Archive for the ‘animals’ Category

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Dog Days

June 20, 2017

For those who are inexperienced in such matters, life with a dog is significantly different from life without one. I am particularly aware of this because I happen to have a foot in both worlds.

I do not own a dog myself, so the majority of my time is spent dogless. However, since both my brother-in-law and niece are dog owners who go away fairly often, I thus become de facto caretaker of an intensely loyal Schnauzer named Rocky and a cute but rambunctious Morkie named Max.

Rocky and Max

I love animals in general, but dogs have a special place in my heart. The unconditional love they share with the humans in their lives is unmatched (very often by humans themselves), and there is no price that can be put on the joy they bring us.

But, as with everything in life, there are pitfalls as well, ones about which the dogless are oblivious.

Dogs, for instance, do not know how to use a toilet. Such an incongruous idea never occurs to those who are not in the position of walking a dog in pouring rainstorms, freezing cold, or sweltering heat (one becomes hyper-sensitive to weather forecasts in such situations) or at inconvenient hours (such as 5:00 in the morning or after you have already gotten ready for bed). At least cats, for all their faults, know how to use a litter box. But I digress.

Dogs (many of them I hear, and certainly the two in my life) like to sleep with their humans. Now I am not so fussy as to object to a pup snuggled at the foot of my bed, but when he insists on cuddling up right next to me on my pillow, that’s where I draw the line. Dogs, unfortunately, don’t understand the lines that one draws.

Dogs like to bark, some more than others. Chloe, the pit bull that lives down the street, never barks. In stark contrast, Rocky and Max make a living barking. At the mailman. At the children passing on the way to or from school. At birds that fly by, at squirrels that prance teasingly on the branches outside the window knowing they are immune, at chipmunks that scurry by the front door, and at cats. Especially cats.

This is particularly problematic for us since we maintain a small group of feral cats who have lived in and about our yard for years (now all neutered). They are friendly and entertaining and keep down the rodent population in the garden. It is not difficult, in my opinion anyway, to live at peace with them.

Rocky and Max, on the other hand, have quite a different perspective. It is their mission to relentlessly pursue them (a near impossible task if you are at all familiar with cats) and, failing that, to bark their fool heads off whenever they see them (like when lounging in their favorite spot on our deck). I have taken to keeping large cardboard sections handy to strategically place in lines of sight by doors and windows to control the racket.

My brother-in-law employs shock collars to deal with this problem at his house, but I don’t have the heart to do that. I’ll just stick to the cardboard.

Dogs like to eat. They like to eat just about anything, above all whatever you happen to be eating. At the table during breakfast, lunch, or dinner. On the couch snacking during TV time. In the car after a stop at the drive-in or ice cream shop. Dogs also don’t quite get the impropriety of begging.

During this current period of dog days, it is only Max that is staying here. He is watching me right now as I write this from his customary perch on the back of the couch (he has a Snoopy complex in that regard). I had considered letting him look this over before posting it, but his editing skills don’t quite match his barking ability. But I’m sure he wouldn’t mind my minor criticisms, for he knows well my tender feelings toward him as does Rocky.

Though at times I look forward to being free of the inconveniences of their presence, each time they go, I end up missing them. And I think perhaps that is the most essential measure of the quality of life with a dog.

Whaddaya mean the cats are your friends???

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Two Dogs, One Book, and a Long Lost Friend

August 21, 2016

“In essence, everything in the entire universe is intimately linked with each other as moments in time, continuous and separate.” — Dogen Zenji, ancient Zen master

This is a story about a confluence of events that I could not have envisioned beforehand, the unpredictable kind that sometimes occur in life. It concerns two pit bulls, a book about dying, and a friend lost for forty-two years.

The story really begins back in June of 1970, before I met the two dogs, before I read the book, and before the friend was lost. The place was Saxtons River, Vermont, the training site of Peace Corps Group 39, scheduled to depart for the Philippines that September. It was there I met several people who were to become my friends — Greg, Steve, Max, Judy, and Linda — our relationship born of the communal spirit of the intense training as well as shared interests and that indefinable element that makes connections occur between certain people and not others.

