Mama Wants A Llama

My wife has been lusting after a llama ever since our son Patrick told us how affectionate and easy to take care of they are. He knows someone who has a llama farm and raises them for profit, but he wasn't pushing that on us.

"They answer to their names. They come when called," Lucy said, staring out of the window at the empty field. "You can make sweaters out of their wool."

When our children were growing up, we had dogs and cats and a variety of outside animals including a Mexican burro that Lucy ordered as a Christmas surprise from the Sears catalog. The week Patrick was born, the goat had two kids under the house directly below the sofa, where the week before a stray cat had dropped a litter.

Lucy was brought up on a farm and has always had animals. There is a picture of her at the age of two feeding a lamb from a baby's bottle. She claims to have a vivid memory of just how hard it tugged. She had a chocolate Lab named Abe Lincoln, a cat name Pssst, a pony named Ten Bucks, and a featherless chicken named MacGregor that she kept in her bedroom. Naturally, she would want a llama. I was a city boy with a history of spaniels.

Llamas cost a lot of money, I said. They're a yuppie fad. People don't have them as pets. A goat would make as good a pet as a llama.

"All right. I'll settle for a goat."

"Why on earth do you want a goat?"

"I don't. I want a llama." She would probably accept a moose if it came to the door.

And then, just at the worst possible time, a friend called to sing the praises of the Vietnamese pig. Lucy was howling - squealing - with delight. They don't look like pigs, Lucy said. More like those Chinese pug dogs, the ones with rolls of skin all over their backs. The friend had a friend who had one. She wheeled it around the park in a baby carriage. When it came prancing into the living room, she introduced it as her grandson. Vietnamese pigs were very clean, very intelligent, easily housebroken, and most affectionate. "They stamp their little hooves next to the door when they want to go out. They love to cuddle up with you on the sofa and watch TV."

"How large are these animals?" I said.

"They're called 'miniature,' but they can get up to 200 pounds," Lucy said, laughing. "Hers sleeps on a mat in their bedroom. The only trouble is that if her blanket comes off in the night, you have to get up and put it back on - or she cries."

Maybe we should get a llama after all.

A scene from the past flashes through my mind. We were somewhere in Georgia, en route from Florida to Maine for the summer.

"That cat just drank all the water in that turtle's bowl," said an elderly woman, one in a group of people who were standing around our car. Bosko, our St. Bernard, was slobbering at his four inches of rolled-down window; and Patrick's hamsters, Max and Smart, were tearing around inside the wheel in their cage trying to take off. The only quiet one was Tweety Bird, Paul's parakeet. Tessa, our 12-year-old, was the first to act. It was, after all, her cat. She ran back into the restaurant and reemerged almost instantly with a paper cup full of water. Michele, who had been forlornly patting her waterless turtle, Blip, looked up at her with something approaching forgiveness in her eyes.

Left behind was a whole farmyard full of animals: 12 chickens, six turkeys, two goats, a large white rabbit named Peter, and Bilbo, our Mexican burro - all being taken care of by our good neighbor Calvert.

And what about that animal farm for sale just south of St. Augustine: alligators, pet deer, monkeys, snakes, even a mountain lion? "It's so cheap," Lucy had kept saying.

Something had to be done.

"Standard poodle. Two years old. Black. Female. Intelligent. Affectionate. Free to the right home." The notice was tacked up at the local store.

"Shall we take a look?" I said. Lucy's eyes brightened. Her mother had owned a standard poodle: Monsieur Wooly. She'd brought him back from France on a boat.

Black Orchid was her name. She came right over to Lucy and licked her face. She licked mine, too. We took her on the spot.

A STANDARD poodle is the perfect pet, as far as I'm concerned. Orky doesn't even smell like a dog. She doesn't shed, and she's much too intelligent not to come when called. What a poodle likes to do is to sit next to you on the sofa and watch TV. Or she contemplates the view: follows the progress of the moon across the sky, or a passing squirrel - or whoever's in the room. Even her bark is undoglike. More of a polite cough: "Look, I'm here too. You might pay some attention to me."

She throws apples for herself when we walk down the hill. She stands at the door when she wants to go out - or in front of her food bin, if her bowl is empty. A poodle's eyes are more expressive than a cow's, a parrot's, or any other animal's - including a llama's.

"They're going to buy an agouti!" Lucy shouts from the next room.

"What's an agouti?" I shout back.

"Like a large beaver, but with no tail: South American, loves swimming pools. She says she can get us one, too...."

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