My wife the animalholic Essay

Fear bubbled in my stomach as the horseman galloped by and roared
at me, “Tell your wife to shut up, or I’ll ram your teeth down
your throat!”

He veered away from us and threw up a cloud of dust, as my wife
shouted at him:

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“If you beat that animal one more time, I’ll call the
humane society! Don’t you know you can’t control a horse with
brute strength?” Cupping her hands around her mouth, she yelled,
“When knowledge ends, violence takes over!” Then she looked
at me to Do Something.

But physical contact is not my metier. I shuddered at the thought
of rolling around on the ground with this oaf, eye-gouping and
crotch-kicking. I turned toward my sometime, longtime lover, a woman of
myriad achievements and maddening faults.

“Okay,” I said. “You’ve told him, so stop
being a buttinski. It’s really none of your business.”

Her eyes flared at me. “It is my business when someone abuses
an animal. Yours, too. Why, look at him with those mutton fists
jerking the horse in the mouth, flapping his arms like a chicken!”

His spirited mare was covered with lather, her flanks raw from whip
lashed. When he pointed her once more to the four-foot jump, the animal
refused for the third time and ran out to the right.

“That’s a fault! Rider fault! You dropped her at the
fence!” my wife called out in a crescendo of disbelief. “Stop
hindering your horse!”

Then she began rocking back and forth on her heels, a signal that
her emotional reactor was approaching meltdown. I rubbed my sweaty
palms together. La Contessa was slipping her tether again. “La
Contessa” is my affectionate appellation for my wife whenever her
mindless compassion for animals overcomes her common sense.

The rider glowered at her, then wheeled and again goaded his horse
toward the jump. This time the mare slammed on the brakes, lowered her
head and sent him through the air as if ejected from a catapult, his
hands still clutching the bridle.

“Rider took the fence, horse didn’t,” my wife
observed with an impish grin.

The man picked himself up and waddled toward us, crop in one hand,
bridle in the other, a lump the size of a goiter or his plump head. He
looked like a battle-scarred commando. His small, reptilian eyes
blinked warning lights, and my gastric juices started churning again.
“I’d better let the dogs out,” I said uneasily, fumbling
with the car door.

“Just Nahdor,” my wife said. “Not Beau. Beau would
jump up and kiss him.”

Beau and Nahdor are 65-pound, russet-colored Hungarian vizslas who
have social-register pedigrees and Hollywood looks. Beau still has a
lot of the little-boy puppy in him, but his brother Nahdor is a cache of
dynamite waiting for a fuse. I’m willing to bet that Nahdor could
bench-press 400 pounds. There is not an ounce of excess tissue on his
very large bones.

The plodding rider stopped dead when my wife spoke. “The dog
hasn’t had his rabies shot yet.” Her smile was sardonic. On
cue, saliva gleamed on Nahdor’s fangs. “And if you’d
kept your heels down and looked up, you’d still be on your
horse,” she added, her usually well-modulated voice rising at least
an octave.

“Bull, lady, pure!” he spluttered. “I won two blues
at the Pleasanton horse show last weekend, and no one can tell me . . .

She brushed his rage aside with an airy with your horse through
your back and seat. Not crop and spurs. Then you wouldn’t have to
use that double-twisted wire snaffle. Look how it’s cut into her
mouth,” she said, pointing to the blood on the bit.

“A man’s got to use a bit like this to make the horse
obey,” he broke in, “show ’em who’s boss.”

La Contessa threw back her head and laughed. Then she tossed out
an 18th-century aphori sm: “The more iron in the mouth of the
horse, the less the knowledge of the rider.”

He glared at her and started toward me, but backed up as Nahdor
began shadowboxing at the end of the leash. He turned and stomped off
to the barn.

In the car, I exploded. “Just who the hell do you think you

“I’7 not sure. Saint Francis of Assisi?” she said
quietly, adjusting her halo.

We rode home in silence.

