Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Li'l Ralphie

Our bellies filled with a sumptuous outdoor lunch of smoked chicken wings and baked potatoes, we drove towards home on one of the last beautiful, sunshine-filled days of autumn. What a difference from the day before when our rain gauge reported an inch and a half of rain.

Going 50 mph on the main drag towards home, I saw something sitting by the side of the road, but the form didn't register with my brain as the typical groundhog or possum. Suddenly I knew what it was, and then a second image flooded my brain: a paw stepping out onto the road. "TURN AROUND!" I yelled to Edgar. "HURRY! Turn around! There's a kitten by the side of the road!"

Edgar whipped the SUV around in a cut-out alongside the highway and pulled out just as a school bus came charging up behind us. "Where is it?" Edgar said, peering ahead, his knuckles white on the steering wheel.

"Just up here--in this wooded area. It was . . . " Up ahead we could see cars' break lights going on and off.

"Where is it?" Edgar repeated.

And then we saw the kitten--an orange one the size of a Campbell soup can--crouched in the middle of our lane of traffic. "THERE! RIGHT THERE! PUT ON THE FOUR-WAYS. STOP!"

Even before Edgar had brought the car to a complete halt, I was out the door and running. Cars zipped past us in the other lane, and the kitten turned away from the whoosh of the traffic-wind. I called to the kitten, and it slowly turned toward me, its face a mass of crusticles and snot. Surely it couldn't see where it was walking. I scooped the creature into my arms, turned, and ran back to the car.

Back in the car I held the tiny creature against my chest, plucked a Kleenex, and began pulling the pus-scabs from around the kitten's swollen-red eyes. The nose, too, was concreted shut with dried snot. He must've known he was in kind hands because he let me pull all that junk from his fur without any fussing. Then, as we headed down the road, I noticed a quarter-sized scab dried on his fur. I scraped at that with a fingernail, and it opened up, allowing a river of pus to run down his side--an abscess. I caught the pus with another Kleenex, and a fleeting thought passed as to whether my cashmere sweater was also catching any of the nasty fluids. But the sweater didn't concern me much All that mattered was the kitten's welfare and comfort.

As we drove toward home, I held the trembling kitten against me. Though he was safe now in my hands, I broke down into tears. How many other kittens are disposed of so violently, so nonchalantly by people who have no sense of responsibility, no sense of charity or empathy for an animal that can't care for itself? I cried because of our unfathomable inhumanity, our crass egoism that values cell phones and blackberries more than creatures that can feel pain and misery. I cried because the little creature in my lap didn't deserve being discarded like some piece of trash. I cried because, had we not rescued him in that perfect split-second, the school bus would have pulverized him for sure. I cried because luck and good timing had been on the side of this kitten but that luck and good timing usually didn't benefit most creatures cast off by heartless people. Most creature-trash succumbed by the side of the road.

That was yesterday afternoon.

This morning, after an evening of intensive nursing, antibiotics, ophthalmic treatments, and nutritious food, Li'l Ralphie, named in honor of Ralphie, one of our barn cats who died about a month ago from old age, came running to me from the garden room: one eye wide open, the other half shut with more dried pus. He squeaked at me but suddenly fell quiet--his feline enthusiasm interrupted by a fit of wheezing and sneezing. But he was happy, and he was grateful to be alive. And I was just as ecstatic for him and for me.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Remembering Fancy-III

As I said before in "Remembering Fancy II" blog, Fancy's birth back in 1979 was a traumatic one. After her mother gave birth on the crest of a hill, the foal must've lost her balance and plunged down the hill and into the creek below. Luckily, from his bedroom my father-in-law heard Fancy's mother, Merry, whinnying and snorting. He rushed into the pasture in his nightie, shined his flashlight around, and after spotting the newborn foal in the rushing waters, plucked her from the creek and delivered her safely back to her mother.

