The Cat Whisperer and the Skunk Whisperer

Although the Crankee Yankee and I have been feeding and sheltering stray cats for years, we also feed the resident skunks—generations of them. They live under the shed in the back yard, and they feed right along with the cats. Every spring, we see the skunk moms shepherd their little ones around, and pretty soon they too join the dinner time throng.

Now we both love cats and skunks, but the Crankee Yankee seenms to have become the cat whisperer. Some of our most shy cats will eventually let the Crankee Yankee pat them; he has a way with them. This is how we came to adopt or Plumpy-Nut and Tinker; they were strays we fed for a long time. Winter was coming, and we had no way of knowing if they belonged to anyone.

So the Crankee Yankee was able to get them into carriers, and we took them to our wonderful vet to be checked out. They got their shots, flea treatments, microchips, and Plumpy had to be neutered. They came home with us and are part of our happy family of five cats.

For me, it’s the skunks. I have always liked them, and think that they are adorable. They really don’t want to fight with you or spray you, but if you startle them, they will spray. When a skunk is getting ready to spray, they will first stare right at you and start thumping their front paws on the ground. This is their prelude to turning tail to spray. The first time I saw this was when I was filling up the “skunk bowl” with food.

A tiny skunk was watching me, and started thumping his little paws on the ground. I looked him in the eye and said, “Now look, Sunny Jim—I’m the one who feeds you. Mind your manners.”

And whether he understood or not, he stopped thumping, stretched out his front legs and lowered his little head. It looked almost as if he were bowing to me; it was hilarious. Even so, I am very careful not to startle a skunk of any age. As soon as the bowl was filled, I slowly walked near him and put it down on the ground. It only took him a minute to start eating.

Our latest little guy waits for the food and water to appear. I usually put this out around 4:30pm, but often a skunk or two will be waiting. This year the littlest one, whom we call “Arlo,” waits patiently for his grub before all the skunk crew arrives.

Now skunks as a rule do not see very well, but ironically their sense of smell is excellent. So is their hearing, so I’m not surprised when they appear to listen. As with humans, it isn’t always about the words, but the tone. I keep my voice low and soft, I don’t make any quick moves, and I keep a good distance between me and the skunks.

So far, it’s been a good deal for all of us. Who knew? All we and the cats and skunks know is that we are family. (Queue up “We Are Family” by Sister Sledge here.)

Pet Letters From Heaven

A long time ago, I started writing pet letters for friends and family whose pets had died. The reason I began doing this was because a dear friend of mine sent me one when I had to take my darling gray cat, Billie, to the vet for the last time.

I found her on the street in front of a laundromat I used; there she was, sitting on the sidewalk as if waiting for me. I scooped her up and she nuzzled into my arms. I took her into the laundromat and asked if she belonged to anyone; no takers.

I took her home with me and made a stop for a litter box and litter, food, a bed and a catnip mouse. She was hungry, and ate up everything in her bowl, washed her face, and jumped up on my bed to sleep. I named her Billie (after Billie Holiday) and she pretty much took over my life from that point on.

We had a great life together in my first apartment in Goffstown, NH. We lived happily there for years. She was good company, and she made me laugh with all her funny little ways. Her usual greeting to me each day was a melodious trill.

She was getting on in years when I moved to Dallas, TX years later. Gradually I noticed that she was losing weight and fur, and she didn’t eat much any more, but drank more water. When the vet told me that she was dying, it broke my heart. I called a friend of mine, and she came right over to comfort me.

A few days later I took her to the vet to put her out of her pain. My friend went with me, and I grieved for days. One day I got a letter in the mail with a return address reading “Pet Heaven.”

I opened it, and read a letter from “Billie,” assuring me that all was well and that she was thoroughly enjoying her time in Pet Heaven. The letter went on to say that she had already made friends with my childhood cat, Henny, and that they were having a great time together. She said that there was plenty of good food in Pet Heaven, as well as lots of people and other cats to play with.

By the time I finished the letter (which of course was from my friend), I was laughing. The letter was full of love and funny memories, and promised a wonderful reunion when I too would join her.

