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Category Archives: Pets & Animals

Animal Love and Genre Stereotypes

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It’s been a hard week. One of my cats nearly died. I won’t go into the details, but I will admit that it’s involved trips to three different vets, a lot of poop, and a lot of suffering. I had come to grips with the fact that this morning I would likely need to ask for her euthanasia. But, no, after four and a half days of dire illness, she has rallied. No little kitty will last forever, and her days are numbered, but maybe she will enjoy a little while longer.

When I try to think about writing about my pets and why I love them, I encounter whole layers of prohibition, disrespect, sentimentality, and boredom. Yet they are important enough to me that I feel compelled to include them in my literary world, or at least my communicative world. What I write about them may never achieve anything near the level of art, but I think somehow there must be ways of thinking about them that go beyond “Awww, how cute.”

Perhaps, in fact, my desire to write about animals is something akin to certain others’ devotion to genre fiction. My husband sent me this morning a short example of the frequent flailing of professors of creative writing for discouraging students from writing genre fiction—in this case science fiction. It uses a long quote by Michael Chabon expressing some outrage about how he’d been “limited” by this lack of acceptance of his favored genre in his youth.

This dissing of professors this way is a tired hobbyhorse. Genre fiction was far more disrespected before creative writing was commonly taught in universities, and creative writing professors certainly didn’t create the “limitations” Michael Chabon speaks of. That responsibility would have to lie at the feet of literature professors and literary reviewers and critics, though creative writing professors no doubt have partaken in it in their attempt to get a toehold in the academic world over the past fifty years.

However, it is also undeniably true that much genre writing—and much writing about animals—is pretty uninteresting and awful stuff.

The writing professors that I know (in composition and as well as creative writing) place “limitations” on students in order to try to avoid reading the worst of this kind of thing and to encourage students to shift away from the stereotypical thinking many of them are most familiar with. Most of us have tried a variety of strategies—and it is true that some forbid any genre element (monsters, vampires, magic of any kind, futuristic settings, etc.). Some use prohibitions about “realistic” topics as well—I once knew a composition instructor who forbade all broke-up-with-boyfriend or -girlfriend stories. Another banished all first-love stories for similar reasons. Some try less blanket warnings, like “I suggest you not use a gun in your story unless you are actually familiar with guns and know how they work.” I even knew one teacher who disallowed any student from writing about pets.

Mind you, these are from teachers who may admire Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Who may know that Paul Auster wrote Timbuktu very successfully from the point of view of a dog. Who may even think that the Harry Potter books are good. Even those professors who disallow genre elements entirely in their workshops are not unaware of exceptions in the general low quality of certain genre-like or realist-sentimental subjects.

But there’s another, little understood issue, and that is that we try to sort in order to focus our instruction somewhat. This starts, of course, with the more basic use of the word “genre” to distinguish between fiction, poetry, drama, and creative nonfiction (which also is distinguished from journalism). Slicing further, fiction becomes “literary” and “genre,” and then genre is divided further into particular genres like sci-fi, mystery, chick lit, and so on. Those genres are broken down even further: this website, for example, lists ten primary sub-genres of sci-fi.

These designations are seemingly designed to be descriptive, not necessarily evaluative, but, because people develop favorites and antipathies, they become evaluative, too. And, I would argue, also because there are certain goals that differ between those writing for “entertainment” purposes and those who at least aspire to loftier ideals. Whether the latter ever achieve them or not is uncertain, just as entertainment purposes or other ideological pursuits in writing don’t necessarily preclude profundity.

In other words, most creative writing professors that I know combine their aversion to the worst possibilities of genre fiction in their classes with an aversion to trying to teach everything in one course rather than any blanket condemnation of genre. How many different sub-genres must we be asked to examine in one semester? How many different conventions and their upending must students be asked to critique in each others’ manuscripts all mixed in together? At my university we actually offer a course on science-fiction writing, separate from the other fiction workshops that focus on literary realist fiction. No one who teaches fiction here disses genre—a couple of them even write and promote it. This may be a new development, distinct from the experience of someone like Michael Chabon from a tonier universe. We live in an era when literary realism is getting harder and harder to publish (at least in book form) and in which there’s an emphasis on the acceptability (even, perhaps, desirability) of hybrids and mash-ups. Genre elements creep in all over the place, and an array of examples are emerging of how to use them without being dominated by clichés and formulas. (One name for this is post-modernism, I suppose.)