Once arriving in the Philippines, we headed off to our assignments scattered amongst the far-flung archipelago. Greg, Max, and I took up residence in different towns in the same province in southern Luzon and ended up working together for part of our two-year tour. After some initial scrambling, Judy and Linda wound up in Davao City on the southern coast of Mindanao, about as far as one could be from where the rest of us were located. Steve found himself in an isolated area and in a job that never quite defined itself. An artist, he became unhappy with this situation and stayed only a brief time. He returned home, reportedly joined the Coast Guard, never to be heard from again.

We were all involved in teacher-training programs which often resulted in a high degree of frustration. Linda became especially disenchanted, and in the spring of 1971 returned to the states to pursue a degree in nursing. All of us continued communicating through the writing of letters (this was the 70’s, after all). Greg and I even managed to get together every so often after our homecoming.

However, in February of 1974, I received the last letter from Linda. It became the last letter because of my failure to write back, thus letting go of the remaining thread of connection to a friend, something I unfortunately have done several other times in the past.

Then in April of 1982, one of those strange late season snow storms struck. I took the opportunity to undertake one of my many (and mostly unsuccessful) attempts to clean out — or at least organize — my incredibly cluttered basement. In sorting through the piles of stuff, I came across that 1974 letter. Despite the passage of time, I decided to write a return letter. It came back stamped Address Unknown. I assumed that was it.

However, in 2003, after seeing a documentary about a guy who wanted to find buddies from his old neighborhood by searching on the internet, it struck me that I could do the same. Having only recently been introduced to the online world, a sincere but clumsy search ensued. I found what I thought to be a likely address and sent my last attempt at reconnection. No answer. I thought I had hit a dead end.

Fast forward to May 2016, a typical late spring day with nothing special on the agenda. My wife sorted through the mail that afternoon and said, “Here. This is for you.” When I saw the return address, I was stunned. Could this possibly be?

I opened the envelope, and indeed it was a letter from Linda. In it she said she had been cleaning her desk and came across my letter of 2003. She didn’t remember if she had ever answered it but figured she would respond now, saying that compared to my lapse of twenty-nine years between her last letter to mine that she was being quite prompt at only thirteen. We agreed to write a bit more regularly than that, modernizing to the more timely email mode.

The book, Where River Turns to Sky, arrived unexpectedly in the mail a few weeks later, a novel about aging and loneliness and the struggle with the end years and ultimate death. When described that way, most people say “Why on earth would you want to read that?!” Well, two reasons. One, I’ve been thinking quite a bit about these subjects for a while now. Two, because whenever Linda, a true bibliophile, had recommended a book in the past, she was always on the money. So read it I did.

In the story, two old men, George and Ralph, had been left alone after the deaths of their wives. But they had each other, at least until a stroke devastated Ralph. Relatives put him in a nursing home where he lay unresponsive, and his good friend George was the only one to come to visit him. He did so religiously, sitting by the bedside and talking to his friend, feeling that Ralph was still inside there somewhere listening. George made a promise to Ralph that he would not let him die alone.

One day George went on a short fishing trip, one he took many times with Ralph, though not quite the same now. When he returned to visit Ralph, he found his room empty. He had died. Alone.

George exploded in grief and anger at himself for breaking his promise to his friend. He swore he would never let anyone else die alone in the bleak, uncaring environment of the nursing home. He proceeded to buy a big red house in the middle of town and by hook or by crook get as many residents out the of Home and into a real home where a community of support and actual caring could be theirs in what time they had remaining in this life.

Amongst the residents was Rose, a spiritual being who spoke of death being something not to be feared but rather as a natural part of the circle of life. And inevitably, death came to some residents including both Rose and George, but not before they lived together sharing joyful moments and exasperating ones — the stuff of real life. It brought tears to my eyes, something no book had done in quite a while.

During the time I was reading Where River Turns to Sky, I met Chloe. As I turned the corner at the end of my block on the way home from my morning walk one day, I heard a voice calling me.

“Yoo hoo! Excuse me! Can you help me?”

The voice came from a woman to whom I waved hello in passing from time to time. She stood outside her open garage door, a dog lying near her in the entrance.

