Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Ode to a Much-Loved Donkey

Hi Folks! Thanks for stopping by!

I was hoping to round out the year by telling you a charming story about how the mouse who lives in my house has set himself the task of carving new designs in my wooden knife handles, but that will have to wait. It is with deep regret that instead, I must report the death of my beloved donkey friend, Cricket.

I always considered Cricket the mascot of the barn where I volunteer. She was the only donkey in residence, and she was a cranky donkey as well, which made her locally famous as someone who might take a bite out of your ankle if the spirit so moved her. I'll never know why she had such a cantankerous personality - we have no way of knowing how she was treated before she came to the barn - but her unwillingness to make nice rendered her surprisingly endearing to all who knew her: Cricket lived life on her own terms, and if you didn't like it, tough beans!

Cricket came to the barn by way of Kenny the Tiger Guy. Kenny's a local fellow who rescues exotic animals. His lions and tigers require a LOT of food, and occasionally, people donate sick or dying horses for that purpose. In Cricket's case, from what I understand, her owners simply gave her up when it became apparent that she was not going to go along with their breeding plans. There wasn't one thing wrong with Cricket apart from being unwanted, and Kenny's a nice enough guy that he didn't want to destroy a perfectly healthy animal. So he called the barn, and the barn agreed to give her a good home.

In the five years since, Cricket wormed her way into the heart of every volunteer who met her. We all loved her, no matter how badly she treated us: if she was in a crabby mood and you were in her way, she would go through you, rather than around. She had a habit of simply - and literally - flicking you out of her way with her big, misshapen head. She didn't care about people's personal space, and she didn't care about manners, which made her far more interesting than the horses who always observed the social niceties. I think we all loved her precisely because she refused to play by the rules.

Her head was misshapen for a reason. No one knows why - she came to the barn that way. Barn owner Wendy, who has seen more animal cruelty than anyone would want to, always said she hoped the injury was an accident, rather than intentional, that perhaps a horse had accidentally kicked Cricket in the head and broken some bones in her face. The bones never healed properly, which created a large, unyielding lump around Cricket's left eye. Not only did the lump impair her vision in that eye, but in hindsight, I wonder now whether the injury caused her the sort of chronic pain that might have accounted for her dark moods.

Even when she wasn't crabby, Cricket was unpredictable. One sunny summer day, as Wendy cast about for some way to entertain the barn urchins, she suggested that we give Cricket a bath. Baths can be a tricky thing when you're trying to lather up thousand-pound animals. Some horses like the occasional bath, some don't. Wendy insisted - in a manner which suggested that she knew from previous experience - that the donkey liked baths, so we walked Cricket out in front of the barn and proceeded to hose her down.

It became clear quite quickly that Cricket did not, in fact, like baths at all. As I clung to her lead rope, she twisted and turned this way and that, trying to get away from the hose before finally bolting altogether and running off down the driveway, dragging me along behind her. Cricket didn't weigh a thousand pounds, but she weighed enough, and it took quite some doing to bring her under control. From that day on, the idea of giving Cricket a bath became a running joke at the barn. Whenever Wendy would try to reassure me about a jittery horse, I would retort, "Sure, and you said Cricket loved getting baths, too!"

One of my more memorable Cricket moments happened a couple years ago. She was being exceptionally crabby one Saturday - to the point where she actually refused a snack I offered her. Turning down a snack was unprecedented for Cricket - a thing that she herself must have realized because just a minute or two later, she tried to pin me up against a stall door. I knew what she was doing, trying to force a snack out of me, but I was unmoved at that point, and said rather loudly, "I already offered you one and you wouldn't take it!" Just as the sentence left my mouth, I looked up to see barn co-owner Ron walking toward us.

After all these years of being a Critter Lady, I'm accustomed to talking with animals. Be it cats or ducks or horses (or donkeys!), I'm confident that they understand my meaning, if not the actual words themselves. But in spite of all those years chatting with critters, I still find it very embarrassing to be overheard by humans! Just image my mortification then, when, the minute I admonished that greedy donkey, I turned around and saw that a human being had heard the whole thing!

I developed a habit, over the years, of loading up a fanny pack with horse snacks, and wearing the thing around the barn every Saturday. Snacks were doled out generously to all and sundry, with Cricket getting the most due to the fact that she rarely, if ever, wanted to go out in the paddock with the horses; she liked staying in the barn with us. Wendy didn't really approve of the fanny pack, and warned me, periodically, not to wander out among the horses with it. I understood: a herd of greedy thousand-pound animals could make mincemeat out of a puny human. But, to me, Cricket was a different story entirely.

Wendy would issue the occasional edict that Cricket was no longer to be hand-fed. Cricket had her own greed issues, and could be every bit as dangerous as a horse. I had seen this up close and personal once, when, on a rare day that she was in the paddock, Cricket reared up in my face. Ears pinned, teeth bared, front hooves flailing, she reared up several times, and I was alarmed by the fact that she was completely out of control. I literally dove between the strands of the electric fence in order to get away from her.

The incident frightened and puzzled me, but I must confess, it didn't stop me from plying her with snacks! To the last week of Cricket's life, I always had a snack ready for her. If Wendy was in the vicinity, I would put the treat on the ground in front of Cricket. If Wendy was elsewhere, I would pop the snack in her mouth with the comment, "Don't rat me out, Cricket!" Indeed, Cricket's love of snacks was so reliable that, the last time I saw her alive, and she refused all the treats I offered, I knew that something was very wrong. Four days later, she was gone.

It was my riding instructor, Connie, who called me with the news. They didn't know what caused Cricket's death, and in fact, even the subsequent necropsy provided no concrete cause of death. Wendy thought that there might have been an infection raging inside the donkey, but we'll never know for certain.

I was in the middle of dinner in a restaurant when the call came. Connie told me that there was time for me to come out to the barn and say good-bye before they buried Cricket, which is exactly what I did. A certain numbness overcame me as I tried to enjoy the rest of my meal, but as I drove through the darkness toward the barn, I allowed the fact of Cricket's passing to fully register, and the tears began to flow.

When I got to the barn, I asked Wendy what had happened. She told me that Cricket had walked out into the arena, laid down, and in less than 20 seconds, had died. She'd been feeling poorly for several days, not wanting to eat much, and running the opposite of a temperature - her body temperature was below the normal number for a donkey. Wendy said that, whatever had been wrong with Cricket, she hadn't suffered much in the way of pain; Wendy had dosed her fairly heavily with painkillers. She gestured to where Cricket lay in the arena and said, "Go be with her." Of all the humans I know, Wendy is one of the few who understand the need to spend some time with the animal's body, saying one's good-byes.

I sat down next to Cricket's head. I rubbed her face as I cried, resting my hand on her nose as I tried to take in the enormity of the loss. I stared down at her face, sending out into the universe the twin thoughts that I would love her - and miss her - forever, and hoping that she heard them. And, because she was no longer there to stop me, I did the one thing in death that she never let me do in life: I stroked her big, fuzzy, rabbity ears. She had always pulled away when I reached for them. Now, there was nothing she could do about it.

I sat with Cricket for quite some time. When I was finally ready to leave, I sought out Wendy, who was topping off the horses' water buckets. I nodded my understanding as she said, "I didn't sign on for this! I'm here to rescue them, not bury them!" Given that, in only a few short months, two horses - and now Cricket - had died, I knew what she meant; that it was simply too much for a heart to take.

I remarked to her the irony in my decision - made months ago - to make it a "donkey Christmas" for the urchins: each would, during our barn gift exchange, receive from me a framed picture of him or her standing next to Cricket. The pictures had been taken over a period of many months, on the rare occasions that the donkey had stood still long enough for me to get the shot. There was no way that any of us could have known that Cricket's time with us would be so limited. The "donkey Christmas" idea turned out to be a sad irony indeed.

The barn is extra quiet, now, without Cricket's unique braying. It was never much of a "hee haw," but rather more of a "chuff chuff chuff eeek-HAW!" I will especially miss the way she liked to keep me company while I cleaned stalls. She would come into the stall with me, and then proceed to block as much of the doorway as possible. She did this to all the urchins, as well, and they could frequently be heard complaining, "MOVE, Cricket!" Wendy dealt with the intrusions by threatening to put her in a stall out of the way of the workers if she didn't vacate the area voluntarily, but I always enjoyed Cricket's presence, and simply chose to work around her. If I couldn't get past her, I'd just stand there and scratch her back for a while. Cricket lived life on her own terms, and I saw no reason to insist that she do otherwise.

That's all for now, folks. May you all have a wonderful holiday season, with health, happiness, and the love of great critters in the new year! Until next time, please be kind to all the critters! And please leave a comment below so I know you were here!

Monday, November 7, 2011

Grief Among Friends

Hi Folks!

Thanks for stopping by.

I feel the need to post more thoughts about the loss of my beloved lesson horse Ruckus, so I hope you'll indulge me while I continue to work through my grief. For those of you who haven't read my blog before, this post will make considerably more sense if you read the two previous ones first.

I had been talking with my riding instructor about doing lessons on a different horse for some time before Ruckus died. It wasn't a matter of me not wanting to ride him anymore, but rather, it was a matter of wanting to learn new things on a different horse. Ruckus had served me well over the years, but if you want to broaden your scope, you need to experience other temperaments and personalities. But Connie has a full-time job, a husband, and a young child to care for, so fitting me into her already-busy life took some doing.