Nowhere, though, does anyone talk about the less macho, might I say the less sexy issue of how to approach more domestic subjects without sentimentality. Science-fiction, fantasy, and horror have made inroads in academic creative writing circles. But the fiction world has cast the romance into the world of memoir and has dissed it one genre-definition level up: there are many fiction writers and critics who now claim that memoir (or even all of nonfiction) is inherently inferior as an entire genre to any and all fiction. In literary circles, in other words, it’s now more common for memoir to be dissed as unworthy than it is for sci-fi and fantasy to be.

Which reconnects to my own desire to occasionally write about my pets or about other animals and issues regarding them. A few years ago, I wrote an essay about an elderly neighbor of mine who was feeding strays and my efforts to help him and find real homes for these cats. (One of them became a permanent resident in my home, and I placed six others in good homes and got the one feral one spayed before she escaped capture and disappeared.) It was a great compliment to me when one of my writer-friends, who at that time was not an animal lover (though she has since become one) said to me that I had “managed to make the inner lives of cats interesting,” something, she said, she had not thought possible. Yet I still have not managed to publish this essay. I believe it’s a good essay, and I believe it’s a shame that “cats” are off-limits in most of the literary world.

Still, I have to acknowledge that this is not without reason—people react to the plethora of sentimental schlock about pets, and I can’t blame them even though I’m trying to do something different and even though I believe editors (and professors) might be able to take a little more responsibility for distinguishing value rather than dismissing entire subjects in their entirety. In fact, for a number of years, I have refused to place proscriptions on what subjects my students write about; on the rare occasion when I teach fiction, I suggest very heartily that if they would like to write something with genre elements, they need to make sure they do it in a non-formulaic way and that they toe to literary standards of character development. Few of them try it, but on at least a couple of occasions students have produced great stuff. So, I’m personally not into the proscriptions even though I find about 90% of the well-published sci-fi and crime/mystery stuff I’ve ever read to fall into the dreck category. Still, I believe it would be silly of me to attack lit mag editors for their antipathy toward cat stories.

Similarly, I believe that the genre-fiction aficionados lashing out at the literary realist world are wrong-headed. What they might more usefully do is examine what’s closer to home and begin to make real and substantial distinctions about what has merit within the realms of their specific genres.

In the usual sense of the word, of course, genre fiction refers to the kind of simplistic, poorly written, stereotypical character–filled, predictably plotted kind of stuff that creative writing professors disparage. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t terrific fiction that shares certain features of science fiction, fantasy, horror, romance, action, crime, or mystery. The many torrid memoirs don’t mean that there don’t also exist memoirs of the finest order. Whether we speak of any of this work as solidly ensconced in its specific genre or of it “transcending” its genre status doesn’t really matter to me. What matters is that we understand and make distinctions about what is art and what is on the borderland or what falls completely into the category we might call dreck.

Some people are capable of this. Jonathan Lethem, for instance. I just read his essay “You Don’t Know Dick,” in which he examines both the variable career of Philip K. Dick and his own youthful obsession with it. He notes more than once the “disastrous unevenness of his [Dick’s] prose.” Now, this is an intelligent examination of how a writer can fascinate us while we also see his flaws. I wish the same strategy could be applied more commonly to genres as a whole instead of the simplistic valorization of underappreciated genres or the alternate demonization of them.

There will always be contention in terms of the issue of quality in areas where it’s hard to pin down. Math is “easy” in this regard: either you get the right answer or you don’t. Engineering in this regard is “easy”: either the building or bridge stands up or it doesn’t. In both of those arenas, it may be difficult to master the correct answer, but you at least can identify it.

In many walks of life, however, there is no hard and fast answer. A book, for instance, may be good in a million different ways or bad in a million different ways. It can even be good in some ways and bad in others, or good and bad at the same time to different people in different circumstances. For instance, when I criticized Kris Carr and her Crazy, Sexy Cancer empire, one of my former students noted that she could see what I meant, but that Carr had been important to her in dealing with a chronic illness because it gave her a sense that she could still enjoy much of her life. I think Kris Carr is a hideous fake and her writing is awful, but I can’t and won’t try to deny that someone might find her bromides useful at times. In fact, she probably doesn’t even consider what she does “art,” and so is perhaps not the best example. But think of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, think of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, think of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, think Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. All of these books have formed important cultural commentaries on their times, and all have inspired numerous readers to think in new ways. That doesn’t mean they are all well written or even particularly intelligent.