Later that afternoon, I saw the horse van leave but thought nothing
of it till I found a battered mare bedded down on piles of straw in our

“We have a new child,” my wife said, hr face alight with
a little-girl grin. “That husky fellow and I had a talk, and he
finally agreed the mare wasn’t quite right for him. Since we
don’t have any extra stalls, your car will have to sleep

Beau and Nahdor glanced at one another as if to say, “Lucky
mare. She really fell into a bucket of butter.”

And that’s what can happen if you cohabitate with a woman who
always finds an extra place at the table in an already overcrowded
animal hostle.

I live with seven dogs, six horses, five cats and one wife.

It’s a shabby husband who proclaims his beloved’s faults,
so instead of dragging outsiders through the maze of my marital
problems, I’ll merely say that my roommate is an animalholic.

She is not only an animal lover but a saber-rattling warrior on
their behalf, imbued with the righteous moral fervor of a revolutionary.

She firmly agrees with Mahatma Gandhi: “The way you can judge
the moral progress of a civilization is by the way it treats its

She is an attractive, bewitching female with depths that belie
one’s first impression of vacuous-mind-with-pretty-face. She is an
iconoclast who walks her own line and doesn’t go through life
seeking reassurances from the herd.

She has a weakness for chocolate, back rubs and Paul Newman. Not
necessarily in that order.

Her name is Elizabeth.

Animalholism is a strange malady. Like love, it is incurable, and
occasionally I must put on a show of bestface bonhomie to cope with
Elizabeth’s monomania. Sometimes it’s difficult.

Although La Contessa hits all the right notes with animals, her
outspokenness often flutters in the false

We were once a very popular couple. There was a time when we
revolved, like the wheels of a slot machine, through the black-tie
dinner circuit in company with the heavy-wallet set. Parties overflowed
with women who wore their minds in braids and with men who babbled
banalities about duck clubs and African safaris. If bored, at least we
weren’t bored for long; my animalholic live-in inevitably pushed us
onto the downwind side of the social gulch.

It began at a soiree one evening when a prominent, retrousse-nosed
Brahmin recounted his deer-hunting exploits with measured braggadocio.

“Bang, bang,” he intoned in a sonorous Ivy League
vibrato, “I hit that 16-pointer between the eyes and dropped him

“Oh, Chuncey,” the hostess twittered, “you’re
such a magnificent sportsman!”

I sensed the rising of Elizabeth’s emotional quotient. She
was looking at the hunter and wearing her mink smile. Then, in a voice
rich in jocular tones, she paraphrased Mark Twain: “If a man could
be crossed with a deer, it would improve man but would deteriorate the

Silence fell on the room. All present sat staring at their plates
as if caught in flagrante delicto.

We were never invited there again.

When I first met this untapped charge of dynamite, she appeared to
be the candlelight-and-cocktail type, always looking as if she had just
stepped out of a fashion plate. I was the rider, continuously flexing
my biceps like the all-American cowboy.

At that time, Elizabeth didn’t know a mare from a gelding.

Soon after we were married, however, my whirling dervish began her
riding career. As a relentless believer in human
perfectibility–improve, always improve–in a few years she became a
well-balanced rider. And after several of the leading riding masters
sanded down the grainy edges, she was able to really put the mosaic
together. Elizabeth became the chef de cuisine and I the short-order

This role reversal caused some troublesome strains in our marriage
boat. It was with mixed emotions that I would watch her little figure
guide her huge, spirited jumpers, with skill and dexterity, over the

It’s difficult to target the exact moment when Elizabeth
became a strident animalholic; the virus has probably been incubating
since her birth. But last year her quirky behavior became so pronounced
that I realized I was married to a woman with more than her share of

On cold nights, she left the front door open for the horses.

For Christmas, she gave each dog a moped and a pair of Porsche
aviator glasses. The cats received ballet shoes and a paperback on
“how to behave at a Tupperware party.” The horses got an
Atari space machine and red long johns with drop seats. “It’s
better to prize eccentricity than to treasure conformity,” she

I realized that Elizabeth was floating around in her own sphere
when she decamped with her entire animal fiefdom from Pebble Beach to
Middleburg, Virginia, America’s playpen for the horsy set.

