Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Toolsheds & Spiritual Nexuses

Behind the tool shed was a treasure trove of good junk. An old mattress. A large wooden electrical-cable spool. An equally large metal cube-like thing (I never did figure out what it was) that Dad had picked up somewhere. A couple of down-on-their-luck pink plastic flamingos. Assorted boards and some defunct lawnmowers that he probably had plans for – after all, he’d once welded a metal vegetable-bin drawer to the base of another lawnmower, creating a curious but perfectly functional little cart.

It was, to my ten-year-old eyes, heaven. I could make a place of my very own there. And did.

The metal cube was already perched up on the spool. A board across the top bar, another board placed a little lower down on the opposite side – and voila! -- I had a look-out post, a desk, and whatever else I wanted it to be. It didn’t exactly qualify for tree-fort status; but with six people in our family, space was hard to come by, and this was all mine.

Eventually, of course, it all got carted away to the dump. That was O. K. because by then I was a little older. I needed something more in keeping with my 5th- and 6th-grade aspirations.

The toolshed.

My father had built it along with the house back in the late 1940s. It had a brick floor and two big windows on either side. The cats lived out there (Dad had cut a cat-sized doorway right next to the people-sized door), and I saw no reason why I couldn’t as well. I’d go there after school and play with the cats, imagining how I’d fix it up. The wide junk-strewn shelves would hold my books and treasures. There was already some furniture – my grandfather’s old dented milking stool and a disabled pot-bellied stove that Dad had gotten off an antiques-dealer friend – and I figured that I could somehow squeeze my bed, my desk (really an old-fashioned dressing-table that had belonged to Mom when she’d been my age), and bookcase in, too.

In the meantime, it was my place to hang out and dream in. Many years later, I read Mirabel Cecil’s book Lottie’s Cats to my own child. I’d come to the part where Lottie was sitting with her seven cats in their shed, reading stories to them, and I'd sigh happily, remembering my toolshed with the afternoon sun sifting in through its dusty cracked windows…the cats peering down at me from the rafters, the air thick with their purring….

In time, our cats gained indoor status, so I didn’t have to go out to the shed to play with them. There were other out-of-doors places where I went to read and write my stories. But I never outgrew my affection for the little brick-floored building – which, thanks to Dad’s cat door, still provided shelter for various strays, including my much-loved Tikvah (whose story I have already told in my book Catsong.)

Fast-forward about thirty years. Dad was dead, Mom had just gone into a convalescent home with advanced dementia, and I was a widow with a teenager. I knew that I didn’t want to live in my parents’ house again, but I also wasn’t quite ready to let go. So I decided to rent it out.

The old toolshed needed replacing. It, like Mom, had been falling apart for some time. The only part of it still intact was the brick floor that my father had put in. Jaysen, the guy handling the project, built the new shed on top of it. So something of Dad’s work remained, even though nobody could see it. I liked that.

But it wasn’t my toolshed. The magic was gone – from the shed, from the field, and from the house itself. Within the year, I sold the property.

We need our magic places. They heal and renew us. Author Frances Hodgson Burnett knew that all too well: she spent a lot of time writing in an English rose garden following a very messy, very scandalous divorce back in the early 1900s. The Secret Garden, the story of an unhappy child who brings a once-loved garden back to life, was written a few years later; but the idea for it came to her as she was working in that other garden, trying to put her own life back together.

People talk about spiritual nexuses, places that that are inherently powerful. Are there such places? I don’t doubt it. But I also believe that with places, as with rituals and relationships, it’s what we bring to them that makes them magical. At least that’s how it was with those hideaways of mine.

I drive by my mother’s house frequently. And sometimes I get kinda wistful as I glance at it. Paradise lost. But I have new places now, places where insights and stories come to me: my gardens on summer evenings; by the brook and the clearing where I love to walk in the mornings; and the little hillside by my old cat-buddy Zorro’s grave. You see, magic is a fluid thing, and it travels with us.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Writing from Grief

(From The Not-So-Way-Back Files -- The Best American Poetry blog, June 2014)

Many years ago, when Tim and I were first dating, I wrote a poem called “Dulcimer.” In it, I tried to capture how the “muted mauve&gray sky” of a winter’s afternoon, the dulcimer music on the radio, and our lovemaking all came together to create a beautiful outside-of-time moment.

Tim always liked that poem and not just because it was sexual. “That’s the way it really was,” he’d say.

We married and had a child, Zeke. We were not a picture-perfect couple by any stretch of the imagination, and we both had pretty good ones. But we got each other. He was my toughest critic and my fiercest supporter. “If I’ve done nothing else in my life,” he told me, “I’ve tried to be supportive of your writing….I believe you have what it takes to be a great writer.”

So, when he was killed in a car accident, I was lost and not just because I suddenly found myself a 34-year-old widow with a three-and-a-half-year-old child. My best friend, my cheering section, was gone. And for what seemed like a long time afterwards, I could not write. Then a poem came to me. It wasn’t a very good one. But it let me know that there was a survivor in the wreckage.

More poems began to appear. One of them was “The Wild Things”: it deals with the weeks after the tragedy and two “small good things” that happened, bringing me out of the fog….

One muggy afternoon, I walked listlessly out into the backyard. There, at the edge of Tim’s vegetable garden, stood a doe. I stopped. Time stopped. In that space, only the deer and I existed. I stared at her, and she returned my gaze without fear. Never had a deer – or any other wild animal, for that matter – looked at me like that. I felt oddly comforted despite my grief.

Not long afterwards, I was going out to the shed when a hummingbird flew by, drawn to the red bee balm alongside it. We’d never had hummingbirds before despite all the fancy feeders I’d hung to lure them into the yard. And, once again, the pain inside me loosened its hold for a bit.

Both deer and hummingbirds have a rep as messengers, symbolically speaking. Tim and I had both loved animals, birds, and just being out in nature. Among the many things he had given me over the years were a river otter sculpture, a book – America’s Favorite Backyard Wildlife – and a beaver-chewed stick that he’d picked up by the river, knowing that I’d like it. And once, during the holidays, I’d picked out a wildlife calendar for my mom to give him. He’d thanked her, then said, “I suspect Tammy had something to do with this.”

So, when the deer and the hummingbird appeared so soon after his death, I couldn’t help suspecting that Tim had something to do with it. That it was his way of letting me that he was O. K. Both creatures lifted my spirits – made me feel as though, yes, he was out there somewhere – and then they went into my poem.

Writing that poem – and the Tim poems that followed – gave me a way of processing all that grief that I didn’t know what to do with. But doing so also gave me a life-line. Slowly, I drew myself up out of the sad, dark place his death had sent me to.

