Tag Archives: Animal Rescue

Walking with Benny

Benny Salad Houdini has earned a new title:  Ambassador for Rescue Dogs.

This is an unanticipated consequence of his “house” training, which really means going out of Opening shot copythe house – a lot.  Small puppy bladders and immature muscle control mean small intervals between walks.  And for us, walking means meeting lots of people.  We live in a lovely waterfront city in sunny Florida where the sidewalks tend to be busy with friendly folks feeling good about both the weather and the surrounding beauty.  I hear an astounding number of admiring “oohs” and “aahs” – most of them directed not at the scenery but at Benny.

I knew that Benny was cute when we adopted him,greenbag

but I never imagined that his button face and fuzzy blonde body would actually exert some kind of uncanny gravitational pull over gushing humans. baseballcap

Knees drop to the pavement and hands drift downward through the air as Benny approaches;Redjacket

people want to touch him as though he’s some sort of talisman for happiness – which he is, of course!blonde

But all this exuberant adoration has its challenges.  We’re trying to train Benny to sit to be petted,  not to chew fingers or jump on people or deliver wet slurpy kisses without an explicit invitationStroller– but these suddenly lovesick humans don’t seem to mind if he breaks all the rules and climbs all over them in a wiggling, wagging, licking paroxysm of puppyness.  ChewToyI am constantly redirecting, refocusing, trying to train well-meaning humans as well as one extremely personable puppy.

The open-armed adoration also opened the door for Benny’s ambassadorship, a role I had not anticipated for him.  As admirers pet and coo, they almost unfailingly ask, “What kind of dog is he?”  I almost unfailingly answer, “He’s a rescue puppy – a Shih Tzu.” Adorable Benny This is greeted with amazement by an astonishing majority of people, who can’t conceive of such a dog being found anywhere but at a breeder’s.  That allows us (okay, allows me; Benny’s otherwise engaged) to explain that you can find almost any breed of dog you want through a rescue group or shelter, where an estimated 25% of all dogs are purebreds.  I explain that you can put your name on waiting lists at many shelters and get a call when the breed you are looking for comes in, or apply for adoption through rescue groups around the country, or start your search on a site like petfinder.com.  I recently read a story about a breeder who referred a couple to a rescue group when he couldn’t immediately meet their request for his brand of puppy – now that is progress!

with other dogs1But back to Ambassador Benny.  His work inspires and delights me.  He motivates people almost daily to say that they are going to start a search for their own rescue dog. He educates people who will almost certainly pass on what they’ve learned. He has taught me the power of puppyhood to change the world one dog at a time.  I’m imagining a movement where volunteers walk adoptable puppies and adorable dogs  through city streets and spread the word, just as we are doing.

walked out and conked outAs I write this, Benny is lying walked out and conked out under my desk.  An excited little “yip” escapes his mouth every once in a while.  I don’t know what’s happening in his sleepy puppy brain, but I am dreaming big dreams for him and all his kindred, dreams of a day where every dog finds a home – and we actually need breeders because there are no more dogs in shelters hoping to make it out alive.

Thank you, Ambassador Benny Salad Houdini, for helping to draw that day closer, one step at a time. ambassador

Puppy Love

“Only love can break a heart, only love can mend it…” 

Hal David knew what he was talking about when he wrote those lyrics – even though he had not met either Wee Willie Winky or Benny Salad Houdini.

Willie, our beloved Shih Tzu rescued from a puppy mill runner, died* Wee Willie Winkyunexpectedly at the age of 4 ½.  Losing this happy, active, loving companion caused heartbreak that all devoted pet parents understand.  The outpouring of sympathy indicated just how many of those there are, and while it comforted, it didn’t stop the tears for my husband and me.  That was a job for Benny.job

Tom was determined that our next dog be a male Shih Tzu like Willie, preferably a puppy.  I started searching via our local shelters and rescue groups – no luck.  I chased a couple of leads on petfinder.com – no luck. I filled out applications with rescue organizations – luck!  One group specializing in Shih Tzus and small dogs had a litter of not one but five male puppies ready for adoption (their pregnant mother had been turned over by a backyard breeder). We snuggled and played with all of the squirmy adorable ten week olds and then picked “Puppy #3” because he was especially little and seemed quite laid back. cutness

Our tears pretty much stopped almost immediately – and idyllic as it might sound, it was not because of love at first sight. It’s because there is no time for tears! My grieving husband was naturally ready to give this tiny blonde bundle of lovability almost anything he wanted, but Benny is an extremely smart and equally willful little guy, given to the bossiness that is frequently found in Shih Tzus. So Mom (that’s me) had to start showing tough love with both of her boys – no small dog syndrome in my family, please! (Small dogs can take over a house – position themselves as the pack leader – because we cave into their cuteness and fulfill their desires and demands without making them earn it.)

leashSo here in the midst of intensive training, I am massively Mommy proud that at the age of 13 weeks, Benny understands “sit,” “come,” and “make a good decision,” and actually follows those instructions much of the time.  He accepts a leash and the city streets with equal aplomb. He knows “do your business” and responds admirably – although getting him out to the grass is a new adventure in house sittraining for me.  I’ve never done it from a condo before.  Sometimes it feels like we live in the elevator, riding down and up, up and down.  Thankfully, my husband handles most of the middle-of-the-night excursions (probably because he doesn’t want my naked face and bed head to scare anyone).

