Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Little Nipper: The Case of the Injured Duckling

Hi Folks!

Thanks for stopping by! Well, fall is definitely here, and thank goodness: I'm not a fan of ninety-degree days!

I bet that when you read the title of this particular post, you immediately thought of cute, fuzzy little baby ducklings, didn't you? I don't blame you at all, but in fact, the duckling I'm writing about today was actually half-grown when I rescued him. He was far more scrawny and gangly than he was cute and fuzzy. In many ways, though, Little Nipper was still a baby: he stuck close by mama's side, and imitated her in everything she did, trying hard to learn how to be a Big Duck.

His mother is Freckle Duck, the very same Freckle Duck who continues to elude the best nest-finding efforts of both myself and Animal Control Officer Jeff. For three years running, now, she's managed to hide her nests so well that we never find them. This year, she hatched eight ducklings. Fortunately for the sake of population control, area hawks and snapping turtles brought the number of surviving offspring down to two. Nipper and Peeps - his sibling - had managed to survive in spite of the odds, and were well on their way to adulthood when disaster struck.

I was feeding the gang one summer morning when I noticed the length of fishing line floating among the ducks. There seemed to be five ducks caught in it, though not so tightly that they couldn't escape. Little Nipper was among those caught, which really tugged at my heartstrings: he was just a baby! He was too young for this sort of catastrophe! I held out hope that they would somehow untangle themselves without my interference, and adopted a wait-and-see attitude.

In a matter of days, the ducks managed to disentangle themselves, but Nipper now had such a pronounced limp that something was clearly wrong with him, and it was no doubt fishing line-related. His right foot dragged uselessly behind him as he limped along. He was so obviously injured it was a wonder that a hawk hadn't already made a meal of him. I grabbed him up one morning with a view to taking him to the vet's. He was fairly easy to catch in his compromised condition, and I plopped him gently in the ever-present critter carrier.

Before I drove off, I walked back across the boat house parking lot, intent on retrieving the bag of cracked corn I'd left behind during Nipper's capture. It was then that I saw Officer Jeff rounding the corner of the boat house and heading in my direction. He told me he'd gotten a phone call about a duck with some fishing tackle attached to it. I had just finished feeding the entire gang and hadn't seen anything of the sort, which was what I told Jeff. I went on to mention the injured duckling, who was at that moment firmly ensconced in the carrier in the front seat of my car. Jeff walked over for a look.

He told me then that this was the exact same duckling he'd found tied to a tree a few days earlier. Nipper hadn't really been tied to the tree, he'd accidentally gotten himself wound up in the underbrush because he'd had that fishing line wrapped around his leg. Jeff had cut him free, and now, here I was a few days later, taking the poor little guy to the vet. We surmised that the phone call Jeff had gotten had probably been about Nipper.

There was something about the timing of it all that clearly struck Jeff. Here he'd driven to the pond in response to a report of a critter crisis, only to find me already there, a few steps ahead of him! I think it was at that moment that he developed a measure of faith in me that he hadn't had before. We'd always gotten along well in the past, but it seemed that now, after this particular incident, the realization that I was serious about the animals, and not just some crazy duck broad, kind of jelled in his mind. Before he left, he offered up a fist pound. It spoke volumes.

Little Nipper's vet, Dr. Susan, inspected his leg and told me that the fishing line had caused nerve damage. The line had cut off circulation to his foot for a time, and there was no way to know how much tissue he was going to lose. She was certain that he'd lose some of the webbing in his foot, but also reasonably sure that the foot itself would survive. She gave me antibiotics for the infection and told me that if I hadn't brought him in, that infection would've killed him. Yikes!

It was clear that he was going to need some kind of therapy, not to mention regular doses of the antibiotic, so into my bathroom he went. He was deeply miserable from the start, and remained so for the next seven days. Having been wrenched away from his mother had been a traumatic experience for him - I knew this because as I carried him toward my car, he cried piteously for mama, who chased along after us for several yards. It broke my heart that I couldn't explain to them that the separation was only temporary.

It was immediately obvious that my bathtub would not be big enough to give Nipper proper hydrotherapy in. I called Pat Mitchell - she who had adopted both Ducky and Puddleduck after they became permanently lame - and asked whether she had anything big enough for a duck to dunk himself in. As luck would have it, she had just the thing: a 52-gallon plastic storage container. It worked perfectly, and once it was filled with water, it became Nipper's hydrotherapy tub.

Hydrotherapy entailed much more than just letting Nipper swim around. It was important that he use his bad leg, so every time I put him in the water, I'd gently pull backwards on a handful of his tail feathers. Because he was afraid of me, he'd pump his little legs extra hard, trying to get away. We'd do that over and over for fifteen-odd minutes at a stretch, then I'd take him in to rest.

Before every round of hydrotherapy, we'd do physical therapy. I should point out here that Dr. Susan mentioned none of these things during our time in the exam room. We didn't discuss rehab at all. It was something I came up with when it became clear that he wouldn't heal on his own, at the pond. So I devised some exercises that I thought would provide the most benefit for a flightless duck.

Physical therapy involved me putting him on a harness and leash - the same ones I'd used to teach my cats how to walk with me outside, then letting him walk around the back yard. In truth, he wasn't walking so much as he was running to get away from me. He would race toward the shady areas of my lawn with me following along at his heels. Then I'd pick him up and carry him back to the middle of the yard. When I put him back down on the ground, he was off and running again. Once he'd reach the shade, he'd turn his head, reach around behind him and try to chew the harness off. How he hated every minute of it!

It wasn't just the harness he disliked; he hated me, as well. And he told me so, every single day. I'd go into the bathroom in the morning to give him his meds and clean up all the poop, and he'd slouch miserably in the corner and announce, "I hate you, Kelly!" It made me sad, but I certainly understood: he was still a baby, missing his mama. And while on some instinctive level, he understood the concept of being eaten by a predator, he had no understanding whatsoever of humans and bathrooms and good intentions.

A new problem developed on Day Three: contracture. He wasn't using the injured foot sufficiently to stave off muscular contracture, and his foot had begun to curl under. I consulted with Dr. Susan, who put the idea in my head when she said there was no point in trying to put a splint on him. To this day, I don't know why she said that, but I'm glad I ignored her. I discussed the problem with fiance John, and between the two of us, we devised a duck-foot-shaped splint, custom-made just for Nipper.

We traced his foot around a sheet of plastic, then cut two pieces - one for under his foot, and one for on top. We taped it all together with his foot sandwiched in between, using coach's tape. It worked perfectly! I kept the splint on his foot for a day, making him walk with it on during physical therapy, and the contracture disappeared after less than 48 hours. The splint was a resounding success.

As Nipper continued to improve, and the time to return him to the pond drew near, I began to wonder whether mama would take him back. Surely, she was used to the idea that once a predator took her young, she was never going to see that duckling again. But what about one reappearing after eight days? I knew that he had imprinted on her, but had she imprinted on him? Did it work both ways, or would she have no idea who he was? The answers mattered to some degree: while he was half-way to adulthood, and could, in theory, get by on his own, he still had a lot to learn about how to be a Big Duck, and mama was the best duck to learn that from. I'd have to wait and see.