Well, I’ve already gone on way too long about this today. I’ll just have to revisit it later. This post will be a true rough, rough draft. There’s a place in the world for that, just as there is for laser guns and green slime creatures and murders on the orient express. Just as there is for the basic, accepting love between human and animal. Now I am off to retrieve my cat from the vet so that she may scratch out another day if not my eyes. She is not a particularly sweet cat.

Ironically, when I adopted her, her shelter name was Candy. The only remnant of that is in the sound of her name, Cameo, and in the fact that we sometimes call her Candycane Tail because she is so uptight that she never uncurls her tail. Except, I should say, when she’s very, very sick. A limp tail is a terrible thing.

P.S. I really loved this discussion of “The Top 40 Bad Books” (It’s a PDF, so works only if you search the title or paste the URL into your browser: http://americanbookreview.org/PDF/Top40BadBooks.pdf). What variety! What disagreement! It takes a village to ferret out insights about what’s good and bad.

Dissecting Dissection

Students at a school in Texas played a "prank" with a cat from dissection lab. Photo from PETA website: http://www.peta.org/b/thepetafiles/archive/tags/TeachKind-org/default.aspx.

There’s a lot going on in my life this week, but even with my own personal dramas unfolding, both happy and sad, the thing that has moved me most is a conversation I had with a friend last Sunday. Her teenage daughter, she told me, was being compelled in her high school biology class to dissect a cat.

For a sweet young girl with two pet cats of her own at home, even the announcement of this practice had proved traumatic, but she had asked her parents not to intervene, as she also felt the pressure, like most teenagers, not to be different, not to make a scene. She had been careening through emotional conflicts ever since the teacher had announced the upcoming procedure in no uncertain terms.

As soon as the words came out of my friend’s mouth, I recoiled. I couldn’t imagine myself as a teenager having been required to do such a thing. The frog and the sheep heart had been bad enough, and suddenly long-forgotten sensations of evil in the biology classroom and lab came over me—the rank smell of formaldehyde, the freezing cold temperatures preferred by my hugely obese biology teacher, the glittering edges of the scalpels, the shockingly bright yellow strands of fat in the frog’s belly, the vaguely sexual implications in the way that the teacher had made us run our fingers into the slimy aortas of our sheep hearts while he leered at our trembling hands and bitten lips.

It isn’t that I don’t understand the need for dissections to be performed. I believe that it’s important for all young people to acquire a basic knowledge of anatomy, and I believe in the value of the higher study of biology. I even went on in college to take not only Bio 10, but also Field Biology, and in one we dissected chicken embryos and in the other we collected specimens, including insects we killed and birds and other creatures we might find dead. These classes also provided much discussion revolving around respect for the life forms with which we dealt, a wider context, if you will, than simply learning anatomy.

I also have a good friend, a former field biologist for the Fish & Wildlife Service who now teaches middle-school biology. He is far braver than I in the face of animal death, and in his many long bicycle rides, he comes across many injured animals that he puts out of their misery by breaking their necks. After he and his wife and I had observed a rabbit hit by a car one evening when we were out walking, I watched him go into the shrubs to perform this act of kindness. It is indeed only his knowledge of anatomy and his toughness in the face of death that allows him to do it, though it hurts him every time.

But for a school or a teacher to require high school students to dissect animals frequently kept in the home as pets, without doing mental health checks of these students or preparing them emotionally for such an event seems to me sadistic at the least. I told my friend so, and she encouraged her daughter to ask for an alternative assignment. Her request was granted, and she is now being allowed to do a “virtual” dissection in a separate room.

In the meantime, I found out that the Humane Society “opposes the practices of animal dissection in pre-college classrooms for numerous reasons.” Not surprisingly, most animal welfare organizations also speak out against it–PETA, the Animal Liberation Front, the Animal Welfare Institute, and In Defense of Animals. All of these organizations support the use of computerized imaging software or plastic models (both of which are long-lasting, re-usable, and ultimately cheaper) to teach anatomy to any but those involved in veterinary and other fields of learning where hands-on experience is required.

In fact, the Humane Society cites several studies that demonstrate higher levels of student learning of anatomy with computer simulations, and other studies note that the practice of dissection in high school discourages students from further study in biology because, obviously, they are not prepared to deal well with it emotionally. It is simply inappropriate and does not meet any feasible educational goals. Even the National Science Teachers Association now recommends non-dissection practices.

