Friday, December 30, 2016

A Tribute to Becky DiNolfi

I probably haven't seen Becky DiNolfi for 20-some years, yet I considered her a good friend.  Her dear pet pot-bellied pig, Reggie, was the source of our friendship, years ago, when she allowed me the honor of writing about Reggie for my next manuscript, The Celebrated Pet: How Americans Commemorate Their Animal Friends.  In talking with Becky about her soulmate, who, (Did I fail to mention?) was of the swine species, I discovered much more than a spectacular swiner, entertainer, therapy pig, and greeter to accepting humans, but I also discovered a prize in human form: Becky DiNolfi herself.

I didn't know Becky as a best friend would, but I knew enough about her, through her relationship with other people and her pig Reggie, that she was an exceptional human being: a good, good soul; a believer in woodland fairies; a friend to pigs and people who love pigs; a supporter of people fighting city halls to keep their pets in their homes; a dynamic person to all she met.  She was always happy, positive, and angelic.

And, now, truly, she is an angel.

So, I'm sharing, as a tribute to Becky, my chapter on her pig Reggie, who she loved so much. Becky was so proud of her pig-daughter.  They loved each other very much.

Thank you, Becky, for all you have given and taught us about how to live life bigger and better.  I imagine you and Reggie having a happy reunion in a place we all dream about.

My Dragon Wings

Species: porcine—pot-bellied pig
Name: Reggie
Born: February 26, 1993
Died: November 5, 2007
Human companion: Rebecca DiNolfi
            Rebecca’s eyes flickered open.  “Where am I?” she thought.  She peered down the long expense of white sheet covering her body.  At the end of the bed sat a person in uniform.  Becky tried to speak, but a thick pipe filled her throat, silencing her.  Her eyes grew wide: she was in a hospital with a breathing tube down her trachea.  She must have had another heart attack.
            The nurse went to Becky’s side where she lay, eyes frozen awake.  “It’s okay, Rebecca.  It’s Monday, July 26, 1992.  You’re at Einstein Medical Center in Philadelphia recovering from your catheterization procedure.  Don’t try to talk.  I want you to relax and let this machine do your breathing for you.  As soon as we think you’re heart is stable, we’ll take it out so that you can breathe on your own and be more comfortable.”
            Becky closed her eyes. 
            She remembered her cardiologist had sent her to Einstein Hospital days ago after she suffered her second heart attack on July 18.  With symptoms similar to those of her first attack in 1991, her local doctor advised she travel to Philadelphia where a catheterization could determine the point of blockage.  Now, here she was, hooked up to miles of plastic tubing, the air alive with “bleeps” and “boops”  from multiple monitoring equipment.  Something must’ve gone terribly wrong with the catheterization.
            The next day the nurses removed her breathing tube, and Becky’s friend, Joyce, was allowed into the room.   Joyce’s smile was strained.  “We almost lost you, kiddo.”      She took Becky’s hand: it had no grip.  “Your main descending artery in your heart collapsed after the catheterization.  Your heart stopped.”  Suddenly the smile tore apart, and tears rolled down Joyce’s face.  Becky reached down her leg with her other hand.  She frowned.  “It’s a pacemaker,” Joyce said.  “And before you feel what’s on your other leg, a balloon is sewn in there just in case your heart plans to pitch a fit again, and they have to do another cath.”
            “Did I die?”  Becky said, her lips dry.  She tried licking them, but her tongue was swollen and parched, too.
            “Yeah, hon.  You left us for quite awhile.  The doctors worked on your for three and a half hours and were just about ready to pack it in when they heard a faint heart beat.”
            Becky parted her hospital gown and peered at her chest.  Sue’s breath caught in her throat at all the burn marks.  “There’s gotta be thirty burns here,” Becky whispered, “and my left rib cage hurts like hell.  My God!  I did die.”

            Two weeks later Becky’s husband brought her home, along with a suitcase full of prescriptions.  Becky could hardly rest as the doctor had ordered; she was a prisoner to her medication schedule, consuming 27 pills daily—to treat a bleeding ulcer, high blood cholesterol, depression, and unrelenting anxiety attacks.   At home, after her husband left for work, Becky watched the clock indicating the time to take her fourteenth pill.  She felt like a jailbird, shackled to her ailing body and her pill boxes.  Too, she was hesitant to leave her house for fear of having another heart attack or a panic attack, which came upon her like some banshee from another dimension.  In all, she felt as though her former spirit had imploded. 
            The only thing partially able to distract from her health problems  was her love of reading, particularly books about pets and animals.  After she read Lowell: The True Story of an Existential Pig, a book about pot-bellied pigs that revealed their keen intelligence and devotion to their owners, she asked her husband if she get one.  He said “yes.”
            For the first time in almost a year and a half after she had her first heart attack, Becky could concentrate on something other than keeping herself alive.  After combing the local newspapers, she finally found a breeder selling a litter of pot-bellied pigs.  Wasting no time, she called: one little black female was left. 
            At four weeks of age, the female piglet was no bigger than a Campbell’s soup can.  Becky’s first words as she picked up the tiny black pig, were, “You’re absolutely precious.”  Holding a piglet was so different from a cat or dog.  The piglet had heft—solid, with a body of pure muscle.  Becky gazed into her face, animated by dark, wide, human-like eyes and an energetic, curious nose.       
            When Becky picked the piggy up, she didn’t squirm or squeal, as most piglets do when their feet leave the ground, regardless whether the lifter is a person or a predator with the animal in its jowls.  This little female must have had a lot of playtime with people because she seemed to enjoy lying in a person’s arms.  Becky felt drawn to bring the tiny animal up to her face.  When she cupped the piglet under her butt and brought her to her chest, the piglet climbed higher, finally snuggling her head under Becky’s chin.  That gesture sealed the deal.  So, Becky went home to ready her house for a new pet.