The day finally came that I felt comfortable returning him to the pond. Those eight days of rehabilitation had dragged on much more slowly than they normally did with adult ducks. That was probably because I knew the adults were just annoyed by the disruption to their lives, while Nipper was clearly scared and depressed at the separation from his mother. In addition, I think he pooped twice as much as the adults, even while he refused most of the foods the big ducks ate. Because he ate so little while in my bathroom, I ended up worrying as much about him getting a decent meal as I did about successfully rehabbing him. All in all, he ate enough. Not a lot, but enough.

When I released him at the pond, he made a beeline for the water. Swimming in a 52-gallon plastic storage container is not at all the same as swimming in your home water, with all its familiar smells, snacks, and friends. In no time, Nipper found mama, and while he was overjoyed to see her, her response seemed lukewarm by comparison. I got the distinct impression that she was thinking, "You're BACK??? I thought you'd grown up and moved away!" Mama seemed about as enthused as a human parent would when their adult child wants to move back home again.

The good news was that Nipper's sibling, Peeps, had managed to avoid becoming a hawk snack in his absence, and the two were thrilled to be together again. They found one another immediately, and have rarely left each other's sides since. As they've grown, they've taken numerous expeditions together around the pond, always finding mama eventually, but gaining confidence about being Big Ducks in her absence.

Little Nipper walks perfectly well, now, without a trace of the limp he still had when I returned him to the pond. A substantial portion of the webbing on that injured foot became gangrenous. Dr. Susan said that would happen. She advised me to let nature take its course, saying that the gangrenous parts would eventually fall off, and that they did. Where the dead tissue had been, there's now a triangle shaped space that used to be webbing. He swims perfectly well without the missing webbing, and in fact, he's grown to look so much like the duck I assume is his father that that web-less area is the only way I can identify him now. Thankfully, he's chosen not to hold a grudge, and bellies up to the bag of corn with all the other ducks. This was a good rescue, and a great rehab. They don't always turn out so well.

So that was the big excitement for me, this summer. I'm glad things went as well as they did, but it must be said that there was an astonishing amount of fishing tackle left lying around the pond this year. There was even more of the stuff this summer than in past years. And it's never just a foot or two of fishing line, it's often seven to ten feet long, usually with the hook still attached. Since the city provides trash cans all around the pond, I have no idea why fisherman can't be bothered to clean up after themselves. The only possible explanation is a shameful level of laziness.

So please, if you fish regularly, or know someone who does, please make sure you're cleaning up after yourself, and ask your fishing buddies to do the same. It's not just animals who are at risk of injury, it's barefoot children as well. I know I'd be really mad if my child had to get a tetanus shot because of someone else's laziness! And so would you! Let's all do our part to keep our parks and public spaces clean.

That's all for now, folks! I hope you're all enjoying this cooler weather! Until next time, please be kind to all the critters!

P.S. And while you're here, why not leave a quick comment so that I know you stopped by? Thanks so much!

Friday, September 10, 2010

The Dog in the Frame Shop

Hi Folks!

Thanks for stopping by! It's good to be back, and I have several critter stories that I can't wait to tell you! I want to appologize for being off the radar for so long, but I think every single animal-lover out there understands how hard it is to lose a long-time critter companion. And no matter how many times I go through it, it never gets any easier.

In any case. I don't know how many of you hail from small towns, but Whoville, where I grew up, was probably pretty typical. We didn't lock our doors at night, or if we did, most of the neighbors knew where we hid the key. It seemed like everyone knew everyone else, and even if they didn't, it still felt like it. We had two elementary schools: one on the east side of town, and one on the west. They were both named, with a certain lack of imaginative flair, after trees: Elm Street School, and Pine Street School. Both sides of town merged in junior high, which was, at that time, housed in the very same building that used to be the high school back when my mother was a girl.

Just like John Mellencamp, we all chafed at the smallness of our small town. We were quite sure that there were bigger, better things out in the world, and I'd bet that just about everyone in my high school class of '81 (with 230-some graduating seniors) dreamed of escaping the small town noose. I know I did. At the time, I figured just about anywhere else would do. What did I know?!

I did manage to get away for a time. I joined the army, saw Germany, married a guy and lived down in Georgia for a while. Divorced and moved back to Ohio. Lived in the booming metropolis of Cincinnati for a year. Remarried, moved back to Whoville. Divorced again but stuck around, and some eighteen years later, I'm still in my old hometown. It's kind of growing on me now.

It seems like the older you get, the more things change. You acquire a little wisdom. You see the bad in the world, and try to figure out how to change it, or at least avoid it! You finally realize that you're mortal, and then things take on a signifigance that escaped you when you were young, dumb and impatient, things like friendships, and family, and stopping to smell the roses once in a while. You learn to appreciate the Now, because you don't know how much more of it you'll get to enjoy. Such is middle age.

One of the things that I'm appreciating in my dotage is the unique people who color my world. I don't know how these things work in big cities - where people seem to be in such a hurry, and tend to close themselves off from the things around them - but in small towns, we have folks who are....different. Unusual. Outside the box. Not crazy, or weird, or what have you, just a little different. We call them "characters," and Laura the frame shop lady is one of them.

I've known her for years. I met her when she worked in someone else's frame store. When she opened her own shop, I took my business there. Her boss had never been terribly reliable, and I tend to like it when people keep to a schedule as promised. Now, I don't want you getting the wrong idea about Laura. She's an astute businesswoman, and a fine artist, to boot. She's got great ideas on how to make your art look even better with the right mat and frame, and she's very active at her church, too. In other words, she's an all-around good egg, even if she did put a hand-made sign in her shop window that says, "Have A Day." Laura's just cranky enough that it's too far to go to wish that folks have a NICE day!

Her frame store is located in an L-shaped strip mall. There's a wine shop next door to the left, and a bar next door to the right. Some other shops have come and gone, in the strip mall, but Laura and the booze are still there after all these years! Out in front of her shop, there's a small landscaped island around which the cars circle. The shrubs look a little unloved but I don't think anyone really cares. To be honest, there's an element of urban blight about the place, but it can't be helped: Whoville is smack in the middle of the midwestern rust-belt and a lot of jobs have been lost around here.

Laura's shop has served me well for over fifteen years, now. Early on, she made a decision that put her squarely in the outside-the-box category. She brought her cat to work. It was a long time ago, and I can't recall the cat's name, but I do remember that she was feline leukemia positive. Laura didn't want her infecting the cat at home, so she installed the cat in the frame shop and there it lived for several years. It was a friendly cat, and I gave her lots of attention every time I stopped in. Some time after the cat passed away, Laura acquired one of those football-sized dogs, and every morning, she'd bring the dog to work. Unlike the cat, this pet went home with Laura at night.

After the dog died, Laura found herself in possession of a large rescue dog of indeterminate breeding. She started bringing Maxi to work with her fairly early in their relationship, and Maxi settled into the routine very nicely. Maxi suited Laura's personality: while Laura was a tad curmudgeonly, Maxi was always cheerful; where Laura was laid back and calm, Maxi got excited about the small things, like the UPS delivery guy's arrival. They were the quintessential Frick and Frack.

They spent long hours together in that frame store. Maxi enjoyed lying in front of the plate glass window, watching the world outside, and she always let Laura know when people of interest were in the neighborhood. The moment I'd get out of my car, Maxi would spot me and start barking. She came to know that I would always pet her, and throw some toys around the shop for her. After a few minutes, when Laura and I would get down to business, Maxi would resume her post at the window. A visit from any of the delivery guys was always grounds for enthusiasm because they often brought dog biscuits for her. Seems like everyone around the strip mall knew Maxi!

