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Friends of the Heart
by Constance Young

Some of the most fascinating and funniest residents of the Hudson Valley are not the human kind.  They are the dogs and cats -- even ferrets, monkeys, birds, and fish we invite into our homes.  (To enlarge the photo of Beaux, click on the photo or link)

Sharing my two-story 157-year-old farmhouse on a quiet street in Pine Plains are a bunch of mostly geriatric cats and one dog.  Cats and dogs have shared my life (and possibly kept my blood pressure down -- pets do this) since the 1960s when I lived in Manhattan and adopted two three-month old Siamese kittens.  My life was never the same again.  The sensitivity of Akhnaton and Nefertiti would rival Edgar Cayce's.  They intuited my every feeling; if I was sick in bed, they would lick my face and soothe me with their purrs.  These encounters heightened my connection to other animals, and compelled me to rescue other more needy cats and dogs.  Some I found good homes for, and some (now in their dotage) are still living with me.  Each had a special story and a unique personality.  So, too, do many of my other interesting neighbors in the Valley.

A House Full of Animals

Entering my home, one is usually struck by the perpetual movement. A cat will invariably greet you, while fending off any feline competition for your affection. She will arch her back and rub against your leg, paws flying in the air at any other intruding cat.  Grace, my canine doorbell will bark "hello" or "go away," depending on your intentions (but more about her later).  (To enlarge the photo of Grace and Beaux, click on the photo or link)

Usually the first cat greeter is Sweetie, a toothless calico cat with a puckered mouth. She will sound her insistent "meows" and slither around your legs, asking for petting. Despite Sweetie's feline grace, her personality is dog-like. Call her, she will answer; touch her, she will respond (with a purr). Like all my companion animals, Sweetie, who is about 14-years old and toothless, is a former stray with a checkered past that we'd just as soon forget about.  (To enlarge the photo of Grace and Beaux, click on the photo or link)

Vying for your attention will be Gucci -- a gray and white longhaired cat who could have been dressed by that great designer. Gucci wears a white bib, white boots, and blue-gray suit. Better bring a hankie when you come to visit, for should Gucci decide to sit on your chest or lap, he will drool to express his contentment, not to mention incessantly emit purrs that sound like drumbeats in the night. Gucci especially likes to make sure that Sweetie can’t get upstairs to join the rest of the cats for breakfast and dinner. He sits on the stairs blocking her path. (I don't think he likes her.)

Then you might see Eldrich, or perhaps tailless Jeremiah, a tabby with white and gray patches. Surely you will not see gorgeous Grayson, a clear blue-eyed red-point Siamese cat whom I call my "invisible cat."  Although Grayson seems to like his life as a domestic cat because he cuddles and licks the other cats, he doesn't particularly like me or humans in general -- which is understandable considering his history as an abandoned cat gone feral. In contrast, Eldrich, whom I refer to as my "Velcro cat," sticks to me like Velcro.  In the vets office it sometimes takes two people to pry his 14 front toes from my chest.  (Eldrich is "polydactyl," with 7 toes on each front paw.)  When I sleep at night, Eldrich's cuddly plump black body is usually by my side or on my stomach, kneading my body as if baking bread. It's surprising that anyone gets to sleep at night with all the movement; but despite this nighttime passion play, everything usually quiets down until shortly after dawn when Sweetie starts to lick Grace's ears, telling us its time for her breakfast and Grace's walk.  (To enlarge the photo of Grace and Beaux, click on the photo or link)

I don't want to sound like I'm bragging, but 8-year old Grace, who looks like a comic book black mongrel with a long muzzle and amber imploring eyes, is especially sensitive and has an excellent memory (especially for places where larger dogs reside and where there are particularly good smells).  She probably owes some of her fine qualities to her ancestry -- probably part corgi and part sheep - or cattle-herding breed(s).  (To enlarge the photo of Grace in the Snow, click on the photo or link)

Out on a Walk

On our walks, Grace and I are often greeted by Jules Pierre and Elsa Marie -- guardians of my neighbors' home front.  These pocketsful of trembling break the silence with their high-pitched rkkkk, rkkkk, rkkk, rkkk, whenever they sense a threat (like another dog walking in front of their bay windows where they perch much of the day).  Elsa and Jules are 9 lb. and 6-1/2 lb. brother and sister Chihuahuas. Nothing rivals the sight of Elsa and Jules running down our tree-lined street (they never walk) with their human guardian, Guy -- followed by Eli, Django, and Alex (the three family cats) -- all marching in a line like mice following the pied piper.