            Becky’s favorite athlete was Reggie White, and even though the piglet was a female, “Reggie” became her name.  At six weeks old, Reggie, sat in Becky’s lap for the trip home where she found a sturdy playpen awaiting her.  From the beginning Reggie hated being confined to the playpen, squealing to be fee so that she could shadow Becky through the house.  At night Reggie went to bed with her family, Becky curling her arms around her before they fell asleep, face to face.
            Immediately Reggie became Becky’s sidekick.  The two bonded like two pieces of Velcro tape.  Soon they were  inseparable: Becky took the little porker everywhere she went--to the grocery store; the drug store; the park, where Becky walked Reggie on a tiny harness and lead; the bank; the shopping mall; and anywhere else.  When Reggie heard Becky’s car keys rattling, she bulleted into the kitchen and stood still as moss while Becky put on her harness and attached the lead.
            Reggie sat in Becky’s old Lincoln Continental’s passenger’s seat on a pile of blankets, her feet propped on the dashboard, her snout pointed straight ahead, intent on the road.  When cars passed on the right, people went crazy saying, “LOOK!  A LITTLE PIG!  A PIG’S RIDING IN THAT CAR!”
            Becky and Reggie spent every hour of every day together, and Becky discovered within only a week or two, that Reggie was extremely intelligent.  So, Becky began teaching her tricks commonly taught to dogs: she sat up on her hind legs; she kicked a ball into a net; she walked a figure eight through Becky’s legs; she walked an “S” around a set of cones; she rang a bell; she played a plastic organ with her nose; she blew horns lined up on a rack.  Reggie’s repertoire included over thirty dog tricks. 
            One day as Becky set out the kiddie organ for Reggie to practice her tunes, she clutched her chest.  “Oh, my God!” she yelled.  Her husband came running, and Reggie stared up at her mom. 
            “What?  Is it your heart?”
            Becky looked amazed.  “Yes.  It is my heart, honey.  I haven’t given it any medicine yet today because all I’ve been doing is playing with Reggie.  I’ve forgotten to take all my morning pills.  And, come to think of it, I forgot to take most of them yesterday, too. 

            “You got a what?” Becky’s cardiologist said as she lay comfortably back onto the examining table.
            “I got myself a pot-bellied pig.  Her name is Reggie, and she’s my soul mate.  I’m so smitten by her that I keep forgetting to take most of my pills.  And I’ve never felt better.  Reggie has cured all my anxiety and my depression.  I’ve not had a panic attack since I got her.  I have energy.  I’m happy.  I can’t wait to start each day.  I’ve taught her tricks--over thirty of them.  Ya know, Doctor, she has given me my life back.  So, do you really think I need all those pills?”
            The doctor examined Becky, went over each of her prescriptions, and said, “You’re pig apparently has been the best medicine for you.  You need only take two of these drugs anymore.  Throw out the rest.  You look good, and your heart sounds fine.  See you back here in six months.”