During the same time that Connie and I were in talks about lessons on another horse, I was also keen to do a trail ride on Ruckus before winter arrived. I tried to do one or two trail rides a year, as a way to mix things up a bit: while Ruckus was entirely predictable in the arena, taking him out of his comfort zone and walking around neighboring fields always presented a bit of a challenge. I never knew whether he'd startle over some unfamiliar feature of the landscape, and that uncertainty served to keep me on my toes. Connie and I had done a trail ride this past spring, and I was itching to do another. Unfortunately, Ruckus's untimely death put paid to that idea.

In the mood to move life forward a bit from my grief, I scheduled a lesson on Charlie Horse for late this afternoon. I was looking forward to it. I've ridden Charlie several times and found him to be an enormous challenge. While Ruckus - who enjoyed going as fast as you'd let him - required a certain amount of rein, Charlie is the exact opposite: the rule of thumb is to stay completely out of his mouth and maneuver him solely with your legs. Because of that, I was keen to have Connie teach me how to be quieter in the saddle. It's no good treating every horse the same because they simply aren't. What works for one won't necessarily work for another. And I wanted more than to just ride a horse who would tolerate my mistakes; I wanted to learn not to make any.

The sky was grey and leaden, and it began to rain as I pulled up the driveway. I spent a few minutes grooming Charlie before tacking him up. At my request, we were doing an English lesson, with English tack. I'd taken a few English lessons, several years ago, but generally, I much prefer Western. I always feel naked, sitting on that tiny English saddle! But if I was going to move forward, out of my grief over reliable Ruckus and all our Western lessons, then this was the way to do it: on a different horse, with different tack, and a different style of riding.

The lesson went well enough, in spite of the constant feeling that I was mere milliseconds away from making an unscheduled dismount. The main problem seems to be that, unlike Western saddles made with suede, an English saddle is made with nice smooth leather. Since my riding britches are a nice smooth cotton, there's nothing to provide any grab or friction. It took some doing to get accustomed to clinging more tightly with my legs, but I managed it after a fashion.

After a considerable amount of posting around the arena, Connie urged me to try loping. At first, I resisted - that darn saddle was just too slippery for my liking! But after some encouragement from Connie, I gave it a try, and found, to my considerable surprise, that Charlie wasn't nearly as bumpy at the canter as he was at the trot. By the end of the lesson, my confidence on Charlie had improved considerably, and I felt satisfied that I'd gotten my money's worth - and then some - from the lesson. I dismounted and walked Charlie back to the cross ties, where I relieved him of his tack, then stalled him so he could eat his dinner.

It was then, as Connie closed up the barn, turning off the lights and casting one last glance around the stalls, that we started talking about Ruckus. I'd been wondering about her relationship with him, given my impression, over the years, that Nicky Naylor was actually her favorite. As it turns out, Nicky placed a close second to the first horse Connie had ever owned, a horse she'd had since the age of ten. The subject of his final days came up, and it was then that Connie told me the things that are generally just between friends.

In the gathering gloom of dusk we stood, watching the rain falling outside as Connie detailed Ruckus's sudden colic. Quietly, she talked about her hopes for his recovery, based on the fact that he showed no signs of pain or suffering. She talked, too, about how the vet dashed those hopes when he explained that when the gut twists, it acts as a nerve block, so that the horse doesn't feel pain, even though Ruckus's intestine was, by then, already dying. She shook her head as she said that she simply couldn't make the call to put him down, that it was her mother, Wendy, who had to say, "It's time."

Connie's voice broke as she described walking Ruckus out to the back of the pasture, and her eyes welled with tears as she repeated to me the last words she had spoken to him before he was euthanized. She told him how much she loved him. She told him that he was perfect. My own eyes welled up then, and the tears spilled onto my cheeks because I knew without question that those were the exact words that I would have said to him. Connie and I stood there together in semi-darkness, sharing our grief as she shared details that would never be shared with the barn urchins. Those details were simply too personal, too painful, to explain to youngsters. I'm grateful that she shared them with me.

There are those people in the world who are callous enough to believe that all animals are alike, that if you lose one, it's a matter of simply replacing it with another. And there are those people in the world who, like me, are animal lovers and who, like me, understand the monumental loss when a beloved critter dies. It takes with it an enormous force of personality, just as any human would, and leaves behind a painful void in the lives of those who loved it.

When Ruckus died, he took with him an extremely genial personality, one given to occasional silliness, a fondness for snacks, and a love of running as fast as his rider would allow. He forgave the children their multitude of mistakes, and he trod carefully when they were on his back. He was safe and reliable with me, as well, and he never once put me in any danger. His loss is a huge one, made all the more searing because I never got a chance to say good-bye. After four weeks, my mind still refuses to accept the unacceptable.

So while I enjoyed my lesson on Charlie Horse today, the good vibe was tempered by the knowledge that I'll never be able to do a lesson on Ruckus again. It's not just a new Now that I have to adjust to, it's a new Future, as well, one that won't include my beloved "handsome bubby." Right now, that's just too much for my heart to accept.

That's all for now, folks. Until next time, I urge you to spend extra quality time with the animals in your life, and please be kind to all the critters!

P.S. Please leave a comment so I know you were here! Thanks!

Monday, October 31, 2011

In Memory of Ruckus

It's been three weeks since my buddy and lesson horse Ruckus died unexpectedly at the age of twenty. I'm no closer to believing it now that I was then: the mind cannot process what the heart refuses to accept.

I had known Ruckus for over six years, and had just recently begun giving lessons on him to one of the barn urchins. He was not, nor had he ever been, my horse in an ownership sense; in that regard, he belonged to my instructor Connie. But in my heart, I loved him as my own, got annoyed with him from time to time as my own, took him for granted as my own. It is that last which pains me the most.

It was a regular feature of Ruckus's personality that after one of the urchins dismounted, he tried very hard not to let anyone else get on! Even as I held his reins tight, he would side-step this way and that, trying to thwart the next rider's attempts to climb on. In his mind, once a person got off, that was it, he was done for the day! Try as I might, I never could convey to him the idea that he would be done when I said he was, and not a minute sooner! In spite of his best attempts, though, other riders always managed to get on and have a turn.

He was a safe horse for the young volunteers to ride. He tolerated their mistakes well enough, and never put anyone in danger. Sometimes, though, he just didn't feel like dealing with the kids, and at those times, he'd be a little stinky. He'd walk over to the gate where the rest of the children were gathered, and he'd stop there and make the kids figure out how to get him going again. It was always their biggest challenge, backing Ruckus out of the corner he'd put himself into, and getting him back on track. Horses can be like that: sometimes, they like to make you work for it!

He had replaced Old Crazy as the go-to horse for the children to ride. Crazy would play her own tricks on the kids, like turning right when she'd been told to turn left, completely vexing in the process the earnest youngsters who were trying their best to learn how to ride. After she died, the responsibility of conveying the volunteers around the arena fell to Ruckus. He performed his job well over the years, and everyone expected that there would be many more years of riding him to come. That's always the way, isn't it? How often, I wonder, do we make the mistake of assuming that our loved ones will be around indefinitely? It's an illusion that comforts - right up until it shatters.

It is to Connie's credit that, in the midst of her own grief over the loss of her first horse, she made the effort to seek me out and offer some words of comfort. On the evening of the day Ruckus died, as I sat down to lose myself in some mindless television, my phone began to vibrate. The texts came fast and furious, then, three at a time, all twelve of them from Connie, who wanted to reassure me that Ruckus hadn't suffered, that he'd gone to a better place to keep Crazy, Old Mikey, and Newt the mule company. It was clear that her own heart was breaking when she wrote, "I can't stop picturing his sweet loving face...it makes me sad to know I will never kiss that face again." I was, and still am, grateful that she took time out from her own sorrow to reach out to me in mine.

Last week, searching for some way through this awfulness, I asked barn owner Wendy, "Now what do we do?" Her reply, "I don't want to think about it right now," was understandable. Even so, I was thinking about it. My brain came up with a never-ending stream of stupid questions: who will I trail ride now? Who will the children ride? Who will I take my lessons on? They were admittedly selfish questions for which I have no answers. More recently, Wendy announced that she'd be consulting with Connie about using one of the rescue horses as a successor to Ruckus. Whether that idea pans out remains to be seen.

In the meantime, each of us has dealt with our grief in our own way. Connie has a young son to focus on. The barn urchins all posted "R.I.P. Ruckus" on their facebook pages. My own project involved creating a new facebook album called, "In Memory of My Buddy Ruckus," and filling it full of pictures of Ruckus and I together, along with photos I'd taken of him over the years. So much time spent taking him for granted. So little time spent savoring each and every moment.

It is the agony of knowing that I'll never get another chance to savor him that grieves me the most. There will be other horses, other rides, other experiences, but there will only ever be one Ruckus. And while I told him frequently that he was my favorite Ruckus in the whole world, I also blew a million chances to stop and enjoy the moment, to kiss his face and breathe his scent. To stand with him just a little longer, and give him yet another snack. What a careless fool I've been!

While I know that I'll learn from this experience and spend more time with the horses to come, I know, too, that complacency will creep in, as it always does, and I will eventually find myself back here, writing another blog about having taken another beloved critter for granted. It's human nature to blot out the inevitability of death. No one wants to spend time thinking about life after loved ones. It's too depressing.

So for now, the barn is a bit quieter for me. Animals always take a big presence with them when they go. I expect that the void will be filled someday, but not just yet. The urchins have been subdued as well. A shock like this one takes time to recover from. I really hope Ruckus knew how loved he was!