Baby Benny earned his big boy name of Benny Salad Houdini because he loved his fresh veggie dinners from the first, and can’t get grassenough of the greenery outside either.  He munches grass and leaves as though he were a deer rather than a dog.  He covets the free roaming ways of a deer as well. He easily escaped every barrier we tried for his confinement room: netting, higher netting, dog gate.  Finally we had to simply shut the door. We’re still working on the separation anxiety; Benny spent his first ten weeks in a foster home brimming with dogs and humans.  Being alone for even a moment is a brand new experience.

But Benny knows how to amuse himself.  He is a champion chewer of everything within mouthing distance:  rugs, curtains, pant legs, bedding.  That means relentless redirection.  Anyone eavesdropping toyon me these days would think that, “Chew toys!” is my favorite phrase.  And that tossing them is my favorite exercise.  Our floors look like FAO Schwarz for canines.

And then there are the cats.  Lucy, who was Willie’s best buddy, stepped right up as second mother to Benny.    This formerly feral eaterystarving kitten always eats her entire breakfast right away and then begs for more.  But she started saving half of it so that she could teach Benny how to find the supposedly secret entrance to the cat feeding quarters and help himself to her bowl.  Undoing that (frankly charming) act of generosity and maternal instinct has taken some creativity.  Lucy is also teaching Benny to play in a way that’s lucyteachacceptable to cats, which involves a lot of wrestling but a little less nipping than he might like.

Fred took great delight in trying to teach “Chase Me,” at a running speed that Benny could keep up with.  That meant I had followto play blocker between them in order to teach both that chasing cats is not an acceptable game – even if the cat thinks so.  Nowadays they usually walk together rather than run. Usually.

Frisco is still keeping his distance, in classic Frisco style.  He’ll come around.

Raising a puppy properly is like swimming the Florida Strait (I imagine; I haven’t actually done that). It takes intensive, consistent training, patience, persistence, and some sleep deprivation.  It can be anywhere from challenging to tiresome to irritating  to repeat yourself a dozen times to get the result you want once, but well worth it. Here’s a real time example.

This is what Benny is doing, next to my chair, as I write this. bennywrit

This is what Lucy is doing, just above him on my lap.lucywrite

This is what Fred is doing, just above her on my desk.fredwr

This is what Frisco is doing, just off to the side. fredwri

You’ll notice that Benny is thoroughly relaxed and making no effort to upend the established social order. I’m not kidding us, though. Once the writing is done and everyone’s back to bouncing around, he’ll give doggy dominance another whirl.  But we’ll keep working at it, because a dog who knows his place is a happy, secure dog.  And after only three weeks, Benny knows his place: firmly in our hearts.hearts

*We are awaiting final necropsy results on Willie, but it appears that the cause of death was a heart irregularity.

Food for Thought

The Fourth of July.

imagesThe star spangled holiday is upon us, the zenith of summer for many Americans, a long leisurely day of outdoor play and picnics, family and friends. Even those who use the holiday to catch up on yard work or home improvements may find themselves drawn at dusk to the nearest fireworks display, where the rockets’ red glare does not signal bombardment upon our homeland, but instead joins a glorious profusion of colors to peacefully burst in the air and sprinkle downward like stardust, reminding us of our country’s foundations and freedoms.

This year, many will reflect upon the expansion of freedom in America, decided last week by the Supreme Court. Some rejoice. Others regret. Still others resolve to fight. But all must surely recognize the inevitable onward march toward parity, slow as the footsteps sometimes are. On the 4th of July, we commemorate the year 1776, when the United States patriotic-pups-pictures0proclaimed its independence and the founding fathers declared that “all men are created equal.” Well, not so much. It took 89 long years tarnished by bloodshed and teardrops before every slave in the republic was declared free – but still not equal. Half a decade later, slaves were allowed to vote, courtesy of the 15th Amendment, which mandated that “race, color, or previous condition of servitude” could no longer stand as barriers to the ballot box. But hold on: they were still talking men here. A full half century later, women long considered chattel (including the non-black ones and the ones presumably loved by the husbands who were writing the laws) finally won the right to vote. To this day, the Equal Rights Amendment, first considered by Congress back in 1923, has not been ratified. But the campaign continues.

Heartbreaking and hard to believe as it is, the reality that human beings could be deemed property – even saleable goods without thoughts or feelings worthy of contemplation or consideration – gives me hope. It gives me hope when I think of the sentient beings still suffering similarly today, the thinking, feeling, living creatures treated as property – saleable mommy and baby goatgoods not worthy of contemplation or consideration as we throw another chunk of one of them on the grill in celebration of the 4th. It gives me hope because history tells us that thoughtlessness can be teased into consciousness, compassion and change – and sometimes, it takes time.

