Erica and Cortyroy. "He enjoys squeezing into the little trash-can hole and sitting down there. Then the vet has to pull him out."
Erica Krimmel lives with her parents in a little jewel of a home in Normal heights. Her mother, Cynthia Krimmel, is a photo archivist for the San Diego Historical Society; David, her father, is a designer who's worked for the Historical Society and the San Diego Water Authority. Both Erica's parents were trained in the arts — she at Davis and he at San Diego State. They have used slate green as the dominant color the house's walls, against which bright and diverse painting hang, including their own work.
Ruben and Mr. Liz. "Mr. Liz and I are always together. He is my best friend. He even gets to go to school with me sometimes."
The Krimmel house, Spanish colonial revival with Moorish influences, has three bedrooms and two baths — a fine setting for Erica's cat, Cortyroy, a three-year-old part-Siamese with white and brown spots and baby-blue slightly crossed eyes. "Can you see?" asked Erica, whose eyes are dark brown; they lit up as she hugged the cat close. She had corralled him in the garden of her backyard, where she and her friends, Maya and Charlie, have planted a tomato garden with Roma, cherry, Big Boy, and Early Girl tomatoes.
At 11, Erica has the lanky charm of a young Audrey Hepburn. She's an A-student at nearby St. Didacus on Felton Street. Her room is painted two colors of purple and pink and has a happy carnival atmosphere. She tells me she loves picking the cat up when he's asleep "because he is so warm and irresistible. When he was a kitten he slept with me every night." Now he often sleeps elsewhere. Erica was glad, she said, to have her bed to herself again. ""The reason is because Roy — that's his nickname — is a bed hog. You might not think a cat could hog a whole bed, but if he positions himself right, I get stuck with about two square feet to sleep in."
The Krimmels have two other cats, Mutt and Jack, and all three go for regular checkups at the Kensington Veterinarians on Adams Avenue. "The other cats hate it," says Erica. But not Cortyroy. "He enjoys squeezing into the little trash-can hole and sitting down there. Then the vet has to pull him out. And Cortyroy will eat almost anything — corn, cereal, ice cream, you name it! We can't leave any food around for a minute. Sometimes we even find him up on the counter, scavenging for food in the sink." According to Erica, Roy is like a dog in that way.
Cortyroy had been abandoned, along with his mother and siblings, at the Serra Museum in Presidio Park. Erica' mother brought him home. "He was a runt then. Now he weighs quite a lot, and he has a cute pink tummy." Erica tries to show me the tummy, but Roy struggles free. "He bites and scratches too, but I'm used to it." Cortyroy has nightly rampages: He gallops around the house with a wild look in his eyes. Erica laughs as she explains that one thing was certain: he was never boring.
"Watch out if Roy is on a rampage because he'll chase anything." Erica says he likes to run in circles chasing his tail. "But then he bites it hard and hurts himself. And then," she said, "he screams."
Ruben Lazano-Mills, 11, had failing grades at a local magnet school with a Spanish-immersion program, but since enrolling a year ago in the Museum School, a charter school on Island Street, he brings home Bs and better. Offering an alternative educational program, the Museum School operates under what Ruben's mother, Missy, calls a hands-on approach: children learn by doing. For example, as a math problem, students take a bag of change to a nearby grocery store and select their afternoon snack; if they are able to compute the cost of their snack and the correct change tendered in the exchange, they can buy it and eat it. At school, Ruben continues to learn Spanish and is also picking up Japanese. Students use computers to communicate with pen pals in Japan and Mexico; in a virtual-reality room in the school, students interact with their friends who live in Tijuana.
Ruben is happy in his new school. With his grades improved, he feels much better about himself. But while some credit goes to his transfer, his enhanced self-image is also due to a dream-come-true. "Ever since I was little, I dreamed of having a monitor lizard. I loved watching them on TV and at the zoo. But every time we went to the pet store, they were too expensive to buy."
Three months ago, Missy Mills took Ruben to Pet Plaza in National City. "And there before my eyes was a Savannah monitor for sale! He was about six months old, and he looked really lonely in that tank."
Ruben knew that monitor lizards cost as much as $300. This one was listed for only $29.
That was because the owner of the pet store said the lizard was very mean. But he said he was pretty sure the lizard would tame down if somebody worked with him."
Ruben, who is just entering that husky stage preceding adolescence, is on his way to being a tall, handsome young man. But his dark eyes go round and his face turns childishly blank when he admits that at first he was scared of the lizard.
"At first he bit me good. But after two days I had him walking on a leash with a baby's pacifier in his mouth to bite on instead of me. Then I was really happy."
Animals are much loved by the Lazano-Mills family. Virginia Mills, Ruben's grandmother, lives with abandoned dogs, cats, and birds she has found and taken in. In her home in Pacific Beach, as tidy as it is small and cramped, I count two dogs (one Dalmatian with eye-boggling spots), four cats, five birds (including a parakeet and a cockatiel), and a small school of fish: flashes of scarlet and gold move back and forth through an aquarium on a table near the kitchen.
Ruben was always surrounded by animals, so he came early to his love for them. Within three days of bringing his monitor lizard home, the creature was, if not tamed, able to be handled safely. Ruben named him Mr. Liz and went to bed happy.
"But when I woke up the next morning he was gone!"
Mr. Liz had slipped out of his cage, found a small hole in the wall, and disappeared inside.
