All of the animals in our house have proper names as well as nicknames. This phenomenon is an anomaly in our house in that, unlike almost everything else here, it did not start with Darwin; it began with the cats.
When I met my husband, I was in school studying to become a veterinary technician. These are demanding, full-time programs overseen by the American Veterinary Medical Association. Though we are called “technicians’, the most accurate term would be veterinary nurses (in fact, in many parts of the world that is what we are called). Being a vet tech is not just playing with puppies and kittens, but rather real medicine. We must be proficient in animal handling, animal restraint, normal and abnormal behavior, specialized nursing skills, pharmacology, anesthesiology, surgical preparation, induction and monitoring, nutrition, radiography, wound management, advanced laboratory techniques and many other skills, and as a student, I was expected to spend many hours every day studying.
Veterinary technicians must also learn to be a medical interpreter, explaining to an owner in plain English what the veterinarian just said. As soon as Dr. Doggie Man leaves the room, his “Fenbendazole is an excellent antiparasitic that I am prescribing to treat Fluffy’s heavy Trichuris vulpis endoparasite burden. Please administer PO SID for three days.” becomes my “Put this white stuff in Fluffy’s mouth once a day for the next three days to kill the worms. Do not put it in his butt.” Trust me, this skill is important.
Because of the academic demands of school, my husband and I had agreed that I could have a dog- but only after I had graduated. In hindsight, it wasn’t so much that we agreed or had compromised. He had solid reasons for his decision, and at the time I was still infatuated with him, so I acquiesced and did as I was told. Literally. To the letter. No dogs until I graduate. Fine, I could work with that. Instead, I populated our home with cats.
Admittedly, a cat is a poor substitute for a dog. It’s like drinking turkey gravy instead of Wild Turkey. In both instances, you may enjoy the substitute but still yearn for the original. Do not misunderstand me, I love cats, I really do, and I’m especially fond of ours. I just happen to have a dog brain so I find cat behavior peculiar and maddening. Take Twinkie, our thirteen-year old tortie. She has made the unilateral decision that her entire world is limited to our dining room table and the chairs around it, and her decree must be followed. If not, her punishment will be swift and cruel- usually a massive turd on the keyboard of someone’s brand new MacBook Pro. Adhering to her completely irrational edict, we have placed her food and water on the buffet that separates the dining room from the kitchen. We have also relocated her litter box next to the food and water because Her Royal Highness Duchess Bossypants refused to walk ten feet to where the rest of the litter boxes are. But as with most things when living with cats, you adapt or die.
Over the next two years, I added feral, hissing kittens that wanted absolutely nothing to do with us. I’m sure I intended to find those hateful kittens loving homes somewhere other than East Dixie Highway, but they warmed up to us, grew on us and now they are here to stay. And I love them, even if I don’t always understand them. By the time Darwin came into the picture two years later, we had five cats and one bird, each with an endearing nickname associated with their personality, their species or their role in our life.
Twinkie is Her Highness or Bossypants, and as she has an aversion to being touched and will scream if you do so, I sometimes call her Mom. Mouse is named after a character from a series of books by Armistead Maupin, which my husband and I were both re-reading when we adopted him. He is a typical friendly, laid back orange tabby. We call him Orange Cat, and he responds about as much as any cat responds to, “Dabnaggit, Orange Cat, quit shredding the window screens.”
Samantha is a fifty-gram lovebird. She may be the smallest and most fragile of the creatures we live with, but she runs this house like Margo Channing on a bender. Her response to fear or pretty much anything new is violence. Generally, she is a very nice bird but when confronted, whether perceived or real, she bites, she bites hard and she bites fast. The cats may not have any respect for my husband or me, but they don’t mess with Samantha, also known as Bird, Bitch Bird, Nasty Bitch Bird and everyone’s favorite during smart dinner parties, Tippi Hedren.
Pepper, the black cat, is Black Cat. If he’s being particularly defiant, we shorten it to simply Cat. Pancake and Scratchy don’t really have nicknames, because their names are silly enough which serves the same purpose as a nickname: an endearing term with some significance that only those of us in the know know. Pancake is Pancake because we found her outside a diner where we had just finished eating…pancakes. Scratchy is Scratchy because he was a particularly vicious kitten who caused expletive-laden bleeding events whenever we momentarily forgot that he, unlike Patty Hearst, hated his captors.
When Darwin first came to us, he was very good at snatching up chicken bones on our daily walks. Until I had a dog here in Miami, I never knew just how many people ate fried chicken on the go, tossing the unwanted and apparently delicious pneumatic bones left and right. Hard as I tried, he almost always managed to grab one in the split-second that my attention was elsewhere. It was during these walks that I began to call him Chicken Bone. I haven’t called him that in ages, so writing it now floods me with wonderful memories of the puppyhood of one of the best dogs I’ve ever had the honor to know. He is a very intelligent, regal dog, living up to his namesake every single day. He rarely misbehaves and is incredibly affectionate. It is because of him that we have Galileo and Edison- for he made it seem so effortless and easy. We most frequently call him our Prince, usually in quiet moments, whispered directly into his ear, as he is falling asleep smack dab in the middle of our bed, undisturbed, exactly where a prince should sleep.
Galileo is our silliest dog. He is a clown really, a Court Jester. He spins through the house at top speed when it is time to go outside. It is not unusual for him to make fifteen rotations in the 35 feet between the couch and the back door. It is the least graceful dancing I’ve ever seen, somewhat awkward but full of passion; hence, he has been secondarily christened Twila. When he dances, his smile is broad and his eyes twinkle with pure joy. If he occasionally cracks his head against a table, he doesn’t care; he is going outside! He also has a very stereotypical pit bull tail wag. If you aren’t familiar, it is very fast, incredibly powerful and exudes such unadulterated happiness that the entire back half of his body is involved. His wickedly strong tail bang bang bangs against doors, the floor, your shin- it doesn’t matter and it doesn’t stop him. He’s happy and everyone knows it. Also in typical terrier fashion, he is always filthy. He loves dirt, mud, sticks, grass, shrubs, hedges– if he can roll on it, crawl under it or dig in it, that’s where he’ll be. In those moments, when he is covered in mud and native Floridian flora and fauna, I call him Stink Pot because, well, he stinks. Court Jester. Twila. Stink Pot. Man, I love this dog, and if you read the backstory on his back, you will too.
Some of their nicknames have evolved over time but not Edison’s. He is our Magic Unicorn and likely always will be. Magic because he has this inexplicable ability to draw people out of the chaos of their day and into his quiet world. His presence is very calming and healing. My co-workers frequently pop into my office to spend a few minutes sitting with him, decompressing. It is not uncommon to walk into my office and find my manager sprawled out on the floor with his arms wrapped around Edison. His response is always the same, “I just needed to calm down”. He will make an excellent therapy dog if I ever get around to certifying him.
Unicorn because there are times when it seems like I made him up. He is a gentle giant with a wisdom in his old-man eyes that belie his thirteen months. Despite his size, eighty-two pounds last week, I still see him as a puppy- a puppy who has this mysterious ability to captivate anyone simply by walking in the room. He exudes confidence and his presence demands attention much like a unicorn would: effortlessly and without any knowledge of just how special he is.