My Pet Memorial Garden

A pet memorial garden sits among the trees in my yard.  A sculpture of three happy old women on a wooden fence overlooks the gravestones of pets who have lived with me over the last thirty years.  The “Grandmothers” were created by Kirsten Engstrom, an artist from Hawthorne, Florida. She also made the monk that guards one of the graves.  I made polymer clay flowers and a Shambhala flag for the other memorial stones.

Prounce, a Siamese cat who came with me to Gainesville thirty years ago, got the first memorial in the garden. She’d been a birthday gift for my 6-year-old daughter Amy when we lived in Rochester, Minnesota.   When I started living alone in 1981, she became my shadow, seldom leaving my side. If I worked after eleven at night in my office, she complained in the doorway.   I turned off the lights and followed her to the bedroom.

Rosie, a Corgi mix, was my heart.  My daughter Amy rescued Rosie in Stillwater, Oklahoma, where she was a senior at Oklahoma State vet school.  Knowing Rosie and I were probably a good match, she sent her to Gainesville by airplane. I had a cat, Charlie, at the time.  The minute Rosie walked in the back door, they were friends—taking turns chasing each other around the house.  Rosie went everywhere with me—on camping trips, on errands in town, and to meetings.  When she died unexpectedly at age fourteen, I felt as though the fabric of my life had been torn and I didn’t know how to put it back together.

My cat Charlie was one of a litter of six-week-old kittens offered for adoption by Gainesville Pet Rescue.  A vet friend suggested I get a yellow male tabby.  They were the best, she said.  Charlie did turn out to be the best.  He liked to watch nature specials on TV, especially documentaries about birds.  He sat at the foot of my bed with his full attention to the screen.  When birds flew out of camera range, he ran behind the TV looking for them.  Charlie taught himself to ring the front doorbell when he wanted to be let in.  He sat on the kitchen counter and pressed the lever on the electric can opener to tell me he was hungry. Once Rosie escaped from the yard and wandered off.  I panicked and stood in the drive yelling “Rosie! Rosie!”  In the distance I heard Charlie’s loud call.  He’d found her two blocks from home and was telling where to find her.

Tiny was a Boston Terrier I inherited from my daughter Julie who’d just had a baby and couldn’t handle the dog’s frenetic energy.  Julie’s husband didn’t like dogs anyhow, so Tiny moved in with Rosie and me. Soon she calmed down and assigned herself the role of protector.  Any unfamiliar men who entered the house or yard were at risk.  Over the three years I had her, she bit seven men who came to make household repairs or do landscaping.  Her preferred target was the butt (sneak attack), but she would settle for a thigh, arm, or hand.  At each incident, I apologized profusely and stuffed a twenty-dollar bill into the victim’s pocket.  I was never sued.

Tiny got a brain tumor when she was five.  A veterinary neurosurgeon in Jacksonville implanted a stent in her brain to drain off fluid that was collecting and causing symptoms.  The operation gave her five more months of normal life. At the end, she went quickly.

Savannah, an Australian shepherd, was ten when I adopted her from Gainesville Pet Rescue.  She had a genetic problem with her eyes that made her appear blind and unattractive to adopters.  She also had early signs of progressive arthritis.  Every time I visited Pet Rescue, there she was in a cage, waiting for a home.  I worried that no one would adopt her, so I did.

Savannah was a headstrong alpha dog—not mean, but clear about what she wanted.  As her arthritis got worse, I became her servant.  When she could no longer walk, she barked to summon me.  It was my job to figure out what she wanted.  Near the end, I had to carry her outdoors to relieve herself.  When her joint pain flared up badly, I lay next to her on the floor and massaged her back and hips—sometimes over an hour.  Finally, when she was fourteen, I took her to the vet to be euthanized.  I held her through the procedure, and she was brave and gracious as always.

Now I have a 9-year-old Chihuahua-Beagle mix, Trudy.  I’m 80 years old.  I don’t want to add a gravestone for her to the memorial garden.  It would please me to think we could both pass to the next level of existence at the same time.