            One day while Reggie was performing her dog tricks, Becky sensed something was wrong.  She just didn’t seem as happy nudging out notes on the organ and tooting her horns.  “What’s the matter, Reggie?” Becky said, laying a hand on the pig’s back.  Reggie looked back at her, but her eyes weren’t sparkling as usual.  Reggie walked over to a horn and blew one single, blasé “toot” on it, then went back to Becky and curled up in her lap.
            “You don’t like these silly dog tricks anymore, do you, Reggie?”  Reggie looked her in the eyes.  “Well, then,” Becky said,  “We’ll get you something to learn that won’t bore you to death.”
            Becky began teaching Reggie the alphabet using huge flashcards.  She also began taking Reggie to pot-bellied pig shows at various fairs and festivals.  Reggie loved showing off in classes such as The Waggiest Tail Contest, The Snag the Donut Contest, the Watermelon-Eating Contest, and The Pretzel On A String Contest.  On the final evening of the fair, the pot-bellies dressed in costume for the annual piggy pageant, with the females in gowns and the boys in black satin cummerbunds and bowties.
            At public events people went wild seeing Reggie decked out in her signature outfit: a necklace of plastic yellow black-eyed Susans, sunglasses with black-eyed Susans along the rim, a black-eyed Susan on Reggie’s tail, and a hat, the front brim pinned up with a yellow black-eyed Susan.  Adorned from snout to tail, people begged Becky to touch and hold the pig, the size of a loaf of bread.  Children, especially, were drawn to her magnetic and charming personality.  With her diminutive upturned snout, she looked as though she wore a continuous grin.  If that weren’t enough to charm even the most jaded onlooker, Reggie began to perform:  tooting the horns, carrying a basket of black-eyed Susans on her nose, and leaping through hoops.
            Mornings at home, however, were devoted to Reggie’s schooling, including practicing the alphabet and learning to tell the difference between numbers and colors. In a week’s time Reggie had learned to distinguish thirteen of the letters from each other.  Reggie found the educational moments intense, and focused on her studies.
            In addition to going to festivals, fairs, various community events, Becky thought Reggie would also excel at therapy work.  She made world-worn, nervous people calm and anxious teens laugh (pigs have an uncanny sense of timing), and for even those severely depressed, she drew a smile.  During therapy work, Reggie’s people skills shined: she stood quietly so that people could pet her, staying calm if a dish clanked onto the floor and even if one of the residents pulled her tail.
            Reggie loved older folks, so her popularity at Pine Run Nursing Center in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, came as no surprise.  Escorted to the community room, Reggie and Becky found themselves in the center of a large room surrounded by dozens of elderly folks in various states of disrepair.
            At first sight of a pig dressed in a black-eyed Susan costume, the oldsters became suddenly energized, sitting straight, and expectant.  Frowns disappeared, replaced by grins and bright eyes.  A few rolled their wheelchairs right over to Reggie, who didn’t flinch at the cumbersome, scary-looking object rolling towards her.  Then one wrinkled hand, then a couple other thin, parched hands rubbed her head, tentatively at first, then harder, feeling the haircoat--so much rougher, more bristly, than the typical cat or dog that usually visited.
            After Reggie let all the residents pet her, she performed her dog tricks, which she hadn’t practiced at home for quite a while.  Though doing her tricks bored Reggie, she accommodated when she was out in public.  The elder crowd, clearly amazed by such a talented animal, clapped and cheered as Reggie finished her thirtieth trick and bowed to the crowd. 
            Back at home Becky concentrated on teaching Reggie letters of the alphabet.  She flashed a card and pronounced the letter, and Reggie looked hard at the flashcard.  Becky could see she was concentrating.  Becky taught Reggie five letters at a time—all ones that sounded different—so that Reggie could distinguish the sounds with the different shapes of the letters.  Then, Becky tested her: holding two cards.  When Reggie nudged the wrong card, Becky said, “No, try again, Reggie.”  Then Becky asked again for the letter, and Reggie nudged the other flashcard, for which Becky rewarded her with a Cheerio.
            In a few weeks Reggie had mastered the entire alphabet, even so far as spelling entire words.  Becky asked her to spell her own name.  Becky said, “Spell ‘Reggie,’ Hon.”  Then, Becky held out the “R” flashcard along with an “N” card.  “You want the “R,” Reggie.  Reggie stepped forward and nudged the “R.”  Becky kept showing Reggie two flashcards at a time, one of which was the next letter in her name.  Making no mistake, Reggie spelled her own name in under two minutes. 
            Reggie delighted in her mother’s ecstatic reaction when she got her letters correct.  And Becky often marveled how it seemed Reggie actually was thinking—pausing after being asked to pick out a letter, then stepping carefully forward and touching the correct flashcard with her snout.  Soon, spelling names was added to Reggie’s repertoire of talents during her visits to the nursing homes. 
            During the hot and humid summer, Becky hated to take Reggie out into the heat for therapy work, so she and Reggie stayed inside where they rehearsed numbers and colors.  Summer also gave Becky time for making Reggie’s costumes, sewn or hot-glued with feathers, flowers, sequins, and plastic “jewels” —for Valentine’s Day, Memorial Day, St. Patrick’s Day and all the different seasons. 
            Summertime also found Reggie’s family camping at Ringing Rocks campground every weekend.  Often, when her parents weren’t watching, Reggie sneaked off to other parts of the camp, intent on making new friends.  When Becky discovered Reggie missing, she ran to the campground’s office and asked them to make a loudspeaker announcement for all kids on bikes to form a posse to find a lost pig.  But Reggie was hardly lost: grunting at folks and seeming to say, “Hi.  I’m the pig.  Nice to meet ya.”
            One time Becky adorned Reggie in a hula skirt and lei to protest a pig roast at the campgrounds.  Reggie wore a straw skirt and a T-shirt that read, “We are not the other white meat!”   Weekends at Ringing Rocks campground passed all too soon, and once the hot weather broke, Reggie and Becky were back on the road visiting the nursing homes, libraries, public schools and hospitals.
            One particularly memorable moment occurred on a visit to an adult day care center.  After performing her dog tricks and spelling a couple of the residents’ names, Becky and Reggie were set to leave and head to McDonald’s for Reggie’s favorite treat-French Fries.
            On their way out of the adult center, they passed a man sitting in an adult high chair.  He was leaning over his tray.  Reggie stopped at his high chair, and Becky tugged on Reggie’s leash, “Come on, Reggie.  We’re going to McDonald’s now.”  But Reggie wouldn’t budge.  She stood before the catatonic man sitting in his high chair, his eyes closed, his head bent.  Becky tugged on Reggie’s leash, but she refused to move.
            Soon a nurse came along.  She said to Becky, “Joe has cataracts.  Though he still can see, he never opens his eyes when he’s inside the building.  He never opens his eyes.”
            Becky pulled on Reggie’s leash again, but Reggie stood firm.  Reggie poked the man’s thin ankle with her snout.  No response.  Becky pulled on Reggie’s leash.  No response.
            The nurse said to Joe, “Joe, there’s a pot-bellied pig here to see you.  Open your eyes and look at the pig.”  But Joe refused, sitting stolid and impenetrable.
            Reggie nudged his leg again and let out a loud grunt.  Finally, Joe sat up, opened his eyes, and looked over his tray at the floor.  Reggie looked up, and when he saw the little black pig wearing her black-eyed Susan-rimmed sunglasses, he started to laugh and laugh and laugh.  He laughed so hard tears were coming down his eyes.  The nurse marveled that it had been the first time Joe had ever opened his eyes inside.   
            Not only did Reggie startle Joe out of his blind stupor, but she also performed a couple of other miracles during her therapy travels.  At the Woods School, a live-in facility for the severely disabled, one blind and mute male resident whose depression made him nasty and difficult to deal with always looked forward to seeing Reggie.  Each time Reggie saw Stan, she stood up on her hind feet, her front feet on his knees, and let out a loud grunt-greeting.  In that moment Stan instantly morphed from an unsociable, almost sociopathic personality, into a friendly personality.  The nurses always commented how Stan was so much happier and so much easier to handle after Reggie’s visit.
            While Reggie treated the severely depressed and the elderly by day, by late afternoon and evening she was back studying her flashcards.  In between visits to nursing homes, studying her flashcards, and visiting schools, Reggie managed the time to earn $15,000 for a charity in a Kiss the Pig contest.  Libraries, too, asked for Reggie’s services, and Becky, with Reggie’s help, began putting on educational shows. 
            Each show began with Becky introducing Reggie to her audience.  Like the good, attentive pig she was, Reggie always greeted her audiences by lifting a front leg and waving her hoof.  Then, as Reggie, wearing either her bunny, Valentine’s Day, Tina Turner, clown, or elf outfit  waited, Becky explained where Reggie came from and what she did as a therapy pig.  Becky always varied Reggie’s performance because she refused doing a routine that bored her. 
            As Reggie performed, Becky taught children and adults the history of the pot-bellied pig as well as reading them scientific documentation of their intelligence.  She dispelled the myths about pigs being dirty, slow and slovenly.  Last, she advised her audience on how the pot-bellied pig made a fine companion animal.  She described her efforts to remove the pot-bellied pig from livestock status and, instead, be accepted as a companion pet.  She urged audiences to support laws allowing pet pigs companion-animal status.
            The most amazing feat Reggie ever accomplished was not only identifying  numbers from her flashcards but adding and subtracting them, too.  Unbelievable though it may seem, Reggie, given two flashcards, could add them or subtract them.  Becky herself couldn’t believe Reggie began adding and subtracting, but it happened, by accident, one day while they were practicing Reggie’s flashcards in the living room.           
            On a lark, Becky said, “Do you think you can add two numbers, Reggie?”  Becky held up a “1” and a “2”.  She said, “Do you know what “1” and “2” add up to?”  Then, she held up two flashcards, one with “3” and the other with “9.”  Without giving any cues, something Becky never anyway, Reggie paused, then stepped toward the “3” and nudged it.  For sure that had to be coincidence, Becky thought.  Surely a pig couldn’t add numbers, so she tried it again and again.  Only a few times did Reggie make a mistake.
            Once Becky discovered Reggie could add and later, even subtract, she included those talents in Reggie’s performances.  Her ability to do simple math problems stunned her audiences.  Becky reminded folks that since pigs had the intelligence of a three-year-old child, perhaps it wasn’t all that miraculous that Reggie was able to do math. 
            During another performance, Becky walked into the audience, Reggie on stage, and she asked a child to pick out a flashcard printed with a giant colored crayon.  Then, after the child picked out one color from the stack, Becky showed the card to the audience and took that card, along with one other, back on stage.  Reggie stood waiting on stage.  “Now don’t say the color’s name out loud,” Becky warned the youngster-audience.  Everyone was dead quiet.  Could Reggie read minds?  Then, Becky held that chosen colored flashcard out alongside one other color.  “OPick the color Cindy and the audience is thinking of, Reggie.”
            At first, Reggie hung back, not too anxious to commit herself to a color she couldn’t even see.  Becky chuckled to herself.  She believed Reggie was searching for vibes from the audience.  A minute passed, and the audience began whispering, for they could see Reggie concentrating, too.  Then, as Becky held the two colored flashcards at Reggie’s nose-level, Reggie stepped forward and hit the blue card.  The little girl in the audience jumped up, squealing, her hands cupping her mouth, and the audience clapped and cheered. 
            By 1995, Becky began fighting city councils’ ordinances against keeping pigs, considered livestock under Pennsylvania law, as companion animals in city homes.  So afraid was she of losing her own Reggie to an out-dated town law that she became an avid activist for allowing pet pigs in households.  So, while Reggie’s main work as a therapy pig and an entertainer continued, she also supported, alongside Becky, the fight against the pot-bellied pig being considered livestock.  The more people saw how civilized could be, the more inclined town council members would be to pass laws accommodating the pet pig. 
            Despite Reggie’s good-natured personality, she was no pushover, neither at home nor in public.  At home she could be a brat if she didn’t get her way.  If Becky didn’t arrive home promptly to give Reggie her dinner, Reggie, in no subtle way, informed her of her displeasure: she began flipping the dining room chairs and rearranging the furniture.  If Becky was talking on the phone and Reggie discovered her water dish empty, she began rubbing her snout on something, making a loud rasping  noise, almost like chalk squeaking on a chalkboard.  When Reggie opened the back sliding-glass door to go outside to relieve herself, she never closed it, letting in scores of bugs and, one time, a squirrel.  Becky’s friends and relatives all knew Reggie could be a pistol when she wanted.
            Even when she was in public, she wasn’t fawning or subservient.  Though she loved most folks, she approached them with dignity, her head held with pride, an attitude  bordering on aloof.  For sure Reggie knew she had a higher purpose and  that she was special in many ways.  She loved every minute of her interaction with people, but she would have no silliness and disliked any tone of voice that sounded like mockery or as though she was being laughed at.
            On a couple of occasions, after Becky dressed Reggie in her signature black-eyed Susan costume and sunglasses, Reggie would rush against a wall, trying to knock off her glasses.  Then picked them up in her jaws and bit down, breaking them in half.  Reggie was pissed off, but Becky didn’t know why.  After Reggie destroyed  six more pairs of glasses, Becky finally called the animal communicator.  The communicator came to Becky’s house and “talked” with Reggie.  She said Reggie hated the glasses because she looked silly in them and people laughed at her.  She wanted people to appreciate her intelligence, so from then on Becky never made Reggie wear glasses again.
            In 1995 the mayor of Philadelphia, Ed Rendell, was asked to judge a pot-bellied pig beauty contest in honor of the opening of the Broadway show, “State Fair”—a show about a pig winning first place at the fair—at the Merriam Theatre on Broad Street in downtown Philly.  The swiners, all costumed, paraded down a red carpet, performed, and Rendell judged each for the best costume.  Reggie was dressed in her finest: a sequined gown with a fur stole.
            Becky was also hoping, by introducing Reggie to the Mayor and showing him how well-behaved and well-mannered she was, that he might use his influence to help change the law regarding pigs as pets in the city of Philadelphia.  To this day Becky is an activist who guides families cited for breaking the livestock law because they have a pot-belly as a pet in  their homes. 
            After their meeting with Rendell, Becky and  Reggie in tow, climbed the remainder of the stairs to the top floor to “crash” the City Council meeting in session.  Again with Reggie representing the pot-bellied pig community, Becky intended to convince council members that pot-belly pigs make great pets.  But no sooner had they stepped inside the council chambers than Becky and Reggie were escorted back out.  Film crewmen from TV Channel 17 had been filming the council proceedings and followed Becky and Reggie out into the hall where, alongside Reggie dressed in her signature outfit, Becky made the  case for taking the pet pig out of the livestock laws.
            Becky’s cause eventually took Reggie to a Shelton,  Connecticut, courtroom in 1996 for a zoning appeal hearing in which a decision was handed down to uphold the livestock laws in that town, thus forbidding pet pigs as companion animals.  The defendant, who was willing to go to jail to keep custody of her pet pigs, lost her bid against the city livestock laws and was fined $25,000 for having two pot-bellied pigs.  Because she was unable to pay the fines up front, a lien was put against her house.  Though Becky and Reggie were escorted out of the courtroom, a photographer took their photo standing proudly on the courthouse steps, a photo which later won the journalist a first place award in photo-journalism.  And the TV news documentary show, 20/20, featured the Shelton, Connecticut case in a segment on bad laws in America.  Reggie’s other television performance occurred weeks later on the TV show, “America’s Greatest Pets.”
            For the next several years Reggie continued her therapy work and entertaining in elementary schools, hospitals and nursing homes.  Every night, exhausted from such a heavy schedule, Reggie fell asleep, as usual, in her mom’s arms, their noses touching.  And every night Becky thanked Reggie for all she had done to change her life and inspire other people
            Though pigs may not have wings, Reggie gave Becky wings that allowed her to soar in so many different directions, all of them positive and beneficial to both herself and humankind.  As Scott, a good friend once commented to Becky, “Reggie is the dragon, and you are her rider.”  Reggie was Becky’s Earth Angel, who protected her and let her ride along until Becky was able to manage alone.
            Not only did Becky and the others benefit from Reggie’s inspiration, but Reggie earned many kudos for herself.  In 1997 Life Magazine paid her a special tribute in their Celebrating Our Heroes’ Collector’s Edition by acknowledging her as a world hero.  One out of 2,000 animals  to earn the Delta Society’s Animal Therapy designation and for being one of 28 animals nominated for the 1996 Therapy Animal of the Year Award, Reggie took her place beside both human and animal heroes of all time.  Among others, Reggie shared her award with human heroes: Abe Lincoln, Eleanor Roosevelt, Colin Powell, Amelia Earhart, John Wayne, Mother Teresa, and Tecumseh.  And among other animal heroes, Reggie shared the limelight with the head sled-dog Balto, deliverer of  life-saving diphtheria antitoxin to Nome Alaska; Binti Jua, a gorilla who saved a three-year-old who fell into the gorilla exhibit at an Illinois zoo; GI Joe, a carrier pigeon that flew a valuable message to a U.S. airbase in WWII; and Scarlet, a calico mother cat who carried each of her five kittens to safety from a fire.
            Becky always credits Reggie with having inspired her to be an activist against pot-bellies being considered livestock.  Without Reggie she may not even have lived to realize that dream.  Though she doubted the abilities of people to read animals’ minds, she studied the practice herself and now considers herself an animal communicator.  She also works, on her own, with autistic people.  Without Reggie, Becky claims, she would have been a rather ordinary person.
Reggie died November 5, 2007.

