Authors: Lindsey Grant
Without flight from his cage, poor Bonsai was a sitting duck. Sterling had grabbed him through the bars of the cage and pinned him there on the other side of the wire, mauling him repeatedly. Inside his cage, Bonsai wasn't safe. He was defenseless.
And I was screwed.
“I'm sorry, little buddy,” I said to Bonsai. He continued to stare, unblinking. I walked back to Sterling's cage, maneuvering around the broom.
“You're an asshole.” He fluffed his feathers and said nothing. “No toast for you tomorrow.”
If there was any hint of a silver lining to Bonsai's injury, it was that I didn't have to shower with him. In the binder notes, I was instructed to take him into the shower with me and deflect some of the spray from the showerhead over his feathers. Far stranger than sleeping with dogs, showering with a parrot felt complicated in all sorts of stressful ways. How would I know what was enough, or too much, water? I didn't want to inadvertently waterboard the poor thing. On a very basic level, was it weird that I felt really . . . weird about being naked in the shower with a bird? However obvious this process might have seemed to Bev, it wasn't to me.
Now that Bonsai was coned and bandaged, I could've bagged
his leg securely against the water and temporarily removed his cone. But, no. I'd already broken Bonsai once; I couldn't bear to risk doing it again.
Bev called the next day as I was coming back into the house from the dogs' morning walk. My heart was in my throat, fully expecting some combination of rage and ridicule at my stupidity. I felt certain that I'd be responsible for the bill, too, which was totally fair.
Bev was thankful for what I'd done for Bonsai and utterly unfazed by the astronomical cost of the vet bill. Even after she'd said her part, I continued to explain my logic, assuming Bonsai was safe from Sterling in his cage and never realizing that the opposite could be true. Though I had read and reread the notes, my certainty that the cage was impregnable must've played tricks on my eyes and caused me to elide the obvious instructions.
“Of course I understand,” she said. “Just keep Sterling and Bonsai caged until I am home.” Either Bermuda was a magically restorative and calming place, and I had it to thank for the reprieve from a $1,200 punishment, or else braless Bev of the tea and the yoga really was that Zen and benevolent.
In my great relief and infinite kindness, I relented and fed Sterling his toast after all. Even standing at attention in the kitchen between Sterling's and Bonsai's cages, I wasn't taking any chances, not even allowing him to enjoy his breakfast in freedom. He took umbrage at being fed his toast while locked up, instead of on his usual cage-top perch.
“Sorry, fella,” I said as I latched his cage after refreshing his water bowl. “You brought this on yourself.”
Poor Bonsai couldn't manage his usual feeding routine with the unwieldy cone around his neck. He maneuvered well enough
to reach his pellets, water, and fruit and vegetables, but the cone prevented him from holding his peanuts close enough to his beak for gnawing in the manner he was accustomed. I fed him the nuts, stripped of their shells, and a couple pistachios as an extra treat. Sure, I'm anthropomorphizing, but his resentment felt palpable. As he snatched each nut from my outstretched hand, he stared me down with an angry glint in his black eyes.
Before I left the house, I triple-checked the locks on Sterling's cage and left the broom in place, propped across the entrance to the kitchen. As little trust as I had in Sterling, I had even less in myself. Despite my diligent review and frequent referencing of the instructions provided, and my fastidious attention to detail when it came to feeding the birds and maintaining their cages, I'd still managed to screw up in spectacular fashion. As prepared as I'd thought I was, I wasn't nearly prepared enough.
I couldn't imagine that many pets would require care as involved or specific as the birds had, but that remained to be seen. In any case, the stakes would always be just as high. I sincerely hoped that even more careful review of my every actionâand fewer easily enraged animalsâmight result in less violent sleepovers in the future.
Upon her return, Bev gifted me with a book on herbal medicine. So kind, and so very random. I secretly hoped that I might find the secret to Bev's outrageous magnanimity revealed within its pages.
After depositing my check, I updated my business profile on the pet-sitting association's website. Experience with exotic animals: check! Though there wasn't a field for it, I was mentally noting that I now had bona fide experience with animal-on-animal aggression, too.
Little did I know how indispensable this skill of managing the wilder and less-predictable aspects of the menagerie in my charge would prove. I'd leaped enthusiastically into the pet-care industry for the serenity, the simple joy, of spending my days in the company of animals. But my job, it would seem, was more about maintaining the illusion of control.
I have an overnight visit with the pug brothers scheduled for tonight, so I put dinner in the fridge. Greek chicken. Yum! I'm with these dogs through the weekend but should be able to have dinner with y'all at least a few nights this week. Just going early this first day to get the lay of the land.
Pugs! Chicken! Love you.
ntil I started walking the Tervuren shepherds, or Tervs, I didn't know that there was such a thing as an agility dog. Or that these dogs competed against one another and won awards for their speed and precision. Hunting dogs, sporting dogs, herding dogs, guard dogs, lap dogs, sure. I'd watched Westminster. But agility dogs were all new to me.
There were three of them: Zipper, the female; Rascal, the maleâboth seasoned champions, judging by the statues and ribbons that crowded the mantel in the living roomâand Slinky, the newest addition to the family and still “in training” through her puppyhood.