“I’ve locked myself out of my house! Do you know how to pick a lock?”

I informed her that skill was unknown to me as I approached to assess the situation further. The dog, a light brown pit bull, slowly rose and limped over to greet me with a nuzzle of my leg.

“This is Chloe,” said the woman. “Say hello to the nice man, Chloe.”

I extended my hand since Chloe was clearly both docile and friendly. I scratched behind her ears and she nuzzled me again, asking for more. I noticed Chloe’s haunch had been shaved and bore a large scar.

The woman introduced herself and indicated that she didn’t know what to do because she had to go to work soon. I suggested that she walk with me to my house down the block where she could call a locksmith.

As we walked, Chloe limping beside us, she told me about herself. Rose happened to be from the Philippines, something I had already surmised from her accent, and she was a nurse at a local hospital. She had taken Chloe in from a Newark shelter to foster during her convalescence. Poor Chloe had been abused and abandoned and then hit by a car, hence the scar. In spite of her terrible previous life, she was the sweetest dog. Rose thought she would most likely adopt Chloe.

After I got my phone and a locksmith’s number, Rose paused then excitedly exclaimed, “Wait! I just remembered something! My niece has a key, and she works nearby.”

I offered to drive her there to pick up the key, so Chloe clambered into the back seat, and we all drove together to retrieve the key. I dropped Rose and Chloe off, and she thanked me profusely.

“Be sure to come back and visit us any time!” she called as I pulled away.

The next day we heard a knock on the door. There stood Rose, a thank you cake in one hand and Chloe’s leash in the other. We invited them in, and Chloe greeted us warmly and then explored the entire house, plopping herself down by the front door when finished. From that day forward, each time Rose walks her, Chloe pulls Rose up our front walk looking for another visit. Whenever we see her on the block, she greets all with great warmth, including a new neighbor with a little boy in a stroller whom Chloe proceeded to “kiss” much to the little guy’s delight. I have yet to hear Chloe bark or growl.

Chloe

Chloe

A few days after finishing Where River Turns to Sky, a phone call came from my niece. Emma is a sensitive young woman with a tender spot in her heart for animals, especially dogs. There have been a succession of beloved dogs in her house, the current ones being Rocky the Schnauzer and Max the Morkie. She volunteers at an animal shelter, and this was the topic of her tearful call.

She had just encountered the sweetest dog she had ever met there, a pit bull named Bruno. Of course the image of my new friend Chloe came to mind. She told us that Bruno had a heart condition and had only two months to live. He had spent years in shelters and deserved to know a loving home in the short time he had left in this world. She wanted to take him, but her living situation precluded that. She thought we could provide that final home for him.

I had my doubts. Bruno was a large pit bull. We had Pop, a rather frail 95-year-old, living with us in our small house. But I too share her feelings about animals, and having just read the book Linda had sent left me particularly vulnerable. Could I let this poor creature die alone? I agreed to go meet Bruno myself.

I brought Pop and my wife along for they too must be in on the decision. When we arrived at the shelter, though, I figured I’d see Bruno first to make some kind of initial assessment before bringing Bernadette and Pop in. While they waited in the reception area, I headed off to the “meet and greet” room.

The handler came in to ask me a few questions and then picked up all the doggie toys from the floor and placed them on a high shelf, which struck me as a bit odd. I had bought some treats for Bruno, so I followed his lead and placed the bag with the toys. A few minutes later, the handler returned with Bruno, who was straining at his leash and pulling the handler, a rather burly gent, behind him. My first thought was that he was aptly named. Bruno came in and sniffed around the room, pretty much ignoring me. I had imagined a greeting like Chloe’s, but Bruno had a much different presence.

I asked the handler if I could give Bruno a treat, hoping that would break the ice. With a raised eyebrow, he said, “You’d better let me do it.” He took one from the bag and held it out. Bruno lunged for his hand, the handler tossing the snack into Bruno’s mouth as he quickly withdrew.

“He has an issue with food possessiveness. That and toys. You need to be careful with both.”

Not exactly the kind of information I was looking for. He continued, telling me that Bruno also had pulling issues (an image flashing in my mind of my diminutive wife trying to walk him and then another of Bruno bowling over Pop on his way to the food bowl). I asked how he was with other animals.

