The Blessing of the Animals

They bring you solace in hard times. They crave your touch and quicken to your smile, and they make you want to give and give and give. Four writers share how their significant animal others inspire and heal

by Catherine Newman, Lauren Slater, Mira Bartok, Jo Ann Beard
cat lying on couch image
Photograph: Phil Toledano

The Last Baby

By Catherine Newman

In the back seat of the car, the baby is crying. Like most babies, he quiets down a little when we’re moving, then starts up again when we hit a red light. Instead of coming to a full stop, I jerk the car back and forth—accelerator to brake—hoping to jiggle him from his misery, just as I did with the two babies before him.

The fact that this particular baby is feline rather than human is turning out to be a surprisingly minor detail. (You can buy a new china pattern, but hey, it’s still a plate.) I am filled with dotty, nearly heartbreaking devotion and also something like despair. What have we done? I think, just as I did when our son was born 10 years ago, and again when our daughter was born three years later. Life was sailing along so nicely—why did we rock the boat? At night, the kitten sleeps on my chest with his whiskery face pressed into my neck and his needly little claws kneading the tender skin there. If I try to dislodge him, he whimpers pitifully, and I can only imagine how bereft he feels—missing his cat mom and all his furry little brothers and sisters—so I let him stay. He purrs if I cough or sneeze. He purrs if I whisper in his ear or stroke his cheek or scratch under his chin. He purrs and purrs like a tractor engine, and come daylight, I am exhausted. But his paws smell like taco chips, his ears are as big as satellite dishes, and he is ours.

“They sleep most of the time,” everyone had said about the babies—and this was true but also not true. The cumulative hours of awakeness were not long, but they were surreally packed with many lifetimes of nursing and spitting up and pooping and crying. And here we are again: The kitten is like the corny calendar pictures of a kitten—a gentle ball of fur asleep in a basket, on the couch, in a salad bowl, inside a shopping bag. So how he finds time to eat all the plants, poop on the kids’ wizard hat and shred a bag of bagels is a mystery. But there is no turning back. We are exhausted and also sick with love. Plus, he brings out, in the kids, something like the opposite of sibling rivalry: They love him as much as we do, and love each other more for the shared experience of devotion. They lie on the bed to watch him sleep, and every time he stirs, there’s a collective chorus of squealing admiration. “Oh, did you see him yawn?” “He’s breathing so cutely!” “Did you hear that little snore?” It reminds me of the videos we made of our baby son, grunting and inert on his changing table. When he bats once at his mobile, you hear me whisper to my husband, “Oh my God—did you get that on film?”

At night the kitten has what we call the bedtime crazies and tears around the house like a maniac, careening into chair legs, his claws scrabbling against the hardwood. He cries over his shots at the vet, and I say consolingly, as I have said so many times to my kids, “Poor, poor baby.” He falls down the stairs and chokes on his food and falls asleep while he’s playing, a felt mouse still clasped in his small, fierce jaws. He tumbles into the empty bathtub, pees on the carpet and chews an elaborate pattern of teeth marks into my leather belt. And how I feel is healed.

I have two children and too many blessings to count, and yet I have longed for one last cottony little baby to hold. I didn’t always; two had seemed like plenty. But then there was an unplanned pregnancy that ended almost before it started: a moment of a two-lined stick, then three or four days of breathless expectation that left, in its small wake, a vast longing. My obstetrician showed me the ultrasound image of my uterus, collapsed on the floor of my pelvis like a deflated party balloon. “I’m not saying you couldn’t try again,” she said, but I felt old already. I didn’t want to start all over again. At least not exactly.

I didn’t imagine that a kitten would pull me through the last dregs of this unexpected grief—we were getting him “for the kids,” after all—but that’s what happened. He is a baby, plain and simple: He sleeps on my chest, and I am trapped and happy beneath him, woozy with love. His breath reminds me of my daughter Birdy’s milky exhalations; the smell of his newly washed fur reminds me of the sucked-on aroma of my son Ben’s thumb. I think of how my parents got a dog when their last baby, me, left for college, and I get it, even though my own nest is far from empty. If a loss of any kind has left an empty space, I think a pet can fill it perfectly, without the long-term complications of raising a human. The stakes of the kitten’s bad behavior are pretty low. We don’t care if he’s smart; he will never grow up and leave us or even, really, grow up at all. He will die: As Carol Anshaw puts it in one dog lovers’ novel, “Taking on a pet is a contract with sorrow.” But the sorrow is for a later day. For now, the kitten rolls on his back to get his belly rubbed. He closes his eyes, and my own fill with tears of what you might call joy.