Grace is always delighted when we meet her best dog buddy Beaux accompanied by Caterina.  When Beaux saunters down the street, his muscular magnificence stops traffic. If you didn't see his huge wrinkled face and gigantic jaw, you might think he was a lion without a mane. But even though he is a rare breed -- a Dogue de Bordeaux (French mastiff), Beaux is not "stuck-up." Despite his famous lineage (his full name is Gothic Guardien Beaux.), Beaux sometimes answers to "Hooch" when he is mistaken for the dog in the movie "Turner and Hooch."  (To enlarge the photo of Beaux, click on the photo or link)

When Beaux entered Caterina's life almost five years ago, she was a self-described "typical overworked, A-type professional living and working in New York City" -- but Beaux's "enveloping exuberance" wiped away all traces of her difficult days.  "Beaux's penetrating gaze behind your head reminded you that there was more to life than the black ink marks on the computer screen in front of you."  Their meditative walks focused her on the pleasure of the moment, she said.  I remember too when we'd finish our play date, and if Beaux decided that he didn't want to go home he'd simply plop down.  At 125 pounds, he was impossible to lift and he knew it. Despite Beaux's hugeness (his neck size is over 30 inches), his very best friend Harry is a 20-pound Cairn terrier. Beaux shows his great delicacy when he gently picks up Harry in his mouth, bouncing him on his stomach without hurting a hair. Caterina also recalls the time in New York City when Beaux started howling during a Presidential motorcade. It almost caused an incident when the Secret Service people heard Beaux's deep baritone howl.  But when they saw him, they smiled knowing that Beaux was just responding to a pack call triggered by their sirens.  (To enlarge the photo of Beaux, click on the photo or link)

Rides in the Car

Some days Grace gets to ride in the car with me, where she barks comments about other dogs as we pass them in a language I can't translate, but which sounds to my untrained ear like saying "See me, I'm top dog." We might even pass Carol taking Sandy for a walk.  Sandy is a 60-pound five-year old, one-of-a-kind; Carol is her human friend.  Sandy's stance and size resemble a greyhound, but she is golden beige and part German shepherd and who know what else.  

Mixed breeds like Sandy and Grace are usually sturdier and longer living than breed dogs like Beaux, but they come with surprises. Sandy keeps one ear upright and the other flopping down. Sandy's lopsided ears developed during her adolescence; she was like most other dogs as a pup. But by far Sandy's outstanding trait is her exuberant expression of love -- for almost everyone. (Except, if you are up to no good, Sandy will sense it and revert to watchdog.  Sandy's assignment is to protect her family, and she's good at it.) But if you are a friend and you come to visit her, Sandy will jump and cry and utter amazing sounds, and dance, and respond to her human guardian Carol's request to pray by resting her front paws on a chair in a prayer position.

Should a deer walk by the windows of their rural home with its lush summertime gardens and goldfish pond, Sandy will lock eyes with the deer, and both will stay as still as statues for many minutes. Best of all, Sandy likes car rides, sitting erect in the passenger's seat -- ignoring the barking of other less sanguine canines as she drives by, perhaps thinking "How plebian of you. This beautiful machine is my car, and my servant is taking me for a ride."

Carol and Sandy live with lop-eared "Funny Bunny," an 8 lb. lop-eared rabbit with black ears and uneven spots that might have been colored by Modigliani, and the cat StarDust, whose thick black coat is sprinkled with white "stardust." Coincidentally, Sandy, Funny Bunny, and StarDust are surrounded in their home by pictures and paintings of themselves and other animals because Carol, of "POPP ART Pets and Plants," does animal art.  (To enlarge the pictures of Sandy and Funny Bunny, left and right, click on the pictures or links)

These are just a few of the companion animals who give us great joy.  Caterina expressed the pleasure and insights these animals give us in describing her walks with Beaux.  "I saw from a different lens - from a completely foreign perspective. I didn't just look forward barely acknowledging those around me. I looked down and sideways and up. I noticed for the first time blades of grass, small wild-flowers, dappled light on a butterfly or bird, the colors of the earth beneath my feet, the trickle of a puddle on the ground, the taste and structure of a snowflake….Beaux's quiet presence made me feel loved and safe and understood." But let us never forget the many other less fortunate and forgotten former pets, lost and abandoned animals, and ferals who languish in shelters and fend for themselves in barns, and who may never experience these small pleasures.

The text portion of this story was originally published in "AboutTown--The Community Guide to Rhinebeck, Red Hook & Tivoli" (Fall 2003 issue). website http://www.abouttownguide.com .

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