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I was driving home alone one afternoon many years ago. On the seat next to me was a cardboard box. I think now, looking back on it, that I had some premonition of how the contents of that box, to a degree all out of proportion to its size, would change my family, and change me. Arriving home, I pulled into the driveway and emptied the contents of the box onto the ground. Missy, an 8-week-old lab mutt, entered our lives.

Owning pets affects us in a mysterious way, like the wind we can feel but cannot describe. It is a complex experience that includes times of unalloyed joy and laughter, and also frustration, satisfaction, sometimes tears and at last a kind of love.

And love is not too strong a word, but what we mean by it in relation to our animals is qualitatively and fundamentally different from what we mean when we use the word to describe human relations. The greatest gifts an animal can give us come when we are clear on the difference. Still, a kind of love it surely is.

My neighbors may demur. The barking, the digging, the lawn deposits, all these may not add up to love in their minds. But if one wishes to have the finest view of the relations between animal and human, it is to be found in my daughter, Emily.

Emily is our animal girl. She has had a special relationship with our dogs Missy, Biscuit and Bert. I don’t recall this ever becoming obvious for the first time. It was so natural a thing that it more or less happened without our noticing. Emily and Missy. They went together like salt and pepper.

When Missy first arrived, they were an even match. But a little puppy destined to become a big dog grows much faster than a little girl. It was an affecting sight to see our Emily “training” a dog three times her size or dressing her up in people clothes or playing house. Missy, far from merely enduring it, reveled in the attention.

After 10 wonderful years with us Missy developed a limp which grew steadily worse. Finally the news came. The dear old thing had bone cancer.

What is the right thing to do when a beloved animal has a chronic disease? We tried to balance our desire to treat Missy with our ethical concerns about expensive treatments for animals. Missy had one of her front legs amputated, and this enabled her to be with us a few more months.

The inevitable day came. I won’t talk about it because it’s too private. Suffice to say it was one of those defining days when something important comes into clear focus. Little girls grow up and sometimes circumstances push them along. When Emily left the house with me and Missy she was a heartbroken young lady. She came home in tears, we both did, but she came home stronger and wiser for having done the right thing.

Biscuit came to help Missy through her last days, and to help us through them, too. She did both admirably. Biscuit was a rescue dog, with a full complement of bad habits and neuroses. Yet under the irresistible influence of Emily’s attention and affection, even this strange hound, derivative with an over-active nose, has found her way into our hearts.

And Bert, our newest lab, has been on the scene since April. He and Biscuit quickly became inseparable. Together they are the dream team for destroyed furniture, dirtied floors, sky-high veterinarian fees, and laughter and more laughter and still more laughter.

And then there’s Lollipop, or Lolls as we called her. She was a tired old Morgan pony with Cushings disease, but she rocked our world. Like any father of a “horsey” girl, I griped about stable costs, subzero pre-dawn feedings and wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow of you know what. But when I dwell on the memory of my girl burying her face in that horse’s scraggly old mane, her small arms around the big neck and the unadulterated happiness in her face, I have just one thought. Lolls was worth every penny, every cold morning and every wheelbarrow full.

The time came to say goodbye to Lolls, too, not for lack of love and not because of sickness, but because young girls grow into young women. The all-encompassing experience of owning a horse must yield to new adventures. We found that old Morgan a good new home with a new little girl to love her. When we said goodbye to Lolls we said goodbye to an era in Emily’s life and in our family’s life. Lolls might still be out there somewhere. We like to think so.

Animals are not people. We should not be confused about this. Their emotions and thought processes are fundamentally different from ours. But there is no question that they excite in us a true affection. And for us parents, it’s a true gratitude. Missy, Biscuit, Bert and Lolls have been great blessings to us. Through Emily and our other children, they have taught us important lessons in loyalty, gentleness, generosity and joy. They have brought richness to our lives.

Emily leaves us for college this September. Like any child who goes, the impression she leaves behind of her growing up with us is broad and deep. But each child’s impression is unique. Emily’s will forever be characterized by that wisdom she has taught us, of what it means to unconditionally love an animal for what it is.

Chris Mills lives in Groton with his wife and three teenaged children. Chris can be contacted at cmills@gis.net.

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