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Living With Animals: A Wonderful Madness
by Marjorie Dorfman

Are you an animal person? Do your furry friends walk all over you and you love it? Stand up, be counted, unite and most of all, learn to lick back, for they will win in the long run.

Dogs come when they are called; cats take a message and get back to you.  – Mary Bly

Whether you love cats, dogs, horses, rabbits, birds, hamsters, gerbils or creepy crawlies with no legs or more than four, animals in a life can only enhance that life. This is not to say that they don’t make it more challenging in new and different ways. I am a cat, dog and horse person, but I love all creatures great and small, save rats, snakes, scorpions and most insects, except for ladybugs and butterflies. It is true that all living things have their place in our vast universe, but hopefully, in some cases at least, their places need not be too close to my house. I own six cats (or do they own me?) and had one horse until she passed away last summer at the ripe old age of 29. She didn’t live in the house, but more than a part of me wanted her too. I say this so that you can rate my animal perspective truthfully as over the top, which is where it is.

It is the day-to-day living with creatures that puts our humanity to its own particular test. One of my cats says hello by raising his rear end and tail up into the face of whoever is petting him. A person doing that would end up in jail. Not my Nero. He’s too cute (and so is his longhaired black rear-end, I might add). You also have to watch the milk cartons in my house. This adorable fellow likes to knock them over and then rush to the end of the counter and lick the milk up as it drips to the floor. But he is my baby and I love him unconditionally, just like most owners feel about their beloved pets. Animals provide a buffer against loneliness and a fine cutting edge between human frailties and emotions. Their love shines, fortifies and enhances our moods. Cats offer the additional gift of being the best alarm clocks ever not made.

Nero is only one of the six characters who live with me and all the others are as special to me in their own way as he is. They also all drive me crazy in their own unique ways, just as he does. What do you do with a cat that steals cotton swabs and plants them all over the house? (I even found some clogged in my treadmill. I guess the cat simply doesn’t like exercise.) I feel like Christopher Columbus every time I clean behind the big sofa in my living room. I never know what I will find, just like he must have felt sailing across the vast ocean. I’ve got another fine fellow who steals my make-up sponges. (What I can’t figure out is how he opens the glass lid without seeming to move it.) I can always tell when there’s been a party at my house after I’ve been away. The cotton swabs and sponges are strewn like rose petals all over my not so neat house to begin with. (I once caught the culprit, (known as Spats by the local authorities), with three of them in his mouth! When he saw me he knew the jig was up and dropped the evidence, making a clean getaway under my bed. I’ve got one nocturnal eater, one that won’t eat with the other cats, one that I have to feed by hand and one that eats so fast that I have to put a golf ball in the bowl to slow him down. Would you say these guys and gals keep me on my toes?

So how do we come to a mutual understanding with the creatures that share our homes and create a peaceful co-existence? This is probably everyone’s intention, but it’s not always that easy to accomplish. I will attempt an overview for each set of creatures. If you have more than one set, don’t look at me. Perhaps combining plan A with B might help. Perhaps it won’t. Ask the animals. They won’t tell you, but the passage of time and experience will.

I’ll start with cats because they comprise most of my first-hand experience. There are two rules to remember when sharing a home with felines; one is that they know what they are doing and the other is that they also know what their owners are doing. Cattitude is not unlike the divine right of kings. It grants the imperious ability to be both loving and ambivalent at the same time. My cats won’t talk to me for hours after I’ve returned from a trip. They let me know that they didn’t approve of my departure, company, destination and return time. I’m of age, but they can’t be reasoned with. They are pretty independent though, much more so than dogs or even horses. You can leave food out for a cat and it will eat as it gets hungry. You can’t do that with a dog or a horse. Cats make their own company, games and rules while you are away. Just leave some party hats near the chandeliers and tell your neighbors to watch the action after you leave if you don’t believe me.

Dogs are wonderful creatures who have the unique capacity to actually resemble their owners after a few years of ownership. (It may be the other way around, but it’s a secret assimilation process that occurs at night and I cannot say for sure.) It is said that man never actually sees his god, but that a dog sees his or her’s every day. A dog is a faithful servant and will live or die for its master’s approval and protection. I can make this point with only one story. (If a picture is worth a thousand words, then the following words will surely be worth more than a thousand pictures.) Maybe I didn’t get the math right, but read on anyway.