I also found out that Florida is one of ten states that has a law that requires that students be offered an alternative assignment without penalty (Florida passed the law in 1985). Of course, my friend’s daughter’s teacher did not exactly offer it. Instead, this young woman had to buck convention and go to the high school counselor to ask if such a thing would be possible.

To me, this indicates a real problem with this particular teacher and maybe with the school. It seems to me the teacher broke the law. But even more disturbing is that, in spite of numerous protests over the years, cat dissection is still used in numerous public school systems, including that of Miami, where my friend and her family live. Why this practice continues in any high school anywhere, I have no idea.

The issue of high school cat dissections was raised a couple of years ago in a case in which a Miami teenager was arrested and charged with a spree of cat kidnappings, killings, and dissection-like manglings. Recently, the case against this teenager, Tyler Weinman, was dismissed, and he and his father are countersuing for malicious prosecution. They claim that a pair of wild dogs killed the 33 cats that were found in the two neighborhoods that Tyler lived in with each of his divorced parents. The case had been entirely circumstantial, and the Weinmans found a forensic expert who would testify that the cats were killed by bite wounds, not the cutting instruments that Tyler supposedly had in his possession.

Whether Weinman committed any crimes in this situation or not, two things are salient. First, he behaved very strangely with the police by eagerly describing the tearing sound made when a cat’s skin was removed during his high school dissection (also reported by CBS and NBC). Secondly, it was not difficult to believe that a teenager who was having emotional difficulties with his parents’ recent divorce would commit such crimes. It was proper for the charges against Tyler Weinman to be dropped if the case could not be proven, but that does not mean that it’s not a problem for high schools to be teaching dissection of cats. In fact, the connection was so intuitive that the case immediately set off a debate about the use of cat dissections in Miami high schools.

I’m not saying that all students taught this way will go out and slaughter family pets. But it is clear at the very least that the lesson in school gave this student knowledge that he could have used to torture animals in his neighborhood. And, although the study of sociopaths is difficult and ambiguous, there is some evidence for the Graduation Hypothesis, the idea that one (of numerous) signs of a potential serial killer (of humans) is the youthful torture or abuse of animals. Why should our schools provide any potentially disturbed young men such tools?

Some educators continue to insist, however, that such instruction is beneficial. This article about the Tyler Weinmen-dissection issue quotes Milagros Fornell, associate superintendent for curriculum and instruction for Miami-Dade schools, as saying that “I don’t think you want to take your animal to a veterinarian that doesn’t know what the inside of an [actual] animal looks like.” No, I don’t. But I can’t emphasize how utterly and totally inappropriate, even stupid, I think Fornell’s response is. High school is a far cry from veterinary school. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 3,011,040 students were expected to graduate from high school in 2009, and according to the American Veterinary Medical Association, only about 2600 graduate from veterinary school every year. Those who enroll in veterinary school have been sifted by admission requirements and by their own dedication and desire to help animals, not hurt them. Even though far more graduate from medical school (16,838 in 2010), these veterinary and medical students are not equivalent as a group to all high school students.

It is also true, as one university educator noted in that last article about Tyler Weinman, that millions of cats are euthanized by shelters every year. If a cat is going to be euthanized anyway, what is the harm of using its body to teach? None. However, this line of procurement is not at all clear, and the cats and other animals used in dissection labs are obtained in a variety of other detrimental ways. At least one study cited by the Animal Liberation Front of cats obtained there noted that some procurement companies in Mexico paid for employees to go out and steal pets for $1 each. Procurement methods are often brutal and/or environmentally harmful, as noted by Dying to Learn.

For me, the justifications given by these educators are downright dodgy. If the reasons they give for continuing this practice are so clearly false, then what are the real reasons? Sheer stubbornness? Habit (it’s always been done this way)? Some questionable relationship with purveyors of dead cats, rats, frogs, and other creatures? Or just a complete avoidance of really thinking about it at all?

Most of the justifications given are based on the premise that those who oppose dissection in high schools oppose all dissections under any circumstances. And some no doubt do.

But most, including many animal welfare agencies, argue very specifically that dissection has its place. It’s only appropriate, however, a) if the students are given the proper emotional screening so that we don’t help produce any more Jeffrey Dahmers, b) if even the emotionally healthy students are of a maturity where they can handle it, c) if the lesson taught goes beyond anatomy to discuss the method of procurement to make it clear that no animals were killed expressly for the purpose of dissection, and d) if a discussion is begun about the ethical use of animals and the related problem of pet-animal overpopulation in the U.S.