“Well, he hates cats.”

I envisioned our friendly ferals who come up on our deck to visit and Bruno smashing through the glass door to get at them.

“He also is not so good with certain dogs. Or young children.”

I pictured my walks through the neighborhood when I care for Rocky with all the local kids who run up to pet him and all the other small dogs we run across who sniff their greetings to each other. I shuddered at the idea of doing so with Bruno.

Finally I asked about his medical condition and what could be expected as his time drew near.

“I’m not sure what you mean,” the handler said with a quizzical look.

I repeated what Emma had told me about his two months left to live.

“No, not at all. He does have a 5th degree heart murmur, but there is no immediate danger. As a matter of fact, he’s pretty healthy. He could live another ten years.”

I thanked him for his time and told him that I didn’t think Bruno was right for our situation. On my way out, I wondered about the huge miscommunication that obviously had occurred with Emma. I relayed what I had learned to Bernadette and Pop on the drive home. I heard a decidedly loud sigh of relief coming from the back seat of the car.

Bruno

Bruno

How does the story end? Well, it doesn’t, not really.

It looks like Chloe will enjoy a life together with Rose and more than occasional visits to my house for good measure. Bruno awaits someone who can provide the kind of home that suits them both. In the meanwhile he’ll be cared for at the shelter with Emma, I’m sure, giving him an extra dose of TLC whenever she can.

I’ve started another book sent to me by Linda, A Tale for the Time Being, one which contemplates life and death, the nature of being, and the fate of inextricably bound people. I believe there will be many more welcome recommendations to come.

And my long-lost friend is now lost no more.

Two old letters found, two old letters answered years apart. Two dogs abandoned to shelters; one finds a loving home, one does not, my path crossing with both. Just the right book arrives at just the right time for just the right reader.

To what can this be attributed? Serendipity? Fate? I do not know. But I do know how to be thankful for good fortune, and I remain mindful of these simple events and their strange connectivity so often present in the world.

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Love Your Pet

February 20, 2016
Emma's Rocky, the pet I always wished I had

Rocky, the pet I always wished I had

Today, February 20, is Love Your Pet Day. I realize that it is also Cherry Pie Day this year, but in spite of the relative deliciousness of this enticing dessert, how special in the hearts of people can it really be? But a day to celebrate your pet? Come on, now.

Having a pet during one’s childhood is a cherished institution and a rite of passage for most American kids (and their parents who often end up taking care of them). There are pets of all kinds found in our households from the warm and furry to the feathered or scaled: cats, fish, birds, lizards, ferrets, snakes; you name it, and some kid probably has it.

Dogs, though, are by far the standard as evidenced by a walk through any neighborhood on a nice day. Our popular media reflects this too with a litany of favorite canine characters: Spot, Snoopy, Clifford, Rin Tin Tin, Lassie, Santa’s Little Helper, and Toto, to name a few. However, for various reasons (allergies, parental fear, small quarters) there exist those dogless homes with children still yearning for a creature to call their own, forcing those parents to resort to a Plan B of some sort. My home was one of those, and in my case, Plan B was Pew Pew.

Pew Pew was a duckling that arrived one Easter when I was about six. My sister and I were quite excited, though I don’t recall either of us asking for waterfowl of any kind. Nonetheless, Pew Pew took up residence in a makeshift pen in a corner of our already small dining room. I’m sure my mother was thrilled about this arrangement.

Now, ducks are probably not the best dog substitute. They are not predisposed to be walked on a leash, don’t like to be pet, and learning tricks like fetching or rolling over is quite beyond them. Quacking, waddling, eating, and pooping is their complete repertoire. They must depend on being endearingly cute to earn their keep. Their window for that is quite small.

I don’t remember what we fed Pew Pew, but it must have been pretty nutritious because he quickly outgrew his dining room pen. My dad sacrificed part of his tomato garden to create a fenced-in area out behind our garage. This had several benefits. It was roomier, did not involve stringent cleaning, and Pew Pew could waddle about and quack to his heart’s content without bothering my mother, though I’m sure our neighbors were none too pleased. The problem came when autumn rolled around and the question of what to do with Pew Pew in the winter arose. He was not about to make a return indoors as long as my mother had anything to do with it.

