Archives for category: Pets


Herewith a stray cat tale, as related by a friend:

I arrive from work one evening and see an unfamiliar cat staring up at me from beneath the kitchen table.

“Hey, who’s the cat?” I ask.
My wife, Lisa, responds: “That’s Lexi,” she says. “She used to be a stray.”
“And now?” I ask.
“Now she lives here, temporarily” says Lisa.

I’m not shocked. We’ve had visitors before. Lisa volunteers at the local animal shelter and, at least once a year, an animal pulls her heartstrings strongly enough to cross our threshold. Typically, we pay to have the cat or dog neutered, if necessary, and to have minor medical problems addressed. A clean bill of health is usually enough to help an animal get permanently adopted by a family.

“Her teeth are good,” says Lisa.
“That’s great,” I say.
“And she’s only two or three years old,” says Lisa.
“Okay,” I say, suspicious. “So what’s her problem?”
“Who says there’s a problem?” says Lisa.

I exchange looks with Lisa for a moment, long enough to allow each of us to recall the past several guests: the beagle with dry skin; the tabby with food allergies; and, the spaniel with only one ear.

“Well, Lexi has a bad leg,” admits Lisa.
I look at the cat, still staring up at me with green eyes. She blinks once, slowly.
“How bad?” I ask.
“She got hit by a car, a Lexus,” says Lisa. “That’s how she got her name.”
“Oh,” I say, “sorry to hear that.”
“Anyway, someone left her at the shelter with a note about the injury,” says Lisa. “We just have to get her leg fixed up.”

Lexi continues to gaze at me. She seems to think I have some say in her fate. But I know better. To refuse my kind-hearted wife would be as effective as refusing beach entry to a tsunami.

“I’m taking her to the vet first thing tomorrow before I leave for the yoga retreat,” says Lisa. “Is it okay if I give your cellphone number in case they need to call?”
“Sure,” I say. “What will they be doing to her leg?”
“I don’t know,” says Lisa. “Maybe a splint or something. But it shouldn’t be too bad.”

We spend the rest of the evening having dinner and reading, me from a computer, Lisa from a magazine. Lexi emerges from beneath the table several times, to eat some dry cat food and to drink some water. Her front left leg is crooked and causes her to limp, but she appears functional. At one point, she sidles over and rubs her tail against my leg. She’s pretty, with medium length orange fur. I’m pleased to do a good deed for her; she seems appreciative in some intuitive way.

I don’t think much about Lexi the next morning when I hug Lisa good-bye and wish her an enjoyable retreat. My mind’s more focused on work. I have an important meeting scheduled for the morning with out-of-state investors. If it goes well, it could continue all day.
“I’ll see you tonight,” she says. “No phone contact up on the mountain.”
“Wow, that’s serious,” I say, with a smile. “I’ll handle the home front.”
“And you’ll probably hear about Lexi,” says Lisa. “It might be a couple hundred dollars.”
“No problem,” I say. “It’s a good cause.”

Several hours later, during the first recess from the meeting, I check my cell-phone. The caller i.d. indicates the veterinarian has left a message:
“We’re calling about Lexi,” says a kind female voice. “She’s stabilized now. We think we can save the leg.”
“Hunh?” I think. “This sounds expensive.” But I don’t have time to call back before returning to the conference room.
Two hours later, I have another message: “She’s rejecting the screws. We may have to amputate.”
Alarmed, I try to call back. The answering machine says: “We are closed for lunch. Please call again after 1 p.m. You may leave a message.”
“Um, this is Mr. Smith,” I say. “Lexi is a stray cat, I mean, she’s our cat, but she’s not REALLY ours, but she’s having her leg….”
A beep ends the message before I can ask for more details and a cost estimate. My assistant waves for me to return to the meeting. Two hours later, when we break again, I have another message from the animal hospital:
“The amputation went well; we’ll attempt a reconstruction this afternoon. If she lives through the night, there’s a chance she’ll survive. The amputation will be around $3,000 when all the medication is taken into account. The mold for the reconstruction is about $1,200, so long as there are no complications. Room and board during recovery will be additional.”