And for me this last point is key to why this issue makes me think about the issue of authenticity.

In the U.S., we have a widespread schizophrenia–or at least a serious cognitive dissonance–about domestic animals. More than 62%, or more than 3 in 5, of households have at least one pet. We consider ourselves a nation of animal lovers, and the relationship between pet and person is often profound. Marketers know that “pets sleep in bed” and “get gifts.” They are often considered beloved members of their family.

Yet, according to the ASPCA, 3 out of every 10 dogs and 7 out of every 10 cats that enters a shelter is euthanized due to lack of a home. That is 3 to 4 million a year. This doesn’t even count the ones that eke out a meager existence or die from illness or injury after being abandoned or abused.

In my humble opinion, it would be of far more use for high school biology classes to take or send students to animal welfare organizations to observe, or to invite veterinarians into the classroom, and to get students talking about humane treatment of pets and other animals. I believe that your average high school student would learn far more about the sanctity of life and far more of use to our society by some participation in humane education than they do in an anatomy lab. A high school biology class could even be devoted to discussion of spay and neuter efforts and could thereby help lower the number of those cats that are euthanized every year. And, yes, I realize that some students would giggle, but such programs already exist for even younger students.

I urge everyone to find out what the practice is in their local area, and educate the educators about alternatives to animal dissections in high schools. Support strong local and state laws against animal cruelty. And instead of buying your fat and happy dog or cat one more bag of treats, make a donation to or volunteer at one of the many animal welfare agencies, national or local. If you’re an animal lover, any of these will be an act of great authenticity.

Louise Nevelson on a Messed-Up Day

A small section of Dawn's Wedding Feast from http://arttattler.com/archivenevelson.html.

This has been a colossally strange day. Worst, Jupiter’s cancer is probably back, much sooner than we’d hoped, but we won’t even know today because the real diagnostics have to wait til a biopsy on Wednesday. Keeping fingers crossed that it will be rogue scar tissue, though it’s likely a swelling new tumor.

I couldn’t even drive Jupiter to the appointment as planned because I myself suddenly was having dizzy spells and staggering around after getting up on a step-ladder to get into a box in the closet early today. It was a mess indeed, as my car was in the shop and I had driven Bruce to campus and left him without a car. He couldn’t get home, and I couldn’t go get him, and we had this appointment for the cat, and I was trying to negotiate with the guy who has been redoing our rotten gutters.

In the meantime, my blood sugar went down to 45 mg/dl, which contributed to my panic and confusion. Was I having a stroke for real this time? What did it mean that even my right hand didn’t seem to type right? Might I pass out? Should I call 911? My right side seemed uncoordinated and loose.

Finally, after Bruce borrowed a car and came home to check on me and take the cat in, and after my blood sugar normalized, I realized that I was feeling in some ways very good. I didn’t want to drive to the vet’s but I could go, too, and on the way I realized that my body was somehow just adjusting to some kind of nerve or ligament or muscle release that had occurred in my shoulder when I stretched so awkwardly in the closet. After about four years (four long years!), some tightness in my frozen shoulder had finally let go a bit, and suddenly my nerves were learning to control my movements again. My dizziness abated, and I suddenly felt my arm more than I have in a long time.

Earlier in the day I was planning to post my usual sad, maybe sentimental song as I usually do on Mondays. But by now, I feel instead the call of the intensely cool, the emotional in deep reserve, the less obvious feeling, and so I’m posting a picture of a Louise Nevelson sculpture, whose work Dawn’s Wedding Feast I first saw at the Whitney in 1980 and which was recently recreated at the Jewish Museum.

Louise Nevelson is another one of those artists for whose work you just have to be there in person. The small pieces make up much larger rooms, and the work’s power is stark, its emotion apparent only in accumulation, the subtleties of its colors and shades are much more moving when you stand among the pieces as large as you yet made up of pieces as small and unique as every moment of your individual, irreplaceable, inexplicable daily life.

I just feel like that today: there’s no way to convey it. I was here. It was an odd, odd day in a thousand little details. That’s all. You know what I mean.

Animal Cops

I watch Animal Cops. It’s an embarrassing thing to admit, and I’m used to the frowns of consternation. “Why?” my friends ask, even my husband. “Why would you watch that?” I ask my husband the same thing about Futurama, but he argues that it’s not just a matter of taste. “Animal Cops is painful and torturous,” he says. “Why do you do that to yourself?”

