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Monday, November 16, 2009

My Furry Muses

by Lise Horton As a writer, you frequently see advice to be a “people watcher”. For character ideas, expressions, “voice”, dialogue. I do that religiously. But another area in which I find myself very inspired is nature. Specifically, animals. I spend a lot of time outdoors. Even on cold and blustery days, you can find me in my $12.99 Adirondack chair sitting under the trees (be they leafy or barren) and reading or writing. Often, however, I am distracted from my labors by the creatures all around me. I live in a busy section of Nassau County, on Long Island, but you’d be surprised at the number of creatures that cross my path every day. There are birds of all varieties. Squirrels. Raccoons, feral cats, and, of course, my dogs, rescued racing greyhounds Angus and Scout. Romance is all about emotion. And it doesn’t come much more straightforward than in the animal kingdom. Fear, terror, battling for supremacy, hunger, love, loyalty, and joy are all readily apparent among these creatures. I’ve watched pregnant feral cats eat ravenously to store up energy to protect their offspring. I’ve seen a mother cat, in an ice storm, carrying her kittens from one vulnerable location to another. I’ve watched male cats stalk a female in heat and the other males battle, and the female fight back, too, in the eternal mating dance. Recently I found one of the 3rd generation of feral kittens dead. She appeared to have been hit by a car because there were no marks of a fight and I live on a very bad street with speeding cars. Yet she had crawled away from the road and died under the protective, arching branches of my hydrangea – a place where she frequently hid and stalked her siblings before leaping out upon them. The mother of this young cat had been stand-offish with her first litter because she was pregnant with a second (and note that I had, in the past, taken feral cats in for neutering, but the veterinarians in my area no longer do it for free; I simply can’t afford to neuter all the cats that hang in my vicinity on my own and so I take care of them as best as I can – I don’t believe in having them removed because the Earth belongs to every creature.). But there must have been the smell of death or simply the absence of the smell of this one kitten, because for an entire day the mother cat searched all over the yard, crying plaintively for, I assume, that now gone kitten. Brother cats fight with one another. Mothers chase away older offspring. But uncle cats are frequently cavorting with their nieces and nephews, playing, touching noses and “hanging out”. And a young male cat is turning into the alpha – chasing away the former BMOC (Big Man of Cats) who ruled. One of the strangers that arouses the protective instinct of Mr. Daisy (said boy cat and I’m sorry, I didn’t notice the tell-tale signs before naming him) is the family of raccoons that also inhabits my area(there are 2 houses that are uninhabited on either side of mine and I think the quiet is appealing to these naughty, nocturnal creatures). Two large raccoons – one with a stub of a tail – and two young raccoons – come by every night to check for food (they eschew all but the dried cat food that they relish). Either adult raccoon will send the youngsters scrambling with high-pitched cries if there is the sound of a dog, or a car, or even people (other than myself) in the area. They’ll all clamber up the fence and hide in a nearby tree until the coast is clear. The two young raccoons will climb up that same tree and peer in my window at night. The birds are equally amazing. Cardinals, sparrows, blue jays, and finches abound. There is a murder of crows in the area and I adore watching these intelligent birds. I’ve even seen a hawk that is most impressive and, gazing into its eyes you can feel the intelligence there. If you’ve never watched birds, the familial connection is astounding. A young cardinal, as big as its mother, will sit squawking on a branch to be fed. And the parent obliges, sticking its beak down the wide-open throat of the young bird. Silly? Certainly, but the devotion is touching. Early this spring one of the cats caught a baby bird. It was a couple of months old, certainly, but the horrid cries drew the “family” of birds and the cacophony was horrific as the cats killed the bird and the other birds hovered in the branches, crying their horror at the death. Squirrels, too, are at the bottom of the food chain in my yard. But the parents, and the offspring, play with such abandon that it is wonderful to watch. That one or more of them will be dead by the end of the winter – from cars, cats, raccoons, or, sadly, my dogs (who most often can’t catch anything but every once in a while do get lucky) is a harsh fact of nature. But their voracious appetites, watching them bury peanuts in every one of my planters, their ability to circumvent any anti-squirrel devices to hang upside down to feed at bird-feeders and how I watched four baby squirrel siblings chowing down at a peanut butter and bird-seed pine cone the other day was truly amazing. My greyhounds are awesome creatures, too, despite the fact that they are far more sheltered than their wild counterparts. Scout, a battered and scarred veteran of the racetrack, is a tough girl. She’s been the “alpha dog” since she arrived, when I had another greyhound and a blind, diabetic Cairn terrier. She has the most haunted look in her eye, no matter that we love her to pieces and she’s been “safe and sound” for nearly six years now. You can only imagine the treatment she received to give her that look. She’s so courageous and I can still see