“What’s wrong?” asks my business partner, Alan.
“It’s unbelievable,” I say, the blood draining from my face. We’re standing outside the conference room where the negotiations are proceeding nicely.
“What is? Is your family okay?” says Alan.
“Yes,” I say, “except for our financial well-being. The bill will be around $5,000 for Lexi’s leg.”
“Who’s Lexi?” Alan asks.
“A cat,” I say.
“Wow,” says Alan. “You must really love your pet.”
“She’s not our pet,” I say, peevish.
Alan looks confused.
“She’s a stray,” I add.
“You’re spending $5,000 for a stray cat’s leg?” says Alan. “That’d be $20,000 for all four!” Alan laughs.
“That’s not helpful,” I say, miserable.

The vet leaves a message on our home phone regarding Lexi’s status. “We’re pulling out all the stops with painkillers and antibiotics. It’ll take a week or two to know if she’ll survive. I’d give it fifty-fifty. We didn’t realize she had a little pneumonia until we got inside. Once she’s strong enough her other leg may need replacement, too,” she concludes. When Lisa calls from her car that evening I relate what I know about Lexi.
“We’ll have to pray for her,” she says.
“Oh, I’m praying,” I say. “I’m definitely praying.”


I find myself waiting around the stables of a ranch in semi-arid Guanacaste, Costa Rica while my wife and daughter take a two-hour horseback tour. The ranch is located just beyond the village of Porte Golpe, which is between Belen and Flamingo. If that clarification does not entirely enlighten the reader, geographically speaking, I apologize. But I’m not really sure where we are, either.
My most recent equestrian experience was on a pony at a birthday party during the Kennedy administration. Until Google invents one that drives automatically, I am not riding. As to today’s tour, I insisted to the girls that I’d be content to sit it out, as they say, and neither objected with enthusiasm.
I’m under a wooden picnic-pavilion sort of structure with the owner’s black pit bull sitting beside me. He is fearsome in appearance, basically a seventy-pound muscle. He sniffs at my hand and allows me to rub his forehead, his soft brown eyes appearing thankful for the attention. I’d always approached pit bulls with caution, aware of their popularity with drug dealers and the like. This dog, however, has absorbed the Costa Rican vacation vibe. He appears as relaxed as a yogi at a Yanni concert.
A continuous breeze keeps us relatively cool in the tropical heat while I look around at white, stucco-sided buildings that contain miscellaneous horse and cow-related equipment. I imagine John Wayne walking through the door, jodhpurs and holster jangling, and I feel transported in time. From here, my canine companion and I observe the ranch’s wranglers as they manipulate and jostle the cows, among several pens, perhaps with the purpose of grooming them or washing them or exercising them. I hope some good comes of it, given how many hits and slaps and kicks the men are delivering.
Why do the men appear so mean, their aggression jarring in the midst of an otherwise lovely tableau of nature? Are they bored with their jobs and prospects? Do they think the owner values the livestock more than them? Can they support their families on the menial pay they receive? All of these are possible explanations, but are they excuses? Offering the benefit of the doubt, I wonder if brute force is the only way to manage the animals.
The cattle appear stunningly powerful up-close, yet they display no aggression, even when their necks are jerked with ropes and their haunches slapped with twitches. Ah, yes, two men have wrestled one of the biggest cows under a hose across the dirt parking area from me, perhaps fifty feet away, where they tie her to a fence-post and deliver a less-than luxurious sponge bath. I think there are only cows here, not bulls, but I still wonder if it was shortsighted to have worn a bright red tee shirt. When they finish, one of the men caresses the cow gently on its side and speaks to it softly. People are so confusing.
My picnic table has some bugs walking around which are unfamiliar to me, but they appear harmless enough, without bright colors or threatening shapes. I wish I’d sprayed some of that bug repellant. I scoff at it as a placebo, but I wouldn’t turn it down right now if somebody offered.
Occasionally, the cows moo and the cocks crow. Birds chatter incessantly with a variety of calls, complaints, entreaties, threats, songs, etc. A horse periodically whinnies or snorts to complete the symphony and a troupe of howler monkeys just arrived to colonize a massive tree. Eight or nine jet-black athletes swing into place on individual limbs and look languidly down. Two males attempt to out-do each other with their deeply resonant “oo-oo-oo’s.” How does such a massive sound emanate from such a relatively small animal?
The cow that was being washed appears content now, cooling down, as steam rises from her body. She stares dully, still tethered by a rope to the rough wooden fencing. I wonder what she is thinking, if anything.
The men take refuge from the sun beneath a massive strangler fig tree and lay down to rest. I fear I have displaced them from their usual siesta location. A white and yellow cat saunters over to join the dog and me. She brushes affectionately against the pit-bull, who appears to be napping, though one of his eyes is half-open. She lays down a few feet in front of us; basically, we are three apparently purposeless participants in the animal ballet all around us. A resplendent black and orange rooster emerges from a doorway to strut towards us. Will he complete our varied menagerie under the pavilion? No, he turns back towards his harem of clucking chickens, barely contained in a loosely fenced pen.
The cat regards me unhurriedly, and decides I might be useful. She leaps upon the table. I offer some high-quality scratching behind the ears and she purrs. After several minutes, just as I fear she will never allow me to stop, she sprawls and commences grooming herself. The dog is completely asleep now, occasionally twitching with what might be dreams. The monkeys have subsided, too, settled throughout several trees, spread-eagled across the limbs. I notice a baby clinging adorably to its mother’s back. All seems right in the world.
I hear the clip-clop of the girls returning. Somehow, two hours have passed. Hearing the sound, the pit bull lifts his massive head and sniffs. He regards me for a moment and settles back down to sleep. I am not certain, but I doubt the pit bull will remember me. I’m just a taller- and paler-than-average human who hung out in his domain, and occasionally spoke to him in an unusual language. But I expect I will always remember him, and the couple of hours we shared.