"We heard him in there hissing and walking," said Missy, "but we couldn't get him out!"
Weeks went by and the lizard did not reappear. One night Missy was preparing to wash out the guinea pig's cage and had put the animal in the monitor lizard's cage when suddenly from among the wood chips in the lizard's cage she heard hissing.
"...and there hiding in the tank was my monitor!" said Ruben. Apparently the animal had gotten hungry and slipped back inside his cage, where he lay hidden among the wood chips.
Ruben's lizard looks like a mini Godzilla, with a monster-appetite to match. His food tastes range from turkey and eggs to cat food to crickets and mill worms (which look like giant maggots). For a dollar at Pet Kingdom on Sports Arena Boulevard, Missy can buy 20 crickets or 15 mill worms.
"He's supposed to eat a mouse a week," she said, "but we don't give him any." Instead, every once in a while she grinds up some turkey breast as an alternative. "In a week he eats 40 large crickets and 15 mill worms," she said. "Once or twice a month I feed him a little scrambled egg." "Now," says Ruben, "Mr. Liz and I are always together. He is my best friend. He even gets to go to school with me sometimes. We play, take baths together, skateboard, watch TV, and do almost everything together. And he doesn't bite or hiss anymore." At least not often.
Recently Missy had to pry the lizard's mouth open with a butter knife after he clamped down on Ruben's hand and would not let go. While his teeth are small, the creature was able to break skin and draw blood. Missy had run low on the lizard's supply of crickets, and the animal had grown snappish. At 9 months, Mr. Liz is 18 inches long. Monitor lizards have been known to live for 20 years and grow to six feet. On a website for monitor lizards, owners report that as their pets grew large, they let them run around the house like dogs. Ruben can hardly wait.
In front of Danielle Donoho's home stands a large pepper tree. A child's swing made of wood and rope hangs low from one of its branches. A picnic table and bench sit nearby. The oleander and hibiscus bushes aren't in bloom; the front yard's only color comes from wildflowers growing inside a barrel. The house, painted white with blue-gray trim, is a tract home like the other houses lining the street. It looks small, almost squatty, because the street itself is so wide.
While she has lots of dolls and Beanie Babies in her room, Danielle (9) likes to play outside with her sister Amanda (7) and her brother James (4). Their games of tag and dodge-ball flow into the street, which is mostly empty of traffic. While the neighborhood children play, dogs lope back and forth, barking at cats crisscrossing the asphalt. One of those cats, a large marmalade-colored tabby, sidles toward a champagne-colored Honda Accord parked in front of Danielle's house. Danielle's mother, Lynn Peterman, spots him.
"There he is!" she cries. Her blond hair is pulled back and her voice bears an overworked crack. She points. "Don't let him get under your car!"
Danielle runs to the curb but then looks back at her mother, uncertain. "Go on, Danielle! Get 'im!"
Feather was about to slide under the car when Danielle lunged.
"I got 'im!" she cries, scooping the cat up. Breathless, she heads for the bench in the front yard.
Dark orange with orange eyes, Feather was about 18 months old when Danielle brought him home from the El Cajon Animal Shelter on Marshall Street.
"Now he's six," she says, working to fit him comfortably on her lap. There is a brief struggle; the cat is big enough to cause serious damage, but his resistance is only a display of will: he soon settles down and lets Danielle hold his head still. "Do you see his freckles?" It wasn't easy, but, yes, I could see them. The freckles were a brown shade a little darker than the fur of his face. Danielle threw back her head and pushed a hank of yellow sunbleached hair out of her eyes. "Isn't he the cutest?" she squeezes Feather in a tight embrace. The cat shows little pleasure in her affection but stays put. Danielle says Feather only likes her to hold him. "If anyone else picks him up, he wiggles until he can get down." Feather's first owner put him in the shelter because he kept sucking on her pillows and towels and summer handbags. For Danielle, just five at the time, it was love at first sight: she brought him home and, thinking he might be lonely, gave him her black stuffed cat Danika to play with.
Lynn tells Danielle's younger sister to go get Danika; Amanda runs into the house and returns a moment later with the stuffed toy. Its black acrylic hair is matted and torn away in places from the spongy body; the plastic eyes are scarred; the pink leatherette collar is frayed. Ever since that first afternoon, Feather has reserved his sucking for the toy cat.
"He follows Danika everywhere," says Danielle, smiling.
Danielle writes that Feather is "really nice to our other animals." (The family has a couple of other cats, two dogs — one half wolf and half German shepherd — a parakeet, and a cockatiel.) "We had a little kitten that was four months old. His name was Trent, and when he got run over by a car, Feather stayed by him and licked his head until he stopped breathing
At night, Feather sits on Danielle's bed and slides under the covers with her. If the door is closed and he cannot get in, he scratches until Danielle or her sister opens the door for him.
"And in the morning, he is most likely on top of me!"
Danielle is in the third grade at Meridian Elementary School. Each morning Lynn walks her daughters the two blocks to school; Feather follows them to the corner, then waits there, hiding in the bushes, until Lynn passes on her way back home.
"Then he jumps out!" exclaims Danielle.
Feather escorts Lynn the rest of the way home.
While Danielle is in school learning to add, subtract, and multiply, Feather spends his days sunning himself or chasing butterflies. From a favorite spot on the roof, Feather can eye Danielle returning home later in the afternoon. When he sees her, he leaves his perch to greet her.