So let me reassure you right here and now, my carnivore friends, that I love you even though. I trust in time and I hold out hope: that someday the infants ripped from their mothers so that we might eat or dispose of norman_1their bodies while we ingest the milk meant for them, that someday the sensitive, intelligent creatures forced to endure all manner of physical torture without anesthesia or any other means to ease their pain, that someday the beings driven to insanity by their forced confinement and inability to so much as turn around or lie down, that someday our fellow animals who endure dismal lives ended by dreadful deaths will rise up in our mass consciousness and that compassion will win the day for their descendants.

And don’t worry. We won’t go hungry or feel deprived. Alternatives to animal flesh abound. Want a burger, a “beef” tip, a slab of “chicken” or hot dog to throw on the vegetable-grill-lgbarbecue? All of these and more are in the grocer’s freezer. New delicacies are created regularly, in addition to the variety of fruits, grains, and vegetables already gracing the earth. A vegan diet can be diverse, delicious, and is considered by many health professionals to be the best for the human body. Oh, and did I mention that by not eating animals we help to save the planet also?

But let me save that for another day so that we can all get back to celebrating. Perhaps you will, however, take just a second to consider whether you’d toss Fido or Fluffy on the grill – and if not them, then why their cousins? If the time is now for you to contemplate these questions, click here for a great starting point. We enjoy the freedom to choose. May we choose wisely, compassionately, and well.

Happy 4th of July!flag-fireworks

 

Summer Road Trips with the Family

Wagon…HO!

I remember the excitement and anticipation as my three brothers and I scrambled into the station wagon, Dad behind the wheel and Mom handling the maps, luggage rack on the roof. I would look back at the horses, cows, cats, dogs, rabbits, sheep – whichever creatures happened to be inhabiting our hobby farm at the moment, some of them standing watch as the car pulled around the driveway and turned onto the rural road, carrying us to exciting new adventures and explorations.

For a week or two, I wouldn’t be petting sheep, conversing with cows, riding my pony, crawling into the straw-bedded doghouse for a snuggle with our collie, carrying cats and rabbits into my playhouse, romping through the pastures, filling the water trough, sidestepping the manure, mucking stalls, or feeling the delicious tickle of a horse’s lips taking treats from my palm.

I was privileged to grow up surrounded by animals, to learn the traits of various species, the personalities of individuals, the many ways in which animals think, feel, and express – and the ways that animals we domesticate depend upon us for their sustenance: physical, psychological, and emotional. I wish that every child could have that privilege, and that every adult who’s missed it could make up for it now. So I have a vacation suggestion: don’t travel away from the animals, as I did: travel to them!

On the southern border of Utah, just above the Arizona line, cerulean skywhere rust red cliffs glimmer against the cerulean sky, and long stretches of open space call to mind settlers and cowboys, their horses kicking up adobe dust, sits an expansive parcel of paradise on earth. Nestled in Angel Canyon is Best Friends Animal Sanctuary, where abused, abandoned and neglected animals who have nowhere else to go find refuge and a level of compassionate care that leaves me searching for properly descriptive words. Best Friends Animal Society“Dedicated” is too shallow. “Heartwarming” is too trite. “Breathtaking” is barely hyperbole. Animals that would be considered hopeless elsewhere – injured, crippled, chronically diseased – and likely destined for euthanasia are instead rehabilitated to their greatest potential and given lifelong care. Or, better yet and in every instance possible, adopted out to forever homes.

Sanctuary sign copyBegun by a group of buddies back in the 1980’s, the 3,700 acre sanctuary’s name is a propos for both the founders and the beneficiaries of Best Friends Animal Society. It started with a few homeless dogs and cats and now, enlarged by another 17,000 acres of leased land, it includes horses, mules, goats, sheep, donkeys, pigs, rabbits, birds, and even injured and orphaned wildlife in need of care so that they can once again roam or fly free. These days, the average animal population is around 1,700 – and you are welcome to visit them, volunteer to work with them, maybe even take one (or two?) home. (Note: you do not have Panthegoatto personally visit the Best Friends sanctuary in order to adopt one of the animals in their care.)

Free tours are offered every day at the sanctuary, and volunteers are asked to sign up ahead of time. Care is taken to match volunteers with appropriate animals according to their interests, ages, and physical abilities. If you have the opportunity to volunteer, do! If you’ve never been truly “in touch” with animals, this can be a life-changing experience. And if you already know and care for animals, you’ll likely find new experiences. Cat on leash copyIt was at Best Friends that I first walked a cat on a leash, fed a potbellied pig, and spent an entire afternoon scooping rabbit poop! You can do something as down, dirty and necessary as picking up poop, as soothing as sitting with a cat in your lap, giving him or her personal attention and petting, or as adventurous as taking a companion animal on an excursion off premises.

cottage view copyStaying on the sanctuary grounds enhances the experience. There are a limited number of cabins and cottages available to visitors. They are comfortable, and the scenery is awesome: the red rock mountains as background to horses playing in the pasture, the sun setting over another day of kindness. sleepoverYou can even enjoy a sleepover with an animal and offer your impressions of his or her personality and temperament to Best Friends staff. That helps when making adoptive matches. When I was there, a potbellied pig ambassador was eligible for sleepovers and was quite the coveted guest! If you’re staying in an RV or other accommodation, no problem. You’re welcome to share your space and affections with eligible candidates there, as well.

