Just how much should one love animals? As much or more than people? If less, how much less? Is the love of animals equivalent to the love of humans; is it more or less selfish? These are questions I wanted to raise at a recent PEN book group forum at which three other writers (Dale Peck, Kathryn Harrison, Meg Wolitzer) and I were engaged in a discussion of two new books, one of which (Sue Miller’s While I Was Gone ) featured a thoughtful female veterinarian as a main character. At one point in the Sue Miller novel the vet is questioned about the degree of love and devotion animals inspire: Is it inappropriate and better reserved for humans? To which she replies, “Love is love wherever it lands.”
It’s a fascinating question to me, one raised as well by one of my favorite films of all time, Errol Morris’ Gates of Heaven , a brilliant, hilarious, yet loving documentary about rival pet cemeteries that is, I believe, a Lucretian meditation on the nature of love, all love–human and animal.
As I said, I wanted to delve into these questions at the PEN forum but nobody picked up the ball and ran with it so I will instead try to address them in the context of my own love for my cat, Stumpy.
I’ve tried to make it a rule to restrain myself from writing about my insanely intriguing and heroic cat, Stumpy, unless there is a genuine issue of world-historical importance and relevance involved to justify it. As there was, for instance, last time I wrote about him (“Stumpy Versus Lucille: The Great Pet Debate,” Aug. 10, 1998), when I felt it necessary to take on the myth of the superiority of dog-love (even the existence of dog-love) as exemplified in Caroline Knapp’s Pack of Two , a well-written but deeply deluded paean to her shameless flatterer dog Lucille.
It was a column in which I tried gently to disabuse dog owners of the fantasy that their fawning, slavering, suck-up animals really “loved” them in any authentic way (as opposed to loving food and security and knowing how to fake whimpering gratitude). A column in which I then made the case that the love of cats–well, of my cat, Stumpy–while less demonstrative, was much more discriminating and more highly to be valued.
I had been contemplating another column about Stumpy–reader response to the last one was terrific; when I visited Amazon.com’s headquarters in Seattle on my book tour last summer I found an editor there whose first question was not about my book ( Explaining Hitler ) but about Stumpy. And yet when I considered doing another column explaining Stumpy, I nonetheless felt that it would be important to link it to some relevant developing societal issue. Rather than what some (those who do not know Stumpy personally) might regard as a parochial, personal obsession.
The column I’d been considering had been prompted by my first-ever visit to the cat show at Madison Square Garden and the question of Stumpy-exceptionalism it raised. Was I in danger of becoming something I’ve always dreaded becoming, a “cat person”? Or am I rather less a cat person than a Stumpy person, with an affinity more to his unique excellences than to the breed in general?
My visit to the cat show suggested the latter. Frankly, cat people are–let’s say this in the kindest sense possible–somewhat doglike in their fawning attention to their cats–and Stumpy could have blown away the overfluffed felines on display there if he ever had any inclination to leave my apartment and enter the competition.
It’s true there was one remarkable development at the cat show: On the recommendation of a woman simpatico to Stumpy, I purchased a plump, velveteen, doughnut-shaped pillow that Stumpy has decided is the omphalos , the navel of the universe, from which he virtually has to be surgically removed. A place of utter ultimate enveloping security that (he has decided) makes all other activity, aside from eating Fancy Feast and occasionally warming his belly on the cable box, utterly irrelevant.
But as I say, extraordinary as this development is in the world of Stumpy aficionados (look for a full-color feature on him in the forthcoming Animal Fair magazine), I felt that to justify a Stumpy-centered column I would need to give it an issue-oriented dimension, and so I put in a call to the saintly Sara Whalen, the fiercely determined woman who founded Pets Alive, the Middletown, N.Y., sanctuary for wounded, ill and abandoned domestic animals.
I’d written about Sara Whalen and her work before (Dec. 2, 1996), and that column attracted significant support for her tireless efforts to give a home to pets whose owners have died or are too debilitated from illnesses like AIDS to care for them; to abused and sick animals who might otherwise be euthanized. It’s one of my proudest achievements as a columnist: A number of my readers have become important sustaining supporters of Sara Whalen’s noble crusade to give hurt and helpless creatures a loving sanctuary. (I suggest you stop reading for a moment now and send a check to Pets Alive, 363 Derby Road, Middletown, N.Y. 10940).
But when I called Sara this time, she had both a new crusade and a remarkable Stumpy-related rescue story! A story that I believe will add to the Stumpy legend, the Stumpy mystique. It seems that a couple weeks ago Sara got a frantic call from an animal shelter person in Ohio. A young beagle mother and her four newborn puppies were going to be “put down” unless a home was found for them in 12 hours. Sara was willing to take them in, but didn’t have a way to get them from Ohio to New York. She went on the Net, she told me, looking for help, and to her surprise she got a message from a woman named Liz Hecht who was traveling out West, but said she’d pay for a car to get the imperiled beagles to Sara’s sanctuary. Well, Sara recognized Liz Hecht’s name (and Liz Hecht recognized Sara’s name) from a previous column I’d written about both their organizations.
