Archive for the ‘Pets and Other Fauna’ Category

Zoo Stories, Part 2

More about my trip to the zoo in Greenville, South Carolina…


Billy Bob

Sometimes, you run across zoo enclosures that contain more than one species of animal. At the Greenville Zoo, for example, the alligator compound also is home to alligator snapping turtles. Apparently, the animals are simpatico.

Maybe that explains why, after I left the gators and turtles behind and arrived at the toucan enclosure, I didn’t question why a large black snake was inside the cage.

My first thought: hmmm, who knew snakes and toucans are compatible? You learn something every day.

My next thought: hey, wait a minute. The openings in that cage wire are huge. It might stop a python or a boa, but not the snake I’m looking at.

Whereupon, I concluded that the snake must have escaped from its enclosure and was wandering loose. Maybe the staff didn’t know it yet. Or, maybe a frantic search was underway.

The snake didn’t seem to be going anywhere, and the toucan was resting on a perch, ignoring both the snake and me, so I decided to find a zoo employee and report this perplexing turn of events.

The first employee I found was a clerk at the snack bar. “Excuse me,” I said through the order window, “There’s a snake, a large black snake, inside the toucan cage. Surely a snake doesn’t belong there.”

“No, he doesn’t,” the man said, reaching for his walkie talkie. “Sir, you may have saved the life of a toucan today.” I suspect he meant it facetiously.

“Margaret,” he said into the walkie talkie.


“A guest spotted a snake in the toucan enclosure.”

“Okay. I got it.”

This was getting interesting. I thanked the clerk and hurried back to the toucan cage.

I arrived just as two female zoo employees were assessing things. “Rat snake,” said one. The other nodded.

“Uh… were you looking for him?” I asked.

“Oh, it’s a wild snake, not one of ours,” one of the women said. “They’re common around here.”

“It’s a black rat snake,” said the other woman. “They’re very beneficial. They hold down the population of mice, rats, and other pests. We’re grateful to have ’em.

“But they’re silent and sneaky, and they eat eggs, so we have to keep an eye on ’em.”

While one of the women went into the enclosure to bag the snake, the other explained that the zoo knows of about 15 or 20 wild rat snakes now in residence.

“We bag ’em, measure ’em, log the capture, and release ’em away from the exhibits,” she said.

“Hey,” yelled the woman inside the enclosure, “This is Billy Bob! I haven’t seen him in a while!”

“Some of ’em have names,” the first woman told me. “You get to know ’em after a while.”

“In fact,” she went on, “We’re thinking about micro-chippin’ ’em. That would allow us to track ’em.”

The woman inside the cage, still struggling to get Billy Bob into the bag, called out, “I vote that we micro-chip ’em! Then we can name ’em ALL!”


She finally got Billy Bob secured. The two employees departed, and I moved on to the petting zoo, where I watched a worker hose down the goats.


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Zoo Stories, Part 1

I’ve always been conflicted about zoos. Large or small, they’re interesting to visit, but the idea of confining those unfortunate animals for life so people can go look at them, that stinks.

Yes, it’s an opportunity to see the animals and learn about them, which is a good thing. But when you watch a wolf or a leopard pacing, pacing, pacing in the cage from stress and boredom, that isn’t right.

But I doubt if zoos are going anywhere, and I find myself visiting them anyway. I was in Greenville, South Carolina, recently and decided to check out the city zoo.

The Greenville Zoo being rather modest as zoos go, and the elephant, lion, and jaguar enclosures being closed for maintenance, I breezed through in about an hour.

That hour, however, had its memorable moments.


The Spider Monkeys

According to its website, the Greenville Zoo has three spider monkeys: Selma, Jasmine, and Mojo. When I arrived at the primate area and looked at them through the wire, I didn’t know the names, of course.

No other visitors were nearby. One of the monkeys was sitting in a swing a foot or so inside the cage. We were at eye level. He (for some reason, I thought of the monkey as a he) contemplated me stoically.

His eyes are so human, I thought. So are his features. You can see the link between us and them so clearly.

I began to ponder the obvious questions. What is he thinking? Was he born in captivity? Does he resent being in captivity? Is he capable of resentment? What does he think of people? What does he think of me, standing here?

As I pondered, the monkey reached out, grabbed the wire of the cage with one hand, and, in a smooth motion, jumped across to the wire.

The safety railing kept me about four feet from the cage. He was still at eye level. We were as physically close as conditions permitted.

The monkey looked at me with great intensity, tilting his head repeatedly, his eyes focused on mine.


The spider monkey, family Atelidae, genus Ateles, is the most intelligent of the New World Monkeys. Two of the seven species are critically endangered.

“Hey, little dude,” I said. The monkey reacted with a soft, high-pitched chirp.

“I guess if I had my way, you wouldn’t be in there,” I told him. The monkey continued verbalizing softly and studying me closely.

I glanced in both directions to be sure I was still alone. Wouldn’t want anyone to hear me conversing with a monkey. The nearest human was 50 feet away.

But I couldn’t think of anything else to say. We just looked at each other.

I considered getting out my camera, but I didn’t. Shooting through the wire never makes for a good photo. And somehow, a photo at that moment seemed — God help me — rude and intrusive.

After a time, the monkey finished checking me out. He dropped to the ground and moved a few feet to the left front corner of the cage.

Still chittering quietly, he extended an arm through the wire, straining to reach the branches of a privet-like shrub growing nearby. He couldn’t quite reach it.

I looked closer. The shrub was indented where the monkeys had broken off the tiny branches, one by one, until no more were in reach. The greenery, I assume, was tasty.

On some of the cages were signs stating that the animal required a special diet, so you shouldn’t feed them. No such sign was on the spider monkey cage.

I reached down, snapped off a small twig from my side of the shrub, and tossed it on the ground next to the cage. The monkey reached through the wire, snatched it up, and began munching.