That's all for now, folks. Thanks for stopping by. Please leave a comment so I know you were here. Until next time, please be kind to all the critters!

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

All Things Must Pass

George Harrison must have been in a philosophical mood when he named his first post-Beatles album "All Things Must Pass." He was right, of course, even if no one was prepared to agree. Change is a difficult thing in the best of circumstances. At the worst of times, the mind simply refuses to accept it.

When my riding instructor, Connie, posted a facebook comment yesterday informing everyone that her beloved horse had died, I felt a little philosophical myself: Nicky Naylor had had a good long life. He'd been losing weight recently, and the Alpha horse seemed quieter than usual to me. I had known that his time was coming, so it saddened but didn't surprise me when I read Connie's comment. The only thing she'd left out of the comment, though, was the horse's name. Given that there are 15+ horses at the barn, it was important to clarify which one had died. I posted my own "So sorry," comment, then waited for confirmation.

It never came. What came instead was the unfathomable one-word answer: "Ruckus." My buddy Ruckus. My lesson horse. The horse all the barn urchins rode. The same Ruckus I had loped around the arena just this past Saturday. The Ruckus who was younger - and in better shape - than his friend Nicky Naylor. How was this possible? What on earth had happened between Saturday and Monday?

It was a wonder that barn owner Wendy managed to decipher the voice mail I left her. "Sob, snuffle, sob, on earth happened? Sniff, blubber, sob, buried yet?" She called me back almost immediately, and told me what she knew: that Ruckus had been in inexplicable pain that refused to cease. They held out as long as they dared, then, forced to accept the unacceptable, agreed to euthanize. Wendy, wanting answers, had the vet perform a necropsy, which showed that Ruckus's colon was impacted, and indeed, had begun to die off. Euthanizing was the inevitable, and humane, course of action.

I can tell you very little about Ruckus's life before I knew him. Wendy's daughter, Connie, barrel-raced him, and they competed together for over five years. He never had any spectacular wins to his credit, but managed to accrue enough points to at least make Connie willing to keep riding him. He was a good boy with a mild personality. When I met him, he'd retired from competition and been pressed into service as a lesson horse at Wendy's barn.

The Ruckus I knew was an amiable fellow. I learned how to post on him. I learned a lot from him: I learned about patience, and trust, with him. I learned not to be so bossy, to give him time to respond in his own fashion, rather than getting worked up that he didn't do as I asked right away. I learned when to be firm, and when to chill out. I learned to let Ruckus be Ruckus: recently, when I used him in a video I made to promote my book, he pooped on camera. Instead of getting mad, I laughed, and used the footage rather than do the whole video over. Horses poop; what are you gonna do?!

We had a moment, several months ago, that told me that we had created a bond between us. The bond may, in fact, have been there all along, lying dormant until the right situation brought it to the fore. It's entirely possible that I hadn't been paying attention to the state of our relationship. It's a mistake we all make with the critters in our lives: we spend their lifetimes taking for granted that those animals will be with us forever. Or at least for an indeterminate number of years yet to come. And it never occurs to us that today might be the day that that beloved animal dies.

In any case, we'd been loping around the arena. After all the barn urchins had ridden him - pulling the reins too tightly, making the mistakes that inexperienced children make - I would climb on and let him run it out. Ruckus liked running, and he seemed to enjoy the opportunity to have at it. We'd lope a few circles in one direction, then turn around and lope the other way. We were right in the middle of this, and sharing the arena with a pony named Sequoia and his mistress, when one of them accidentally touched the electric fence. The zap it gives you isn't particularly painful, but strangely, you always remember it!

Immediately after the shock, Sequoia panicked in that way that horses do, tossing the 20-something girl off his back before racing around and around the arena. The minute I saw what happened, I pulled Ruckus to a halt. The safest thing for us to do was stand still and let Sequoia run it out of his system. Which is exactly what he spent the next seven minutes doing.

At one point, Sequoia ran into the corner behind Ruckus and I, standing there as though he was hiding from the girl who stood quietly, waiting for her horse to settle down. Sometimes, that sense of panic can have a domino effect: other horses see the one freaking out and figure they'd better do the same. It was to Ruckus's credit that instead of joining Sequoia in his meltdown, he looked to me for direction instead. An interesting conversation took place then, between Ruckus and I. Not one word escaped my mouth, but we talked nonetheless:

Ruckus: So....is there a plan, here?

Kelly: Yep. We're just gonna stand here for a while.

Ruckus: That's it? We're just standing?

Kelly: That's the plan. We'll just stand here quietly for a while.

Ruckus: O.k.

It was the first time that Ruckus not only looked to me for direction in a tight situation, but trusted that I knew what I was doing in the bargain. He finally had enough faith in me to let me take the lead. Ruckus was never a horse to stand still for long, but I'm proud to report that he remained completely still for the duration of Sequoia's meltdown, pointing one ear forward to keep up with the action, while pointing the other back at me, waiting to hear my next command. I was so proud of both of us that day. Proud that I'd learned enough to know that in some situations, your best action is inaction, and proud as hell of Ruckus, who had willingly let me take the lead because he trusted that I could.

That wasn't the only time I was proud of him. In spite of his retired status, a young girl came to the barn this summer, looking to lease him for the county fair. I watched her a few times as she worked with him at the barn. Between you and me, I was a little skeptical about it all. In the first place, the weather during the fair was brutally hot, and those horses have to stand in tiny stalls all week. In the second, the girl didn't look like she knew much about horsemanship. But you know what? She took fourth place with him! Boy, was I surprised!

I never let him forget it. Every time the barn urchins and I would groom him, I'd remind him that he was a "Fourth-Place Champion Horse!" From somewhere near his hind quarters, I'd hear the kids snickering, and I'd admonish them, "There will be no mockage! No mocking the Fourth-Place Champion Horse!" Never sure whether I was kidding or not, the kids would quickly swallow their giggles.

He was, of course, more than just a Fourth-Place Champion Horse. He was my pal. My buddy. My "handsome bubby." The best Ruckus in the whole barn. The kids would laugh at that one, too. They'd roll their eyes and say, "He's the ONLY Ruckus in the barn!" "That doesn't make him any less special!" I'd retort.

I'd give him endless snacks. He had a way of thrusting his head out from the cross-ties, eyes wide as saucers. He'd have the most comical expression on his face, as though he'd been starving all this time and just needed ONE MORE snack to revive him. I always told him, "Work first, then snacks," but I broke my own rule almost every time. Life's too short to be stingy with the snacks.

Stupid questions keep popping into my head. Who will I ride now? Why didn't I arrange a trail ride sooner, when I was thinking about it? In truth, they're not the questions I really want answers to. These are:

Who else will I love as much as I loved Ruckus?

Who else can I trust as much as I trusted Ruckus?

Did he know how much I loved him?

Why haven't I learned by now not to take the animals I love for granted?

Why didn't I give him some extra treats on Saturday?

Why? Why? Why?

Grieving is a process, and not one to be rushed. Grief has its own time-table, and its own stages, too, five of them: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Acceptance may well be the hardest, because the mind has to come to some agreement with the notion that all things must, indeed, pass. That's a bitter pill to swallow. And I'm definitely not there yet.

I'm going to miss you, buddy. More than you could possibly know.

That's all for now, folks. Until next time, please spend some special quality time with the animals you love.

Monday, September 5, 2011


Hi Folks! Thanks for stopping by.

The regular readers of my blog know that every once in a while, I like to veer off the subject of animals and onto something completely different. The desire to do this usually stems from an event, or "Thing," as I like to call them, and this time is no exception: a Thing happened this weekend, and it's weighing heavily enough on my mind that I feel the need to unburden myself. I hope you'll understand, and find it in yourselves to indulge me here. For those of you who absolutely cannot bear the idea of a critter-less blog entry, try googling Cayr Ariel Wulff. She writes a fun dog-related blog called Up on the Woof.

In any case, the Thing I want to tell you about is my 30-year high school reunion, which took place this Labor Day weekend. Reunions are funny things, aren't they? Because life is such a great leveler, people we voted "most likely to succeed" often haven't. People we thought would be total losers turn out to be bank presidents. Almost everyone in the class has experienced some harrowing setback or other - a death, a divorce, a health crisis, etc. We go into these reunion events remembering how things used to be, and wondering how much has changed. In truth, everything has.

There will always be the characters that make us laugh and say, "You haven't changed a bit!" Donny Whitner seems to fit that category nicely, but in fact, he's seen his own share of sorrow. I recall attending the visitation when his mother passed on, years ago. Life may have smiled on some of my classmates, but if I had polled them this weekend, I don't think that any would have said that life has been easy.

It certainly hasn't been easy for me. Some of you may not know that I'm a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. I endured over ten years of abuse at the hands of the one person I was supposed to be able to trust: my father. The resulting damage created what was, essentially, a shy, frightened, obnoxious, angry teenager who had no idea how to Be. You know what I mean: those popular kids in school who always seemed to know how to talk to the opposite sex, the ones who seemed so confident and sure of themselves. How I envied them! How I envied people like Shawn, and Tracey, and Barb, and Renee - who were all so pretty, who always knew how to act and what to say.

The obnoxious angry thing was a wall, of course, designed to keep people at arm's length. I needed a safe place, back in those days, and inside my wall was it. The only problem was, I never let anyone in. How could I, when I had no idea to behave, no idea what to talk about, no idea how to be a normal human being? How could I let anyone get close when I had no idea how to trust them? The end result was that I spent a lot of time alone and lonely, watching my friends and wishing I could be like them.