Liz is the founder of Citizens for Alternatives to Animal Labs, or CAAL, the Brooklyn-based group (96 Henry Street, Suite 6B, Brooklyn, N.Y. 11201, 718-630-9569) that has fought to stop local hospitals from using captured stray pets for what they believe are unnecessary and cruel medical demonstrations and experiments. CAAL has just won a landmark State Court of Appeals decision against the State University of New York to get Freedom Of Information access to the records of state-owned medical laboratories to insure that their animal suppliers don’t use pet theft (allegedly a widespread abuse in the medical research industry) to fill their quotas.
So Liz and Sara knew of each other’s work, and they each knew of Stumpy from my column, and together they saved those beagles from the executioner. But what Sara didn’t know was that Liz Hecht was the person who found Stumpy! The person who brought Stumpy into my life. Those familiar with the Stumpy legend might recall the riveting–and still mysterious–tale of his origins, the tale of the missing tail, how Stumpy got his name. How he was found by a cat rescuer, as he was wandering the Brooklyn waterfront with his tail bleeding, either bitten or cut off by some sinister figures Stumpy still, to this day, refuses to name. Stumpy has implied the incident was mob-related, although sometimes he’s hinted there were national security aspects to the matter as well.
In any case, the rescuer took him to a local vet who couldn’t save the tail (which had to be amputated, hence the name) and Stumpy was transferred to a local pet store window where Liz, a fiery redheaded cat rescuer, spotted him and felt that Stumpy’s own reddish coat would make him a perfect complement to another redhead she knew, me.
(By the way, I’m evolving a tentative theory that red-haired, orange or ginger cats are at least as special or idiosyncratic as red-haired people, a theory based in part on a conversation with a Puerto Rican deli guy from the Bronx who told me that in his neighborhood they call orange cats “mambo cats,” and ascribe voodoo powers to them.)
In any case, the Redheaded League of Liz, Stumpy and myself was formed, and Liz, who’s known cats far longer than I (I grew up with dogs and loved them; I just don’t respect them anymore is all) came to believe as I did that Stumpy had a special magnetism, a reticent charm whose power seemed to be magnified by the mystery and poignancy of his youthful tail-loss adventure. And by the subsequent discovery that the brave little guy had a congenital heart defect which initially looked life-threatening but which has been controlled for a dozen years now by twice-daily doses of heart medicine. A twice-daily pilling ritual Stumpy still resents bitterly that would prevent me from ever traveling anywhere if I wasn’t able to call upon the expert ministrations of my caring professional cat-sitter Faye Beckerman.
But in any case, it does seem that had Liz Hecht and Sara Whalen not been aware of each other from my Stumpy-inspired columns on both of them, that young beagle and her four puppies might not have lived to be rescued and cared for at Sara’s sanctuary. When I told Stumpy of his heroic life-saving role, he affected unconcern. They were only dogs, after all. But I think that deep down inside he was moved.
But now, before going on any further about Stumpy’s heroics, let me get to the New York issue that justifies this column. Sara Whalen’s involvement in the carriage horse controversy. Actually, before we get to the carriage horses, let me not forget to mention the Concord Hotel cats. Last fall, the sudden bankruptcy and abandonment of this famous old Catskills resort left nearly 200 cats, who once had kept the place rat-free, orphaned and vulnerable. Sara managed to rescue some 165 of them from the dead hotel, took them in at Pets Alive and cared for them. But unlike most of her “clients,” these are healthy and adoptable and Sara would like to find them new homes so she can focus her care on the most afflicted animals in her sanctuary (Anyone interested–I understand some of the cats can do excellent stand-up comic routines they learned from the Catskill comics–should call Sara at 914-386-9738.)
O.K., now for the more complicated carriage horse issue. Ever since my junior year at Yale, when a greedy carriage-horse driver took every cent I had by “offering” to extend the ride and making me fear looking cheap to my date snuggled beneath his itchy, smelly blanket, I’ve had it in for the horse-and-carriage racket and I’ve sympathized with the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals types and their celebrity spokesmen like Kim Basinger and Alec Baldwin who want to ban the carriage horse trade because of the cruel conditions under which the horses work. (Not long ago, one poor animal was electrocuted when the nails on his worn-down shoes connected with a Con Edison grid on the street.)