Here is my description of our newborn foal right after her rescue from the creek. The excerpt is from my book, Touched By All Creatures: Doctoring Animals in the Pennsylvania Dutch Country:

Edgar lifted the baby into the stable where the floor was thick with good-smelling straw. In the light we examined and caressed our new furry wet gift while Merry nudged it protectively. Edgar, checking the sex, announced we had a baby girl, a filly, and we decided to call her Fancy, for, indeed, she was.

She stood on skinny, shaky legs, less than an hour old. Her body was thin but healthy looking, and she sported a shiny fur coat. But this young, freshly-made equine model looked, at the same time, old, for around her thin pink muzzle had grown long whiskers that resembled a grizzled old man. These hairs would help her feel for her mother's udder when she was ready to nurse.

Her eyes, big and set too wide apart for the size of her small head, glinted a kind of crystal translucent brown. She glanced curiously from her mother to the sides of the stalls, to the straw bedding, and to the three of us. She looked perplexed, and it was no wonder, for only moments ago she had been inside her mother's womb in darkness. Now she searched, inquired, and marveled at this new world, and we three, enthralled with this newborn's wonder at a world into which she was so rudely thrust, could merely watch in silence and awe.

She seemed as fragile as a china doll, as though she would crack if she fell against something. Even her fur had pale highlights to it, resembling the color of bisque. We knew, of course, that within a few months she would shed that coat for a new, more fashionable color, possibly bay like her mother or a rich mahogany brown like her father. . . .

Saturday, October 3, 2009

The Petless Person

First, not all people who live without pets do so because they dislike them. Usually, however, in the case of the petless person claiming he or she just isn't an animal person, this person has never lived with an animal. This lack of experience explains part of the misunderstanding about a pet's gift: their total acceptance and nonjudgmental approach to us.

Our pets don’t boss us, don’t judge us, usually seek to please us, and are always there for us—actions often the very opposite of most human friends and relatives. And when someone like you or me realizes the importance of pet companionship and when we prefer our pets to these inexperienced humans, our privileging the animal makes them feel inferior, smaller, and decidedly uncomfortable. What they sometimes don't realize is that they helped create the sticky situation—by ignoring you in your time of need, by laughing or snickering at your love for your pets, by criticizing you over your lifetime choices or goals--things our pets never do and wouldn't do even if they could speak, for their love and admiration for us is unconditional.

People who do not like animals usually see things in one-dimension. Their world revolves solely around people, and because of this, their personalities, motives, and values become one-dimensional as well. Though they my think themselves superior to the pet lover, they realize that you, as a lover of animals, consider them inferior because you recognize their lack of knowledge and their narrowed viewpoint of the world.

Some who claim they aren't attracted to animals seem proud of that fact. Why? Perhaps the claim makes them feel superior--but it shouldn't. They’re missing out on a whole other realm of life. The ability to communicate and respond to a different species makes us so much more able to communicate and empathize with other people who may not be like us. With a whole new set of communication skills, we animal people can more easily get past our limitatons and communicate with anyone who is of a different culture, religion, or political party simply because we have learned the nuances of communicating with our pets. This ability makes us superior to the petless person, doesn’t it?

Consider the horse and dog and cat whisperers who truly reside in a different world than most people. They are attuned to body gestures and eye contact. They are wise and compassionate people because they have learned to communicate in a way in which none of us were taught to communicate in school. Having this ability to break through to the world of animals makes us more sensitive, more intuitive, and we can bring this experience to our relationships with people as well.

So, if you are one of those people whose relatives and friends criticize your love of animals, rest proudly knowing that you reside and operate on a far higher level of understanding and sensitivity than do they. Stand proud for nurturing your ability to transcend the human condition.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Remembering Fancy II

Strange things have occurred with regard to Fancy's dying.