Reggie’s Memorial
            Becky’s entire house is a memorial to Reggie.
            Every wall is festooned with Reggie in various poses: looking up at the mayor of Philadelphia; peering from the driver’s side window of her Lincoln Continental; sitting in her mother’s lap; participating in a kissing contest;  lying amongst the wildflowers; taking a snack from Becky’s hand; Reggie and Becky at the drive-in movies; and others. 
            Tucked into a corner of Becky DiNolfi’s living room is a memory spot with many, but certainly not all, of Reggie’s mementoes and awards encircling her box of ashes with the photo of her Life Magazine Hero honor--her leaning over a barn Dutch door--her smile as wide as the door opening itself. Various stones and a pyramidal crystal sit near her box—all meant to protect and help her spirit transition into the next world.   And a rose quartz stone, signifying love, sits nearby.
            On another table sit several photographs of Reggie wearing her black-eyed Susan hat and necklace along with photos of Becky hugging Reggie.  Her black harness with her registration medal from the Delta Society, which she earned on January 1996, sits next to the cremains box, and next to it, a sculpture of a pig with wings.  Nearby sits her flashcards and a ceramic book and a plaque Reggie received on two different occasions as Random Acts of Kindness awards.
            Among all the awards and accolades Reggie received during her lifetime, is framed a poem Becky had written in Reggie’s honor entitled, “The Touch of Love”:
As I lie on the couch my hand drifts down to feel the rough bristles on my Potbellied
Pig Reggie . . .
She is the scratchy feel of love and companionship that only we can share. . . .
My Reggie and I have passed through many trials and tribulations over the years
She has taught me so much about the real meaning of why we are here on this planet. . . .
She asks nothing in return for all the love and laughter she abounds. . . .
She is my Guardian Angel in a little chubby, black, bristled body,  . . .
 So even though she is not soft and furry,
Her heart sure is. . . .
It’s about what we gave, not what we got.


