Archive for August, 2015

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My So-Called Dogless Life

August 26, 2015
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this connection we have — yes, you can call it love

I didn’t have a dog during my childhood years. I don’t remember any of my friends having one either. My Uncle Emerson had a dog, but my recollections of it are sketchy since we didn’t visit them very often. Nonetheless, dogs have always been a presence in my life in one way or another even though I’ve never actually “owned” one.

Most of the encounters I had with the canine world in the beginning were negative. First, there was Trooltz. Trooltz lived next door and belonged to our Norwegian neighbors Astrid and Teddy. I’m not sure of his breed, but he seemed to be on the frenetic side and needed to be put in a closed room on the occasions we went over there. Most of my memories of him involved a lot of barking and an incident when he bit my sister.

Next were a series of pooches who took up an adversarial relationship with me merely because I tried to deliver the newspaper to their masters. Chief amongst these was Prince, a large and very fierce Doberman Pinscher who lived in the middle of my route. His owner, a rather burly German man, maintained pretty good control of Prince whenever I came around. When the man gruffly commanded Prince to sit or leave, he obeyed, though I always thought I caught some backward glances that said “I’ll get you for this.”

One day he almost did. I rang the bell as usual on a Friday to collect the payment owed (a mighty thirty-three cents for the week), but the grandmother got to the door first. She opened it, and behind her in the vestibule I could see Prince’s eyes open wide at his sudden unexpected opportunity. He lunged past the old woman, snarling and fangs bared. Lucky for me it had recently turned cool and I had on a hooded sweatshirt with one of those thick hand warmer pockets in the front. That’s what Prince’s jaws clamped onto. Hearing the commotion, the man sprinted to the door and grabbed Prince by the collar, dragged him back inside, and gave him a swat and what I had the distinct impression was a cursing out in German. I must have looked rather shaken (and indeed I was), for he apologized profusely and as I remember gave me a larger than normal tip.

Other dogs had better luck over the next several years both on that paper route as well as when I worked a summer job as a meter reader for Public Service. I was nipped on the legs more than a few times and once rather roughly on the butt. These were mostly the small yappy kind that didn’t strike the same kind of fear that Prince had, but getting bit is getting bit, and the resultant pain and aggravation didn’t exactly endear the species to me.

It’s a wonder given such a shaky start that I like dogs so much now.

I think the tide started to turn after my wife’s parents decided to get a dog. Why they did this, I’m not sure, but Renoir, a small white poodle, took up residence at their home. Renoir’s sweet disposition offset the inherent high-strung nature of the breed, and we got along just fine. His death brought the sadness which permeates households that bear such losses, and my father-in-law voiced his reluctance to have another pup.

But there were to be more dogs, a succession of Schnauzers procured by my brother-in-law, first Hugo, then Teddy, and currently Rocky, each in turn to whom I felt a greater attachment.

My brother-in-law got Hugo for himself shortly after Renoir’s passing, but because he lived in a small apartment in New York and Hugo had a habit of chewing my sister-in-law’s favorite shoes, Hugo became Renoir’s forced successor. However, Hugo won Pop and Mary over, and he became a beloved fixture at their house. When Hugo became old and very ill, Pop tearfully took him to be put down. It hit him very hard, and he swore that there would be no more dogs.

And there weren’t. At least not at their house.

By this time, my niece Emma had arrived, and as a little girl she had no desire greater than to have a puppy. To at least partially fulfill her wish, her grandma Mary bought her a mechanical stuffed toy dog that walked. Emma lovingly named it Puppy, and for years they were inseparable. Even after the mechanical innards had come out and the fur had become worn and tattered, Puppy remained a constant companion until the day it mysteriously disappeared. However, the arrival of Teddy cured any sorrow Emma may have had.

Emma adored Teddy, and he lived a full and happy life with the family. When he aged and his health started to fail, my brother-in-law brought home Rocky. Rocky was a frisky little guy from the start and wanted to strike up a relationship with Teddy. Age and infirmity sometimes made Teddy impatient with the new puppy, but he made his peace with Rocky and they shared some happy days together. With great sadness Teddy’s time came, and the mantle passed to Rocky.

Emma's Rocky, the pet I always wished I had

Rocky

Though I still don’t have a dog of my own, Rocky is the next best thing. I see him all the time, and we have become best buddies.  We take long walks together enjoying the simple pleasure of being out and about unhurried in the world, he sniffing and me viewing the subtle pulse of the neighborhood. When his family goes on vacation, he stays with us. Nothing pleases him more than sitting together with his humans on the couch as we watch TV, head nestled on one of our laps. At night, he settles in at the foot of the bed (though he would just as soon be under the covers along with us). We are convinced he tries to talk to us. Even though that form of communication is inexact, looking into his soulful eyes is not. To argue that there is no love to be found there would be futile as far as I am concerned.