Shepherding 18 animals across country was a Sisyphean task. But La
Contessa managed our seven reddish-brown Hungarian vizslas, five barn
cats and six titanic jumpers and dressage horses in harmony and
tranquility. Three thousand miles in our crowded ark, and Elizabeth put
Noah to shame.

A few months after we dropped anchor in Middleburg, Elizabeth
decided it was time to expose Sandor and Sergei, the more intellectual
dogs, to a bit of cultural high gloss. We took them on the 55-minute
drive to the nation’s capital.

The four of us ambled toward the Washington Monument, Elizabeth
between the two dogs. She wore a periwinkle sweater and skirt which
caught the incandescent blue of her eyes. It was good to see her out of
riding pants for a change. Long of leg, she has a rounded knee, a full
calf and a well-turned ankle. It is a pleasurable combination. Sandor
and Sergie, freshly scrubbed, shone like new copper in the early morning
sun. Their posture was regal, and they swaggered along imperiously in
the manner of those who expect the streets to be carpeted.

Suddenly the dogs put their noses to the ground, nostrils dilating
as they picked up a familiar scent. Horses. They veered off a grass,
shaded knoll and froze, muzzles pointing at a group of mounted

My inamorata paused–then impetuously and with a coltish exuberance, she started up the hill. Sandor and Sergei gave me a
knowing look. Deja vu. . .La Contessa was going to play U-boat
commander again.

Unwilling to be caught in the eye of the tornado, I tried to hide
my beach ball of a belly behind a nearby tree. Tourists stared. I was
sure they thought I was going to relieve myself.

At the sight of Elizabeth, the sergeant in charge gaped, then
leered. The leer slid into a wink as he dismounted and saluted her with
a flourish. He was tall and well built, a handsome brute in a sleazy,
salacious way.

“Watch out for your dogs, lady,” he chuckled.

“Don’t worry,” Elizabeth said, her luminous eyes
happy and flirtatious. “I have horses. We understand each

“You talk to animals?” he joshed.

“In a way. Animals aren’t verbal–they communicate by
reading one another’s minds.” Her voice took on a gently
authoritative tone. “Right now, your horses are telling me that
they are unhappy.”

“These horses? Unhappy? Look how fat they are!”

“Your martingales are too tight. The purpose of a standing
martingale is to keep a horse from tossing his head back and hitting a
rider in the face. You have their heads tied down. That’s why
they’re complaining. It’s uncomfortable. Why not loosen the
martingales a few notches–like six?”

“Can’t do it. Against regulations,” said the

“Maybe I should talk to your mayor, Marion Berry,” she
said sweetly. “He seems like a sensitive and reasonable man.”

“I’d rather you talk to him about giving us a
raise,” a good-natured voice called from the ranks. Laughter
rippled up and down the line.

“And how long have you been sitting on your horses? Three
hours?” she purred, answering her own question. “The constant
weight while the horses are standing still is bad for their kidneys and
stops circulation. Their back muscles must be aching. Why don’t
you dismount for a few minutes?”

No one answered.

Her emotions were still on low, and she turned the full force of
her 150-watt blue eyes on the stoic faces.

“It’s clear that you’re all equipment men. Boots,
buttons and tack shined to perfection. Why, these animals could pass a
white-glove inspection. But are you more concerned with your exemplary
appearance than with the inner souls of your horses?”

By now a small crowd had encircled the combatants. Silence.
Someone coughed nervously. I peered around the tree to see if La
Contessa were rocking back and forth on her heels yet. But she
continued to radiate charm and femininity, a beatific smile on her face.
The sun cascaded down her honey-colored hair.

a tall, angular patrolman with a hawklike face and bobcat eyes
broke the tension. “You’re right, lady, and I admire your
guts for sticking up for the horses, since they can’t stick up for
themselves. I’ll oblige.” He dismounted. Soon most of the
riders were on the ground, and spasmodic laughter and clapping broke out
from the onlookers.