Instantly, the other two monkeys appeared. I snapped off more twigs and tossed them on the ground. The first monkey deftly blocked the newcomers, grabbed the twigs, and rapidly scarfed them down.

I snapped off a few more twigs, but this time, I outsmarted the little scoundrel. I deftly distracted him so the others could get their share.

No monkey is gonna make a monkey out of me.


In my next post, the story of the rat snake in the toucan enclosure.


Colombian black-headed spider monkeys at the Greenville Zoo. Photo copyright Jeff Whitlock, wwwtheonlinezoo.com.


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I went to Chattanooga for a few days recently to see the sights. Actually, I skipped the more touristy sights — Rock City, Ruby Falls, the Incline Railway — in favor of the art museum, the riverfront parks, and the battlefields. Okay, so I’m a snob.

I also spent an afternoon at the Tennessee Aquarium, which is impressive, and a morning at the Chattanooga Zoo.

My zoo experience began quietly enough. I set out at a leisurely pace, taking photos of assorted critters that are conveniently on display and powerless to stop you.


Cotton-Top Tamarin.


Three-Toed Sloth, conserving energy.


Jaguar. Has the most powerful bite of the big cats. Hunts by going for the head.

I watched the staff feed raw meat to the bobcats. I learned that the cougar is not considered one of the “big cats” because cougars do not roar, they purr.

When I reached the petting zoo, the morning livened up considerably.

Inside the enclosure were 12 or so pygmy goats, doing their usual thing: jumping, prancing, butting heads. Nearby, an employee was saddling up the dromedaries. The zoo offers camel rides these days.

At the time, no children were inside the enclosure with the goats, but a young couple soon arrived with a boy of about age six.

He was a small, frail, meek-looking kid. He had a nervous, deer-in-the-headlights demeanor. He is the kind of child who will get shoved around a lot before his school days are over.

“Eric, would you like to pet the goats?” the dad asked. Eric remained silent and shook his head emphatically no.

“This is a petting zoo, Eric,” said the mom. “The goats are very gentle. They like to be petted!”

Eric stood at arm’s length from the fence in silence, contemplating the goats, still slowly shaking his head no.

Dad leaned down, put his arm around Eric’s shoulder, and said, “Tell you what. We’ll go in together. It’ll be fun. You’ll have a great story to tell when school starts.”

Eric wanted none of it, but he was powerless to avoid what was coming.

For a brief moment, I considered flipping my camera to video mode in order to capture whatever was about to transpire. I decided not to, in deference to poor Eric.

Dad swung open the spring-loaded gate, and he and Eric entered the compound. The boy was rigid with apprehension.

The goats, of course, began to converge on the newcomers in case they had food. Dad had enough sense to stand between Eric and the herd, keeping the goats occupied until Eric had time to conclude that he wasn’t going to die.

And, indeed, the boy soon relaxed somewhat. Eventually, he reached out a hand and touched the back of one of the goats. When he withdrew his hand, he almost smiled.

Dad departed the compound, and Eric slowly got into the spirit of the place. Before long, he was waist high in goats, touching their horns, patting their flanks, even being jostled now and then. He hadn’t uttered a word, but he appeared comfortable.

Moments later, as the sea of goats parted slightly, Eric ran forward a few steps and stopped. I saw no reason for it except sheer enthusiasm.

When Eric ran, several of the goats also broke into a run, going in various directions. This startled Eric, who began to run again. Which prompted more goats to join in.

Then, as he ran, Eric began to scream. It was a high-pitched, safety-whistle scream. The ear-piercing scream of a banshee, or a toddler.

As pandemonium reigned inside the compound, Mom and Dad ran along the fence, yelling at Eric.

“Eric! Stop running! Stop!”

“Eric, don’t run! When you run, the goats run!”

Why they didn’t open the gate and go to the boy’s aid, I can’t say.

Seconds later, Eric found himself on the far side of a water trough with several goats in pursuit. When the goats came around the left side of the trough, Eric ran to the right. When the goats ran right, Eric ran left.

Having regained control of the situation, sort of, Eric also regained some of his composure. His panic subsided.

At that point, Dad came to his senses, burst into the compound, and ran toward the water trough. This caused most of the goats to start running again, but Eric held his strategic position behind the trough.

Dad collected Eric and escorted him toward the gate. On the way, one of the smaller goats ran past them, coming within a foot or two.

Eric let loose another piercing scream — this time, in anger — and delivered a fierce roundhouse punch that landed on the goat’s jaw.

The goat stumbled, recovered, and skittered back to the safety of the herd.


Why no zoo employees were present as the drama unfolded, I can’t say.


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Take only memories, leave only footprints.

— Chief Seattle


It happened over 16 years ago, in April 2000, but the incident is still vivid in my mind.

When you visit the North Rim of Grand Canyon, the center of activity is Grand Canyon Lodge at Bright Angel Point. That’s your first stop to take in the views, check into your cabin or campsite, or gear up for hiking.

After that, most tourists drive out the Cape Royal Road, which is a 40-mile round trip along the rim past a succession of spectacular scenic overlooks. If you’re like me, and you stop constantly to gaze into the canyon, take photos, and wander through the trees, you can spend most of the day out there.

The North Rim is perched on the edge of the Kaibab Plateau, elevation 8,000 to 9,000 feet. The area is cool in summer and closed in winter. Plateau country is a glorious place, heavily forested with aspens, birch trees, and Ponderosa pines.

The North Rim also is relatively quiet. The South Rim is much more accessible and thus is choked with tourists; the North Rim simply is too remote for the masses.

During that 2000 trip, I encountered only about a dozen people along the Cape Royal Road. I was alone for most of the day, free to enjoy the silence and solitude.

I stopped at all the scenic overlooks, of course. They were as majestic and as awe-inspiring as you would expect.

But a number of times, I pulled over at random spots along the road and made my way through the forest to the rim. Sometimes, my effort ended with no view at all. At other times, the sight was breath-taking.