I haven’t had a lot of contact with the other contributors to The Widows’ Handbook, but I get the sense that their poems have worked in much the same way for them. Patricia Savage speaks in “How Could I” of “turn[ing] toward the light, the children in the kitchen, bound to the care of the living, choosing alchemy to create cold sense out of the molten lead of your passing.” In “Wonderland,” Gail Braune Cormorat writes about being “shaken, transformed” and then “stepp[ing] through the door once again.”

Because it is a transformation, a going through the looking-glass into a world where nothing makes sense. And we use – we need -- the alchemy of poetry to make something transcendent out of our wanderings there. That is what characterizes the poems in The Widows’ Handbook for me and why it’s ultimately an inspiring and not a depressing book.

The landscape of grief is an ever-shifting one, and no two people experience it quite the same way. Those moments out in the yard – the doe greeting me from the garden, the hummingbird whirring about like a tiny jeweled miracle in a world gone gray – have stayed with me. At a time when I hurt too much to cry, they were a connection with Tim and more. They took me out of myself and brought a kind of healing with them.

When I read “The Wild Things” now, I find that I tend to skip over the opening, which deals with Tim’s death. Instead, I focus on that last section…on the deer, the hummingbird, and the messages they brought me. On the gifts that came to me when my hands felt hopelessly empty. I read those lines, and it all comes back to me in a rush. Because that’s the way it really was.

Monday, November 17, 2014

A Touch of Magic: Mette Meyer

                                   “Expression is everything to me.”
                                                                        -- Mette Meyer

Mette Meyer loves all animals. Growing up, she was more of a dog person: her first pet was a Newfoundland, who left her “with a love for gentle giants.” After that, the artist imported some of the first Leonbergers -- Mountain Dogs that are a cross between a Barry Dog, a Landseer Newfoundland, and a Great Pyrenees -- from Germany to her home in Norway. She even had a kennel prefix and bred several litters. 

When the last of her Leonbergers died of old age, Meyer took a break and began traveling around the world. But the animals weren’t done with her. Somewhere a cat was waiting…and in 1998, a simple unpretentious moggy came into her life and made all the difference, opening her up to a love of all things feline. Ten years later, she got her first purebred, a Ragdoll named Brutus; he was followed by Charlie and Bounty, two silver-shaded or black-tipped British Shorthairs. “I do not breed,” she says. “They are pets only, but I love shows. All the boys have done well at shows.”

Somewhere along the way, Meyer’s love of animals merged with her art. Two-and-a-half years ago, she began doing portraits of them, using photos as a basis for her work. “It started as a hobby, as an experiment,” she recalls. The hobby soon became a passion, and she began doing commissioned portraits, “making all the personalized backgrounds and layers.” The resulting portraits are both very life-like and very soft and impressionistic. They look as though they’ve been painted by hand.

“I have not been influenced by anyone, not copied anyone,” Meyer tells me. “Whatever I have made is home-made. However, I need photos and must admit I have done quite a bit of ‘catnapping’ on Facebook….I have an inner need or urge to make them. Not one day will pass that I will not make a picture when seeing a photo of a cute cat.” But she hasn’t forgotten her first love – dogs – and they figure in her work as well.

Meyer also does abstract and scenic pictures, the latter based on “photos taken on holidays. Not tourist attractions – more like a narrow street in an idyllic village in, let’s say, France.”

Still, the cats are what call to her. She always gets “stunned” by their beauty; as she works, she finds herself thinking about the best way to preserve that beauty.

The response to these portraits has been overwhelming: Animal Art, her Facebook page, has garnered close to 400 followers, and quite a few of them have commissioned work from her. Some of them have even become repeat customers.

“I think I have found my niche,” Meyer says happily. “I have a dream to do this for a living. It is what I love to do, and I do not do it lightly. It’s all about making a pretty cat even a little more beautiful, adding a little touch of Magic. I think I can say that I have developed my own style.”

Related link:


Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Talking to Horses: Gina Barry

                                   To me, horses are magic.
                                            -- Gina Barry

Gina Barry has been talking to horses since she was a kid. At 12, she was working as a volunteer with the Therapeutic Equestrian Center: there she met a Quarter Horse gelding named Jasper, and they changed each other completely. “I was at the awkward adolescent stage,” she recalls. “And he had just come in from Montana, and he was a bit of a mess himself. So we worked with each other, and we both blossomed. We were just an amazing team.”

Sadly, they were also a short-lived team. In 1984, less than a year after they met, Jasper tripped in the frozen mud and shattered all the bones in one leg. There was no mending that leg, and he had to be euthanized.

The grieving girl he left behind grew up and went to law school. She was working as a law clerk for the Hampden County Superior Court when she was offered a position as an attorney in the trusts and estates department at Bacon Wilson in Springfield.

She loved her work, but something was missing. “I had always loved animals,” the lawyer muses, “and felt that I needed to bring animals into my practice.” So she became involved in estate planning for her clients’ pets. “But I still didn’t have enough animal contact.”

Barry had been mulling over the idea of working with horses again for awhile, but she hadn’t quite firmed up the details. After she did a few Tony Robbins seminars and a Date with destiny program, however, it all became clear to her: she would take in abused, abandoned, and unwanted horses and ponies. They would be Jasper’s spiritual heirs.

The Joy of Jasper, Inc. was started in 2007, following a phone call Barry received about a former show horse whose owner could no longer afford him. Arie, a Dutch Warmblood gelding, became the first of many horses to find safe haven at Legacy Farm in Easthampton.

But it’s not just about the horses. Children and teens work at the farm on a volunteer basis. They are at-risk kids, kids who are lacking self–confidence and/or failing school; working with the animals helps them blossom, just as Barry did with Jasper. “Horses and ponies are powerful yet graceful and sensitive,” she says. “They have an uncanny way of inspiring confidence, self-esteem, love, and trust in those who care for them.” She would like to see the program “continue along these lines and hopefully continue to grow so that we can provide for more horses, more kids, and more adolescents.” There are adults in the program, too, “because children aren’t the only ones with angst.”

The horses are never adopted out. “I think it’s important that we keep the horses until they pass,” maintains Barry, who is also a Reiki Master and an animal communicator. “It allows the children a chance to build up a relationship with them. When it is time for the horse to pass away, we surround their passing with love and dignity, and it teaches the children about loss.” Remembering what she went through, she knows how losing one of the horses or ponies “impacts the children. Everybody’s sad, but we work through it….We honor the horses that have crossed over by bringing in another horse in need.”

She reflects on Jasper, the horse who started it all. “The thing that made it so poignant was that the time we were together was less than a year.” Barry’s voice is both wistful and matter-of-fact. “Well, Jasper had to leave, or I never would’ve left the barn.” Nor would she have gone on to law school and made the pivotal connections she needed to set up the sanctuary.

“To have it be so tragic is what at the same time made it so inspirational,” she says. “If I had spent ten years with Jasper, and he had died in an old-age situation, I don’t know if I would’ve been so driven.”