her on the night we picked her up – legs shaking so hard I’m surprised she could stand, terrified at the mass of people, but when we brought her home her joy was almost palpable. “Is this mine now? Do I live here? Are you my friends?” Now she is alone with the big behemoth, Angus, who could not be a bigger wuss if he tried. He looks like a hound from hell, but he’s afraid of papers, aluminum pans, the rattle of a chair, and the banging of the kitchen door. A big lug, he’ll lie on the sofa like he’s dead, but will occasionally rouse himself to wander over and lay his head in my lap, groaning orgasmically when I rub his ears. They fight from time to time, but they huddle when the weather is cold and they each instigate running games around the back yard, leaping and gamboling like puppies. If Scout is not feeling well, or Angus is ailing, the other hovers around them, sniffing and being solicitous in a very doggy way. When my alarm clock goes off, the whining begins. And they each have a routine where they go in and wake up my Mother in the morning. Angus will try to rouse her with a poke of his long nose. If that doesn’t work he will deposit one of his nasty old dog toys right on the pillow by her bed. And that works quite well in getting her up and at ‘em. They have a pile of toys that they carry to their sofas, and they snuggle in their blankets, looking for all the world like furry, four-legged children. Come dinner time, the rattle of their bowls will set both dogs on a search for a squeaky toy, which they will then run around with, tear at, and shake in an effort to “kill” their dinner. If the food is not to their liking (cottage cheese, big yes, yogurt, so-so, boiled ground turkey with veggies and rice, oh, well) they chow down and rush back to demand to be let out. If I serve something they are not happy about, the look of disgust on their faces are purely human. Former singer that I am, I frequently break into song around the house and Scout was the first to throw back her head and start singing with me, howling with abandon. It took a while, but Angus has learned it and now they both thoroughly enjoy a good song-fest. If I even begin to hum, ears perk up and whines start to emanate from their throats in hope. (My neighbors? Not so much.) When we finish up, they come barreling over to me to get attention for their “good singing” (along with a treat) (the dogs, not the neighbors). In the evenings my Mother never fails to be astounded that, no matter when I come home, the dogs are whining at the door for me. I begin to open the door and two cold, wet snouts are poked right through at me. And when I come in, they poke me all over, sniff me, lick me and welcome me home. My upstairs cat, Hedwig, is quite the diva. When she hears me talking to the dogs at night after arriving home, she immediately begins an imperious “chatter” (she’s part Siamese and part Persian – one blue eye, one green). She’ll make herself quite clearly understood: “You’re home, get upstairs away from those beasts and come hug me!”. My second stop is upstairs to change my clothes and she flings herself onto the bed, rolling on her back, so I can brush and scratch her. If the weather is cold or inclement, or once I am inside, her favorite place is draped across the pillows behind my head, where she nestles her nose behind my neck, purring, safe, secure, content. It is perfectly understandable. I’m one of them. I’m part of the pack. Likewise, there are several of the feral cats (esp. Mr. Daisy) who wait for my arrival at night because I feed them. He sits in the middle of my sidewalk waiting for me. And the minute I get closer to the house, if I see one of the cats, I call to him or her, and at the sound of my voice, the others come running from wherever they are, all over the various yards. Eanie, Meanie and Mighty Mo. Momma Kitty, Daisy, Spike and Mr. Ugly. Simba will sneak in if he thinks I’m not looking though I have not seen Momma Kitty’s two kittens – she lives across the street at another house and they often catch the kittens and take them to shelters. But when dinner is done, Mr. Daisy will climb up into my lap and snuggle as long as I’ll allow it. Eanie and Spike – the best of friends – will sit at my feet, letting me pet them, but not suffering a snooze on my lap gladly. The squirrels stare at me as I hang their peanut butter cones and the birds flock around when I come out with birdseed. I talk to them and I swear they “get it”. The two young raccoons have both “introduced” themselves, sniffed my feet and leaned up on my leg to get a better look at me. One even tried to run off with my cell phone. Perhaps his minutes had expired? Every night the last thing I do is fill up the water bowls for the outside animals and say goodnight to Mr. Daisy. I go inside, lock up, and pet my dogs goodnight. Hedwig waits for me to climb into bed before snuggling up beneath my blankets to sleep. In the morning she’ll greet me with a paw to my cheek. When I go downstairs, the dogs give me a gleeful snuffle. The cats wait outside for their morning feeding and a quick scratching, and before I go to work I replenish the bird feeders, suet holders and squirrel feeders. Love? Loyalty? Devotion? Joy? I get it all from these creatures. They make me laugh, they amaze and intrigue me. Each one has a personality of his or her own. I can see joy in them, and sorrow. Fear and desperation. They may not be human, but the emotions are all there and I cannot help but be inspired to create characters who are as brave, and such wonderful companions. Characters who brave the odds, who have lovers, companions and families, and face hunger, cold, danger, life and death with equal fortitude.