Sara Whalen doesn’t like the plight of carriage horses, either, but she doesn’t think it’s likely to be relieved by legislation in the foreseeable future. Meanwhile, she wants to do something for the suffering horses so they’re not sold off to the glue factory after their usefulness in extorting cash from misguided romantics has passed. So she has acquired 46 acres of land adjacent to the Pets Alive Sanctuary for a protected “Carriage Horse Heaven.” A place where retired beasts of burden will get to frolic in bucolic meadows far from the toxic carbon monoxide, the Con Ed electro-shock plates, and the humiliating plumage of their Central Park servitude.
No, it won’t end the suffering of the horses now in harness, but it will mean they have a future after it. I trust Sara’s instinct on this and urge you to support her attempt to raise funds for paddocks, sheds and veterinary care for the retired horses, and to make up for the cost of the acreage. She’s holding a fund-raiser shortly and both she and Pets Alive deserve support. (Those interested can call Pets Alive for tickets.)
And now, having paid my dues to the animal world at large (don’t forget Liz Hecht’s Citizens for Alternatives to Animal Labs), let me return to the mysteries of Stumpy, mysteries further elucidated by the doughnut, or “The Sacred Doughnut” as Stumpy’s come to call it. The mystery was deepened during a harrowing attempt to get a photograph of Stumpy in his doughnut for The Observer . You have to understand that for a week before the photo session, Stumpy virtually lived in his doughnut. When he curled up within its plush confines, his expression took on a transcendent serenity that the mystical phrase “the peace which passeth all understanding” can only begin to gesture at.
But when an Observer photographer arrived to capture this bliss on film, suddenly, Stumpy treated the doughnut as if it was radioactive. Three hours of coaxing and cajoling. Three hours of setting up lights and backdrops, the better to capture the Stumpy doughnut experience in all its glory, three hours during which Stumpy would defiantly walk up to the doughnut, settle himself down majestically next to the doughnut, but gaze in disdain at the imploring faces of the writer and photographer pleading for a momentary pose. Every once in a while, I’d pick him up and set him down in the doughnut, only to watch him decorously get up and step out before a single shot could be taken.
He wouldn’t resist being photographed elsewhere. As you can see from the first, non-doughnut pose, he was willing to be shot on the bed, for instance, with (you might note) the prone figure of his exhausted and defeated owner collapsed in the background. But consider the look of regal triumph on Stumpy’s face in that picture. I’m convinced there’s something more there than a mere contrarian disposition, more than a rejection of the superficial values of publicity and celebrity that a photo shoot represented.
No, more than the petty triumph over his owner’s pride, there is in his expression the calm serenity of a Zen master instructing a disciple in the Way of the Doughnut. The Way of the Doughnut is not straightforward. To understand the doughnut you must first understand the hole. You must experience emptiness, before you can feel fulfillment. It is a lesson I should have been prepared for. It was I, after all, who was the first to alert the world (in an Esquire piece, June 1997) that J.D. Salinger’s favorite junk food was none other than “doughnut holes.” Those little balls of dough that Dunkin’ Donuts will sell you sacks of in some locations. It was I, after all, who first explained in the pages of The Observer the answer to the unanswerable Zen koan–”What is the sound of one hand clapping?”–that is featured in the epigraph to Salinger’s Nine Stories . But not until Stumpy put me through the discipline of the doughnut, and I’d purged myself of all worldly desires, did he consider us worthy of photographing him in the doughnut. After we’d given up entirely, after he’d demonstrated that he wouldn’t enter the doughnut merely because we wanted him to, he stepped into the doughnut, curled up, ready for his close-up.
And it was in the course of that photo session that I had a moving intuition into what the doughnut meant to Stumpy. I’d known before he had a penchant for curling up in small enclosed spaces, somehow he’d managed to squeeze his vast Fancy Feast-fed bulk into ordinary shoe boxes in the past. It was, I suddenly realized, a reaction to the trauma of his childhood, to the cruelty of the world that produced the thuggish creatures, human or animal, who had cut off his tail.
His doughnut offered him enveloping security from the harsh world around him, where he could never know for sure he was truly safe. Of course, no one, even in a doughnut like Stumpy’s, in a world like ours can ever know they are truly safe, but Stumpy, in a deeply touching way, was trying to say that for the first time in his long eventful life he would allow himself the luxury of the illusion of security. For the first time he would let his guard down.
It was a deeply moving moment for me when, after that three-hour ordeal, after I had collapsed, he just walked over to that doughnut, stepped in, curled up and permitted himself to be captured on film.
I think it was because he knew I’d use this column not just to celebrate my cat, but to appeal for support for two heroic women, Sara Whalen and Liz Hecht, who have devoted themselves to rescuing the scared, lost and homeless animals out there, creatures in the desperate state Stumpy was in when he was rescued, creatures who deserve the doughnut of care that Sara and Liz have worked so hard to surround them with. Even those beagles from Ohio the Stumpy connection helped save. Even though they’re only dogs.