My daughter and her husband recently brought home a tiny black puppy for their five children. All the kids immediately began fawning over him except Ellie, age 6, who harbors a desperate fear that he might bite her. She leaps onto a chair or to the top of the couch whenever he’s around. While this reaction may sound reasonable, the truth is that this little creature weighs all of six pounds. The other morning I watched from a distance as she slowly and cautiously stretched out her little arm from the top of a riding toy to try petting him as he dashed around. Her siblings tease her, but I am sympathetic because I understand the agony and discomfort of irrational fear.
My greatest and most irrational fear has been rabies. Growing up on a farm, I was cautioned about wild animals, but my parents, to their credit, were reasonable and in no way alarmist about the dangers. Yet when I had small children of my own, rabies went to the head of my list of fears and I became obsessed. It began in earnest when we lived in Loudoun County, Virginia. A rabies epidemic that began in Georgia was moving north year by year, especially among raccoons but in other species as well. In the early 1980s, when my younger son was two, Loudoun County, to my horror, earned the distinction of being the number-one rabies county in all of North America.
We had two young Labrador females, litter mates, that searched the countryside each day for carcasses, bones, and hides of every description, all of which they brought onto our front yard. And while my first three children had been pretty good at following my directions, Benny seemed oblivious. As much as I warned him about never touching any creature, he brought me a dead bat that a dog or a cat had left near our doorstep. The thought of him contracting rabies possessed me and I immediately called the local health department. While reassured that he’d have had to have been bitten, I could not drop the thought that he had been contaminated through an open cut.
Too embarrassed to call the health department back, I begged my husband to call for confirmation. That reassured me for awhile, but I began devouring every word about rabies, including the facts that the incubation period could be as lengthy as one year and that local cases had been found not only in raccoons and bats but also in dogs, possums, groundhogs, even cats. From that point on, I became emphatic that my children not even touch peoples’ pets. And I made my husband phone the health department so often that he and the director became friends. (Yes, I am embarrassed.)
A few years later, we moved a hundred miles north to Harford County, Maryland. Imagine my distress when I learned that that slowly advancing epidemic had also moved north so that by now Harford County had taken over as the number-one rabies county in North America. But my kids grew up (even Benny) and my fear receded into the jumble of concerns that toss about in my mind from time to time. I don’t touch strange animals, but I don’t worry about rabies much either – at least until this past week.
A small black kitten showed up in the corner of one of our barns and while I had the instinct to avoid it, its pitiful meowing drew me closer until I could see the problem. The poor little animal’s back legs were so mangled that it could move only by dragging its hind quarters. And then I did it. My bodied trembled and my fear screamed at me, but I picked up that kitty, cradled him, and told him that I would get help.
The moral of this story, if indeed there is one, is that for some of us, a tremendous act of courage can be as simple as a first-grader petting a tiny, fluffy little six-pound puppy – or a grandmother picking up and caressing a poor suffering kitten.