Pew Pew and I (note the warm interaction from him)

Pew Pew and I (note the warm interaction from him)

The first idea for solving this dilemma seemed simple enough. We would drive him across town to Coopers Pond and drop him off in the company of all the other ducks who made it their home. One afternoon we did just that. We brought him to the water’s edge, set him down, and turned to make a quick escape (in order to avoid a drawn-out goodbye, I supposed). Now Pew Pew could dwell in happiness with others of his kind.

The Cooper’s Pond ducks apparently never got that memo. They immediately set upon this uninvited intruder with much loud quacking and flapping and pecking. Pew Pew had no choice but to flee for his life. He waddled like I never saw him do before, almost beating us back to the car. In view of this unexpected turn of events, my parents were forced to relent, and Pew Pew had a reprieve.

This led to a second and more involved attempt several weeks later. We piled into the car with Pew Pew and drove away, this time to a farm in Long Island. Some arrangement had been made with the farm’s owners; I believe some distant cousin from the Long Island branch of the family knew them. After some final goodbyes, we drove off, never to see Pew Pew again. I’m glad I didn’t realize at the time that he’d most likely end up glazed on someone’s plate in a restaurant.

My pet void was filled a few years later. During a family outing at Palisades Amusement Park, I spotted a game of chance that drew me instantly to it because it seemed winnable and the prize was a goldfish. The object of the game was to throw a ping pong ball so it landed in one of the small fish bowls lined up on a shelf. Each was filled with colored water and had a goldfish occupying it, and the fish and bowl would be yours with a single successful toss. I don’t remember how many attempts it took (the mouths of the bowls were narrower than one would have expected), but by golly, I went home with a goldfish!

My joy of having a pet fish (who, in reality, did even less than Pew Pew, but a pet is a pet) was short-lived. The following weekend I went on a camping trip with my Boy Scout troop. I gave detailed instructions on the care and feeding of my fish to my mother. Upon my return on Sunday, the fish bowl was gone from its perch on a shelf in the kitchen and I was informed of the goldfish’s sudden demise. My suspicion (unfounded, of course — it was most likely the ingestion of the colored water in the bowl that did him in) was that my mom seized the opportunity of my absence and whacked the little fella.

Two parakeets came next, the first named Fudgie followed by another named Val, but they were “family pets,” so my connection to them was minimal. I must admit, they beat both Pew Pew and the goldfish by a mile when it came to being entertaining, but still I was not emotionally invested, as they say. The same was true for my sister’s two small turtles. I remember more about their clear plastic bowl with its clear plastic island and green plastic palm tree (I hope those guys liked plastic) than I do about the turtles themselves.

Then it happened. I got a real pet, one I actually wanted, a hamster named Scrappy. This small brown and white ball of fur came with a wire cage complete with exercise wheel and an inverted gravity-feed water bottle. I could hold him and let him climb up my arm. He could eat out of my hand and play on the table. I could watch him spin madly in his exercise wheel. This surpassed the combined skills of all the previous pets. Best of all, I could tell he loved me when he looked up at me with his beady little black eyes, whiskers all atwitter. It was my job to feed him, clean his cage, and take care that he didn’t escape (the last one my mother was particularly emphatic about). And I did this religiously. Well, most of the time.

My time with Scrappy was a happy one, marred only by two incidents, both of which were the result of my failure to properly execute my duties. The first was when he escaped through the unsecured door on his cage. He disappeared for a few days, causing my mother great distress, but then suddenly reappeared in the back of a closet. I attributed his return to him missing my tender care and not my sister’s theory that he was merely hungry. However, this was minor compared to the second incident which was catastrophic.

One particular day I hadn’t fed Scrappy on schedule, resulting in a harsh reprimand from my mother. I attempted to get his food, stored in the bottom cabinet of a freestanding cupboard, but in my shaken state, I pulled the doors too hard. The entire cupboard tipped over and the upper doors swung open unleashing a barrage of my mother’s prized wedding china which rained down and crashed all around me. I had never seen my mother so upset, and in her tearful rant she yelled something about “getting rid of that damned animal.” I dashed from the pile of shards (amazingly unscathed), snatched Scrappy from his cage, and ran crying into the garage, cowering in a corner in fear of losing my little friend. It took some major diplomacy on my father and sister’s part to placate my mother, but Scrappy avoided the threatened exile.