On one of those short side-hikes, as I bushwhacked toward the rim, I was astonished when a large eagle glided in and landed on a low branch no more than 15 yards ahead of me.

I froze. Time froze. We looked at each other.

What species of eagle it was, I don’t know. It was brown — didn’t have the white head of a bald eagle — and very large and impressive. Possibly a golden eagle.

It flexed its wings once or twice, as if about to take flight, but settled back and continued to contemplate the human intruder in its forest.

Surely, I thought, raising my camera wouldn’t spook the bird. But it did.

Before I could get a photo, the eagle launched itself into the air and flapped away. The bird was so large and powerful that its departure seemed to be in slow motion.

But at that moment, my attention wasn’t on the eagle winging into the distance; it was on the single feather floating slowly to the ground in the eagle’s wake.

Over the years, my habit has been to bring home a memento from every hike — a pebble, an acorn, a shell, a feather. I display them in two large glass containers in my living room. One container is from pre-retirement hikes, the other post-retirement.

Among the collection are hundreds of feathers, large and small, sturdy and delicate, white, black, brown, and striped.

Frankly, I know nothing about feathers. Except for a peacock feather in container #1, I have no idea which birds any of the feathers came from. The difference between a falcon feather and a hawk feather? Beats me. I simply find the things beautiful and interesting.

But in 2000, for the first time, I had actually seen a feather being shed. This time, I knew definitively it was the feather of an eagle.

I looked down at the feather, lying at the foot of the tree. It was perfect.

I stood there for a time, mentally replaying the scene of the eagle taking flight and the feather floating to the ground in a gentle zigzag pattern. The experience was thrilling and sublime.

But at the same time, I knew I had a problem. I couldn’t take the feather home and add it to my collection. I couldn’t even pick it up. The feather had to stay where the eagle left it.

That’s because the possession of eagle feathers has been illegal in the United States since 1940.

The Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act (16 U.S.C. 668-668c) prohibits “pursuing, shooting, shooting at, poisoning, wounding, killing capturing, trapping, collecting, molesting, or disturbing” a bald or golden eagle.

Without a permit issued by the Secretary of the Interior, It is illegal to “possess, sell, purchase, barter, offer to sell, offer to purchase or barter, or transport a bald or golden eagle, alive or dead, or any part, nest or egg thereof.”

Technically, that means you can’t take — or even move — any part of a bald or golden eagle. Not even the feather lying on the ground in front of me.

The possible punishment for a violation: up to a year in prison and a $5,000 fine.

As for getting a permit from the Secretary of the Interior, not a chance. Permits are only issued to researchers involved in scientific studies and to Native Americans for religious purposes.

My maternal great-grandmother had some Cherokee blood, but I don’t think that would count.

Now, the chances that Rocky Smith would be apprehended and prosecuted for violating the Eagle Protection Act are pretty slim. I could have picked up the eagle feather, as I have picked up all those other feathers over the years, and dropped it in the container in my living room. Not even the NSA would know.

And, honestly, an eagle feather or two may be in my collection already. I have no way of knowing. I try not to think about it.

But the facts of my North Rim encounter made this situation different. Even worse than being illegal, taking that feather would diminish a collection of mementos of which I’m very proud.

In the end, I walked away with only a memory.

But, oh, how I wanted that beautiful feather.

Eagle feather


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My beloved Paco, my best friend, the kindest and gentlest soul I’ve ever known, died Friday. I am reeling with grief. I have cried a hundred times.

Paco was 15, more or less. I don’t know for sure. He was a rescue dog, a stray found wandering along a county road, wearing a purple nylon collar with no identification.

He was a charmer, and I adopted him, and he had a long, eventful life. He was happy, healthy, comfortable, and content. Then, a few mornings ago, he was too weak to stand. The vet never determined why.

Death came to my precious boy in a calm, gentle way. For two days, he was kept on an IV. He was lucid, and he responded to me and others with his usual affection, although it was muted.

But he couldn’t get up. Several times a day, the staff carried him outside on a blanket. He ate only once.

Although he didn’t bounce back, he was never in pain or distress. When the time came to let him go, he passed away peacefully. I kissed his cheek and stroked his fur, and we were looking into each other’s eyes when the moment came.

For 13 years, Paco and I were a team. It was just the two of us, and I did my best to treat him well. I tried to make sure he lacked for nothing.

I probably raised my voice a few times, but I never struck him or punished him. I treated him with kindness and respect, because he deserved it; he never misbehaved or caused the slightest trouble. He was just a devoted friend. I was soothed and uplifted by his calm demeanor and quiet presence.

During the last year of his life, Paco slowed down considerably. For a long time, we were trail buddies, and we logged many miles hiking in the North Georgia mountains. But age and arthritis finally made the hills and the distances more than he could handle.

So, instead of driving north for a day of hiking, we settled for Sunday morning walks in town, around the elementary school or the high school. He could go off-leash there, wander at his own pace, and investigate all the wonderful smells.

It may be selfish of me to say, but suddenly, my life is abruptly changed. Paco isn’t there to greet me when I come home. The food and water bowls have been put away. The treat canisters are gone from the kitchen counter.

The familiar rituals — taking him outside for potty breaks, saving a few choice morsels for him on my dinner plate, making sure the toilet seat is up and the bowl is full, helping him onto the bed at night — all have ended.

Paco was a border collie, but an especially calm and quiet one. He rarely barked or vocalized. Perhaps to compensate, I talked to him quite a bit.

I had a long list of affectionate names for him. I called him “Sweetness.” That was the nickname of Walter Payton, the Chicago Bears running back of the 1970s.

I called him “my handsome friend” and “my bat-eared buddy” and “old flop-eared mutt” as often as “Paco.”

“You silly pooch,” I would say, or “What a knucklehead,” or “Look at that beautiful tail.” He answered with a head tilt.

Yes, I know — everyone’s dog is the best dog in the world. But Paco truly was a special creature, a special soul. Everyone who knew him acknowledged that.

