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The Animal Keeper

Animals spoke to Whitney  Butler’s mother “in a language only she understood.”
Animals spoke to Whitney Butler’s mother “in a language only she understood.”

There was never a time animals didn’t roam free inside my childhood home — ruining the carpet, pissing off my dad, running to my mom for handouts from the kitchen counter. Each meal she prepared for them was as thoughtful as the ones she prepared for her human family. Patiently avoiding the paws crowding her feet, she found her footing and served many hungry mouths that spoke to her in a language only she understood.

My mother is fond of taking in strays. She senses their desire to be saved from impoverished circumstances — even when they sit questionably close to someone’s front yard. Sometimes, it was a quick after-school discussion. Other times, it required days of careful investigation to ensure the animal wasn’t being properly cared for — thin cats left exclusively outside were particularly suspect. And sometimes, her actions poked holes in national security — sneaking lost and forgotten kittens across the border from Mexico, heartbroken she couldn’t fit more in her purse or jacket pockets.

“How do you know this animal needs saving?” my dad would ask.

And with absolute certainty, my mom would say, “Because it told me.”

If those pets could speak now, some would tell short stories about my mother when she kept a perm, wore pleated pants and silk blouses — before she had children. They would tell you about sleeping on warm blankets she hid in her office at Merrill Lynch, about living in Clairemont in a house my dad bought before they were married.

Other animals would remember high-waisted denim, cropped hairstyle, and pink lipstick. They would describe my mom’s anxiety when she and my father moved to North County to start a family — a wild place with no fences.

Those are the pets I remember, the animals that ran with my sister and me on our big plot of earth. We lived in a house on the top of a hill at the end of a long, winding road, secluded from most urban noises less the occasional sound of a lawnmower being pulled to life a bit too early on a Saturday morning. Many nights we could hear coyotes howling — the pack crying out after finishing the hunt. It was a terrifying sound — one that caused my mother much heartache.

When I was eight, she let me hold the baby bird that fell from its nest as we drove to the animal hospital. I cried in the backseat of her car as it died in my hands. She and I made a box for that bird. We put tissue paper in it and flowers and dug a small hole under the pepper tree where we buried it together. When my sister’s favorite rabbit died, my mom buried it outside of my sister’s bedroom window. We buried my pet hamster near the front porch. Their headstones all made of popsicle sticks and white paper would be washed away in the first rain.

One Fourth of July, a curly-tailed dog hid under our porch. A few days later my mom told my sister and me his name was Jasper. By coincidence, I met Jasper’s previous owner in a high-school photography class. Jasper’s name was actually Buster.

A few animals never knew the house on the hill. They would tell a very different tale and share the many places they lived with my mother after she divorced my dad. Warming sunlight patches moved across carpet too quickly in those rented spaces and temporary homes. There were fences and walls, but the animals never complained.

The last cat to have run wild in my childhood home became ill and passed away last year. My mom keeps a small tuft of her fur wrapped in a tissue and tucked in her bedroom — a soft, gentle memory of a kitten she saved a long time ago, when my sister and I were very young.

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Animals spoke to Whitney  Butler’s mother “in a language only she understood.”
Animals spoke to Whitney Butler’s mother “in a language only she understood.”

There was never a time animals didn’t roam free inside my childhood home — ruining the carpet, pissing off my dad, running to my mom for handouts from the kitchen counter. Each meal she prepared for them was as thoughtful as the ones she prepared for her human family. Patiently avoiding the paws crowding her feet, she found her footing and served many hungry mouths that spoke to her in a language only she understood.

My mother is fond of taking in strays. She senses their desire to be saved from impoverished circumstances — even when they sit questionably close to someone’s front yard. Sometimes, it was a quick after-school discussion. Other times, it required days of careful investigation to ensure the animal wasn’t being properly cared for — thin cats left exclusively outside were particularly suspect. And sometimes, her actions poked holes in national security — sneaking lost and forgotten kittens across the border from Mexico, heartbroken she couldn’t fit more in her purse or jacket pockets.

“How do you know this animal needs saving?” my dad would ask.

And with absolute certainty, my mom would say, “Because it told me.”

If those pets could speak now, some would tell short stories about my mother when she kept a perm, wore pleated pants and silk blouses — before she had children. They would tell you about sleeping on warm blankets she hid in her office at Merrill Lynch, about living in Clairemont in a house my dad bought before they were married.

Other animals would remember high-waisted denim, cropped hairstyle, and pink lipstick. They would describe my mom’s anxiety when she and my father moved to North County to start a family — a wild place with no fences.

Those are the pets I remember, the animals that ran with my sister and me on our big plot of earth. We lived in a house on the top of a hill at the end of a long, winding road, secluded from most urban noises less the occasional sound of a lawnmower being pulled to life a bit too early on a Saturday morning. Many nights we could hear coyotes howling — the pack crying out after finishing the hunt. It was a terrifying sound — one that caused my mother much heartache.

When I was eight, she let me hold the baby bird that fell from its nest as we drove to the animal hospital. I cried in the backseat of her car as it died in my hands. She and I made a box for that bird. We put tissue paper in it and flowers and dug a small hole under the pepper tree where we buried it together. When my sister’s favorite rabbit died, my mom buried it outside of my sister’s bedroom window. We buried my pet hamster near the front porch. Their headstones all made of popsicle sticks and white paper would be washed away in the first rain.

One Fourth of July, a curly-tailed dog hid under our porch. A few days later my mom told my sister and me his name was Jasper. By coincidence, I met Jasper’s previous owner in a high-school photography class. Jasper’s name was actually Buster.

A few animals never knew the house on the hill. They would tell a very different tale and share the many places they lived with my mother after she divorced my dad. Warming sunlight patches moved across carpet too quickly in those rented spaces and temporary homes. There were fences and walls, but the animals never complained.

The last cat to have run wild in my childhood home became ill and passed away last year. My mom keeps a small tuft of her fur wrapped in a tissue and tucked in her bedroom — a soft, gentle memory of a kitten she saved a long time ago, when my sister and I were very young.

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