It may surprise some of you to know that back in those days, I felt ugly. Indeed, I was quite certain that I was ugly. Worthless. Damaged. The fact that guys rarely asked me out only served to confirm what I already suspected: that no one saw any value in me. I can't blame them for that, I probably seemed pretty undesirable: I swore like a sailor, I had no flair for clothes, I was painfully shy, I didn't know how to make small talk. I was not the sort of girl that any guy wanted to take home to meet his mom.

We held any number of dances, throughout high school. A few were formal, but most were informal "sock hop" type things. There was a building uptown that we used most Saturday nights. The partying crowd would usually get trashed at someone's house (often mine) beforehand, then turn up at The Beehive, as the building was known, thoroughly wasted, falling all over ourselves and generally having a fine time while an upperclassman played the songs of the day. It's funny how now, thirty years later, I can still associate certain songs with certain high school memories. Steely Dan's "My Old School" always got all of us on the dance floor. Back then, when high school seemed to go on forever, I don't think any of us could imagine a time when we'd never be "going back to my old school," but we were certainly optimistic about it!

The slow songs were the best ones, of course. Especially the longer ones like "Free Bird" and "Stairway to Heaven." The long ones gave you a perfect excuse to snuggle up to someone good-looking for a few minutes! You can't imagine how I envied all those snuggling couples from my vantage point against the wall! More often than not, if I wanted to get close to a hot guy, I had to do the asking myself. I didn't mind that, really, but it would've been nice if they had asked me instead.

So jump forward in time with me now to my 30-year reunion. I had the great good fortune of finding an absolutely stunning little black Ralph Lauren dress at a second-hand store for ten bucks. The minute I slipped it over my head in the changing room, I knew that it would be my "revenge dress." The revenge dress, in case you don't know, is that little piece of satisfaction that tells all the haters "kiss my skinny little ass" in no uncertain terms. And there were a few people in the class who needed to suffer the wrath of my revenge dress! Lucky for them, they didn't attend, which is fine with me. In any case, between the revenge dress, the minor nips and tucks I've had done over the years, and the 20+ years of therapy, I was stylin'!

That is to say, I looked FANTASTIC!

Now, I knew that I was oozing fabulosity. I've acquired enough self-esteem by now to know exactly what I looked like on Saturday night, and what my personality brought to the game, as well. I turned a lot of heads. Men flirted. Women were gracious about my look. I knew going into the occasion that it was going to be a special night for me, but at the time, I had no idea just how special it would end up being. Because, you see, I had no idea that the Gods were going to let me have a do-over.

No one ever really gets a do-over, do they? None of my friends have ever mentioned having one. Maybe it's a rarity, like Haley's Comet, only coming around once every 82.3 years or something. And I certainly wasn't looking to have a do-over kind of night; I just wanted to annoy a few specific women with my flat stomach and my great hair! But the Gods apparently smiled on me that night, and handed me Barry on a silver platter!

A little background here: Barry was one of the hotties on the football team. Guys liked him, girls wanted to be with him. He was that wonderful combination of good looks, charm, and humor. Self-effacing, easy to be around, willing to get up to a little mischief every now and then. Stories about riding around in his car - which was dubbed the "Death Wagon" with good reason - were legendary. I don't think there was anyone who disliked Barry. He was just that kind of guy.

I had a crush on him myself, in high school. Even asked him to a prom. He turned me down - he had already asked someone else. The rejection was understandable, but, as always, it felt like yet another confirmation that guys REALLY DIDN'T WANT TO GO OUT WITH ME! Let's face it: guys just don't want to be with an obnoxious swearing idiot. What they did want was Shawn - who dated Barry during our senior year, while I watched wistfully from afar.

Thirty years later, we've all reached a certain parity: some of the hot guys then are less so, now; some of the nerds turned out to be really good looking; a number of plain Jane's are now stunning beauties. We've all grown up, gained a little perspective, gotten our shit together (more or less). Now, we're a group of people on the cusp of middle age, fondly reminiscing about dumb things we'd done back in the day, remembering folks who died too young, and laughing at the ones who are still goofy after all these years. It was a fine evening, but it was missing something. That something was Barry, who had other commitments over the weekend.

So I spent some time stalking his best high school buddy, Billy. Hopping up and down impatiently at Billy's side, I said in a stream-of-consciousness kind of way, "Billy-Billy-Billy-text-Barry!-text-Barry!-text-Barry!" As it turned out, Barry was able to squeeze some time out of his obligation-laden weekend, and showed up near the end of the evening. "I'll be there in 10," he texted Billy in response.

I'd be leaving out an important detail if I didn't tell you that Barry's been happily married for a long time, now. So I wasn't looking to do one of those infamous hook-ups that we all hear about at reunions. To be honest, I'm not sure exactly WHAT I was looking for, I just knew it was Barry-related. So I hopped up and down some more while I waited for him to arrive.

The class had rented the Holiday Inn ballroom until midnight - which was fast approaching by the time Barry arrived. I had already consulted the DJ, and then informed Barry in passing that when he heard "Stairway to Heaven" playing, it was time to dance. Then I wandered off to tease Billy about his horse-shaped weather vane.

To the opening strains of that classic Zeppelin song, I glanced around the room, crooked a finger at Barry, and walked out on the dance floor. I turned and looked at him. When I held up my arms, he swept me into the kind of embrace that a woman only experiences a few times in life. And then we danced. For the eight minutes and three seconds that it took Led Zeppelin to sing that song, I was transformed. I was the prom queen. I was the pretty girl that the hot football player wants to dance with. We talked. We laughed. It was easy. It was magic.

I'd never experienced magic before.

We were the only ones dancing. One by one, classmates filtered out of the ballroom, heading to the hotel bar to continue the party. Apart from the DJ, we were the only two left in the room. Neither one of us cared. It was our moment - a moment Barry later conceded was "long overdue," given his own admission, earlier in the day when he briefly crashed the class picnic, to a crush he'd had on me all those years ago. Those classmates must have wondered what was going on out on the dance floor, given that we were clearly in a zone all our own, where not so much as one molecule of air could've passed between us, such was our embrace.

The buzz I got from the evening stayed with me well into the next day before reality came crashing in. That's the way it is with do-overs, though: they're much too fleeting. And then they're gone. Barry, of course, went home to his wife and 2.5 kids. I went home to my cats, my depression and PTSD, to the horrific nightmares that plague me on a nightly basis. Back to the life that's frequently interesting, but never magic. I had no idea how hard going back to reality would be.

I spent the better part of this day crying, off and on. Crying because it took 48 years to experience the sort of magical moment that all my normal friends took for granted back in high school. Crying, too, for Barry's kind willingness to indulge me for those eight minutes. He can't know how much that dance meant to the frightened, ugly, shy, damaged girl who still resides within.

I want to thank everyone who participated in the Perrysburg High School Class of '81 reunion. It was such fun talking to all of you, catching up on new things, and laughing about old things. I'm grateful that so many of you were willing to overlook how abominably I behaved thirty years ago. And I'm grateful, too, for those eight magical minutes with you, Barry. You made a fabulous woman/troubled girl very happy. Thank you!

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Something Different for You!

Hi Folks!

As a change of pace, I thought I'd post a link to an interview I did recently. I spent a very pleasant half hour or so chatting with "The Real Dr. Doolittle," Val Heart, being interviewed for her podcast. I've included the URL link to the interview, but my computer doesn't seem to want to work right, so instead of clicking on it, you may have to copy and paste it into your search engine:


For those of you who are interested to learn more about Val, here's her bio:

Val Heart is called The Real Dr Doolittle and is an Expert Animal Whisperer. She helps people who are struggling with their animals training, behavior, health, and end of life transitions. She resolves problems in minutes not years because she bridges the gap between people and their animals. She can also teach you how to be your own Dr Dolittle so you can save money at the vet, and resolve behavior, performance and training problems yourself. Free AnimalTalk QuickStart Course (value $79), The Real Dr Doolittle Show™ (free podcast) now on iTunes! (210) 863-7928, http://www.valheart.com

I hope you enjoyed the interview! Until next time, please be kind to all the critters!

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

You'll Be In My Heart

Hi Folks! Thanks for stopping by! I know that I promised to tell you all sorts of interesting critter stories from the adventures I've enjoyed this summer, but a different story has been on my mind lately, and I feel the need to tell it. I hope you'll bear with me.

Have you ever experienced something really profound in your life, and for whatever reason, came to associate a certain song with that experience? And every time you hear that song, no matter how far back in time the experience was, that music brings all the old thoughts and feelings rushing back? Such is the case with me now. Every time I hear Phil Collins "You'll Be In My Heart," my eyes well up and my mind flashes back to my own first, profound experience.

It was eleven years ago this month that Macavity died. The deaf, all-white cat originally belonged to Lee, a man I lived with for several years. Toward the end of our relationship, Macavity became ill, losing weight and enduring horrible diarrhea that went on for months. A decent person would have taken him to the vet, but Lee was a drug addict, you see, and spending money on a veterinarian would cut into the amount of money available to spend on drugs. Eventually, I made the appointment myself, dragged Lee along, and stood there feeling like a total jerk when the doctor looked at us and announced, "It's not good. He'll have to stay." As it turned out, Macavity's liver was failing. He would require daily sub-cutaneous infusions of saline solution to help his poor, beleaguered liver flush out the toxic cooties.

