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Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Love me, love my pets

Just inside my front door, there's a framed plaque that reads: "This house is maintained for the comfort and security of my dogs. Anyone who can't accept that can't accept me, so go away.''

And I mean it.

There are those who don't understand the priorities of a person who would issue such an edict, like my 89-year-old mother.

"I just don't know how you got this way,'' she says, as if having four big dogs and letting them sleep on the furniture (and with me) signals some kind of personality disorder. Then again, she may never have forgiven me for putting that hamster I won at the school carnival in her bed in 1964.

I don't know how I got this way either, but I'm glad I am. My dogs think I'm perfect, which sets a pretty high bar for human behavior and ethics - unattainable, of course, but the world would be a kinder, more compassionate place if we all tried to reach it.

Of course having so many dogs costs a fortune, but I figure it this way: They don't wear shoes, need college tuition, or jack up the car-insurance premiums, so they're far more cost-effective than children. All you need is a fenced yard and a doggie door, and you're in business.

I can't remember a time when I didn't love critters, especially dogs. Long before I was mature enough to appreciate their classic virtues - loyalty, companionship, complete acceptance of every miserable human foible - I was drawn, as if by a genetic bond, to the sheer goofiness of them.

I've never had cable TV, because who needs to sit in front a screen to watch dogs cavorting and romping like wild creatures in a National Geographic special, when you can have it live in the back yard? Sure, you don't have to poop patrol your TV, but it's a small price to pay.

I've had dogs literally since birth, 57 years ago in New York, and recall whining for a pony for every birthday until I was, probably, 21. By now I've had 17 dogs, as well as various birds, rodents and small reptiles. I also have a thing about pigs, which I find amusing, but that's a subject for another day. The longest I've been dogless was three years, a hiatus I hope never to repeat.

The family's first pet was a white standard poodle named Snowy Chanel. She was sweet and placid and not very bright. My father, who is 92, still recalls how he could prevent her from entering a room simply by placing a brown paper grocery sack in its doorway. She lived to 13, then one summer when I was at camp, my parents sent her to a farm. I actually believed that until high school, when I realized that Snowy hadn't gone to live on a farm; she'd "bought the farm.'' One more issue to deal with in therapy, but that's another story.

When I moved to South Florida from Louisville in 1989, I brought with me Harpo, a golden/collie mix. I got him through a "free to good home’’ ad in The Courier-Journal, the paper I’d been writing for since 1977. I drove out to the country, up a long driveway, and got out of the car. He came charging up to me, screeched to a halt, jumped up, put his paws on my shoulders, and licked my face.

"Get in the car," I said.

We lived near a big city park with woods and a creek. In those days, dogs could run free in parks, and nearly every day after work we’d go there. It was dog heaven, full of squirrels, ducks, and other dogs to chase. So South Florida was something of an adjustment to both of us: a house in the South Lake section of Hollywood with a tiny yard, but the lake a block away, so there was good leash walking.

For a year after we got here - with Lance the little green lizard, who made the trip in a clear plastic box on the dashboard, shedding his skin the whole way - I also had a chicken, Chuck E. Chicken (made famous by my former colleague Dave Barry in a 1993 column that was ostensibly about an invitation I’d passed on to him to judge a "fashionable people’’ contest - I was, improbably, fashion writer at the time - but among other things, discussed how I had to shoot nasal spray into Harpo’s nose).

I was driving one day near Cedars Medical Center and glimpsed a tiny ball of white fluff about to fall down a storm drain. Lurching to a halt in the middle of the street, I grabbed it up. It was a chicken. This was shortly after Easter so I figured it was a basket escapee. I found a box and put the chicken in it, then returned to the Herald where I told the security guard I needed to park under the building in the big-shots' parking lot, where it was shady, because I had a chicken in the car. Of course he thought I was insane, but permitted me to do so.

When I left several hours later, I found that the chicken had hopped out of the box and generously fertilized the upholstery. Oh well…In any case, he was probably a she, and grew into a sizeable white Leghorn, free-ranging around Hibiscus Island in Miami Beach, where I was housesitting. This was an ideal setup for a barnyard fowl and a dog, because they could only wander so far. I left instructions with the causeway guard to turn them around if they tried to make a break for it.

Chuck would roost in the palm trees at night, and proved most entertaining to my friends, especially after a few drinks.

About a year later, after I moved back to Hollywood, Chuck decided to cross the road. Hollywood Boulevard, in fact. Somehow, he/she made it across four lanes of traffic and was spotted on a golf course by one of my coworkers. Harpo, no doubt calling upon primeval instincts, rounded him/her up, and we made it safely back home.