With Fancy's body on the bucket of our tractor, Edgar drove through two pastures--past the remaining four horses grazing in the field--to bring her into our horse pasture cemetery, where a large hole had been dug and where she would lie for eternity next to Nicky, Shadowfax, Lillie, and Merry, her mother. I walked alongside the tractor, and through my tears I saw the other horses, their heads down. Three of them were grazing as usual, undisturbed by just another piece of machinery driving past. But my hair stood up along the back of my neck at sight of Timmy.

As we drove slowly past, careful not to jostle Fancy out of the bucket, Timmy, our old Saddlebred, picked his head off the ground and snapped to attention. His head was high, his body as still as Fancy's. But it was his expression that unnerved me. His eyes held to the bucket wherein Fancy lay, and they were as wide as I've ever seen them--struck still, staring, staring hard. His expression was, in no uncertain terms, one of complete horror.

I nodded at Edgar, and he glanced at Timmy. And when he saw Timmy's reaction, Edgar, began to cry. I was already sobbing at the disconcerting sight of Timmy's shock seeing Fancy in such a compromising and ultimate position. Clearly Timmy was stunned, horrified, to see her being carried, helpless, across the pasture.

His reaction spoke volumes about the ability of an animal to realize death. To see this old horse stand so erect and in catatonic attention was proof, as far as I was concerned, that he knew Fancy was gone. His expression told us he was overwhelmed with the realization that her position in the bucket was unnatural and, therefore, final.

Here's the other odd thing about dealing with death, and it's no stranger to us, having been through many of our pets' deaths. It has to do with what our brains are accustomed to seeing. It happened with Nicky and Fax; I suppose it happens, too, when humans die. One's brain does not adjust very quickly to an animal's or person's absence. The brain "sees" the pet on her cushion, in her favorite chair, at her food dish in the corner of the kitchen. In my case, when I went to feed the horses last night, Fancy's stall was obviously, screamingly, vacant. It erupted a lump in my throat. Every time I passed by her stall, I had to deliberately adjust my brain for the absence because if I didn't, the fact of her death came pouring unmercifully over me. Habits die hard, and Fancy had been a fixture in that stall for a little less than thirty years. Fancy's presence in that stall had become hard-wired in my brain, and it was struggling to adjust.

This morning's feeding wasn't any better--still the horrific emptiness of the stall hitting me. And Julie, Fancy's sister and her pasture mate, stood by the wall between their two stalls, waiting, waiting for Fancy to come back. Julie's brain, too, had become conditioned to Fancy's presence beside her.

Until our brains adjust to this robbery, I vow to help Julie deal with her loss, too. I'm going to visit her several times a day while she's out on pasture. I'm going to fuss over her so that the 28 year old horse feels just a little less deprived of Fancy's company. And I'm going to pay extra attention, too, to poor Timmy, who almost had the life shocked out of him.

Remembering Fancy

My best equine friend died this morning. My misery is indescribable--my death wound red raw, my face stained with tears I cannot still. But I want to keep her memory alive--death won't ride off with her that easily--if I have anything to do with it. Through my tear-blurs, I write this tribute to Fancy, my first show horse, the horse I learned to ride on, the kindest horse I have ever had the pleasure to know.

In my various books, I have written often about Fancy, my muse, my confidante. When her mother gave birth to her, we were living fifteen minutes away in a house trailer--something we could afford while Edgar went to veterinary school. That night Edgar's mother awakened us with a hysterical phone call--something about Merry, our mare who was due to foal, having trouble. While in bed that nigh, Edgar's father had heard a horse screaming in the pasture and had gone out to see what had happened. Tripping over pasture rocks and shining his flashlight up the hill, he spotted the mare racing back and forth across the crest of the hill. She was looking toward the bottom of the hill. Directing the flashlight down, he saw a lump the size of a German shepherd lying in the rushing waters of the creek. Running down the hill to the foal, he leaped into the water, wrapped his arms around the newborn and hoisted her out. She was shivering and soaked. Then, wearing bedroom scuffies on his feet, he pushed the foal up the hill where Merry ran and joined her new baby.