Max

Max

There is also a new kid on the block. Emma, now all grown up, has a new baby, a cute prima donna named Max. He is a Morkie, as ready to bark his head off at you as he is to lick you lovingly. Max and Rocky have a relationship common to human siblings, episodes of jealousy and scuffling interspersed with camaraderie and togetherness. He chews everything up, has difficulty mastering the art of being house trained, and can be quite demanding, yet he has worked his way into our hearts.

I know that for those who have never experienced the day-to-day presence of Man’s Best Friend (a title not taken lightly by either party), it may be difficult to understand the important place these creatures can have in one’s life. This relationship that exists between man and dog has developed over thousands of years and is unique among all animals in its intimacy and common understanding.

Yes, they need to be walked even in inclement weather. Yes, inconvenience in travel and expense for vet trips may be incurred. Yes, there may be hair on the rug and toys on the floor. But the companionship given, the devotion displayed, and the unqualified love offered are all far greater hallmarks of life with dogs. Whether it is a service dog aiding the disabled or a rescue mutt adopted by an average family, these creatures have the capacity to open up an unshakable emotional connection with us.  All you need to do is observe the pure joy in the greeting someone receives from his or her dog, and it should be clear that, as grandma Mary so simply and precisely put it, nobody loves you like your dog.

"Nobody loves you like your dog." -- Mary

“Nobody loves you like your dog.” — grandma Mary

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Hello, Kitties (and Goodbye)

August 10, 2015

 

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unexpected guests

What is it about kittens that melts the heart and brings a smile to one’s face? Yes, they’re fluffy and they’re cute, but I think it’s something else beyond that, something more elemental. I believe it has to do with their innocence and vulnerability, some deep emotional pull that draws us to them.

This story is about four particular kittens who had taken up residence on our deck early this spring. They are actually a continuation of a long line of neighborhood cats (I dislike the term “feral” — it sounds somehow threatening) who have inhabited our lives over many years.

The previous set of four kittens that we watched grow up had dwindled to two over the past few years, one almost Siamese-looking male we called Whitey and a grey tuxedo originally known as Grey Guy but later changed to Gigi when it was discovered that the guy was really a girl. They were the best of buddies and basically lived in and about our yard, sometimes leaving gifts of dead mice at our basement door in appreciation of our hospitality. They would lounge on the lawn in the shade on hot summer days, sun themselves on their favorite spot — the top of our grill — in the spring, and dine on the leftovers or cat food we would leave them under the deck. They survived through hurricanes and snowstorms, their reappearance in the aftermath a reassuring sign of a return to normalcy. Though I understand people’s trepidation about harboring such creatures, they did no real harm and their simple presence brought us great pleasure (and kept the chipmunk population down for good measure).

buddies

buddies

In early spring, I thought Gigi looked pregnant, but we never saw any resultant kittens. Then Whitey got very ill (I speculate he ate something poisonous). He had difficulty getting around and spent most of his time just lying quietly. Gigi seemed to be trying to comfort him, nuzzling him gently and staying by his side. A few days later, Whitey went off, as cats seem to do, to die by himself. We were both inexplicably sorrowful about his demise.

It was shortly thereafter that late one evening, much to our surprise, Gigi carried up four little kitties to our deck. At first I thought this would be a temporary situation, but they stayed, so I put a box with a towel inside under the eave for shelter, and it became home. They were as cute as can be, and Gigi took really good care of them. She seemingly instructed them to hide either under the grill or a wooden planter when she went out to forage. Upon her return, she would meow, and they would scurry out and jump all over her. Soon, they would be nestled under the deck table to nurse and then nap.

As the days passed, they started exploring the topography of our deck, sniffing about and climbing on the chairs and whimsy tables and on the various plants. They chased each other and wrestled playfully. It amazed us that so much time could be spent watching them. Two of them looked very much alike, light gray with white bellies. One of them was a darker grey with an all-grey face and little black nose. My wife called him Lambetta because he looked like our good friend Maggie’s cat Lambeau (named after the Green Bay stadium, for Maggie loves the Packers as much as she loves cats). The runt of the litter was the most timid of the group, the first to scamper off at the slightest sound or movement. We thusly named it Scaredy Cat. For some reason, the other two remained nameless, perhaps prophetically.

a kitty playground

a kitty playground

After they had been there more than a month, we departed for a long-planned trip to France. Our neighbor promised to put out food and keep an eye on them, but I fretted over their well-being while we were gone. My brother-in-law stopped by to water the plants and reported that he didn’t see them, so we assumed that they had moved on. As soon as we got home, I checked the deck, and lo and behold, there they were. I must admit, I could barely conceal my happiness.

