Sunday, January 25, 2015

Homer's Odyssey and other tales of human-animal connections

We love our pets. We LOVE our pets. We used to need them for protection, to rid our homes of vermin and for work. Now, some of this is still true, but primarily our pets are our companions. Dogs have been with us for 15,000 years and have developed to understand our body language, vocal tones and have an intense desire to please us. We have had companion cats for a mere 9500 years and I'm told that they are less intrinsically motivated to please us. Regardless, cat, dog, bunny or budgie, our pets have proven to offer us longer and healthier lives. They lower our stress, demand exercise and fresh air and, perhaps most importantly give and receive uncomplicated love.

Homer's Odyssey: a fearless feline tale, or how I learned about love and life with a blind wonder cat by Gwen Cooper is the story of a remarkable kitten. Blind, due to a nasty eye infection, appropriately named Homer, found a home with Cooper. She was at a crossroad in her young life. She was already the owner of two cats. She had recently been through a bad breakup, was not enjoying her low-pay job and did not even have an apartment of her own. Homer, having never had sight, had no sense of limitations. Homer was known to catch flies in mid-air and even warded off an intruder. This cat provided the lesson that all things in life are possible with determination and enthusiasm.

If you are familiar with Dean Koontz, you know how important his dog was to him. Pictures of him on his books included Trixie, his golden retriever. Over the years Koontz had been very generous with a group which trained service dogs, and as a thank you, he was given Trixie, a retired service dog. Unfortunately Trixie developed cancer in 2007 and had to be euthanized. He wrote A Big Little Life: a memoir of a joyful dog in her honour and a couple of books credited to Trixie including Bliss To You, by Trixie Koontz as told to Dean Koontz. The proceeds from these books were given to Canine Companions for Independence. You will be happy to know that Koontz has a new dog, Anna, who is apparently the grandniece of Trixie. Warm and fuzzy.

Not all dogs are so wonderful to live with. Marley and Me: life and love with the world's worst dog by John Grogan and Walking Ollie: or winning the love of a difficult dog by Stephen Foster tell the stories of two dogs who required alot of time and patience. Marley (who has since become further immortalized in film) was very cute and very rambunctious puppy who grew up to be destructive and disobedient, though still cute. Ollie, an abandoned puppy (think Oliver Twist) was part greyhound and was happiest offleash flying through parks and busy streets. At home Ollie was skittish and fearful. For the reader, the joy of these books is the bond which ultimately develops between the owners and their pets as they work through their issues (both canine and human.)

Moving away from the heart grabbing stories of humans and their beasts, but still a compelling story of the relationship between people and animals is Animals in Translation: using the mysteries of autism to decode animal behavior, by Temple Grandin. Grandin is autistic and, through her research, has noted similarities between how animals and autistic humans perceive the world. Animals process the world in terms of pictures, sounds and smells. Grandin has found this to be also true of people with autism. According to Grandin, the autistic person may not process the world in terms of linguistics and abstract thought. An interesting theory which shows we have so much to learn from our animal companions.

Our pets provide us with comfort and with inspiration. Shaggy Muses: the dogs who inspired Virginia Woolf, Emily Dickinson, Edith Wharton, Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Emily Bronte by Maureen B. Adams immortalizes the dogs of these famous writers who found solace with the animals (solace from loneliness, grief, trauma). These dogs often found their way into their novels as well. Both Virginia and Leonard Woolf were incredibly compassionate towards animals. One story goes that a bird had built a a nest upon an open door and Leonard would not allow the door to be closed until the bird was done with it. Virginia Woolf, in addition to treasuring her own dogs (Gurth, Grizzle, Pinka) wrote a book about Flush, Elizabeth Barrett Browning's dog, who not only helped her to cope with grief, but was also the victim of a number of dognappings. The story of Emily Bronte and her mastiff Keeper is most compelling. The pair would frequently seen traipsing the moors. Bronte was unsentimental about dogs and beat Keeper badly for an infraction and then tenderly tended his wounds. Keeper outlived his mistress and all accounts of her funeral mention this great dog. He never left her side in her final days.

I'm showing my dog bias, so I will end with another cat. Dewey: the small town library cat who touched the world by Vicki Myron tells the story of Dewey Readmore Books who was unceremoniously dropped, filthy and frozen, into a library bookdrop as a kitten. Dewey thrived with the love and attention he found within the walls of the library. The community gathered round this cat and Dewey gave it back to library users in spades. Librarian Myron tells Dewey's story along with her own troubles and shows once again how much an animal's love and loyalty can mean to our lives.

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