It is true that at least one animal per show dies or is euthanized for behavioral problems. It’s an interesting choice that the show’s producer makes to include these cases. You might think that they would include only the situations where there’s a happy ending. Knowing what I know about animal rescue, however, I surmise that there’s an insistence on the part of show participants that some level of realism be maintained. Yes, many of the animals are shown at show’s end in loving, new “forever” homes. Yes, these often produce smiles and giggles we might deem sentimental.

Yet I don’t think these shows are sentimental. They look too closely at depravity to be sentimental. I love the hard faces of the animal cops, whether they be in Houston, Detroit, New York, Philadelphia, Phoenix, San Francisco, or Miami. They are tough, and these are reality shows where reality is not entirely sidelined, though, of course, the various cops featured are carefully selected for their personalities. My belief in their heroism is engineered, no doubt, and I’m sure they all have flaws and petty squabbles that aren’t shown on TV.

Still, the camera follows their eyes as they examine pit bulls ripped to shreds by dog-fighting, or fifty or more cats living in inch-deep feces in a tiny house, or a horse walking on the top of its swollen and infected hoof. On one call I remember, a dog had been reported injured, with a broken leg, but the truth was it couldn’t stand because it had been weakened by months of starvation. In Miami, there was a case of a young man slaughtering pet cats and bringing their sliced-up bodies back to their owners’ yards for display. Frequently there are cases of dogs that are brought back to health only to fail behavioral tests and be euthanized. One of the behavioral experts tears up every time she has to condemn a dog to death. She knows, as I know, that most of these dogs got that way through abuse and could even yet be saved if there were time and resources to devote to it. But our attitude toward pets in the U.S. is schizoid—we treat our own like family but condemn thousands to die every year for lack of resources.

I face these pictures every now and then on TV, but the animal cops face these scenarios every day. Their weariness is often visible in the faces. Charles Jantzen, a chief cruelty investigator in Houston, often wears, along with his cowboy hat, the pointed, drawn expression of a haunted man as he toils in the Texas heat to round up dogs, cats, horses, chickens, even emus. Lisa Yambrick is sometimes brought to tears by the limits of the law in Miami, which doesn’t allow her to take every animal in need. In Detroit, Debby MacDonald has a head shake like no other; she explains repeatedly to the camera and to ignorant pet owners what needs to be done in no uncertain terms. Mike Dowe, also a Detroit investigator, has one of the softest voices I’ve ever heard. He seems continually amazed at what he sees and works gently with each animal he encounters. What a beautiful sensitivity this man has in the face of all this disgusting cruelty.

I also remember the time when I did volunteer animal rescue work myself (for two organizations, Centre County Paws and A New Beginning). I remember the kitten that a woman brought in right after she had stopped to pick it up off the highway after watching a man throw it out of a car window while the car drove 45 mph down the road. It was skinned all over and had a broken leg, but lived and thrived. I remember the dog that a woman dropped off one day, saying that her husband would kill it if she brought it back home again; he killed it less directly, for the dog was so afraid of and violent toward men that we had to have it put down, something my organization was seldom called on to do. I also remember the dozens of references I checked to make sure our pets were going to sound homes.

I have come to the conclusion that it is probably the most useful and meaningful work I’ve ever done in my life. I intend to get back to it when circumstances allow. But I would never have the strength to do it every day or to handle these worst-case scenarios all the time. So perhaps I watch these shows because I admire something in these cops that I don’t have. I share with them a devotion to animals, but not the brutal strength they have. I have art, which is not nothing, not by any means, but in these days when I question my future, I wonder about the relative merits of choices I could have made. A life saved is a life saved, after all.

Animal Cops is not art, of course. The shows harp on the same simple messages over and over again: these organizations depend heavily on donations, so please give; if you acquire animals, you must take care of them responsibly; and people who don’t take care of their animals are criminals. The shows do, however, have one thing in common with literature: they demonstrate the vast array of evil and just plain old messed-up-ness in the human race. The dramas that play out in the court scenes, where people often protest the seizure of starving or injured animals left unfed and untreated, is instructive if not literary. They often feel that they have done nothing wrong, and they often have befallen terrible times themselves. Sometimes it feels odd that someone can step in to help the animals, but not the degraded people in their ignorance, poverty, and callousness. That, I suppose, is what social services and art are for. We can only wish that they would work better and also receive the resources to do their work. Our country is schizoid not only about the animals, but the humans, divided so between fortunate and un-.

Maya

Pin the tail on the kitty.


