Molly Cameron, Chapel Hill
Spitfire and I celebrated our 10th anniversary on June 26. It was on that day back in 1995 that I noticed a handsome black and white cat stretched out in the sun on the bricks outside the basement door. I walked quietly down the steps and sat down. The cat didn't run away as I expected him to but rather came up to me and began licking me all over. It was as if I was being "marked as [his] own forever" (Episcopal Book of Common Prayer). He has never again done such a thing.
Throughout that summer he would turn up each evening and I would sit with him on the steps and give him a little treat, which he would acknowledge by climbing on my lap and purring appreciatively. I learned that he was one of several 2-year-old cats belonging to a family who lived nearby but through the woods. After their cat had had kittens, family allergies worsened and the kittens all became outdoor cats. Other animals in the neighborhood caused them to scatter and presumably sent Spitfire to me.
I was living in the house my family built in 1950. I'd moved back in 1993 after the death of my father who was my last close relative. It was hard feeling alone in the world, but it had never occurred to me to get a pet. I expect Spitfire, too, felt a little lonely as he suddenly was thrust out into a world much less cozy than that filled with siblings and four loving humans in a comfortable house.
We had a wonderful deepening six-month relationship. I received permission to bring him into my house, so he spent fall evenings with me on the couch. Since he was not my cat I felt I had to put him outside when I went to bed, a task that became harder as the weather turned colder. Then in January 1996 my neighbor (Spitfire's "birth mother") said she'd heard Spitfire had adopted me. She asked if I would like to officially adopt him and when I excitedly said yes, she sent her daughter over with a card that read in part: "Be it known to all concerned that Spitfire Shea will hereby ever after be known as Spitfire Cameron. Ms. Molly Cameron by acceptance hereof is now the true and sole owner of the above-mentioned feline." Joy!
Spitfire, or Spitty-cat or Spitty as I often call him, still spends a lot of time outside prowling in the yard and woods. In spite of all one reads about the dangers of letting a cat be inside-outside, I want Spitfire to live a full life, not just view it through a window.
When the Preservation Society of Chapel Hill was recently raising money to install a brick walk at the Horace Williams House by selling memorial and honorary brinks, I asked if it would be possible to honor an animal. They agreed, and so there is now a brick saying "Spitfire, a very fine cat." These words used by Dr. Samuel Johnson in the 18th century when asked to describe his cat, Hodge, apply just as well to a certain special 21st-century Chapel Hill cat!
It's only OK when I do it
Jenni Norman, Cary
You may be familiar with the Walter the Farting Dog series. I am fortunate enough to have a farting dog of my own. Sallie, my 2-year-old Lab and chow mutt, is a notorious farter. Not being modest at all (save for the many times the uncoordinated animal has managed to fall off the bed at night), Sallie will pass gas at any time, during any occasion. She has managed to pass extremely large amounts of gas both in private and when special visitors and guests arrive. Sallie is generally an agreeable animal; however, her gas makes it extremely hard to focus on whatever task may be at hand, especially sleeping and--worst of all--eating.
In our small, earthy room, Sallie likes to prop her front paws up on what has become "her" ledge and gaze out the window. She may then alert us with loud, profound and incessant barking that lets us know any of the following is or may be happening: one, a squirrel has been spotted; two, a person has been spotted; three, a branch is blowing in the wind; and four--my personal favorite--the garbage truck has dared to approach "her" house. Sallie also feels it necessary to express her excitement at these situations by passing large amounts of gas. Whoever is lucky enough to be in the room at the time must then excuse herself.
Certainly, Sallie is an interesting looking animal. She has the long, thick coat of a chow that unfortunately lays flat like a Lab's, so that she appears to be a dog someone has sprayed down with a hose and then tossed haphazardly into the dryer. Also, her ears must not be ignored. The direction in which Sallie turns her head may very well impact our cell phone reception.
One evening, as Sallie had her head resting adoringly on her "father's" lap, my boyfriend accidentally (or intentionally--it is difficult to tell now that we are past the six-month mark in our relationship) passed gas. Sallie was up with a start--her ears flat back against her head and her tail between her legs. She jumped off the bed and ran into a corner, crouching down as if to hide. At this moment we both realized Sallie the farting dog had one great fear in life (besides brooms, plastic bags and Rockin' Elmo dolls): the fart of another person.