It’s hard to say what made him so. Probably many factors. He was deeply intelligent. He had a quiet dignity, a noble character — almost an air of Zen, if “just a dog” could display such a thing. Whatever it was, it was impressive. It was admirable.

A long time ago, I ran across the adage that “most dogs are better people than most people.” Paco certainly was that. He was a better man than I am.

He was a calm, serene, delightful spirit. I loved, admired, and respected him more than I can express.

People have said Paco was lucky I found him. I suppose that’s true. But I was the lucky one. That silly pooch, he was a treasure. He enriched my life.

If there is a next realm, if there is a God, then God has the duty to take care of my wonderful Paco now.

There. I’ve said what I wanted to say about my dear, delightful friend. If you’ll excuse me, it’s Sunday morning, and I feel like walking for a while at the elementary school.













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Here’s an oldie than bounced around the internet some years back. I remember printing it out years ago and sending it to my parents, who were devoted cat people. I found it recently in a box of my mom’s papers.


Instructions for Giving Your Cat a Pill

1. Pick up cat and cradle it in crook of left arm, as if holding a baby. Position right forefinger and thumb on either side of cat’s mouth and gently apply pressure to cheeks while holding pill in right hand. As cat opens mouth, pop pill into mouth. Allow cat to close mouth and swallow.

2. Retrieve pill from floor and cat from behind sofa. Cradle cat in left arm and repeat process.

3. Retrieve cat from bedroom and throw soggy pill away.

4. Take new pill from foil wrap. Cradle cat in left arm, holding rear paws tightly with left hand. Force jaws open and push pill to back of mouth with right forefinger. Hold mouth shut for a count of ten.

5. Retrieve pill from goldfish bowl and cat from top of wardrobe. Call out for spouse to assist you.

Cat in couch

6. Kneel on floor with cat wedged firmly between knees, gripping paws tightly. Ignore low growls emitted by cat. Get spouse to hold cat’s head firmly with one hand while forcing wooden ruler into cat’s mouth. Slide pill down ruler and rub cat’s throat vigorously.

7. Retrieve cat from curtain rail. Get another pill from foil wrap. Make a note to repair curtains and buy new ruler. Sweep shattered figurines and vases from hearth and set aside for gluing later.

8. Wrap cat in a large towel. Have spouse sit on the towel with cat’s head visible. Put pill in end of a drinking straw. Force cat’s mouth open with pencil. Blow into the drinking straw.

9. Check label to be sure pill you swallowed is not harmful to humans. Drink a beer to take taste away. Apply bandage to spouse’s forearm. Remove blood from carpet with cold water and soap.

Cat vs. pill

10. Retrieve cat from neighbor’s shed. Get another pill. Place cat in cupboard and close door on cat’s neck, leaving head showing. Force cat’s mouth open with dessert spoon. Flick pill down cat’s throat with a rubber band.

11. Fetch screwdriver from garage and put cupboard door back on hinges. Open bottle of any good whiskey. Drink a shot, then apply whiskey compress to cheek to disinfect. Check records for date of last tetanus shot. Throw away shredded t-shirt and put on a thick jacket. Drink another shot.

12. Call fire department to retrieve cat from tree in neighbor’s yard. Apologize to neighbor, who crashed into fence while swerving to avoid cat. Take last pill from foil wrap.

13. Tie cat’s front paws to rear paws with twine. Bind cat tightly to leg of dining room table. Retrieve heavy work gloves from shed. Push pill into cat’s mouth, followed by a piece of raw meat. Pour a pint of water into cat’s throat to wash it down.

14. Consume remainder of whiskey. Get spouse to drive you to emergency room for stitches in fingers and forearm and to remove pill fragments from eye.

15. Place order for new dining room table. Arrange for local chapter of SPCA to collect cat.

16. Call pet shop to see if they have any hamsters.

Instructions for Giving Your Dog a Pill

1. Wrap pill in cheese and toss on floor.

Cat angry


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The Speedy Thief

If any species of bird illustrates the fact that our feathered friends are the direct descendants of dinosaurs, it’s the roadrunner.


Based on our popular image of dinosaurs, the roadrunner (Geococcyx californianus) certainly looks the part: upright stance, powerful legs, beak designed to mess you up, a murderous glint in the eye.

In the Warner brothers cartoons, the roadrunner was depicted as genial and benign. His live-and-let-live attitude was interrupted only when he had to deal with his hopelessly incompetent nemesis, Wile E. Coyote.


But in reality, roadrunners are serious predators. They are fairly large, about 18-22 inches tall, and can run at up to 20 miles per hour. And they will eat virtually anything. Their diet includes grasshoppers, beetles, snails, centipedes, spiders, scorpions, lizards, mice, small birds, and snakes.

Roadrunner are so quick and lethal that they will hunt and kill rattlesnakes. Not many animals are tough enough to do that.

Roadrunners can fly, but being so well adapted to running, they usually take flight only to escape predators.

They often become habituated to the presence of people. I guess they ain’t skeered of nothin’.

Which brings me to the reason for this post: to describe an incident involving a roadrunner that I witnessed some years ago. It happened fast and almost literally underfoot — but I have photos.

In December 2005, I spent three fascinating days at Death Valley National Park. On the first day, after checking into the Furnace Creek Inn, I walked over to the visitor center to get oriented.

When I came out a while later, I noticed a large number of birds in the parking lot — small, brown, finch-looking things, 50 or more of them in close proximity, hopping and chirping around the pavement.

Suddenly, something flashed into my field of vision from the right.

Simultaneously, the birds, all of them, went nuts. Amid a din of frantic squawking and flapping, they took flight in every direction. All except one unfortunate fellow.

Owing to dumb luck, I had my camera at the ready. I turned and got this photo.


Note how the image captured the speeding roadrunner poised several inches in the air above his shadow on the pavement.

The roadrunner sprinted across the road and into the desert at full speed. I captured this final photo before he disappeared around a dune. Again, the roadrunner was zipping along so fast, the camera shows him suspended above the ground.