Related link:


Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Telling Stories

                                                       (Blog Cascade)

Thank you, Samantha Mozart, for passing the baton on to me in this blog cascade. Samantha’s writing is both humorous and sensitive: each piece is colorful and multi-layered as a tapestry. She has written Begin the Night Music: A Dementia Caregiver’s Journal, Volume I (2012) and To What Green Altar: A Dementia Caregiver’s Journal, Volume II (2013), two incredible books that no caregiver, assisted-living facility director, or hospice worker should be without. She can be found at her blog, The Scheherazade Chronicles, spinning some pretty exceptional and imaginative prose. – http://www.salmonsaladand

What am I working on?

I’ve just finished updating Catsong, winner of the 2007 Merial Human-Animal Bond Award. I’m also writing a new book – Abys Among Us – which is about the Abyssinian cats that have played such an important part in my life. I have a couple of other book ideas that are percolating on the back burner, so to speak.

And, of course, there’s “Sketch People,” the blog that inspired the book of the same name. I also write a weekly cat behavior column for

How does it (the book/the writing in general) differ from other works?

At first glance, Abys Among Us might not seem all that different from Catsong or Derv & Co.: A Life Among Felines. But both those books are collections of stories and poems, whereas Abys Among Us is a chronological narrative. I decided early on that this particular story needs to do a gradual unfolding. You see, it’s not just about the cats. The people’s lives are interwoven with the animals, much the way they are in Joyce Stranger’s novels: the two are connected on a heart-and-soul level. In fact, in some ways, this book is even more about the human-feline bond than Catsong is.

My writing process?

Sometimes my stories start with an image or a memory-picture. I’ll drive by a field, a stretch of woods, or a house and say to myself, “That looks like a good place for a story to happen.”

Sometimes it’s a well-turned phrase that sets my writing pulse racing. Or a historical event. (Case in point:
A Time for Shadows.)

I write in bursts. I read somewhere once that it’s good to stop just as you reach an exciting point; that way, you’re rarin’ to go the next time you sit down to write. That happened a lot with Shadows -- primarily because my heroine, Iris, and the other characters were always doing such wonderful unexpected things.

I still write my rough drafts out in longhand. I make a big glorious mess, full of arrows and cross-outs; then, when I sit down at the computer, Editor Me takes over. Editor Me is kinda like a mechanic: she gets in there and takes everything apart and fiddles with the passages until she gets the story/articles/book running smoothly.

I’m in love with the rhythm of words. So, whether I’m writing or editing, I like to have some music playing in the background, something to bounce the words off of. (I had this 5th-grade teacher who used to have us write poetry to the Beatles and Simon & Garfunkel, and that’s how it started.) The music “trances” me, as my son, Zeke, used to say when he was little; and I enter a place where it’s just the words and I.

Why do I write what I do?

I’m a storyteller by nature. My interests are eclectic, and I think my books reflect that to some extent.

I wrote Souleiado because I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of time-travel and I like a good ghost story. I also wrote it as part of my healing process after my husband Tim died.

A Time for Shadows was written for my grandmother, Esther. She lost her older brother, Max, over in France a month before the Armistice was signed. She told me his story when I was 11. It stayed with me and became the basis for Shadows.

Sketch People: Stories Along the Way was my way of getting back to my journalistic roots. A friend made a comment about his work, and I thought, “That’s good – really good.” Suddenly, I wanted to do interviews again and talk to people about their work and their passions. Their true callings, if you will.

The cat books  -- Catsong, Houdini, and Derv & Co. -- are a natural outpouring of my love for animals in general and cats in particular.

Passing on the baton

I know a lot of incredible bloggers. Two of them, Ingrid King of The Conscious Cat ( and Bernadette Kazmarski of The Creative Cat (, obviously share my love of all things feline. Ingrid is the author of Buckley's Story, one of the most moving cat books I've ever read. It is the 2010 winner of the Merial Human-Animal Bond Award and a National Book Awards finalist.  Her latest book, Purrs of Wisdom, is a philosophical gemstone and a book I reach for whenever I need a spiritual pick-me-up.  Bernadette's Great Escapes is more than a 16-month calendar:  it is a lovely and heart-stirring collection of portraits and stories of rescued felines she has known and painted.

Ingrid and Bernadette are both such good writers, I really can’t choose between them. So I’m passing this blogging baton on to both of them: it’s up to them whether they decide to use it. Either way, I urge you to check out their blogs and their books. You’re in for some excellent reading.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

A Human Tapestry: Izaskun Arandia & "To Say Goodbye"

                                      “Some Stories Need to Be Told
                                        Some Voices Need to Be Heard.”
                                                       -- From the trailer for “To Say Goodbye”

“I didn’t want to leave, and of course my mama didn’t want us to go, but papa said it was only for a short time,” recalled Josefina Stubbs in a 2012 interview. She remembered being dragged away “with my teddy….The boat was terrible, really terrible. I remember the screams and cries of the children packed into this boat. There was no space to even lie down.”

Stubbs was one of roughly 4,000 Basque children who were sent to Britain for their own safety following the Nazis’ bombing of Guernica in 1937. Her story and those of other ninos (their name for themselves) or “Basque babies” (the more pejorative British name) have become part of the human tapestry of “To Say Goodbye,” a movie co-written and produced by Izaskun Arandia.

“Being a Basque, I always knew about the evacuations,” remarks the award-winning scriptwriter, script consultant, and producer, “but what I didn’t know was that were 250 of the evacuated children who stayed in the UK for good.” She was actually living in there herself when she “saw Matt Richards’s documentary ‘The Brits Who Fought for Spain,’ where this fact is mentioned briefly. It prompted me to ask myself: ‘Why did these children stay? What happened to them? Are they still here?’”

Arandia had always had a feel for a good story – thanks in part to her vivid imagination (“I used to spend hours in my room, writing stories.”) and in part to her journalist grandfather’s influence. “I used to watch him type away on his old Olivetti. That was fascinating to me as a little girl, and I desperately wanted to do the same.” She tried writing this story as a fiction film, only to realize half-way through that she needed more info. The trail led her to Prof. Alicia Pozo at Southampton University. Pozo shared her research with the filmmaker. The academician had “traced all the survivors, now in their 80s and 90s, and interviewed them. We had access to hours and hours of interviews. The second I heard those voices, I knew they had to be in the film.” Her fictional screenplay had morphed into a documentary. As the two women listened to the recordings, it suddenly hit them that the former refugees “all remembered the same traumatic moments: when the war broke out in the Basque country; the moment they had to say good-bye to their families; the crossing on board of the Habana.”

Arandia traveled the length of the UK to talk with “all the children who featured in our film.” She felt that it was “essential” for them to meet face-to-face with her, especially since some of them were sharing their stories for the first time ever.