That landscaped island out in front of Laura's shop came in handy as a toilet for Maxi. Laura would open the door, make sure it was traffic-free out there, then let Maxi out to do her business. Maxi was sensible enough to know that she was expected to come straight back into the shop when she was finished.

Because of all that time spent together in the shop, Laura and Maxi developed their own language. Laura always knew the difference between Maxi looking at her because someone was coming up the sidewalk, and Maxi looking at her because she needed to go out and pee. For reasons known only to Laura, she taught Maxi to run a lap around her work station before Laura would let her out. All Laura had to do was gesture with her hand, and Maxi would jog once around the station, then head toward the door. It was hilarious! Laura would be in mid-sentence, get the look from Maxi, wave her hand as she resumed talking, and the next thing you know, the dog is running a lap around the shop!

Because my framing needs are fairly modest, these days, I only get to the shop about once a year. I was there recently, and while I waited for Laura to finish a phone call, I knelt down on the floor to give Maxi some belly rubs. I noticed immediately that she'd lost weight, and I said as much when Laura got off the phone. She told me that Maxi had been sick, of late, and they were, in fact, waiting for the lab results from the vet's as we spoke. In a matter of minutes, the vet called, and told Laura that she hadn't found anything terribly alarming in the work-up, but thought Maxi might have an infection in her liver. They would treat her with antibiotics and see how it went. I left the shop assuming that everything would work out, because things always do, don't they? Or at least, they always work out in my head. Reality is another story entirely.

As I walked across the parking lot a week later, things were strangely quiet. No barking, no big cheerful dog wagging her tail in the window. Entering the shop, I asked, "Where's the muttley?"

"Retired," Laura answered quietly.

"She's GONE?" I gasped in shock.

"I put her down on Saturday," Laura replied.

The details don't really matter. Suffice to say that it wasn't an infection at all. My guess, from the sound of things, is that Maxi had a tumor that killed her - or would have, had Laura not euthanized her. There was no question but that Maxi was suffering, and Laura absolutely did the right thing. It was just so unexpected, and came on so fast, that I was momentarily speechless. There's never any time to process these things because they go from bad, to worse, to worst, in the blink of an eye. And now here we were, Laura and I, blinking over how this thing had happened, how quickly Maxi had deteriorated, how fast Laura had had to make such an agonizing decision.

Now, if this had been a big city instead of Whoville, Laura might never have brought any animals to work. If she did, folks probably wouldn't have bothered to get to know them, like I did, like the UPS guy did, like the wine shop guy next door on the left did. And Maxi's passing probably wouldn't have engendered any special notice from the customers. But here in Whoville, when you have a character like Laura who brings her beloved dog to work every day, week in and month out, year after year, you get a little attached to both of them. Which explains why I'm having difficulty maintaining my composure as I write this.

Just last Christmas, Laura - who is a curmudgeonly Christmas Grinch if ever there was one - sent out holiday photos to all of her regular customers. I opened my Christmas card to find a small color picture inside of Laura wearing a Grinch t-shirt, kneeling, with her arm around her best buddy Maxi, who was wearing fake deer antlers. It was the perfect picture of a perfect small town character, one who's loved precisely because she chooses to be a little different from everyone else.

I left the shop subdued, that day. It was hard to leave at all. Laura doesn't open up to just anyone, so I stayed for quite a while, listening, talking, choking up, hugging it out. My heart aches for Laura because I know what she's going through. And because she chose to ignore the conventional rule that says you leave your pets at home when you go to work, I grieve for what is lost: the shop, that humble frame shop in the run-down strip mall in the rust-belt town, will never be the same without Maxi.

If there is a lesson to be learned, here, apart from cherishing every day that you get with your loved ones, I think that it's this: the Gods put people like Laura in our paths to remind us that not everything is meant to be done by the book. Not everyone is meant to think inside the box, or play by the rules. And when we encounter these characters, we should take the time to get to know them - and their dogs - because that's what small towns are all about. Even if you live in a big city!

That's all for now, folks. May you all be blessed with knowing unusual people! Until next time, please be kind to all the critters!

P.S. Thanks again for stopping by! Please leave a comment so I know you were here!

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

It's Been A While!

Hi Folks!

I want to apologize for being gone so long. It's been a tough adjustment to life without Muffin, and it's taken me all this time since her passing to come to grips with it. It's not as though I haven't had any critter stories to write about, it's more a matter of me not feeling up to doing the writing. I hope this will be changing in the coming weeks. In the meantime, please feel free to visit the archives and check out some of the old stories. They're still fun - especially the ones about Pretty Boy Duck, the incorrigible houseguest.

I hope you're all having a great summer! Until next time!

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Moving On. Or not.

There comes a time in the grieving process where you make a concious decision to move on with life. You scatter the ashes. You go back to work. You put away your loved one's possessions. You start over in a hundred different ways. Your brain begins to adjust to Life After. It doesn't happen at the same time for everyone, but eventually, it does happen.

I'm not there, yet. Not even close. My mind doesn't want to make the leap into this new reality of Life After Muffin. I keep looking around the family room, hoping against hope that I'll find her sunning in her usual spot by the sliding glass door. She's not there, of course. She never will be again. And that's the hardest adjustment of all: making your brain understand what your heart doesn't want to accept.

The thing that stabbed at me today was this: a while back, noticing that Muff was getting on in years and not jumping as well as she used to, I bought her a set of steps. I found a nice carpeted set in a Drs. Foster and Smith catalog. I put the steps at the foot of my bed, and Muff immediately figured out what they were for: so that she could continue to get up on the bed and snuggle with me at night. Which is exactly what she did.

For reasons I'll never know, Muff took some sort of dislike to the bedroom in the house I live in now. The set of steps moved with us, and again took their place at the foot of the bed, but Muff never used them. In the three years she lived here with me, I think Muffin spent one night on my bed. I always felt bad about that.

I tried to encourage her to join us at night. I'd pick her up and put her on the bed, but she'd just growl and jump off. I certainly wasn't going to force her to do something she clearly didn't want to do, so when I turned off the lights at night, four cats followed me into the bedroom, and one stayed behind in the family room. Her self-imposed isolation made me sad.

Trying to make up for her absence in bed, I'd occasionally take naps on the family room couch. Muff would invariably join me for a snuggle - something I deeply treasured. I could always feel her purring as she stretched out against my stomach, my hand resting on her shoulder as I drifted off. It was the sort of thing you spend a lifetime taking for granted, until the day comes when you're forced to realize that you should've been paying more attention at the time because it will never happen again.

It wasn't until today - some three weeks after Muffin's death - that I gave any thought to that carpeted set of steps. Looking them over, I wondered what I should do with them now. My mind drew a momentary blank. "I could probably find some room for them out in the shed," I thought. Only problem with that idea, though, is that I'm not ready to move those steps very far. It would be too much like admitting that Muffin's not coming back, that she really is gone forever.

How can I possibly admit that?

How am I supposed to just put those steps away like they're not needed anymore?

How I am supposed to accept this awful, unbearable truth?

