Joco Diversions

Trust a dog — and a boy — to honor all creatures, great and small

Jack, pictured here relaxing at the Arboretum, is quick to point out wildlife.
Jack, pictured here relaxing at the Arboretum, is quick to point out wildlife. Special to The Star

Math was never my best subject in school but you’d think I’d still be able to count how many people live in my house.

I always figured it at four: my wife, our two sons and me.

But the younger boy insists I’m off by one. There are five people here, he says, because Jack, our dog, counts as a person, too.

It’s a fine arrangement for Jack, since counting the dog as a person makes it hard to have so much as a “no table scraps” rule for him. After all, who’s heartless enough to deny a person in their household a bite of a good dinner when there’s going to be plenty for leftovers?

I used to argue that Jack’s an animal — a very good one, but still an animal. But the kid just shot back that I’m an animal, too, and that doesn’t keep me out of the tally of people.

In fact, he insists that just about every living thing we notice in the neighborhood is a person because he has only one criterion: If it has hair, it’s a person — and feathers count as hair.

His stubbornness is fine, because while he’s clearly wrong that hair makes you a person (at least my thinning head hopes he is) the boy may have stumbled onto a truth.

When I look at his list of neighborhood people, all those creatures with hair or feathers are at least as interesting as I am. And in my book, interesting is what counts when it comes to justifying your place in the neighborhood.

I didn’t give most of those creatures enough credit for many years because you can’t get to know them from inside a house or car. It wasn’t until we adopted Jack, with his regular demand for walks, that I finally spent enough time outdoors to meet them, as it were, person-to-person.

None of them is what you’d call a very friendly person, not to us two-leggers, at least. But spend enough time near these folks and you get a good sense of their personality from their squabbles, courtship and games.

As a kid who grew up with Mutual of Omaha’s “Wild Kingdom,” I wasn’t too surprised to find out that my furred and feathered neighbors could be interesting.

What surprised me was finding out that at least one of them thinks I’m a lout.

It’s one of the great horned owls that hunts in the neighborhood park. Or possibly both of them — I’m too much of a lout to tell them apart.

Mr. Animals-are-people and I keep watch for the owls when we’re out early enough. Every time we’ve seen one of them, it’s spotted us first.

They’d just watch us pass when we first began to notice them. But one morning I started trying to imitate their five-hoot call in greeting, and ever since, they’ve been pointedly turning their heads and flying off as soon as we make eye contact. Whatever I’m saying in those hoots is evidently too boorish to stand for.

The rest of those my boy allows into the ranks of people are more relatable.

Late last week, when the temperature started to consistently reach above freezing, it finally seemed safe to look forward to spring.

I was walking past a pond near my office on the third afternoon of that streak when I saw a flock of geese that were as tired of winter as I was. Ice was still hugging the shore, but where it had cleared out in the middle, the big birds were going nuts in their new relative warmth, dunking themselves upside down and flinging water with their wings while their black feet kicked at the sky.

It looked like the perfect way to shake off the long winter.

What’s good for the goose must be good for the rest of us if we’re all going to be counted as people, so the next day I took my little boy to the community center pool for our own end of winter blowout. I have to say, those feathered people in the pond knew what they were doing.

Richard Espinoza is a former editor of the Johnson County Neighborhood News. You can reach him at