The entire episode lasted about five seconds.

Ages ago, a creature that operated in a similar manner was the Velociraptor.

I don’t mean the malevolent beasts you remember from the movie “Jurassic Park.” Those creatures were not Velociraptors. They were based on Deinonychus, a cousin of Velociraptor that was six feet tall and weighed 150 pounds. Spielberg appropriated the name Velociraptor because it sounds better.

Real Velociraptors (Velociraptor mongoliensis) are thought to have been tough and aggressive, but so small — 30 pounds, the size of a chicken —  that most prey animals were out of their league.

They probably had feathers. Evidence suggests that they hunted alone, not in packs.


Educated guesses of the appearance of the real Velociraptor, a native of Mongolia.

But they were fierce predators, and in their day, the small critters of the world probably feared them greatly. Very much like the roadrunner today.

The name Velociraptor is derived from the Latin words velox (swift) and raptor (robber, plunderer). “Speedy thief” is the usual translation.

Today’s “speedy thief,” the roadrunner, is indeed a worthy successor.

Rattlesnakes, beware.


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I’ve spent a lot of time lately in Savannah, sorting through the papers and photos of my late Aunt Betty. Betty left behind a substantial volume of personal and family memorabilia, and it needs to be perused, assessed, and dealt with.

Now and then as we proceed, one of us will uncover a treasure. Sometimes, it’s an item we knew about and were searching for. At other times, we find something unexpected, and occasionally amazing.

On my last trip, while going through the contents of yet another cardboard box in the den, I found a sealed envelope. It was labeled, in Betty’s handwriting, “Thoughts of Harry & Mama Cat.”

Betty was a committed cat person. She took in a succession of cats over the years, most of whom are a blur to me now. But I remember Mama Cat and Harry very well. They were mother and son and Betty’s favorites.

The envelope was packed tight with folded sheets of paper, 23 numbered pages in all, written in longhand. I flipped through the pages to get the gist of it.

It was an ode — a long, eloquent, heartfelt tribute — to her two precious cats.

Betty wrote the first part after Harry died in 1993, then added more when Mama Cat died in 2007. At some point after that, she sealed the letter in the envelope and put it away.

Far from being remarkable or unusual, the letter strikes me as being typical. It expresses the emotions of someone who has come to understand and love her pets.

Many of us, perhaps most of us, have had similar feelings. Betty just took the time to write it down.

Below is the tribute she wrote, including a few of the cat photos that were glued to the pages. I’m sure Betty wouldn’t mind that I’m sharing it.


— Born 12-25-88

— Born 5-8-92
— Died 6-20-93


Cutest cat I ever saw. Smartest, too. Very curious about anything moving or new. When I walked or stood by a chair or the bed, not knowing where he was, he would reach out & pat me on the foot.

Loved to sit by me, yet only tolerated my holding him for a few minutes, before he wanted to get down. (Mom same way until she got old.) Loved to open the hall folding door & the bathroom door, when almost closed. Also, watched me bathe.

Every time he walked by the kitchen stove, he would pull the dish cloth off of the handle, then walk away & leave it on the floor. Very curious about the heat from the refrigerator & would feel all around underneath. Also, the floor furnace & air conditioner concerned him.

He liked to aggravate his mother when she was asleep. He would go sit & look at her for a minute then tap her on the rump & run.

He loved to sleep on the foot of my bed & awaken me each morning by walking all over me. (Mama pats me until I get up.)

Harry liked to sit on my car leaving muddy footprints & twice I actually saw him walk down the side of the car along the windows. How he balanced himself I do not know.

He spent a lot of time catching birds and lizards. He was very fast. Also, caught at least 3 squirrels this spring.

He loved me especially during the winter. He snuggled up to me & purred his heart out when we were in the bed.

Young Harry.

Young Harry.

Hazel gave him some toys when he was recovering after we think he was bumped by a car, & he liked playing with them & his toy mouse. He also found the bowl with the seashells & he would pick a shell out & play with it in the kitchen. (Mama Cat does the same thing.)

Harry & his mother would fight while she sat in the chair & he sat up like a rabbit & boxed around the opening of the wooden part of the arm.

He liked to untie the bow on my shoe every time he could, & he always bit my toes if I were barefooted. (Mom is fascinated with my toes & slippers also.)

He was my heart, & when I held him like a baby he was a ball of fur & was so lovable.

When he had to be in the hospital after being hit by a car, everyone there loved him. When he came home, I had to confine him for a week & keep him in the house for two additional weeks so his bones could heal, so we got to be good buddies.

I noticed that while we watched TV he never blinked his eyes, so I put my hand in front of his eyes, thinking that he needed to rest them, & he pushed my hand away with his paw.

I feel that it is my fault that he died, because I noticed that he was losing weight. But I thought it was due to the heat, & the cats did not eat as much as usual. Maybe the vet could have found out that he had a problem.

I adored Harry & his mother, Mom, but I never will have another pet, as much as I love cats, because it has broken my heart to lose him. I think he really loved me.

When I returned from Lawrenceville, I called & called & searched for him. When I found him he was dead, so I buried him in my garden. He was the love of my life — the personality kid of all time.

I never went outside to work in the yard without Harry & Mom appearing. Not knowing where they were when I went outside, they always showed up & would watch me work. If I took trash to the lane or worked in a different area they followed me.

Harry liked to scare me. I would be pulling weeds & he would jump out of the bushes & grab my hand, but never scratched me. (Mama bites me when I pester her, but she never clamps down.)

When I would dig a small hole in order to plant a flower, he would dig the hole bigger, like a dog would dig.

He loved to sleep under the azaleas where the ground was damp. (Mom also.)

Another favorite sleeping place was on the dining room chairs, where he could be hidden by the table cloth. I could find him because his tail would be below the cloth.

Harry liked to sleep on my liriope & the maidenhair fern. I guess it was soft.

