Animal Wise: ‘Guides’ sheds light on difficult subjects

Photo by MabelAmber:Pixabay(Photo by MabelAmber/Pixabay)

As much as Susan Chernak McElroy gets it right with Animals as Teachers and Healers (Ballantine Books, 1997), she gets right to the heart with Animals as Guides for the Soul (Ballantine Books, 1998).

This follow-up is not only a worthy exploration of the relationship between humans and animals, but also a potentially transforming walk through some of the thorniest aspects of these relationships.

8482McElroy, who has worked as a technical writer and editor as well as in several animal-related occupations, writes largely from her experience on a small Wyoming farm. Insights from people who wrote to her after reading her previous book are included.

I appreciate so much in Guides for the Soul, but here are three primary take-aways.

The first is that the healing benefits of our relationships with animals are often subtle, but no less powerful. It isn’t always the spectacular, tossing-away-the-cane miracle with the therapy dog. More often, it’s the steady warmth of the cat curled up on the patient’s lap or the jingling of tags along a quiet country road day after day. Sometimes the miracle is only seen in hindsight.

“We are so conditioned to expect drama and heroics in healing that we forget the staggering importance of all the healing that goes unseen,” says McElroy, a cancer survivor. (Check out this wonderful six-minute video about two guys — one a morbidly overweight human, the other a middle-aged rescue dog — who healed each other.)

What if, she asks, we were to believe that the being at the end of the leash, in the cat carrier, or on a perch could heal by his or her very presence, offering exactly what is needed in every moment? That the dog nuzzling a crying adult was administering critical emotional first aid, or the horse heard the bullied teen as no one else could? Is that so far off the mark?

Second, McElroy delves into the rocky territory of death in a way that can benefit anyone who has lost a much-loved animal, particularly when the loss is accompanied by shame and guilt. These experiences and memories, however long ago, stick to us until we acknowledge their multilayered impact, she says.

Quoting respected authors on pet loss as well as people confronting long-buried grief and remorse, she offers perspective and tools for healing. However, she is respectful enough not to put forth easy answers. The stories of McElroy’s precious llama, Phaedra; and Jody Seay’s elderly black Lab friend McKenzie, are likely to bring both a tear and a spark of hope.

Finally, even when the animals involved are not our own, what can we do when we witness the inexplicable and cruel? When McElroy was about 11, a young coyote with his mangled leg still dangling in a steel-jaw trap was part of a wildlife exhibit at a nearby park. Day after day, he lay in a rusting wire cage with no food or water. She pleaded with the park rangers to care for the coyote. They ignored her. She begged her parents to do something, wrote to the local paper, and contacted the town mayor and her family’s veterinarian.

No adult would intervene until she called Mrs. Roberts, the mother of a friend, who picketed the park. The exhibit shut down within a week. The coyote made the front page of the local paper and was released to Mrs. Roberts, whose veterinarian husband helped care for the coyote in a backyard pen. Months later, Mrs. Roberts drove the coyote to the desert and released him back into the wild.

“She reminded me that although it was she who freed the coyote, it was I who had brought the coyote to her attention. At the age of eleven, I learned that one person can stand up against suffering and make a difference,” McElroy recalls.

We should all have, or be, a Mrs. Roberts.

Animal Wise: Back-to-school blues

Longing - Photo by Anne Worner on Trendhype : CC BY-SA

“Longing” (Photo by Anne Worner on Trendhype / CC BY-SA)

The school buses rumble through the neighborhood, marking a change in routine for kids, parents, and drivers. As fleeting as it seems, summer vacation is just long enough to break the sleeping, waking, coming, and going habits of the school year. This shift back to academic-year reality affects our animal companions, too.

My household has no school bus riders, but it does contain one college professor who has been home all summer. In preparation for classes starting this week, she began to spend more time on campus. On Wednesday, when she wasn’t home by 4:30 p.m., the dog and the older of our two cats parked themselves by the garage door and waited. (The younger cat, who hasn’t lost her street smarts, apparently decided to play it cool and take in some chipmunk theater from a window.)