“These visits became my motivation,” reflects the writer-producer, “and when things went wrong – which they did! – I kept visualizing these visits and their wrinkled happy faces telling me all sorts of amazing stories.” Her first visit was to Paco Robles, and “the first thing he said to me was ‘They have forgotten about us.’ I promised him that was never going to happen again.”

“We do try to speak to our sons about ourselves,” another subject, Valeriana Llorente, remarked. “But I think it’s only in recent years that we have done so, talked about all this, what happened to us.” Was this a typical comment? I ask Arandia. She says that she thinks it comes down to the ninos “wanting to forget, not wanting to worry their own kids.” In fact, so strong was this feeling, some of their children and grandchildren only learned about the evacuations through the film.

It all seemed to be falling into place, except for one thing: how exactly was Arandia going to tell the story? Dramatic reconstruction was a possibility, of course, but it was one that she “wasn’t very keen on.” And there wasn’t much archival footage. Then Richards came up with the idea of using animation, with the film “Waltz with Bashir” (Ari Forman, 2008) as their “visual inspiration.” The interviews became “the backbone” of the film. “So there wasn’t that much growth in the way you may get by filming a traditional documentary,” observes Arandia. “But there was a lot of flexibility from me as the producer…. [D]ue to lack of funds, the team had to come up with alternative ideas to the original scenes and adapt the story accordingly.”

Basically, “To Say Goodbye” reclaims a lost chapter of history. Of those thousands of children, only about 250 stayed in the UK; the rest returned to Spain before the outbreak of World War II. But whether they stayed or went home, they were all left with a sort of split consciousness, that sense of being neither one nor the other. “When they are in the UK, they sound Spanish, so they don’t feel completely British and the other way around when they are in the Basque country.” Identity and a sense of belonging – or of not belonging – are recurrent themes in the film, she adds.

During this time, they lost two of the “children,” Rafael Flores, and Bene Gonzalez, the founder of Evacuated Basque Children’s Association in Bilbao (later the Asociacion Evacuados Jubilados de la Guerra Civil). Arandia recalls Flores as “a happy charming man who used to sing and dance at the camp in Southampton when they were first evacuated, to raise funds for the group.” When she met him and his wife, Valeriana – another one of the evacuees – he sang her “a song they used to sing at the camp – a beautiful traditional Basque song, ‘Boga-Boga,’ which he still remembered word by word after 75 years.”

Gonzales and her sister had spent two years in the UK before being claimed by their mother and returning home in 1939. She was fiercely supportive of the film right from the get-go, and filmmaker “shared many unforgettable moments with her.”

“To Say Goodbye” has been a hard sell, Arandia admits. But she has seen people come away from it in tears, “questioning what they would do as a parent, having to send their own children away.” She believes that the film “forces you to reflect on your own life and to put things in perspective”…that it “will now outlive us all and will be a testament” to all those frightened children who arrived in Southampton 75 years ago. Arandia has given them a way for their voices to be heard.

Related link:


Friday, May 23, 2014

The Reiki Cats

Even as a kitten, Zorro had healing in his paws. The eight-week-old Abyssinian-tabby mix who’d wandered into our backyard one summer morning always sensed when he was needed. He was a paws-on healer. After I’d had a bad day, he would seemingly materialize out of nowhere and lie on my chest. He’d place his paws on me, and tension would ebb out of me immediately.

I didn’t learn Reiki till years later. By then, Zorro was a crusty old codger-cat with failing eyesight, chronic upper-respiratory problems, and all the charm of a Dickensian con artist. Slowly, our roles reversed, and he started to come to me whenever he felt the need for Reiki. He would lie down and, stretching his paws out Sphinx-style, look up at me with those eyes that were still wonderfully expressive despite his thickening cataracts. He wasn’t a terrifically demonstrative cat, so I was careful not to touch him during our early sessions.

The energy would begin flowing immediately, and not all of it came from me. Zorro was a strong-willed old guy despite his age and infirmities. He’d seemingly telegraph things to me -– letting me know in the middle of a session, for instance, that he really needed the Baytril for his congestion, even though we’d been focusing on his stomatitis.

Somewhere along the way, Zorro ceased being an old family pet: he became my Reiki Master and taught me everything he knew about healing and reading energy. All that last year, we worked together, doing sessions two or three times a week. Once in awhile, he would bump his head against me whenever he felt the need for hands-on healing. For the most part, however, he simply lay nearby, looking content.

Zorro’s coat grew scruffier – he didn’t like me fussing with the mats – and his eyes cloudier. The nineteen-year-old cat’s spirit remained flame-bright, however, and my vet told me that his kidneys were in surprisingly good shape. My son Zeke and I joked about Zorro cheating death; and knowing my old guy as I did, I figured he was probably playing with a marked deck. At the end of our Reiki sessions, I’d whisper, “You’re going to have to let me know when it’s time for you to go.”

One night, when we were doing Reiki, Zorro’s energy was unusually low, a mere flickering of what it had been. The next morning, I found him wandering disorientedly around the cellar, stopping only to suck up the contents of the water bowl….I looked into eyes – sunken, all the light and magic gone out of them – and called my veterinary clinic.

Zorro’s kidneys were finally shutting down; and judging from the yellowish tinge on the inside of his ears, so was his liver. My vet gave him the abdominal injection that I always requested for my animals: it made for a more peaceful, if slower, transition. But here again, Zorro surprised me. Within seconds, he was gone, practically leaping into the afterlife. I’m outta here! I could imagine him saying, his green eyes shimmering again. Got places to explore --!

Through all our Reiki sessions together, Zorro had guided me, letting me know what he needed and when he needed it. As a result, he had been able to make his transition so beautifully, so seamlessly, it took my breath away. Saddened as I was over the old con artist’s passing, I knew that I hadn’t acted too soon or waited too long. My Reiki Cat and I had gotten it just right.

But that wasn’t the end of it, as I soon discovered. Zorro remained close by – on a consultant basis, as it were. As I delved more deeply into Reiki, he was there, guiding me and helping me puzzle out the hard parts. I felt his presence on my walks or when I sat outside by his grave with my morning coffee. He wasn’t going to let a little thing like death slow him down.

Besides, he had somebody to pick up the slack on this side – a Red Abyssinian, as it so happened. My Dawntreader or Dawnie, as we called her.

Dawnie was a former show cat, a gift from our breeder friend Mary. I had bred her years before, but her baby, Aspen, had died young. In the aftermath of her loss, Dawnie bonded with me.

There are heart-cats, and there are soul-cats. Dawnie was both. She knew when I had cramps, and curled up next to my stomach, pumping out an incredible amount of heat for a little cat…knew when I needed a good pick-me-up purr…and knew when I just felt like having somebody sit on the stairs and mull things over with me.

