How Being a Pet Owner Adds Balance to My Life
Daughter of Ronald and Nancy Reagan, pug owner, and author, Patti Davis remembers her famous family's beloved pets.
Some of my earliest childhood memories are of our black and white Collie, Lucky, lying down next to me on the floor, pressing her body against mine as if she could protect me from whatever dangers the world might unleash. I remember staring into her soft brown eyes and feeling as if we were having a conversation. When I was about six years old, I would sneak out of my bedroom at night into the backyard where Lucky slept in her large wooden doghouse and curl up with her as the moon moved across the sky. There was a new baby in the house and my parents were tired and distracted, so I never got caught. I was a shy, nearsighted girl with not a lot of friends; Lucky was my best friend.
When time took its toll and it became painful for Lucky to move, when she no longer had the strength or desire to go to the ranch with my father—outings she’d once loved—and when her eyes seemed to plead with us, my father had to make the sad decision to put her down. My parents tried to hide it from me, telling me she was at the vet’s for tests and treatments, but I knew. You always know when your best friend is gone. The story goes that I confronted my parents and said, “Lucky’s gone, isn’t she?” I don’t remember, but that sounds about right.
Very soon after Lucky left us, my father brought home a dog that had been staying at our ranch with the caretaker. She was a shepherd mix who we’d named Lady. We took her in after seeing her running up and down the road above the ranch—back and forth on one stretch of asphalt until her paws were bloody. She had been dumped there. It was one of my first introductions to how cruel people can be to animals. We put up flyers, just in case, but no one called. We nursed her injured paws, gave her a home and a family, and I would look into her eyes as I had Lucky’s, certain that she was saying thank you.
Our dogs and our horses were a part of our family. When the horse my father had raised from a filly died unexpectedly from an infection that no one knew she had (she was in foal and close to giving birth) I saw in his eyes a grief so exquisite, so deep, that it pierced my heart. I had learned to ride on her. I’d fed her carrots and brushed her mane and circled her neck with my arms, breathing in the smell of her. I was learning a sad lesson about loving animals: No matter how many times you have to say goodbye, it never gets easier.
I was not only raised with the animals in our family but also with the awareness that all animals deserve respect and protection. I never knew anyone who hunted, and the first time I saw animal heads mounted on a wall was at the rented beach house of friend from school. I didn’t understand how anyone could do that to a lion or a tiger. I couldn’t stop crying, waiting to go home and in the safe haven of my bedroom, back to a home filled with love and respect for animals. Those images haunted me. And my father, who usually had an explanation for everything, had the sum total of none for why anyone would want to shoot those beautiful animals and then display them so flagrantly.
There have been times in my life when I was without an animal, and I always felt incomplete, as if a part of me was missing. I live now with an 18-year-old cat that adopted me 17 years ago, and my pug Gracie, whom I raised from a tiny puppy and is now eight years old. The two of them balance my life, anchor my days and nights, and make my heart grow every time I watch them. Just as I did when I was a child, I stare into their eyes and am certain we are having a conversation. There are, of course, people who don’t understand that, and who will even laugh at the notion. I feel sorry for them.
Patti Davis is an American author of memoirs, including The Wit and Wisdom of Gracie: An Opinionated Pug’s Guide to Life, novels, and screenplays. The daughter of Ronald and Nancy Reagan, she was born in California and educated at the University of Southern California, where she studied drama.