I haven't. The tin containing her ashes is still on the kitchen table. Her catnip mice are still scattered about the floor. Those carpeted steps only made it as far as the dining room, residing now in front of the bay window, making it easier for the surviving cats to get up on the window seat for a snooze. I know that grief happens at its' own pace. I'm not in any hurry to adjust. To accept. To move on.

I'm just not there yet. I'm not ready for Life After Muffin.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Things Left Behind

It's been nine days since my beloved Muffin cat died. Because this isn't my first critter loss, the depression I feel is not as intense as it has been in years past. It's there nonetheless, though: a constant undercurrent that weaves itself through my days and dictates how I spend them.

Today, for instance, I chose not to volunteer at the horse rescue facility. Instead, I slept till 11:00, ate Reeses peanut butter cups for breakfast, putzed around on the computer for well over an hour, didn't shower until 1:00, and didn't eat a proper breakfast until 2:00. I'm pretty sure most other people were more productive.

I've spent a good deal of time, these past nine days, keeping myself immersed in busy-work - things designed to keep my hands moving and my brain occupied. The busy-work succeeds in keeping the sadness at bay. For a while. But then comes the time when I must go back into the house and deal with the absences: the absence of Muffin's presence, the absence of her insistent meows for attention. The absence of her requests for snacks. Indeed, there's an entire family room filled with her absences.

No one particularly wants to be in that room anymore, including me. It's where Muffin spent 99% of her time, the last couple of years. We all end up there in the evenings, though - I, watching t.v. while the cats keep me company. It feels awkward to be in that room now. Many nights, Muffin used to join me on the ottoman, or curl up in my lap for a snuggle - which leaves a big void where she used to be. So now my lap is filled with an absence, too.

Curiously, the dynamic among the cats has changed since Muffin's death. Buddy, the loner, has been spending less time sleeping and more time checking up on me. Any number of times throughout the day, now, Buddy approaches me and gives me a good sniff. Maybe he's trying to figure out where Muffin went. It's nice to see him coming out of his shell more, but it's impossible to explain to him why, exactly, Muffin had to leave.

The same is true with Spanky. Immediately after I returned from the vet's, that awful day, I tried to tell Spanky that Muffin had been sickly, so she "had to go." You can read that a couple of different ways, though, and once I realized that, I stopped talking. I don't want any of the cats thinking that if they get sick, they're going to get the boot.

Spanky was the last kitten that Muffin was willing to mother. He was an incredibly needy baby (and, seven years later, still is), making constant demands on Muffin for attention, for cleanings, for her time. She endured the demands surprisingly well, considering that Spanky was not technically hers - until he grew up. Then she made it very clear that she was done.

Spanky spent the rest of Muffin's life ignoring her growls, and occasionally, his perseverence was rewarded with a few licks on the head. Spanky would walk away happy, then, clearly believing that his mommmy-cat still loved him. Spanky now spends a lot of time asking for my attention. It's a cheap substitute for Muffin, but it will have to do.

By the time Junebug came along, Muffin had had enough of kittens, and was so nasty to Junebug that I often had to intervene. Muffin had started out life as an only cat, so I understood her unhappiness at being forced to live with so many others, but I draw the line at bullying. Eventually a certain parity was reached in which I played mommy-cat to Junebug while Muffin found a nice place to nap at the other end of the house. Junebug keeps looking at me now as though she's wondering if I'm o.k. I think she knows that I'm not.

When Gracie was brought into the house, everyone tried in their own way to scare her into submission. Gracie was having none of it, though. She'd survived out on the streets with a permanently gimpy leg; she wasn't about to be bossed around by my lot. So they all retreated to the other end of the house to stew about the latest turn of events, and Gracie used the time to find the right place to sleep. Then she spent an inordinate amount of time doing just that.

Muffin and Gracie never cared for each other, which is probably why Gracie spent so much of the last year sleeping wherever Muffin wasn't. Now, all of a sudden, Gracie is choosing to spend her evenings with me and the other three cats in the family room. It's nice that they're all there with me, but to be honest, I'd just as soon be anywhere else but in that room. There are simply too many reminders of what I lost.

Some time ago, at a yard sale, I came across a stuffed, 3-dimensional Kliban cat. He's a black-and-white tabby who's wearing red sneakers. I positioned him on the floor in front of an ottoman that I don't use. For some reason, Muffin liked snuggling up to that cat. Now, every time my eyes sweep around the family room, they come to rest on that lonely Kliban cat. Another absence.

There's a gaudy yellow blanket on the family room couch. It, too, I found at a yard sale. I liked the color, it was soft and snuggly, and sometimes, a little bit of gaudy is a good thing. I keep it folded at one end of the couch, ready for nap duty. Muff liked to crawl in between the folds, creating a little cat cave for herself. I could always tell by the messy lump where Muffin was sleeping. Now, the blanket lies flat and smooth. Another absence.

In my bathroom stands a set of wicker shelves. On the bottom shelf, I keep two folded beach towels. Every so often, Muffin would go in there, paw the top towel until it had unfolded somewhat, and then she'd lie on it. Given that I've set up special cat-friendly nooks and crannies all over the house, I have no idea why Muffin liked that spot behind the bathroom door, but she surely did. Now, the beach towels are as the gaudy yellow blanket: flat and smooth. Yet another absence.

I'm so incredibly grateful that I had the presence of mind to spend some extra time with Muffin, the few days before her death. Two nights - one of them, her last - I passed the night on the family room couch so that we could snuggle. Muff didn't come into my bedroom anymore, and for several years, I really missed the snuggling we used to do in bed. Those nights on the couch were good medicine for me as well as for her, though not nearly enough of it.

Several times, in the last week of her life, I took Muffin outside for some chaperoned excursions. In years past, on these same sorts of adventures, I would walk a few steps through the grass, in a direction I hoped she'd follow. Muffin would always wait til I got a couple of yards away, then race toward me at speed, stopping before she crashed into my feet. It was an amusing thing she did, one of those things you kick yourself for later because you took it for granted all the years she did it.

Muffin wasn't up to running - or walking much, for that matter - in her last days. She'd take a few steps, then gingerly lower herself onto the grass. It was as though she didn't have the physical energy to keep going any more. So I would sit down beside her, run my hand over her back as I remarked on what a nice day it was, and explained how the breezes would bring the smells right to her nose. They were quiet times, out in the yard. Perhaps, for Muff, they were also a final taking of stock, a last few looks at What Was.

I'm crying as I write this now. If I had known how close Muffin was to the end, I would've taken stock of What Was myself. But that's the problem with love, isn't it? You find yourself in a comfortable rhythm, after years together. You take that rhythm for granted, assuming that it will always be with you - or, at least, that you will have ample warning before the end, and plenty of time to say the things you should've said all along. It rarely works that way, though.

I really hope that Muffin knew how loved she was.

If there are lessons to be learned here, I can't help you with them. I'm much too busy at the moment keeping my hands moving and my brain occupied so that I don't have to think too much. Tears are inevitable, but mostly, I prefer feeling nothing to feeling the searing pain of loss. Life goes on, as it must, but with one notable difference now: there's a vast emptiness where Muffin used to be. It's a void that can never be filled.

Friday, April 16, 2010

In Memory of Muffin

Her name was Heidi. I met her at the local Humane Society. I was grieving the loss of my long-time friend, Kitty, at the time. For some reason, my shrink thought that a recconnoiter at the shelter would make me feel better, so I went. I stood watching in one of the cat rooms, as a couple tried to coax a big grey striped tabby back into its' cage. The cat didn't want to go. She didn't fuss, it was more of a Gandhi-style passive-resistance type of thing, in which she pretended that she didn't understand what the humans were trying to tell her.