Sallie still lets the occasional gas slip out in the presence of very important company, of course, but now she is much more aware of the consequences of her actions.
The zen of dogness
Mike Campa, Durham
Lilu was listed on the rescue site as a "pit bull mix." We are guessing that the non-pit bull half is either another pit bull or, possibly, some sort of domestic pig. Leroy, also a rescue, is clearly a boxer-pit bull blend. Our third canine is a floppy-eared red Doberman named Scarlet. Although Scarlet spent her first three months of life in the home of a loving family in Charleston, her temperament would be easier to explain had she suffered some sort of abuse as a puppy, as she tends to snarl quite menacingly at the slightest provocation. Lilu and Leroy, however, did not have it so easy growing up. Lilu was used as a bait dog to train fighting dogs, and Leroy was found starving at his mother's side along with his siblings. The mother was attached to a tree on a short length of chain.
Although the past several months have been fairly uneventful as far as dog issues go, it wasn't always the case. Our household went fairly quickly from one with two adult dobies (our other dobie, Jubilee, has since died) to one with two dobies and two pit bulls. At the risk of stating the obvious, this method of accumulating a dog family is not recommended unless one has experience in raising large canines or lion taming, or both. As the dogs got to know each other and attempted to establish some sort of pecking order, things occasionally got out of hand. What would start out as boisterous play often deteriorated into full-blown fights. It seemed like we were breaking up various combinations of dogs every couple of weeks or so. Luckily, there were no serious injuries and no emergency room trips during the entire "getting to know you" period. Lately, things have been comparatively mellow. The dogs now know each other well and have learned to play without being too surprised when someone bites a little too hard.
In addition to the companionship and entertainment our dogs provide, we also get to experience dog communication, aka barking. Although Scarlet is the most prone to communicate loudly with the neighborhood, Lilu and Leroy have learned how much fun it is and now all are fairly adept at it. While the majority of this barking is no more than idle chatter, it occasionally means more. Last week at around 1:30 a.m., we were awakened by an earsplitting chorus from all three dogs. They were outside in a matter of seconds, and we humans were out of bed almost as fast. A quick walk around the property revealed nothing amiss, although closer inspection in the morning revealed an attempted break-in to our shed, where our bicycles are stored.
To put it simply, the dogs had averted the theft of our bicycles. While it might be appropriate at this point to convey something like "the dogs really earned their keep," it's not like that at all. We don't own dogs because they are excellent guardians; rather, we own them because we appreciate their affection, their hearts and their dogness. The fact that they will, without hesitation, do everything within their power to protect us is a bonus. So, we pay their vet bills, feed them the best food we can, live with dog hairs on all of our clothes, and occasionally protect them from each other simply because we like what they add to our lives. The dog is utterly unique in its blend of domestication and wildness, ferocity and gentleness, strength and sensitivity, obedience and independence. There is no more perfect example of an effortlessly balanced yin and yang.
Elaine Fitzsimons, Durham
Hokey was one cool cat. Mom brought him home one day to fill the void left by the recent demise of yet another kitten mowed down while trying to cross our busy street. A 2-year-old tabby, Hokey needed a new home when his owner, Mom's friend, moved to a new apartment with a no-pets rule. We all liked him from the start. He knew the house rules about doing his business outdoors, didn't scratch the furniture, came running when he heard the can opener, and made himself available for lap warming and head rubbing without making a pest of himself. He was a pretty mellow guy all around. Or so we thought.
Turns out Hokey had a substance abuse problem. We found this out one day when Mom dropped an olive on the floor while preparing a relish tray for a family party. Hokey, just passing through the kitchen at the time, was drawn to the rolling green orb like a child to a ball. He pounced upon it, sniffed it once, and gobbled it down. "Hey! Hokey ate the olive," said my brother Paul. "I didn't know cats liked olives. Let's give him another."
