The Blessing of the Animals

They bring you solace in hard times. They crave your touch and quicken to your smile, and they make you want to give and give and give. Four writers share how their significant animal others inspire and heal

by Catherine Newman, Lauren Slater, Mira Bartok, Jo Ann Beard
cat lying on couch image
Photograph: Phil Toledano

A year and a half later, I began working at Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo. Part of my job was to teach groups of visitors about the behavior and adaptation of small mammals, reptiles, birds and invertebrates. I enjoyed this immensely, but there was a problem: the dreaded tarantula. I had to sit with his little aquarium on my lap and pretend to crowds of children that the dangerous, hairy spider and I were the best of friends. “Tarantulas are cool!” I’d say. “Did you know that there are approximately 900 different kinds in the world?” “Wow!” the kids would shout. “Can we pet him?” Thankfully, petting tarantulas was not allowed at the zoo. “Sorry, you can’t, but you can pet his exoskeleton, the shell he sloughs off. I have it right here!” I would then offer amazing little facts about spiders while inside I was terrified that the tarantula would escape, crawl under my shirt and sink his fangs into my neck.

A few weeks into my job, the inevitable occurred. A small girl, about five, looked up at me with her big brown eyes and sweetly asked, “What’s his name?” The first thing that popped out of my mouth was, “Murray. His name is Murray.” I didn’t even know if the tarantula was a girl or a boy, but Murray it was from then on. I’d begin my nature talks with, “This is Murray the tarantula. Come closer. Don’t be afraid.”

Something happens when you give a name to fear. Showing “Murray” to the visitors at the zoo was different from showing “the big hairy spider.” I started reading more about spiders, talking to keepers and zoologists and studying Murray as he moved around his tiny, singular world. Eventually, I grew fond of him—with his four pairs of legs, his retractable claws, his spinnerets and his eight, count them, eight beady black eyes. And just as I used to save the beautiful snakeskins and feathers I found behind the scenes at the zoo, I started saving Murray’s soft brown exoskeletons whenever he shed them.

When my mother and I eventually reconnected tentatively through the mail, my spider hallucinations didn’t return. And when I finally reunited with her at the end of her life many years later, the spiders still kept their distance. It has now been five years since my mother passed away, and it looks as if those spiders aren’t ever coming back. Just the other day, while out walking my dog in the woods, I marched right into a giant web. My face was covered with sticky silk, baby spiders and dead bugs. I didn’t scream or feel the slightest tinge of fear. I simply wiped the mess off my face, laughed at myself and kept going.

MIRA BARTÓK is the author of The Memory Palace, winner of the 2011 National Book Critics Circle Award for Autobiography.

The Dogs Who Saved Me

By Jo Ann Beard

His name is Luigi, and they say he turned himself in. It isn’t unusual for the shelter workers to find a dog (or two) tied to the fence in the morning, but Luigi was just sitting quietly at the gate, no rope, no collar, nothing but a look of serious resignation on his grizzled face. They put him in a run and named him after someone’s grandpa, and that’s where he’s been ever since, staring out but rarely barking like the rest of them, licking a hand but rarely taking the treat. Next to him is Cookie, who has been at the shelter for six years now, a brindle pit in an enormous, cacophonous shelter where there might as well be brindle-pit wallpaper. She takes a treat with great delicacy, circling a couple of times and then lying down to eat it, crunch, crunch, before coming back for another. It’s how she fills her time, stretching out every good thing as long as possible.

First published in the Decmeber 2012/January 2013 issue

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