I broke up with Lee shortly after Macavity's diagnosis. He took his cat and moved back in with his mother. He started stalking me, then, turning up drunk and angry, pounding on my apartment door and demanding to be let in. It was terrifying. I called the police so many times that the prosecutor finally took the case seriously. Together, we pushed the case through the courts, and Lee was sentenced to seven months in jail. Immediately after the sentencing, I drove to his mother's house and asked whether she wanted to do the sub-cu treatments herself while Lee was locked up. When she said no, I casually offered to do them myself, scooped up the cat and was gone. Macavity and I moved across town and left no forwarding address.

Come stop your crying,
it will be all right.
Just take my hand,
hold it tight.
I will protect you
from all around you.
I will be here
don't you cry.

He had lost all the weight he could possibly lose and then some. He was skin and bones. He slept most of the time. Sometimes, he wobbled and lost his balance as he walked. I had no experience with sick cats, and had a needle phobia to boot. It took a certain fortitude for me to stick him with those huge needles once, twice, sometimes three times a day. The wonderful techs at the vet's office gave me all kinds of suggestions on how to care for him. Cook some rice in tuna water, they said, the rice might help with the diarrhea. Warm the bag of saline solution before you inject it, they said, it will be more comfortable for him. Knowing that money was tight, they often gave me supplies for free. They never told me just how sick Macavity was, they merely encouraged me to keep doing what I was doing.

You'd think that all those needles and all those bags of saline solution under his skin would have made Macavity unhappy with me, but that was never the case. He seemed to understand when I explained, "It's Go Juice, it helps you go!" He never fought me, never clawed, never bit. He tolerated those treatments as though he trusted that I was doing my best to help him.

For one so small,
you seem so strong.
My arms will hold you,
keep you safe and warm.
This bond between us
can't be broken,
I will be here
don't you cry.

In retrospect, I know now that the attention I gave Macavity was more than he ever got from Lee. Even when Lee was physically present, his mind was elsewhere. I've no doubt that he loved Macavity, but he was numb and detached, and probably thought that the attention he gave his cat was enough. It's a testament to Macavity's own sense of isolation that he responded to those unpleasant saline treatments not with hissing and hiding, but with purrs and snuggles. During his last months, we grew closer than I ever knew was possible.

Cause you'll be in my heart,
yes, you'll be in my heart.
From this day on,
now and forever more.
You'll be in my heart,
no matter what they say.
You'll be here in my heart, always.

Dr. Green and his staff never told me that Macavity was dying, even though they knew. There was simply no way he could survive when he was pooping blood all the time. It's physically impossible. But Macavity didn't know he was supposed to be dying, and so he held on. Day after week after month, he held on. There was no medical explanation for the fact that he continued to wake up each morning, he just did.

Why can't they understand
the way we feel?
They just don't trust
what they can't explain.
I know we're different, but,
deep inside us,
we're not that different at all.

Because he was born deaf, Macavity had always been skittish. When Lee and I moved in together, it had taken the cat a couple of years to get used to my everyday presence. In that last year of his life, though, Macavity not only tolerated his daily treatments, but he initiated a ritual that told me just how important our relationship had become to him. Every night, as I lay on the couch (the bedroom was too far away from where he slept in the living room), he would join me for a snuggle. He would jump up and settle, half on my chest, half on my pillow, his cold wet nose touching my cheek, his small cat breath on my face. He had never once done such a thing when Lee and I were together. It was an extraordinary gesture, one I treasured every single night. And all the while, he continued to outlive the veterinary staff's predictions.

Don't listen to them,
cause what do they know?
We need each other
to have, to hold.
They'll see in time,
I know.

We spent whole days together. I wasn't working then; I was fortunate to be living with a man who was willing to pay the vet bills for a cat he didn't own. While he was at work, I would read, or work on pottery projects, always in the apartment, always in the living room where Macavity was. Sometimes, on sunny days, we'd sit on the balcony and bird-watch. When he wanted my attention, he would trill at me. You could hear the question in his voice, a sort of, "Would you notice me now, please?" I would go over him with a flea comb then. Macavity didn't have fleas, but he'd neglected his coat for so long that it needed daily care from me. While he napped, I'd consult with the vet's staff on matters of diet, on his never-ending diarrhea, asking question after question, and concentrating carefully on every answer. And all the while, he continued to outlive the staff's predictions.

When destiny calls you,
you must be strong.
I may not be with you,
but you've got to hold on.
They'll see in time,
I know.
We'll show them together.

I learned later that Macavity had been expected to live no longer than three months from the time I kidnapped him from Lee's mother. In fact, he lived for thirteen. No one could offer an explanation. No cat whose liver is failing to that degree lives thirteen months. And yet, he did. Repeatedly, I had asked the staff, "How will I know when he's ready to go?" They would always say the same thing, "You'll know." But I didn't. There were two times when I thought maybe he'd had enough. Both times, I had called the office, and arranged for Dr. Jill to come to the apartment to euthanize him, only to call back within hours and change my mind. I don't know who wasn't ready then - him or me. The day did come, of course. And on that day, if I wasn't entirely certain, I was certain enough. It had been a long haul. He'd lived fifteen years. He was tired. There was nothing else to do, no other treatments to try. We euthanized him on the balcony.

You'll be in my heart,
believe me, you'll be in my heart.
I'll be there from this day on,
now and forever more.

It was vet tech Terry Ann - a Christian woman with a rock-solid faith in the Almighty - who may have supplied the answer to the mystery that was Macavity's longevity. Discussing the matter over enchiladas at our favorite Mexican restaurant not long after Macavity died, she told me that she believed Macavity had lived so long because I loved him so much. In her view, there was no other explanation. And, you know? I choose to believe her.

For reasons I won't get into here, I ultimately scattered Macavity's ashes at Kew Royal Botanic Gardens outside London, England. It was the closure I needed. I've since returned there, to that spot by the lake, to linger for a time and enjoy the view, knowing that if there is, indeed, an afterlife, I've chosen his eternity well: I scattered those ashes where he can enjoy the ducks on the lake, and the birds in the meadow nearby. I look forward to joining him there when my time here is done.

You'll be in my heart,
no matter what they say.
You'll be here in my heart, always.
Just look over your shoulder.
I'll be there always.

That song still makes me cry.

lyrics by Phil Collins
(c) Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc.
and Walt Disney Music Company

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

I've been a busy critter lady!

Hi Folks!

I want to apologize to those of you who have stopped by over the summer, only to find that I haven't updated my blog since May 29! It's been a really busy spring and summer, critter-wise, and I just haven't had time to write! The good news is that my first book, Crazy Critter Lady, is now available! Simply go to my website (www.crazycritterlady.com) and click on the link there, or you can go directly to Amazon.com and enter my book title in the search engine. Crazy Critter Lady is also available at www.barnesandnoble.com.

I'm absolutely thrilled that the book is finally in print and can't wait for all of you to check it out! Read all about how that gang of domestic ducks roped me in and got me hooked on caring for them, and find out why Spanky the cat has low self-esteem! You can also read about the champion horse who knew more than I did and never let me forget it!

In the meantime, I'll make a concerted effort to update this poor blog in the next month or so. I think you'll enjoy hearing about the Great Crayfish Rescue of 2011, not to mention all the fledgling friends I made out in the back yard this spring!

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

Sunday, May 29, 2011


Hi Folks! Thanks for stopping by!

It seems that spring has finally arrived, here in the midwest, but instead of April showers, we're getting May monsoons! I'll be glad when the weather decides to cooperate!

I've been putting off writing this blog entry for a long time. The reason why will become apparent fairly quickly. Suffice to say, this particular subject is still a painful one for me, and writing about it means having to open doors that I'd just as soon leave shut.

It's been a year and a month since my beloved Miss Muffin passed away. I've spent most of that time trying very hard not to think about her at all because whenever I do, a searing pain burns my heart. I've had to euthanize a number of critters over the years, so I know that the pain will subside over time, but that doesn't change the fact that there's a huge empty place where Muffin used to be.

While she was with me for eleven years, and I loved her very much, I also took her for granted - a thing that grieves me still. Junebug and Spanky usually got more attention because they were squeaky wheels, whereas Muff would wait quietly to be noticed. She spent her days lounging in the family room. Whenever I'd lie down on the couch for a nap, she alone would jump up and snuggle with me, nestling against my stomach and purring happily.

She was the only cat I could take outside without a leash: she was never inclined to go any farther than I did, always staying close to me as I walked around the yard. I made a video of her once, lying in the grass enjoying the sunny day. In the narrative, I said that I didn't think she'd be around much longer; her health seemed to have taken a quick turn for the worse. In fact, the day after I made that video, I had to put her down.

There's never enough time to say good-bye. Those of you who have had to euthanize your critter friends already know that. You can spend an hour or a day or a week doing nothing but breathing in the smell of your pal, burying your face in their fur, and telling them all the things you meant to say over the years, but it's never enough. Just typing those words has started the tears streaming down my face: I spent quite a long time in the veterinarian's exam room, doing and saying just those things and knowing that wasn't going to be enough to sustain me once Muff was gone. And, indeed, here I am, a year and a month later, still grieving deeply for my girl.

I had her cremated because it's much more portable than burial. Mine has been something of a nomadic life, never living in one place for more than a few years. How could I bury a beloved pet, knowing that one day, I'd be moving on and leaving them behind? Like Pretty Boy Duck before her, I had no idea what to do with the small decorative tin full of ashes, and so I simply left them on my kitchen table. Both sets of ashes are still there now.

