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An Introduction: My Life With the Animals

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A very cool thing this, the opportunity to be a regular blogger on The Huffington Post! My beat, the animals. As a brief introduction, I've had the great fortune to spend the past 30+ years working with and for the animals, here in the S.F. Bay Area as well as Arizona and even a couple of years in D.C. with one of the national organizations. A great career, earning my keep doing something I truly love. I did not however grow up with or around animals. Let me explain.

I grew up in Brooklyn, son of a loving mother who earnestly believed that cleanliness was a step or two above godliness, and that animals were just another source of dirt. The home (and home life) looked like something out of a Seinfeld episode: four people shoved into a few cramped square feet with the oddly misnamed living-room (a space devoid of all life) storing untouched overstuffed furniture covered in clear plastic and 2" yellow shag wall-to-wall carpeting raked every morning to be ready for the company which never came. I longed for a dog to romp with through that room, a cat to perch on the back of the couch, a rabbit to play in the turf of that carpeting. My mother, however, would have none of it.

After years of begging, of good grades offered up in homage and supplication, of my hair combed and my socks placed into the hamper, on a weak moment my mother finally relented and offered a compromise: a fish tank. A pet, yes, even a small school of them, but with poop and any shed scales safely away from her floors and furnishings. Not thrilled, since the version I craved was furry and slobbery, I was smart enough to recognize a moment worth seizing. That weekend my dad, big brother and I headed off to Sal's Tropical Fish Emporium for a 10 gallon aquarium with all the trimmings.

I remember bright orange gravel, a clam shell which regularly opened wide to expose a skeleton (or was it a pirate?) as an air bubble popped to the surface, and an assortment of mismatched but oh so beautifully colored tropical fish. Turned out, however, that the mismatch was no small problem. One roundish black and white fish, while not much bigger than his roommate guppies and mollies, was all mouth. He ate the flakes and pellets I tipped into the water from a small plastic cylinder. He ate the plants and even chewed up the plastic ones, did things to the skeleton/pirate too awful to repeat. And he eventually ate all the other fish.

This beast of a fish, it turned out, was from South America, a member of the Cichlid family, this particular kind known as Astronotus ocellatus or more commonly an Oscar. Sal, the proprietor of the aforementioned Emporium, perhaps had not known but certainly did not tell us that this fish, who became known in our family as "Spot", would quickly outgrow his home and certainly would eat anything that would fit into his rather cavernous maw. I give my pet-resistant parents great credit however: they'd made a commitment and they kept it, allowing me to keep him.

Spot's tanks grew along with him, the legend of a limited tank size limiting the growth of its inhabitants not proving true in his case. Eventually Spot took up quarters in Plexiglas tank about the size of my dresser, and long before this I'd learned that the only way to keep the carnage down was to make of him a hermit. Although alone, I never did think he was lonely. Other Oscar-lovers have reported the same (just Google this and you'll see I'm not making this up): Spot absolutely got to know who I was. He'd come to the surface and gently nibble goodies from my fingers and let me gently tap-tap the top of his head. He'd follow my fingers around the tank in a game of chase, my hand on the outside of the glass. I tried fetch without success, and roll-over in the fish world is not a good thing, but he was my pet, my first pet, and I loved him.

Spot and his tank eventually became the centerpiece of my college dorm room and he of course moved off-campus with me into my first real home. He died there, a long-lived and long loved fish, the first of my many, many companion animals.

Since that time, my home has been habitat for cats and dogs (many, in all shapes and sizes) as well as litters of kittens and puppies needing bottle-feeding, leopard geckos and blue tongued skinks, guinea pigs, parrots and parakeets, an owl undergoing intensive rehab who required some home-care, and one very cranky pot-bellied pig. I've shared my office space with dozens of venomous snakes, and I've been responsible for the lives of literally hundreds of thousands of homeless, orphaned, injured, ill and behaviorally challenged dogs, cat and other animals. In all ways, it's work you take home with you.