I was so besotted with the sanctuary that I passed on the sightseeing during my visit, but you can make this as much of a varied vacation as you want. The nearest town is Kanab, five miles away. Several lodgings – hotels, motels, private residences – are available and many offer pet friendly space with a Best Friends discount. You can visit numerous state and national parks and wilderness areas; go golfing, biking, swimming, kayaking, ATVing; explore the “Old West” areas where movies and TV shows were filmed; enjoy art galleries; attend the local theater…

But first and foremost, I hope you’ll experience the animals and soak up the elevated air of compassion and dignity for all who exist here. Introducing a child to this marvelous assortment of sentient creatures and the humans who care for them may inform that child’s sensibilities for a lifetime. Getting hands on with the animals as an adult could alter your own view – and even expand your household, should you decide to take a new best friend home.adoptionpromo

With wishes that you’ll get to be a part of Best Friends Animal Sanctuary someday – and for safe, happy summer travels,

Cathy

 

 

My Wedding Anniversary…

Warning:

If you are uncomfortable learning intimate details of a relationship, do not read on. If, however, you accept voyeurism as an inalienable American enjoyment, then please: step into my bedroom.

The day begins like nearly every other. Whether our alarm sounds at 5:00 or we sleep in until the sun beckons brightly through the window, time for togetherness is always part of the morning. My husband gets up, showers, and returns to the bedroom, where the object of his affection lies drifting in and out of a luxurious doze, dreaming in anticipation. As he approaches the bed, smelling of freshly soaped skin, herbal shampoo, minty toothpaste, coconut sunscreen – a delicious morning mélange – dozing morphs into consciousness and a long, luxurious stretch upon the comforter, still redolent with sleep. Anticipation mounts to expectation. Expectation, built upon the memories of so many mornings prior to this one, induces an involuntary quivering, as though the skin is rising up of its own accord to meet the hands about to descend upon it. And then the caresses begin.

My husband’s powerful fingers settle into the back of the head, gently teasing the brain into total wakefulness. They travel down the spine, digging deliciously into either side of the back until they reach that region that motivates the body, mindlessly giving itself up to sensation, to turn over and invite more caresses, offering up its most vulnerable areas in complete trust, without reservation…

It is, I admit, an enviable way to welcome the day. I am, I admit, occasionally envious. Because I am talking, of course, about the dog. Anniversary, birthday, holiday, every day: Wee Willie Winky gets a morning massage before his walk in the park.

It took me years to soften my spouse to the point where he would accept a dog in our household, already populated with cats. When I suspected that the time was just about right, I called friends at our local shelters to let them know what I was looking for: a small dog who could travel, wasn’t inclined to be yappy and wouldn’t shed too, too much. The very next day, the call came: an alleged puppy mill runner from Alabama had been busted selling six week old dogs out of the back of his pickup truck in the unforgiving Florida sun. I took this precious, tired Shih Tzu home, cuddled on my lap.Willie croppeda I walked into my husband’s office and said, “Close your eyes and hold out your hands.” The puppy fit entirely into his palms. Tom looked into his gently Willie 3picblinking eyes and instantly named him. That first night, Willie slept for a dozen uninterrupted hours, on his back in his brand new puppy bed with his legs straight up in the air, exhausted.

The love affair between spouse and Shih Tzu took some time to develop. Tom hadn’t lived with a dog before and he was somewhat slow to succumb to Willie’s considerable charms. But once he opened himself to the experience and began bonding with play time,bathtime snuggle time, bath time, there was no denying it: my place as most loved member of his family was being challenged. And with valid historical and scientific reason.

Wolves, from whom dogs descended, are believed to have first turned to humans for food and shelter, while humans welcomed the wolves’ protection, hunting prowess, and eventually, their warmth, affection, and empathy. 24rDogs can “read” their humans in extraordinary ways: a simple movement of the body or even the eyes can speak volumes to your canine companion about your intentions. Your dog very likely can understand and even share your emotions. Dogs and humans have the same brain structure, including the amygdala, which is linked to emotional and psychological states. Dogs and humans also share many of the same hormones. Furthermore, a recent study suggests that several sets of genes in humans and dogs evolved along the same timeline, likely as a result of living together.

There are reasons other than scientific for the profound love between man and dog too, of course. I, along with most humans, absolutely refuse to run to the door every time my husband comes home (whether he’s been gone five days or five minutes), wiggling my fanny like a feather in the wind. I decline to lie on the floor at his feet, gazing up at his face with naked love in my eyes. I will not pant in anticipation of a leisurely walk in the evening.

But I will – and do – work on managing my envy. After all, I “gave” Willie as a gift and thus am happy to accept the sharing of affections. Besides: I am madly in love with Willie too. Happy anniversary, sweetie.

11monthswide

Note: actual spousal interactions on our anniversary have been omitted in deference to traditional decorum – and so that my mother does not expire prematurely from mortification.

 

Just a Whisker Away

Can you feel it, just a whisker away?

