Excuse Me? I'm An Animal Lover
Copyright 2023 by Rachel Lutwick-Deaner
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
animals does not mean loving actual animals or the animal world. It
can mean loving the idea of animals. It feels sometimes that we are
in a post flesh-and-bones era, that the internet has ushered this in.
However books allow a certain degree of this kind of a life. We can
love to read about things that we would never love in real life,
things that we would never try or touch.
youngest child, Davita, has long declared herself an animal lover.
The very first thing in which she expressed a distinct interest were
birds. She could hear them, spot them in the sky, identify their
movement above all the other creatures of the planet. So clear was
this interest, that for her first birthday, I gifted her a bird
shaped basket filled with wooden eggs. For her second birthday, I
gifted her a stuffed owl, soft and downy. Approaching her third
birthday, she persisted with a chant, “All I want for my
birthday is a little plastic duck, and a little plastic goose.”
She got them, of course.
first decade, and even beyond, were occupied by the toys that I call
“plastic animals.” These rigid creatures ranged from
amorphous dime-store knick knacks to hand crafted wooden beasts to
the Schleich animals, those shining mammals and amphibians, backlit
on the shelves of our independent bookstore. She had several “toobs”
of creatures, dogs, cats, rainforest fauna, overpriced but
irresistible. This menagerie lived in several undignified cardboard
suitcases, which appeared, upon opening, as if the apocalypse had
arrived at the Bronx zoo. Utter devastation.
plastic animals were the players in every imaginable game or
scenario. They inhabited wooden castles, cities made from Magnatiles,
and lego cabins. They were lined up on the steps in a parade and laid
out in cultish circles, observing the bulky lion or elephant,
undoubtedly the charismatic leader.
book about animals was a book for Davita. We spent hours pouring over
encyclopedic collections of animal facts. Small and Tall
Extinct Animals, every incarnation of the DH compendium, all
Eric Carles. Most adored was a book that arrived in her small sweaty
grasp via an older sibling’s Scholastic book fair. Teeny,
Tiny Animals was a compendium of facts about our world’s
smallest creatures. Many live in Cuba, if you’re wondering.
Davita’s devotion to Teeny, Tiny Animals was so
that one night she tore it to shreds. We woke in the morning to find
each page torn and crumpled, stuffed behind the slats of her toddler
bed. For a day, she was nonplussed, a bit irritated at our shock and
dismay that she had treated a beloved text so viciously. Within a
week, she was asking for the book again. It seemed she was regretful
at ending their relationship so thoughtlessly. We complied.
species seemed to be the object of distinct admiration for a season,
but Davita devoted many months to her love of turtles. Not just
turtles but tortugas, the Spanish taken directly
toddler-crush, Dora’s cousin, Diego. Diego had many adventures,
but none were so consumed as “Go, Diego, Go-Tuga the Sea
Turtle” and “Diego and the Baby Sea Turtles.” There
was no more delicious time spent than stacking one plastic turtle on
top of the other, unless it was lavishing attention on the plastic
neo-turtles, emerging from their glassy shells.
live less than a mile from Reeds lake, and I have never grown tired
of seeking the aquatic gifts it has to offer. On my daily walks, I
amble down to the water’s edge to investigate the shimmer of
quick fish, the swans’ nests, as baronial and over constructed
as the loftiest homes on Cambridge St. And the turtles. It’s
nearly impossible to walk by the lake on a day that offers any warmth
and not see a turtle, or five, basking in the sun on a log. I fear
they can sense my delight, that my wonderment sends vibrations into
the air that are too much for the little beasts to bear, and they
sometimes plop! one after another into the water.
the creatures and their resting place are anointed with the
Shrek-green algae that covers much of the lake’s edges. Still
the keen little eyes and pointy visages call for my attention and
admiration. From a distance.