On their cul-de-sac, I parked next to the owners' giant passenger van bearing a Terv sticker on the bumperâthe touring mobile, I assumed, for when they traveled to competitions. By the time I reached the front gate, Zipper was already barking through the mail slot. At the porch, the front door was shaking from the impact of
her front paws. As I unlocked the screen door, I braced myself to make like these dogs and be as swift as possible. Once the front door was unlocked and open, I'd have to somehow be quicker and stronger than Zipper to get in and shut the door without her and Rascal bolting past me into the front yard. I had zero confidence that the waist-high white picket fence would hold them for a moment.
Contrary to my initial assumption, Belgian Tervurens and German shepherds have little in common. The Tervs have a sleeker build and a shorter stature. Their snouts can be so long and narrow as to evoke a collie's face. Their long, glossy fur is soft to the touch and fluffs out in a ruff around the head. While both breeds are highly trainable, intelligent, and most successful as pets if they are given a job like herding or guarding, the more time I spent with this trio of Tervs, the more I wondered at my own ignorance that the two could be confused or even compared.
The German shepherds I worked with were keen to please and get their job done with care and efficiency; the Tervs' sole focus seemed to be getting where they're going or obtaining what they want, and fast. Of course, that could have been specific to these particular dogs and not all Tervuren shepherds. I was quickly learning that for every generalization about breeds, there were as many exceptions that challenged my previously held conceptions. Environment and especially training seemed to have just as much to do with any dog's temperament as their genetic provenance.
The athleticism of these particular Tervs, at least, overrode any impulse control or command to slow down. Which is where the extensive agility training surely came in handy. Just as much as their speed and precision garnered them awards, it seemed that same conditioning to stop, sit, wait, and heel were equally beneficial for the humansâand any other dogsâthat came into contact with them.
The front of the house was entirely overrun by the dogs. Toys were strewn over every surface; there were water bowls of varying sizes and heights in strategic locations throughout the entryway, living room, and kitchen. The pantry was stacked deep with treats for training, reward, and dietary supplement. Their owners administered these very carefully depending on the dog and the context. It took me at least a week's worth of visits to get the treat distribution down pat.
Then of course, there was the mantle of fame. The owners were going to have to extend the mantle or add a shelf, as the trophies, certificates, statuettes, and ribbons were threatening to spill over onto the floor. Or, more hazardously, into the fireplace itself.
Once the front door was bolted, offering no option of escape, Rascal backed off to see what I had to offer. Zipper was barking madly, running laps at warp-like speed around the large center kitchen island, while Rascal awaited my next move, his intelligent eyes trained on me and his head cocked. Though he was still, he was wired for action, his whole body tensed for my cue. He was significantly larger than his female counterpart, standing about half a head taller. I was grateful that it was the smaller of the adult dogs that was so excitable. If he were as wild as Zipper, there would be no managing him.
What I had to offer Rascal, always, was freedom from the house in the enclosed backyard. But first, I had to retrieve the third corner of this Terv triangle. Slinky was still being crate trained and was kept in the back bedroom in a handsome mahogany affair that had to have cost a bundle. The wooden slats of the cage matched the wood of the dresser and bed frame, her enclosure as much a piece of furniture as a tool for training. She waited patiently as I unhooked the latch to her crate, and she accepted my caresses and kisses upon the supernaturally soft crown of her head, offering me a reciprocal lick on my hand.
Though her face was still puppy-cute and her head and paws just slightly too big for her growing body, she already sported the lean, angular frame of a Terv. Unlike the older dogs, who cared singularly about getting out of the house, she was content to hang back a bit, keeping pace with me as we worked our way through the house. Whether it was the puppy in her, or the innate animal knowledge that she was the submissive in the packâthe low dog on the totem poleâSlinky was distinctly well-mannered. She was a little lady, deferring to others carefully in a way that came across as dainty.
As I picked my way across the living room minefield of rope toys, stuffed animals, kongs, and other miscellanea that may not have been intended as toys but fell victim to the dogs' jaws nevertheless, Rascal clued into my trajectory. As though a switch had been turned on, he joined Zipper's mania as they tore through the kitchen toward the back door.
I released them from the house-as-prison into the gravel alley just beside the back door, which the dogs had been trained to use as a bathroom. It smelled awful as ever in the warm midday sun, and the flies were abundant. As always, Slinky waited her turn, only staking out a place to do her business once the older dogs were done. After all three had finished squatting and peeing up the wall of the house, I tiptoed across the shit-smeared rocks to palm their leavings with a recycled newspaper bag, dropping my collection into the big green bin provided.
The backyard was enormous, especially by Bay Area standards. A wide patio gave way to the grassy, gently sloping yard, which stretched all the way around the house. It was partitioned from the front of the house by an eight-foot chain-link fence. Not the most beautiful means of containing the dogs, but effective. Ramps, runs, jumps, hoops, and various other tools of the agility-training trade
were strategically placed throughout the yard. My job was simply to kick the ball with them for thirty minutes or so, getting them as lathered and well-exercised as I could manage in the short time frame.
They raced for the ball at breakneck speeds, seemingly unconcerned with the location or safety of the other dogs, so long as they weren't threatening to arrive at the ball first. A fierce game of chase followed, with the winner being followed closely up, down, and around the yard until I could convince the ball-holder to drop it at my feet. It took a while to persuade the ball away, and, once I did, I had to be ready to kick it fast and far. They'd charge me if I waited too long. Exercising them was just as much agility and speed training for me.