One of the themes of this week, to my gratification, has been crying. It started the first night I arrived, when a woman in the lounge was talking about crying at a John Prine concert. And one of the great exercises that Richard McCann suggested for us was to write about something difficult to look at. Here’s one of my results. (I’m posting early this week, since I’ll be traveling all day tomorrow.)

Maya

Her body lay on the metal table in the veterinarian’s office, still. It was in some ways just the same body it had been two hours earlier when she had been alive, expected to keep living. No rot or smell had set in. They had laid her on her left side to hide the wound on her face where they had cut out the growth, where the incision would now never heal.

I stroked her white fur, took a last look at the unusual markings that made her a caliby van—a calico tabby with color on only her head and tail. “Pin the tail on the kitty,” one of my old boyfriends had said every time he saw her. Her fur was still soft and clean. It still came out in wisps and stuck to my shirt as I ran my hands down her dead body.

I had been present at the euthanasia of three of my cats, and I prided myself on being there with them til the end. I couldn’t understand people who dropped them off and left before the deed was done. With Cassie I had waited too long—until she fell down the basement steps trying to get to the litter box. With Stella I had done it too soon because I was headed out of town and couldn’t leave the task in the hands of someone else. With Zelka I thought I had gotten it just right—while she was still beautiful but unable to eat, her throat blocked by metastases.

Maya’s decline had been different. Just ten days before she died, I’d come home from the hospital and curled up in bed with her. She let me know that my absence had been worse for her than it had been for me. She meowed and meowed. She poked her wrinkled nose into my side and raised her back leg for a belly rub. She chewed at the bare spot on her forearm.

Months earlier, Maya scrambled under the bed or behind the bookcase every morning when it was time for her insulin injection. She was the second cat I’d had to develop diabetes, and my veterinarians were the only people ever to be delighted that I, too, have the disease. They didn’t have to tell me what the implications were of refusing to treat it, and I had the tools on hand. I knew how to give shots. The first cat had been easy, but Maya screamed as though I might kill her. She ran, her claws scrambling across the tiles, like a cartoon cat. Every single time. Her care became an ordeal. But I would not put her down, one diabetic asserting that another was too much trouble.

Instead, she came out of the diabetes, as cats often do. I found her on the floor of the living room, limp with insulin overdose. She tried to meow, but only a squeak came out. She could barely blink her eyes. I grabbed the honey bear from the kitchen and tried to spread some on her tongue, but she gagged. Ground-up glucose tablet diluted with water and shot down her throat via syringe worked better. It occurred to me that something else was wrong—maybe a stroke—but I kept hoping it was the obvious. I lifted her up to my lap on the sofa and waited. Her body draped over my legs, a dead weight, but then her tail twitched. She came back to life, as I have myself after so many low blood sugars.

That would not happen for Maya again. She died alone in a cage in the vet’s back room after a minor surgery to remove what I feared a tumor but was probably merely a cyst. I had not been with her. The vet explained she’d probably had an embolism. “I feel,” I said, standing beside her body, “like I killed her for nothing.”

Fourths of July

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The Fourth of July has never been one of my favorite holidays. I’ve always tried to enjoy it, but the flag-waving crowds and noise were never fun for me. I saw the fireworks on the Washington mall once, but the fellow behind us kept shooting bottle rockets into my back. Fortunately, they were duds, but it still scared me, and the adrenalin got me in a yelling match with him. I’ve watched the fireworks over the Atlantic Ocean from Virginia Beach, too, but the debris that polluted the water just depressed me. And once, in State College, Pennsylvania, I went with friends out to a field where we hoped the distance would give us a good view without the deafening noise. Instead, an oppressive cloud system held the smoke in and all we saw were a few glimmers through a thick, billowing, brown haze. We coughed and went home. None of it ever seemed worth the trouble.

Mainly, though, I always felt protective of my pets, who were always scared by the noise. And the only Fourth of July that I ever spent in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, I had cause to worry about more than my own pets. As I sat on the front steps of my house, alone and anticipating my upcoming move from the town I’d so briefly adopted, with my five cats all hiding under beds and sofas inside, I listened as the noisemakers rose into the sky and watched as the colorful starbursts formed over the West Branch of the Susquehanna River across from my house. I did my best to enjoy the sight if not the sound. But then I saw it: a fat, scruffy basset hound lumbering terrified down the street—the middle of the street.