“She’ll be home soon,” I told the two worriers. “She’s back at work. It’s that time of year.” Indeed, she was home within half an hour, and the next day they weren’t as concerned.

Animals who have enjoyed daytime human company all summer, and perhaps more outings to dog parks and pet-friendly cafes, may suddenly find themselves alone for hours at a time. The fact that it’s the same routine as last spring or last year may not register in the stress of the present moment … and the present moment is where our animal friends are experts at dwelling.

They may be sad. They may be anxious. They may be bored. They may be all of the above. You may be looking at a furniture-scratching, throw-pillow-chewing, garbage-raiding, howling start to the school year. Animals thrive on routine (granted, some do more than others), so any changes to it may be met with resistance … or at least some sad looks as you’re heading out the door. Even cats who deny any interest in human affairs are not above a reproachful gaze.

So now that school is in, what can you do to ease the transition? Here are some suggestions from the ASPCA and my own experience:

• Give the animals a treat every time you leave the house so they associate your departure with something pleasant.

• Stuff the treats in a rubber toy such as a Kong to give them something to work on.

• Leave a radio on low volume; I like NPR for its calm voices and classical music, but if there is a particular kind of music your animal companion is used to or seems to like, go with that.

• Tell them where you’re going and when you expect someone will be home.  They understand more than you think.

• Touch base during the day. You don’t even need a phone. Calmly bring your animal to mind, silently tell him you love him, and remind him of when you (or someone else in the household) will be home. Again — they get it.

• Keep school backpacks closed and/or away from curious noses. You don’t want your animal companions to get into something harmful, and even if the dog actually does eat your son’s homework, no teacher will believe it.

Here’s to a great year of learning with the animals in our lives.

African violet victories

Geri's AV with ribbons at fair

I grew this African violet from a leaf cutting three years ago as part of an anxiety-inducing repotting operation. 

There was a time when I avoided even looking at the African violets I passed in grocery and home improvement stores. Experience told me I did not have whatever knack, touch, or mojo was required to care for them. Enough heartbreak, I vowed.

Then my dear spouse Kathy presented me with an absolutely beautiful African violet from McNamara Florist (location formerly known as Sand Point), one of my favorite nurseries here in Fort Wayne. It thrived for two years. I was amazed.

Then I noticed it was looking a bit gangly and the lower leaves were drooping. The need to repot was a sign of success … but it was also another opportunity to screw up.

I consulted fellow Master Gardeners. I studied the African Violet Society of America‘s website. Then I gathered my courage, tools, and potting medium, and performed the transplant.

After some transitory drooping, the patient pulled through like a champ and bloomed again. I hadn’t killed it! What’s more, a few of the cuttings I’d rooted from the leaves removed from the parent plant became brand new little African violet plants.

I gave some of the offspring as gifts, letting my intuition tell me which plant needed to go to what person. Or you might say I let the plants tell me.

The baby African violet that went to my friend Geri knew what it was doing. Under her care, it grew many more lush green leaves, bloomed abundantly, and needed a new pot after about a year. Just like its mum, it took the transplant well.

Summer arrived, and Kathy suggested Geri and I enter our brilliant young charge in the Allen County 4-H Fair. Geri and I are city girls. 4-H and county fairs have not been part of our experience, by and large. But what the heck, we figured. Geri filled out the form and entered the African violet in the adult House Plants: Propagated Potted Plant category.

The plant won Best of Show.

So if you think you don’t have African violet mojo, try the following:

  1. Get a plant from a good source, such as a reputable local nursery.
  2. Water weekly with a weak African violet fertilizer solution (weekly, weakly).
  3. Repot when needed, and don’t panic if it droops afterward. Give it time to recover.
  4. Consult sources such as the AVSA or your local Master Gardeners for information and support.

You just never know what you can accomplish with smart sourcing, well-researched information, and a little help from your friends.