Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Oprah and lessons from pets

Today one of the entertainment stories was about how Oprah Winfrey is mourning the loss of her two-year-old golden retriever named Gracie.

The dog has died after choking on a plastic ball that belonged to another of Oprah’s dogs, a 12-year-old cocker spaniel named Sophie.

Oh, sure. It was accidental. Anyone that has more than one pet knows that an older animal is usually very jealous when a new pet joins the family. While the pets may show outwards affection or attempts to get along, there usually is a strong jealousy factor on behalf of the older dog.

They may call this accidental, but remember — it WAS the ball of the older dog, wasn’t it? And it appears she WAS sharing it, right? We all know how well dogs share their toys. Go ahead, tell me this wasn’t a pet conspiracy.

Being a pet owner myself, I do sympathize with Oprah. It always is tough to lose a pet, accidentally or even when a veterinarian advises that a loved pet needs to be “put down” because of age or illness.

Recently, visiting a friend’s place, I heard how their 14-year-old black labrador will probably need to be “put down” soon because of a huge cancer tumor that returned on his side, and a recent stroke that affected his back legs. Looking at his grizzled white face and chin, I realized I have known this dog for most of his life: I had visited him in almost a half dozen places he had moved with his owners during more than a decade. I’ve watched him evolve from a boisterous barking puppy distracted by a bouncing ball to the equivalent of a senior citizen in the dog world as he limped across the yard trying to keep a focused pace with his masters’ steps.

A few days later, on my parents’ farm, I realized old age is hitting our pets there, too. The dog is also more than a decade old and has serious hip and other problems. The elderly farm cat that has become his favorite companion is also experiencing a lot of health problems. During a recent visit by a vet to check a dead calf, the vet glanced at the two limping animals and announced to my family that it was time they should consider “putting down” these two animals. According to him, this should be done before the pets need to suffer another cold winter.

I gave that dog and cat a couple of hugs before leaving the farm, knowing I probably wouldn’t see them again in the next few months before winter — and the inevitable ending of their lives.

I reread the story about Oprah’s dog. When it choked, her security guard and her dog walker tried to save it. When they needed to carry off the dead body, it was on a golf cart. When Oprah wished to share her grief, she used her successful, popular magazine to announce what happened.

On the farms of my friend and my family, their pets will probably face much more modest conclusions to their lives. The owners will be the ones by the side of their pets, no hired staff. The half-ton trucks will probably take the carcass away somewhere, not a golf cart. And there will be no big announcements in flashy magazines.

Oprah said she received some lessons from the death of her dog: In articles about her dog, she said she learned to slow down and catch her breath in life.

Well, actually, I think the bigger lesson in this case was one shouldn’t run with a big plastic ball in your mouth. Or better yet, don’t have a plastic ball in your mouth in the first place.

I thought about what lessons I’ve learned from my many pets over the years. There have been a few.

Never bite a moving vehicle.

Tangling with a porcupine is not fun. And seeking revenge against another porcupine won’t be any funner.

Drinking out of toilets is not always socially acceptable.

Expensive toys are often highly overrated. A cardboard box, a twist tie, or a round plastic container top are much, much more fun.

One can never get enough of catnip in life.

A flea market is no laughing matter if you have fleas.

Being a cat does not always guarantee you will land on your feet.

Not every cat has nine lives, so don’t live like one is still owed.

Never judge your loved ones, always welcome them home like you never thought they’d return, and forgive any misunderstandings immediately. Life is too short to mope.

And finally, it’s better to watch a clothes washing machine from the outside rather than to spin around in Tide.

Actually, I learned this from a friend whose pet experienced a whole wash cycle and still dizzily emerged alive from the ordeal. Cleanest cat in town, although rather woozy for a week or so and hiccupping detergent.

Bet you this will never be a cover story for Oprah’s magazine.

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