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.

One who went before

Helen Deiss - Ky Kernel

Helen Deiss, editor, checked The Kentucky Kernel with head pressman Karl Davis in the old printing plant in 1948. (Photo courtesy University of Kentucky)

This photo in my spouse’s University of Kentucky alumni magazine — celebrating the university’s 150th anniversary —  caught my eye. The young woman, Helen Deiss, was the editor of the campus newspaper in 1948, and here she was checking an issue just off the press. She looks younger than a traditional college student, and yet she exudes calm and confidence at a time when women in editorial positions were few.

Helen Deiss Irvin passed away in 2015 at 86, but according to her obituary, she went on to become a reporter for what was then the Lexington Leader, receive a Ph.D. from UK and teach in Transylvania University’s division of humanities. She later attended Harvard Law School and practiced in Washington, DC, until she was 83. Along the way, she authored a book, Women in Kentucky. “She loved animals, books and sports,” the obit reads.

Helen sounds like a lady who sought and found a variety of outlets for her gifts and interests. It wasn’t “just” journalism, teaching, or law … she did them all. Many, if not most, of the women who followed her in journalism would also weave teaching, law, public relations, nursing, occupational therapy, or any number of other disciplines into their working lives. It’s a pluralism that has become a reality of 21st-century life and a time when journalism is struggling to retain the best of what it was and morph into its future self.

The Kentucky Kernel became an independent newspaper in 1971, operating without university funding, and it’s still going today.

But look at young Helen giving that newspaper the once-over in 1948. She knew what she was doing and would find many more ways to do it. So can we.

Chosen by cats

If you are in transition, chances are an animal is or is waiting to be your teacher. Cats in particular choose us for these missions, although some cleverly let us think we do the choosing.

For example: A tiny, loudmouthed tiger kitten adopted me at a Southern Indiana animal shelter when I was just out of graduate school and unsure of the next step. When I picked her up, she looked me straight in the eye and meowed. I’d passed muster.

UnknownRaven Mardirosian describes a similar experience in “Just Another Crazy Cat Lady Story” (2014). She had just arrived in Fort Collins, Colorado for graduate school. On the East Coast, she’d left behind her fundamentalist Christian family and her “sort-of” girlfriend at their Christian college, which banished Mardirosian from campus when their relationship was uncovered (by said girlfriend).

It was the beginning of many years of wandering — if not running — and yet there she was in an animal shelter, about to take on the commitment of adopting one of two kittens. She was drawn to the darker one, as the orange tabby reminded her a little too much of the beloved family cat whose loss she still grieved. But when the orange tabby’s tiny white paw grabbed her finger, Mardirosian knew she’d been chosen.

That orange tabby, Avery, became Mardirosian’s link to a kinder, gentler way of being amid a return to the East Coast and a series of jobs, schools, apartments and girlfriends. People in her life asked: When are you going to grow up? When are you going to get right with the Lord? Avery just napped in her lap, knowing she would figure it all out.

While living in New York City, Mardirosian adopted Zoey, a little gray street cat, through a fellow CCL (crazy cat lady). After thoroughly vetting Mardirosian and her living space, CCL brought Zoey for a trial visit.

Zoey turns her eyes my way: jade green, with just enough of a razor slit to show that I’m not the only bitch in the room. …

Then she decides to come over and say hello.

She likes you.

The magical three words. All of the chasing after my parents’ love, the attention of the beautiful redhead or blonde or black-haired girl at Henrietta’s … flies back in one terrifying sword of truth — she likes you — as Zoey remains in my lap, not quite seated, not quite standing.

She does, doesn’t she?

Still, in the beginning there was fearsome hissing and screaming, broken glass and an abscessed injury to the base of Avery’s tail. Though Zoey did settle down, she remained moody and opinionated — much like Idgie, my aforementioned loudmouthed tiger cat.

Mardirosian developed a unique relationship with each of her feline charges: “I’m much more aligned to Zoey, the secret observer. The runner. I’ve got that skill down pat. Avery challenges me to remove the labyrinth that winds its way around my heart and let others love me.”

Her account of Avery’s illness and the agonizing decision to let him go, after nearly two decades of life and love, is wrenching. Though deeply moving in and of itself, it brought back the loss of Idgie, who passed at age 16, quite vividly.

Even in her grief, Mardirosian recognizes, as I did, that her friend and guide is “safe, happy and free. … This crazy cat of mine will fly on. I may not know how — but trust the energy that propels him forward will move me in the same way.”

At our city shelter, I met a tortoiseshell kitten. I picked her up, and she reached out and patted my face with her paw. Lucy is now an easygoing 3-year-old, a very different cat with a new set of lessons.

My education continues.