"If you're done with her," I said, "I'll play with her for a bit." The couple agreed, and left the room. I picked up the cat, sat on a chair, and plopped her onto my lap. She immediately curled up and began to purr. It was her way of saying, "Take me home, Kelly. I'll go home with you." So I did.

The story I heard was that Heidi had been surrendered because her elderly owner went into a nursing home. She certainly seemed to have been raised by an old woman: I once offered her a plate-ful of tuna fish and she wouldn't eat it. She wouldn't even go near it. Shaking my head in disbelief that any cat existed who didn't like tuna, I transferred the fish from the plate to her food dish. The tabby then gobbled the entire portion.

She wouldn't get up on the furniture, either. That wasn't my rule; it must've been the old lady's. Once I let her know that my furniture was hers, too, Heidi happily availed herself of it for the rest of her life. One of her favorite things to do was snuggle with me while I napped on the couch. I loved it, too: it was our cozy time together. I could often feel her purring against my stomach as I dozed off.

She wasn't really a Heidi. At first I thought she was a Tiger, but when I got her home from the shelter, I concluded that she was really a Muffin. Being three years old at the time, though, it took a while for her to catch on to the name change. Hell, I ended up calling her by so many nicknames, it's a wonder she never had a full-blown identity crisis! With kittens in the house (not hers), she became "Mama." With age and dignity, she became "Lady Cat." Because I heard it on t.v. once, she was also "Mamala." Mostly, because she took good care of me the times I got sick, she was "Mommy-ma."

Muffin saw me through several bad relationships. She went where I went. I never moved anywhere that she couldn't come. She was there when Macavity died. When Winkie died. She was there through every single bout of depression. Quietly, consistently, faithfully, she was there. Many times, I took her for granted. Sometimes, she got lost in the shuffle; while the louder cats demanded my attention, Muffin waited patiently to be noticed.

Her special treat was to be taken outside. Whether at my last home, the chicken coop, or here at the critter shack, she loved to run her paws through the grass, bask in the sun, and sniff the air. "Breezes, Muff," I'd say, "they bring the smells right to your nose!" Together, we'd wander around the yard, me standing by as she investigated the messages left on trees and shrubs by other critters, or gauged her chances with the birds who would land temptingly close but realistically out of reach for the slightly-overweight, middle-aged cat.

I knew something was wrong. Suspected it for a couple weeks. I mentioned to fiance John that she seemed to have gone downhill very quickly, that old age seemed to have come out of nowhere and hit her hard. Her breathing was labored. She stopped eating her favorite snacks. She refused offers of catnip. The last couple of days, she took to lying in odd places in the front living room - a room no one used except to get from one end of the house to another. I called the vet and got an appointment for the next day.

In the meantime, I took her out in the back yard several times. We had some beautifully mild, sunny spring days - the kind of days Muff liked best - and I wanted her to know that she was still my special lady, even if Junebug did hog my attention from time to time. But these treks were far different from years past. For one thing, there was that labored breathing that seemed to slow her down. And she obviously didn't feel up to having any more adventures. Mostly, she just wanted to lie still in the grass. So I'd sit down beside her, pet her, and tell her what a good girl she was.

I was feeling mildly optimistic on the way to the vet's. A couple of times, Thursday morning, Muff had let me know she wanted some wet food. She didn't eat near enough of it, but she was trying. That gave me hope. Then the vet showed me the x-ray, and explained how all that fluid built up around Muffin's lungs was making it hard for her to breathe. "There's nothing you can do to treat that?" I asked. The doctor, a kindly young woman four years out of vet school, remarked that there were a couple of procedures they could try, but the results would be fruitless and we'd be right back where we were now. In her opinion, the kindest thing to do would be to euthanize.

I take these recommendations seriously. Years ago, I had a long-standing association with a different animal hospital, which made me privy to things that many people don't know. One of the most striking lessons I learned from that association was that folks rarely euthanize their pets at a time that's right for the animal. I don't know why. Call them selfish, call them emotionally unprepared, call them whatever you want, but while they're waiting for the "right" time to come along, their pet is suffering. And suffering is something I will not abide. My pet's comfort comes way before mine. Which is why I agreed to put Muffin down then and there. But don't think for a minute that it was an easy decision for me.

Another lesson I learned from that other animal hospital was that many people can't bear to be in the room when their beloved pet is euthanized. I don't understand that, either. This is your final good-bye. It's a stressful time for the animal. Why wouldn't you want to be there to comfort your pal, to say your last words, to have some closure? Being present for those last moments is not an easy thing to do, but it's a necessary thing to do. So I told the doctor that I would, indeed, be staying in the room for the procedure.

I asked for a few minutes alone with Muff, first. The doctor and her assistant kindly withdrew, leaving me holding my faithful companion, tears running down my cheeks as I told her that I'd miss her forever. That I loved her. That she was the best lady cat in the whole world.

They left me alone with Muffin again after the procedure was done. I spent many minutes petting her soft fur, kissing her head the way I'd done for eleven years, wondering how I was supposed to walk out of the room and never see her again. Eventually, the vet tech came to collect the body. Gently, respectfully, she wrapped Muffin's body in a towel, covering everything but her head. She stood with Muff in her arms, waiting in case I wanted to stay a bit longer still. I could've, might've, stayed on, but there's never a good time to leave that room. And therein lies the problem.

I've been present for the final moments of more than one pet - indeed, in the last six months, John and I have euthanized two of his cats. I can handle the needles, the barbiturate overdose, the limp body whose soul is gone forever. But leaving, that's a problem. There's no good time, you see. There's no good time to walk away, knowing that you'll never see your pet again. As long as you stay in that room, time is suspended, and you don't have to look the awful new reality in the eye yet.

So you linger, and you try like hell to memorize the way your pet smelled, how its' fur felt against your cheek. You try, but it's too little, too late. You had your chance. All those years you shared together, but you never bothered to file that information away. You didn't need to, you had years ahead of you. And now, as the assitant wraps your friend in the towel, and prepares to take it away forever, now it's too late to try to memorize those details. And you know that, which makes walking out of that exam room, making your way through the lobby and out to your car, empty carrier in hand, next to impossible.

How did all those years fly by so fast? How did it come to this, without preparation, seemingly without warning? No matter how many times I go through it, it never gets any easier. Each animal has its own unique, magical soul, and each death is a crushing heartbreak all its own.

The house feels empty now. Or at least, empty of Muffin's presence. The silence she leaves behind is deafening. Her favorite places to lie in the family room are all empty. My eyes keep flitting from one spot to the next, knowing full well that I'll never see her here again, but wishing mightily all the same. Last night, I almost called out her name as I walked into the house. This period of adjustment is hard.

Really hard.

My friend Bob Tarte, writing in Fowl Weather about the grief he experienced at the loss of his beloved parrot, famously said, "I'm trying to cry myself to death." So ridiculous. So understandable.

If I could have a funeral service for Muff - a proper service, like humans get - I'd have a Unitarian minister of my acquaintence give the eulogy. He'd say eloquent things about how important it is to live each day to the fullest, to embrace all those people you love - human and otherwise - and love them all fully, fiercely, unashamedly, every single day of your life.