larger turtles, the snapping variety, tails like alligators, can be
found stolid and resistant along the lake paths. Whether these beasts
are out of the water to lay eggs or snap the ankles of eager
exercisers is unclear, but best give them a wide berth. They are
watching you, and they will take your fingers should you get too
close. The big turtles are suggestive of sustenance, as I recall the
habit of sailors to bring along some giant tortoises to eat when the
hardtack ran short. The smaller turtles, crushed like so many frogs
and squirrels in the dark of evening, remind me less of the circle of
life, and more of the rotten lake grasses at the water’s
aware that there’s a distinction between large and small
turtles, that they have names and varieties, but outside the snapping
turtle I don’t know them. The internet tells me that Michigan
is the home of Blanding’s turtle, Common map turtle, Common
Musk turtle, Common snapping turtle, Eastern box turtle, Painted
turtle, Red-eared slider, Spiny soft-shell turtle, Spotted turtle,
and Wood turtle.
also notice that the more a person types the word turtle, the more
quickly it looks like it’s not a real word, but a misspelling
or transliteration from an ancient creation story.
Parks and Recreation building sits lakeside, so I shouldn’t
have been surprised when I came across a rotund and angry turtle in
the middle of the parking lot. I circled it, keeping my distance from
its brittle beak, surely waiting to snap at my beseeching fingers,
only wanting to remove it from the tires of local townspeople, coming
and going from their exercise classes.
many times, I’ve seen the crushed shells, the meaty insides
exposed, slick and lurid after a car has unknowingly (knowingly
perhaps?) taken the right of way on the road. I do not know if I was
more concerned with what the carnage would look like than I was about
saving that turtle’s life when I decided to take action.
I shore up my courage and grab the dinner plate sized beast in my
bare hands? No.
I throw my sweatshirt over his carapace and run like mad for the
water’s edge, where I would toss him to safety? No.
I march myself over to the public safety office to report the
turtle’s whereabouts? Yes. I essentially “called the
cops” on a turtle, interloper that he was in our city parks and
recreation parking lot. The nerve.
public safety officer seemed irritated. She raised an eyebrow,
frowning slightly as I recounted the predicament. She made a few
notes and told me, voice boredom-inflected, that she’d find
someone to take a look. Content, after fulfilling my civic duty, I
returned to the parking lot, making my way to my exercise class.
was surprised to find my friend Annie there, in the lot, with an
armful of turtle. I recoiled as she crisply made her way to the
water’s edge, nestling the turtle in the reeds, and wiping her
hands on her Zumba pants. She chastised me as I confessed about my
recent reportage to Public Safety. Annie is a person who loves
animals in real life as well as in books. We are dissimilar in that
seems I may be responsible for passing down this “loving
animals but not really loving animals” stance to my child.
There is a limit to how much my girl really loves animals.
Real animals. Davita once expressed disgust when she discovered that
our dog’s feces emerged at body-temperature–warm. When
she shared this disgust with her father, he reminded her that her own
body produced poop that was also warm, and she denied it. This
resistance seems to run in my family. My little sister, circa 1987,
doggedly denied that “Everybody had a Brain,” as Big Bird
sang joyfully on our Sesame Street audio cassette. I don’t!
she argued. I don’t have a brain! Some
too terrible and amazing to consider.
my idea of an adventure is a trip to the library, I have always felt
less-than when it comes to enriching my children’s experiences
outside of our home. I have to remind myself that I did take them to
Night of the Butterflies at Meijer Garden that one time. This event
is hosted to bring in foot traffic to the annual infestation of
winged insects to the Meijer Garden tropical greenhouse. Night of the
Butterflies brought the masses to the greenhouse, and after spending
40 minutes cheek-to-cheek with all of Grand Rapids, my family broke
free into the fresh air of the sculpture garden.
were walking down the path towards the Giant Horse, when my eyes
alighted upon what I assumed was a “plastic animal.” This
dollhouse sized tortuga looked exactly like my sweet girl’s
army of shelled beloveds, and I immediately scooped it up, thinking
we were about to add another to our collection.
when I took a closer look, I saw the tortuga’s mouth open. This
tiny, quarter sized creature was alive, a living turtle.