            In the dining room hangs an oil painting Becky did of Reggie in the same pose of the Life Magazine photo.  In the bathroom sits various pig figurines, and in the bedroom hang photos of Reggie doing her flash card tricks during the Fourth of July show at Big Bass Lake in the Poconos as well of photos of Reggie peering out from Becky’s decorated pigmobile, the car they used for traveling to pig events.  Also in the bedroom are photos of Reggie dressed in her beauty pageant gown and meeting Mayor Ed Rendell again.
            Reggie’s entire life--her accomplishments, her personality, her socializing skills, her intelligence, her love of her mom and other people--is memorialized on most every wall of Becky’s home because Reggie, a pig who gave Becky her life back and offered disadvantaged and not-so-disadvantaged people moments of happiness, deserves a tribute of no less magnitude.

            Of Reggie, Becky wrote, “She made me who I am today and gave me the courage to persevere under extreme circumstances that I thought would end my life.  She gave me a reason to live and get out of bed every day.  We lived an amazing life together.  She brought me in contact with the most wonderful friends anyone could ever hope to have.  I am so grateful she was sent to me to share my life even if it was for such a short time.  She taught me so much.

            “I have been able to accept the gifts she brought to me.  She was definitely my soul mate.  She taught me what is really important in this life and time.  She taught me unconditional love, acceptance, patience, guts, courage.  She taught me to laugh, but, most of all, she taught me how to live my life out loud.”     

Sunday, June 21, 2015

A Different Perspective on Father's Day

Before I really get into this post, because it's a bit radical, even iconoclastic, though not intentionally, I'd like to wish fathers out there a happy day.  They don't all have to be fathers of human children, but fathers that nurture animals, too, happen to be just as valuable and worthy of celebration--in my and many people's minds.  So, for fathers everywhere: have a few beers and lots of clams today to celebrate yourself.

On a sort of different subject and for purposes of letting all my followers, admirers (are there any?), and friends who know me well, I'd like to share a very strange thought I had while driving on Seventh Street yesterday.  I was thinking about Father's Day and what it actually meant.  Perhaps I was in a strange mood and not very sympathetic to the famous day that was sending those in traffic around me into a tizzy: pulling out in front of me, speeding to Macy's to buy a pair of boxers for dear old dad, and, otherwise, being rude, harried, and in a general frame of mind that was dissing everyone around them simply because they had avoided doing the Father's Day thing until the last second.  And now, everyone else had to get the hell out of their way in order for them to buy groceries, presents, cards, and whatever else for dad.

Okay: I get that part.  But, then, in my annoyance with the frantic crowd of last-minute Father's Day celebrators, and stopped at the light at Whitehall Family Diner where a lot of older men were shuffling back to their cars with their families, their bellies full of sausage and pancakes, I began to muse on the real nature of Father's Day--to my own amusement.

Now, I'm going to relay this hoping no one is going to rip me a new one because of being offended.  If you're squeamish, if you're so prudish and so "backed-up" that you can't take a joke, then stop reading.  If you want a little guffaw, keep reading.  I can't help the way I think.