He would talk about Muff's fondness for crunchy tuna-flavored snacks - a fondness that found her chasing the treats across the room with a spunk that I'd thought had left her years ago. He would talk about how reliably she would jump into my lap when I'd sit down to watch the evening news. How happily she would knead bread on my stomach, clawing my belly and ruining shirts in the process. He would talk about her joy in sharing those outdoor adventures with me - times when the demands of even the loudest cat in the house were put on hold so that Muff and I could be alone together for a while. It would be a funeral befitting a Lady Cat, and at the end, we'd all scatter catnip instead of ashes.

"Just let me close my eyes, memorize
the way things are this minute,
so when you're gone, I can go on.
If memory can hold within it what I'm feeling,
should time try fading or stealing something away."
- Ian Thomas, "Hold On"

I'll miss you forever, Muffin.
Miss Muffin.
Pretty old Lady Cat.
My best girl.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Spring In Duckville

Hi Folks!

Thanks for stopping by! As I write this, the sun is shining, the weather is balmy, and the crocuses have come out to say hello. It appears that spring has indeed sprung!

I've been waiting for warmer weather for a couple of reasons: first and foremost, because winter sucks! I don't like being cold, and I really hate the fact that it gets dark at five in the afternoon. Winter days are so cold, short, and forbidding that it's almost not worth getting out of bed!

The other big reason I've been impatient for winter to end is that I hadn't been to the Mitchell's to see Ducky and Puddleduck since November. Pat and I have emailed back and forth through the winter months, and she's kept me up to date on the ducks' activities, but it's not the same as actually visiting. Believe it or not, I've missed those two!

Pat told me that they spent the vast majority of their time huddled in the garage keeping warm. Neither one was inclined to venture outside much. I think the cold bothered both ducks, as they each have leg issues and probably arthritis as well. Pat said it was pointless to visit until spring, when they'd be out in the yard more, so I stayed away all winter. The two ducks were never far from my mind, though.

When decent weather finally hit, a few weeks ago, I decided to take a walk at the nature preserve. Driving by Pat's house on the way there, I found her out raking leaves in her yard. Impulsively, I pulled into the driveway and said hello. We chatted for a bit, then she invited me to head out back to see the ducks.

As always after a span of time has elapsed between visits, I wondered whether Ducky would remember me. Let's face it - they've got pretty small brains, right? And most critter brains focus exclusively on eating, mating and staying alive. So where does "visit Kelly" fall on a duck's list of priorities? Your guess is as good as mine.

I hadn't even closed the latch on the gate before I got my answer: here came Ducky, walking my way and greeting me with his usual, "duck, duck, duck." Seriously, that's what ducks sound like when they're muttering. It's a sound I became quite familiar with, the times when Pretty Boy recuperated in my bathroom, and it's a sound I find amusing: I don't know what they're saying when they mutter like that, but it's clear that they've got something important on their minds!

So before I'd gotten all the way through the back gate, Ducky had recognized my voice, calling my usual hearty greeting, "Ducky! There's my pal!" and had come over to say hello. I can't tell you how heart-warming it is know that I've made enough of an impression on Ducky - and Puddleduck, who came over to greet me as well - that there's room to remember me in their small duck brains. We had a brief visit, in which I promised to bring snacks the next time I came, and then I made my way to the nature preserve for that walk I'd planned on.

Ducky's recognition of me put me in a happy frame of mind for the rest of the day. It was one thing to know that they were well-looked-after by the Mitchells, but it was quite another for me to be able to stroll onto their property after several months' absence, and be greeted by the ducks like a long lost friend. It never fails to amaze me!

As I was reflecting on my visit at the Mitchell's, and ducks in general (mating season is in full swing now at McKinnon's Pond), I realized with a start that it was a year ago this month that Pretty Boy was found dead. I recall telling you about it, and saying that one fine spring day, I would scatter his ashes at the pond he had spent his life on. I still haven't done it. For the last twelve months, the decorative tin that holds his ashes has remained in the same spot on my kitchen table, right next to the sage green casserole dish with the rabbit-shaped lid.

Knowing that I'd be writing about this, I gave some thought to why I never scattered the ashes as I said I would. I came to the conclusion that it would've been more permanent an act than I'm ready for. In some inexplicable way, as long as I leave that tin of ashes on the table, I don't have to face the awful permanence of Pretty Boy's death. I know there's no logic in that, but that's how grief is.

It's worth noting that, in the year since my favorite duck's death, I've yet to receive a bill for his cremation. Clearly, Pretty Boy touched more lives than just mine in his short time on earth!

Mitigating my sorrow has been the irrepressible Ethel Duck, who runs to greet me every single time I'm at the pond. She visits the longest, eats the most, and trusts me more than any of the others. Her cheerful nature makes up for many things: cold winter weather, wind chills, rainy days, and, in a small way, the loss of the World's Greatest Duck. I'm happy to report that Ethel's companion, Big Boyfriend Duck, is still with her. They've been together over three years, now, and they're still monogamous!

So there are highs and lows for me right now: pleasant visits with Ethel at the pond, and Ducky and Puddleduck at the Mitchells, but also a lingering twinge of sadness at the loss of that wonderful duck. If there is indeed a heaven, Pretty Boy is no doubt waddling around the front gate, waiting for me and muttering, "duck, duck, duck!"

That's all for now, folks! While you're waiting for my next blog entry, please check out my Youtube page (enter Crazy Critter Lady in the Youtube search engine) - I've got several videos posted already, with more to come soon. One of these days, I'm going to get Ethel on video and make her cheery smile world-famous! Until next time, please be kind to all the critters!

Monday, March 1, 2010

Older Than I Want To Be

Hi Folks!

Welcome back! I hope you've all managed to dig yourselves out from under all that snow! Spring is in sight, now, so we just need to hang in there a little longer!

I debated whether or not to blog about the subject I'm going to write about today. It has nothing to do with animals - which, as you may have guessed from the "Kelly's Critter Talk" name, is what I usually write about. But there was a Thing that happened yesterday, and I have a hard time passing up opportunities to write about Things, so I hope you'll bear with me, and I promise I'll get back to blogging about critters in the near future!

I went to my very first rock concert when I was 18. It was the Rolling Stones, and I sold my beat-up Gremlin with the radiator leak to pay for the tickets. I took my buddy Sandy Winscott with me - she was almost as big a Stones fan as I was - and we mooched a ride up to Detroit with a couple of guys we knew from high school, Dan and Dave. We all smoked some dope during the drive, drank some beers when we got there, and generally had a fine time, even though the Stones '81 tour would later be remembered as one of their most lackluster performances on record. But hey, it was the Stones: we were practically breathing the same air, so who cared if they weren't quite up to snuff?

We were young, then. Dumb. Innocent. We all had a lot of learning to do, and we all had hard times ahead of us that we couldn't possibly have anticipated at such a dopey age. Twenty-nine years later, Dan's a good-lookin' lawyer type in Cincinnati, Dave's heart is shredded from too much steroid use in the '80's - or so I hear, and Sandy's down in Florida with the old folks (not that there's anything wrong with that!). As for me, I've gained 20 pounds in the intervening years, and hopefully a little wisdom, as well. Some days, it's hard to tell!