Elizabeth walked the dogs back down the hill, looking as though
she’s just belled the cat. As the three-some passed the tree where
I still hid, Sandor and Sergei glanced at me and gave me the thumbs-up

In early spring the flowers are in full bloom in South Carolina.
Elizabeth suggested we tour the famous Magnolia Gardens, with a visit to
historic Charleston.

We were chaperoned by Barron, Brandi and Zsa-Zsa–the only female
of the seven dogs. They are great traveling companions, as well as
distinct personalities.

We hit the Magnolia Gardens in jubilant spirits, but our stay in
Charleston was a trifle blue as La Contessa almost reenacted the War
between the States. Not since South Carolina seceded from the Union and
General Beauregard captured Fort Sumter has Charleston rocked to such a

We were spending the day in Charleston, a warm and humid April day.
Elizabeth, looking every inch the mistress of the house, strolled past
the steps of the historic Nathaniel Russell Mansion of Meeting Street.
She wore a yellow linen dress of classic, elegant lines and a
broad-brimmed, yellow straw hat. A white magnolia blossom added a
lovely touch. She lingered at the edge of the manicured lawn to admire
a hovering swallowtail butterfly, and the dogs and I plopped down in the
Volks station wagon to wait for her.

A big bay horse with protruding ribs came limping down the street
and pulling a garland-bedecked carriage. Nine sweaty tourists were
sandwiched on the seats. The dirver stopped the rig before the old
house. Water poured from the horse’ back, and his head dropped
below his knees.

Elizabeth’s gaze swept the scene and came to rest on the
exhausted animal. After a short silence, she addressed the driver with
a half-frisky smile.

“Sir, your horse’ sides are shaking, and he seems to be
very tired. Don’t you think the load might be a bit too heavy for
him in this heat?”

The driver peered down at her. He was a sinister-looking character
with a Viva Zapata mustache and a beer gut.

“Now, Sweet Toots,” he rasped, “don’t you worry
your pretty little head about my horse. We’ve been together a long
time. So just you stand aside, Sweet Toots. My customers didn’t
pay me to see you.”

“Nor did your customers pay to be hauled around by a horse so
skinny he looks like an X-ray picture. Didn’t you read in this
morning’s newspaper about the horse who fell over and died of heart
exhaustion? He was pulling an overloaded wagon like the one you

“Listen, Sweet Toots, fanatics I don’t need. And what
would you know about horses, anyway?” His mustache quivered with
pointed indignation.

“I know enough never to sell any of mine, so they won’t
wind up with a brute like you.” Now her voice was icy.

Elizabeth fired her next salvo. “Your horse is lame because
he’s not shod properly and can’t stand the concussion of the
hard pavement. He’s in pain.”

“Bug off, Sweet Toots,” the driver shouted. “Bug

“You’re a lout of heroic insensitivity,” she
screamed, her hands gesturing in short chops. “And as for your
poor horse, every day is without dignity or hope.” La Contessa was
exhaling pure fury.

Then, just as the driver whipped his horse into a rattling
sleepwalk down the street, Elizabeth jumped behind the wagon and began
pushing it. A chubby kid with a choirboy face leaped down to join her,
and several street urchins ran up to help them ease the horse’
load. A few of the male passengers got off, but the remaining cargo sat
tight, staring fixedly ahead in consternation.

The carriage moved a bit more easily now. Having made her point,
Elizabeth walked back to the car. Perspiration seeped through her
yellow dress, and she no longer looked like the Mistress of the House.
But to me, my wife had never looked more beautiful.

Back in our motel room, Elizabeth’s anger was still firing on
all cylinders, so I took the dogs out for a Big Mac.

We returned to find Elizabeth asleep. Piled high on the dresser
were protest notes to the major of Charleston, the SPCA, the chamber of
commerce, the chief of police and the president of the United States.
Attached to the bathroom mirror was a quote from Mahatma Gandhi:

Almost anything you do will be insignificant, but it is very
important that you do it.


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