So, as I watched, irritated with the traffic, all the men sashaying to their cars in the diner's parking lot, I wondered why all the fuss about Father's Day.  Really?  Why?  Becoming a father, much like a mother, is not anything gargantuan.  Most people have done the reproductive thing over and over again.  It's really no biggie.  Perhaps it should be renamed, I thought.  And then my mind began to imagine, and I began to chuckle to myself as the males and their families staggered to their cars.

I thought perhaps a better wish for Father's  Day would be "Happy Past Ejaculation Day!"  To me, at that moment and in the mood I was in, the name change seemed legit because, scientifically speaking, most men had ejaculated into a vajayjay at sometime, perhaps in the back seat of a Volkswagen Bus, on a rocky cliff off the beaten path at Hawk Mountain, in a drunk-lust fit in the back seat of a car.  You name it; it's been spermed around.  And for this Americans set aside a day for celebration?!  Okay: whatever.

(I apologize already for the mental imagery  I'm sharing with you and probably isn't appreciated in the same way that I appreciated it--with humor.)  I know people out there loved their fathers--so did I--and their fathers are long gone with only memories remaining.  I'm sorry for that, and I know your fathers meant the world to you--and me.  But in that single, solitary moment I, rather unemotionally, contemplated that concept of Father's Day.

Anyway, I think I'm onto something that Hallmark had never considered: a Father's Day card that a six-year-old could present to his or her father on his special day.  It would say something to the effect of "Happy Ejaculation Day!  Thanks for giving me life!  You rock, Dad!"

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Chicken Mania

Most people know I live on a farm with horses, one pot-bellied pig, cats, and three dachshunds.  I have recently added two peacocks, Fred and Ethel, along with five chickens: Nutty, Ma, Ruby, Barrie, and Blackie.  Blackie thinks she's a peacock because she hangs with the pea fowl, but she does do her chicken thing by laying eggs daily.  So, if she wants to chill with the peacocks in her spare time, that's her business. Who am I to tell her she's a chicken?

Up until two days ago I thought the chickens were pretty neat and certainly advantageous because they gift me with eggs daily.  Every time I go to their pasture to visit and check their food and water and throw them "scratch," they chuckle at me and run in front and behind, eagerly anticipating their corn treat.  They are comical: running, not like an animal that has four legs, but one that has two legs.  They run as a human does, their heads bobbing from side to side while they yell and cackle: the most exciting time of the day for them--getting their scratch from their humans.

But two days ago when I let them out of the chicken pen to graze, Nutty did something remarkable, and her  gesture made my week.  When she came out of her pen, I tried to pet her as I always do.  Heretofore, she skittered from underneath my touch: I was a pox.  This time when I proffered my hand, she hunkered in the grass and allowed me to pet her back.  And she seemed to enjoy the experience much as my dogs do.  So, not satisfied enough that she was allowing me to pet her back, I decided to pick her up and hold her against me.  I was surprised that she didn't struggle to get away.

She let me hold her!

I can hardly describe the excitement, the flattery I felt from this chicken allowing me to cuddle her.  After all, she's only a chicken!  Most of us consider them brainless wonders.  Certainly they lack the capacity for affection.  How many animals do we all take for granted as I did her--not affording her personality or the ability to feel affection?  But she certainly does have the capacity for loving and being loved.  How cool--a chicken expressing love!

So, that leads me to wonder about other animals, wild and domestic, and their ability to love a human or, at least, enjoying the simple touch of a human.  I wonder about an armadillo and a turtle.  Could they feel my loving touch  through their hard shells ?  Would they respond to me with their own kind of love expression?  I know my pigs expressed love by sidling against me, nudging me with their snouts, and lying down next to me on the floor.  But, because of a pig's shape and physical incapacity, he or she could not wrap her legs around my neck and plant a big hug on me.

Animals must express their love in their own ways--according to their physical capabilities and according to how they express affection or companionship to others of their species.  Perhaps, if I were a dolphin, another dolphin would swim next to me and nudge me with its nose or flap its tail along my side.  And I would respond likewise.  And a horse is surely incapable of hugging me--I'd be afraid of being crushed to death in his love-grip.  But I do get nuzzles from my horses.

I have learned that affection is relative to the species meting it out.  And I am perfectly fine with that.  My chickens are teaching me new life lessons every day.

The world never ceases to amaze.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Tribute to Sadie

This week many of my Facebook friends have lost family members--furry, feathered, scaley family members, that is.

I see them grieving; I grieve.  Indeed, I feel their pain.  Because I have been through it often enough: holding and staring at the dead body of what once had been my warm, loving friend.

It's tough, I know.  Still, I never know what to say to make that person feel better: as though her world will still move on, as though the pain will stop soon, as though there's a reason to live.  Sometimes there's not anything to do but bear the misery until time dulls it.  The best I can say is, "I''m so sorry."  Lame, I know; but it's the best and most honest I can do--because there really is nothing I can say that will make the pain go away.

So, this week Sadie, the pot-bellied pig, died and left her owners empty, wandering their home in search of Sadie's presence: the surreality of death lingers as they expect their beloved pet to nudge against their legs as she habitually did at each feeding.  They hear her trotting around every corner, her little hard hooves clicking happily along the hardwood flooring.  Sadie's presence is everywhere, but she's not there.

Yes, I know that haunting sensation well--dread it, really.  I have had upwards of 14 pot-bellies, 7 horses, 20-something cats that I have mothered and accompanied into death through the years.  And I have had to endure that pain with clenched jaw, blinding tears, and overwhelming resentment toward a possible god.  

I am so sorry Sadie had to die so young and so unnecessarily.  Life continues to be cruel.  And I really have no thoughts at this time to ease her human family's hurt.

I have no words.

Friday, October 17, 2014

"The Mind of a Cat"

I was in the check-out line at the grocery store the other day when a magazine caught my eye: "The Animal Mind:  What They're Thinking and Feeling, and How to Understand Them."  I grabbed the book edited by Jeffrey Kluger and published by Time magazine and perused the Table of Contents.  The subjects were varying, scientific, but, better yet, offered answers to questions I've had about animals all my life.  I had to buy it.