He chased anything that moved, like butterflies, bees, lizards & birds.

Most cats don’t like to get wet, but Harry did not care. He sat in the bird bath, investigated the spray from the hydrant, put his paw in the bucket when full of water & played in the commode if the top was up.



Harry & Mom liked to sit close to me or sleep close to my feet & legs but did not like to be held but for a few minutes. One night I felt as if I were in a straightjacket because they were so close, one on each side of me.

Harry & Mom wash all the time. They get into the most unusual positions. They look just alike. Mom is a little greyer on her back, where Harry’s stripes are a little more prominent & he is not quite as heavy. He would have been bigger than Mom had he lived, according to the vet.

At present, Mom is sitting on my note paper watching me write. She is a wonderful cat also, & was a good mother when she had kittens. She belonged to the family next door, & they moved away & left her, so she became my cat. She stayed here all day anyway because they worked & went to school, so were gone most of the time.

(At present Mom is sitting about 3″ from my pen watching me write. She tried to grab my pen & the paper.)

Mom taught Harry to fight. They had a good time playing, but after he learned to defend himself she was ready for Harry to move on to his own territory. But he stayed, so they hissed & picked at each other about once a day. I don’t think that he could understand why, after playing with him so much, she did not want to play any more.

Every day after Harry ate his food he washed himself, then walked to the end of the flower bed by the back door & sat & looked around. After a few minutes he would go under the bushes in the shade & take a nap. Mama Cat does the same thing.

The reason for his being named Harry is because he was born May 8, which is Pres. Harry Truman’s birthday, so he was named for the President. I named his sister Stella because May 8 was also Mother’s birthday.

I gave Stella to a young lady on 63rd St. and gave Harry’s twin Smoky to a little boy on Goebel Ave.

Harry was born 5-8-92, the President’s & Mother’s birthday. He died on 6-20-93, Father’s Day. Was buried 6-22-93, Mother & Daddy’s wedding anniversary.

Mama Kitty was raised around 3 children next door so was used to people & confusion, but Harry only knew me, therefore, he was shy of confusion & people & would go hide in the bushes. If you talked to him, he would come out & be friendly to adults, but he did not seem to trust children. He liked Allan, Hazel, Ann & Walter & played with them.

The first time Harry saw himself in the hall mirror he thought it was another cat & his reaction was a show. He looked around the corner & when he saw the other cat he would jump back. Later he hit the cat with his paw.

By the time I thought about taking his picture he only bristled up his fur once. Glad I got that picture because he was not scared of that cat after that night.

Harry & Mama are so different. She is a real lady. The way she walks, taking short prissy steps & she never comes into the house unless invited. She is slow deciding what she wants to do. Harry is in like a bullet as soon as the door is cracked.

When he digs a hole & covers it up, he goes at it full force, really making a project out of it while Mama is very gentle & slow & does not scatter kitty litter all over the area.

I often thought people were silly to make so much over a pet, especially when they died, but now I know how they feel. It is as if I lost my best friend & I am to blame for not taking him to the vet when I noticed his weight loss. I do not know what killed him but I feel sure it was internal.

The minute I drove up or came outside, he came running to greet me & rub against my legs. (Mama also always greets you when you arrive home.) Although I adored Harry, I had no idea how much I would miss him.

When Harry was on the screened porch & someone walked by & he could not see who or what it was, he sat on his haunches like a rabbit to see over the bushes.

I bought 2 rocking chairs for the porch & they needed to have the rockers put on, so I had them stacked in the breakfast room & covered with towels until Allan came home to assemble them for me. Mama Kitty loved to sleep in her new secluded spot, but Harry found out about it & delighted in getting there first.

He had a place below her spot that was just like her spot, but he wanted hers. Of course, when she found him there, she hissed at him.

When Harry was a kitten, I took him to the vet for his shots & he crawled up around my neck as far as he could get under my hair, where he thought he was safe. Later I took him for his adult shots & he stood on the table as close as he could to my body. He knew who would protect him.

Someone sent me a card with a cute kitten on the front. Harry spotted it & jumped up on the cabinet & stared at it, I guess deciding whether or not it was real. After a while he walked over & touched it & when the kitten did not move, he walked away.

When Harry was on the porch & the door was closed & he wanted to come in, he got on the back of the rocking chair & banged it against the window sill to let me know that he wanted to get in.

One day I was bent over by the car working & something patted me on the fanny. Harry was sitting on top of the tire on the car & reached over & touched me.

Mama Cat sleeps different places on the porch & in the house most of the time. Early each morning, usually between 6-8 AM she gets on the foot of my bed & watches me. After a while she pats me on the leg, body or arm. If I don’t wake up she pats me with both paws like a dog digging a hole. She is hungry & wants me to get up & feed her.

Mama is a very pretty, lovable cat. She lets me hold her longer than she used to, but like Harry, she wants to be near me but not held too long. Her coat is thick & soft & she washes all of the time.

Mama can sense a dog anywhere in the area. She can be in the kitchen eating & if a dog walks by she growls & her hair stands up. I go look outside & there will be a dog. She does not tolerate other cats in our yard.

Mama Cat.

Mama Cat.

After Harry died I saw Mama sitting by Harry’s grave, just looking at the spot. Matter of fact, I went to several stores & when I returned, she was still there. Makes you wonder if she knew that he was there.

I have a backscratcher that has ribbons tied to one end & Mama loves to play with it every night. She loves to grab it with her claws & especially when I pull it under the edge of the rug.

She also is fascinated with my toes in my slides. She spies them & grabs them. Her claws are sharp!

She always checks out anything new & has to get involved, like when I am writing or on the new step ladder or wrapping a gift. Just curious & wants to be part of what is going on.

The cutest thing Mama did was one night she went to sleep on the back of the sofa & was so relaxed that she slid down around Allan’s shoulders. She was so sound asleep that she was not aware of it when he slowly moved & she slid down to the seat in a big lump, sitting on her backbone. She looked as if she were drunk. Even her eyes were dazed looking.