The dynamic among the surviving cats has changed. Gracie comes out of the bedroom more often now, and usually joins me on the couch in the evening when I watch t.v. Muffin hated Gracie from the start, but I never realized that that was why Gracie kept to herself. Seeing her come out of her shell now is actually a bit of a comfort: Gracie hasn't quite got the snuggling together thing down yet, but she's trying.

Junebug's come out of her shell more, too. She was a little afraid of Muffin, so I think she feels like she's on safer ground, now that Muff is gone. She naps in most of the places that Muffin used to. I don't know whether that's a territorial thing, or whether she finds some comfort in using those spot.

My half-feral cat, Buddy, who normally spends most of his time sleeping on the bed, has now taken a proprietary interest in what goes on around the house. Several times a day, he'll walk through all the rooms, making sure that everything smells right. I often wonder whether he's not actually trying to find Muffin. After he makes his rounds, he'll frequently join the rest of us in the family room for a nap.

It's orange tabby Spanky who seems to be suffering from a lingering grief. I have no idea whether he knows that the anniversary of Muff's death is upon us, but some time in the last couple of months, he became much more needy than usual. He'd walk around the house wailing in misery, then follow me around, staring up at me with his huge green eyes. When I pick him up and hold him, he purrs softly, though I sense it's more from relief than actual contentment.

When baby Spanky came home to live with us, he immediately put Muffin on notice that she was his new mom, and he never stopped demanding that she take care of him! Even in the days and weeks before her death, he would present his head to her for licks. Sometimes she'd growl, and sometimes she'd comply. No matter how many times she told him to go away, he always came back for more. He loved her so!

It was impossible for me to make sense of her death for Spanky. He simply couldn't understand what I meant when I said she "had to go." I didn't like the sound of it myself; it sounded too much like she had been banished from my home, rather than she was sick and wouldn't recover. No matter how I phrased it, there was no way of making Spanky understand what had happened. All he knew was that his mama was gone and wasn't coming back. It was the worst possible thing that could happen to a needy cat like Spanky.

Spanky's neediness hasn't done much for my frame of mind. I don't generally object to being needed, but now, while I'm still dealing (or not) with my own grief, dealing with Spanky's, too, is hard. I hold him when he seems to want it, I groom him with the flea comb from time to time, and I talk to him frequently. I studiously avoid any mention of Muffin, although there is the rare occasion when I'll say to him, "I know, Niblet. I miss her, too." And then I slam shut that door in my heart.

I'm a cheap substitute for his beloved mama. Spanky had always wanted a cat family, rather than a human one. I knew that all along, but it never occurred to me that he would grieve as deeply as I when she died. Since Spanky has always been the baby of the family, I wonder now whether he'll ever get over the loss.

So it's being a tough spring for me. The dreary, rain-filled days don't help my state of mind. The disease of depression is hard enough without crappy weather and the loss of loved ones, never mind grieving pets for whom there are no words of comfort. I really hope that time helps relieve Spanky of his burden of grief. I hope the same for myself.

That's all for now, folks! Until next time, enjoy the special relationships you have with your animal pals, and please be kind to all the critters!

P.S. Please leave a comment so I know you were here! Thanks so much!

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Life Lessons from Grandpa Walton

Hi Folks!

Thanks for stopping by!

Well, it seems that Spring has finally sprung. I know this because here in Northwest Ohio, we're in the "April Showers" portion of the season! It seems as though all it's done this week is rain. And if it isn't raining, it's looking like it wants to rain. There's been lots of damp and dismal, and very little in the way of cheery and springy! Such is the nature of nature!

If you read the "About Me" piece on the right side of your computer screen, it says that I don't have cable t.v. In the first place, I don't want to pay for it, and in the second, I don't want to spend that much time in front of the t.v. when I could be doing other things. When analog went the way of the dodo bird, I bought one of those digital converter boxes. It did its job well for about a year, and then suddenly, I couldn't tune in to any of Whoville's local channels anymore.

Initially, I thought the converter box had died, but that turned out not to be the case. I never did figure out what the problem was, but I have a sneaking suspicion that the local cable company jammed the signals so that I'd be forced to pay for cable. It was the last thing I wanted to do, but I didn't feel I could live without my weekly dose of Grey's Anatomy, so I signed up for the cheapest possible package.

It came as a surprise to learn that, as a cable subscriber, I was to get a few more channels that just my five network ones. Even so, I rarely gave them anything more than a glance until recently. Turns out the Hallmark channel shows reruns of several programs from my youth, like Little House on the Prairie, and The Waltons. I always liked that show!

Grandpa Walton was my favorite character. He was such a wise old soul, and his wisdom was always tempered with humor, and a willingness to indulge his grandchildren in a way that none of the other adults were inclined to do. Those other grown-ups always insisted that the kids behave and mind their manners. Grandpa, on the other hand, would merely grin and wink, knowing that sometimes, kids just need to be kids.

I generally have better things to do than watch a lot of t.v. But today, I was just killing time: I'd run out of busy work, and the nightly news wasn't on yet. I settled myself, more or less, to watching The Waltons until it was time to watch something more substantial.

I confess I was a little distracted. I had some other business on my mind, and kept tuning in and out mentally, as one does, catching a few lines of dialog then wandering somewhere else in my head. At some point, though, it became clear that this wasn't just any old episode, and that I might get something out of it after all, if I paid attention.

It was an episode in which middle daughter Erin finds a lost fawn. She brings it home and insists on keeping it, even though her parents tell her no. At some point, the local park ranger (and who knew that Walton's Mountain had one of those?) turns up and tells Erin that it's illegal to keep a wild animal. As kindly as he can, for he understands that Erin's very upset about it, the ranger takes possession of the fawn and releases the little fellow back into the wild, where he's meant to be.

That's not the end of it, of course. That very night, Erin has a premonition that something bad is about to befall the fawn, and she convinces her father to help her go looking for it. Bringing the ranger along, Daddy Walton indulges his daughter, and all three proceed to search for the critter that Erin's named Lance.

The Waltons find Lance just as shots ring out: the ranger's been having trouble with poachers on Walton's Mountain, and wouldn't you know it, the poachers had taken aim at Lance. Fortunately, Lance is found with little more than a flesh wound, and they bring him back to the Walton's barn for rest and rehab. The ranger tells Erin he knows about a fenced-in farm where he can take Lance. The deer would be safe behind that fence, he tells the child, and Erin can come and visit any time she likes. It sounds like the perfect solution.

That evening, as Erin fusses over Lance, Grandpa comes in to give the deer some hay. Erin tells him about the fenced-in farm, and how happy she is that Lance will go somewhere safe. She asks Grandpa what he thinks about it, and he tells her, very gently, that he reckons that wild animals should be allowed to live wild. "Even though they'd be in danger?" she asks him. "Even so," Grandpa says. Living wild, he explains, means that Lance can run free, and choose his own mate, and eat all the tender green grass he wants to. He might not be safe, but he'd be FREE.

And therein lies the crux: one of the McKinnon's Pond ducks is gone. When I went to feed them today, I noticed that Old Fellow was nowhere to be seen. Because he's a Pekin (and therefore white), he's not a duck who can hide in the shrubs. I searched everywhere and found no trace of him.

As always happens when one of the ducks disappears, I agonize over the fact that I could've/should've found homes for them, safe homes with fences and people who understand about predators. At the same time, I can't help thinking what a (usually) wonderful place McKinnon's Pond is for a duck: it's HUGE, with plenty of territory for everyone, lots of mud for dabbling in, and a sense of freedom that I assume they enjoy. No one I know could possibly offer them anything remotely similar.

It's a quandry that I've dealt with for a number of years: find them safe, contained homes (and it must be said that those are in very short supply), or allow them to remain at the pond, at the mercy of various predators, and hope like hell that everything turns out o.k. It's not exactly a recipe for longevity. So it's striking that of all the Waltons episodes they could've shown today, and of all the days I might've tuned in to watch an episode, the one I see has Grandpa Walton telling me that wild animals want to be wild.

I know that domestic ducks aren't wild animals, even though my gang is living wild. I know that they're meant to live on farms because that's what I keep telling the residents of Whoville, every time I write a letter to the paper asking them not to put live ducklings in their children's Easter baskets. I KNOW, for heaven's sake! I just have trouble getting past the fact that they have a huge pond at their disposal, and mates to keep them company, and that even though they seem glad to see me when I show up, every last one of them turns and walks away when our visit is over.

That doesn't make losing them any easier. As I listened to Grandpa Walton's words of wisdom today, I burst into tears for Old Fellow - a gregarious duck who never saw a pile of corn he didn't like. I cried again as I wrote this piece, because I can never quite settle my mind to one thing or the other: safe, fenced-in ducks, or free but dicey? I wish I knew for sure.

As you might imagine, Erin chewed on Grandpa's words and realized that he was right. At the end of the show, she took Lance up on Walton's Mountain and released him. He hung around for a couple of minutes, then dashed off into the woods, where he could live free.

In spite of the untimely end to his life, I know that Old Fellow had some good years at the pond. He was well-fed, he had a mate whose company he enjoyed, and he had a loving human who plied him with corn and looked after him as best she could. Sometimes, I can do no more than that.

That's all for now, folks. Thanks again for stopping by. May all of you enjoy quality time with the animals in your life! Until next time, please be kind to all the critters! And please leave a comment so I know you were here.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Twelve Minutes

Hi Folks! Thanks for stopping by, and Happy First Day of Spring!

