Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Shedding a dress size

When the shave was done, there were two Oscars on the table.

Oscar went for his annual check-up today. Other than his weight—a whopping 26 pounds—he’s in perfect health.

Besides a wellness exam, he also received the slimming “lion cut”, a trim to eliminate mats from forming in his long fine fur. Torso trimmed flat, while legs, tail and around the face stay fluffy. With January descending, it’s chilly in the Pacific Northwest, so I’ll be cranking up the heat to keep Oscar toasty warm.

I'm appalled that Oscar is so heavy. I feel personally responsible for his unbridled gluttony. Now that my two skinny cats have died, the remaining seven will be going on a diet immediately. No more free-feeding. Oscar’s by far the fattest, but everyone could stand to lose a bit of themselves.

Veterinarian Kim Barron defends Oscar somewhat. Unlike my other cats, she says he's "big boned." Big face, big paws.

As for Oscar, he seems pretty happy with his lighter load. He's got a headstart on his weight loss over the others. We weighed the shorn fur, and he’s already dropped a fifth of a pound just by losing the coat.

One of the many reasons I enjoy visiting veterinarian Dr. Kim Barron is because of her intellectual curiosity. Here she's weighing in Oscar's coat.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Hat trick

Today was Little Carreen’s turn at the vet, and I'm proud to say she’s officially part of my Good Kitty Club.

Unlike some of my other babies, there are no warnings in the clinic’s computer system about her. No instructions to approach “with gloves only.” No scratching, hissing or spitting to haunt her past.

She was so relaxed that veterinarian Dr. Kim Barron and I had a little fun with the fur that spun beautifully off the flea comb in a woven pattern. It made the perfect toupé, or a cozy winter hat, the kind you find at craft fairs.

Kim decided this would be the perfect time to take a picture of Little C for her file.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Bidding goodbye to the best of 2009

Photo by John Moore of Getty Images.

As the final day of calendar 2009 blasts its way to the finish line, the proliferation of “best” lists are in full swing: best gifts, best deals, best party ideas. Best cocktails, best holiday foods.

The bests are also rolled out for those of us practicing journalism—best photos, best stories. I read all the journalism bests I come across. Not because awards are the only opinions that matter. Awards nearly always indicate excellence work, but there are brilliant artists who will remain a lifetime unrecognized. Some of the most talented ones, in fact.

Still I pore over the pictures and devour the stories, because when a particular story or photo begins to gain a following, it has earned value in cultural relevance, no matter what the rest of the people say about it.

The photo above commanded my attention the first time I looked at it many months ago, and it caused me to stop and think. To piece together the story behind it in my mind. I wondered what this young woman was whispering to her fallen fiancé deep in the ground. I thought about how a pledge to marry would remain forever unrealized. It was powerful enough to evoke tears.

I wasn’t the only one galvanized. The photo has been heralded as one of the top picks for this year, a symbol of the humanity behind the machine of war. Of loss, love and grief. Of an almost-widow’s loyalty, respect and honor.

“Some people feel the photo I took at the moment was too intimate, too personal,” said Getty Images photojournalist John Moore. “Like many who have seen the picture, I felt overwhelmed by her grief, and moved by the love she felt for her fallen sweetheart.”

Mary McHugh is the young woman pictured, and she’s mourning the loss of her fiancé, Sgt. James “Jimmy” Regan. The decorated Army Ranger did a fate-tempting four deployments in three years, double tours of Afghanistan and Iraq. But a roadside bomb stole the last of his luck, and he died in Iraq on February 9, 2007.

Moore spent five years photographing war in the same countries Regan was deployed in, but that’s not how he came to hear about this 26-year-old fallen soldier from a New York hamlet called Manhasset. On Memorial weekend last May, Moore decided to wander the famous military cemetery in Virginia, where 300,000 veterans and military casualties are interred.

“I felt I owed the Arlington National Cemetery a little time – and I think I still do. Maybe we all do."

Walking the cemetery evoked different emotions than the ones Moore has grown accustomed to witnessing in battle.

“After so much time covering these wars, I have some difficult memories and have seen some of the worst a person can see – so much hatred and rage, so much despair and sadness. All that destruction, so much killing. And now, one beautiful and terribly sad spring afternoon amongst the rows and rows of marble stones – a young woman’s lost love.”

And by giving us a window to witness the grief for an unknown's lost love, Moore reminds us to hold our loved ones a little closer. In troubled times, and in peace.

Sgt. Jimmy Regan with his parents James and Mary in happier times.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

The rewards of rescue...priceless

Nell earned her stripes the hard way. But life has turned around for this lucky survivor.