I awoke to a riot of squawking birds outside my vacation condo in Costa Rica. The morning sun was barely peaking above the trees and into my window and I wondered who was making such a racket. Groggily, I climbed out of bed, slid the screen door aside and walked onto the patio. I squinted up at a massive fig tree that was the source of the chatter and beheld a roiling mass of green, blue and yellow. A flock of parrots was working themselves into a frenzy, like a football team psyching up before a game.
Suddenly, as though a starting gun had been fired, one bird leapt from the leaves and the others soared behind; the flock swept to and fro, and continued to squawk and swoop and fill the air with sights and sounds and finally, after one last pass directly above my head, turned towards the ocean and gradually disappeared, their calls becoming fainter until the morning was again overtaken by silence.
I recalled an earlier experience with colorful birds in a setting considerably less exotic. When I was six or seven, in a period after our last family dog died, before we embarked upon a series of family cats, we had a parakeet. My mother bought the green and yellow bird for me in a moment of weakness, I imagine, after my pleading at a local Woolworth’s proved effective. The pet only cost about a dollar; the store made money selling the cage, toys and bird food.
“I’ll teach him to talk,” I said, full of enthusiasm.
We installed the still unnamed bird in a standard wire cage placed upon a broad windowsill in our breakfast room. Each morning, I dutifully stared into the cage and suggested such original statements as “Polly want a cracker?” and “Hello, I am a parrot.” The bird completely ignored me and focused on eating seeds and pecking at a tiny mirror hung in the cage. When I despaired of teaching the bird to talk, I tried to convince it to step onto my out-stretched index finger. But each time I placed my hand into the cage, the parakeet pecked at it as though I were an enemy. It had clearly never heard the expression: “Don’t bite the hand that feeds you.”
“He has a chippy personality,” my mother noted. Thus was the bird named.
“Why won’t Chippy talk?” I asked repeatedly during the ensuing weeks, like the frustrated seven-year-old I was.
“We’ll stop at Woolworth’s,” said my mother. “Maybe the salesman will have some suggestions.”
When we arrived and explained the problem, the clerk was happy to share his knowledge. “Does your parakeet look like those?” he asked, pointing at a cage filled with green and yellow specimens.
“Yes, exactly,” said my mother.
“Those are all females,” he said. “Only the males can learn to talk.”
“I thought Chippy was a boy,” I said. “How can you tell the difference?”
“On a male, the area at the top of the beak is blue,” said the man.
I must have looked crestfallen since my next memory is arriving at home with a large, blue parakeet with a brilliant blue crest above its beak. He was a substantial bird, with a square jaw-line. Decades before the movies made the name synonomous with fearless strength, we named our new parakeet Rocky. How could Chippy fail to be impressed? Rocky was so handsome I was sure we were about to embark on a journey worthy of a television nature show.
“Chippy and Rocky can have babies!” I said. “And I’ll teach him to talk, for sure!”
Each morning, when I came down for breakfast, I looked for signs of affection between Chippy and Rocky, and each day I became more discouraged. Not only did Chippy show no romantic interest in Rocky, she was as mean to him as she was to me. Whenever he moved close, she pecked at him. Sometimes, when he was eating from the trough in the corner of the cage, she swooped from her perch and attacked him. Rocky cowered defenselessly in the corner, a blue feather occasionally detaching from his plumage and drifting down to the floor of the cage, like a paper airplane making its last, futile landing.
Rocky also failed to learn to speak, in spite of our high-tech efforts. Not only did I tutor him, but my mother bought a record of bird expressions and played it for him on a small turntable. “Pretty bird, pretty bird,” repeated a solemn male voice somehow deemed scientifically effective in the world of parakeet learning.
After several months of this routine, it became apparent that Rocky was not going to learn to speak. And his romantic prospects with Chippy appeared even worse.
“We will have to get him his own cage,” said my mother, one day, after observing Chippy attack.
“Yes,” I agreed, deciding finally that I would just have to appreciate Rocky for his beauty and placid personality. It appeared he was only large and handsome, not brilliant or virile.
When we brought home the second cage, I was determined to affect Rocky’s transfer. Following the suggestion of the man at Woolworth’s, I wrapped my hand in a soft cloth and entered it into the enclosure. Chippy attacked with characteristic ferocity.
“Haha,” I said. “I can’t even feel you through this towel, you stinker.” For a moment, I wondered why we had a pet so unloving, so unsatisfying. But then I re-focused on my mission, to gently capture the more sympathetic Rocky, for his own good. I was able to gather him and bring him out the door without much difficulty. I recall being shocked at how weightless he was, even while he appeared so relatively large. I was scared to squeeze too hard and, due to my extreme delicacy, he escaped my hand with a surprising flutter of the wings.
“Oh, no!” I shouted, alarmed. “Rocky!”
My mother, who had been watching, also looked upset. At first, Rocky fell towards the floor, but then he gathered his balance and soared towards the ceiling. He landed on a curtain rod. He appeared to survey the room calmly, then swept into the air as though he were a hawk soaring in the high heavens. Back and forth across the room he flew.
“Look at him go!” I said, in wonderment.
“He’s incredible,” said my mother, also surprised.

