From accused pet killer to pet lover – How Andalucía has changed me

After my son’s frog died, I promised myself that we would never have another pet. I was too afraid that they would die, as sadly even pets must do. You see, I was inadvertently the cause of his untimely passing.

Before you judge me as a heartless pet killer, I need to say a few words in my just defence. I never grew up with pets (my parents said we travelled too much), and I never intended to get my son Oskar a pet either (I worked too much). But when he was given a frog by one of my set decorators, we had no options but to adopt it. The Frog or Froggie, as Oskar called him, became part of our family and was loved as if he had been a proper pet, like a dog, and not just a small, mute amphibian the size of a thumbnail.

The Frog came from Cosco and had a life expectancy an thus an expiration date of 6-12 months, or so it said on the removable sticker on his plastic container world. In the early days I would panic when I came into Oskar’s room and saw the long legged creature floating lifeless on top of the water. The Frog is dead, I would gasp melodramatically. Oskar, then about 6 and wise as only 6-year-olds can be, would look at me in disdain. Mom, He is an aquatic nocturnal frog. That is why he is not moving!

Actually, The Frog surpassed all expectations and Cosco guarantees and lived for years, likely because of the freezing Scandinavian plunge baths I subjected him to every time we changed the Canadian Springs water in his container. As time went by, the plants that The Frog had come with died and we replaced them with Oskar’s favourite marbles and cool rocks that we found on the beach. When we went on holidays a member of my film crew would frog-sit, and as they always fed him too much, we had to put Froggie on a diet when we got back to Vancouver. It seemed that The Frog would live forever, that is until one fatal day when I decided to surprise Oskar with some new plants for his frog. Big mistake. I should have known it from the smell of the darn pet store, but hindsight is 20/20. Within a day of having his new fancy plants, The Frog was floating on top of the water, this time not to be woken again. You killed my Froggie, Oskar cried inconsolably. I could not even try to explain that I had not done so intentionally. The legendary Frog was buried with big pump and circumstances outside in our Arbutus street garden, and should still be there if you happen to pass by our old Kitsilano neighbourhood.

With this long preamble, you might easier understand why I did not want any other pets. It is just too painful when the family’s four legged, scaled, winged, or in our case swimming member would pass on.

We managed to keep my pet-free policy for years, but that was before my husband and I moved to Andalucía. Other expats had told us that whether one planned it or not, one would inherit a shelter dog or a homeless cat within a few weeks of ones arrival. Almost every expat we got to know in Ronda had done so, since the Spanish knew that foreigners were bleeding hearts for a sweet puppy face. We were basically the only family on our street not having at least a couple of canine or feline companions, though this did not mean that the owners either cared for them or had the appropriate space for their pets. Personally, I was utterly content with simply being a slightly hands-off play aunt to all our friends’ pooches.

You might of course find me completely callous, but I believe the reason for our pet-less lives was that we had just not met our kind of pet yet. Once we began the search for a house, we both fell in love with a teardown, whose main attraction, at least in my case, was the tailless lizard that scurried off into the dusty interior every time we kicked the front door open. The lizard became the token for our search and no other house stood up to its charm, so we bought the place, rumble and all. Unfortunately, but not unexpectedly, the poor lizard disappeared some time during the two years we had to wait for our building permit and the subsequent near complete teardown and rebuild. I prayed that the lizard had moved into Juan’s next door, still an original village construction like ours had been, instead of having been crushed by a falling beam.

When we finally could move into the completed house, we planted some rosemary bushes in the old terra cotta olive pots that we had found in the house. On a hot summer night we had a wonderful surprise. Some very distant relations of the tailless lizard had come to live with us. Actually these particular ones were not lizards, but geckos, with suction cups on their wide fingers, allowing them to climb walls like Spiderman, only without a net. Geckos, lizards, they were all welcome. We named the fat one Umberto Major and the smaller one Umberto Minor, though in retrospect I believe they were a couple, as later noticed some Umberto Juniors running about.

The Umbertos still have their home behind the old Arab doors that we hung as a decoration on the lower terrace. This real estate choice is not because they like my Cantabrian blue paint. From this optimal spot they can keep a 360• lookout for bugs, which seem to be abundant judging by their healthy girth. The family comes mostly out on hot nights and will play dead when disturbed, before pelting off behind a planter. Taking photos have therefore turned out to be a challenge, especially since they do not listen to my kettle calls.

Our reptile pet repertory is however not limited to geckos. We also have a lizard family living in our community garden for the third year in a row. There was a rumours amongst the other hortelanos, or community gardeners that we had a snake in our plot, but surely they just didn’t know their reptiles and had seen the long tail of our daddy lizard.

Andalucía offers an almost unlimited range of pet choices for the interested expat. There are the traditional donkeys, goats, hens, sheep and horses, though a little cerdito Ibérico (Iberian piglet) would also be a pleasant companion. And you could always eat it, should you get tired of its company… However, as for ourselves, we are happy with our reptiles.

The good thing with our Andalucian pets is that they take care of their own feeding, as long as we provide plans and shade. They will not die on us or need a sitter when we go traveling. Granted, they are not the petting kind, nor much for conversation, but neither was The (much missed) Frog. Every year, new generations of geckos come back in the spring, staying with us until late into the fall, at which point they hide for the winter. The Umbertos are the first thing I say good morning to when I come out to water the plants and though they don’t exactly run out to greet me, I can feel their eyes on me and know they like my calming voice and occasional humming.

The other day, when I watered the succulents in our front window, there was a tiny lizard, with a tail, staring at me, making sure I knew that this was his turf I was entering.

Oh, hello I said, you’re finally back!

Maybe it wasn’t the tailless lizard that used to live in the old ruin, though their tails grow out again, but I took it as a good sign anyhow. I mean, an Andalucian home is not a real home unless you have a resident lizard. At least until we decide to get a donkey…