It was a two-way deal, however. Dawnie was high-strung and prone to nervous coughing fits that irritated her throat. I’d bring out the Reiki; she’d begin to relax, and the coughing would soon stop.

I kept up the Reiki with her and our other cats. After awhile, friends began asking me to send Reiki to their animals: I did it, figuring it was a good way to deepen my understanding of how Reiki worked.

Then, almost a year ago, I brought her in for what my vet and I thought was routine kidney-stone surgery. A few minutes into surgery, he called me: what he was looking at, he told me, were not kidney stones but a fast-growing untreatable tumor in her bladder. There was only one choice to make, and I made it. I told him not to let her wake up.

This was not the quick, clean leave-taking that I had experienced with Zorro. And I felt all the worse because I had not been with her at the end.

But the more I thought about it, the more that began to make sense. A lot of times, the dying wait till their loved ones

leave before they transition. That had been the case with both my parents, and it had been the case with Dawnie, too. Because of the titanium-steel strong bond between us…the bond that our regular Reiki sessions had deepened…she had to take leave when I wasn’t there.

A couple of months went by. They were bumpy ones and included the loss of another one of our feline old-timers. And, of course, it was all harder to take because Dawnie wasn’t there to soothe my soul with her own brand of Reiki.

All the while, I kept getting requests for Reiki. Usually, these requests involved friends’ animals, which suited me just fine. The bulk of my work had, after all, been with our pets, and I did not want to lose all the ground I had gained working with Zorro and Dawnie.

Gradually, I began to think about starting a Reiki practice in addition to my work as a writer. I let the idea grow inside me like one of my stories. Then, one morning, just as I was heading out of my bedroom, I happened to glance toward the built-in bookcase by the window. Dawnie used to like to sit on top of it, away from the younger cats who got on her nerves. Suddenly, time seemed to fall away, and it was as though she was sitting there once more, shimmering red-gold in the morning light…giving my practice her blessing. It was then that the name for it came to me, taken from an old poem I had written about her: Dawnstar Reiki. And I felt pretty sure that she and Zorro would be with me every step of the way, just as they’d always been.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Liebster Nominations

Thank you, Marie Lavender ( for nominating "Sketch People"!

I am pleased to announce that we have won an award for this blog.  After receiving the Liebster Award, Marie Lavender of  Writing in the Modern Age passed it on to us. This award is normally given to bloggers by other bloggers, and we are honored to be part of this tradition.  
The Rules

1.  Link back and thank the blogger who nominated you in your post.

2.  List 11 facts about yourself.

3.  Answer the 11 questions asked by the blogger who nominated you.

4.  Pick 5 - 10 new bloggers (must have less than 300 followers) to nominate and ask them 11 new questions. Do not re-nominate the blogger that nominated you.

5.  Go to each new blogger’s site and inform them of their nomination.

11 Random Facts about Myself

1.  I stole composition books from my 3rd-grade teacher's supply closet to write stories in.
2.  I love cats -- all kinds -- but am particularly drawn to wild cats.
3.  Sitting still is very hard for me, so I meditate while jogging or gardening.
4.  My first job was for my dad. I toted tools & stuff for him while he installed storm doors and windows.
5.  I met my late husband in 5th grade.
6.  One of my favorite authors is Elizabeth Goudge.
7.  I am a Reiki III Master Practitioner, and most of my clients are four-footed.
8. I still write out my rough drafts in long-hand.
9.  I have an inconvenient sense of humor.
10.  I have an incredible son named Zeke. He is a very old soul, and I learn a lot from him.
11.  I like writing to music.  Somehow it forms a background for me to test out the rhythm of words to.

Questions Asked by Marie Lavender

1.  Name three secrets that you never told anyone.

1)  I tend to doodle while having serious conversations on the phone with people.

2)  I refuse to do Skype because I'm afraid of unintentionally mocking someone with  weird random facial expressions.

3)  I have a vendetta against the town snow plow drivers.

2. If you won the lottery, what would be the first thing you would do?  

Breathe a sigh of happiness/relief and bank the money, I guess, then help out Animal Friends of CT, a wonderful rescue group in this area.

3. Looking over the last ten years, what is one goal you have achieved and one that you have not achieved?  

I have been able to publish a number of books, and the response to them has, on the whole, been warm and enthusiastic.  I would like to have more magazine work.

4. What are your plans for retirement? And will you travel, if so where and why?  

No retirement here, thank you -- I'm a workhorse.  Somebody once told me that I'd be writing for the rest of my life, and I'm good with that.  More than good, actually.  

Zeke and I went to London about eight years ago, and it was lovely.  But I'd like to go back and see the British countryside this time around.  And Wales.  I've always wanted to go there.

5. Favorite drink on a Friday night?

I don't drink a lot, but an occasional Black Russian or a Cape Cod is a nice thing.

6. What do you think the secret is to a good marriage or relationship with a significant other is?  

Understanding and humor. You gotta be able to laugh at all the crazy stuff that happens along the way.  And understanding is paramount: it's what gives love its roots.

7. Name three words that describe your personality.  

Determined, spiritual, and humorous.  The last two keep each other in check.  

8. Home-cooked meal or take-out? 

It depends on many things. Cooking requires imagination, and a lot of times, mine fails me at the end of the day.

9. When was the last time you blogged and what was the topic? 

My most recent "Sketch People" post was a profile of Caroline Earle White, the founder of the Women's Humane Society in Bensalem, PA.

10. What do you think the key is to happiness? 

I believe that we can't always control what happens to us but that we can control how we respond to it

11. Who is your favorite poet and why?

Toss-up between Gerard Manley Hopkins and Robert Graves.  I love the way Hopkins forged new words and the incredible rhythm of those words.  And Graves's poetry has a spare elegance that appeals to me.

My Liebster Nominations 

In keeping with our theme, I have decided to nominate these blogs:

1.  Nancy Butler -
2.  L.L. McLaughlin --
3.  Samantha Mozart --
4.  Gwynn Rogers --
5.  Alina Oswald --
6.  Patricia Spork --
7.  Susan Scott --
8.  Kim Cady --
9.  Sezoni Whitfield --
10.  Lisa Hazard --

Friday, April 4, 2014

A Vision and a Task: Caroline Earle White & the Women's Humane Society

(From The Way-Back Files – Just Cats!, Feb/Mar. 1998)

“A vision without a task is but a dream,” reads an inscription in a church in Sussex, England, “a task without a vision is drudgery and a vision and a task is the hope of the world.”