This is a "must-buy" for all animal lovers.  Among lots of subjects are "Do animals have minds, as well as brains?" The book discusses grief in animals, their social behaviors, ways animals talk to each other and to us, animal rights, mental illness in animals, and why people feel the way they do about some species of animal.  For example, why do most people dislike rats but love dogs?  This is a scientific, enlightening book for everyone with a questioning mind and a cat in one's lap, or a dog, or a lizard, or a bird.  Or a rat.

One of the reasons people seem to prefer dogs over cats is because dogs have been selectively bred by humans for a longer time than have cats, which have only been bred for the last 150 years.  Instead of being bred for their work ethic or productive exploitation, as with farm animals, cats have been bred mostly for their looks.  Perhaps this is why cats seem wilder to us than dogs.

Anyway, as I read further into the chapter entitled, "Inside the Mind of a Cat" by Temple Grandin, she claims that cats are harder to train because, not only are they further down the list on those species most domesticated by man, but they have retained most of their wild nature, in contrast to the dog, for example.  So, a cat in one's house behaves similarly to a lion in the wild.  Cats, therefore, can only be trained using positive reinforcement, not negative.  Using negative reinforcement on a cat will make them fearful and respond by attacking.  Being more wild, however, doesn't preclude cats' social natures, for, indeed, cats are quite social amongst themselves and persons they live with.  Wild animals are the ultimate existentialists: behaving and doing things because it's "the nature of the beast," or simply because they feel they need to do something in order to exist.  Therefore, when they act existentially, which most do, people interpret that behavior as stand-offfish or independent.  Rather than their making a concerted effort to be contrary, however, cats are independent because of their wild streaks. 

Another point Grandin makes is that people are socially closer to the species of dogs: dogs create families as humans do, and they communicate like people with facial expressions and through the visual.  Their "speech" is variable, too--sound that people can easily interpret.  Not only can people "read" dogs, but dogs can "read" people well, too.

I disagree with Grandin when she says cats do not have expressive faces, largely because they lack eyebrows used for expression.  My cats all had and have expressive faces; one just had to recognize the glint of happiness in the eye, the drop of moisture on the grinning lips.  But such ability to interpret cats comes naturally to cat ladies like me and people who keep close company with the feline.  Grandin recommends that the novice of cats look more at the body stance of a cat than at his or her face in order to discover meaning and feeling.

Grandin gets a few things wrong in this article--from my perspective.  And I'm not an animal behaviorist--just a cat lady with a few thousand cats trying to occupy my lap at any one time.  I'm kidding.  I have just a few hundred, at most.  Kidding again. :).  She claims that cats seem like autistic children because they are not very sociable and because they have blank faces.  She also says that cats don't "read" people well.  Mine read me just fine--like a book, in fact. 

Grandin says cats have just as good a sense of smell as dogs and so a cat's preferred method of communicating is through smell: peeing on things and making more subtle smelly deposits from the paws and the glands along the jaw--smells we humans can't detect. 

What I found most interesting in this article is that coat color can be associated with purr-sonality in the cat.  Actually, it's probably true with horses, as well: black horses are widely known amongst horse trainers as being spookier and harder to deal with.  Having said that, however, my black horse, Lola, is more level-headed than my spotted horse, Bo.  Go figure.  But, with the cat, a black coat is more laid-back, friendlier, better able to deal with city-life, and can play well with others in a cattery.  Overall, black cats are more social.  In contrast, Grandin says the orange male cats are more aggressive and shier.  Orange cats are scaredy-cats.  Of course, Grandin offers a disclaimer that individual cats can be bolder or shier, social or unsocial, regardless of color. 

When adopting a cat, look for a black one, one that approaches you when you appraoch its cage. If the cat allows a person to hold him, that's a winner, and if he plays, he's good, too.  If someone acqures a tiny kitten, it's imperative to begin petting and holding him or her by two weeks of age because the best period for socialization of a kitten is week two to week seven.  After this the kitten is more likely to be feral.  Being handled a lot by different people will cause a kitten to be very friendly toward people.

So, here's the information I found useful from this chapter by Temple Grandin.  I can't wait to read more of this book and share my thoughts with you again.

I just wanted to mention that black cats, as well as black dogs, are those that are put to sleep first in shelters because people aren't attracted to them,  Perhaps more people ought to read Grandin's article because she says black cats are the best choices.  Interesting.

Does anyone have any thoughts on the black cat thing?  I'd love to have feedback on this subject.


Sunday, August 31, 2014


Did I really have to wait 62 years to discover that a person never really needs a vacation, that all he or she needs to do is experience a different realm in order to escape the daily routine of life?  It's true: that was a discovery I made just a few days ago.  Since then this word "realm" has been going round and round in my head.

I don't mean to be sounding philosophical when I analyze this idea of realms; I would just like people to be aware of them so that it doesn't take them 62 years, as it did me, to realize that enjoying a realm, on any level, can substitute for entertainment or escapism.

Let me be more specific.

I define a "realm" as a space, place, or time--a mini world--that somehow transports a person from his or her daily routine and offers refreshment, entertainment, and a sense of difference that gives a breath of renewal.  For some people, a realm can be as simple as visiting a hospital.  One walks through the hospital doors and is immediately ushered into a totally different "universe": doctors and nurses scuttling about, that certain chemical smell pervading the atmosphere, a sense of hurry, urgency.  In those minutes we find ourselves in this different space, we are taken out of our normalness, perhaps even out of our comfort zone.  But it really doesn't matter if the realm of the hospital takes us out of our normal ease of living just as long as it takes us--period.  Eventually we will come home and be back in our comfortable groove.  But the effect will have been that, for some moments, we will have escaped ourselves and "visited" another realm.  That is good for us.

I have been particularly observant of the different realms existing around me: ones that I enjoy being a part of of; ones I'm impressed with and wish I could be a part of on a daily basis; and ones that are so different and exciting that I am almost unworthy of their experiences.  Of those realms I am just tickled to enjoy a few moments, like scuba diving among tropical fishes and sharks.  I would guess that, for most people, vacations to different countries qualify as realms.

As I said, these realms make us feel different when we are in them; they make us feel special, if only for a few moments.  But they all offer renewal, rejuvenation, education.