So this concert came to my attention a few months ago. Three bands were scheduled: 38 Special, Styx, and REO Speedwagon, all on one ticket. All three had their heydays back in the '70's, but all three continue to draw crowds to this day and, in fact, they managed to sell out the brand new arena in Whoville for the first time since it opened last year. Not bad for a bunch of old guys!

Since fiance John has been a professional musician for 30 years - his specialty is searing guitar licks on his Strat - I asked whether he'd be interested in attending the concert. He immediately went on-line and got us a couple of decent seats, and we went last night.

As a writer, I'm always looking at the details that no one else pays attention to. I was having a field day with my people-watching as we made our way through the arena to our seats. Wide-eyed with wonder, I noticed that the place was full of baby boomers: middle-aged men and women with paunches, saddle bags, dyed hair, no hair. "Man, look at all the old folks," I said under my breath. I was starting to feel like a kid by comparison, until I realized that most of them weren't much older than me, and that I'm catching up pretty damn fast!

So I don't know why I was surprised to find that all three bands were fronted by white-haired men. Even Kevin Cronin's dark, curly, uber-70's mane had been replaced by a bleached-blonde buzz-cut. All the bands played well, and Cronin's voice, in particular, was in fine form, but where had the time gone? How was it that I - the skinny little Stones fan from just a few years ago - was now sharing audience space with a bunch of folks on the cusp of geezerhood, cheering on bands full of guys who have probably already had their first colonoscopies? WTF???

The problem is that I have this unfortunate telescoping memory, in which things that seem to have happened a few short years past actually took place decades ago. I understand - on some vague, intellectual level - that Sandy Winscott and I haven't partied together in almost three decades, but it seems more like just a few years ago. Most things that happened in the ensuing years feel that same way. Jimmy Buffet concert (1988)? A few years ago. Divorce (1991)? A few years ago. First trip to London (1995)? A few years ago. It's a strange repository for all my memories, whether I want them there or not.

I read recently that Journey's Steve Perry has had hip-replacement surgery. So this is what we've come to.

It's going to sound more than a little naive when I say that I didn't realize we were all going to get old. Seriously. My ability to conceptualize the aging process breaks down somewhere in the 30's. That is to say, I was never able to imagine life after 30-something. If you held a gun to my head, I still wouldn't be able to conjure an image of Sandy Winscott as anything other than how I remember her at 18. The same goes for all of my high school chums.

The fact that those chums now have children of their own - some in college, no less! - is beyond anything I can fathom. We weren't supposed to get old. We weren't supposed to fall apart, get flabby, get serious, get staid and boring. We were supposed to be ageless, timeless, somehow, and rule the world while we were at it. I'm not laughing as I write that. In fact, tears have come to my eyes at the sudden awareness that life is not going to be those things for us. We're not going to be the exception to the rules; we're stuck being mere mortals like everyone else.

How depressing.

And so I found myself, in the midst of a really good concert last night, vacillating between my pleasure in the moment, and my anguish at realizing that Sandy and I will never be dope-smoking young hoodlums again, that the things Leslie and I laughed about probably aren't funny anymore. That laughing with Dawn will never happen again because she died last year from breast cancer at the age of 46.

There will continue to be private agonies for me, as time goes by and some of the things I really wanted in life - things I had counted on happening, assumed would happen, probably never will. Every day, it seems, some of my hopes and dreams die small, quiet deaths as I become a middle-aged stranger in my own life. While I'm starting to look every inch of my 47 years, I certainly don't feel it: when the Stones come on the radio, I still crank the volume, every time. "You Can't Always Get What You Want" just never gets old!

In the midst of all this introspection, I'm pleased to report that REO Speedwagon played one of my all-time favorite songs last night. It's a song I've used over the decades to rally myself in times of hopelessness and despair. When I play it, I'm reminded that there are still possibilities. For those of you who need the same reminder, I offer the lyrics now for your consideration:

I used to be lonely, til I learned about living alone.
I found other things to keep my mind on.
And I'm gettin' to know myself a little bit better.
I keep pushin' on.
Goin' through all the changes, I made so many mistakes,
trying to leave behind the heartaches.
And sometimes I think I was a little bit crazy.
I keep pushin' on.
Well, it's comin' together, I finally feel like a man.
I never thought that I'd be where I am.
Every day I wake a little bit higher.
I keep pushin' on.
Keep pushin', keep pushin', keep pushin' on.
You know you've got to be so strong.
Keep pushin', keep pushin', keep pushin' on.
Even if you think your strength is gone,
keep pushin' on.

- lyrics by Kevin Cronin

That's all for now, folks! Thanks so much for reading this entry anyway, even though there weren't any cats, ducks, or horses in it! I'm keeping my eyes and ears open for the next great animal story, so until then, please be kind to all the critters!

P.S. Hey, Sandy! Thanks for the memories!

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Good News from Lorenzo the Cat!

Hi Folks!

Welcome to the middle of winter! Jeez, I'll be glad when spring is here - I can feel a nasty case of cabin fever coming on!

I've been trying to combat the winter blahs by taking walks at a nearby nature preserve. It's a small place, but if you walk the loop trail enough times, you can log a few miles. I like the park no matter what the season - it seems to be an undiscovered gem that the locals don't know or care about - but the last few times I've been there, I've noticed the same thing: the woods are skeletal, the trails empty, and the sky leaden. Even the squirrels stay tucked away in their nests most of the time. Seems like winter's getting everybody down.

So it was with a measure of relief that my friend Lorenzo the Cat saw his shadow yesterday. This is not to be confused with Punxatawney Phil's weather prediction. I mean, do you really want to trust the judgement of some poor critter who's just been rudely awakened from semi-hibernation? Of course not. No one wants a cranky woodchuck predicting the future! A wise cat, on the other hand, might be a tad more accurate.

Lorenzo is a myspace friend of mine. Ordinarily, I don't friend many strangers on myspace - there are just too many fruit loops out there! But I liked Lorenzo's page, and his intellect (courtesy of writer/owner Joann Biondi) so I reached out, and Lorenzo reached back. I've been enjoying his company for some time, now.

Lorenzo mentioned Phil in a myspace status comment yesterday. He called his mood "Punxatawney," and it got me thinking. So I messaged the cat, asking whether he'd been outside lately in his hometown of Miami, and if so, had he seen his own shadow. Lorenzo had this to say in response, "I saw my shadow. It was short and fat and had a big fuzzy head. So forget what that dork Phil says, summer will be here soon. Break out the t-shirts." I would be remiss in my journalistic duties if I failed to mention that Lorenzo the cat likes wearing shirts.

You don't have to take my word for it. Head to www.lorenzothecat.com and see for yourself. He has them custom-made in Italy by a fellow named Mr. Luigi. One wonders what Luigi thinks about a shirt-wearing Maine Coon, but perhaps it's nothing more than a paycheck to the tailor. You can also watch a great slideshow of Lorenzo modeling different garments (jackets, polo shirts, and something that is clearly yachting garb) on his myspace page, www.myspace.com/comeseelorenzo. I guarantee you won't be sorry you did!

So the good news, according to Lorenzo, is that spring is on its' way. The bad news is that it's not here yet! Even so, with characters like my shirt-wearing feline friend to keep things interesting, I'm sure the time will pass quickly. May all of you be fortunate enough to know a day-brightener like Lorenzo!

That's all for now, folks! Until next time, please be kind to all the critters!

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Just When You Think You Know It All!

