and adopted rescued rottie Bosco Bear as a pooch pal for Lacy!