CATHERINE NEWMANis the author of the (human) parenting memoir Waiting for Birdy. She lives with her family in western Massachusetts.

Middle-Aged Horsepower

By Lauren Slater

There she goes, my girl. She squeezes the horse’s sides, then gives a swift kick, and the animal begins to canter. I stand outside the riding ring and watch as she flies by—no helmet today, so her hair is a single stream—her hands holding the reins in the correct position, thumbs up, her body moving with the gait, which starts slow and rocking and then, as she goes round, picks up speed, the hooves hitting the dust harder, and harder still, until both girl and horse become a blur I can no longer really see but feel, through my feet, and smell, the huge horse pungent, his tail lifted high in a proud plume.

My daughter is 10 and loves horses, each and every one: the Appaloosas and the Arabians, the Abyssinians and the Camarillos, breeds distinct in their markings and temperament but majestic mammals all, 1,000 pounds on average, with teeth large and sharp enough to take a finger or even a whole hand, although horses won’t, they don’t; even the stallions, the wild ones, the cranks, have only rarely harmed a human. One of the grandest animals in the kingdom and yet easy prey, the horse has eyes set far apart so he can see the edges, the places where predators hide.

Once a week we come to this stable for my daughter’s lesson. Once a week I stand off to one side and watch her fly right by me, something in me aching, some shout that won’t come out, words like wait, like hey, like once upon a time. And then, when the words compel me, I turn from her and head up the hill, the barn before me blazing red, its insides darker than a closet until my eyes adjust, the long aisle, the meaty beams, the stalls with the horses still in them, turning in slow circles or hanging their heads over the doors, their names inscribed on silver plates affixed below. There’s Pride’s Starlight Tanya and Sweet Revenge; there’s A.M. White Night and Milky Way, a horse with a swirl of stars on his rump, big white blurs that spiral into themselves. I sometimes whisper the names, or even, if no one is around, utter them out loud, each name pure poetry to me. Perhaps I’m a sap; I’m certainly nostalgic, seeing in my daughter and the horses she rides a much younger me, the girl who once jumped four-foot fences and galloped through the woods, holding on hard to the bristly mane as my mount cleared a stream, a stack of wood, coming fast around the corners in a forest packed with birch.

Recently we have moved from the city, where I’ve lived out all of my adulthood, to the country, where we have five and a half acres, meadows flecked with flowers and sudden pools in waterlogged earth. Watching my daughter ride and realizing that some remnant passion still stirs inside me, I consider the suddenly reasonable possibility that we might buy a pony, something small enough for my young son yet with enough verve and power to satisfy my daughter and her need for speed. As for me, any horse would do—portals, all of them, into a past I thought I’d left behind, only to find, in my middle years, that I want once more to sit astride, to gallop backward toward a time when I spent every spare minute on a broad saddled back. Or perhaps there’s some need to show off for my girl, as in Look what I can do or I can do it, too! But I’m too quick to call my longings sentimental or even silly; maybe my desire to have horses again in my life, as I near the end of my fifth decade, has to do with a need now for majesty, which I crave as I age, as my body changes, as my bones thin, as my hair goes gray. I’m still strong, and I can see my strength reflected in the large pools of the equine’s eyes, in my desire to rise and gallop, fusing my body with the horse’s as we wend our way. I have recently read that horse-loving girls often return to their passion in their forties, in their fifties, finding both solace and strength in the barreled body and the whiskered muzzle that searches the outstretched palm for fruit. Down the hill, I can hear my daughter’s speed, her instructor calling out commands as she races around the ring, “Heels down, chin up,” and I think yes. Chin up. One should age with spunk. One should find for herself a new grand name, a name as big as the sun, the solar system, the penetrable yet impenetrable space beyond the moon; it is time to redefine. It is the horse who brings me here, to this new space inside my mind where my increasing frailty goes head to head with a sedimented strength built up over decades of experience. Later on, I walk with my daughter to the car. Her lesson has ended. Not mine. I feel infused. I breathe big. Anything is possible.

LAUREN SLATER’s work has been translated into more than 17 languages.Her most recent book is The $60,000 Dog: My Life with Animals.

