By conservative estimates, there are currently enough wrongfully convicted people in prison in the United States to fill a football stadium.
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As a child — until the age of 29 — I put more trust in my animal friends than I did most People. Long ago, this made very good sense: my mother was cold, distant, and formal, my father was loving, but unsure of how to express his affection. I got little from either. I was the youngest of 5 children and my older brothers and sister were usually away, playing with their own friends or attending boarding school. I was alone.
I filled my private world with an ark of wonderful creatures: stuffed animals (there was “Puppy,” “Cocky,” “Peter Rabbit,” to name a few), my part-human, snow-white miniature Poodle, romping, dumb, lovable Labradors, and horses . . . horses . . . horses. I gave each animal at least one name, and the unlimited wealth of my affection, which was received gratefully most of the time, sometimes only tolerantly. They were of great comfort to me: the soothing warmth of the black lab’s well-muscled body, the softness of “Happy’s” curly white fur coat, the sweet apple-breath of my horse, “Blaze.”
I spent moments and whole summers in my intimate animal world, the happiest and saddest of my life. In the lifetime I spent observing and talking with my animal friends, I developed a keen and sympathetic understanding of them, their wants, needs and moods. I could anticipate the surge from a trot to a gallop before it happened and pull lightly on the reins, or admonish my horse in a soft voice, so there would be no hint of a broken rhythm. “Blaze” and I had such a close understanding of each other that in time the hackamore that he wore was more for form and adornment than for control. He knew where my favorite galloping places were and would automatically pick up speed as we approached those stretches. I knew that he liked to stop at the top of the hill, to catch his breath and look down on the valley below, to satisfy himself that all was right in the world. And on the way home, we both knew that it was all right for him to slip out of his regimented back-to-the-barn walk and into a brisk, eager, five-gaited walk that put us both in soaring spirits — and got him back to the barn a little faster.
I can watch animals going about their daily business for hours on end. Chickens captivate me: the way they seek out little grubs with such fierce determination, the way they luxuriate in their dirt baths, fluffing the dirt up all around them, snuggling happily with the warm Earth, shaking themselves off in a billowing dust storm, how they pick resolutely at their lice, how they race each other, wild-eyed and gleeful, across my lawn with a childish enthusiasm that you wouldn’t think possible in a dumb chicken. They fill my life with happy pecking, a sense of peace that I wouldn’t want to live without.
When I was 18, my husband-to-be and I drove across the country with “Eugene,” our pet rabbit, in a Lotus sports car. Each rabbit or squirrel or woods kitty we passed that lay run-over and dead on the side of the road caused me long periods of grieving and depression, as if I’d just lost a dear friend. To this day, lost, homeless dogs, especially those wandering up freeway on-ramps, give me a pain so deep in my heart that I feel as though I am the one who has been abandoned, cast off to make my own way in a cruel world that I’m nowhere near ready to cope with.
The animals never quite fulfilled the need for human warmth and affection, but they were a good substitute. I could always cuddle a large horse head in my lap, stroke and kiss the soft pink of that nose, lose myself in the depth of those gentle, loving black eyes. There was always a dog around who could be enlisted to listen to my woes, to catch a few tears in a thick coat of hair, to listen sympathetically, even if bewildered, to my sobs.
But I’ve begun to see the too-large place these wonderful creatures have taken in my life, that no chicken will be able to give me what my mother couldn’t, no horse will be my father. And maybe, if I screw up my courage, I can put some of that trust in People, to share with those two-legged creatures the infinite store of love I have, to trust them to love me and give to me in return. I just hope “Cocky” and “Puppy” won’t mind if I give them a smaller corner of my bed.
Virginia Mudd Madden
I did a short stint as a part-time animal technician in the basement home of animals kept for experimental use by UNC researchers. Mostly I fed and cleaned up after rats, mice, rabbits, gerbils and hamsters. The regulars took care of the dogs and cats and the few primates down there. Any free time I had, I’d head for the cat rooms. They had all kinds penned up — all cat personality types. And they were doing all sorts of weirdo experiments on them: injecting lead into the bloodstreams, cutting nerves in the spinal cords, etc. Some had these plate-like things sewn into their skulls; I guess they could be more easily wired to electrodes that way. Some pathetic kittys spent their short lives dragging around in their own excrement because the nerves to their back legs had been severed. Some of the cats didn’t seem to be aware of what was happening. Some were so afraid they wouldn’t let anyone touch them. Lots of them had a questioning look on their faces.