Hokey was more than ready for another. Meowing loudly, he reached his front paws up toward the counter where the relish tray sat. Mom tossed him one. He caught it in his mouth, wolfing it down as he fell over onto his back. Then he began rolling from side to side on the kitchen floor and purring like crazy.
"Look, he's drunk!" Paul said, and gave the cat another olive.
That one put him over the edge. Hokey tore out of the kitchen, and for five frenzied minutes he raced through the house bouncing off furniture, knocking over lamps, climbing the drapes, and running under beds until we were able to chase him out the back door. He slept it off on the back porch the rest of the day.
I have to admit it--Paul and I became Hokey's enablers. Having a cat that got stoned on green olives was a very cool thing, and we had to demonstrate this to all our friends. Hokey became a legend in the neighborhood for his psychedelic antics, and kids would stop by after school with olives in their pockets. We experimented with other condiments--black olives, pickles, cocktail onions--but clearly green olives were Hokey's drug of choice. Perhaps it was the pimento. On Christmas we wrapped up a jar of olives and put it under the tree: "To Hokey from Santa." Mom forbid us from giving him the whole jar at once, fearing an overdose.
As is the fate of many junkies, Hokey met an untimely and tragic end a few years later. He was napping on the warm concrete of the driveway, perhaps sleeping off his latest fix, when Mom accidentally ran over him while backing the car out of the garage. He probably never felt a thing.
A dose of dachshund
Stacy Morse, Chapel Hill
Most people find solace in something tangible: a favorite song, a Chicken Soup book, some over-scripted reality show. I find peace and understanding in the deep brown of my dogs' eyes. It flows there, under ebbs of pure dachshund attitude. I tend to think nirvana is in there somewhere, and someday, I'll decode the complexities of the dachshund personality and achieve a higher sense of being.
I was diagnosed with a brain mass and hypothyroid disease within weeks of being laid off during a corporate buyout. I was the art director for a large ISP, left behind just as I was told I might not live to see my 30th birthday, and that the explanation for the excruciating headaches I have almost constantly was a blob of hormonal goo that couldn't be removed. I was devastated. My father, being the sweetheart he is, had read about the benefits of dogs for people with chronic pain and decided I should have one. That's how Lucyfurr came into my life.
She was just a puppy when I brought her home; small enough to fit into one of my husband's hands. She was a handful in many other ways as well, a dachshund through and through. Her challenging nature kept my mind off the pain and gave me a sense of purpose. Anyone who has ever had a dachshund understands--they may be little dogs, but they encapsulate a personality larger than life.
Some years later, after Lucy grew into a fine young woman, we decided to get another dog for her to play with. Even though she was getting older, her energy never subsided. That was when we found Flasher The Relentless, or Flash for short. He was an awkward, shy 6-month-old. He was a sharp contrast to Lucy's "What are you lookin' at?" demeanor. In spite of their personality differences they got along extremely well, and we added another layer of doxie complexity and another set of deep brooding eyes to our family.
About eight months ago, my in-laws were visiting from Florida with their two dachshunds. I was working on a hat for the winter (with my mass, I tend to keep my hair short and my head gets cold). I looked at the mutley crew and thought to myself, "It would be so funny if these dogs had little hats." So I whipped up some hats and had the dogs model them for me. I laughed. Hard. Then I thought, "They need matching scarves." Again I went into a fury of crochet hooks and yarn. The complete ensemble was so adorable and hilarious, I laughed for what felt like forever and a day.
I had to share my newfound amusement with the world, so I took some pictures and posted them to some dachshund message boards on the Internet. It only took a few minutes before e-mails started pouring in asking "How do I get one?" I was shocked.
After a few weeks of almost non-stop crocheting, I put up my Web site (www.doxieart.com) and started working on other dachshund-inspired art and accessories. It's become a great distraction from the pain, and a way to pay tribute to the dogs that make my life so much easier to live.
The chicken that crossed Highway 55
Michelle Czaikowski, Durham
She was pecking at bugs on the side of N.C. 55 in Durham the first time I saw her. I went home, chopped some fruits and vegetables, and returned to where I saw her.
As I started throwing food toward her, she came closer. Within a half hour she was eating out of my hand. She was the first chicken I'd ever met.