The dog did not move smoothly—it lurched and staggered—but it was moving fast. Every time another crackling bang echoed across the river, it would flail its head back and forth, its long ears flapping like birds in glue traps. I stood up and went to intercept it. Although the streets had emptied for the fireworks, as soon as they were over, people would be speeding home. I needed to stop the dog.

At first, it veered toward the far side of the road, but I could see as I got closer that the dog was old and was flagging fast. I stooped down and spoke calmly to him. “Come,” I said. “Come here.” He collapsed almost immediately in front of me, and I took hold of his worn leather collar.

It was all I could do to get the dog to get up again. He panted and heaved, and his eyes rolled back in his head. I thought he might die on the spot, but finally, after much soothing and coaxing, I got him to move toward the house. As soon as we got to the bottom of my front steps, I realized he would never be able to go up them—the dozen steep steps were much too much for his stubby legs. I also realized from his white muzzle and cataract-fogged eyes that he was not just old, but very old.

About this time, my neighbor and friend Deb came cruising around the corner. She’d come a block over from her house to get a better look at the fireworks reflecting in the river water, but she ended up helping me carry the dog up to my front porch, where he cowered under the wrought-iron patio couch. Deb was much more connected in the community than I was, and she said that she’d find out whose dog it was. In the meantime, I went in and got a bowl of water and a few dry crackers to feed him. He came out from under the couch and wagged his tail once before slurping down the water.

Deb and I noticed that the dog wasn’t in the greatest of shape. His toenails protruded like talons, and his fur had shed itself all over us as we lifted him up the steps. I began to pull off piles of dead hair from his back. Oily and smelly, it was clumped all over his body. He clearly hadn’t been brushed or bathed in months if not years, so I retrieved a brush and a shedding blade and went to work. Deb went off to see if she could find out where he’d come from.

The dog put his head in my lap and enjoyed his brushing. Though he still shook a bit when the fireworks went off, he stretched and rolled over for a belly rub. I brushed until I had a solid pile of fur as big as a twelve-pound cat. He nudged my knee with his nose every time I slowed down. “You haven’t had much attention lately, have you?” I asked him, and he licked my hand.

After a few minutes, Deb showed up with the dog’s owner in tow. The woman seemed thoroughly irritated, though she expressed relief that we’d gotten the dog off the street. In her haste to come and get him, she hadn’t brought a leash, and Deb suggested we at least give her a bit of rope so the dog wouldn’t get spooked by the traffic, both automotive and pedestrian, now streaming away from the fireworks site. And without further ado, the woman dragged the dog down the grass slope beside the front steps and off down the street. It struggled to keep up with her.

Deb trembled as she told me that she’d found a gate wide open from the alley into a dank, bricked townhouse yard filled with feces. On the front porch of the same house, a party was in progress, and when Deb asked if they were missing a basset hound, she got blank stares. Finally, Deb had been motioned inside and had followed the woman through to the back door. “I guess someone forgot to close the gate,” the woman said. “He’s really scared of the fireworks.”

Deb asked gingerly if the dog shouldn’t have been in the house, since it was a mere two blocks from fireworks central. The woman explained with a shrug that it had been a family pet, but that since the kids were grown it “just stays in the back yard.”

Deb and I sat on my front porch with the enormous pile of smelly fur I’d combed off the dog, watching people strolling home after their pleasant celebratory evening and wishing that we could do something for the old basset hound. “They must never even take it round the block for a walk,” she said, speaking from her knowledge as a frequent dog-walker. “I thought I knew all the dogs in the neighborhood. But I’ve never seen that one.” She swore she would check on it again.

We thought about our own pets that had grown old—decrepit, maybe, but never ignored, never neglected the way this dog was. We thought about the menagerie of feral cats we’d been working on rescuing over the past months. We knew there were animals worse off than this one as well as ones better off. But, still, we thought it a shame that its people would consign its aching, old body to a brick courtyard and no human comfort even in times of fear and peril.

It’s difficult to write about animals without sentimentality. And sentimentality is a bugaboo for positive thinkers and realists alike. It’s something I’ll explore more in this blog at some point. But every Fourth of July, I think of that old basset hound floundering down the street in terror, while oblivious people, even his own people, celebrated whatever it was they celebrated—democracy, supposedly, independence, maybe, freedom, perhaps, or just a day off work and an excuse to get drunk and make dangerous noise while other creatures cowered and fled. This habit seems so American. Sometimes I wish our public celebrations of our nationhood would reflect some other, better American qualities.