The promise of breezes lifting the curtains, naps in the afternoon sun, playtimes spent wrestling, climbing a tree, batting a ball around? Ah, summer. kitty hammockMemorial weekend approaches, the unofficial start of the exalted season – and of another, less well known. It’s the height of kitten season. Thousands of kittens born and nurtured in the spring are now mature enough to find homes.

Can you imagine it? Kittens inhaling the fresh air through the window, nestling in the sun’s rays, playing with the zest of a youngster discovering new games each day? Might your home have room for more love and an extra dash of joy? As the French writer Jean Cocteau said, “I love cats because I enjoy my home, and little by little, they become its visible soul.” If you’ve never lived with a cat or kitten, this may mystify you. Many people still think of cats as elusive, independent creatures who turn up their noses at even their closest humans except for when it suits them – like meal time. But as Cocteau knew, cats can gladly offer their lively spirits and ready adopt-a-shelter-cat-monthaffection if we are open to them – and little by little, we come to realize that home is where the cat is. But far too many cats are left wondering where the home is.

An estimated four million cats wind up in shelters across our country each year. They extend their paws through their cages at the workers and visitors passing by: notice me! Notice me! They rub against the wires and purr: pet me! Pet me! They live as fully as possible within their confines: Catincage1play with the toys, lap up the food and water, use the litter box, snuggle with their cage mates. I hope they don’t know what lies around the corner or down the hall if they cannot entice an adopter: the euthanasia room. 70 percent of shelter cats are carried there.

So June is Adopt a Cat Month, also known as Adopt a Shelter Cat month, because this is when shelters are most crowded with kittens and when you catincagehandsbwhave a marvelous opportunity to add to your family and save a life or more. I always recommend at least two cats, for multiple reasons. They will be happier when no humans are at home, because they have each other. You will be more entertained, watching the cats play together. And you’ll get more attention!

The extra care and expense of an additional cat are minimal. Although this is considered sacrilege in some corners, I find that one litter box can do nicely, if it’s cleaned often. (My three cats have a choice of two litter boxes, one indoors and one on the catio. They steadfastly ignore the catio box and happily share the indoor one.) More food is required, but cats are not gargantuan consumers. You’ll also need to provide entertainment, which doesn’t have to mean Fred in a boxexpensive toys. Cats are happy to chase the proverbial yarn, and they love boxes, tissue and wrapping paper, and any number of natural playthings already in your home. Among those playthings should be surfaces they are allowed to scratch: wood, carpet, cardboard. These can all be purchased or you can make your own cat scratchers cheaply and easily. And you’ll want to write an annual veterinary visit into your budget – but that comes later. Shelter animals are spayed, neutered, vaccinated, and often microchipped before they are released. At most shelters, adoption fees are kept as minimal as possible.

And it’s not just kittens who are on borrowed time at shelters, waiting for homes. There are cats of all ages available, from high-energy adolescents to stately elders looking for a warm hearth and snuggly lap. Not sure who is right for you? Ask your shelter’s staff. They’ll help you find the match to suit your time, temperament, and environment.

May 22 Blog Pic Cathy copy2So go ahead: spice up your summer if you can. Adopt a Cat. Then, when the too-brief season slips away and the chill creeps in, you’ll have your friends to keep you warm.

 

 

 

“Be the Way Home”

It’s a simple sentence, an imperative – and in the not-so-simple county of Hillsborough, Florida, it’s now the officially sanctioned plea to citizens: be the way home for shelter animals.

In a nation that is increasingly concerned about its abandoned companion animals, where the terms babyboy“no kill” and “save 90” have become part of the animal welfare lexicon, Hillsborough lags in finding homes for the creatures who wind up at its county shelter. Fewer than 37 percent make it out alive. Dogs are the most fortunate: 56.6% had a “live outcome” in fiscal year 2012, while only 18.9% of cats did. And yet when Be the Way Home was introduced as an effort to up the percentages, a virtual catfight ensued. Why? The old tired topic of TNR.

I use the phrase “old tired topic” advisedly – and personally. I’m tired of arguing about and having to cathytnr advocate for Trap Neuter Return. As a longtime practitioner of TNR, I’ve watched it work, believe that it’s the best practice for free-roaming community cats and the humans with whom they co-exist, and just want the freedom for all TNR’ers to get on with the business of doing it. This freedom exists in hundreds of communities across America, where leadership recognizes that TNR is the most effective, economic, and humane way of controlling and managing free-roaming cat populations. But in too many other communities, hard-working big-hearted caregivers to community cats are driven underground by ordinances against and opposition to their efforts. One common ordinance bans the outdoor feeding of “public nuisance” animals. Opposition says the cats are not indigenous species, claims they are too great a danger to other wildlife through their hunting behaviors, and a threat to humans primarily through carrying disease.

Hence when the director of Hillsborough County Animal Services included a pilot program to trap, neuter and release up to 2,000 community cats per year in his overall Be the Way Home plan to increase live outcomes, the claws came out. A small clutch of veterinarians were the most vociferous opponents of releasing healthy, neutered, microchipped and vaccinated cats back into the community (but away from “sensitive areas” such as parks, playgrounds, schools and conservation lands), seconded by wildlife proponents. The vets invoked the welfare of children to try and whip up Catcornerfear of crazed cats pursuing the populace, while the wildlife advocates focused on allegedly besieged birds. Pro-TNR groups including Animal Coalition of Tampa, Cat Crusaders and the Humane Society of Tampa Bay rallied the local troops on behalf of their successful Trap-Neuter-Vaccinate-Return endeavors and to point out that available science does not support the anti-TNR allegations. National groups like the Humane Society of the United States, Alley Cat Allies and Best Friends Animal Society stood with us.