Not long after, however, Chuck developed some sort of chicken malady and began listing to port when walking. After a week on life support at the vet, it was clear Chuck’s short but pleasant life was over, so amid my friends’ cruel jokes about McNuggets, I pulled the plug.

RIP, Chuck E. Chicken.

Harpo sadly succumbed to an undetected abdominal tumor in 1994. He used to spend hours across the street, under a neighbor's shade tree, then saunter home for dinner. One evening he didn't come home, so I went to get him. He was barely breathing. In a state of near hysteria, I called my vet and neighbor, Dr. Ron Tapper of Emerald Hills Animal Hospital. He ran right over, whisked Harpo to the hospital, did some exploratory surgery, then called with the news that he couldn’t be saved. (I now live 25 miles from his hospital but I still take my critters to Ron. He's that good).

By then, my household included a boyfriend, who came with multiple canines: Melanie, a mopey and cranky old hound who lived to 16, and Mickey Jones, a Dalmatian with a blue eye and a brown eye, who astoundingly lived to 22 and even then, had to be euthanized (after several months of being unable to stand or walk). On his final day, we treated him to a steak, an ice cream sundae, and a Bud, and I like to think he departed this life with a smile on his face.

We jointly acquired Maybelline, a stray Dalmatian who looked like she was wearing eye makeup, and ultimately went to live with a Herald colleague; and Kendall, my Hurricane Andrew orphan (found on Kendall Drive after the storm). She’s the only one remaining from that group and is now about 16.

Once svelte and sprightly, she’s beset by the afflictions of old age. She doesn’t do much except sleep on her fleecy bed, but the sound of kibble hitting the bowl still gets her attention. Her nickname used to be "Meatball,’’ honoring her love of dining (she eats lying down). But as with many elderly ladies she’s grown rather portly. Now Meatloaf is more appropriate. She had a malignant thyroid tumor removed last year but appears to be cancer free.

Gracie and CC are about 12, both strays, both about 50 pounds, both generic black dogs. Gracie is part Lab with who-knows-what that contributed white markings and a freckly face. Despite her age, she’s still all attitude and guile. She’s a real talker, which those who don’t know dogs mistake for growling. Her favorite activity is raiding wastepaper baskets for tissues and dental floss. Apparently, these are great delicacies for a dog.

When my then-boyfriend brought her home in 1993, she was a tiny puppy. First night, I snuggled her close to me in bed. He said, "You let that dog stay in this bed, you’ll never get her out.’’ He was right.

She’s quite proprietary about her toys. If another dog dares to claim her hedgehog, she’ll plot and scheme and literally dive-bomb whoever has it - sometimes from the vantage point of a sofa, for maximum velocity.

CC is black/brown and exceedingly fluffy, and might have some border collie in her. She came off the streets of Coral Gables. She’s the nervous type, fraught with anxieties, and always has something to say about everyone else’s activities. She flips around in tight circles, barking, when she gets excited. She also has the maddening habit of walking in front of you, very slowly, so that getting around her is like passing a city bus. I think she has issues.

Then there’s Shadow, my Golden. He’s 10, and like thousands of Goldens acquired by small children during the "Homeward Bound’’ era, was named for the canine hero of the movie. He hails from a breeder in Hialeah and is ACK registered, the son of Zachary Angel Puppy and Cheyenne Autumn XXI.

Some friends bought him (at considerable expense) for their daughter, not realizing that a retriever puppy, a muddy canal behind the house, and white living room upholstery, is a losing proposition. I have slipcovers with busy patterns. And a ShopVac.

He was about six months old when he came into my life. By then, we were living in a house with a pool. He was never dry except first thing in the morning. If no one was around the throw a toy into the pool for him to fetch, he’d go to one of the orange trees, grab an orange, and roll it into the pool with his nose. He’d watch it sink to the bottom, roll to the deep end - 11 feet - dive in, grab it, and pop to the surface. This would go on all day.

Indeed, this trick was so noteworthy that it landed Shadow and his little girl - my kinda, sorta stepdaughter Alex (daughter of the ex-boyfriend. She's now a senior at Pembroke Pines Charter High School) - on national TV. I think Alex was 7 at the time. The show was called "Figure it Out,’’ on Nickelodeon. It was like the old "I’ve Got a Secret,’’ and involved some nasty green slime that got sprayed over the celebrity panel - one member of which was actor Sherman Hemsley - if they answered incorrectly.