Love in the Time of Spiders

By Mira Bartók

I have a secret. I used to see spiders when they weren’t really there.

In that elusive place between sleep and waking, some frightened part of my brain conjured visions of them. I saw spiders only when my schizophrenic mother was at her worst. Every few weeks, after one of her psychotic episodes, my waking dreams returned.

It was always the same: In the dim light of early morning, a spider the size of my hand would creep down from the ceiling and hover above me. I’d scream and switch on the lamp, but the little monster would still be there, its legs reaching for my face. Then, moments later, the image would evaporate into thin air.

Sometime in my late twenties, I saw a neurologist for my secret affliction. Secret, because I didn’t want people to think I was sick like my mother. I knew I wasn’t mentally ill, but something was certainly wrong. After I explained to the doctor my difficult childhood, my mother’s increasing violence and my fears of her suddenly showing up at my apartment, he told me my hallucinations were probably trauma-induced seizures. People were beginning to talk about post-traumatic stress disorder in the mid-1980s, but it was still a relatively new diagnosis. The doctor suggested seizure medication, but I said no. Then, in 1990, when my mother broke off contact with me, the spiders suddenly disappeared.

A year and a half later, I began working at Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo. Part of my job was to teach groups of visitors about the behavior and adaptation of small mammals, reptiles, birds and invertebrates. I enjoyed this immensely, but there was a problem: the dreaded tarantula. I had to sit with his little aquarium on my lap and pretend to crowds of children that the dangerous, hairy spider and I were the best of friends. “Tarantulas are cool!” I’d say. “Did you know that there are approximately 900 different kinds in the world?” “Wow!” the kids would shout. “Can we pet him?” Thankfully, petting tarantulas was not allowed at the zoo. “Sorry, you can’t, but you can pet his exoskeleton, the shell he sloughs off. I have it right here!” I would then offer amazing little facts about spiders while inside I was terrified that the tarantula would escape, crawl under my shirt and sink his fangs into my neck.

A few weeks into my job, the inevitable occurred. A small girl, about five, looked up at me with her big brown eyes and sweetly asked, “What’s his name?” The first thing that popped out of my mouth was, “Murray. His name is Murray.” I didn’t even know if the tarantula was a girl or a boy, but Murray it was from then on. I’d begin my nature talks with, “This is Murray the tarantula. Come closer. Don’t be afraid.”

Something happens when you give a name to fear. Showing “Murray” to the visitors at the zoo was different from showing “the big hairy spider.” I started reading more about spiders, talking to keepers and zoologists and studying Murray as he moved around his tiny, singular world. Eventually, I grew fond of him—with his four pairs of legs, his retractable claws, his spinnerets and his eight, count them, eight beady black eyes. And just as I used to save the beautiful snakeskins and feathers I found behind the scenes at the zoo, I started saving Murray’s soft brown exoskeletons whenever he shed them.

When my mother and I eventually reconnected tentatively through the mail, my spider hallucinations didn’t return. And when I finally reunited with her at the end of her life many years later, the spiders still kept their distance. It has now been five years since my mother passed away, and it looks as if those spiders aren’t ever coming back. Just the other day, while out walking my dog in the woods, I marched right into a giant web. My face was covered with sticky silk, baby spiders and dead bugs. I didn’t scream or feel the slightest tinge of fear. I simply wiped the mess off my face, laughed at myself and kept going.

MIRA BARTÓK is the author of The Memory Palace, winner of the 2011 National Book Critics Circle Award for Autobiography.

The Dogs Who Saved Me

By Jo Ann Beard

His name is Luigi, and they say he turned himself in. It isn’t unusual for the shelter workers to find a dog (or two) tied to the fence in the morning, but Luigi was just sitting quietly at the gate, no rope, no collar, nothing but a look of serious resignation on his grizzled face. They put him in a run and named him after someone’s grandpa, and that’s where he’s been ever since, staring out but rarely barking like the rest of them, licking a hand but rarely taking the treat. Next to him is Cookie, who has been at the shelter for six years now, a brindle pit in an enormous, cacophonous shelter where there might as well be brindle-pit wallpaper. She takes a treat with great delicacy, circling a couple of times and then lying down to eat it, crunch, crunch, before coming back for another. It’s how she fills her time, stretching out every good thing as long as possible.