I shrieked, to my children who had run ahead. I found
found a real turtle.
older children, Tali and Zev, ran down the paved path directly
towards me. Ages eight and five, they were like mitochondria, packs
of energy buzzing around the cell. Where, where? Mom, let me
aged two, hung back, her grey-green eyes
it’s a real living turtle, a baby turtle. Look at it!
and Zev were a chaos of joy. They
excitedly named it. Voldemort! They immediately
plans to bring it home. It would live in a tupperware container in
the garage! They would feed it Costco salmon! Could they bring it for
show and tell?
husband and I exchanged excited glances for a second before our
better natures kicked in and we said no, Voldy would not be coming
home with us, but we could enjoy him here. Taking a creature from a
sculpture garden seemed outside the boundaries of responsible
Her older siblings called. Davita! You’ve got to
remained at the periphery, a safe distance from our fray. She looked
skeptical, disapproving. Her hands, little starfish, were clasped,
husband Robert approached her gently, Davita, would you like
see the turtle?
didn’t say yes, and she didn’t say no, so I approached
her, perhaps a bit too enthusiastically, thrusting the miniature
creature towards her. She lowered her eyes as she appraised the
turtle. “‘Scusting! Bad turtle!” she
you just hear that? I asked the world. Robert? She
the turtle bad, disgusting! I was talking about Davita as if
weren’t even there. I was in shock.
turtle’s good. It’s a baby turtle, Davita. It’s
good! Who was I convincing?
and Zev had caught onto the conversation, and they joined in, a bit
too raucously. Davita stepped back. She was done. She had no
interest, and we couldn’t convince her otherwise. She loved her
toy turtles, but she took no joy in nature’s little marvel. Zev
took the turtle and with great enthusiasm allowed him to tumble into
a rivulet along the footpath. Goodbye, Voldy. Bad turtle.
could my child who knew so much about animals, who spent so much of
her waking hours imagining their lives, lavishing attention upon
their facsimiles, find the baby turtle ‘scusting?
of us who live in books often live so far away from the palpable
realities of the natural world. I sit in my public library, looking
out on Reeds Lake, seeing the wind blow in the nameless trees, well
aware that there’s a whole world out there, but I can’t
feel it or smell it or taste it. I realize that I have grown my
animal loving daughter in the same bookish world, wherein the nuances
of nature are described lovingly and with wonderment, but there’s
no clear pathway to experience reality. Not even the ever present
aquarium in the library children’s room, housing painted
turtles and axolotls, is the same as stepping ankle-deep in the muck
of our lake to get close to an actual, living animal.
circle around the natural, the inevitable. We idealize our beloved,
our constant companions, and yet we are reviled by their sweat, their
stink, their visceral nature. In her essay “Sister Turtle,”
Mary Oliver promises us, “All things are meltable, and
replaceable. Not at this moment, but soon enough, we are lambs and we
are leaves, and we are stars, and the shining, mysterious pond water
would say that we are all stories on a page. We are books and pages
and words and symbols that if you stare at long enough can mean
nothing and everything. We can be reshelved. We can be loved so
intensely, that we are shredded and hidden behind the bed slats. We
can pour all of our love into something, and then declare ‘Scusting,
am a college professor, mother, and ruminator, living in the Midwest.
I earned a BA in English from Colgate University, and an MA in
English Literature from North Carolina State University. I will
graduate with a MFA in Creative Nonfiction at Queens University of
Charlotte in May 2023. I
have published book reviews for the Southern
Review of Books,
and I have had one personal essay published in Streetlight
I have never earned any money for my published work.
I am not reading or grading student papers, I am making a mess in the
kitchen. You can find me on Instagram https://firstname.lastname@example.org/
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