When I am looking for Mom & cannot find her, all I have to do is go outside & walk around the yard, & she will appear from somewhere.

She also likes climbing the dogwood tree & going on the roof in the winter because the dark shingles hold the heat & it is warm. Also, likes to sleep on the hood of my car because it is warm when I have driven somewhere.

If I say nice things about Mom or talk to her, she sits & looks at me & squints her eyes & looks as if she is smiling. Other times she stares at me as if she is not interested.

When I feed Mom she knows where the food is kept so she runs over to the container & we pick out a can of cat food. If she does not like it she goes through the motions of burying it! Then she goes to the cabinet & reaches for the dry food box on the counter.

Mama Cat can also open the back door if it is cracked but not open far enough for her to walk into the kitchen. I tell her to put her paws on the door & push. She does it every time, opens the door & walks in.

Mama has pretty green eyes. Every visit to the vet, someone comments on them. The eyes are very green & bright & clear. She is 8 years old now & is very pretty, active & healthy.

She hates to ride the half mile to the vet. She cries all the way there & back. Must be the sound of the engine because she does not cry until the car is turned on. She weighs 13 pounds.


Today is a sad day/week for me. I lost my old friend from Atlanta, Mary Arnold, who was buried in Savannah on Sunday, the same day my long time friend from Louisville, Ga., Phil Denny, died.

Margie Purvis died today at Hospice. Another good friend, Betty Ann Beldin, was also in Hospice and died today.

All of the sick people above are special, but nothing to compare with the loss of my Mama Cat. She was my best and most faithful friend.

Mom’s health has been bad for a year or more. Not eating hardly any food but drank lots of water. She was so soft and had a beautiful face. She lost so much weight that she was very weak the last few weeks and could hardly walk.

I took her to 4 vets over a year & was told that she was old, & loss of appetite was normal. Not in Mama’s case. The 4th vet gave her 3 shots & it was amazing how much better she walked, & ate well for a few days before going back to not eating much.

For months she could not retain the food so it was no wonder she lost weight.

Mama sat on my lap every time I sat down & I loved to pet her soft fur & listen to her purr. Today I knew that she was going to die. Her pupils enlarged so big her eyes looked black. I held her like a baby (which she did not usually like) but she lay in my arms & just looked at me. After several hours she made a coughing sound several times & then her heart stopped.

I placed her little body on a white towel in a box & placed her in our garden next to Harry.

I will miss Mama Cat. She was my best friend. She never failed to meet me when I drove into the carport. She woke me up every morning & was a wonderful mother & friend to everyone.

The only time she ran & hid was when workmen came. She was a friend to other men, but not repair men.

Our neighbor has a very friendly, beautiful orange colored Persian, Thomas, who comes over several times a day to visit. Mama does not like for him to come into her yard, so when she comes out the door & Thomas is present, she hisses & takes a swing at him.

He and our other cat named Monte (the man who came to dinner & stayed) always had nice manners & sat about 6′-8′ away until she ate her food, then they moved in.

Mama was born 12-25-1988 & died today 4-24-2007. 19 years + 4 months. She was a beautiful lady. My friend.

Mama lost her hearing, & if I wanted to call her I banged on the side of the house & she would appear.

Mama & her son Harry looked just alike. I loved them dearly.

When I was taking a bath one day, the door slowly opened & she came in & sat on the counter & watched me bathe. She always liked drinking from the faucet instead of a bowl.

Mama Cat had a beautiful, sweet little face with pretty green eyes & soft fur. I loved holding her. As she grew older she spent a lot of hours in my lap.

Harry was missing & when I looked for him, he was by the opening to go under the house. Both of my kitties were such a pleasure to have in my life.

Mama is buried in our garden next to Harry. I really do miss her.


After losing Harry, Betty resolved never to have another pet. No one believed her, of course.

In 2008, the neighbor who owned Thomas announced that he was moving, and he asked Betty to take Thomas. He said the cat was too old to handle the stress of a move.

Actually, it was an act of kindness. The neighbor knew Betty loved the cat dearly. Thomas spent his days and many nights with Betty anyway.

Betty accepted graciously. Thomas died in 2012 at the amazing age of 25.

Betty and Thomas at home, 2010.

Betty and Thomas at home, 2010.

Some of the graves in Betty's garden.

Some of the graves in Betty’s garden.

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Without a Dog

Being a writer, and a dog fancier clean to the bone, I appreciate a good story about canine behavior and the influence dogs can have on people.

That’s why I was so taken by a recent essay in Bark Magazine by Katherine Goldberg, a veterinarian in Ithaca, New York. Goldberg wrote about Sydney, a female pooch she rescued in 2006 from a garbage dump in Bucerias, Mexico.

Although now thoroughly acclimated to being a house pet, Sydney is quite self-sufficient, as you can imagine a former street dog would be. So, when Sydney ran off one day in September — disappeared, lit out — Goldberg set out anxiously to find her — but wasn’t too concerned about the dog’s well being.

However, a few days later, with Sydney still missing, Goldberg’s anxiety began to escalate. She undertook an all-out search. She posted missing-dog flyers. She set traps baited with food.

The experience had a greater impact on Goldberg than she expected. She later wrote this about her feelings during the time Sydney was on the run:


Days four and five were scenes of increasing despair and decreasing function. Overwhelmed by calculations of how many years it had actually been since I’d lived without a dog, and preparing myself for that new reality, I was raw and just plain lonely.

We take for granted the presence of a dog — even a quiet one who doesn’t do much and isn’t very soft.

Until there is no dog, it is hard to imagine how much space one actually occupies just by curling up on a small circular cushion that L.L. Bean calls a bed.

Without a dog, there’s nobody to check in with, out of the corner of your eye, just to feel a sense of “you and me, we are both here now” — a sense that, as it turns out, is pretty damn important.

