When I was 24, I flew from Brooklyn to the small North Carolina town I grew up in because of my cat, Simon. He was a deaf Turkish Angora that I'd had since I was eight years old, and he wasn't doing so hot. As a child, he'd slept in my bed every single night, and his white fur was a constant presence on our floors, no matter how much we vacuumed. He'd been on heart medication for years, which my mom had diligently administered to him every single night, first by forcing pills down his throat and then by injecting the medication straight into his body.
By the time I saw him, the poor little guy could barely walk. My mom told me that he was going to have to get put down soon, and carried him over to me to let me hold him for what would turn out to be the last time. As I cradled him in my arms, a flash of energy went through him, one that I could feel as he jumped out of my clutches and sprinted into our dining room. We heard a wail, then a thud—or maybe it was a thud, then a wail. Either way, when we entered the dining room, Simon was dead.
Ever since Simon died, I've had an unshakeable fascination with hearing people's stories of their childhood pets dying. As an adult, the death of a childhood pet is a rite of passage, a tangible reminder that our connections to adolescence grow more tenuous with each passing year. But unlike moving out of your parents' place or declaring financial independence, death can occur at any time, abruptly so.
For children, the death of a pet is often our first experience with death itself, a harsh rejoinder to the innocence and sense of immortality that pervades youth.
Recently, I've spoken with people from all walks of life, collecting their tales of deceased pets. Their stories are colored with grief and flashes of black comedy, and they've come to be defining moments in their lives. As one person put it after he told me about how he accidentally starved his pet hamster to death, "I'm not sure whether this is darkly funny, or just dark."
JAKE—PUG CAUGHT HIM LOOKING AT PORN, THEN DIED
I was about 17 and had a pug named Minnie, who I'd had since I was six. I was in my room, on my computer switching tabs between Facebook and porn. Right when I was going to search for recent Gianna Michaels videos, Minnie walks in breathing heavily, looks at me, makes eye contact, and then lies down against my desk.
After a few minutes I noticed Minnie's back was arched against the corner of my desk in a weird, contorted way. I felt her cold, stiff body and realized she'd died. I guess she wanted to make some sort of effort to not die alone.
Alyson—Kept Killing and Replacing Her Little Brother's Betta Fish
My mom wouldn't let us get a "real pet" when I was a kid because it required too much maintenance, so she got my youngest brother a betta fish. He named his fish "Jeremiah," after himself. We've had a few mishaps with Jeremiah the fish, and my brother is on at least his fifth Jeremiah by now—he has no idea. Once, I read something online that said betta fish thrive in warm water, so I moved the little tank to be in front of a mini-heater to warm the water up more. Unfortunately, I forgot about the tank for several hours, and when I remembered to check on the fish it was WAY too late. I essentially cooked his fish, so my mom and I rushed out to buy a new one before he could notice.
Another time, Jermiah froze to death because we left his tank by an open window in the middle of winter. We also had to replace him because my brother Josh and I were changing his water and dropped him into the garbage disposal. It took us over an hour to get him out with a spoon, and by then his skin was black and he was stiff, so we flushed him down the toilet. A few days later, we were watching something on Discovery Channel about fish and found out that betta fish can live out of water for at least several hours. Whoops!
Charlie—Dog Suffocated in Trash Bag
My first pet was a beagle named Clifford. I loved the shit out of that dog and would spend entire days playing with him in the backyard. One day, our cleaning lady came back into the house looking like she'd just seen a ghost. She said something to my mom, who came back in the room sobbing. Turns out Clifford had smelled something tasty in the garbage, jumped up to open the garbage can with his nose, popped it open and jumped inside, and then suffocated inside the garbage can, where our cleaning lady found his rigid, lifeless body. That was the first time something that had great meaning within my own life was taken away from me. I still have a framed pic of me and Clifford in the backyard together.
Mary—Accidentally Cooked Her Bird
We used to keep Heartsweet the Parakeet in the window of our NYC apartment during the summer months. On the morning of my seventh birthday, I ran to Heartsweet's cage to sing to him, "Heartsweet the Parakeet, tweet tweet," as was my personal tradition, but instead found a fried bird at the bottom of the cage. It was early November and we didn't realize the building was turning the heat on that night. His metal cage had been on the radiator. My first and only friend was murdered on my birthday.
Will—The Prius of Doom
I had a yellow lab that my brother and I got for Hanukkah when I was much younger. We'd just come back from seeing Home Alone 3 and there was a freaking puppy in our house, so it was basically the best Hanukkah ever. We named her Mama. She went blind and got cancer and we ended up putting her down on my mom's birthday. Before my parents took her to the vet, we all watched the Fresh Prince episode where Will realizes his dad is a flake. Then, when my parents put Mama in the car, Roscoe (our other dog) noticed that Mama never came back—so from that point, he refused to go into the car. To him, the Prius was the death car.
Roscoe was right—the next time he got in it, it was to go to the vet to be put down.
Haley—Discovered Cat's Lifeless Body in Attic
Stripes was an orange tabby who'd always come to our back door for food. One day a car hit him and we took him to the vet. The surgery cost $300, so we kept him. Even still, he'd occasionally walk around the neighborhood for kicks. Sometimes he'd be gone for days at a time, but it wasn't a big deal. My brother had an attic in his closet that we'd hang out in. One day we went in there, and Stripes was dead. He must've been up there for about a week, because he was decomposing and there were rats eating his body. I think I blacked out after I realized what had happened.