As I commented during the discussion, community cat advocates are not the natural enemies of catsroosterswildlife conservationists. Most of us are in favor of all animals being allowed to experience their full, natural lives within an ecosystem that does include predatory behavior – including by birds that eat small mammals (such as cats) and even other birds. We argue that the evidence does not support claims that cats are the wildly prolific killers that TNR opponents make them out to be. We know from experience that TNR with feeding reduces feline hunting behavior. I will concede here however, that – as with almost any issue – you can bandy both the empirical and anecdotal evidence about like balls of yarn. The most beautifully simplistic, indisputable statement made in the entire exercise is this: the cats are already here. Are any of these dire scenarios (diseased cats on the rampage, birds falling by the flock) occurring now? Fortunately for the animals of Hillsborough County, the answer (no) and common sense prevailed as commissioners overwhelmingly approved Be the Way Home – a comprehensive plan of which TNR is just one component. Now comes the implementation on behalf of all affected animals. And as in any locale, Animal Services can’t do it alone.

No matter where you live, you can help the animals in a myriad of ways:

–volunteer with a shelter or rescue group
–donate funds, food, or equipment needed
–offer your expertise in communications, marketing or technology to help educate
–adopt or foster animals waiting for homes
–be a responsible pet owner; spay, neuter and promote it to others
–practice TNR and caregiving to community cats
–participate in pet expos and adopt-a-thons
–lobby your lawmakers to support animal welfare legislation
–write letters, send e-mails, post on social media on behalf of animals.

Saving the animals starts with us, the grass roots citizens. It is not the job of governments alone. Reputable shelter and rescue groups are limited by the time, space, and money they have to work with. There’s an ever-growing public aversion to massive euthanasia rates and an expanding energy around education and adoption, along with an increasing willingness to help.

Be the Way Home. It’s a simple sentence – an imperative. It deserves the upper case letters. Let’s bethewayhomefamilyhope it’s the start of a beautiful story in Hillsborough County, Florida – and an inspiration to compassionate, conscientious communities everywhere.

To read the “Be the Way Home” plan click on the image.

KINDNESS WEARS MANY FACES

The students hurry toward us as soon as they spot Lucy.  “Did they catch the man who wanted to poison all the cats?”  “Did Lucy ever find her mother?”

Their questions spring from concern over events in the novel that Lucy Miracle – the cat – narrates.  Cathy Unruh at Academy Prep Center TampaThe events are fictional, but these students have reason to believe.  They are living an extraordinary story themselves. They are from low-income, frequently fractured families in an area where fewer than half the adults hold a high school diploma.  They qualify for free or reduced price school meals to ensure they are fed.

But these students’ bodies, minds and souls are being fed through the kindness of people many of them will never meet.  They attend Academy Prep Center of Tampa, on scholarships fully funded by donations at no cost to the kids or their families. In an area of the city where simple attendance is not expected of many school-age kids, let alone graduation, these middle school students are at the Academy six days a week, for up to eleven hours a day – and after eighth grade, they are going on to prestigious high schools and colleges, mentored all along the way.  They have no trouble relating to Lucy’s miracle story – and some of the verses they write about it reflect that:

Cathy Unruh Lucy Miracle Academy Prep Center Tampa“Hurray!  I’m saved by an angel from above.  My crystalled eyes shine with joyful tears.  I’m glad to know I can trust someone I love.  I felt like life was worth losing, but now, it’s reversed.  Now, I’m so happy it hurts.”

“Curious About Everything
Agreeing About What to Do
Tough And Hard Minded”

“Can I have a cat
Cats are really cool they rock
Now we all want cats.”

Earthly angels may not be too farfetched a term for some other people who think cats rock – and IMG_5295prove it with their actions. They give up their nights, their weekends, time with family and friends to advocate for spaying and neutering pets, trapping and neutering free-roaming cats, and adopting out everyone they can.Colony Cats and Dogs Ohio

Colony Cats (& dogs) of Columbus, Ohio, runs a bustling cat adoption center where the occasional dog also comes through to find a home – like the strong, handsome deaf one who was there the day I visited.  I’m told that his owner was about to put him to sleep – and then Colony Cats stepped in.  It’s an all-volunteer organization, 150 people strong.  Some come by regularly to scoop litter boxes and clean. Some spend time giving the cats attention and affection.  Some facilitate the adoptions.  Some foster animals waiting for homes.  Some staff the boutique at which sales of upscale secondhand goods help keep the money coming in.  Some organize and run the events that do the same.

As for the cats themselves – abandoned, stranded, strangers to each other until they are housedIMG_5290 together at the adoption center – they share food, bowls, litter boxes and sleeping spaces ungrudgingly. They offer affection to each other and to visiting humans.

