Posted by: laughs4dads | May 10, 2010

How Much Is That Puppy (Goldfish, Hamster, Frog, Rabbit, Kitten, Etc.) in the Window? Part I: First Encounters

Today begins a super-colossal six-part series about kids and animals. I’d make it longer, but I have to walk the dog.

When my daughter, Casey, was about nine months old, we took her to the Westchester County Fair in Yonkers, where they had a little petting zoo.  Won’t this be cute, we thought, and Barbara was prepared to take adorable snapshots of our daughter seeing live animals for the first time.

The poor thing was terrified.

Somewhere along the way, Casey had acquired an acute phobia of anything that moved and that wasn’t immediately identifiable as human.  This included all animals but did not exclude wind-up toys.  We had no idea why she had this fear; we could not remember her having had a traumatic experience with any kind of moving object, unless we considered her Uncle Gary (see earlier post entitled “Bad Influences, Part II”), who had once tossed her into the air during a particularly exciting moment in the 1986 playoffs, Mets vs. Astros (he did catch her though).

But whatever the cause of her phobia, it disappeared just as mysteriously.  Suddenly, she began approaching dogs and cats as if she were Marlon Perkins.*  One day, she and Barbara saw a badger in front of our house.  “What’s that?” Casey asked.  (Actually, what she said was “That?” but Barb knew what it meant.)

“It’s an animal,” Barb replied, not wanting to get into specifics.

Well, Casey took off after the badger, all the time shrieking in delight: “Ammal!  Ammal!”

The poor badger was terrified.

“Ammal” became our generic term for any creature Casey did not otherwise know the name of.  Once, we saw some deer in the woods outside our back window, and Casey spent the rest of the week glued to the window, saying, plaintively, “Ammal?,” as if she expected the deer to be there whenever she wanted to see them.

Approximately ten of Casey’s first 15 words were animal sounds.  She could do horse, cow, dog, cat, pig, frog, lion, lamb, bird and the rare talking rabbit.  We would say, “Casey, how does the lamb go?” and she would say, “Baaaaa.”

We were very proud.

Anyway, just about a year after the initial horrors of the petting zoo, we were headed for the Bronx Zoo with a very excited little girl who had been told we were taking her to see lots of ammals. The trip was a resounding success.

Each animal merited a few minutes of intense observation, during which Casey would narrate its actions.  “Ammal sleeping,” she would say.  Or, “Look, look, tiger walking, See?”  If it was an animal she was familiar with, she would talk to it in its own language.  Then she would subtly signal to us that her business with that animal was concluded by saying, “Bye, seal.”  Or “Bye, ammal.”

The highlight of the outing was the children’s zoo, where Casey, the kid who, a year earlier, would not venture within shouting distance of a sleeping hamster, endeavored to feed a goat twice her height.  However, she was not terribly selective when it came to which end of the goat to feed, and I must say I would not previously have thought it possible for a goat to have a confused expression on its face.

We have, as a memento of our first trip to the zoo, a souvenir photograph of the three of us, Casey in the middle, holding a guinea pig in her lap.  The picture shows Barb and I smiling, but Casey has a sort of worried look.  This is because the guinea pig was shaking as if it had the DT’s.  That was because Casey had been petting it with the kind of gentle stroke you might associate with scouring a greasy frying pan.

The poor thing was terrified.

The traditional symbol of a child getting older is the growth chart on the kitchen wall, the scrawl that made families in Norman Rockwell’s America reluctant to ever move from that house. We do not have that. Instead, we have a series of annual souvenir photos, each taken at the same place in the Bronx Zoo, showing Casey holding a series of animals in her lap, her head getting closer to the Bronx Zoo sign on the wall behind her.

Casey grows taller in each one, but the animals don’t look any more comfortable.

Wednesday: The First Pet

*In case it’s before your time, Marlon Perkins was host of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, one of the first TV nature shows.

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