The Pet Set
Texans have always doted on their animal pals, from Bob Wills's donkey to a fat cat that favored oysters and cream.
WE WENT A BIT WILD last month, when we discussed the delights and drawbacks of adopting scaly, fangy, and otherwise feral pets directly from the arms of Mother Nature. Now let’s rein in our beastly impulses and address a tamer subject: domesticated breeds and the pet peeves, pet names, and other petty matters relating thereto.
Pet-loving Texans have always thought outside the (litter) box. The young Bob Wills, for instance, had a donkey. Rancher’s wife Mary Ann Goodnight, given three chickens as a gift, chose to befriend rather than befry them; they followed her around as she did her chores. When philanthropist Ima Hogg and her three brothers were children, their father, Governor James Hogg, bought them a Shetland pony named Dainty, which was famous for dumping riders onto the ground. I can’t help but wonder if ultimately the genteel Miss Ima didn’t get back at Dainty. I say this because Shetland ponies are about as pleasant as paper cuts, and one of them once provoked me to do something mean. When my siblings and I would visit our grandparents in Bay City during the summer, they’d often take us into Houston for the day, to the zoo, the park, a movie—or Kiddie Wonderland, a battered amusement parkette on South Main that boasted a few moth-eaten Shetland ponies. I always seemed to get an especially surly poop-colored critter that snapped at me throughout the entire ride. One summer, when I was nine or so, I planned a simple act of revenge, and to this day when I play the word-association game with my sister Nancy and say “Shetland pony,” she instantly replies, “Straight pin.”
Real horses—as opposed to those Rhode Island-size pretenders—are by far the most romanticized of Texas animals. That’s because horses are never just companions but also, at the very least, transportation and sometimes co-workers or even comrades in arms as well. For the better part of the nineteenth century, they were more valuable than money; the life of a settler or a soldier often depended on his mount. No wonder horse thieves were so despised and so often the guests of honor at “necktie parties.” Sam Houston owned many horses in his seventy years, but the best-known is Saracen, the white stallion he rode into battle at San Jacinto on April 21, 1836. Houston suffered an ankle wound; Saracen was killed. Sixty-two years later, during another war, Lieutenant Colonel Theodore Roosevelt, who had trained with his Rough Riders in San Antonio, led the cavalrymen up San Juan Hill on a pony named Texas. Some horses went Hollywood, like Buttermilk and Champ, who belonged to Dale Evans and Gene Autry, respectively.
Handy as horses may be, though, dogs are the definitive Texas pet. (A horse doesn’t fit in a pickup, and a cat would look silly in one.) Every self-respecting Texas politician has a dog. LBJ owned so many that the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library maintains a separate Web page on them; the most famous is Him, the beagle that LBJ once hoisted by the ears, provoking an outcry from animal lovers. Today George W. Bush has Barney, a Scottish terrier, and Spot, the only second-generation White House pet in history. Spot’s sainted mother, Mildred Kerr Bush, was a springer spaniel who belonged to the president’s parents, George and Barbara Bush. So much for publicity hounds. Texas’ Everydogs range from “hog dogs,” specially trained to hunt feral pigs (a job not for the timid—remember what befell Old Yeller when he tangled with those wild hogs), to bred-in-the-bone hunters such as Walker hounds, with their distinctive baying and their talent for tracking and treeing game. Many of the latter are buried in an unusual pet graveyard, the National Hall of Fame Cemetery for Foxhounds, in the Sabine National Forest near the Louisiana line.
Some of Texas’ most adored dogs are strictly fictional, like the aforementioned Old Yeller, the title character of Fred Gipson’s 1956 novel and Walt Disney’s 1957 film. Spike, a mostly retriever mix who was rescued from a California pound, did such a fine job playing Yeller that he won the animal equivalent of the Oscar, the PATSY (Performing Animal Top Star of the Year), whose many other recipients are a nostalgia blast for baby boomers: Trigger, Fury, Mr. Ed, Flipper, Rin Tin Tin. Old Yeller long reigned as Texas’ star canine, but that was before Hank the Cowdog, the mystery-solving mutt created by rancher-writer John Erickson, of Perryton. Scruffy Hank turns 20 this year—make that 140—and has appeared in 41 books so far.