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When Dogs Go Blind

The good life isn’t over for dogs who go blind.  If they don’t have eye pain—which most don’t—and the disease that caused the blindness is treatable, they can lead happy lives.  For example, my blind dog Trudy has underlying Cushing’s disease, which can be controlled with drugs, although she’ll never get her sight back.  She lost her vision over a period of weeks from SARDS (sudden acquired retinal degeneration syndrome). Like most owners, I suffered from her rapid loss of eyesight more than she did.

Dogs don’t rely on their vision as much as we do. Even healthy dogs’ eyes don’t focus well on close objects. They’re color-blind compared with humans.  They don’t see details as well.  The one thing they do better is detect moving objects in dim light.  Nature gave them this ability to help them hunt at night.

The people who think it’s humane to put a blind dog to sleep don’t know much about dogs.  If you watch sightless dogs who have gotten used to their loss, you see happy, functional pets. They still have their wonderful noses and ears, which become their main sense organs. However, the adjustment may take a little while. Some dogs get depressed when they first lose their vision, acting listless and droopy.  They carry their heads low and seldom wag their tails. If this is true of your pet, resist sharing your sadness. Indulge in it  only when your dog’s not around.  When you’re together, stay upbeat. Find things to do that you both enjoy.

Other dogs get irritable.  They growl easily and may snap.  While you should discourage this behavior, stay calm when you correct the dog.  There’s no point in getting everyone more upset. Approach the dog gently and stroke his or her neck and back. You’ll both feel better when you enjoy close, loving contact.

Above all, don’t overdo the help you give. Avoid taking over your dog’s life. People with blind dogs agree that coddling is the worst thing an owner can do.  Instead of carrying a dog upstairs, for example, help the dog learn to do it alone.  He or she will take pride in the new skill.

When my dog Trudy recently lost her vision, I was devastated.  I worried that she’d no longer enjoy life.  Little did I know. Trudy still barks at the UPS man and tries to chase his truck down the street, her hackles raised.  She gets around the house without trouble as long as furniture hasn’t been moved or large objects aren’t left in her path.  She still delights in jumping up on kitchen counters when I’m not around and and running off with any tasty items she finds.  How she does it, I don’t know. Recently she started playing with her toys again, grabbing her hemp rope in her mouth and thrashing it around—going for the kill.

A friend has a blind dog named Radar—a Chinese crested.  Radar is a good name for him.  He’s so talented that, even without eyesight, he can jump up and catch a fly in his mouth.  Like Trudy, Radar is a happy camper.

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Dogs with SARDS & Cushing’s Disease

Sudden acquired retinal degeneration syndrome (SARDS) is a disease that causes rapid blindness in dogs–usually, within a few days to a couple of months. For some unexplained reason, the cells in the dog’s retina start breaking down.

The disease can be diagnosed with electroretinography—a test similar to an EKG. While the dog is under anesthesia, electrodes are placed on the cornea to detect activity in the retina.  A normal eye produces tracings with peaks and valleys. In dogs with SARDS, the tracings are flat.

Adding to the mystery is the fact that about 75% of the dogs with SARDS also have Cushing’s disease.  The symptoms include increased thirst, accidents in the house, an unusually big appetite, pot-bellied appearance, and excess panting. The condition is due to excess production of the hormone cortisol by the dog’s adrenal glands, two small organs that sit on top of the kidneys. While brain or adrenal gland tumors are the most common cause of canine Cushing’s disease, dogs with SARDS don’t have them.

Veterinarians use blood tests to diagnose Cushing’s disease.  The most common, the dexamethasone suppression test, takes a full day.  First, a blood sample as taken as a baseline measure.  Then a synthetic cortisone drug—dexamethasone–is injected and follow-up samples are taken throughout the day.  If the dog has normal adrenal function, cortisol production drops.  A dog with Cushing’s disease continues to make high levels of the hormone.

Drug treatment can regulate a dog’s cortisol production, keeping the hormone at normal levels. However, it’s important that a veterinarian follow the dog closely because it’s easy to over- or underdose an animal, causing added health problems.  Serious side effects are possible, too, and require careful monitoring. The drugs must be given daily and can be costly.

The good news for owners of dogs with SARDS and Cushing’s disease is that treatment of the adrenal problem can offer a dog a longer life of higher quality.

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My Friend Kari

Kari Bagnall began her whirlwind career as a primary sanctuary director when she opened Jungle Friends on 12 acres of land north of Gainesville, Florida, in 1999. Until her early forties, she was a successful interior designer in Las Vegas.