Kindness wears many faces:  the abandoned animal still willing to trust and love; the volunteer willing to get dirty and tired to better Academy Prep Center Tampa Lucy Miracle Cathy Unruhthe lives of other species; the benefactors willing to fund educations of kids who otherwise might not be in school; the students who care about a cat they’ve only read about; the cat who’s willing to indulge their attentions – even if it’s slightly uncomfortable.

Colony Cats and Dogs volunteer

 

Extending ourselves in kindness can be uncomfortable – but if we’re willing to make the reach, we can also discover that it feels pretty darn cozy.

WANDERING CUBA

I’ve just returned from Cuba, a trip endorsed by the U.S. government as a people to people educational exchange. The Cuban government (“state,” to Cubans) provided our local guide. We saw what the government wanted us to see. We stayed where the government wanted us to stay. We visited rural areas, mountains, beaches, small towns, the capital.Havana apartment building copy

The first and relentless impression is that Cuba’s clock stopped ticking somewhere circa the late 50’s or in many cases, decades earlier. Technology, modern means of production, and residential comforts as we know them seem truly foreign concepts here. In nearly every locale, the poverty is soul deadening. And that is just in looking at it, not living it.

In the country, the people live in shacks, primarily of wood. Holes gape from their sides, not all of them windows. We visit two farmhouses which by comparison are luxurious. They feature several rooms, glass windows, porches. One is the home of a third generation tobacco farmer and his family. He is matter of fact with an occasional smile. The state allows him to entertain tourists because he is a top producer. He knows that should he slip, the state might take his land. Currently, the state claims 95 percent of his crop and pays him what it wishes. As is common across Cuba, the money is not enough to live on. The other farm is open to us as a model of organic farming and Cat eating cucumberecological sustainability. Its stewards appear happy, energetic, enthused. Learning of my veganism at lunch, the wife requests a “momento ecological,” and returns holding Gato, a cat who enthusiastically crunches cucumber.

In the towns, attached single story buildings line the cobblestone streets like dormitories, housing small apartments. Doors hang open, grabbing breaths of air. We can see the interiors, windowless multi-function rooms that hold what passes for a kitchen, a table, a sitting area, sometimes a bed. Some thoroughfares blossom with modest stand-alone homes, even patches of lawn and flowers. The houses are generally uniform, box after box of the same size and shape.

In the capital, 20 percent of the island’s population crowd together in antiquated high rises, low rises, dilapidated houses. Buildings literally collapse here Havana housing2 copyoccasionally, taking their occupants with them. These are called “derrumbes,” for a giant rumbling followed by rubble and grief. Even landmark structures – museums, government agencies, embassies – are bruised and decaying, although the state is now undertaking a Havana overhaul in an effort to rehabilitate the largest tourist attraction in the country. We are driven through the grandest residential section, large homes from which we are told the wealthiest citizens fled Fidel. It resembles all the rest: the entire country seems to be crumbling, in need of shoring up or at least a coat of paint. Rotting wood and dingy cement glare through splotches of long-faded veneer. Hand-washed laundry on lines is part of the scenery from coast to coast, hanging from the yards of country hovels to the windows of city apartments.

Machines are relics, from the 1950’s American cars miraculously maintained to the Soviet era tobacco farmer’s tractor to the diesel operated water pumps that Radio copycould well date back to World War II to this radio, the property of a potter’s family. The occasional rusting air conditioner graces a window. 15 percent of the people, we are told, have access to the internet. Public phones are a primary means of Public phone copycommunication.

We actually converse with very few Cubans, shepherded through our stops. Our guide, a vivacious woman in her thirties, shares what she says is “her reality,” as she has never left the homeland. She is happy with “the triumph of the revolution,” the repetitively uttered term for the 1959 Castro coup – the state provides health care and education. She claims to be both ignorant of and not curious about where or how the brothers Castro live. She knows only how they travel: in caravans of luxury carsOld car copy with ambulance and police escorts. But she is openly frustrated at the subsistence salaries, the inability to buy or even find a car, the irony of being permitted to travel abroad when she doesn’t have the money to do so.

Food rations doled out by the state do not fill the table. Soap, shampoo, toothpaste and toilet paper are all expensive extras. Remittances – money sent from relatives and friends in America and elsewhere – prop up the official economy and fuel the black market on which Cubans depend. A good job is one that has something you can pilfer to sell on the black market in exchange for food, clothes, toiletries, household needs.

Are people happy, we ask? They’d better be, says a Cuban citizen we meet one morning at breakfast. Because people still disappear, he says. Perhaps they go to prison and then their families hear they died there in an “accident.” They never see the body, he tells us. There is no autopsy report. Nonetheless, his family likes it here. He doesn’t. He’s just visiting. He’s also an American citizen, an ocean borne escapee 21 years ago.