Here's a question for you: if you only had twelve minutes to evacuate your home, what would you take with you? I consulted several people on the matter, and their answers ranged from "my dogs and my wallet," to "the stainless steel silverware." We'll get back to that last answer in a minute! As you might imagine, among my animal-loving friends and acquaintances, the obvious answer involves grabbing their critters and leaving the rest.

I, too, thought that my pets would be my one and only concern. Then I realized that twelve minutes probably wouldn't be enough time to get all four of them into their carriers. I remember when the June 5 tornado ripped through Northwest Ohio: I had a reasonable amount of time to sequester the cats in the bathroom. The only problem was, I couldn't find all four. At some point, I was forced to quit looking and run for shelter. I waited out the storm with two cats intact, and a grim certainty that the other two probably wouldn't survive if the tornado took my home. As great good luck would have it, the tornado struck elsewhere, leaving my house without so much as a shingle out of place.

I imagine that's why my friend and Fowl Weather author Bob Tarte said he'd save the silverware in the event of a forced evacuation: because there's no possible way that he and wife Linda could rescue every single one of their 50+ animals. And who wants to think about such a depressing fact if you don't have to? I don't blame Bob for giving me such a flippant answer: it IS a depressing thought, knowing that in such a situation, you'd basically be signing the death warrant of every animal you didn't have time to rescue. I don't know if I could do it.

In asking the question, I'm referring, of course, to the twelve minutes that the residents of Sendai, Japan, had to evacuate their homes before the tsunami struck. The terror they must have experienced in those minutes is unimaginable. We here in the mid-west of the United States are uniquely fortunate in that we've never been threatened by a thirty-foot wall of water. Tornadoes, yes. Floods, periodically. But we've never experienced having entire towns wiped off the map in one fell swoop. I don't even know how you would start over after such a thing.

I heard on the news that a number of residents did manage to bring their pets with them to safety. I've also heard that a considerable number of animal rescue groups are already on the ground in Japan - just as they were in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina - searching the rubble for any signs of beloved family pets. The idea that people from foreign countries would put their own lives on hold in order to travel to a far-away place (at their own expense) to rescue the pets of complete strangers brings tears to my eyes. I know for a fact that if I were in the shoes of those poor beleaguered earthquake/tsunami victims, I could never repay my gratitude to the volunteers who found my cats.

I know that there are numerous animal rescue groups in action in Japan who could really use your donation money. I'm not going to mention them here because I don't have any way of knowing which are reputable and which are not. I can say with certainty, though, that you can get more information through Best Friends Animal Society by visiting their website at www.bestfriends.org.

I urge you all to think about how you would feel if volunteers showed up to search the rubble that used to be your home, looking for your pets, and I urge you all to consider making a donation to the animal rescue group of your choice. You can donate as little as five dollars. Just think if a thousand people each donated five bucks - that's five thousand dollars to buy critter food, carriers, and medicine to treat their wounds. Believe it or not, your five dollar donation could mean the difference between life and death! How cool is that?!

That's all for now, folks. Until next time, please say a prayer for the people of Japan, and please be kind to all the critters!

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Great Mouse Rescue of 2011!

Hi Folks! Thanks for stopping by! I hope you've all survived the snow and bitter cold Mother Nature's been throwing at us this winter!

I've been debating for some time which critter story I wanted to write about. The matter settled itself yesterday when I climbed out of bed to find two of my cats staring intently at a big wicker basket in the corner of my bedroom. It could only mean one thing: there was a rodent back there somewhere. Sure enough, when I peeked behind the basket, I saw a little brown mouse.

In the three years I've lived in my house, this is only the second time I've seen the mouse. I've known about him for quite a while, though, since I started finding mouse poops in the knife drawer. You might think a mouse hanging out in a knife drawer is a little strange, until I tell you that the cabinet where I keep the cat kibble is directly below that drawer! Apart from occasional poops, though, I never saw the mouse himself. Indeed, sometimes, so much time would go by between poops that I began to wonder whether he'd moved out altogether.

A week or so ago, I found that Buddy and Spanky had taken up positions outside my pantry door. I've lived with my cats long enough to know that when they do that, there's a mouse in the vicinity. Sure enough, when I poked around in the pantry, I found my house guest pacing back and forth behind the 50# bag of duck pellets I store in there. I tried to catch him, but as you may know, they're fast little buggers, and he got away. It doesn't bother me that he got away from me, though. I was more keen that he get away from my cats!

When I lived at my previous home - a renovated chicken coop - there was always a mouse in residence. Hell, there was a chipmunk living somewhere in the attic, too, but these things don't bother me! I figure, they're all God's creatures, and they all have a right to exist. As I see it, my job is to live and let live. Unfortunately, my cats see things differently, so I'm accustomed to running interference, and rescuing mice when I'm able.

At the chicken coop, if the weather was decent, I'd let the mouse go outside in the shrubs. In one memorable instance, it was too cold to just dump the little guy out in the snow and hope he survived. I set up a temporary home for him in the hope that he would weather the weather, as it were, and wait it out until spring came, at which time I planned to release him. The mouse had different ideas, though, and chewed his way to freedom. A week later, one of the cats caught and killed him. Boy, was I steamed about that!

I know that many folks set traps, and shudder at the mere thought of a mouse invasion. These same people like to emphasize their point by telling me that mice can spread diseases, to which I say, how else are you going to build up your immune system if you don't expose it to the occasional illness?! Besides, there's a cure for the plague now!

So instead of trying to eradicate the problem, I spent some time, yesterday morning, trying to coax the mouse out from behind the wicker basket and into my closet. This took some doing because mice don't understand that I'm a benevolent giant intent on saving their lives, they just know that I'm really big and scary-looking! After a few minutes spent watching the little guy ping-pong back and forth around the room, I finally managed to shoo him into the closet. The last thing I saw before I shut the door was that tiny creature leaping into one of my shoes. I assumed I wouldn't see him again for a while. Naturally, I was wrong.

I was watching the nightly news later on when I heard the squeaking. There was a brief cranial delay before my brain realized that the noise meant the mouse was back and the cats had found him. I hustled out of my chair and raced to the living room, where I found all four cats circling around the room the way cats do when they're excited. I spotted the mouse behind the console, and spent some time trying to catch him. As usual, though, he managed to evade me and disappeared without a trace.

Before heading back to my chair and the news, I thought I'd make a pit stop in the bathroom. When I walked in, though, I realized that the mouse hadn't entirely disappeared; he'd managed to find a new hiding place behind the rattan shelves. Judging from Buddy's "I know you're there" position in front of the shelves, it was obvious that Buddy did, in fact, know that he was there!

After chucking Buddy out of the bathroom and closing the door, I had to stop and think about my strategy. Those little field mice move fast, and I've lost more of them than I've actually caught, over the years. I grabbed a sieve from the kitchen, and a small sheet of cardboard from my office, and returned to the bathroom.

When I pulled the rattan shelves away from the wall, the hair dryer and curling iron that had been lying on top dropped like rocks to the floor. I winced and hoped the little guy hadn't been squashed by them. Luckily, he was fine. Glancing around the room, I spotted him desperately trying to squeeze himself between the grates of the heating vent. The grating was too narrow, though, so he raced off in search of another escape route. At some point, he accidentally cornered himself against the toilet. Now was my chance!

Waving at him with one hand, I held the sieve in the other, poised above him. The minute he ran in the direction I wanted him to go, down came the sieve. Gently, I slipped the sheet of cardboard underneath it, sandwiching the mouse in between. Now I had him. Once I'd caught him, though, I had to give some thought to what, exactly, I could do with him. Outside was an ice storm, with five-odd inches of snow still to come. It was much too cold out there to simply throw him out, knowing that he had no warm nest to go to. On the other hand, I couldn't just let him go any old place in the house because those four cats of mine weren't the least bit interested in sharing their home!

When I drew on the knowledge I had of my lodger, I thought that if I could aim him in the direction of the interior walls of the house, he'd be o.k. I mean to say, I lived with the little guy for over two years before myself or the cats actually saw him. Which tells me that there's some part of the house, back behind the kitchen cupboards, where he could live in relative safety.

So while the little brown fellow paced around under the sieve, I cleaned out the cupboard under my kitchen sink. There's a weird space back behind the shelf, where the indoor water meter resides. When I stuck my head in there for a look around, I saw a tunnel, if you will, running behind the cupboards. I imagine that's how the mouse got around, using that space behind my kitchen cupboards. It was the perfect release site.

I held the sieve in one hand, while my other hand supported the sheet of cardboard. Tilting the cardboard downward into that empty space, I lifted the sieve and watched as the mouse plopped down into the tunnel and ran off. Another successful rescue!

As I returned the cleaning supplies to the shelf, I watched in amusement as the cats circled around the room, clearly confounded about the disappearance of the mouse. They're always perplexed at times like this, and they can't understand for the life of them why I feel compelled to ruin their fun. Our conversations go something like this:

Junebug: Why can't we have him, Kelly?

Kelly: Because I like mice, that's why!

Junebug: But Kelly! I like mice, too!

Kelly: Yes, but I like them when they're still alive and wiggly!

Junebug: Me, too, Kelly! I like wiggly mice, too!

As you can see, conversations like that are destined to go round and round in circles with no resolution!