Kari’s love of monkeys began when her live-in boyfriend brought home a baby capuchin in 1993. Kari took little Samantha everywhere with her.  Unfortunately, her enthusiasm wasn’t shared by the managers of the grocery stores, movie theatres, and shops she visited. Before long, she was no longer welcome at their places of business.  With Samantha riding on her shoulder, Kari was also escorted out of the design showrooms where she made a living.

Putting one misguided foot in front of the other, Kari tried to solve the problem by getting a baby sister for Samantha. Charlotte only doubled Kari’s problems.

Kari turned her home upside down for the girls.  She installed monkey-friendly landscaping, including misting devices and an elephant fountain.  Indoors she built runways near the ceilings that extended into the yard. The monkeys’ room had a TV, rainforest wallpaper, matching curtains, and a four-poster bed draped with mosquito netting.

First, Samantha threw the TV across the room.  Then Charlotte tore down the wallpaper.  Together they ripped up the curtains, dismantled the bed, and nearly hung themselves on the mosquito netting. Outdoors they stuffed pebbles in the elephant’s trunk, blocking the fountain.  They also attacked Kari’s guests, requiring trips to the emergency room for monkey bites.

The result was that Kari gave up her lucrative career as a designer and bought land in Florida where the climate was better for monkeys. On rural acreage, she built spacious, escape-proof habitats, installed water and electric lines, and repaired an old house that came with the land.  That’s where she lived. By the time Kari opened the gates of Jungle Friends Primate Sanctuary, she was almost broke.

Samantha, Charlotte and eleven other monkeys were the first residents at the sanctuary. As the word spread, more monkeys came and more construction was needed.  Within 10 years, Jungle Friends housed 120 capuchins, spider monkeys, marmosets, tamarinds, and squirrel monkeys. They came from unhappy lives in research laboratories, pet stores, and the entertainment industry. Many were brought to Kari by disenchanted owners who learned from painful experience that monkeys were born to be wild.

Now in her fifties, Kari works 16-hour days tending her huge complex and raising money to stay afloat.  Each morning, she and her volunteer staff chop fresh fruits and vegetables into bite-sized pieces and fill each of 120 personal bowls for the monkeys.  Food processors won’t do because they turn the food to mush, and monkeys like to inspect each morsel they eat.  Kari maintains a sanctuary clinic where she cares for sick monkeys. Sometimes she drives them to the University of Florida vet school. After sundown, she works on the Jungle Friends website, plans fund-raising projects, and corresponds with monkey sponsors.

For Kari Bagnall, nothing is impossible.  Once affluent, she now lives on a poverty-level income.  She is buoyant, beautiful, charismatic, and has a heart of gold.

Hats off to you, Kari.

To learn more about Jungle Friends, go to http://www.junglefriends.org

Guidelines for house cats

When a human is paying bills or doing other paper work, sit in the middle of it. When dislodged, watch sadly.  Then roll around on the papers, scattering them to the best of your ability.  After being removed the second time, push pencils, erasers, and other small objects off the table one at a time.

Allow no closed doors in the house. To get door opened, stand on hind legs and hammer with forepaws.  When the door has been opened, it is not necessary to use it.  If it is an outside door, stand in the doorway and think about several things.  This is particularly important during very cold weather, a rainstorm, or mosquito season.

At night, sleep on top of a human or on a body part. Position yourself in a way that prevents the person from moving. If the person tries to push you off gently, meow as though you are in pain.

Accompany guests to the bathroom. It is not necessary to do anything.  Just sit and stare.

When jumping into the lap of a book reader, sit directly under her chin. It’s important to get between the reader’s eyes and the book, unless you can lie across the book itself.

When a human is knitting or mending, lie on the work to obscure as much of it as possible. Pretend to doze, but every so often reach out and slap the knitting needles or other implements.  The worker may try to distract you.  Ignore this.

If you have to throw up, get to an upholstered chair quickly. If you cannot manage this in time, find an Oriental rug.  If no Oriental rug is available, a shag rug is good.  When throwing up on the carpet, make sure you back up during the process so that your deposit is as long as the human’s bare foot.

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