11 comments:

  1. Hi, Lise! What a fun post. Thanks for introducing us to your furry friends. I especially loved Mr. Daisy and Hedwig (I'm a Harry Potter fanatic - I tried to get HP related names into the discussion for our three new kittens but got shouted down, so we have Pirate's themed ones instead - Capt. Jack, Commodore Norrington and Mr. Gibbs.)

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  2. Mr. Daisy began life as "Daisy", as did his sisters, Spike and Duke (Duke was the one who got killed). Spike fits her name, so it stayed, but I figured "Mr." would fix the other problem! Nothing like creatures filling your life to give insight into some of the basics. Thanks for stopping by and visiting my menagerie!

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  3. Lise

    What a beautiful post. I wanted to cry over your descriptions of the feral cats. I love cats so much and it pains me to see them out in the wild. You're doing what you can for them and the other animals. And I salute you for that. I always try to put a cat in my stories. Thank you for a beautiful read.

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  4. I agree with Carolyn. A remarkable and touching post. (I, too, felt a tear in my eye at the story of the dead kitten.) If you draw your human characters as vividly and lovingly as your animal friends (and I know you do) your novels will be filled with unforgettable characters.
    You are lucky to have so much inspiration around you.
    Lis

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  5. Carolyn and Lis - I'm so glad you enjoyed my post. It really is amazing to sit amidst such energy. Very energizing and humbling. For a writer, studying behavior not just of the human species, but of all the others, can give amazing insight into character and personality. Thanks for sharing!

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  6. Lise--it's true, animals can inspire us and often do. Think of all the police dogs and rescue dogs and their brave feats. I love your menagerie. I have three "babies" of my own and they own me. I don't know what I would do without them. Thank you for sharing.

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  7. There are police horses, there are the dogs that work with the handicapped and cancer patients. There are all the "therapy" animals, including dolphins that do great things with autistic kids. There are the cats that rouse their owners when there's a fire, dogs that fight to protect their owners, and just the average animal that makes someone feel good, feel loved, and unjudged. How precious is that! How hard is it to find?

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  8. Lise, thank you for your post. It shows us how animals can be a resource for our professional work, but also how love for and from animals can enrich us as people. I enjoyed every word, and hope there will be updates from time to time. Elizabeth Palladino

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  9. You write with heart lady but rodents no matter how cute are my nightmare them and ladybugs. Don’t laugh for when I was little a ladybug bit me without provocation and change my life and as for the squirrel... Well one jumped in my best friend Odelia’s hair when we were seven and we both bear that scar until today.
    I like your blog and will follow.
    All the very best,
    Simone

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  10. Simone - I know how you feel. Spiders are the bane of my existence. Just ask the dogs and cats who've watched me leap about like I'm suffering with St. Vitus' Dance when I've got one on me! We all have our critter crosses to bear, no?

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  11. As the saying goes, "Bless the beasts...".

    They certainly make my world a good deal brighter and their love is without strings (except for the dinner and treat things).

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