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Column: Talk with the animals

Nik Dirga, Sierra Sun Editor

I have ended up wrestling with nouns and verbs and mug shots for a living, but as a wee sprat, my guiding lights in life were not Woodward and Bernstein, H.L. Mencken or Walter Cronkite, but an unassuming little roly-poly man named Dr. Dolittle.

Dr. John Dolittle was an English country doctor back in the days before cable TV and microbiology, practicing medicine in a small town called Puddleby.

Besides his human clients, Dr. Dolittle also had a strong affinity for the animal element of the local population, treating dogs, cats, horses and birds for their various aches and pains. Dolittle was an especially effective veterinarian because, miraculously, he could also speak the language of the animals.

Unfortunately, Dr. Dolittle had one major drawback – he was fictional.

Nevertheless, he was a great role model. The star of a series of books written back in the ’20s and ’30s by Hugh Lofting, Dr. Dolittle was a big hit in my dad’s childhood, and then later on in my own. Lofting’s classic tales still hold up well today, quirky adventures like Dr. Dolittle and the Green Canary or Dr. Dolittle’s Circus. And I hope to introduce them to my own kid some fine day.

For those who only know of Dr. Dolittle through Eddie Murphy’s execrable recent movie “adaptation,” please, please, read the books to your kids instead. Or check out Rex Harrison’s more faithful Dr. Dolittle movie musical from the ’60s – a bit corny today, perhaps, but no pandering jokes about hamster sex lives like the Murphy movie had.

Besides, it had the classic lyrics, “I could walk with the animals, talk with the animals, grunt and squeak and squawk with the animals…and they could talk to me!”

OK, it ain’t Gilbert and Sullivan, but it was fun when I was a kid.

When I first read the Dolittle books, at age 10 or so, I decided I too would become a world-traveling veterinarian who could also speak the languages of dogs, giraffes, chipmunks and even shellfish.

Unfortunately, I ended up stumbling into writing for a living instead, and resigned myself to instead being a pet owner as compensation.

I have had many a pet in my time – including the antic spotted white rabbit we got one Easter, which chewed free of its cage and scampered off to the woods, never to be seen again, or the many peculiar chirping cockatiels, finches and parakeets we cared for until they fell off their perches. There have also been turtles, lizards, a dog or three, and cats galore.

However, the pet that caused the most trouble was a seemingly-innocuous, somewhat overweight black-and-white rat. Thor, as I named the rat, was fairly nifty as rodent pets go – the chunky rat would run up and down my arms, stand up on his hind legs for food, and scared the heck out of my mother.

Unfortunately, it would soon become apparent that Thor was not unusually fat or lazy for a rat – Thor was actually a she, and quite heavily pregnant when I got her. We learned this on the morning that our cage for one rat suddenly became a home for seventeen rats.

I liked one rat, but 17 was a different matter. Particularly when 16 of these rats were gross-looking squishy grub-like things, pink and blind.

Nevertheless, I was a godfather (ratfather?) of sorts, and it suddenly became my duty to raise a brood of 16 baby rats. They squirmed and writhed about in the cage while “Thorina,” as the mother had been re-named, laid about in post-partum splendor.

Unfortunately, despite my best efforts, I was not blessed with prime rat parenting skills. Several of the 16 mini-rats simply wasted away and expired over the first week or so after their birth. I was later told this is somewhat normal for a large brood of rodent babies -“natural selection” of the strong over the weak – but that didn’t make it any easier for me to keep flushing tiny rat corpses down the john.

In the end, only seven of the former baby rats survived their first few weeks – and they stopped looking so much like worms and became quite cute, covered in black and white fuzz and clambering over each other in their cage. I thought it’d be clever to let them out to wander about in my room a little.

Big mistake. Seven baby rats, when let loose, are amazingly clever at totally disappearing on you. They found microscopic hiding spots I never knew existed. One of the rats was let out and I never saw it again; I only prayed I wouldn’t wake up one day and find a little mummified rat under my pillow.

Another rat got out of my room and encountered the family cat; scratch another rodent from the roster.

Little tiny piles of rat droppings began to appear in odd spots throughout the house, which did not exactly thrill my parents.

I was down to just three rats within a few months – mother rat, poor Thorina, had succumbed to a strange disease shortly after giving birth (but then again, who wouldn’t, after 17 kids?).

My other three rats lasted for a little longer, until they incurred some mysterious virus and two of the rats were stiff in their cage one morning. The last rat developed a gruesome tumor, and we decided it was kinder to let it free into the wild to die rather than let it waste away in a cage.

And that was the end of the 17 rats.

Little reminders of the 17 rats still popped up from time to time around the house; most disgustingly, one day when we moved my bed we discovered several rat-sized holes in the bottom of the box spring, and huge nests of old newspapers and chewed-up socks were lodged deep in the bed I’d been sleeping on.

I was no Dr. Dolittle. I mean, talk to the animals, walk with the animals, yes, but having several rats making a nest under my bed was a bit much for this animal lover.

Sierra Sun Editor Nik Dirga grew up in Nevada County.


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