When I was about 16, there was a story in the local paper about a woman whose pregnant Chihuahua killed an intruder. The woman had been home alone when a man in a uniform with phony credentials knocked on the door and told her that he needed to inspect her boiler. She led the man into the basement, the Chihuahua following noiselessly behind. When the man attempted to rape her a few moments later, the dog attacked him and ripped out his jugular vein. The man was dead before he hit the floor. As far as good things coming in small packages, would anyone like to say that again? The woman later capitalized on the incident by advertising the sale of her courageous dog’s "killer puppies" in the very same newspaper a few months later! (The Chihuahua was acquitted and lived to wallow in the eternal gratitude of its owner. The woman was cited by the Better Business Bureau. That’s America!)

I think that my love affair with horses coincided with the very first moment I laid eyes upon one at the age of three or four. Most people don’t realize that horses need nurturing and comforting and bonding with their owners just as much (if not more) than your average Fido or Sylvester. Perhaps their size fosters this delusion. They are big animals with big hearts and spirits to match, but they are also very vulnerable and need humans to care for them. Horses fare poorly in the wild, sometimes not living more than two or three years.

Even though someone else fed my horse and cleaned out her stall every day of her life, my Sadie Mae still needed emotional and physical bonding with me as her owner. Horses are pack animals and very social, although they are not so gregarious at cocktail parties. Unless a horse has not been socialized correctly, it will usually enjoy being touched, petted and curried. This contact between human and horse is akin to soothing that itchy spot on your back that you can’t quite reach. Horses charge an atmosphere with beauty, mystery and strength. Riding one’s own horse creates an intimate alchemy comparable only to that of a long-term love relationship where each partner knows and respects the other’s sensitivities and responses. They are mystical creatures, whose unfettered energy symbolizes the beauty and vitality of the human spirit. Living among them means much space, work, cost and attention, but feeling their proximity compensates with the generation of a magical bond that is like no other.

Fish are a mystery to me, especially which fish is which in the tank. Who is Henry and who is Henrietta? Only spring breeding season will tell. That’s when fish show either their masculinity or femininity by their acts and body changes. One fish chasing another means that that the chaser is a boy and the chasee a girl. What else is new? Watching fish swim in a friend’s tank the other day, I was wondering what kind of bonding could occur with a creature that can never stand still long enough to have a conversation! I’ve been told that some bonds are not obvious. I’ll accept that and pass on a standard rule of thumb. Ten gallons of water for each fish in your tank. According to the leading fish psychologists, fish seem to be happier and grow to be bigger if you abide to this generalization. Buy interesting decorations for your fish’s home and mix them up occasionally, always giving them something new to explore. Avoid piranha. They do not appreciate kindness, interior decoration and/or interior decorators.

Rabbits are interesting creatures who are not by nature lovers of humans. I am told, however, that if attention is lavished upon them they do appreciate it and respond accordingly. They can also be trained to use a liter box, like a cat. One important thing to know about rabbits is that they cannot regurgitate. If they swallow something unhealthy or foreign, they can not throw it back up and can die. I know of someone who lost his rabbit because it swallowed a needle carelessly left out of a sewing box. Be careful what you leave lying around the house. Rabbits are also great chewers and unless you have a wall with molding you want to get rid of, it might be necessary to keep the rabbit in a big cage most of the time and let it out only when you can watch what it does. They are social and love the company of other rabbits. Be careful. You know what they say about two to tango and all of that.

Gerbils are a common pet. Did you know that that they originated in Mongolia? They became so numerous there that the Mongolian people could no longer sleep at night because the gerbils were constantly running on their squeaky little exercise wheels. The Mongolians will probably never be appreciated for shipping all of their gerbils to the United States (Talk about the wretched refuse of our teeming shores!) Now Americans have them as pets and Mongolia according to the latest statistics, is one of the quietest countries in the world! Many owners provide their gerbils with playwheels and mistakenly believe that they have satisfied their gerbil’s exercise needs. Nothing could be further from the truth. An adult gerbil requires a bare minimum of a treadmill, stair climber, exercise bike and free weights. Really progressive owners might also consider an occasional round of golf or tennis as quite beneficial as well!

Whatever your taste and predilections, remember that an animal in your care requires commitment and responsibility. With the addition of love, respect and kindness, all living things respond. I have learned to be grateful, since my cats do so much more for me than I do for them. They are a part of my family and they enhance my life in a million tiny ways, infusing it with unconditional love and affection. Life with animals may be a bit messy and very nuts sometimes, but life without them, for me at least, would be unimaginably dull and empty.

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Copyright 2003