13 May 2011


     While labeling photographs with my mother and aunt, I came across a studio portrait of them as children.  A cute dog was smiling for the camera along with the children. Sparky was important enough to the family to be included in the portrait, but no one thought to put his name on the back of the photograph. After asking a few questions, I found that Sparky, like most of our pets, played a big part in the family's life.
     Have you included your pets in your family tree? Labeled them in your photos? Included stories about them in your collection of family tales?
      I am finding that it is hard to include pets in the genealogy computer programs. Instead, I have begun to write essays about them to keep with the other essays I am writing for my genealogy writing class.
     One woman in my class wrote a beautiful essay about how she sits and watches the wildlife in her backyard every morning while she has her coffee. She described the birds and squirrels, and even the wild turkeys that would attack her new car. While these creatures are not family pets, they are an important part of her life, and her stories will certainly be a treasure for her descendants.
     Don't forget to ask about family pets when you question family members for information. You will be surprised how a story about Fido the dog or Fifi the cat, or even Sam the turtle, can bring alive an ancestral family and reveal much about the family itself.
     I thought I would include an essay that I wrote for my genealogy writing class about Oscar, our cat. I hope you enjoy!

     All my life, I hated cats. Hated their hair all over the furniture, hated their claws, hated how they never came when called. Then one day over Christmas break, my daughter showed up with Oscar.
     Oscar was born in an automotive shop, one of a stray litter. The tiny ball of fluff with big pointy ears was not yet weaned, not yet taught by its mother what it means to be a cat. He was placed into a house full of crazy college students, not all of whom treated him very well. When Oscar came home to visit us over Christmas break, I could tell that he was a nervous wreck. Every sight, every sound scared the little guy. He hardly slept, and when he did, it was only after a half hour of sucking my thumb.
     So, I didn’t have the heart to send Oscar back, and he stayed home with us. But his behavior worsened as he grew. He scratched. He bit. Any time any sound or sight scared him, and the claws and teeth came out.
     I began to accumulate scratches and bits on my face and nose. I used up tubes of antibiotic ointments. My doctor gave me a tetanus shot. I took Oscar to a couple of vets, and both said that Oscar could not be helped and that most people would euthanize a cat like him. I just could not do it.
     One day, Oscar crept into the bedroom while I was napping. He jumped on my face and bit my eye (I think he was aiming for my nose, he had a fixation on biting noses). My eyelid was almost bitten through. My husband decided that Oscar had to be taken to the shelter, which was a death sentence because Oscar would not be placed in another home because of his biting history.
     I cried for hours that night.
     The next day, I called vets. I called animal psychologists at the University of Pennsylvania. I finally found a new vet, who agreed to see Oscar before we made the final decision to give him to a shelter. When I walked into the office, the vet and his assistant stared at me. I had a bruised and cut eye, cuts on my nose, and long scarlet scratches down both arms and covering both hands.
     “Lady,” the vet said, “I deal with cats all day long and I don’t look anywhere as bad as you do!”
     The vet thought there was one avenue of treatment left--Prozac. Hopefully,  year or so on drugs could give Oscar the time to grow out of his adolescent cat behaviors and help him to grow into an adult cat.
     So we tried the drug therapy. There were a few more months of scratches and bites, but the incidents grew less and less. After a year, we weaned him off of the drug.
     Oscar will never be a calm cat--there is no groomer in the area who will touch him, and even the vet will not examine him unless Oscar is anesthetized. He still loves to bite, but limits himself to a playful toe nip. He gives me a reassuring lick when he bites too hard. He is my constant companion--he never leaves my side when I am in the house. He is a loving feline snuggle bunny.
     So what has Oscar taught me? This valuable lesson: just when a cat or person seems beyond redemption, that just might be the point when a life can be turned around.
     I just hope that some of Oscar's "redeemed" nine lives are spent basking in the sun on the widowsill instead of chewing on my toes!