One Sunday morning I arose to get Scrappy from his cage. At first I didn’t see him, but then, amongst the wood shavings, I saw him on his side with his little pink feet sticking stiffly out. Scrappy had moved on to hamster heaven. I was crushed. He was honored with a tearful funeral in our backyard beneath the climbing rose bush which was the final resting place for all our pets (except for the poor goldfish, who I think got unceremoniously flushed). There were to be no more pets of my own in my life after that.

I’m not sure if the many supposed life lessons accorded to pet ownership were learned or not when I was a kid. However, I’ve since come to understand during my years of reading student compositions how great and widespread the trauma is from the death of a pet. Perhaps these first encounters with unqualified love and inevitable departure are important to an early understanding of mortality. This is a tough lesson no matter when it occurs, and it is never easy to deal with emotionally. But there is the Yin of joy and companionship and that offsets the Yang of death, and it is the capacity to realize that balance which may be part of the critical foundation for a child’s future understanding. For most kids who had their own Scrappy experience whether it was a dog, cat, bird, or iguana, I think they would conclude it was better to have had their loving friend and lost them than to never have had them at all.

So today on Love Your Pet Day, think back to Rover or Fluffy or Pretty Boy. Lift a glass in appreciation of their memory. If you currently have a pet in your life, take the time to give him or her an extra pat or a special treat. After all, there is no one else who loves you like your pet.

Emma's Max, who knows well the love of his human

Max, who knows well the love of his human

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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

 

DSC00295

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.

 

 

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My War with the Squirrels

January 8, 2013
don't be fooled...

don’t be fooled…

I like most living creatures. I try to live by the Buddhist tenet which urges us to give compassion to all sentient beings in the world. I understand that this includes the likes of mosquitos and slugs and flies, which does make it difficult to follow sometimes.

And it includes squirrels.

Squirrels, you ask? Why on earth would they be a problem? Let me explain.

My war with the squirrels goes back many decades. In fact, it had been my father’s war; that is where I first learned about the enemy. OK, so they are small and furry and occasionally funny. But this innocent facade masks the devious and destructive nature of this insidious critter.

They gnaw. They can chew their way through wood, plastic, and even metal to get what they want. Sometimes this means food. Other times this means shelter. Anyone who has ever had a nesting squirrel in their shed, attic, or basement knows well the havoc they can wreak as well as the additional nuisance of noise, excrement, and unpleasant odor. Once inside a structure, they become a fire hazard for they’ll gnaw on the insulation of wires causing short circuits.

Squirrels have even been known to cause actual power outages. In the course of hiding or looking for food in transformers, they electrocute themselves, causing a short circuit in the process (they are responsible for knocking out the NASDAQ stock market twice). They also cause traffic accidents when innocent law-abiding drivers swerve to avoid hitting the inconsiderate jaywalking rodents.

And worst of all, at least for my father, is that they are perpetual diggers. They scurry around burying food and then later unburying it, leaving divots everywhere in their wake. My father’s pride and joy was his lawn. The son of a gardener, he spent most of his precious little spare time grooming to perfection the manicured patches around our house. These cursed squirrels conspired to ruin his green empire. He dealt with them in a rather ironic manner, first trapping them humanely in Have-a-Heart traps (the kind that don’t injure the animal) and then asphyxiating them in a bag attached to the tailpipe of his idling car. He clearly was not a Buddhist.

My own lawn these days is nothing to brag about, though the squirrel holes are still not welcome. But for me, the bigger problem is the thievery of this lawless breed. I am a bird lover. Because of that fact, I have a bird feeder in my backyard during the winter months to help my feathered friends survive the sometimes harsh conditions. However, a problem arose with the squirrels who also inhabited the yard. They would climb down the metal hanger on which the feeder was hung and chase the birds away, hogging the seeds for themselves. When the defenseless birds tried to eat the fallen seeds on the ground, others amongst the band of squirrels would not allow them even this small repast.