Without a dog, days have less structure — no going home to let the dog out, or feed, or tend to — and while structure doesn’t always equal meaning, I think that with a dog, it does.

Without a dog, being one person in one space is surprisingly lonely. With a dog, there is connection.


Yes, the story had a happy ending. Sydney reappeared at the door of a nearby residence — dirty, but healthy and well-fed, thank you very much. This is how Goldberg described her great relief:


One glass of red wine later, breaking my firm “no dogs in the bed” rule, I buried my face in Sydney’s dirty coat, speckled with vegetation and ticks, and breathed her in. It was the first time in five days that I was alone in my house without being lonely.

As I write this, Sydney is sleeping on her bed after a thorough brushing, tick-picking, and bath. I wish I knew what she was thinking, but I suppose that is one of the mysteries of dogs.

I breathe more deeply knowing that the air in my home is full of dog-ness once again, but I have no idea how we can love them so much.

All I know is that I will probably love her more now that she is outfitted with a GPS device on her collar.

My dog Paco, grabbing a few mid-morning z's. The print is "Master Bedroom" by Andrew Wyeth.

My dog Paco, grabbing a few mid-morning z’s. The print is “Master Bedroom” by Andrew Wyeth.

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Defining intelligence is frustrating because although a testable definition may elude us, we feel we know intelligence when we see it.

— Biologist and author Sonja Yoerg


I know intelligence when I see it. I get to observe my dog Paco every day, and I’m here to tell you, he is one smart pooch.

I bring this up in the context of the age-old question: which animal is smarter, the dog or the cat?

In my biased opinion, dogs are smarter on average than cats. Not better; just smarter.

I reach this conclusion because when I look into a dog’s eyes, I see cognition and awareness. In the eyes of a cat, I see a dimmer bulb. It may as well be a reptile or a bird.

Cats can interact with people warmly and affectionately, no question, but it seems to be on a more primitive, emotional level, not intellectual.

When you point at something, most dogs understand that you want them to look in that direction. Some dogs even use their own gazes to get YOU to look at something. Other animals, even monkeys, never do that.

I did an experiment with Paco recently to test, in my own amateurish way, just how clever and observant he is.

When Paco is indoors and ready to go out for a potty break, he usually approaches and fixes me with a “border collie stare” to get my attention. This is his way of beaming the thought into my head.

When I become aware of this, I get up and head for the door, with Paco scrambling to get there first.

Normally, to get outside, I use either the back door or the garage door. Paco waits for me to commit to one door or the other.

For the experiment, I stood up, went to a point between the two doors, and without committing, simply stared back at him.

Finally, without turning my head, I cut my eyes toward the back door. Instantly, Paco took off in that direction.

The next time I set up the experiment, I cut my eyes toward the garage door. Paco knew immediately what that meant and bolted in that direction.

His habit now is to take his cue from my glance. If he’s too far away, or the light is dim, I point.

That story, I readily admit, is pure, cherry-picked, anecdotal evidence.

The scientific evidence about cat and dog intelligence breaks both ways. In fact, science hasn’t officially made a call one way or the other.

Recently, I read about a study at the University of Michigan that tested the memories of a group of cats and dogs. According to the researchers, the cats in the test group performed significantly better than the dogs.

Being a dog person, I bristled when I read that. How could cats, haughty and disdainful creatures that they are, score better than the noble dog?

But they did. In the UM study, the dogs were able to remember the location of a hidden treat for up to five minutes. The cats remembered the location for up to 16 hours — longer than monkeys and orangutans.

Some cat lovers jumped on the memory study as evidence that cats are more intelligent than dogs.


Remembering the location of the treat is impressive, but it doesn’t prove superior intelligence.

Cats excel in many things — agility, self-defense, self-sufficiency, stalking, stealth. They are models of adaptability and efficiency.

But that doesn’t equate  to intelligence. Sharks and crocodiles are well-adapted and efficient. So are snakes and spiders.

The thing is, cats and dogs are so fundamentally different that we can’t find a reliable basis for an apples-to-apples comparison.

Like us, dogs are hard-wired to be social creatures. It benefits them to interact and cooperate. The nature of the pack is to work together.

Cats, as solitary hunters of small prey, don’t have that social imperative. Thus, dogs relate to people, and cooperate with researchers, and make good test subjects; cats do not.

Then there is the huge difficulty of defining intelligence itself. The brain is still a largely unknown organ. Scientific testing is difficult and iffy.

When I read about the UM memory study, I figured it was time to read up on the latest thinking — pun intended — in brain research and intelligence.

Why would I suddenly want to do science research? Well, as a journalism major, I received a rather shallow formal education in the sciences.

But wouldn’t you know, I discovered after college that the sciences — natural and social, from astronomy and physics to history and psychology — interest me greatly. Today, that interest is like a hobby.

But back to the research.

Decades ago, the experts concluded that intelligence is not a single thing, but an array of things. This concept is called the theory of multiple intelligences.

The theory says that humans manifest intelligence in eight specific categories.

(1) Linguistic intelligence — “word smart”
(2) Logical-mathematical intelligence — “number/reasoning smart”
(3) Spatial intelligence — “picture smart” (ability to visualize with the mind’s eye)
(4) Bodily-Kinesthetic intelligence — “body smart” (ability to handle objects skillfully)
(5) Musical intelligence — “music smart”
(6) Interpersonal intelligence –“people smart” (understanding others)
(7) Intrapersonal intelligence — “self smart” (understanding yourself)
(8) Naturalist intelligence — “nature smart” (awareness of nature and its patterns)

This theory only addresses human intelligence. But if you apply it to dogs and cats, it underscores how they, like us, differ in strengths and weaknesses.

For example, dogs, as social animals, likely would score higher in (6). Cats, as nocturnal predators, probably would excel in (4). You get the idea.

The logical question from that exercise is: which animal, dog or cat, would have the higher average in the eight categories?

I have an opinion on that.

But what do I know? I’m a journalism major.

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