Caroline Earle White (1833 – 1916), the founder and president of the Women’s Humane Society in Bensalem, Pennsylvania, had both. And she pursued them with what her old friend and colleague, Mary F. Lovell, called her “inextinguishable desire for the righting of wrong and a nice sense of justice and an immense capacity for pity and compassion.” That “immense capacity,” combined with her equally immense drive and political smarts, led to the Society’s founding in April 1869. Under Earle White’s leadership, the organization would go on to set up the first humane education program in Pennsylvania; the first humane veterinary hospital with an ambulance service strictly for horses (the vehicle was equipped with a sling for the horse’s belly in case it needed to stand but was too weak to do so); and the first truly humane animal shelter in the U. S. and abroad.

In the beginning, however, the Society was simply a spin-off of the Pennsylvania Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (1868) that Earle White had been a moving force behind. She had not, according to the American Catholic Historical Society’s biographical sketch of her, expected to take part in the PA/SPCA’s administration. And yet… Earle White, who had converted in her husband Richard’s religion in 1858, was originally a Quaker, and Quaker women had a long history of political activism in this country. (White’s mother, Mary Hussey Earle, was an abolitionist, suffragist -- and cousin to Lucretia Mott, herself a political dynamo.)

Given all this, plus her political savvy and her sense of mission, it’s hard to believe that she would have stayed in the background for long. From the moment that the “Woman’s Branch” was formed in at PA/SPCA president S. Morris Waln’s request, she was throwing herself into every animal-welfare battle that came along. She fought, among other things, for the humane treatment of workhorses; the more merciful – well, more merciful-for-the-times, that is – disposal of stray dogs by gassing; and the passage of a federal law guaranteeing more sanitary transportation for livestock in 1873.

“When you consider that Caroline Earle White was the one who got these men [in the PA/SPCA] together,” reflects Janice Mininberg, the Women’s Humane Society’s Director of Education and Legislative Action and the editor of its publication The Guardian, “it was the socially correct thing to do. Politically, too. Her family were lawyers from beginning to end. She was married to a lawyer, her son was a lawyer, her brother was a lawyer. Things happen when you know people; she was a smart woman, and, considering that she could get people together, it was advantageous to keep her in the picture. I mean, here was a woman who had a good deal of influence in the city of Philadelphia.”

She could talk the most glowing purply-prosy rhetoric, then pack a large amount of political and organizational muscle behind it. And she was very, very sure of herself. “She saw the importance of women,” Mininberg observes. “I mean, look at her name – Caroline Earle White. She didn’t go by ‘Mrs. Richard White.’ She kept her maiden name and her last name, and they were both very influential names in the community. At a time when women were considered chattel, here was a woman in her 30’s who started an organization, the first of its kind in Pennsylvania. And with a good track record behind her, she took the women’s branch and turned it into an entity in itself. She was a workaholic, what we would call today a Type A personality.”

Probably Earle White’s greatest strength as an activist was that she saw what the men in the PA/SPCA missed – “the metropolitan picture,” so to speak. They were focusing solely on cruelty issues, while she and the Women’s Humane Society were looking beyond those to “the unwanted animals, the animals who were sick, the overpopulation on account of litters.”

One of the first things that the organization did after forming in 1869 was to take over the Philadelphia city pound and re-open it under more humane guidelines. By that next year, the “City Refuge for Lost and Suffering Animals” was up and running. Its objective was simply set forth as “the care of homeless animals by finding homes for them in families and, when this is not possible, by finding boarding homes, hospital or refuges for their accommodation and, when there is no other way of providing for them, by giving them a quick and painless death.” Thirty-two years later, the Annie L. Lowry Home for Smaller Animals would open under the Society’s aegis… standing out because of its indoor and outdoor kennels having concrete floors at a time when the outdoor kennels at dog pounds still had dirt floors, heightening the risk of disease. “They were incredibly forward-thinking for their times,” notes Mininberg.

Earle White also marched humane education into the Pennsylvania public and parochial schools and oversaw the formation of the “Band of Mercy.” The latter, the director explains, was not an original idea. Earle White had seen it started up in other states and been sufficiently impressed to bring it back to Pennsylvania with her. Basically, the idea behind the “Band” was to educate troubled boys in compassion and responsible pet care; in turn, they would “not only be nice to animals but also to their fellow men – or, in their case, their fellow children. It was probably also the earliest form – without their knowing it – of pet therapy.”

But Earle White’s work didn’t stop there. She helped start the American Anti-Vivisection Society (AAVS) in 1883 and wrote vehemently about “the frightful cruelty and barbarous experiment[s] perpetrated by science and under the specious plea of doing to human beings…upon helpless animals by vivisectionists.” She also founded and edited the Journal of Zoophily, an animal publication that bore the motto “He who is not actively kind is cruel.”

Those were definitely words that Earle White believed in with all her heart, all her soul, and all her might. She carried out her battles on behalf of cats, dogs, and larger animals, said one colleague, “as though she was conscious of a Divine call.” Another called her “a great woman with the heart of a little child.” And yet a third, her old friend Mary Lovell, spoke of her ability to “suffer long and be kind…her charity never fail[ing].”

Mininberg sums up the indefatigable activist in more down-to-earth terms. “She was a ticket-and-a-half,” the director laughs. “I would not have wanted to have had an argument with Caroline Earle White because I would have lost.”

Update: On October 10, 2013, the Women’s’ Humane Society re-dedicated their veterinary hospital in their founder’s memory. The Caroline Earle White Veterinary Hospital continues to provide “a range of healthcare services for dogs, cats and other small domestic animals as part of our commitment to maintaining the health and wellbeing of animals in our community.” For further information, visit