The kittens had started the weaning process. Gigi would go under the deck to eat, and the little guys would follow behind to play. She let them enjoy themselves, but her ulterior motive seemed to be to have them discover the food for themselves. When they did, they dug in enthusiastically. One day Gigi brought up a mouse she had caught and Lambetta took possession of it, staring down her siblings who tried to get a bite for themselves. She consumed it in its entirety in short order by herself with not a hair left behind. Another occasion saw a chipmunk get the same treatment.

After consultation with cat behavior websites online, we learned that pooping would soon follow, so we fashioned a litter box for them out of an unused shallow flower-pot. Initially it functioned more as a sandbox for playtime, but eventually its purpose was served.

Worried about the future (five cats would be too much, we thought), we contacted a newly formed local organization that trapped and neutered cats and then returned the adults while socializing the kittens and adopting them out. We scheduled them to come on a Monday, but for some reason on Friday night, Gigi moved the now very mobile kittens off the deck to a wooded area behind us. My concerns over that decision were well-founded because that night I heard the sounds of animals fighting, and I knew the raccoons that lived back there had discovered them.

In the morning when Gigi came to eat, there were only three kittens with her, and Gigi had a gash on her neck. Saturday evening the racoons got another one. We were both extremely upset about this turn of events; we had come to know these little guys well, and it was as though we had lost our own pets. Gigi brought the two remaining kittens back up to the deck, but that night my wife got up when she heard a commotion below. She looked out the window to see a raccoon with Lambetta in its mouth. She yelled and slammed the window screen, and the racoon dropped the terrified kitten and ran.

The next morning the cat organization people came and set a trap. A short while after they left, I heard the bang of the trap door, and I looked out to see Lambetta inside, frantic with fear. Gigi, looking extremely upset, paced around the trap trying to find a way to rescue her baby. Unsuccessful, she hopelessly sat by the trap for an hour until the cat folks came to pick it up.

The next day I saw Gigi by the front of my car, but no Scaredy Cat. I had a gut feeling, so I opened the hood, and there was Scaredy sprawled out on the air filter, frightened silly at my intrusion. He took off like a shot, Gigi in hot pursuit, to the wooded area behind us, right into the dreaded raccoon territory. The rest of the day we watched Gigi searching for Scaredy, crying a heart-wrenching meow all the while.

The morning came, and Gigi showed up under the deck appearing despondent. She ate but kept looking around as though wondering where her babies were. Another trap was set that morning, and the next bang of the door signaled Gigi’s capture. She was taken to be neutered. Her return wouldn’t be until Saturday.

We looked for poor little Scaredy Cat, but he was nowhere to be found. As each day passed, the prospects of his survival on his own grew dimmer. On Saturday the cat lady arrived to release Gigi. When the cage door opened, Gigi sprinted to the area where Scaredy Cat had last been seen. She reappeared later that night to eat, but she was alone.

The next evening I put out food for Gigi and went upstairs to help prepare our own dinner. My wife went downstairs to check on things and a moment later urgently called for me to come. She pointed under the deck, and there I saw Scaredy Cat alongside his mom, contentedly munching away. I could barely contain myself so great was my joy.

I can only surmise that Scaredy Cat’s lone outstanding characteristic allowed him to survive by himself all those days. This kitty knew how to hide. But I now faced a decision and was torn about what to do. Should I call the Trap and Neuter people to take Scaredy away? Or should I let things be so the tender reunion of a mother and her last remaining offspring could stand.

Gigi had lost her best friend and three of her kittens, but she seemed revitalized with the return of Scaredy Cat. Now there were two cats, the same number as before. Scaredy was past the optimal age of socialization and seemed an unlikely candidate for becoming a house cat. The posts from the caretaker at the kitty foster home reported a very difficult period of adjustment for Lambetta. We decided to let things be.

mom and her mini-me

mom and her mini-me

Gigi and Scaredy are inseparable now as they go about their daily routine. Scaredy is still timid but is getting more used to our presence. A simple joy exudes from this little cat as it stalks bugs or swats at hanging vines or plays tag with Gigi.

It makes me ponder a world in which humans so dictate the kind of existence certain animals have. I suppose there is no way around that. In the end it is up to us to act responsibly and remember that we are just one of many creatures in the world, powerful though we may be. To share our space with them is surely not asking too much. I do understand that there are far more important issues in life and that the world will little note the absence or presence of one more small kitten. But I will. I will.