I was so proud I couldn’t stop grinning. My bird appeared to be an expert flyer. I’d never felt such satisfaction, such exhilaration, from watching a pet.
“This is great,” I said, glancing at Chippy in her cage, hoping she was impressed, and jealous, too.
“We have to capture him,” said my mother.
“Just a few more minutes,” I said, thrilled with the show.
Rocky landed on a windowsill. It was probably my imagination, but I thought he had a happy expression on his face. He deposited a pile of poop there, as though he were the master of the house and then swept back into the air. With a flutter and a whoosh, he picked up speed again and, before we realized what might happen, he smashed full-speed into a wall and fell to the floor with a thud.
“Oh, no,” I said.
“Maybe he’s just stunned,” said my mother.
I approached the unmoving body. My mother touched his head. She stroked his chest. There was no heartbeat, no response. Rocky was dead. We placed Rocky’s beautiful, blue-clad body into a shoebox and surrounded it with a shroud of tissue. Solemnly, we carried Rocky to the garden behind the garage where I dug a shallow hole. I placed Rocky’s casket gently into its grave.
“I guess I should say something,” I said.
“That would be nice,” agreed my mother.
I thought about Rocky’s life for a moment, his slim list of accomplishments, his failures. Finally, I intoned, as adult-sounding as I could:
He failed at fatherhood,
He couldn’t talk at all,
But he sure could fly,
Until he hit that wall.



A green-eyed beauty lay beside me.  She nibbles idly on my ear while I stroke her exposed chest.   Please, dear reader, in pursuit of salacious gossip, do not reach the wrong conclusion.  My marriage is secure.   Due to their anatomy, I suppose, ears are particularly important to cocker spaniels.