The panel had to figure out that Alex’s dog could dive to the bottom of an 11-foot pool to retrieve his toy.

The taping was in Orlando, complete with underwater video cameras shooting up as Shadow plunged into the pool, spiraled down, grabbed the rope bone, then rocketed up with bubbles streaming from his nose. Then we all went to Universal Studios for the panel portion of the taping. Alex and Shadow came in second but she didn't care. Being on TV trumped whatever prizes were handed out.

I also have Alex to thank, indirectly, for the cockatiels, Bart and Chaucer, who round out my current menagerie. In 2000, she volunteered to take in a pair of ‘tiels that had somehow wound up with her rabbi. I think they’d belonged to an elderly person in the congregation who could no longer keep them.

We named them Homer and Marge, in homage to my all-time favorite cartoon: The Simpsons. When Homer died, he was replaced by Bart. Then Marge expired and - this is a long story for another time - I got Chaucer, who’d belonged to the one-time college roommate of Hadassah Lieberman.
Both birds wolf whistle, and Bart, if prompted, will sing "Would You Like to Swing on a Star?’’ Sometimes the dogs watch them like they’re TV. When they walk around the house, they sort of waddle, like March of the Cockatiels.

(For awhile, Alex had a green, ring-necked parakeet named Stella, a rather cantankerous bird who was intermittently amusing but had a beak like a jackhammer and wasn’t afraid to use it. She came to live with me several years ago and may have suffered a heart attack. I found her belly up in the seed cup one day after work, and she’s now buried among the ferns in my yard).

I also have two step-dogs, who belong to my sweetie, Jake: Harley - AKA The King of Dania Beach - an 8-year-old, 125-pound Arctic wolf/German shepherd hybrid who, like Mickey, has one brown and one blue eye, and Cowboy, a mostly Golden snatched off Death Row at the Miami-Dade County Animal Shelter last fall, when he was about a year old. He had canine flu and was, pardon the expression, sick as a dog for a week.

But we believe that shelter animals need a break, even if it costs a few extra bucks. OK- more than a few in this case, but it was completely worth it. He's a real clown, who cocks his head from side to side just like cartoon dogs, and will play with anybody, anytime, until he drops.

Jake, who actually IS a cowboy, decided to name him not just for his lifestyle, but in memory of a Golden named Cowboy tragically euthanized at the shelter as his family was on the way to claim him.

Let me just say one thing about wolves. They've gotten a bad rap on the viciousness thing. Harley is about as aggressive as Jell-O. He's so laid back we mockingly call him Fireball. He distains exertion utterly, and expects to be served like the royalty he is. He lives to ride in the truck, where Jake keeps a sign to hold up to incredulous drivers: ''Yes, he is a wolf."

True to his lupine nature, he howls, especially to Bonnie Raitt's "Let's Give 'Em Something to Talk About,'' and Garth Brooks's "Thunder Rolls,'' on the radio. I think there's a Grammy in his future: Best backup vocals by a wolf.

Being the big, furry blended family we are involves much cross-county dog-hauling, but that's the way life is ... until we win the lottery and can buy a 20-acre dog ranch, where we'll all live happily ever after.


Blogger Spider63 said...

Cat lovers claim that dogs are dumb; but one of the greatest things about dogs is their boundless positive attitude. They look at you as their hero (or heroine). Their loyalty knows no limits. Human acquaintances may come and go, but a dog is your friend 'til the end!

3:07 AM  
Blogger chavalah said...


that was great! of course we share the same thoughts and feelings about our 4-legged pets...especially Lucas!

9:50 PM  
Blogger Cait Y. said...

This is brilliant. You're brilliant. Your dogs are brilliant. Thaks so much for telling all about them!

1:57 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sitting here in my office in Marysville, I've just picked myself up off the floor where I landed as I read your insanely funny account of your home menagerie. Ellie, you still amaze me, if not for one th ing (like your 9/11 dispatch from NYC) to a dog's life.
Do you even remember me? I was the north/beach editor of neighbors for a couple of years and we'd chat once in a while, an experience I greatly relished. You were one of the reasons I relished working at the Herald.
Anyway, you brightened my day today and if you ask real nice, I'll tell you about my chihuahua Don Eduardo, who loved to sit in a float in the middle of our pool, and when he got out of the water, he would wrap himself in a towel to dry himself -- I kid you not. Eddie died of eating too much bacon on Sundays and too many meatballs during weeknight dinners.
Joe Calderon

5:56 PM  
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