That letter changed my life. Not only did it cheer me up and put things in perspective, but I then began writing letters from Pet Heaven to anyone I knew who had lost a pet. I hoped it helped them as much as that first letter helped me.

Silly, I know, but it’s funny how something like this can comfort and cheer. A wonderful vet I used to know once told me the reason why our pets don’t live as long as we do. He said, “animals are much smarter than we are, and they learn all they need to know much faster than we do. That’s why they can go on before us; they know it all, and they are ready for the next transition.”

But perhaps their greatest gift to us is to leave a space in our hearts to eventually love and adopt another pet. Love has its painful moments, but I would and will gladly suffer that brief pain of losing a dear old pal in exchange for all those days and months and years of all that love and companionship.

To all my dear old pals in Pet Heaven, Merry Christmas!


Everybody Eats When They Come to Our House!

We have a little black and gray striped cat

Who shows up morning and night for this and that–

A bowl of water, and one of food–

A box lined with blankets to suit his mood,

If he wants to stay the night

And sleep there warm and tight,

He’s welcome to our hospitality

To keep him in good vitality.

As weather grows warmer both day and night,

I hope he’ll still come by to get a bite—

Knowing he is welcome to a healthy share

Of our good fortune without care.

Of course, there’s the occasional raccoon,

Clever bandit who shows up by the light of the moon–

The odd skunk or squirrel or flock of birds,

They too are welcome, beyond all words.

Come one, come all, both large and small—

The strays know that we will feed them all!




The elephants, they sway

In majestic array

They go where they please–

Baby pachyderm sneezes,

And finding water, they play

Douse each other in spray–

Aunties help lift the baby

Out of the water, and maybe

Let him sleep safe between their knees

Snoring and smelling of honey bees

The adults’ massive feet that pound the dirt

Are gentle when one they love is hurt–

Their trunks stretch out to pat

Any hurt places others have that

They can’t reach alone,

So others gather and loan

Their help where it’s needed.

They give silent thanks that are heeded

By all who walk together,

In all the changes of weather–

They can be a chatty bunch

Or can be cranky when missing lunch.

But their community is strong

Where even when one is gone,

They are remembered in elephant dreams–

Here and there a tear gleams

In an ancient and wrinkled eye.

And they move on with a collective sigh.

When elephants grieve

They know when to leave–

Their tributes paid,

They walk away.





“Dumb Animals?” Not At All!

The term “dumb animals” does not mean “stupid animals.” According to Webster’s dictionary, one of the meanings of the word ‘dumb’ means ‘lacking the human power of speech.’ Oh, we may think that the neighbor’s dog who howls along with ambulance siren is dumb/stupid for doing so, but he has a reason for it that makes sense to himself. It could be that the noise hurts his ears, or that he just likes to harmonize. He might even be thinking, ‘that’s not nearly loud enough; I must help that other howling dog be heard!’

We have all heard of pets who have saved their owners’ lives by waking them when a fire starts, or when someone falls, has a heart attack, etc. We also know that animals will risk their own lives to save their young. Who could forget Scarlett, the stray cat who saved all five of her kittens from a burning house in Brooklyn, NY in March of 1996? She was so severely burned in the process that her eyes were swollen shut, but once out of the building, she touched each kitten with her nose to be sure she had them all. The little family was rushed to an emergency vet and received excellent care. Happily, once Scarlett and her kittens were well enough, all were adopted into loving homes. Scarlett herself was adopted by a woman who adored her and treated her like a queen.

There are also ‘helper animals,’ from dogs to birds to monkeys who assist disabled folks in accomplishing daily tasks. There are therapy animals who can reach the human heart faster than a cardiac surgeon, and who bring autistic children out of themselves with their unconditional love and acceptance. Many domestic pets can sense when an earthquake, tornado, hurricane, etc. is on the way. If you pay attention, this is an excellent early warning system.