Thus I embarked on a series of preventive measures. The first was a commercial plastic shield situated above the feeder. The squirrels figured this out in about ten minutes, simply climbing down onto it and stretching over the side until they could grab hold of the feeder. I then added another layer above that — an old vinyl garbage can cover — which looked fairly awful but proved effective for a while. The squirrels would approach from above as they had before, but the instability of the garbage can cover would cause them to slide off and plop down onto the grass with nothing but their pride injured. Eventually, though, they learned to overcome this by controlling their slide by splaying out their little arms in order to snag the bird feeder on the way down. I could swear they smiled smugly at me as they gobbled up the seed intended for others.

two lines of defense from above

two lines of defense from above

I adopted a new tactic to counter this latest setback. I added another length of wire between the garbage can cover and the feeder causing their drop to be further and thus faster, precluding their ability to grab onto the feeder. This victory proved short-lived. The squirrels mounted a different attack. I watched them as they climbed down the tree trunk, stopping parallel to and slightly above where the feeder hung about four feet away. After carefully calculating the proper angle, they would then leap through the air and grab onto the base of the feeder. The first few attempts failed causing crashes worthy of those Funniest Video shows, but soon they got the hang of it, and I headed back to the drawing board.

I decided to take some left-over metal hoops and struts from a tomato support cage and form a barrier that would hang between the trunk and the feeder. It looked like some drunken Alexander Calder mobile, but it worked. The squirrels would leap onto this new barrier and swing helplessly within sight of the food but unable to generate any momentum to swing over to it. Until, that is, one particularly acrobatic squirrel figured out how to jump through the small space in the center of the barrier and land on the feeder. The others soon copied this trick.

my Calder mobile barrier

my Calder mobile barrier

I added more wire struts to my barrier to close the small center gap through which they were now leaping. I succeeded in preventing that jump-through route but did not foil them in their pursuit of a free meal. Their final stunt entailed jumping onto one side or the other of the barrier causing it to slowly swivel around. When they had turned to be on the side facing the feeder, they’d do kind of a back flip the final two feet onto their target to resume their dining. I fumed as I observed this latest defeat from my back window. My wife said I should just let them eat for all the work they went through.

We ended up buying a different feeder, one promising to be “squirrel-proof,” which now hangs by the side of our house. I felt pessimistic at first having been burned by the false claims of other products, but lo and behold, the squirrels don’t seem to be able to get to the seed. Or perhaps they are just lulling me into a false sense of security for the time being. But the birds seem to be quite satisfied, and the squirrels have accepted just eating the fallen seeds from the ground, so everyone is now happy. Especially me. Now  that the birds can eat in peace, I can more completely fulfill the live and let live philosophy I’d like to believe in. After all, if the lion can lie down with the lamb, I should be able to coexist with the squirrels. Until they get to my new feeder, that is.

squirrel-free dining at last

squirrel-free dining at last

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The Glory of the Innocent

January 6, 2013
crested terns, Captiva

crested terns, Captiva

Ever since I can remember, the most important people in my life liked birds. When I was a little boy, I recall watching as my grand-daddy put suet in a wire mesh feeder that hung by the holly bush in the back of his house to feed the birds in the winter. A cement bird bath sat along the back border of his garden where a wide variety of feathered friends would splash about during the summer. My father also had these same attractions in our own yard, and I found it to be both educational and entertaining to watch all of our visitors eating and bathing and chirping to the world for what seemed to be no other reason than for the pure joy of it. This turned out to be the beginnings of a lifelong relationship with the avian world.

