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Mother's Butterfly

Wednesday, September 6, 2006

I used to shudder a little when people referred to their dogs or cats as "furkids" or to themselves as the dog or cat's mother. That was before I had my own kids, and before I got used to the idea of being anyone's mother. Once you've been referring to yourself, for the benefit of your kids, as a third-person "Mommy" for ten years, it's no great leap to keep referring to yourself that way when you get a puppy. I'm sure I make plenty of people's teeth hurt when they hear me talking to Chet. I ameliorate the sweetness just a bit by referring to myself as "Mother" around Chet. It's pronounced, in his backwoods accent, like this: "Mether." If you're still with me, and not gagging, stick with me.

The terrier instinct is, let's face it, a killer instinct. Chet has it in spades. He sees a small furry animal and goes on instant, quivering, I-want-to-kill-that alert. He's the same way about low-flying butterflies and grasshoppers, innocent crickets and roaches. However... Since he was a puppy, I've been working with him to gentle down that urge to overkill. So he's gone with me on bluebird box nest checks, and he's been allowed to sniff eggs and chicks and fledglings. Part of training a dog is showing it respect, and trusting it to do the right thing. From the very start, when he's been shown a small helpless bird or animal, I've said, "That's mother's bluebird" (or turtle, or catbird, or toad)...And he's been utterly trustworthy, sniffing but not touching.

This morning, Chet was standing at the glass door, quivering, on alert. He was watching a red-spotted purple butterfly flitting around on the porch, landing and slowly opening and closing its wings in the morning sun. This lovely butterfly, a mimic of the poisonous pipevine swallowtail, is actually related to the commas and question marks, not a swallowtail at all. And like its two cousins, it's strongly attracted to nectar and fermenting fruit and droppings and urine (for the phosphates within them, with which it makes its pheremones). It probably detected some spilled hummingbird nectar, or even the copious hummingbird droppings on the porch, and it kept returning to the same spot.Chet really wanted to get that butterfly. But just as much, I wanted him to leave it unharmed. And so, just before opening the front door to let him out, I said, "Chet, that's Mother's butterfly. Be nice to it." And instead of bolting out the front door as he normally would, Chet stepped ever so carefully out, slowly walked up to Mother's butterfly, and sniffed it. The butterfly fluttered up, made a circle, and came back. Chet flopped down on the porch and spent much of the rest of the morning idly watching it, this butterfly that would have been a spot of grease on the porch had I not asked Chet to be nice to it.This is what is so cool about dogs. And, I would submit, about male dogs in particular. Some female dogs I've known will do what you ask until your back is turned, and then go ahead and do what they want when they think you're not looking. As if that rule applied then, but doesn't really apply to her, now...And most of those girls get away with it. But a good male dog has a conscience. He listens, remembers, and complies, even when you're not there to watch. I don't want to use the word "obeys," because it's something more than that. Chet complies because he understands the concept of something small and defenseless being protected. Even against his primary instinct, which is to pursue and kill that small creature. More than that, he let it alone all day long. Red-spotted purples are creatures of habit, and it flitted around the porch, even landing a couple of times on Chet's rump (we won't speculate what it was after there) without being molested.

Good dog, Chet. You're shaping up into a fine, fine doggie.I try. I really do. I just hope you never tell me those are Mether's Bennehs out there in the yard. A man's got to have somethin' to chase.


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