Cats in general are hardly the tough, loyal, devoted creatures that horses and dogs are. I must own up to deep reservations about cats, a prejudice that lingers from my childhood, when I had an irrational fear of black panthers (perhaps they were especially prevalent in the Panhandle in the late fifties?). At any rate, black panthers lurked under my bed at night, ready to savage my ankles should I attempt to get up and go to the bathroom. Historically speaking, though, cats of the normal household variety were valued by early Texans for rodent control. But even back then, cat lovers were a little too ookums-snookums about their pets. Robert E. Lee, traveling through Texas in 1857, reported meeting the indulged pets of two well-to-do hostesses. He described one as an enormous feline whose diet included cream, oysters, and “Mexican rats, taken raw” and the other as a fluffy white beauty that wore a gold collar and sported pink and blue ribbons. Or consider journalist and biographer Bascom Nolley Timmons, who was born in 1890 in Collin County and became a nationally syndicated political columnist based in the nation’s capital. His accomplishments were many and varied, but I blanked out on most of them after learning that he had owned 125 cats, all of which are buried in a pet cemetery in Washington, D.C.
Livestock—cows, pigs, and such—are merely future food to most of us, but they often become pets instead (or at first, anyway). Natives of rural Texas with friends in 4-H have witnessed the devotion youngsters feel for large, aromatic manure machines. The state’s history is full of famous bovines, especially the Longhorn variety. The steer Old Blue, owned by rancher Charles Goodnight, was unusually intelligent and in the 1870’s led several cattle drives to Dodge City (in other words, he was a dastardly traitor). Champion, a Longhorn bull bought in 1892 by Jim Dobie (uncle of folklorist J. Frank), of Live Oak County, was renowned for his impressive set of horns, which measured a whopping nine feet from tip to tip. More recently, President George W. Bush, as befits his Texas roots, keeps three Longhorns on his ranch in Crawford: Ofelia and her children, Ellie and Logan. And finally, goats are—no kidding—fairly popular as Texas pets. The battleship Texas once had a mascot called Paddy, and a billy named Clay Henry is the unofficial mayor and citywide pet of the town of Lajitas. As for sheep, I searched for examples of prominent state ovines, but they proved elusive. I do, however, remember a Roy Rogers western called Roll On, Texas Moon, in which Dale Evans’ pet lamb develops a crush on Gabby Hayes.
Now things get boaring. Texans have had a surprising number of pet pigs, no doubt because the state was pork-dependent in its youth. Since cattle raising wasn’t widespread until after the Civil War, throughout the nineteenth century pigs were as common as, well, pig tracks. In 1841, in fact, the Pig War threatened diplomatic relations between France and the Republic of Texas. The French chargé d’affaires in Austin objected to a local innkeeper’s laxness in livestock control after several of the man’s pigs invaded the French legation, consuming, among other things, expensive linens and handwritten communiqués. When le monsieur ordered a servant to shoot the animals, the slaughter infuriated Texans and the attaché left town toot sweet. An even sadder story: In 1842 a lieutenant in the Texas Navy named Downing Crisp wrote to his commander in chief, Sam Houston, that he and his subordinates were starving and broke. When supplies didn’t arrived, he was forced to butcher and cook his pet pig, thus saving his own life by—get ready—downing crisp pork. Subsequent pigs of note include two swimmers: Ralph, who was long the hammy headliner at San Marcos’ Aquarena Springs (actually, Ralph was a series of performers, à la Lassie), and Corpus Christi’s Priscilla, who saved a child from drowning in 1984. She became the only pig ever named to the Texas Animal Hall of Fame, an honor roll maintained by the state’s veterinarians.
As for birds, let’s face it: They are creatures that, in Texas, we tend to admire either through binoculars or down the barrel of a gun. Don’t get me wrong: I like birds. When I was a kid, we owned a succession of parakeets, which my mother favored because they’re friendly and pettable and because their blue and green feathers matched her living-room decor. But avian celebrities in Texas are few and far between (my inquiries into the subject proved to be a wild-goose chase). Then again, there was Bird, a feisty cockatoo owned by the late Kevin Butler, of Dallas. When intruders invaded Butler’s home last year and beat him to death, Bird flew to his master’s defense. Bird died too, but in the melee he pecked one of the attackers, and DNA testing of the blood on his beak helped nail the killers. If I were a vet, I would nominate Bird posthumously for the Texas Animal Hall of Fame. He was truly man’s best (feathered) friend.