Sunday, November 16, 2014

• Remembering Charlotte

One year ago today I woke to the sound of my hamster screaming. Charlotte gave one short, desperate cry; I knew she was in deep trouble.

I don't know what happened. The night before Charlotte had been her plump, bustling self. Now she was nearly unable to move. Toward the end of its life a hamster becomes extremely weak. I picked up Charlotte, who melted in my hand. I felt her warm belly on my hand; I kissed the thick fur on her back. She didn't protest or squeak. Hopefully, she wasn't in pain.

I called the vet when they opened and made an appointment for later that morning. I knew it would be a one-way trip for Charlotte. With a hard lump in my throat, I dressed for my pet sit. At the entrance to Charlotte's hut I left her favorites, watermelon and carrot, which would provide moisture if she wasn't able to crawl to the water bottle.

More than anything, I wanted to stay with Charlotte, but I was booked to care for two dogs that day. Before I left, I peered into her hut. She was hunched down, motionless and already shriveled. Maybe she would pass on her own. I called the vet and cancelled the appointment.

All day, as I played with the dogs I prayed that Charlotte would die at home in the warmth and safety of her hut. It would be the most peaceful end. The hours dragged by. Thank god my client decided to come home early.

"Hey, sweet pea," I whispered when I got home. Charlotte didn't stir but her back moved almost imperceptibly. She was breathing.

My vet was closed by that time but there was an emergency clinic close by. I carefully lifted Charlotte into her travel cage. She kept her eyes shut. On the way to the vet I talked to her for the last time. I told her what a special girl she was, how much I loved her, and how she was going to be OK, no longer afraid or in pain. My throat ached. How could I say goodbye to my little girl?

I sobbed as the vet tech hugged me. They gave me a plaster cast of her tiny footprints and returned her body to me in a small box.

I've owned hamsters for more than 10 years. Charlotte was unique. Does it sound silly to say a hamster can be mature? She was so wise and calm that I had her certified as an Emotional Support Animal.

I still miss my girl.


Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

• A Tribute to Lorie Huston, DVM

Dr. Lorie Huston, DVM (right) and me at BarkWorld in 2012.
While pet sitting Piewacket, I accidentally spilled water in the small bird's cage when I was cleaning. Although I switched out wet newspaper for dry, he would have no part of me drying him off. When I tried to pick him up with a dry washcloth he firmly chomped down on my index finger. What a bite! I was sure from his zesty response that Piewacket would be all right. But the next time I checked, he lay still on the floor of his cage. I touched his foot. It retracted slightly. I needed help. What veterinarian would be willing to help on a Sunday afternoon?

I thought immediately of Lorie Huston. I'd met Dr. Lorie at conferences and we'd kept in touch on social media ever since. With desperation at my back, I got her home number from the White Pages and left a message. She called a half hour later, but it was too late for Piewacket.

Piewacket in better days.
I sobbed and sobbed Dr. Lorie listened patiently. Then she gently asked questions. How old was he? Did he have any health issues? What was his behavior like over the past few days? Piewacket, who had lost most of his feathers, had been rescued from dire circumstances. His owner had him for many years and coddled the little guy with heat lamps and special food. I didn't have a sense of how he'd been doing during this pet sit. When I cared for him before his cage was at eye level, but this time it was on top of another cage. I only saw him once a day when I fed him. I had to stand on tiptoe so I could get a glimpse of him, since he was always on the bottom level of his cage.

Birds go to the lowest level of their cage when they are nearing the end, Dr. Lorie explained. (Later, when I talked to Piewacket's owner, she confirmed that he'd been spending more time than usual on the bottom of his cage before I started pet sitting.) Dr. Lorie doubted the water had anything to do with Piewacket's death—it was simply his time.

That day Dr. Lorie gave me one of the most important gifts I ever received: the knowledge that the little bird's death wasn't my fault. We talked about how, as a veterinarian and a pet sitter, we were destined to love animals that didn't belong to us. She talked about how helpless she felt when her patients died.

Dr. Lorie was genuinely kind. She took the time to talk to everyone. Even on a Sunday afternoon, even when she'd been working at the hospital all day. I'm certain she'd be embarrassed by all the praise we're lauding on her now, at her untimely passing. I don't think she understood how rare she was.

This article by Cat Wisdom 101 touches on Dr. Lorie's professional life.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

• What I Learned from Kitty Litter

I was pet sitting Taz, the world's friendliest cat. His parents were due home in three days, but his kitty litter box was dangerously low. I texted his dad. Do you have more cat litter? He did not. Would I buy some, he asked?

Taz's brand was available only in a 25-pound box. Holy moly, I thought as I picked up the carton—25 pounds weighs a lot more than it looks.

As I hoisted the monster-size box into my car, a thought struck me: I am more than 50 pounds overweight. That's two boxes of kitty litter. Two! I imagined each of my hands clutching a 25-pound box of litter. In my mind, my shoulders hunched. My back ached.

That's how much weight I carry around every day.

One of the reasons I love animals is that they don't judge a person by their looks. Taz Kitty doesn't care that I am overweight. That's how I always think about my weight: how people will judge me. When I take pictures of myself I never show my entire body. I hide behind trees, animals, other people—anything. That damned box of kitty litter left nowhere to hide. All I thought about was my poor body, struggling under its own weight.

Kitty litter taught me a lesson. But there's a problem. I left the box at Taz's house, behind the laundry room door. I am comfortable forgetting the weight of that box.

It was a hard lesson: I pray that I remember it.