Realms that I have experienced of late are the following: walking a wooded trail, making my way to teach on the campus of Lehigh Carbon Community College amongst hordes of students trundling to class.  Being in the classroom teaching is another realm for me since I am an adjunct and only experience it two days a week.  Other realms for me--as individual for me as for anyone else--are experiencing and participating in a horse show; visiting Ross Mill Farm and Piggy Camp (a rescue for pot-bellied pigs); going to a concert; eating outside at River Walck Saloon; fishing by a creek; experiencing the beach at Sandy Hook Park in NJ; wine-tasting in the Finger Lakes; being at a courthouse and in a courtroom.

Literally, a realm is a microcosm, a tiny world, in which those people residing inside unfathomably regard their life inside, not as a realm, but as ho-hum daily life.  They regard their realm as common, unexciting to them--routine.  But experiencing their realm is not boring to me.  A realm is a different world from the one I own.  It's exciting, different, transporting.  A realm affords meeting different people of different nationalities, different interests, different talents.  It's a different space with different goals, interests, and ambitions from mine.  It's most certainly a different place from what I'm used to.  A realm shares itself and its people or animals or whatever with me so that I can learn, enjoy, and feel renewed by it.  A realm is something one needs to open himself up to, or the learning experience could slip away, unappreciated.

Here are more realms--for me: a casino, a zoo, a traffic jam, canoeing on a lake, sleeping overnight anywhere but one's own home.  Around here I feel transported--on a temporary vacation--when I visit the Lehigh Valley Zoo, when I walk wooded trails, when I visit the Sands Casino (that is really a different kind of realm, isn't it?).  What some people believe is just their work, I consider an enlightening realm: the Kabota showroom; being in a church, a library, an assisted living or nursing home; riding the Strasburg railroad; visiting an Amish farm; going to a fair, festival, a fireworks display.

These realms take me away: by their looks, their smells, the special noises going on there.  All that makes me feel different and a little on edge, "up" or "down" is what I call a realm.  It's an experience, whether negative or positive, and its renews and allows me to learn and, therefore, grow.  It's starting a new job; it's going on a vacation; it's shopping at a totally new and dazzling place; it's meeting people who share same interests in a common world which I am only allowed to visit momentarily but whose visit enlightens.

Enough, now, about realms.  Recognize them; appreciate them; and grow from their experience.  Without them life is a dullard merely trudging along--minute by minute, hour by hour, day by day.  The realm is a spark in the dark.


Friday, July 4, 2014

Duwee Lives On

A dear piggy Facebook friend--yes, a pig--died three days ago and left so many people around the globe feeling empty and heartbroken. Thousands of people, mostly those who have developed a love for the porcine species, myself among them, are in mourning because Duwee Russell Lupton, a Kunekune miniature pet pig who lived in the English countryside, is no longer able to cheer us with his simple barnyard pleasures and his calm, positive personality.

Facebook is a funny creature that most of us who use it appreciate and like--at times-- and, at other times, find very annoying.  People quibble about politics; they complain about their jobs; they brag about their leisure activities and love lives that make the rest of us feel as though we have no lives at all.  At other times they are happy, celebratory, and content, but, often, Facebook friends tend to be happy, well: "not so much."

Whenever a post rolled onto my Newsfeed from Duwee, however, I turned to read it instead of scrolling to another entry.  Duwee always, always made me feel good, positive, appreciative of being alive, no matter what was bothering me.  He was a pig, after all, who led a simple life alongside Poppy, then Lilli, his chickens, and a goat, and he reported happily and most every day about his Lilli pig who seemed always to be getting into trouble at home, though he related the story with amusement every time. And if one of his barnyard friends died, Duwee took the event courageously, vowing to meet his brother or sister when, at last, he, too, journeyed over the Rainbow Bridge.

And now he has.

Of course, I realize that the voice of Doo, as he was affectionately known among his Facebook friends, actually came from his human mom, Sue, and his dad, Dave.  It was mostly Sue, I believe, who spoke for Duwee.  Duwee's, or Sue's, voice was the voice of kindness, acceptance: one of not taking a simple farm life, or any life, however one lives it, for granted.  With each post I could look to Doo for comfort, for contentment, for positive thinking, for acceptance.  All of us--his friends--looked forward to sharing in Doo's barnyard adventures.  And we were sad when he had problems with his feet and began to age and have seizures.  Most of us have been following Doo for ten years or so.  To us, Duwee was a daily presence--a bandaid on our lives' wounds--and a soothing voice that subtlely urged us to appreciate and get back to nature, her animals, and the earth he so lovingly turned over and over with his nose.  Duwee's voice, without saying so in words, saw the joy, through technology, of turning away from technology: our cell phones, computers, Facebook, even, and living in the simple, precious moment of a fellow creature, whether it be a person or an animal.  He encouraged the simple life, love, appreciation of others, especially for pigs and other pets.  He was an emotional, supportive force that kept all of us pig people on the right track, the honest track of real life, earthy life.

What will we all do without Doo?  What will we all do without his mom, Sue, speaking through us--guiding us to appreciate and be joyful for each day, each slice of watermelon, every grape, and succulent morsel we bring to our lips?

The best we can do is live up to the legacy of Duwee Russel Lupton.  We can live as though we are all little Doos: joyfully participating in life in all its riches, its flavors, its animals, its nature.  Duwee would have us all wallow happily in life, as he did--not complain, not wish away our workdays, not whine about traffic jams or department store lines.

Duwee would have us lying in the sun, soaking up the warmth and smiling, feeling the good heat on our skin.  He would have us relishing each meal as if it were our last one.  He would have us enjoying a spider building its intricate net across a doorway.  He would have us content, calm, accepting.  Duwee would have us be like him: always positive, always looking forward to the next day, the next experience in our human "banyards."   And he would always have us wearing a crazy hat--evidence of his humor and enthusiasm for life.

I surely will miss seeing and hearing about Duwee Russell Lupton's antics on Facebook, but he taught me well.  I will try, despite my tendency to err because I am only human and quite flawed, to carry on Doo's legacy of positiveness and enthusiasm for living.  I will try to complain and judge less.  I will enjoy more walks in nature, not kill a spider simply because it walks.  I will be "Doo for a Day"--not simply a day, but for most of my life.

Thank you, Sue and Dave, for giving us so much through Duwee.  You both know Duwee lives on in each of us, his Facebook fans, and we will try our best to mirror his outlook on life.

Thank you.
Gay Balliet