Fancy's birth was traumatic: for us and her. And other incidences were as memorable, like the first show I took her to in Quentin, PA. Because I was showing Fancy in the weanling class (a model class that judges conformation of baby horses), I could not take Merry into the ring with her foal. She could only go into the ring with a handler. So, I strapped a lead rope to Fancy's tiny halter. She was so soft and beautiful with a big bright-white star on her forehead, black mane and tail, and a buff-colored coat. Then I walked her to the ring where a huge crowd had gathered to see the weanling class. At the start of the class, I led little Fancy into the ring (I had practiced leading her and parking her out many times at home) following other weanlings and their handlers. We walked around the ring and then were told to line up in the center and park. Fancy was unsure of herself without her mother, and I was trying my best to reassure her that she was safe in my care. But growing anxiety soon burst into full-blown hysteria as the crowd in the stands began to clap for all the cute weanlings. At the sound of people hooting and clapping, Fancy went ballistic--she dropped over on her side in a dead faint. The crowd groaned, and I bent over my little horse, trying to calm her enough to get her to stand up. Finally, she popped onto her feet. We left the ring with no ribbon and hurt pride, but that didn't matter. All that mattered was that Fancy was safe and that I got her back to her hysterical mother back at the trailer.

Before Fancy was sent to be trained at the age of two, I used to walk her around our woods as one would walk a dog. We had many a lovely stroll as fall leaves drifted around us. I was just beginning to learn how horses think and react. And I had a lot more to learn: about riding and my own sense of self and courage.

When we brought Fancy home from the trainers in Harrisburg, PA, I called riding instructor, Gale Remington, renowned for training horses and riders together. Part of a chapter about Fancy in my book, Lions & Toigers & Mares--Oh, My! describes my first riding lesson:

