Maybe it’s to stave off loneliness over the long winters or for their comfortable companionship during scenic hikes and skis, but it’s undeniable that Northerners have always formed bonds with their animals. There were the sled dogs that let hunters travel great distances and kept them safe, and work horses that carried goods to the Klondike. And there have been the exotic—a man in Yellowknife once owned a tiger, another a beer-guzzling pig, and a farm in Iqaluit in the ‘70s was home to wild boars, goats and a turtle.
But keeping a pet—and keeping it alive—isn’t easy in the North. Some animals just aren’t meant for life up here. Take my family dog, Clover. She’s a small Bichon Frise that looks like a miniature sheep before shearing. She isn’t the brightest—she used to try to lick tires while they were driving on the road. In the winter, she can’t go out without thick booties and a sweater. She’s skittish, too. Walks make her nervous. When we approach a person or animal, she freezes, tail scooted under her backside, and won’t budge until I pick her up and take her out of sight of the intruder. We have to take extra care when it comes to letting her outside to pee. Especially when there are bears around.
One June day a few years ago, a black bear was roaming Yellowknife’s Old Town. I heard the news and sent a text to my mom: “Did we leave Clover outside?” Bears are generally attracted to garbage, but Clover was probably an easier meal than shimmying open a trashcan. My mom rushed home and found the black bear in our backyard. Clover was nowhere to be seen—thankfully, she was already in the house.
I’ve even tried to make pets of the local fauna. One summer, I found wood frogs croaking in the mud outside my cabin on Consolation Lake. I had never seen a frog in real life before, and I was instantly enamoured by their friendly eyes and by how soft and wet their bodies were—they felt like soaked Play-Doh in my hands. We brought six back to Yellowknife in my uncle’s floatplane and kept them in a big tank stocked with their favourite meal: live crickets. One small frog loved jumping out of the tank and I would chase him around after school to return him to his glass lair. I adored them—until they began to die, one by one, around September. Half buried in the wet sand of the tank, they were cold and hard like rocks, and their eyes were closed. With each one, we held tiny funeral processions to the bathroom, flushing them down the toilet. Years later, I learned that wood frogs hibernate. If we had only left them alone, they would have lived to see another summer.
Then there was my beloved Bumface, a Siamese fighting fish, who I got at the local pet store. I chose him because his colours swirled and meshed like the northern lights. I kept his tank on my bed’s headboard, inches from my head when I slept. Although his name might suggest I didn’t care for him, I did. I had a lot of angst in the sixth grade, so I spoke to my fish. He was my diary, my silent shrink, until one -40 C day in January when I returned home from school to find him upside down, eyes completely white, and a thin layer of ice at the top of his tank, the result of my poorly-insulated patio door.
The strangest incident involved my jet-black bunny, Pancakes. On a summer afternoon a couple of years ago, I tied him up in the front yard with a red leash so he could munch on grass while my mom and I gardened. Then I heard my mom shriek. I turned to see a raven flying away with my rabbit in his talons. Up and up he flew. I couldn’t move, in shock as the raven got at least eight feet high before the rope ran out of length and snapped tight. The raven didn’t struggle for more than a second before dropping Pancakes and flying away. Pancakes fell in slow-motion, and thankfully did not live out his name. He landed on his feet and sprinted around, searching for cover.
Now that I think of it, was he running from the raven? Or running from me, for letting it happen to him?