The Crankee Yankee (my husband) and I have three “special needs” cats; Nala (9-year old female), Pookie (6-year old male), and Pepper (8-year old male). We adopted Nala from a couple who had added a dog and a new kitten to their household. Nala was terrified by the dog and hated the kitten. She was well cared for, but had been living a rather lonely existence in the cellar, afraid to come upstairs. Pookie had been rescued from a home with too many cats, and had been in a local shelter for several months. He came to the shelter severely stressed, was being treated for a UTI, and spent most of his days hiding behind the director’s desk. Pepper, *rescued last December by the Crankee Yankee, came to live with us at the end of last year. He has an incurable heart condition that requires us to administer three meds every morning and every night, plus a special one every three days to keep fluid from building up around his heart. This morning and evening routine takes time and Pepper certainly doesn’t love it, but it is worth it to see how healthy and strong he is now.

When we adopted Nala, our beloved cat, Blackie, had just died in my arms with vet assistance at the ripe old age of 20. Nala needed a home, and we needed her; not to take Blackie’s place, but to fill the empty spaces in all our hearts. It took a while, but soon Nala began to relax after she realized that no dogs lived there and that she had our undivided attention and love. Two years later, I read about one of our local shelter’s “Desperate Housecats;” cats who had been in the shelter for over six months. Pookie was at the top of the list. I felt I had to go see him, so my best friend/sister-in-law went to the shelter to have a look. Of course I fell in love with this sweet, green-eyed black kitty, and when I picked him up my heart whispered, ‘take him home!’ He has been an absolute joy ever since.

Of course, Nala had something to say about it. It was just as if we had a 17-year old girl and a 10-year boy in the house; they lived to bug each other. These days, though, flareups are rare and not serious. Pepper fit in with the other two because there was no other choice; knowing how much help he needed, how could we put him in a shelter? We socialized them all as best we could, and soon they all got used to each other. There are dust-ups from time to time, but nothing serious.

Our cat crew doesn’t always allow us uninterrupted sleep. Pookie starts talking when the lights go out. He wants us to know that he caught a vicious and possibly dangerous stuffed toy, and he won’t shut up until I get out of bed and tell him what a good brave boy he is. Pepper hops up during the night to nuzzle the Crankee Yankee’s ears and nose, then lies down wrapped around his head.  Early in the morning, Nala likes to park herself in the window behind our headboard, whapping our heads alternately with her tail. Sometimes, just to mix up things up, one or two of them will start chasing another, eliciting indignant growls and hisses, which of course wake us up.

The cats get fed and watered before we even have our first cup of coffee. Our living room floor is littered with dozens of catnip mice, jingle balls, plastic spirals, the annoying chirping stuffed bird that Pepper loves to shake, fuzzy toys, fluffy toys, various scratching posts and boxes, and other cat amusements. The cats sleep on the fleece blanket on our bed, or the fluffy blanket on the bamboo chair, or the other fluffy blanket on the sofa. Downstairs, the Crankee Yankee has built platforms in the two casement windows with a transom in between so that the cats have downstairs sleeping lofts. Each cat has his/her own carrying cage, fitted out with clean cozy blankets and a catnip toy in each one.

They all eat vet-recommended kibble, and the Crankee Yankee did considerable research to determine the best wet food that combined what they liked and what was also good for them. Their water is changed twice a day, and litter boxes are cleaned twice a day. They are all soundly kissed, petted, cuddled and are told on a daily basis was good ‘kids’ they are. And before you say it, we know–they rule the house; we just pay the bills and provide service. We are simply the staff.

Trust me, there is nothing dumb about these pets of ours. They have us right where they want us and they are not about to change. I would write more here, but it’s time for me to fix the cats’ mid-morning treat of pan-seared salmon on toast points with bearnaise sauce…..

*Those who have read “The Christmas Cat” (published here in December of 2013, and later, “Love in the Shape of a 12-lb. Cat”) will remember our rescued cat, Pepper. Long story short, the Crankee Yankee (my husband) was in Pepperell, MA for a meeting with his model railroad group, which was in an industrial park. The cat who became our Pepper came running to him, climbed up his pantleg and settled himself on the Crankee Yankee’s shoulder–and did not move. It turns out that Pepper had been living on his own in that park for at least two years.