Witnessing turnarounds is the most gratifying aspect of animal rescue. A skittish, bony creature who arrives terrified and smelling badly can be transformed into an unrecognizable success story.

Gradually, as scared animal eyes look into kind human eyes, they begin to trust again. Or for the first time.

Watching it happen feeds the soul, soothing the frustrations of compassion fatigue. And it inspires tears of pure joy, even for those rescuers with the toughest shells and a career full of experiences.

Animal rescue is not a perfect system. It’s woefully underfunded, unsupported by government, and not organized. It is characterized by loose affiliations and alliances. For example, contrary to popular belief, humane societies aren’t connected to each other. Neither are SPCAs, otherwise known as societies for the prevention of cruelty to animals. These names are generic, like “hospital”.

But the places aren’t as important as the people. Whether they land at a shelter, a sanctuary, an independent rescue group, or a foster home, animals blossom after rescue at the hands of people driven to save.

Some come further than others. Some won’t come far enough to make it out alive.

But for those animals who take to the lifestyle—one that requires them to wait patiently until a permanent place can be found—they are given another chance at happiness.

Nell is one such case that makes the heart soar. I met her at Whatcom Humane Society recently. The photo below portrays a frightened dog who had just been rescued after being tied to the train tracks. She was hit by a train, thrust into the path of danger by someone's twisted idea of sport.

The photo above shows Nell now, lounging under the bedcovers at her foster home.

I haven’t spoken to Nell’s foster parents, but I’m sure they are in it for just that moment in time. The one when she gives them those puppy eyes full of hope and trust.

To read previous stories about Nell's rescue, click these links.

Right on track

Already trained

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Staying abreast of health problems

Poor Henry was exhausted after a day at the clinic. He received a thorough teeth cleaning and a daring shave.

When I weather a spate of sick cats as I did recently, I begin to exhibit hypochondria where their health is concerned.

As I was cuddling Henry the other day, I felt a bump on his chest that seemed like some sort of cyst. He was bundled off to Northshore Veterinary Hospital in short order.

Dr. Kim Barron is a kind and patient woman, and always takes me seriously even when my suspicions have no basis in fact.

There was the time I thought Charlie was choking on a piece of salmon. It turned out he was just coughing on a hairball. The salmon I suspected and tried to pull out was actually his tongue. Thankfully it was slippery, so I didn’t get a firm grip.

Kim gave Henry a detailed once-over looking for cysts, even shaving him down in places for a closer examination.

When he was handed back to me with his nipples bare and boldly on display, I realized that must have been the cyst I thought I’d found.

Good thing it isn’t bikini season just yet.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Following the pecking order

Photo taken by Jim Rider of the South Bend Tribune in Indiana.

Why did the ducklings cross the road?

In the case of this flock of Mallards, it's because their mother was leading the way. While the little ones struggled to clear the curb, she waited 20 minutes for a clear path across the busy street before heading over with her offspring safely in tow.

Proving that with a little perseverance, even roadblocks in life that seem concretely unsurmountable can be conquered.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Down to a Magnificent Seven

You might think that in a multi-cat household, I would barely notice when I lose one.

That's not true in the least.

When I come home from the veterinary clinic knowing one of my animals will never return, the missing piece of the puzzle is palpable.

It's not just me who feels it. The remaining cats jostle for pecking order, and there's a perceptible hole in the dynamic for a while until the animals adjust to the loss.

Last night I drove through a heavy snowstorm to get Felix to the veterinary hospital before it closed. Felix is an elderly grey tabby cat I rescued dumpster-diving outside a Jack in the Box fast food restaurant in San Diego 13 years ago, and he's currently the oldest cat in the house. Because of the familiar distress signs I noticed before we set off, I knew when I bundled him into the carrier that he might not return to my cat house.

His health had been deteriorating slowly but surely over the past several months, ebbing away his quality of life. The slow decline made the decision to take his life a difficult one.

Day by day, he began to withdraw from the cat clutch, and them away from him, leaving him to nap alone. He stopped playing and appeared to be in pain at times, even though his tests showed all systems normal. He grew thinner, and just recently the bones on his spinal cord felt more pronounced. The wide-faced tomcat cheeks began to hollow. And when he was sitting or lying down, I could tell he wasn't completely comfortable.

My old cat was simply fading away, a little bit at a time.

The surviving pride of cats -- now down to a Magnificent Seven cast of characters -- help ease the pain of loss. But there will never be another Felix, and the holidays will be dimmer without his friendly spirit in the house.

Goodbye to a survivor and a friend.

* * *

This will be a grief-tinged holiday season for me. I lost Opus in October, and now Felix is gone too. The house feels quiet and lonely without them.

To read about the battle to save Opus, click to And then there were eight.