Down the row is Daisy, who barks like a maniac until she’s let out of her run, whereupon she immediately drops to the pavement and rolls. I walk her to my car, and she falls asleep in the quiet of the backseat for an hour or so while I’m doing other things. Walking dogs, bathing dogs, peering into dark runs to see what new resident is cowering in the shadows; whatever it is, from the moment I arrive until the moment I leave, I do not think about anything else. I don’t care what my hair is doing, I don’t care what my phone says, I don’t care that there’s something more or less unspeakable on my shoe.

Less than five minutes away is my real job, as a teacher at a private college, a bastion of evergreen and ivy and hope. One day a year ago, as I left campus, I followed a sign at the intersection, turning right instead of going straight, and found myself in this world of cracked concrete and chain link, as far from the ivy and reaching oak trees of our campus as any place could be. I wandered the runs outside the shelter with my hands over my ears. How long has he been here? I asked about one of the dogs. Five years, the worker told me. Wait, no, he corrected himself: I’ve been here five years. He was here when I came.

A low-kill shelter has its disadvantages—sometimes death is the kinder alternative—but it would be hard to explain that to Rufo, who was positioning himself lengthwise along the wire, to make as much of himself available for petting as possible. I stuck my fingers through the wire and scratched him for a while and then left. The next day I followed the sign again.

When it’s time to go back to her run, Daisy immediately lies down on the pavement and won’t get up. I fashion a halter and tug her along on her back, which from her wiggling I can tell she likes, though eventually she accepts the truth and gets to her feet, shakes and walks slowly, more slowly than you can imagine, back to the row of kennels. Once, safely out of the horrible cacophony of the shelter and at home in my own bed, I had a dream that instead of getting Daisy out of my car, I got in and drove her into the country and opened the door. In the dream, she climbed down and stood like Luigi, just staring at me, until I let her back in and drove her back to the city and the dark run she inhabits next to Spanky, who is next to Babyface, who is next to one of the several Tysons, who is next to Monty, who is next to Tara, who is next to her twin, Michele, who is next to Lexi. And on and on it goes until all 110 are accounted for.

Because the shelter is crowded to the point of overcrowded, about half of the dogs live in stainless steel cages stacked floor to ceiling in cinder block rooms. Whenever someone walks into one of these rooms, each dog instantly whirls and lunges and makes a terrible barking racket, creating an overwhelming sensation of, well, hell. The first time I went in, I had to turn around and go directly back out. I stood in the cold with an orange leash around my neck and a pocketful of treats, trying not to cry, until another volunteer walked by. He took one look at me, undraped the leash from my neck and asked me which dog I wanted.

“All of them,” I said.

When he returned, there was someone small and black at the end of my leash, with tall ears and a visible rib cage. “One dog at a time,” the volunteer murmured, and went on his way.

I could barely move, so instead of walking, Duchess and I sat on the curb and watched traffic go by. As she relaxed, she leaned against me ever so slightly, a black dog indistinguishable from all the other black dogs in the shelter except that now I knew her.

One dog at a time.

So I used my pocketful of treats to teach her a trick—not how to sit or shake but how to wave hello, like an old friend. Like so many of them, she proved to be ridiculously smart, watching my face intently and repeating the lesson over and over, for the attention and the treats and because she—again, like so many of them—was desperate to please. In 30 minutes she went from generic to specific, a dog able to distinguish herself from the crowd if the opportunity should ever arise.

Because sometimes it does. Just this week, between the beginning part of the story and this ending part, a couple came to the shelter and saw Daisy rolling in sad ecstasy at my feet. They were grieving for their old dog and just beginning to look, but they came back the next day and the day after, and the day after that she went home with them. So last night Daisy slept on a cushion in a warm house, and this morning she woke to love and toast in a bright kitchen.

Think about the joy you felt when you read that, and think about how much more elated you would feel if you knew her and met the wonderful couple, and if you knew all the other dogs and had walked them and talked to them and let them lean up against you, and if you were there to see Rufo with his head out the window the day he was driven north to his new home in Massachusetts. Because it’s not about how to stand the grimness; it’s about how to stand the joy.

JO ANN BEARD teaches at Sarah Lawrence College and is a volunteer at the Yonkers Animal Shelter. Her latest book is the novel In Zanesville.

Next: Starting an Exotic Animal Sanctuary

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First Published Thu, 2012-10-25 17:02

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