Birds are for the most part beneficial; I know of no species that do us great harm (besides those in the Hitchcock movie) other than occasionally pooping on the odd car. Their colorful plumage has been exploited for fashion, their eggs and meat have nourished people of all cultures throughout history, their special skills have improved our lives from the vulture’s removal of carrion to the hummingbird’s pollination of flowers. We have kept budgies and parrots for pets, trained cormorants to fish, marveled at the incomparable virtuosity of the mockingbird, made poignant movies with penguins, and even used various raptors as symbols of the greatness of our nations. They populate every continent and have been an inextricable part of humankind’s existence for all of our time on this earth.

prehistoric-looking pelican

brown  pelican

I am not a fully committed extreme birdwatcher such as the ones in the delightful little movie The Big Year who travel hither and yon in search of as many species as possible (the record is 755 in a year). However, I do take great delight in sighting them wherever I happen to be. I have been fortunate enough to travel quite a bit, and in virtually every place I’ve been, there have been memorable birds, some of which I’ve been lucky enough to capture on film from the oddly shaped pelicans of the Atlantic coastline to the graceful egrets and herons of Florida to the feisty sandpipers of the beaches of the Eastern shores and the majestic eagles of Alaska.

white heron, Florida

Great Egret, Florida

At home, too, the birds have provided plentiful pleasure. When we first moved to our house, there was a swampy wooded area behind our backyard which became the home to a pair of mallard ducks. They would paddle about contentedly in search of food until the arrival of winter, and the next spring return again. My wife (who named them Mal and Honey) was quite happy to find out that they mated for life. They were our neighbors for years until, much to our dismay, construction of a new housing development began, and they left in search of a new residence.

mallard male

mallard male

We always put up a bird feeder during the winter months (my father always said they need to fend for themselves the rest of the year). For years it has hung from a tree limb in our backyard. We would spend many an hour watching for who would come, first the smaller ones, juncos and chickadees and nuthatches, then the bright red cardinals with their grayer mates, the blue jays, the mourning doves, and finally, our favorites, the woodpeckers, the colorful red-bellied and the smaller black checked downy.

red-bellied woodpecker sharing with a sparrow

red-bellied woodpecker sharing with a sparrow

In our front yard stands a patch of corn flowers that bloom yellow in the summer and draw myriad bees and butterflies. Each fall, however, when the flowers go to seed, the tiny yellow and black Goldfinches arrive to gorge upon this windfall of protein. They flit to and fro from the surrounding trees to the flowers, high-pitched cheeps accompanying them as they go. Observing them in this autumn feast has become a ritual in our household, and a strange sadness settles over us when the time comes for them to move on before the heart of the winter comes. These little fellows are part of the fabric of our existence in this house.

I’m not sure why I like birds so much. Perhaps part of it is the marvelous diversity of these creatures from the awkward to the beautiful, the tiny to the powerful, the gaudy to the simple — just like people, I suppose. I must admit that there are some I am not so fond of, the bullies of the species such as crows and blue jays. I tend to have a soft spot for the small and the vulnerable, the common brown sparrows and the timid chickadees. I think this too reflects my feelings about their human counterparts. I remember well the first time I read poet Anne Marie Macri’s poem “Glory,” how I was moved by these lines: “And what about the meek and lame? And the glory of the innocent? What about the thumb-sized heart-broken birds? The ones who die in their sleep, their long beaks warm from probing flower’s throats and answering the trumpets. Their emerald bellies heave. One last time they heave, having worked their whole lives to stay aloft.” And isn’t that true of so many of us, working our whole lives to stay aloft, fending off the dangers of the world and suffering the bullies amongst our own kind?

I think most of all I like birds because they make me think of my father. He could be a gruff and taciturn man, but his tender side revealed itself when I watched him tending to the birds, looking out for their welfare, protecting them when they may not have been able to do so themselves. I think of him when I look at his ancient copies of The Book of Birds, Volume 1 and 2, from the National Geographic Society, 1937, now on my book shelf. I look back at some of the pictures within — the one of the owl, talons sunk in the rabbit it caught that upset my sister so, the one of the last surviving Great Auk that looked both befuddled and lonely, the one of the Man-O’-War-Bird’s throat puffing out to court a mate — and I remember my fascination and awe of these creatures. I think of him when I can identify the song of a bird — he knew them all — and recognize one when I see it on our feeder. I know for a fact that he worked his whole life to stay aloft, and I believe he too had a soft spot for the vulnerable feathered creatures that are all around us but so often ignored. If I too can help preserve the glory of the innocent as he did, then I shall maintain this connection between us, and that brings peace to my heart.

sandpiper

sandpiper