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Kate's Mini Menagerie

I was standing in the kitchen with my mom and my recent coursework was seeping into our conversation. We were discussing the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (like you do) and the characteristics of various behavioral concerns. It wasn’t long before the conversation took an unexpected turn to the personal when my mom turned to me and intently asked, “If you had to diagnose me with a disorder, what would it be?” Visions of post-it notes, color-coding and cleaning supplies flashed through my mind and I paused for a moment, wondering if I was going to perpetuate the misconception of every person everywhere that this is what people with any background in psychology do in casual conversation.

Sure did.

“Maybe just, like, a little. . .OCD?” She nodded deliberately: “I accept.”

My mom’s love for organization and cleanliness fueled, in no small part, her absolute and all-encompassing disdain for pets. The hair, the smell, the dirt. Nothing about animals fit into my mom’s life plan and a rich culture of animal-avoidance was fostered in our home. I grew up not understanding why anyone could possibly want a pet.

My exposure to animals hadn’t changed much by age 29 when I was lying in bed in my apartment, on my computer, taking the plunge into online dating again. After scrolling through the many profiles, I was drawn to a girl with kind eyes and a warm smile. I liked her profile, or winked, or whatever thing is built in for introverts to feel like they’re making a move. Kaitlyn messaged me and we started chatting. Talking to her was instantly natural and I checked my phone ten times an hour to see her responses. And, as any self-respecting online dater would do, I mildly Facebook stalked her.

In Kaitlyn’s profile she said something about being a farm girl at heart. I naively took this to mean, “I really love the way Joanna Gaines decorates,” or “I’m drawn to open landscape and being outside.” I was two pictures in before I realized how wrong I was.

As my thumb swiped through her pictures I saw chickens and ducks and goats and dogs and dogs and dogs. I later came to learn that Kaitlyn had emotional support rats in college and managed to sneak 15 rabbits into her dorm room. When I ask her how she knows people, her answer is often to shrug and say something like, “through poultry,” as if it’s the most natural thing in the world. As if anyone even uses the word “poultry” in casual conversation.

When I told my siblings I'd been talking with Kaitlyn, I also told them, “She has a dog.” To which one of them responded, “Is that a deal-breaker?” My answer was a hesitant no.

I met Emmy on my first date with Kaitlyn. She’s a very well-behaved Corgi and she goes where Kaitlyn goes. Kaitlyn and I met for coffee and then went on a walk because I just didn’t want to stop spending time with her. We went to her car to get Emmy and I was so awkward but pretended to be comfortable and in what felt like a really noble act, I even pet her. She happily came on our walk with us. I honestly didn’t think very much about Emmy, though, because I was too distracted with that feeling I thought only existed in movies.

I asked her out on a second date. She rejected me, saying she had a dog sport competition the next day that she wanted to get ready for. This seemed like nothing short of a fake excuse to me and feelings of self-doubt started to circulate. Had I come off too strong? Did I misread her interest? I started to write her off in my mind. If I couldn’t even make the cut on the night before a dog thing, I figured she just wasn’t into me.

With a significant nudge from her coworker, Kaitlyn proved my over-analysis wrong by asking me out the next weekend. It wasn’t long before dates were just assumed and we wanted to spend all our time together.

My impulse to start online dating again hadn’t exactly happened during an ideal time, though. I was living in Portland but had accepted a new job in Utah a week before I met Kaitlyn. It was an important move for my career and I had to follow through with it, despite my heart desperately wanting to stay near her. We dated for two months before venturing into the scary world of a long-distance relationship.

We communicated a lot while I was away - through video calls, texts, letters, packages, phone calls, and long-anticipated monthly visits. My day started and ended with talking to Kaitlyn and I anxiously looked forward to the day when that would always be in person. I more than secretly hoped she would end up moving to Utah, but I promised I would come back after I had been at my job for a year.

We frequently discussed the future, including many conversations about what it would be like for me to suddenly live with a dog when we moved in together. “It’ll be fine. I love Emmy!” I would simultaneously reassure both of us. And it was true. I did love Emmy. She has soft fur and is generally not very needy and didn’t seem to mind me joining the family. She’s an easy-going dog, small and cute, and she makes Kaitlyn infinitely happy. I figured loving Emmy would be just like loving Kaitlyn; it had to be easy.

A year of airport goodbyes, unexpectedly dropped calls, and worn-out electronics later, I packed up my stuff and began the trek to our new home in SE Portland. Though I had been applying to jobs for months, I made the uncharacteristically risky leap of moving without one. Being unemployed, though, meant I spent all day, every day, at home. Which also meant I spent all day, every day, with Emmy.