It shook me up. I felt like an accomplice somehow. Two-faced me, going in and playing with the critters and then just letting all those things happen to them afterwards. (I only liberated one.) I was glad when an old employer offered me a job.
I have become convinced that any system of science or medicine whose advance depends on the maiming and killing of these animals (they call it “sacrifice”) can’t be valid or good. The foundation is rotten and contradicts the motivation. I realize that research has to be done, though some of it I saw seemed more than a little half-witted. I don’t know where I’d draw the line, as I’m not exactly crazy or concerned about rats or mice, myself. (Maybe it’s brain size?) Or maybe we should have drawn the line a while back — sticking to herbs and such. Maybe when we involved animal consciousness we went beyond what was intended, what would have naturally worked out. (After all, on a cosmic evolutionary scale, they are our little brothers and sisters.)
I sometimes wonder if researchers aren’t reincarnated as lab rats.
Dee Dee Small
She had a good imagination, yet still she knew she had no choice. She was a turtle; she could not choose to be a bear or a hare or a turnstile, or a covered bridge with autumn leaves like pictures in those cheap motels.
She knew she was as bound to her mobile home as if she had yet to make the payments.
She tried pasting colorful posters to the walls, but it was too damp inside, and too dark to see them anyway. Besides, the waterfalls, the redwoods, the beaches — she’d never walk in those places; she was too slow.
It was good to be alone, to sip a little sherry, to swoon a little in a sherry-dither, playing her hammer dulcimer, watching the moon rise. But, that itch: inside that intricately patterned green and brown shell there was only one room, yet in the blackness it seemed a maze of curves and corners. If only she could see in there!
She knew about happiness. Under the moonlight with sweet liquor and music, the covered men in her life, the damp moss and cool breezes off the pond. The sunny days when she was comfortably full, the noon hour when her blood was lulled warm as the sun, the slow declining afternoon. She knew about being content.
But that itch: the things she could never reconcile that she had read or heard, or even seen with her own eyes but could not accept; the things she could never be: a doe with long, springy legs; a seagull skimming the perfection of ocean spray like in some bestselling hardback.
Finally, it had come to this, that she would want to blow her brains out. But where could a turtle get a gun? “So many regulations on the walking creature these days.” She’d heard it many times, everyone dissatisfied with their lot. It came to her that her “finally” was no such thing. She would not be so encumbered. She would live and love with what she had!
Beside the pond that summer night she danced her slow turtle jig. Felt young and lovely and eager to love, to love all and any and every and any, to defend and die for all who would and could love and —
And, of course, there has to be a blinding flash: the ultimate, the rewards of satisfaction. And suddenly there was a blinding flash, and it came from inside her shell, so illuminating that for miles in all directions, even through the thick forest, creatures were momentarily stunned. The beams shot through her facehole, her legholes and her asshole, and in that moment, every molecule, indeed, every atom of her inner shell was lit.
After, in the blackness that chomped down blacker than any blackness before, there was a slight burnt smell, electrical fire, overload. Jig halt, love stop, turtle shock: She had missed her opportunity. Looking out when the light clicked on within.
Beside the pond, she stared at the stars’ reflections (unable to ever lift her head to look at the originals), and around her gathered the curious creatures of the forest. Those with night vision stared at her unblinking expression, the quiet mouth, the perpetual flare of her nostrils unmoving. They waited, not daring to disturb her musing. They waited for her to explain her vision, but she was still in shock, and did not know they were there.
The sun rose and she saw them, and realized the misunderstanding. By now they were impatient, hungry and horny, eager to get on with their day, and she struggled to retain her calm appearance — it was too late to tell them she had seen nothing. She became so anxious that her legs knocked against her shell; she could not control her trembling.
Recognizing her uncertainty, the animals bellowed their disappointment, and moved in, leapt upon her before she could withdraw inside her shell, and the beavers incisively snipped off her head.
“So who needs guns?” she might have slowly said if dead turtles could talk, which of course they could never ever do.
magic words for the animal people
i am my own animal
my own malefic my benevolence
in the grains of bone
i am my own animal
my own familiar
my own token and spirit
my own taboo
my own jagged jaguar
in the clouds with serpent claws
i’ve taken them all on
under my eyelids and perfecting pulse
under the glaze of gathering
the small medicine of being
i’ve taken them all on
the midnight feline
the generous dog
chickens cows horses
and mothery hogs
i am my own animal
and the animals also
take us inside them
across the great brief
where we have taken them
we know not
where they take us
It’s a good time for me to write about animals. When the children and I moved into a small house on Barclay Road in September, we added to our menagerie of two guinea pigs and four fish, an outside cat, a kitten, and a puppy.