I had expected thunder thighs--a woman the size of Godzilla's first born. After all, I figured, a person uses a lot of leg when riding, and after all her years of experience in the saddle (which, to my figuring, made her about retirement age), her trotters must rival those of a Sumo wrestler. I pictured a steely gray-haired old lady who carried her fleshy saddle with her wherever she went. I would dare her to teach me anything.
But when the little brown sports car skidded to a stop in our driveway, I wished I wouldn't have worn my T-shirt that said I Can't Believe I Ate the Whole Thing. I peeked from the barn door and sauntered out to the car, my chest thrust forward. I caught sight of a perky, blonde ponytail. I stopped dead, and my confident grin fizzled at sight of a pretty, petite face encircled by curls.
My confident expression broke like an earthquake across my face as the young woman alighted from the car. From her docksiders to her jeans and Izod shirt, she was everything I had every hoped to look like. My instinctive jealousy of other attractive women erupted primitively. Had the UPS man with his acne face or the stubby grandfather from the Department of Agriculture come to the house, I would've fought this opponent for my man, ripping her ponytail right out of her head. She was a picture.
She was disgustingly lanky--a Modigliani without the distortion. And her hair--natural blonde tresses--was pulled hurriedly through a tortoise-shell hairclip and curled in quiet disarray around her head. It was a look I tried copying during my high school and college years--the Dr. Pepper look--that messy, windblown picture of loveliness: a California girl.
However, while the California beach nymph perspired sexily and while the sand glistened on her skin like granulated sugar on a vanilla cookie, in contrast I could only rival a lump of unbaked dough. I sweated like a container of cold tunafish salad on a humid day and developed embarrassing water stains under my sleeves. And sand never glistened like crystals on my skin. It just sandblasted the remains of any make-up and caused a rash down my thighs. No--I could never look disheveled with any degree of class.
"Hi, my name's Gale--as in the wind," she said, brushing a stray hair from her face.
"Hi, I'm Gay," I said. I heard a disbelieving giggle. "Well, I'm Gay but not really. Not that there’s anything wrong with it." She laughed.
"I see you have the horse ready to go. This is the first time you've ridden her since she came home from training, right?" She eyed Fancy, sizing up her conformation as I strapped on an old, beat up English hard hat. She turned, saw the moth-eaten thing perched atop my head and said, "Why are you wearing that?"
As the elastic chinstrap bit into my cheeks (I felt like a fat baby with an Easter bonnet), I said grandly, "Better to be safe than sorry--that's my motto." She looked amused, and there was a long silence.
Okay, I better 'fess up. I swallowed the lump of hot pride, "I guess I'm not a very experienced rider; my husband's afraid I'll hurt myself." Smiling weakly, I climbed into the saddle. Only I knew I was wearing that hat because I couldn't stand the sight of my own blood.
But the pride welled up again, stronger this time. "Yes, he's such a worry wart," I said, patting the hard hat onto my head. The dust puffed out around it. "He's so silly--thinks I can't ride." A nervous laugh shot from my mouth.
We walked to the middle of the outdoor ring. "We'll see in a few minutes, won't we? Head her on out and circle to the left around the outside of the ring. Try to find her center of balance." Fancy and I followed the path along the fence.
"That's it: take it easy at a walk, and keep her together between your hands and legs," she shouted. Drive that backend underneath you; we're looking for a bit of collection here. Good riding is the ability to ride a balanced seat on a balanced animal." And so came the barrage of knowledge, filling my well of concentration.
Suddenly as "balanced seat," "collection," and "drive from behind" swam dizzily in my head, I heard a loud bugle-like sound issue from below. Tossing her head and snorting, Fancy sudddenly stepped into a high-headed prance. I felt my blood turn to glass as my seat went out from under me. All of a sudden I abandoned my steed for a white-water canoe. First the front end pitched, then it came up--and I lurched atop it, loose, like a ragdoll--my legs flying in the stirrups, my hands clinging to the mane.
Fancy was "hot" as horsemen would say. Such behavior did not phase a professional who could ride out a sudden spurt of energy. But I froze in my stirrups, fearing for my life as Edgar had. Only then did I realize that Fancy was a three year old, fiery animal, only broke to ride just six short months ago. Suddenly I was scared to death.
And then I knew that before this I had probably been lucky with riding my old horse, Nicky, and others at local hack stables. They took care of me, thereby flattering me into thinking I was an adequate rider. They made sure I had always arrived safely back at the barn after carrying me through the woods and along the country roads.
But Fancy was different in her youth. At the trainer's we were confined to a circular path in the indoor arena. Here I was outside on two acres of hills and ditches with their scary shadows, wind, darting cats and lurking dog. At the trainer's Fancy hadn't been distracted by even a tree or any other animals.
In vain I prayed for Fancy to act sensibly and protect me. "SIT UP STRAIGHT! Bring her down into a walk and collect your thoughts and your balance," Gale called.
"I want to see a canter--NOW!" Gale yelled from the center of the ring. "Collect her first; ride the back end, and cue her for the canter."