I wish I could say there’s this great movie montage of us bonding and becoming best friends. Maybe a moment when I’m crying and Emmy comes to put her head on my lap. Or a scene of us playing catch in the sunset when she suddenly does a trick that she’ll only do for me. Play the soundtrack and the script just writes itself.

In reality, the first day I was home alone with Emmy, she whined for most of the morning. We were in a new house, her favorite parent was gone, and she needed to make her feelings known. I tried taking her outside to play (usually a fool-proof method for making her happy) or giving her a toy to occupy her mind but nothing I did seemed to make the situation better. And I was just as miserable. Already exhausted, I looked at her in a moment of desperation and said, “We’re not off to a great start.”

As the days progressed, she settled in and whined much less. And I made my way through many firsts of dog ownership: first time playing catch, first time picking up her poop, first walk of shame when I forgot a bag to pick up her poop, first time feeding her. There was a lot of growth going on here.

I knew when I started dating Kaitlyn that animals were going to be part of my life. I’m just not sure I fully processed how soon that would happen. Just when I was feeling like I’d adjusted to living with a dog, Kaitlyn came home from work and announced she wanted a tortoise. “I’ve always wanted one,” she said. I tried to ignore the fact that not once in the time I’d known her had she mentioned this and listened to the facts of what I’d be signing up for. She ultimately won me over after she told me she wanted to name him Franklin (I couldn't wait for him to count by twos and tie his shoes).

When he arrived, he was no bigger than a silver dollar but lest you think he was unimposing, his enclosure took up no less than the entire top of our double-wide dresser. There are some key characteristics that made him the perfect next pet, though: he didn’t make a lot of noise, he didn’t smell, his upkeep was inexpensive, and he liked to be left alone (maybe I have a spirit animal after all).

But tragically, despite Kaitlyn’s attentive care and a couple trips to the vet (who knew?!), Franklin passed away after only a few months. He was sick, failed to grow, and ultimately his little lungs gave up on him. We buried him under a tree in the backyard and my heart was (I’ll admit, unexpectedly) heavy after the loss of his little life.

It was a few months later when we decided to get a second dog. I was simultaneously terrified of having another wet nose in the house and curious about what it’d be like to have a puppy. Enter Cedar, a sable Cardigan Welsh Corgi who looks like a little fox dog with a big ol’ Beagle nose. She’s a goofy, happy-go-lucky dog whose love language is casually licking your feet as she walks by. We taught her to put her paw on top of your outstretched hand whenever you say, “pound it,” and my grinchy pet heart grew two sizes that day. While Emmy and I lovingly co-exist, there’s something about the bond she has with Kaitlyn that’s impenetrable – I’m just the third-wheel over here. Since Kaitlyn and I both met Cedar at the same time, I had a fighting chance to win a place in her heart (mostly through copious amounts of treats; we might be related). Make no mistake, Kaitlyn is the favorite and the dogs are known to wait outside the bathroom door, un-phased by my presence in the room, anxiously anticipating her re-entry. But, I think I’ve also managed to make a place in their lives and, in a shocking twist of events, they’ve made a place in mine.

We bought a house a year later and let me tell you, our animal trajectory has taken off. After we’d painted and moved in, the first major house project was building a chicken coop. By now I’d learned that Kaitlyn knows how to treat her animals right and I was starting to readily recognize her high standards for any animal habitat. A year ago, I would’ve thought an appropriately sized chicken coop was approximately the same size as Snoopy’s house. Now, I just take what my first instinct is, multiply it by ten, and sometimes I’m in the ballpark. The plans we went with are aptly named The Garden Loft and, after a month and a half of work, yielded a coop the size of a tiny house. We became the proud owners of ten chickens – including Harper, Raven, Hedwig, and Poe, because I can’t help myself – and I haven’t bought eggs since.

Our quick pace of animal acquisition only continues and we now have two new tortoises - Olive and Thistle; two ducks - Fern and Willow; and four rats – Gus, Darwin, Barley, and Rye. Despite the increasing number, some things will never change. Kaitlyn’s love for animals remains too pure for this world and I’m . . . along for the ride. My habits of cleanliness, like unto my mom’s, spark flurries of housework to keep up with the ever-present dog hair. I remain painfully uneducated about how to actually take care of any of these animals (Kaitlyn obvs does it all), and I have yet to touch any of them but the dogs.

To say we’re a case of opposites attracting seems like a gross understatement. I can hear the universe musing, “how did this happen?!” and feel the disbelief when people meet us. And I’ll admit, I still have to quiet my Deepest Fears that I’m a terrible spouse or I make Kaitlyn unhappy by internally repeating the reality that we balance each other out, we make each other laugh, and we love each other unconditionally.

You can’t make this stuff up.

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