Pet Portrait

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A dear friend commissioned me to paint this 5×7 portrait of his beloved spaniel. I began to love this dog as I rendered his image, which is something that happens every time I paint: with care and focus comes love. Instead of taking payment, I asked my friend to make a donation to the Animal Welfare Institute. In this way we all win. I am eager to do more of these portraits, each one a small contribution to the healing of this world.

Excerpt from “Paradise”

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“Paradise” is included in my collection SURVIVAL SKILLS. Here’s a quick look at Max, the star of the story.

Anyone who’s ever owned a parrot will know why I cherish my newfound peace and quiet. Parrots scream at dawn and dusk (ancestral behavior they can’t help), and at intervals throughout the day just for the hell of it. I can’t tell you how many dreams I’ve been yanked out of, how much coffee or wine I’ve spilled on the carpet, all because of Max. And what really irked me was Kelly’s insistence that we never, NEVER startle him. Undue stress, she claimed, killed more pet birds than any other factor, and so we had to give a certain soft whistle—one high note, one low―every time we approached his room lest our sudden appearance disturb his reverie.

No captive bird has it better than Max. Back in Shelburne, in the farmhouse he shares with Kelly, Max has his own room, with jungle scenes painted on the walls and two large windows that give him a view of the dogwoods and the pond and the distant green mountains. He has a variety of free-standing perches to suit his rapidly shifting moods and a wire-mesh enclosure that takes up nearly a third of the room. Inside this cage are his stylish water and food bowls, several large branches from local trees and usually four or five toys Kelly finds at yard sales. These he bites or claws beyond recognition; if he is given something he can’t destroy he shoves it into a corner. Of course she must be careful about lead paints and glues. Captive birds are never far from peril. I learned that the first week I was there, when I heated up a pan to make an omelet and Kelly yanked it off the stove and doused it with water. Didn’t I know, she scolded, that the fumes from an over-hot Teflon pan could kill a parrot in minutes?

It was exhausting living with that bird, meeting his needs, second-guessing his wants. Kelly said I didn’t have the right attitude toward Max, which may have been true. I never did tell her what I really thought: that birds make lousy pets. Dogs and cats are pets. Everything else belongs in the sky or the water or the desert it came from. So right away I felt a little sorry for Max, even when I learned he was captive bred and able to fly, even when I told myself he was probably healthier and possibly happier living in his painted jungle, for what would he face in Guatemala but poachers and pythons and shrinking habitat? Even acknowledging their success―14 years of cohabitation―I couldn’t help seeing Max as a bird beguiled.

Maybe he sensed my pity and resented it. Or maybe he didn’t like the texture of my hair or the way I smelled. Maybe my voiced irked him. Maybe I reminded him of someone else. Whatever his reason, Max didn’t like me, no matter how hard I tried to please him. You’re probably thinking he was jealous, that he wanted Kelly all to himself; I thought that too, at first. Then I noticed how he welcomed the arrival of our friends and how charmed he was by Suzanne, Kelly’s former live-in girlfriend. I tried not to take it personally, but that bird was so shrewd he had me worried.

 

Photo credit: <a href=”https://www.flickr.com/photos/pokerbrit/9010421285/”>Steve Wilson – over 8 million views Thanks !!</a> via <a href=”http://foter.com/”>Foter.com</a&gt; / <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/”>CC BY</a>

 

Cat Editors

A big thank you to my human editor Midge Raymond for kindly inviting me to participate in her “Cat Editors” column. Here is the latest post, featuring me and Tango.

Please look for Midge’s new book, My Last Continent, coming from Scribner in June 2016.

 

 

“Greyhound” in The Bosque Beast

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My deep thanks to editor Keiko Ohnuma for publishing this excerpt of my story “Greyhound” in the latest edition of The Bosque Beast, a journal dedicated to bringing awareness to the plight of animals. “Greyhound” is included in the story collection SURVIVAL SKILLS, published by Ashland Creek Press. I am proud to have my work recognized by people who care so deeply about animals and the beautiful, fragile world we live in.

 

Little Lost Dog

A few days ago my partner, who is a crane operator, spotted a scrawny brown Chihuahua in a remote stretch of swampland. There were no houses in the area, just a handful of rickety fishing shacks and rotting piers. The dog was hunkered on the edge of the dirt road, and my partner, who was on her way to a lift, backed up her rig and stopped. She got out of the cab and began to approach the dog, who had flattened its body to the ground. The truck engine was still running as my partner, getting closer, offered soft words of reassurance. Caught between terror and hope, the dog shivered violently but stayed in place. Allowing it to sniff her hand, my partner then scooped the stricken animal into her arms and carried it back to the truck.

Because we have two cats and no dogs, our friends think of us as “cat people.” The truth is, I like dogs as well as cats, and I have the same admiration for hedgehogs, blackbirds and blue whales. The main advantage of cats is their autonomy. While both our cats are fairly affectionate, they do not require a constant stream of attention and approval, and my heart doesn’t break when I look at them—well maybe sometimes, when they were kittens, for instance, and vulnerable to everything, or when I take them to the vet and they try to hide in my arms. Thank god, by the way, for veterinarians and their assistants, for all those who are strong enough and good enough to spend their days in the service of animals. My respect is boundless.

When you look at this dog, even the briefest glance, her tail wags hard and her ears lift; if you speak to her, her body shudders in a paroxysm of joy and she dashes over, head lowered. Each time you lift your arm to pet her she flinches and drops her pelvis to the floor. Her hips splay so easily that I’m not sure if it’s a genetic trait or if chronic dread has reshaped her. When your palm settles on the small dome of her head, her body stills and her eyes glaze with gratitude. Running your hand down her back and sides, you can feel every vertebra and rib.

I had her scanned at a pet shelter and was not surprised to learn that she is not chipped. I also spoke with a clerk at the Solano Animal Shelter who informed me that no one has filed a report on her. I provided a description of the dog and my contact information, then regretted it soon after. I assume she was dumped in that swamp or ran away on her own.

Between the cats and my partner’s allergy to dog saliva, keeping this dog was not feasible. We put her photo on Facebook, and just like that she was adopted by a friend. Despite the fact that we refrained from naming her and tried to keep a barrier of resistance around our hearts, her departure is wrenching. The house feels cavernous, useless.

There were the cats, the allergies, but something else too: the agony of looking at an animal who is locked in fear, who wants nothing more than your mercy. Our friend is smart and kind and I know she will try her best to make up for whatever happened to the dog before my partner found her. This little brown Chihuahua will get all the love our friend can give, which might, over time, be enough. I’m looking forward to finding out.

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