Nearly a decade after swearing off dogs for life, a cascade of circumstances has brought a new puppy into our household.  As recently as a month ago, we marveled at our dog-obsessed neighbors and friends and expressed relief at not being similarly tied down.  Dog ownership, we felt, is a self-imposed troika of emotional, economic and physical obligation.  A dog offers companionship, we acknowledged, and the illusion that a dog’s super-human displays of loyalty and affection are somehow meaningful.  In reality, we felt, those prized moments of connection and love merely reflect the fact that a dog’s owner is his food source, his life-blood.  A dog greets you at the door because he feared you would never come home again, and he would starve without you.

Stella is testing that cynical view.  She was declared an “angel” during her initial nine-hour car-ride.  She whined less than I did about traffic and slept contentedly between sessions of cuddling.  Her first night at home, however, showed how close the dichotomy between angel and devil can be.  Literature is full of such realizations, yet, we rarely experience them so acutely in life.  Stella whined piteously most of the night, a shrill keening completely out of proportion to her tiny six-pound body.

Now that two weeks have passed, a routine is emerging.  We know that she urinates twice, not once, each time she “goes.”  We know that she defecates, like clock-work, fifteen minutes after eating. (I should be so lucky!)  We know that she enjoys occupying laps indefinitely and that shoe laces are great for chewing.

My previous dog experiences have been baleful.  When I was a small child, we had Bagel the beagle, for about six months, before he ate a string and died on the operating table.  Family lore preceding me is littered with unsuccessful dog tales, a litany of the lost and ill, vicious and smelly.  We turned to cats before I was ten and never looked back.  We prized their independence and discrimination.  Our cats offered attention and intimacy only to the immediate family.  We believed them, therefore, to be a higher order of pet.

When my children were younger, a several-years-long campaign resulted in our acquisition of Max, a handsome wheaten terrier.  “All the neighbors have dogs,” truthfully plead the children.  “We’ll walk him and brush him,” they said.  Their intentions may have been pure, but the reality is that we parents did almost all the dog-care.

Max turned out to be overly excitable, scratching the hard-wood floors of our home at the sight of a squirrel or bird outside.  He grew to be forty pounds of pure, empty-headed muscle, pulling on his leash as though separating my shoulder were the desired outcome.  The children professed to love Max, but kept their distance, having seen him lunge, teeth-bared, at the door, when we departed for work and school each morning.

We had Max evaluated by a canine psychiatrist.  I tried to imagine how he communicated with the patient.  Did he ask about dreams or, perhaps, a difficult childhood?  For $225, he suggested several specific commands and techniques to calm Max’s anxieties.   We used them diligently for several weeks but the threatening behavior continued.

“We’re afraid we may have to give him away,” we said to our veterinarian, after describing Max’s tantrums.

“Not with that temper,” she said.  “He’s dangerous, especially with small children.  If that continues, you have to put him down.  You probably should not have him in your house now.”

“What is the chance he will improve?” we asked.

“Not good,” she said.  “It’s up to you, but I’d be very concerned about keeping him around.”

We did not deliberate long before choosing, sadly, to end our relationship with Max.   He had risen to the status of a “factor” in our household but, with his defects, had not attained “member of the family” indispensability.  Thus ended our relationship with dogs — until two weeks ago.

So, what sort of conversations do I have with Stella?  I do most of the talking, such as:

“Is it so difficult to determine where the peanut butter ends and my finger begins?”

“Must every leaf on the lawn be tasted?”

“How is it possible that you, who are so physically small, can upset the entire routine and living space of our household?”

Her response is to cock her head and raise one of her conspicuously visible eye-brows.  They are an amazing feature – bushy caramel-colored brush strokes on a cocoa-brown canvas.

“What?” she seems to ask.  “Am I not adorable enough to merit total attention?”

So far, I admit, the answer is “yes.”  Stella is charming, worming her affections into the skeptical soil of our souls.   She is excited to meet everyone in the neighborhood, but I’m sure I detect a special twinkle in her eye when she sees me.  Oh, yes, she is definitely discriminating.  Meanwhile, it’s time to walk her for the fifth time today in the hopes that she will finally be exhausted, and sleep through some reasonable portion of the night.