Hi Folks!

Gosh, it's been a while since my last post, hasn't it? I hope you all had a great holiday season, and I really hope that spring gets here soon!

I was out at the barn volunteering in December. Volunteering doesn't stop because the weather gets wintry, it just means you wear more layers! My favorite nemesis, Mandy, has been away at college since late August. It's been that long since she's been to the barn, and the barn's a lot quieter without her. While I enjoy the company of the other volunteers, I don't have the same rapport with them that I do with Mandy.

Mandy's like the squirrely little sister I always wanted, and while she's got a couple of siblings at home, it's clear that there aren't many people in her life willing to suffer her abuse! So we have a special relationship, one based on a mutual fondness for insulting each other. It's terrific fun when she's at the barn, and a little lonely when she's not.

She managed to turn up one Saturday just before Christmas. After our usual round of teasing and poop-scooping, Nancy asked if we wanted to ride. We rarely turn down that opportunity, so we finished up the chores and grabbed a couple of lead ropes. Only problem was that Ruckus - my usual riding horse - was being used by the gang of children who were also volunteering.

Because he's such a steady, reliable horse, Ruckus is the one that children ride - especially those who have no idea how to ride. Ruckus will walk them safely around the arena without balking or getting out of hand. But with Ruckus in use, who was I to ride?

You might've guessed that, sooner or later, I'd be stuck with Mandy's favorite horse, Charlie. You remember - the one that's always trying to knee-cap Mandy?! I don't mind telling you that I felt a fair amount of trepidation when Mandy climbed off (after a ride in which Charlie behaved perfectly, I might add), and I took hold of the reins and climbed on. I had no idea what I was in for, but I was fairly certain that it wouldn't be good!

I don't trust Charlie. After watching all the times he tried to kick Mandy, I've had no reason to trust him. I remember Nancy saying more than once that she never turns her back on him. This from the woman who owns the barn, and loves each and every horse that comes through the door! Not exactly a ringing endorsement. So I gingerly climbed into the saddle, and tsked the command for him to walk. He obeyed, walked me once around the arena, then stopped.

I recalled from lessons I once took on an incredibly stubbon Appaloosa that if the horse refuses to move, you must make a rib-digging irritant of yourself. I tried this tactic with Charlie, and it worked. Once. He took a few steps, then stopped again. After that, he was on to me: the trick wasn't going to work twice!

I sat there on his back, digging my heels into him, feeling like a complete amatuer, and getting nowhere. Nancy and Mandy both called out suggestions - none of which moved Charlie sufficiently to obey, as I sat wondering why my four-odd years of riding lessons were failing me completely. Just when you think you know what the hell you're doing, someone comes along to remind you that you don't!

Nancy finally came over, took Charlie by the bridle, and lead us around like she does with the children. After some discussion, it was agreed that taking a few lessons on Charlie might not be a bad idea. Between you and I, though, the thought of spending thirty dollars for the opportunity to be kicked by a nasty horse doesn't appeal to me at all! Realizing that the lessons are inevitable, though, got me thinking about how to approach this horse who knows I don't like him.

In the first place, it's no good going through life riding no one but safe, reliable old Ruckus. I'm only going to learn so much from a horse that doesn't challenge me, and clearly, my knowledge has fallen short if I can't even get a horse to walk when I want him to! So if I want to broaden my skills, I have to ride different horses. Since Charlie presented such a problem, it seems prudent to learn how to handle him. It can only make me a better horsewoman.

In the second place - and I'm going to regret saying this because Mandy's going to use it against me later - it's entirely possible that I haven't given Charlie a fair shake. If Mandy likes him, he can't be all bad, and it's not his fault that his owner is a schmuck (for more about Charlie's schmucky owner, see my previous post, "Saturdays at the Barn"). So I hatched a "getting to know you" idea, ran it by Nancy, who approved, and have already set the plan in motion.

It goes like this: every Saturday that time allows, after I've finished scooping poop, I'm going to bring Charlie in from the paddock, place him in the cross-ties, and give him a grooming he won't forget. I'm told that Charlie loves being groomed, and it seemed as good a starting point as any. During our first session, I even sang a few verses of the theme from the Scooby Doo cartoons, for no other reason than that Temple Grandin, in her great book, "Animals in Translation," believes that animals communicate through their own version of music.

When I sought advice from Nancy on how to handle Charlie during grooming, she told me to keep an eye on his ears. Ears are one of the ways horses communicate. If the ears are up and alert, he's listening to you; you have his attention. If his ears are laid back flat, he's angry and you want to be very careful: there could be a bite or kick coming your way. I lost count of how many times I checked Charlie's ears during that grooming session, but I'm pleased to report that he never once flattened them. It was a good start.

There's still a long way to go before I'm willing to get on his back again. There's the matter of hoof-picking, which is when he always tried to kick Mandy. While I managed to pick the front hooves all right during that first session, there was no way I was getting near his hind end! I had Nancy do it, and watched as he flailed his legs at her, instead. Sooner or later, I'll have to take the plunge and try it for myself, but I'm going to stick to grooming his coat for a while, first. It's time I got to know Charlie, and let him get to know me, and that's a process that can't be rushed.

It's worth noting that my very first lesson horse, Crazy, put me through this exact same sort of misery. Crazy made me work for every single step she took. In spite of the fact that she was an experienced horse, she delighted in pretending that she had no idea what I wanted - or simply didn't care. I would spend entire circuits around the arena giving her the command to trot, while Crazy did her best to thwart me. Our conversations went something like this:

"Trot, Crazy!"


"Yes, Crazy, trot now!"

"You mean right now?"

"Yes, Crazy, right now!"

"You want me to trot right now?"


"Maybe I could do that for you later."

And all the while we were engaged in this power struggle, Crazy's circles would get smaller and smaller, until we were basically walking around the middle of the arena, instead of out by the wall where we belonged. It was all very vexing indeed.

After a time, I shelled out for a pair of ball spurs. They helped emphasize my commands, but it took me years to realize that it's not how hard you nudge their ribs, it's how much horsemanship you possess. At that time, I possessed very little; Crazy knew far more than I did. While it's good that someone in the equation knows what they're doing, I would prefer that it be me! And although I spent most of those lessons feeling completely humiliated by my lack of ability, it was in overcoming the obstacles that I learned the most.

It's worth noting all this because on January 3rd, Crazy passed away. She'd been retired from lessons for some time, and had spent her days relaxing and browsing hay. On the Saturdays when children were at the barn, Crazy was brought in for them to groom. She would stand patiently as they brushed her coat, and braided her mane. It was a nice way to live out her days.

Though she caused me no end of grief during our lessons, I've always had a certain affection for her, and I'll miss her presence at the barn. Curiously, some devilish part of her seems to live on in Charlie. Perhaps she's whispering in his ear, telling him all the tricks she employed with me.

So yet again, I'm humbled by the fact that a thousand-pound animal has reminded me of my limitations. After Crazy, I spent four-odd years learning how to ride Rebel, and maybe that's the problem: that of all the horses in the world, I've only experienced two. Evidently, it's time to expand my horizons. I don't mind admitting that I'm very nervous about this, if for no other reason than that Charlie is an unknown element, one that takes me out of my comfort zone. And I do like my comfort zone! Don't we all?!

That's all for now, folks. Until next time, keep warm and please be kind to all the critters!