I waved down my husband, Neil. We set her on a paper bag in the back seat of the car. I sat beside her, afraid she might panic and flap around.
She plopped down and began to preen.
We drove around looking for houses with chicken coops. Neil stopped at the fire station to ask if they knew if anyone in the area had chickens. They did not.
It grew late, so we headed back to our apartment. I began to daydream about sitting on the couch, my 19-year-old cockatiel perched on my finger and this chicken beside me. My husband had the same vision.
"She can sleep on the tennis court tonight," he offered. "She'll have plenty of room there."
I thought about hawks and people who might hurt her. "She's not sleeping on the tennis court," I said. "She's sleeping in the bathroom."
Once home, I made a few calls. Carl told me his friend, June, used to have chickens. She was in Chapel Hill. "She may be able to help you."
June told me to bring her by. "I'm not looking for a permanent pet," she said. "But I'll keep her as long as I need to."
I hung signs, placed an ad in the paper, and gave the animal shelter my contact information.
I spoke with June almost daily. "I've named her Michelle," she told me. "After the woman who brought her to me. And she comes when she's called!"
"I got a call from a guy who saw the sign on 55 and said he'd take her off my hands," I told June. "And another from a woman who saw it in the paper, but the chicken she was missing was black." Michelle was a Rhode Island Red.
"Well," June said, "if you found her real home, I guess I'd give her back." Her voice trailed off.
I canceled the ad and took down the signs. At June's, she had a large yard to run around and someone who loved her.
June and I kept in touch. "I'm teaching her to heel," she confided.
Another day she laughed, "I saw Michelle fly for the first time. Something startled her and she flew right to me. It was the funniest sight!"
I'd feed her when June was away. Together, Michelle and I looked for bugs in the grass and ate spinach. Every day, she left me an egg. She was friendlier than some dogs.
One day, when June called, her voice sounded strained. "It must have been a fox," she said.
I know I'll never forget her.
The Ballad of Sad Kitty
Charlotte Sears, Raleigh
An orange tabby cat was standing on the roof of the building next door. His face looked lacerated, and his eyes were opened to slits. He looked off into the distance and meowed at the world in general, not seeming to see me standing right there in front of him. I got my carrier. When he smelled the food in my hand, the cat became frantic. I though he might bite me. He submitted sweetly to my arms and sat quietly in the carrier as I walked to the local kitty and doggy boutique. They are great finders of homes for stray animals.
The girl at the counter frowned at the cat's condition and advised me to give the cat a flea bath before taking him home. I hadn't realized I was taking the cat home. We clipped his claws and put him in a grooming harness, but he scratched me anyway, trying to crawl up my front and over my shoulder, away from the water. He did seem to enjoy having his head scratched. I saw that one of his eyes was cloudy, and I began to wonder if he was old.
Back at home, the cat seemed strangely content to sit in the carrier. He groomed himself and ate.
The vet frowned at the cat on the steel table. He thought the cat had mange and had damaged his own face and eyes scratching the itch. He suggested a list of treatments that would cost over $200. For once, I thought of the sensible thing to do at the right time. I decided to get him tested for the deadly kitty diseases. I drove home with the cat carrier on the front seat of my truck, feeling overwhelmed. Even if I spent all the money the cat required, he would probably bully Cabbage, who has been with me since she was a tiny kitten. Who would want an expensive, half-blind cat? I almost wished he'd be sick so I could be rid of him.
Back at home he mostly stayed in his carrier, but in the middle of the night I found him up on the bathroom counter. He looked at me with his one good eye and meowed his feckless, loud meow. I wondered what he was thinking of this situation, stuck in a stranger's bathroom with food but no company. He had taken a big shit in the disposable litter box. His digestive system was healthy, anyway.
The vet called me a few days later. He had tested positive for feline leukemia. I had thought I was prepared, but I had trouble sleeping that night.
The next day I took him back to the vet. The technician came out with plastic gloves and a towel. The cat gave a startled meow, but didn't otherwise object to being picked up. They asked me if I wanted the cat's ashes, and I automatically said no. Now I kind of wish I hadn't.