I often ask myself, why do we go to so much trouble, and spend so much money, for animals? I’ve decided: it isn’t rational. But then neither is the decision to have children. It may not make any sense, but still we find ourselves wanting them, and when we have them, wanting to keep them, becoming devoted, regardless of cost, inconvenience, it bringing out all our worst sides at times, etc.
I suspect we want animals because we’re animals. We learn about ourselves. We make contact, pleasantly (at least some of the time!) with deeper, more mysterious and basic parts of ourselves. We learn to nurture a being with a little different need structure than ourselves, but we are on familiar ground. Animals, like us, need regular food, water, and caressing, talking to.
I’ve watched people and their animals. You can tell so much about people from their animals. I have friends who live in Durham County whose animals — from chickens to pony to cats and big dog, even their fish — all have a sleek, almost smug look. And they wonder why strays keep trying to get adopted there, why neighbors’ dogs come visiting so much! Even their rats get better than average treatment with “have-a-heart” traps!
Then I’ve watched people (and confess I did this myself to a Siamese cat I had 10 years ago) work out their frustrations on animals. It’s as if because the animal is behaving like an animal, and not obeying whatever unrealistic human standards have been imposed, he’s driving the owner crazy. He or she curses and yells and beats and throws the animal out the door and slams it. On whom? On the animal within?
If you ever want to get intimate with the little animal in you, I suggest the children’s books of Margaret Wise Brown, especially Mister Dog and The Three Little Animals. Mister Dog was “a dog who belonged to himself,” a worthy model! And the boy who came to love and live with him is, too.
When our new puppy puts her nose up to the fence to be patted by my hand reaching through, I feel very reassured, that I am able to love and care for a creature different from me, but also uncannily like. And when I go out to get the mail from the box by the road and a big orange tom follows, I am glad for his company. I read the mail, with him in my lap on the steps, catching some mid-day sun. Not to mention when I’m inside and trying to write, and the loudly purring black kitten tries to nap between my lap and the covers of my notebook and provides someone to stroke when words fail me. The gathering of wildgreens for the guinea pigs and their whistles of excitement as I come in the door, and the extra wiggling the fish do to remind me to feed them — these all contribute to an emotional order and pleasure in my days. Now I’m working on plants.
For all who can summon the courage
to live in innocence and pitying rage
at a sickly and self-pitying age
Robert Penn Warren
“Spot,” an Old English sheep dog, was a gift to us from Mary, a very dear friend. Mary lived on this hillside overlooking Chapel Hill. She loved wild flowers, birds, and raising Old English sheepdogs. A year ago last summer, Mary, her newborn son, and Truffles, the mother of Spot, were killed in a tragic highway accident. On a beautiful October Sunday, Spot was found in a field not far from our home. Dead. He had been shot in the head.
Spot was not a house dog. He was an “outsider,” his sensitive ears alert for foreign sounds while inside the house we securely slept.
In this new age of awareness, time after time I learned from Spot. When our daughter, Barbara, came here from Samoa, he sensed the vibrations between father and daughter. She followed Spot through the woods on trails we had taken on our Sunday morning walks. On one occasion a huge dog came bounding toward them. This gentle sheep dog threw himself with abandon against the intruder. It was as though this was the moment for which he came into the world.
When I learned of Spot’s violent death I was aware of an increasing tension and anger. My presumptive mind suggested that I go out and find the sonofabitch that shot him. As I walked through the field to bring his body home, a man alone, the loneliest of animals, that still small voice that never talks out loud whispered in the wind, “Spot had 8 years of freedom. If you value the quality of life more than the quantity of days, months, years, you free yourself of self-pity.” I felt a release of bitterness, only sadness at the loss of a friend. I wrote a short letter to the editor printed in the Chapel Hill Newspaper. A few days later Betsy Campbell of The Sun wrote a warm compassionate note in response to the feelings I had expressed about Spot’s violent death.
The empty space left by the death of a loyal friend I have reserved for the Betsy Campbells of the world. Were it not for her whom I had never known I would not be writing this releasing the cancerous feelings of bitterness. Remember that beautiful line in “Little Big Man” when the timid little character played by Dustin Hoffman said to the old Indian Chief, “It is a good day to die!” Spot could have died on the highway in the middle of the night, his last breath saturated by toxic fumes. On that Autumn Sunday, the woods in full coloring, it was a good day for Spot to die — to feel the pulsing afterbeat of life, no longer afraid of sleep, however long, and the song of a bird heard only after the singer is gone. It is not death that we most fear; it is the stricture of vibrant wings.