Katherine—Dog Committed Suicide
When I was younger, my parents decided to buy this huge black dog named Seven. She was super friendly, but she was also kind of stupid. For example, we had this swing set in the backyard, and my brothers and I would swing on it. Every once in a while, Seven would walk right in front of us and get hit. We felt bad about it, and she just wouldn't learn, so we decided to tie her up while we played. One day, we had gone inside after a while to watch cartoons and she was still tied up outside. Later, I looked outside and saw her standing up on her hind legs, not quite moving. I was confused, so I called my babysitter to go check on her and we finally realized what had happened. She had run around the pole so many times and trying to jump away that she actually strangled herself to death. That's right—my dog hanged herself.
Andrew—Dead Dog Was Inadvertently Cryogenically Frozen
My sister had a dog named Moppet, which had epilepsy. Moppet died of a seizure on the night of December 23, but we lived in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, where vet offices are closed for Christmas from the 23rd until the 27th. It was so cold that the ground had frozen, which meant we couldn't bury her in our yard, and we couldn't bring her to the vet. So, we kept her in a cardboard box in the garage, her dead body stiff and visible through the blanket my dad had covered her with.
Diane—A Classic Tale of Cat vs. Mouse
When I was a little kid, my mom got me a hamster named Brownie. He escaped his cage, ate rat poison, and died. After that, my mom got me two mice, who turned out to be a boy and a girl. They kept having babies, so we'd take them to the pet store so they could have more mice to sell. Eventually, I convinced my mom to let me keep one of the litters, so we had a bunch of mice in this habitat that I'd created for them in my room. We also had three cats. One day we got home from being out and I went into my room to find the top of the habitat was missing. There was blood everywhere.
Erin—Dad Put Her Cat Down By Hitting It Over the Head with a Shovel
When I was a kid, I had a cat named Pookers. He had a gentle soul. As he got older, he started getting mangy and unhappy. His fur was coming off, and my dad wouldn't let me keep him in the house. I would always cry about him and ask my parents to take him to the vet, but they refused—they're the type of people who think paying for medical care for humans is a scam, so taking Pookers to the vet was out of the question. One day, I came home from school and my dad told me that Pookers died. I was sad, but I figured he was in a better place. Later, my sister told me that my dad killed the cat by hitting it over the head with a shovel in the backyard. That was that.
James—Fed the Wrong Rodent
I had a pet hamster when I was around 12 years old. Soon after I got him, he figured out a way to get out of his cage, so he was just living in my room. It was a pretty cool arrangement—he'd crawl out from under the bed and chill with me when I played video games, and in exchange I'd leave him food and water outside his cage. The cage remained in my room, but a few months into having a cage-free hamster I decided to clean it out and get rid of it. It was then that I found his dead body in the cage—he must've crawled back in there one day and couldn't get out. Then, I realized that even though the food and water I'd left for him outside the cage was gone each day, that didn't mean he was the one eating it. So, basically, for God knows how long I was feeding some random rats or mice while my pet hamster starved to death in his cage.
Katelyn—Pet Raccoon Used as Dog Bait
My dad bred, trained, and hunted coon hounds when I was a kid. People go hunting for raccoons in the middle of the night, so being a kid I was never invited along, and therefore never really understood exactly how coon hunting worked. My major responsibility in this operation was to help put bait out at various places in the woods and help lure the little critters onto our property, which I loved because it meant I could ride four-wheelers around in the woods and climb trees. On one of these adventures, my dad and I actually found a baby raccoon, and it was so cute that I asked him if we could take it home. He said yes, which should have been my first sign that something was up. Still, I raised the little guy myself, nourishing it by hand with goat milk until it was big enough to eat dog food. His name was Rascal and I loved him. He lived on the porch, but I often snuck him into my room, despite his love of shitting only on my bed.
As I mentioned, we bred hounds, so there were constantly puppies hanging around who needed to be trained. It was about five or six months after I rescued my little buddy when I finally found out what happened during a coon hunt. It was late afternoon and I was inside the house when I heard several dogs "treeing" outside. ("Treeing" is a term used by hound enthusiasts to describe when the dog has found the animal it's bred to hunt.) This wasn't uncommon to hear, but I knew the bastards weren't supposed to be out of the kennel, so I ran outside to see what the fuss was about.
In the side yard, my dad was standing in a sea of howling dogs, looking up into a tree with his arms crossed. As I got closer, I noticed a bloody rope hanging from the tree. I asked my dad what the dogs were barking at, and he told me, "Your little friend served his purpose today." The dogs were fighting over my raccoon's lifeless body.
BEVERLY—HAD HER CAT TURNED INTO A FUR
Growing up in Australia, our neighbors were country people, and they had this fox fur in their living room that they'd skinned themselves. I loved it when I was a little girl—when we went over to their house, I'd set it in my lap and pet it. I always asked my parents if we could skin our cat whenever he died, because I always thought it was the coolest thing. They said "Sure," not really thinking about it. Fast-forward seven or eight years, when my poor cat got hit by a car. My parents brought her dead body over to me, and I asked if we could get him to our neighbor and have him skinned.
Improbably, my parents made good on their word and called our neighbor, who even more improbably said he'd do it. He skinned the cat, and we put its skin and fur in a freezer in our lounge room. From time to time, I'd go up there and rub the bag, just to know my cat was there. To finish the job you have to get leather put on the other side of its fur, but there weren't any people in our town who could do it. A few months later, my dad happened to have a business trip in a town where someone performed that specific service. So he took our cat in a cooler on an airplane to drop the cat off at a leather tanning place, and a few months later he arrived back with the skinned cat.
He was beautiful—even his whiskers were still there! He didn't have any eyes, so when we'd have friends over we'd put marbles in his eyes and pretend he was still alive, or I'd run around with him draped over my head like I was an Ewok. I had him displayed over the couch in our lounge, and my sister would always ask me to put it away because she thought it was weird. He's still around, but now I live in a different country and my husband is definitely not interested in having a dead cat in our house.
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