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Guest Writer


Trying to steal the show
Sophie
by Amy Nuttbrock

ast month, "Dateline" featured a special about the lengths that people will go to pamper, serve and preserve their pets.

There were people who thought their pets were people. They enrolled their Chihuahuas in expensive yoga classes and requested testicular implants for their buff, athletic pit bulls. They bought their animals four-poster canopy beds and cashmere sweaters that cost more than BMWs. They threw lavish birthday parties complete with belly dancers and pony rides.

There was a woman who'd had her dog professionally freeze-dried after it had been hit by a car. The camera followed the family as they picked up their beloved pet at Mac's Taxidermy shop somewhere in Pennsylvania. The kids were leaping out of the car when the mother carried the dog out on a pillow. There was a close-up of the dog's stretched and airbrushed lips. The mother bent her knees so the kids could see.

"Look," she cooed, "it's Buster." The kids were smiling. They reached for the dog and patted its stiff head.

If my mom had been watching, she would have sniffed dryly and said, "that is so sick." My mom never made shrill, high-pitched noises at our childhood dog, Moe. We had a leash, a bone, a bucket of water and a sawdust pillow in the garage. The dog was not allowed in the house.

Instead, Moe chased birds in the yard and rolled in piles of lawn debris. My parents seemed pleased when he barked at servicemen, children on bicycles and people with brochures who strolled up the driveway on Saturday mornings.

During the year, while my grade-school teacher was dispensing public service announcements about "stranger danger" and showing videos about shifty-eyed men with candy, my mom was generating her own fear-craze by wagging her finger about the old lady in the park who pushed her dog in a wicker baby carriage.

"Don't go near her, kids," Mom warned, "she's totally blotto."

Mom drew hard on her cigarette, then jabbed the air with her finger the way TV detectives do when they're trying to make a point.

"She pushes that dog around in a stroller because she has no children. Before you know it, she'll snatch you up and put a collar around your neck like she does that dog."

There was a psychologist on "Dateline" who pitched theory and wisdom. He said that pampering your pet to the extreme is all about ego: "It has to do with my pet is an extension of me. And if there's something really cool about my pet, that makes me cool."

I imagined the family of the freeze-dried dog watching primetime TV while Buster sat rigidly on the coffee table. There was something pop-horror about it. What would the neighbors think?

My cat's name is Sophie.

She came with that name, so it's no reflection of my literary or rock-star preferences. She's not named after a movie star or a relative, nor does the human quality of her name necessarily reflect my propensity toward personification.

The SPCA described her as a "tortoise shell with white," but she looks more like a calico. She's also zoftig and demanding. If I'm reading the good part of the newspaper, Sophie will emerge from nowhere and lay all over my article.

She'll do manipulative things, like roll over onto her back and flex her paws or grab the corner of the page with her teeth and pull it over the top of her – so I won't push her off.

She's vain, but not inaccessible or snobby. She can spend hours, it seems, primping and licking and smoothing her coat. If I pass her in the hall and ruffle her fur, she'll pause for an annoyed second, and then re-do the spot I messed up.

Sometimes she gets lonely and croons in the stairwell like a blues singer until I come over and say, "Sophie, here I am," at which point she rolls over onto her back and makes pleased little cat noises.

She's thoughtful and generous, too. She brings me things: pieces of string, spools of thread, rubber bands and, once, the wing of a pigeon. When I lay on the floor in the living room, Sophie saunters over and butts her head into my shoulder, elbow, cheek, then crawls onto my stomach and purrs.

We can lay like that all afternoon.

Then I thought about the pet relationships among the people I knew. They never broke the bank when providing for their furry companions yet I didn't think I was like them, either.

I have a neighbor who works at a battered women's shelter and reads biographies about trailblazing women. Once, when I was coming up the stairs, I saw her sitting in the hallway, entertaining her cat with a toy fashioned to look like a mouse. Because I didn't want to seem brief and unfriendly by going directly into my apartment, I sat down to say hi.

Her cat did a few half-cartwheels, then darted from one end of the hallway to the other before spinning out in front of me.

"Wow," I said, "she's totally manic! Ever test her for ADHD?" I only said it because I'd just read an article about parents who steal their kids' Ritalin so they can snort it before their board meetings.

When the cat calmed down, I tried to scratch her chin but she bit me on the thumb.

"She's asserting her boundaries," my neighbor said. "It helps her feel kick-ass." The cat was wearing a pink collar that said "Cat Power" in red capital letters.

My sister, Alison, has a weimaraner with huge ears and long legs. She refers to the dog as her son and allows him to sleep in her bed. She keeps a picture of him in her purse and leaves messages for him on the answering machine while she's at work.

Once, my sister and I were sitting on her big, puffy couch watching a movie. We had warm Styrofoam containers of Chinese take-out in our laps and cans of soda in our hands. We blinked intently at the TV screen.

With little warning, the dog came bounding into the living room and leapt onto the couch, spilling containers of duck sauce, splashing soda and messing up the position of the pillow behind my back.

I made annoyed, gasping sounds and jumped onto the carpet. "Your dog's gross, Alison, and he's too big for the couch," I said. "Tell him to get off!"

"He missed his mommy," chimed my sister. Her voice was an abrasive, child's version of her normal speaking voice. The dog practically crawled into her lap. He tucked his long legs under his belly and rested his head on my sister's shoulder. Alison smiled fondly and wiped sauce from the brow of her dog's face.

"Will you get me a fork?" she asked.

There's a woman I work with who collects injured, messed-up and patched-up animals. She volunteers at an animal shelter and brings these creatures home as a kind of foster parent. She's got a thin orange cat with one eye, three mixed-breed dogs – one missing a leg – and two large, lop-eared rabbits. A motley crew.

She refers to them as her "underdogs" and has images of them on her computer's screen saver. She jokes that she'll haul them all into the office on "bring your pet to work day." I once went to her home and all her animals came clamoring around our legs, yapping, wagging and snorting. My coworker knelt on the floor to let the dogs lick her mouth.

"Do you think I'm obsessed?" she asked.

"A little," I said as I stuck my finger through the bars of a hutch so I could touch the rabbit's soft, gray fur.

Recently, I had a friend over for drinks. We were sitting in chairs drinking our beers and listening to records. If I weren't a sometimes-exclusive introvert prone to mild bouts of jealousy, I'd have thought Sophie was being friendly and approving when she jumped into my friend's lap, stuck her nose in his armpit, then rolled on her back and folded her paws under her chin like a submissive, cartoon version of adorable.

Instead, I suspected that she was trying to steal the show.

"Phie-Phie, pleeeeaaase," I joked, then looked up at my friend, who was making a face at me.

"God," I giggled, "she's so shameless, it's embarrassing." My cat tilted her head back to look at me, then made one of those garbled kitten sounds. She looked so cute. I could have screamed.

I thought of a clip from "Dateline," where we see the President of the United States whacking golf balls across the lawn while a Scottish terrier runs circles around his heels.

When Al Roker asks the president if he's included in the 78 percent of pet owners who play kissy-kissy with their animals, he says, "yeah, I've been there before."

It suddenly made the president seem nice, ordinary and non-partisan.

Then I thought of a prior president. Truman probably had it right when he said, "If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog."


E-mail Amy at amynuttbrock@hotmail, and see more of her work in our archives.



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