It is said the Puri Indians have only one word for time. They express the variety of meanings by pointing backward for yesterday, forward for tomorrow, and skyward for that eternal moment that happens only once and forever. By insisting that yesterday can somehow be tomorrow, we create conflict and violence within ourselves. There will always be an “us” choosing the eternal moment to be free of past and future because birds sing and sunlight is never more beautiful than when reflected by the dying leaves of autumn. I buried Spot beneath the roots of an evergreen tree. We need to get that buried shadow of the self out of the ground and into the sun again, somehow.
Just before I begin to write, I can see Sabina, my oldest cat, licking her white paws, lazily inspecting her shadow on the white refrigerator. A pale calico, she looks like a big, soft polar bear I saw once in a zoo when I was a child, drowsy in the summer heat. She’s a beauty, my Sabina: her grey veins on white with sashes of pink caused one passer-by to say she looked like marble. Proud and jealous, she ran away from home for a few weeks when each of my other two cats first entered the household.
Olivia and Dewey are made from the same buff-colored mold: they are mother and son cats. But that’s where the comparison ends. Olivia is an incredibly nervous, stand-offish lady who rarely wants to come in the house, with a real affinity for only one individual I know. Whereas Dewey is the darling of the neighborhood, friendly and cuddly as a kitten, chicken-hearted as an adult: the vulnerable little darling everyone wants to protect.
I’ve always been amused at the way several old ladies in every neighborhood where I’ve lived have semi-adopted one or two of my cats. They feed them, inviting them into their kitchens, and give me lots of concerned advice on how to take better care of the poor little things. At present, Olivia and Sabina hang out next door with one lady, and Dewey gravitates toward the jazz musicians and the deaf old lady who lives across the street. One day, I heard the white-haired lady shouting, “Get up . . . Come on and get up!” over and over again, so I went to the window. There was Dewey, stretched out on the sidewalk, rolling lazily over as she would reach down and poke him: he was obviously enjoying just lying there. She was all dressed up for her daily walk, and was trying her hardest to get Dewey to come along, with little success. She finally walked away, scolding my lazy cat, whereupon he got up and scampered up into her front porch rocker. Perhaps it is just this attitude of irreverence in cats that endears them to us repressed humans.
My cats, like most, become obsequiously polite and noisily talkative when the sound of a tin can being opened reaches their ears. Yet I have never fed my cats canned cat food even once. I think it is an inbred come-on, an inherent weakness, like their stroke-absorption ritual. A friend once told me the funniest story I have ever heard on this topic: Some friends of hers were in the last stages of moving out of their house. They had the car packed up, kids buckled in, trailer hitched, and were all set to go, except for the family cat, who had disappeared a few hours earlier. They began to search, calling out its name. Even the kids were unbuckled to try out their most appealing entreaties. At one point, the cat was spotted, but he eluded the family even further. Furious and fuming by now, the lady in charge decided that there was only one thing that would bring the cat back. So they all rooted through the luggage, boxes and debris crammed into their car in search of the electric can opener. They finally found it, unlocked their empty house, then remembered that the electricity had already been cut off, so they went over to a neighbor’s for an extension cord. There they sheepishly plugged in the machine, carried it outside, and turned it on. Within minutes, their pussycat trotted up and was captured.
At times I wonder why I put up with these infuriating animals: when they curl up on top of my most valuable pieces of paper, when they eat off the kitchen table, or knock over the dishes, or piss in the avocado plant, causing its early demise. In my anger, I’ve tossed them all out in the cold, only to welcome them back inside when I hear their miaus outside my window. Maybe it comes from a perverted maternal urge, or perhaps the altruism of my Sun sign, but I love them all, in a fiercely protective way.
DUBUQUE, Iowa, Feb. 18 (UPI) — Tiger the cat came home this week, traveling 250 miles from Wausau, Wis., on paw.
Tiger was lost in Wausau, Wis., in June during Tim and Susan Frommelt’s summer vacation. A veterinarian who examined the cat said he was in good health and had even become a little fat.
The Frommelt family had one question for the cat: How did he cross the Mississippi River? Tiger’s not talking.
Gray cat doesn’t come when you call her unless you say cheese, Gray! and she is hungry. She enters and leaves the house with the caution of a combat veteran. Her terror is: the dogs. She doesn’t know they won’t bother her, so she transforms herself into an elongated hiss, big-eyed hatred, her back arched. When a dog comes in, she dances backwards and makes a mad dash for the kitchen stove and leaps from there onto the top of the refrigerator and from there to the top kitchen shelf where she sleeps most of the time.