This is it, I said to myself. I can’t canter. I'm going to hurt myself. I clenched the reins and prayed for a nose-bleed.
"Let's go! Cue her for that canter!" Gale cried. Then, not even thinking that I should just stop the horse and get off, apologize meekly and admit I couldn't ride a toilet seat, let alone a horse, I cued Fancy for the canter.
Like a spring bursting from a broken toy, she leaped into the air. Paradoxically, instead of gripping harder, my body reacted by shutting itself down. My guts sank, loosening from the body wall, and lay in a heap next to my bladder while my arms and legs loosened and hung from their joints--the white flag of surrender. Worst of all, my eyes involuntarily closed, pitching me into darkness.
"Gay, don't fall apart!" Gale commanded. "Stay with her and look where you're going! Don't go forward! Sit up straight--don't grab her neck!"
My heart heaved, and my guts liquified as I grabbed for her ears--an albatross around her neck. I was a dead weight, clasping her gullet in a death grip. But I could not let go despite Fancy's strangulated snorts. Then the white-water canoe mutated into a runaway go-cart, to which I helplessly clung to the wheel. Finally, I opened my eyes but only to see my nemesis--the beckoning ground.
Fancy plummeted around that pasture and banked into the turns. Her head was stretched out straight from the shoulder, and there was no way to stop her in her frenzied flight. I could merely pitch and heave aboard her--my arms clinging around her neck.
"STOP HER! PULL BACK ON THE REINS!" I heard a voice from the sky boom. "GET OFF HER NECK! SIT UP STRAIGHT OR YOU’LL . . ..”
CRUNCH! I hit the ground. The world went black.
I opened my eyes. Fancy was staring at me, blue sky enhaloing her head.
"Do you hear me, Gay? Get back on your horse. You're all right. Just knocked the wind out of you." It was Gale.
A stone was digging me in the middle of my back. "I'm alive," I moaned in a weak voice. My back creaked into place. "Nothing really hurts, only a little stiff," I said twisting my head from side to side.
"You're just fine. Get up. The reason you went off is because all your weight was on her front end. I couldn't get you to stop her; she was out of control, but you should've leaned back when you stopped. Now get back on, and we'll go around a few times at a walk."
I stepped stiffly into the saddle. Fancy seemed calm enough now.
"When she stopped on a dime, you took a swan dive over her left shoulder, landing first on your side, then your back. It wasn't a bad fall, and you didn't fall very far; actually, you were already halfway to the ground, hanging down around her neck.
"It's a bit strange," she said, contemplating the skyline. "It almost seemed as though you wanted to fall off. Of course, that's absolutely silly, isn't it. Nobody ever wants to fall off a horse." She shot me a side glance.
Could it be that a person's subconscious, in expecting something to happen, could almost cause it to occur? Had so many people told me horses were dangerous and that I wasn't such a great rider that I actually, subconsciously, fulfilled their predictions by falling off? Did I hope to erase all their hauntings if, psychologically, I'd just give in and get it over with?
Fancy and I walked around the pasture, and then I dismounted. I had made a fool of myself.
Leading Fancy back to the barn, I listened to Gale's analysis," You've got a long way to go if you want to learn to ride a horse."
"Well, I didn't feel very good today anyway. My sinuses are acting up, and I can't see clearly." I could rationalize with the best of them. "Besides, when I rode Fancy at the trainer's, she had only one little spot in which to run: she had no room to act up--here she has fourteen acres! It's just not fair," I reasoned. "Everybody else can ride a horse without falling off."
Dead silence. Gale was smiling.
She began, "First of all, you don't sound stuffed up at all. Besides, I didn't know sinus problems could cause incoordination. And you also weren't riding in fourteen acres, but only in about two. You are not the only one to fall off a horse, so don't expect any pity from me. Plain and simple--you need to learn how to ride properly--that's all. No one has ever taught you to ride. Once you understand and master the basics, you'll be able to ride with the best of them, . . . but not before then."

It took hours and hours of practice to be ready to show successfully against other plantation walking horses. I taught high school English during the 80's and early 90's. I remember coming home from a harrowing day of teaching, and I immediately changed into my riding clothes. Fancy was out in the pasture, and when she spied the lead rope in my hand, she knew she'd have about a forty-five minute workout. I didn't think it possible, but knowing she was going to be working put her into a funk. When she saw me, she hung her head so that her muzzle almost touched the ground. I thought, "What? Is Fancy sick?" But she wasn't sick, at least not physically. She just didn't want to go through the paces. Still, she allowed me to catch her, not complaining at all when I tightened the saddle and fitted her bridle. She was always willing and eager to please me, and that memory of her easy-going acceptance will always stay with me.

Fancy is to be buried at noon. I'm ending this blog for today so that I can go out to the barn and whisper private things to her. I want to hold her head in my arms and tell her that if she was in a better place,then I'll be greeting her there sometime. I want to say good-bye to the best friend I've ever had. Perhaps tomorrow I'll have a little more strength and courage to continue this tribute to my horse.