For those of you who are on the fence, mouse-wise, I'd like to take this opportunity to encourage you to use humane methods to trap your uninvited house guests. You can always release them outside, or, better yet, release them secretly into the house of someone you don't particularly like! No, I'm kidding! Releasing them at your local park, though, would be just the thing.

My friend Bob Tarte, author of Enslaved by Ducks and Fowl Weather (both available at amazon.com) wrote a great story about how he humanely trapped several raccoons and released them on what he thought was an empty bit of property. As luck would have it, the property turned out to have a house on it, and I think Bob's been counting himself lucky ever since that he never got caught releasing those raccoons!

The point I'm trying to make here is that there are a number of species that we humans consider pests, who aren't, really. They're just having trouble finding their place in the modern scheme of things. When we flatten a field or forest to built a strip mall, we don't compensate those displaced critters; we try to eliminate them altogether. How cruelly unfair that is! And I refuse to believe that any God in any religion is o.k. with all that extermination. As far as I'm concerned, the welcome mat is always out for mice in need!

That's all for now, folks. Hang in there just a bit longer and I do believe that spring will get here! Until then, please be kind to all the critters! Thanks again for stopping by. Please leave me a comment so I know you were here!

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Mighty Oaks!

Hi Folks! Happy New Year! I hope everyone had a great holiday season! Unfortunately, now we have to get back to things like work and reality and the daily drudge! Ugh!

You may recall hearing about the June 5 tornado on the news, that massive tornado that ripped through several Ohio communities, killing a number of people and decimating Lake High School. As it happens, Lake High School is a mile from my home, as the crow flies. I heard that tornado coming as I paced frantically in my bathroom.

I had managed to catch two of my four cats and bring them into the bathroom with me. The other two were on their own; I had no idea where they were hiding. I just hoped that we would all survive that horrible roaring sound I heard outside. Thankfully, the Gods answered my prayers that night, and myself, my cats, and my house were completely unscathed by the storm. At least, that's what I thought at the time.

A week or so after the tornado, fiance John and I toured the affected areas on his motorcycle. The scenes of devastation were even more unimaginable than the ones shown on t.v. I remember seeing a girl's pink bike jammed into the second-story corner of a house. I remember seeing a house that survived intact but for a fallen brick wall out front, while the house right next door was completely demolished. And I remember how odd the trees looked, denuded, entirely stripped of leaves.

Curiously, the tornado had taken a path roughly diagonal to the horse barn where I volunteer. Due to a number of downed electrical cables, I had to drive a different route than usual to the barn. On the way, on one side of the road I saw a garage that had been lifted off its foundation and turned by several degrees, then set back down otherwise intact. On the other side of the road, high up in what remained of a tall tree, I saw someone's area rug hanging. It was an eerie sight.

I heard on the news that the tornado had also ripped through the middle of my favorite metropark, Mighty Oaks, but I didn't give it much thought at the time. Mighty Oaks is a huge park out where things are still rural. I've never ridden the seventeen miles of horse trails there, but I'd sure like to! There are a number of natural features at Mighty Oaks, such as oak savannas, pine forests, sand dunes, and couple of scenic lakes. In all the years I've been going to Mighty Oaks, I've never managed to walk all the miles of all the trails, but I've definitely given it an honest try!

Some time in August, John and I rode his bike out to Mighty Oaks. It's a nice scenic drive in its own right, and it gave us a chance to survey whatever damage there might be. He slowly cruised the few roads through the park, explaining that you could tell the tornado had been there by how the trees were twisted: it was as though a giant hand simply grasped the trunks and gave them a big twist. It was easy enough to see the path of destruction, too, by the trail of felled trees in the distance. It was a sobering sight.

We didn't explore Mighty Oaks in any detail that day. It was enough to know that the tornado had been there and done some damage. We rode off in search of a root beer stand, and it never occurred to me at the time that there might be more to it than a few dozen downed trees.

I should probably give you some background on my connection to Mighty Oaks. I started going there as a teenager. My favorite aunt and uncle lived nearby, and often walked the trails with their black lab, Schooner. I soon discovered what a peaceful haven it was, and from my twenties on, began spending a fair amount of time there by myself.

There's a favorite path I've always loved. Directional markers are posted along the trail, but it was such a rare occasion to come across another walker that I began to wonder if anybody really knew it existed. It was a wondrous trail in all four seasons, and each held its own appeal. In spring, the gullies were filled with ferns. In summer, wild flowers bloomed, and the canopy of the trees overhead protected me from the sun as I walked. In fall, the oak leaves crunched beneath my feet as deer scampered into the distance. And in winter, there was nothing so beautiful as the hushed silence of a new-fallen snow. The quiet fairly rang in my ears, and I'd often pretend that I was the only person left on earth.

I knew that path like the back of my hand. Knew where the ground dipped just before the old wooden bridge crossed one of the many gullies. Knew where the horse trail paralleled my path. Knew where the stands of pine trees were, where the wind made a lonely whooshing sound as it passed through their needles. Knew where the patch of ground got swampy every time it rained. And I can still recall the bottom of the sand hill, where I found that old box turtle lumbering along.

I have so many wonderful memories of Mighty Oaks park that I wanted to show the place to John in depth. On a fine September afternoon, we returned to the park prepared to walk my favorite trail. I'd never shared this special place with anyone in my life, so this was a big deal to me. Mighty Oaks had been my haven, my peace and quiet in an otherwise tumultuous life. I hoped John would come to love it as much as I did. Unfortunately, we didn't get the chance to enjoy my trail: almost immediately, it became apparent that that June 5 tornado had destroyed more than just a few dozen trees; it had destroyed most of my path, as well.

I couldn't even find where the trail began. I paced back and forth, my eyes flicking here and there, knowing that somewhere in this mess of downed trees was the start of the path. I never did find it. I walked a few yards up a parallel trail, looking for access. Plunging through some old undergrowth, I finally picked up the path. There was debris everywhere. It was as if someone had filled a giant garbage can full of twigs and bits and pieces and then dumped it all over the park.

We had to pick our way around numerous piles of deadfall. The trail hadn't been used since before June 5, which rendered it overgrown in many areas. In some places, just the tops of tall pine trees had been snapped off, and in others, entire trees had been sucked up out of the ground and then flung down again in big messy piles. At first it was disheartening. But as we made our way deeper into the woods - that woods I had known intimately for decades - it became depressing. Disturbing. This was my haven, and my haven was gone.

We finally reached a pile of deadfall so extensive it occurred to me that if we couldn't make our way around it, if we couldn't pick up the trail on the other side (and who knew how many more piles of deadfall we'd encounter?), there was a distinct possibility that the park rangers would have trouble finding us. In spite of all those years of loving attention to the beauty Mighty Oaks had to offer, I was lost; I no longer recognized the landmarks I had always known. Emotionally numb, I told John it was time to turn back. I would've been in tears but I had none to shed. I was in shock.

When you come from a horribly dysfunctional childhood, as I did, there tends to be a lot of noise in your head. Indeed, the noise is so unrelenting that I take certain prescription medications each night in order to quiet the noise long enough to get to sleep. I've done decades of therapy, and worked very hard at obtaining a measure of sanity, but in spite of all that, the noise level is still unbearable. Which is why, when I find something that creates peace in me, I grab onto it with both hands. Mighty Oaks was just that sort of refuge.

For decades, at any time of year, I could go lose myself in its quiet. I would walk the trail in one direction, then, at its end, I would turn around and walk it again the other way. I'd inhale deeply of the smell of pine sap, listen intently to that whooshing sound as the wind traveled through the woods, take note of the moss and ferns, and the hemlock trees the boy scouts had so helpfully labeled years ago. Even if I arrived at the park in turmoil, I invariably left it relaxed, certain that I could, indeed, surmount my problems.

I told none of this to John. I merely stumbled along the overgrown trail repeating things like, "How could this happen?" over and over again. Somewhere along the way I realized that the path - my special path - would never be the same. Would I?

I've since learned that Mighty Oaks park has made the commitment to clear the paths destroyed by the June 5 tornado. I understand that they plan to work through the winter to accomplish this task. Given how much damage there was, I have no idea how long it will take to clean it all up. I'm wondering how they will re-establish the paths, given that they're all no doubt extremely overgrown by now.

I imagine that as long as Mighty Oaks is in disarray, I will feel somewhat adrift. I have so few solid anchors in my life to begin with that it's very painful to lose one. I worry, too, that this blog will sound unsympathetic to those who suffered worse losses on June 5. In truth, I feel huge gratitude to the Gods that they spared myself and my home. My heart goes out to all the folks in Fulton County, in Lake Township, in Millbury, whose splintered homes and splintered lives I made it a point to take an unflinching look at, that I might add my voice to those of other witnesses.

Even after seeing what must be hundreds of news reports of tornado damage over the years, I can tell you that those reports don't do the devastation justice. How on earth does one start over with absolutely nothing? Where do you eat, sleep, and shower, while you're waiting for the insurance company to issue a check? How do you know who to call to clean up the pile that used to be your house, when the tornado took your phone book with it? How do you change clothes when there are none left? It's unimaginable.

So to all of those who lost something in the June 5 tornado, I wish you all strength, and peace, and resolution. May we all find a refuge from the storms of life. And for all of those who helped, I hope you noticed the hand-painted sign thrown over a chain-link fence running alongside Route 795: "thank you for your help!" The sign is still there now.

That's all for now, folks. Here's hoping that 2011 brings love and friendship, prosperity and kindness. Until next time, please be kind to all the critters!