Monday, March 17, 2014

Stories Along the Way

(From The Way-Back Files -- Connecticut Muse, Autumn

The morning was cool for August...but, then, it was always cooler at my grandparents’ farm up in North Canton.  I wandered out into the side yard with its giant weeping willow and played-out fruit trees.  I was a month shy of ten, and my father had been rushed to the hospital late the night before following a heart attack.  All of us kids, except my oldest brother, who was in college, had been sent up to our grandparents’ place:  I’d been sick shortly after we’d arrived and was still feeling washed-out and wobbly-legged.
              I stood by the porch steps, staring at my grandmother’s pink and blue morning-glories.  There was a rusty drainpipe lying alongside the unpaved driveway, spilling its water out onto the sand and pebbles.  I picked up a yellowed willow leaf and set it down in that stream.  Entranced by the burbling sound of the water, I followed my leaf friend as he bobbed along, making up a story for myself about where he was heading and what adventures he was having....Then I decided he might be lonely, so I found a “lady” leaf  to keep him company.  And when I’d made up all the stories about them that I could possibly come up with, I let them live happily ever after.
            Thirty-one years later, that memory-picture is still vivid to vivid that I’ve often felt as if I could step back in time right into it.   It was the first time that I clearly remember making up a story to help me through something that was very frightening to me.  Creating that story comforted me in the wake of my dad’s heart attack.  Oh, I had scribbled stories before (little stories about my cats, lavishly illustrated in red, black, and green ink, or endless sagas about the characters in my favorite books) but nothing that had ever given me the sense, as that story did, of what makes writing magical for me:  namely, the ability to step outside of yourself into other worlds, other lives -- even if they’re the lives of two yellowed willow leaves -- and, paradoxically, heal your own pain and loneliness.  “The stories people tell have a way of taking care of them,” says Badger in Barry Lopez’s book Crow and Weasel.  “Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive.”
            I needed that story.
            Twenty-four years later, the powers that be gave me the opportunity to learn that truth anew.  Granted, it was not an opportunity that I had sought -- indeed, it was one that I would have given anything to give back.  On July 11, 1995, my husband, Tim Spooner, was killed in a freakish car accident, tearing our world -- the world that we had created for ourselves and our three-and-a-half-year-old son, Zeke -- apart with the intensity of the bombing of Hiroshima.  Leaving me feeling that I, like the people at the heart of that terrible blast, was nothing more than a shadow burned into the sidewalk.
            But blasts are peculiar things.  I remember reading that the very same bombing that reduced innocent bystanders to shadows etched in concrete also damaged the eyes of a young Japanese boy.  His eyes eventually recovered, and he grew up to be a photographer.  But he saw things differently than he had before -- was intensely alive to subtle nuances in color and form that had always escaped him before -- and his photos reflected that.  And I found that the same held true for me as I struggled out of my own personal wreckage and slowly, painfully began writing again.
            Less than a year after my own personal Hiroshima, I began writing a time-travel novel, Souleiado.  My recently widowed artist heroine, Miriam Souleiado, has been chosen by some particularly restless spirits to solve a mystery that ruined their lives:  traveling back to the late 19th century, she finds out the truth for them as well as a few home truths for herself.
            Always in my writing before, I had stopped short, unwilling to push myself that extra distance and focus on what most needed focusing on.  I’d been able to dazzle most folks with my word-play and make them think I was being completely open and forthright with them.  “How well she describes feelings,” a published poet had written to a friend’s father after he’d shown her some poems I’d written back in junior high.  And that was the truth of it:  I had described feelings, not put myself right in the midst of them.
            In short, I had been hiding behind my own words.  And doing it very well, I might add.
            Not now, though.  Miriam gave me the mouthpiece I needed.  Through her, I could finally give voice to all the grief, pain, and loneliness that were surging through me like so many electrical currents, and I did not hold back.  And during the three years that I spent in Miriam’s company, both in our own time and in the past, her healing became my healing. 
            Funny, but when I stop and think about it, both those stories, crafted so many years apart, were about just that -- finding what my highly intuitive little son used to call  “yes” at the end of the tunnel. Miriam’s story was obviously (and infinitely) more complicated than that of the little willow leaf making his way down the stream of water.  But both Miriam and the leaf were on journeys: and telling their stories helped me along on mine.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Creating a Vision: Astrid Uryson

     But sometimes magic takes a little longer to get where it’s going.
                                            -- Cynthia Rylant, The Van Gogh CafĂ©

About 14 years ago, Astrid Uryson was cleaning houses and making pottery on the side in Santa Fe, New Mexico. “I had a very small apartment at the time,” recalls the artist, who was born in Argentina. She now lives in Killingworth, Connecticut. “I was a single mother with a teenager and a toddler….I wanted a house.”

Then she met a feng shui practitioner who suggested a trade -- housework in exchange for lessons in feng shui. The practitioner taught her the basics: how energy moves, working with colors and a vision board, and creating a protection bubble round her front door. Six to eight months later, Uryson was approved for a loan for the first time in her life and bought a house for her daughters and herself. And, as soon as she could, she began taking feng shui classes.

Today, Uryson owns Feng Shui Co-Creations and guides her clients “in creating art objects specific to your desires.” She has studied at the Ayurvedic Polarity and Yoga Therapy Institute in Santa Fe; has an advanced certification in soul coach Denise Linn’s “Interior Alignment” feng shui; and roughly 30 years’ worth of experience working with aromatherapy, yoga, and shamanic healing.

All of this helps her tremendously with her work, naturally. But talking with Uryson, you can’t help feeling that she brings more to it than all that. There’s her artist’s eye. A keen intuition. And a whole lot of life experience that keeps her very grounded.

“I really loved cleaning houses,” Uryson says, looking back on her earlier life. “It was the beginning of my feng shui, helping people clean and de-clutter.”

She learned to go with her strengths. She remembers sitting down with a life coach and putting together a list of what she could do – gardening, cooking, cleaning, and yoga. And, oddly enough, those were the things that led her to Mike.

Divorced, Uryson also began focusing on “my feelings about relationships and what I wanted.” Within the year, Mike, a widower, moved to Santa Fe. He happened to go to a meeting that her life coach was at; and during that meeting, he stood up and asked if somebody could help him get settled.

Uryson could. It was love at first sight for him. “Though, of course, he didn’t show it at first. We went shopping for furniture -- it was a lot of fun. Eventually, we became best friends.” They spent every day together. “He would take me to the park, and we would read poetry. He enrolled me in being a true lover of the heart. He became a real advocate for me….Yeah, he still is. Sometimes I have to pinch myself.”

Marriage to the right guy freed her up. Feng Shui Co-Creation took shape much the way that the elements in a story come together for a writer. Traditional feng shui "didn’t resonate with my heart”; instead, she found herself drawn to Denise Linn’s work.  Sacred Space and Feng Shui for the Soul appealed to the artist in her. “I was ecstatic that there was something that encompassed many traditions as well as common sense and intuition,” Uryson recalls now. “When I was reading it, it was like ‘Oh, right, this makes sense.’ I felt I understood, and my whole body went ‘Yeah.’”

So she took a more fluid, more individualized approach. And her clients appreciated that. “I witnessed her circumnavigate her varied talents but was fascinated to watch her put many of them together in her new practice of ‘Interior Alignment’ feng shui,” wrote one such client from her New Mexico days. “She has helped me in my own home several times, and her sensitivity is profound and accurate, without embarrassing me with the depth and intimate nature of what she notices! I think she has definitely found a practice that embraces her whole being, and one that she can aptly embrace.”

Uryson has continued to build on that. What she would really like to do, she says, is something “which, in New Mexico, people are more used to”: a salon or workshop for the more spiritually inclined. A sort of feng shui house party, as it were. The difference here would be that “you’re buying the package. You’ve already got me there in your home. People can talk to me afterwards or even before. You know I am flexible.”

In a few words, she sketches it all out for me. “First, I would give a little introduction on feng shui to give the relationship between the environment and us. I would do a fun exercise with movement to loosen them up. It would be tailored to their needs and wants.” There would also be a writing exercise that would help them “release all the clutter they have in the moment – all their concerns, whatever they’re thinking that is in the way of their being present. They’d get something right away -- they’ll go home with something. They’ll know the basics of feng shui.”