When spring comes, Gray cat leaves. The first time she left, she was gone from April until June. She came tiptoeing in one hot night, a ghost of herself, a little gray and white skeleton, covered with ticks.
Our approach to showing each other affection is direct and ritualized. I hold my arms in locked position, one right hand gripping left wrist, and vice versa. Gray daintily steps into the crook of my arms, turns on her back and pushes with her bottom feet, inching her way higher up the crook until she can go no higher. She lays on her back, drooling a little on my shirt, and stretches her two front feet towards my face until her toes brush my cheek, then closes her eyes and rhythmically kneads the air.
Mr. Bear was an ugly child cat, because his ears were too small for his large head — they barely showed, so he looked like a black-bodied being with a space helmet, his big yellow eyes glowing. I didn’t like him. “We won’t keep this one,” I said. Nobody else liked him either. He was the only one we kept.
As an adult cat, Mr. Bear looks like a shy little black monkey with his tight black lips, and sinewy black body, sitting on his haunches, his eyes following me as if waiting for orders.
He is either not very smart, or very detached. Delicacies like tuna and cheese must be given to him when he is alone, otherwise I have to hold the other cats back, to give him time to eat. He looks at me with innocent interest when I hold the tuna under his nose. He sniffs it slowly, deliberately, unsure whether I intend for him to take it. He takes it cautiously from between my fingers, and eats it solemnly, long pauses between tiny bites.
He is a forest cat. In the summer when it’s hot, he stays in the woods and comes home after dark. If he spots me walking in the woods, he begins a high piercing meow in recognition. I stop, and wait for him, answering, “Mr. Bear!” to his “EEEE” call, and watch him slowly make his way towards me.
A strange game Mr. Bear plays with the other cats is to sit in front of them, quietly, just sitting and staring, making no aggressive movements at all. Gray cat looks back at him, and her ears slowly flatten; then she moves back a few inches. Mr. Bear follows her, sits down before her again calmly, in a show of either dumb curiosity as to why Gray is so provoked by his behavior, or in calculated teasing. Gray unravels quickly, and eventually hisses and slaps him angrily, then dashes off, leaving an unruffled Mr. Bear staring after her.
Bump’s name has nothing to do with how he looks or how he is. His original name was Tramper which became Bamper which became Bumper which became Bump. Bump is pure white, with a muscular panther body and a macho walk and manner. He has one bright blue eye and one bright green eye.
He was five weeks old, at a street fair, when I first saw him. A small child was holding him tightly around the neck, gurgling “KittyCat!” and Bumps was yowling hysterically, and the person with the box of kittens was giving Bumps to this toddler who had no business having an animal. I wasn’t wanting another cat, but I couldn’t stand there and watch the child strangle Bumps, so I took him.
Bumps hangs out with the dogs, and consequently acts like one. When I walk long distances in the woods, Bumps comes too. He races ahead and drapes himself across the footpath until I nearly step on him and then leaps up and scurries away again, to the right or the left of the path, disappearing and then reappearing around a bend, stretched across the path. He enjoys being carried on long walks, a heavy bundle of cat, riding for several minutes at a time, holding gently onto my shoulder like a sweet child, his white head bobbing with the rhythm of the walk.
Though Bumps has no rituals of affection, he is most devoted. He gallops for me when I call, and will spend all of his time with me if I’m outdoors. During the long stints of butterbean picking or stringbean picking, Bumps is nearby to talk to. I joke with him about his “help.” I call him “son,” as if he were my offspring. “Come here, son! Help me pick beans!” He grabs small pawfuls of beans out of my basket and plays with them awhile, then eats them.
Standing at the backdoor watching the dogs eat. It’s getting dark. Suddenly Seb’s head comes up from his plate, his ears and eyes alert. There is no sound, only cool rustling of dry leaves. He listens intently. Lisa listens too. Seb runs towards the woods, then stops after a few feet because Lisa doesn’t move — she is standing in front of her supper bowl, wagging her tail when he looks at her persuasively to come along. He runs a few feet further with a burst of energy then brakes again, and looks back at Lisa, wistfully. She wags her tail apologetically, but doesn’t move, and resumes eating. Seb turns back to the woods, trots past the orchard, then breaks into a leisurely run and glides through the cool evening, disappearing into the blackness of the woods.
Where is he going? What was important enough to make him leave his supper? Does he wonder where I’m going in the mornings when I get in the car?