Cathy with street cat copyAnd then there are the animals. Everywhere. Oxen plow the fields, planted and harvested by hand. Goats work as lawnmowers. Cattle graze on the brown grass of dry season. Horses do it all: farm chores, family transportation, cart rides for cash. Roosters, chickens, guinea fowl and turkeys rake yards and fields. Pink piglets frolic on a lawn. A few doors down, a fattened adult lies on a platform being skinned. I try to take comfort in the relative freedom many open air “food animals” are given until they meet their grisly ends. (Guns are tightly controlled here. Few farmers have them. Tools are largely antiques. Your imagination can complete the slaughter scenarios.) Circling vultures are ubiquitous.

bullSaddled Brahman bulls with ropes piercing their noses offer transport and entertain tourists. Cocks are bred for fighting. Horses and donkeys are whipped with ropes and chain link. Many of their beaten backs are bony, underfed. A muscled man, cigarette in hand, simultaneously spurs and reins in his horse, sending it into a tailspin for the amusement of onlookers. Caged birds hang from doorjambs like decorations.

Dog with teats-RecoveredCats and dogs roam both rural and urban areas. Street dogs survive on scraps and handouts, grateful for the occasional ear scratch. CathyScratching dog copyProminent teats and swollen milk sacs attest to hidden puppies. Spaying, neutering, vaccinations – these are rare except for some lucky pets and in Havana, street dogs who are collared and claimed by restaurants as mascots. Cats hunt to survive. Tourist stops and table sides are fertile grounds. A lucky few make their living in open door hotels.Cat in restaurant-Recovered

We leave the plight of the land animals to spot birds in the woods: warblers, hawks, woodpeckers, the bee hummingbird – smallest bird in the world – sap suckers, the Cuban parakeet. Our hiking guide says the parakeet will kill itself if caged; it wants its independence. This is the national bird.

Lunch is an intact pig, his lively brain roasted along with the rest of his body. “It is cruel,” the hiking guide concedes to me in an aside. “But we need it.” My American companions are apparently unfazed. They stop for photos. They eat the freshly shredded corpse with gusto. I slip away and have a little cry. For the pig, for all the animals, for the poverty of the people, for Cuba, for the cruelty which spans our world from dictators to diners.

What does the future hold for Cuba? Who knows? Years more of socialism? A shot at capitalism? Official relations with America? KFCs and factory farms? The right to openly earn one’s own money? The breeze of change is whispering. Small private businesses now dot the landscape, licensed and taxed by the state. Many citizens can now travel abroad. Raul has given his presidency a deadline.

On the day we head home, the wind is whipping – toward the north. I am glad to go with it.

 

 

 

 

 

ANIMALS, EMOTIONS, AND THE FISHBOWL

Do animals have emotions?

I’d like to say that is purely a rhetorical question, because is the answer not as clear as the snouts on their faces – or am I missing a third eyelid wink (wink, wink)?

Apparently Mr. Peter Ogburn of Media Bistro’s FishbowlDC thinks I am missing more than that – a brain, perhaps. In a piece called Dumbass Pitches (yep, that’s really the link), Ogburn basically asserts that I must be a misguided moron – or perhaps “some sad person who calls their 27 cats their ‘animal children’ and would breast feed their kittens if they could” – to suggest that animals experience emotion.

Now I could pause for a sentence here to point out such trivialities as Mr. Ogburn being mistaken on where the “beautifully stupid” pitch actually originated or some of the points it makes, but let’s get straight to some more of his commentary because it is so deeply considered: “Animals…shit when they have to.” “Animals live on base instincts.” “The perceived LOVE that they are giving you is a way to tell you that they want something…a leg to hump.”

As I was reflecting upon how a person who says he has pets could so crassly conclude that they don’t emote, I helpfully received a piece by Gene Weingarten which describes Mr. Ogburn’s worksite as: [a] “vicious, sleazy, snide, disreputable, unscrupulous, vacuous, wildly immature, gratuitously cruel, malicious and mean-spirited media-gossip website that specializes in innuendo, reckless character assassination and unconscionable, wanton defamation.” (Click here to read his full article.)

But hold my horses! Weingarten goes on to entreat Mr. Ogburn to continue to feature him weekly, as is apparently FishbowlDC’s custom, because “I have come to enjoy the abrasive work…It hurts so good.” If this two-time Pulitzer Prize winning journalist wants to stay in the Fishbowl, then please…have me back! Let’s talk animals!

After all, I like to swim with the fishes – that’s me in the scuba suit. The other Bull Run 032 swimmer is Larry the grouper. Whenever we would descend to his reef in the Bahamas, Larry would fishtail it over to us to engage in long soulful eyelocks, slurp at our regulators and get petted. He would roll from side to side and front to back to make sure we scratched every accessible scale. Now Mr. Ogburn, I can’t tell you exactly what Larry’s emotions were when he saw our air bubbles heading his way, but I imagine they were something like, “Hot diggity divers! This is gonna feel good!”Bull Run 035

And yes, “Larry” is my own humanly imposed nomenclature for our grouper groupie. Call that crazy cat/fish/animal lady stuff if you’d like. I don’t mind. And finally, Mr. FishbowlDC, if I ever start breast feeding kittens, I’ll be sure to let you know. That would make a great column.

But excuse me right now, I have to go. Lucy Miracle is meowing against my ankles, which means she’s feeling affectionate and wants a little together time. I like to respond when the moment is right.

–Readers, please tell us what you think. Do animals have emotions – or not?