But there’s more. She’d have the host tell the guests in advance to bring magazines or pictures they’re drawn to, Uryson explains, her voice burbling over with enthusiasm. She herself would bring a few boxes of magazines, boards…and paints, just in case “somebody is artistic.” And they would work on vision boards, the way she did when she was trying to create a new life for herself and her daughters.

Other workshops would focus on creating water fountains or mobiles. The fountains “would bring the energy of water into their space, and the mobiles would bring the energy of air. You would hang your intentions onto it [the mobile]. Sometimes, when you have too many things, you have to work balance in.”

Uryson then tells me about a workshop that she once did with some Native American teenagers in a New Mexican school. The subject: mobiles. “They were very reserved in class – didn’t ask a lot of questions,” she recalls. “Then when I saw what they did, I could see they were engaged….I want people to be self-motivated – to be there because they truly want to learn. I love it when people are engaged, and they are truly present. I don’t want to herd cows.”

Related link:

Sunday, February 2, 2014

A True Sanctuary: Judy & Jim Morrow

(From The Way-Back Files: Just Cats!, Nov./Dec. 2000)

Harley started it all, really. The baby cougar came into Judy and Jim Morrow’s lives in 1986 and grew into their 200-pound familiar, sleeping with them every night. (Eventually, they had to upgrade to a king-sized bed in self-defense.) Harley was joined by two Canadian lynxes; two bobcats; a baby fox called Tassy (short for Tasmanian Devil); and several African servals, including a kit named Chopper, who, like Tassy, had to be bottle-fed.

Then “Firestorm 91” tore through their peaceable kingdom, and they lost three-quarters of their animals, including Harley, Tassy, and Chopper. The Morrows slowly re-built their home and wildcat refuge with help from animal lovers from four different states. They also nursed back to health the animals who had been injured in the fire, including Amanda, a severely burned serval who had made her way back to them on her own and who had to have reconstructive surgery. New cats – among them Kisha, a Siberian lynx; Cassie, a serval; Simba, a caracal; and Sequoia, a baby cougar – joined them. They didn’t take the place of Harley and the other animals who had died in the flames, of course. But they brought their own kind of love and healing with them.

After awhile, though, it dawned on the couple that all this wasn’t quite enough. People needed to see these wildcats, many of whom were endangered, in order to more deeply appreciate the beauty and magic of their personalities. But “the laws in Washington State were too restrictive to do anything commercial with the cats,” Judy notes. So, in 1996, they re-located to Keystone, South Dakota and started the Wildcat Valley Sanctuary of the Black Hills.

“We want to show people that these are living, breathing, loving creatures,” she emphasizes, “and that it’s time that we do accommodate them – that we go out of our way to make sure they have a place…We believe that knowledge is the key. If people know about something, they lose their fear. When people don’t know about something, they’re afraid of it, and they want to destroy it. Knowledge is so much. Ignorance is evil.”

The line-up at Wildcat Valley currently includes: Sequoia, Shoshone, Moglee, Rikki, Sassy, and Lakota, the cougars; Keenya, an African serval whose partner-in-crime is a gray-and-white badger-sized housecat by the name of Angel; Amanda, Sheva, Sundance, Watasha, Kisha, Screamer, and Kiowa, the lynxes; Cheyenne, a bobcat; a raccoon; and assorted foxes and de-skunked skunks. And, at the time of the interview, a brother-and-sister fox team and a six-month-old Canadian lynx, Sunshine, had just joined the group from an out-of-state fur farm.

“She’s a sweetheart,” Judy says of Sunshine. The love in her voice is palpable. “They had hand-raised her. She loved them, and they loved her, and they wanted her to have a better life.” Within weeks, she adds, the lynx cub will be spayed and de-clawed – both necessities. The Morrows are trying to provide a sanctuary for these animals, not breed them; and the wildcats have to be de-clawed as babies so that they can be handled safely later on. There’s no question of them ever being released into the wild: all of the animals at Wildcat Valley were born in captivity and couldn’t possibly survive on their own.

The difference in the cats’ personalities is fascinating. The lynxes, for instance, are very laid-back. They’re shy, they’re non-aggressive – and they’re totally different from their bobcat cousins,” Judy observes. “Sunshine has the beginnings of a good winter coat, but she sleeps with us every night. Saturday, I was the only one here, and she followed me all around like a little puppy dog.” Despite all the lynxes she has cared for, there’s still this sense of wonder in her voice when she describes how “Screamer’ll just lie there, legs apart, wanting her tummy rubbed, and I’ll tell people, ‘This is why they’re probably going extinct.’ Now, bobcats are funny. They’re characters – some people love ‘em – but they’re at the bottom of our lists as pets.”

The cougar remains their favorite wildcat, however. “It’s the most loving, the most bonding, and probably the potential for abuse is the greatest with them. People get them as six-pound blue-eyed spotted babies and don’t know what to do with them when they grow up. Some people find out that it’s illegal to have them [as pets] in their area. Some cougars end up on hunting ranches. Some are just euthanized.

“There’s really no place for them. Sanctuaries are filled up. Zoos don’t want them. At any given time, if anybody wants an adult cougar – and I wouldn’t direct just anybody to an adult cougar – there’s more than one who needs a home.” Problem is, it’s all too easy to buy one in the first place. You can, she explains, purchase a baby cougar for $400 to $500 – less than many purebred Cat Fanciers’ Association (CFA)-variety cats cost. “Who can resist? These people don’t have bad intentions. They just think with their hearts.”

What the Morrows are offering folks is an education about what these cats are really like. After a visit to Wildcat Valley, one woman told her, “You know, I have a lynx coat at home, and I will never wear it again.” Judy’s response? She congratulated the visitor and then suggested that she donate the coat to the sanctuary for an educational tool.

Sassy the cougar (who had already had the tips of her ears frozen off by the time she came to live with them in 1999) does her part for her kind, too, “put[ting] on quite a show with Jim. She just loves him. She purrs when he comes out and stops purring when he goes in. She’s small

—only 70 pounds – so she just jumps into his arms. And she’s leash-trained. Between her and Screamer and several of the others, people are just blown away. They just cannot believe that these ‘wild’ animals can act like that.”

Update: Sadly, Judy Penland Morrow died of cancer in July 2009. The last mention I found of Jim Morrow was in an April 2011 interview: at that time, he still owned six large cats, but he had transferred them to Spirit of the Hills Sanctuary in the Northern Hills for safe-keeping. He was having health issues of his own; and without Judy, he told the interviewer, his heart just wasn’t in Wildcat Valley anymore.
Still, for more than 20 years, they provided a haven for these beautiful frequently misunderstood wildcats. Judy and Jim, you done good.