You enter into a certain amount of madness when you marry a person with pets.
-- Nora Ephron
'I have a surprise for you," David said as he opened the door on his way into our hotel room. He had been out scouting places to photograph while I chose to stay back in our temporary abode, overlooking the water at Morro Bay, to relax and read. He told me to put on my shoes, and I wondered with glee if he had gotten my car detailed. I closed the door behind me, and a quick glance down at my dust-and-dead-bug-covered vehicle -- souvenirs of our road trip thus far -- shattered that idea. I insisted on driving, even though he was the only one who knew where we were going.
David directed me to Morro Rock, a huge landmass rising up in the bay along California's central coast. Maybe it's a picnic, I thought. We had just been here the day before, and though it was still beautiful, I found nothing surprising about the scenery. I parked the car and followed David to the edge of the water, where most of the sand leading up to the parking area was covered with child-sized boulders. Confused, I looked at David -- could this be a weird joke? Was there something very special happening here? Some cosmic realignment of which I remained oblivious?
David pulled a plastic grocery bag from the car, and from the bag, produced a tall glass jar filled with unsalted peanuts. I assumed they were for us to snack on. But when we arrived at the edge where pavement met sand, the place where David had made me stand motionless and wait, my peripheral radar began to ping as small movements registered all around us. Rodent shapes were emerging from gaps between the rocks. Mentally placing their forms into the right category of order/family/genus, I became moronically ecstatic.
"Squirrels!" I exclaimed, as David handed me the jar. "There are so many of them! And they -- they're coming towards us!" Smiling broadly, David explained how, when he had been here earlier scouting for shots, one of the squirrels attempted to climb up his pant leg. I sat in a spot of sand with a handful of peanuts and watched, wide-eyed and grinning, as they approached me, or more accurately, approached my nut-filled hand.
When those little paws braced themselves on my fingers and those tiny teeth collected peanuts, one by one, to be shoved into the recesses of those adorable cheeks with those itty-bitty human-like hands, I almost lost it. This might have been the cutest thing I had ever seen, and the nearest I might ever be to a real, live, wild squirrel. When surrounded by squirrels or any other furry little creatures (though especially squirrels), I become a dork. A secret cabal of squirrels could be plotting to rob me blind, and I would let them, reveling in the opportunity to see their little paws at work. Cute bastards.
I don't know exactly when or why my obsession with squirrels (and other live, cute, and cuddly beasts) began. As a girl, I dreamed of being a veterinarian; think of all the animals I could see in a day! It didn't matter that I needed allergy shots twice a week just to be able to breathe around our Brittany spaniel, Penny. I had pet hamsters, pet rabbits, pet birds -- all of them terrible for my allergies but wonderful for me to look at, touch, and love.
I was still keen on the idea of being a pet doctor until I took my first biology class. There was no way I could cut an animal nor stand to see it suffer. I managed to avoid touching the dead pig fetus during the dissection lab, persuading my classmates to do it for me in exchange for my services as "group documenter" (I filled in our assignment sheets). Maybe I could work at a zoo instead. From my earliest memories, I fantasized about domesticating wild animals. Like Sleeping Beauty or Sheena, Queen of the Jungle, I imagined I could communicate with the wild; that when I was able to catch the eye of an untamed beast, it could read my thoughts.
On more than one occasion, while gazing at a wild animal, I would think hard, trying to project my thoughts. "Hi," my mind would say. "It's okay; you can trust me. Come here and I'll stroke your back and give you a treat; I promise you won't be harmed." Too many times, I thought my telepathic communiqué had been heard and understood by whichever creature I had stumbled upon. Hence, my susceptibility to every psychic who has told me (and they have) that I have a "special gift" that allows me to speak to our mammalian relatives.
If I can't speak to animals, I speak for them. For years, my sister Jenny and I assumed the "voices" of pigeons. We'd be waiting for our parents to exit the Navy Exchange and suddenly notice a group of city birds bobbing their heads around the sidewalk in search of crumbs. "Excuse me, Miss, I need you to come with me," I'd say as a larger pigeon approached a regular-sized one. Jenny would assume the voice of the "female" bird, and we'd have an entire conversation, complete with plots and characters inspired by whatever cartoons we had been watching at the time. There was Super Pigeon, Teenage Mutant Ninja Pigeon, and so many more I can't remember.
I tend to anthropomorphize all animals. I have an addiction to Animal Planet, though I only watch it when David's not around. He has little tolerance for Planet's Funniest Animals marathons, whereas I could sit happily for days watching dogs trip and cats attack cameras. The other day, while David and our friend Ollie were moving furniture and shit down to the garage, I hurried to turn on the TV. By the time they returned, I was emotionally involved in the progress of Ice, a black rottweiler found tied to a chain in the snow, so hungry and weak she couldn't stand up on her own when the animal cops found her.
In addition to worrying and wringing my hands over Ice's chances of recovery, I was glued to the bottom-right corner of the screen, where every two minutes, an advertisement for an upcoming show would appear. The show was called Pet Stars, which wasn't what held my attention -- it was the realistic-looking squirrel that would rise from the bottom of the screen juggling three acorns. This was so cute that each time it appeared, I'd laugh out loud like a two-year-old seeing a balloon for the first time.
David and Ollie had returned but had yet to catch the squirrel's act. Since this was the best thing ever to be broadcast on television, I insisted, for their own sakes, that they join me on the couch until the image reappeared. Maybe it's because a new show was starting, but it took a lot longer than two minutes for the next talented squirrel to show its whiskers. By the time the boys saw juggling, they were cranky and annoyed with me for making them suffer through the Crocodile Hunter's koala rescue. But when they saw my face light up and heard my dopey laugh, their brows relaxed, and they merely remained bewildered that I could be so entertained by a simple graphic.
Jenny told me of a place near Balboa Park where large, fluffy squirrels are domesticated enough to approach humans for nuts. We're going there tomorrow; tonight, I'll sleep about as much as a seven-year-old the night before Christmas.