I just finished watching an episode of “My Extreme Animal Phobia” on Animal Planet. The show featured three adults who were traumatized as children by encounters with such benign creatures as millipedes, bees and sharks. Okay, sharks aren’t so benign, but the woman seeking help hadn’t been attacked by a shark; she’d seen Jaws on TV. Now she feels afraid whenever she looks at Manhattan’s East River. There are lots of reasons to be afraid of the East River. Sharks isn’t one of them.
The show made me think about whether or not I have any animal fears. I have plenty of silly phobias about fairly harmless things: dark hallways, Kathy Lee-Gifford, cole slaw. But as far as I’m aware, no hidden or unhidden fears of animals. And that’s curious to me, because there were two events in my childhood involving dogs that had the potential to scar me for life.
One day when I was four years old, my Mom and I went to the supermarket, and I suppose because I was so well-behaved, when we arrived home she opened up the box of Scooter Pies we had just bought to reward me with marshmellowy chocolate goodness. Inside the box, in addition to the Scooter Pies, there was a toy surprise: a hand puppet. I don’t remember which popular cartoon character the puppet was supposed to be. Probably something along the lines of Casper the Friendly Ghost, Top Cat, or one of the Banana Splits. It was plastic, shaped like a glove, and because my sister was at school, it was all mine.
I’ve always had this thing: if I get a cool new toy, I want to show it off. My little four-year-old heart was bursting to take to the streets with my Scooter Pie puppet. I put on my new winter coat. I hated that coat. Besides the tweed material being scratchy, it was way too girly. But when you’re four, what can you do? I put it on and went out to play. This was back when you could run out the front door and disappear for hours without your parents issuing an Amber alert. Days of yore.
I ended up at the Sorianos’ house. They weren’t really my friends; they were my sister’s friends. Lisa, Gary and Jeanine. Lisa was the cool teenager; she wore construction boots and a leather hippie watch. Gary reminded me of Eddie Munster without the widow’s peak. Jeanine was the youngest and the one my sister hung out with the most. Of course, none of these kids were home during the day in the middle of the week, but somehow that didn’t matter to me. I would show Mrs. Soriano my Scooter Pie puppet and she would be so impressed.
When no one answered the front door bell I was undeterred. I went around to the side of the house and unlatched the gate to the back yard. The Sorianos lived in an ultra mod ranch house and were the only family on the street with a swimming pool. So what if it was above ground? It was better than running through the sprinkler.
The Sorianos also had collies. Two of them. I’m sure at least one of them was named Lassie. They pounced upon me as soon as I was inside the gate and couldn’t have cared less about my puppet. I was a bigger and better toy for them to play with. Soon they were dragging me through the dirt and ripping my new winter coat to shreds. They never bit me, but their play was violent. I screamed for help and tried to run away but they would knock me down again and toss me about like a rag doll.
Though I was absolutely hysterical, I was never in any real danger. The scariest moment of the episode took place when I climbed the ladder of the swimming pool in an effort to get away from the collies. (And in hindsight, the pool was probably the only real threat to my life.) It was winter, so the pool was covered. When I got to the top of the ladder, I started to crawl out across the tarp.
That’s when the back door of the house opened and Mrs. Soriano appeared, clad in only a towel and a plastic shower cap. Apparently when she turned off the water, the first thing she heard was my screams from the back yard. I remember she looked absolutely horrified and ran out to rescue me before something really tragic happened, like me falling through the tarp into the frigid water.
I don’t remember if I ever got a chance to show Mrs. Soriano my Scooter Pie puppet. Or if it even survived the mauling. I do know that neither I nor the doggies got into trouble. And to my relief, the tweed coat was unsalvageable and was replaced with a little suede number with cowboy fringe.
Is the reason the horrific collie attack didn’t scar me for life because everything turned out well in the end? Or maybe if I explored my subconscious, I’d discover I’m really afraid of above ground swimming pools. Yet no fear of pooches. And this wasn’t the only childhood backyard dog trauma I was to endure.
When I was a few years older we were visiting my mother’s relatives in North Carolina. While at my cousin Doris’s house, I was out back playing with their new litter of roly-poly German shepherd puppies. Adorable. Until one of the puppies threw up his Puppy Chow, and all of his siblings decided the vomit would make a great late morning snack. Once their little puppy lips, snouts and whiskers were covered with puppy vomit, they turned their attention to me. Somehow, getting chased by ten relentless German shepherd puppies with their faces covered in vomit was far more terrifying than being mauled by a pair of collies.
I ran to the back porch and discovered the screen door was locked. I banged on the door and cried, “Cousin Doris, let me in! One of the puppies threw up and all the other puppies ate it and now they’re chasing me! ”
The puppies were closing in. Soon I would have that gray, pasty, smelly gunk all over me. But suddenly the inside door opened and Cousin Doris stood there, looking at me through the screen. I repeated my plight and she said, “Wait here.”
I was dumbfounded. Wait here? Didn’t she understand the gravity of what was happening? A moment later she returned. The door cracked open a few inches and out stretched her hand with a paper towel. “Here you go,” she said, and shut the door in my face.
I must have repressed what happened next. I can’t imagine I actually cleaned the vomit off the puppies’ faces, because if I’d had the intestinal fortitude to do something like that, I would’ve had the wherewithal to go into some brave line of work like nursing, forensic medicine, or college dormitory maintenance.
Did the experience have its long-term effects? It is curious that I don’t really have close relationships with most of my cousins. Is that where my phobia lies? Fear of extended family? Because I still like dogs a lot. Maybe it’s because I had a dog in my life from the time I was one year old until I went away to college. She was a fat woolly-haired poodle named Suzette. This was not a shi-shi foo-foo animal. In fact, we didn’t even pronounce her name the French way. We called her SUzette. She was my buddy and my constant companion. How could I be afraid of dogs if she was a dog and I wasn’t afraid of her?
I wish I had a dog now, but my partner is allergic to most furry creatures. We dream of winning the lottery — not so we can quit our jobs and buy a big house. (Okay, that’s not true.) But also, so we could afford to buy one of those ultra-expensive, genetically engineered allergen-free dogs. A Frankenstein Dog. Actually, that sounds kind of scary. But I bet it isn’t.