For Pets Sake

The only person I ever met or interviewed who wrote about dogs as a professional and didn’t own one or live with one was the late Walter Fletcher of the New York Times who for many years covered Westminster and all the important dog shows. I remember interviewing him on my radio show in New York City one Sunday morning, many years ago. He had just come out with a book entitled, “”My Times with Dogs,”” published by Howell Book House, back when it was a great dog book publishing company.

The book was laden with wonderful anecdotes about reporting dog shows for the Times with a lot about the Westminster show. I remember casually asking the most obvious of questions, one that I am asked all the time: “”And what kind of dog do you have, Walter?”” He said with all seriousness as though it were completely reasonable, “”Oh, I don’t own a dog.”” I was very surprised and followed up with, “”Well, what was the last breed you had?”” In a very nonchalant way he responded, “”I have never had a dog. I never wanted to own one. Not interested. I’m too busy for that.”” I think he then said something about his wife once having a dog.

My program was a call-in show for pet lovers called “”Vets and Pets”” and the phones lit up like a Christmas tree. I was sure that there were many upset dog lovers on the line. We were colleagues and for his sake, I did not take any calls, continued the interview, and let him discuss the book. I was amazed considering who he was and what he did for a living. I never understood it until I was more or less in the same situation. Of course, the difference is that I have had many dogs and cats throughout my life. Nevertheless, I have been petless for the past five years.

Those who know me know that I left behind a dog and a cat in my former life and kept putting off filling the void for reasons known only to me and my shrink. Then I fell seriously ill and that put it off for a couple more years. Well, it’s been quite a while since I’ve had little black foot marks across my sheets and I have had to admit to being without a dog or cat whenever asked, and believe me, I get asked a lot. I finally decided it was time to change all that, not because it’s important for my image as a dog and cat writer but because I live alone and frankly want, no strike that out, need the companionship and the comfort of having a little heartbeat next to mine. As one enters the transitional period from young to mature to “”You look wonderful,”” the thought of a furry dear one slowing down the pulse rate becomes very plausible.

So there I was last February, sitting at the press tables on the main floor of Madison Square Garden on the second night of the Westminster Dog Show, watching the last three group competitions and anticipating the thrilling Best In Show event. There was a lot of speculation on who the winner would be among my fellow dog writers. It was part of the enormous pleasure of being there. The seven group winners in contention for Best In Show were brilliant-looking and we all kept changing our choice every thirty seconds. I must say that I did seriously consider Josh, the Newfy, who did win, but then switched my choice several times and I cannot remember the breeds. I think I finally chose the Ibizan Hound. Wrong as usual.

In-between the group judging we chatted, we joked around, we slipped out for bottled water and hard candy. At one point, the discussion turned to my decision to get a pet. Everyone had an opinion. If you’ve ever been around people who write about dogs, and in some cases, are very involved with dogs as breeders, handlers, judges or trainers, there is enough opinionated expertise to make it sound like a seminar at M.I.T. They all chimed in and had what sounded like a committee meeting and were in the process of deciding for me what breed of dog would be best for my living conditions and my state of health, which has been impaired since my illness. These good friends, for whom I have great affection and for whom I have the greatest respect, were more or less preempting me and talking about this as if I were a character in a novel by Dickens and not really there. So there I was, the Oliver Twist of the dog world, trying to get a word in edgewise at the press tables. I had the image of myself as Oliver holding his bowl up asking, “”Please sir, I’d like some more.””

I mentioned that I was very interested in the Cardigan Welsh Corgi and that I knew one of the great Corgi breeders who would set me up just fine. I was informed by this most distinguished panel that although it was a great breed that it would possibly be too heavy for me to carry up the stairs to the entrance of my building should I get sick again and that I should consider a smaller, lighter dog. Before I could answer, with my mouth wide open and before a word could get out, they all agreed that the Corgi was out of the question for me. Someone suggested a Pug but that was struck down by a member of the committee saying that it was not a masculine enough breed for someone like me (I am paraphrasing here) and just a bit too Greenwich Village. There was disagreement and a lively debate about this. I began to stare up at the thousands seated in the stands with my eyes rolling toward the back of my head and sipped away on my Polish Springs which was generously provided by the “”committee.””

Among the breeds they considered for me were the Dachshund for size, the English Setter for calmness, a rescued Greyhound for its gentleness, a Maltese for its elegance, a Papillon for the hell of it, a Saluki for its temperament, and a Silky Terrier for its loving nature. Someone jokingly suggested a Fila Brasileiro, a giant breed that was part Mastif and part Bloodhound and a lot of dog for even the most vigorous and experienced dog person. Just before Josh won Best In Show they reached a decision. The committee of friends decided I should get a Tibetan Spaniel which was actually a well-thought out choice. It was an alert breed that likes everyone. They are easygoing, very trainable with a nice doggy look with a silky, medium-length coat with some daily brushing required. They weigh between ten and fifteen pounds and are very easy to lift when necessary. It is a hardy breed with an even temperament. They are ideal for me.

So what did I do? I got a cat. A 13-month-old Devon Rex now roams around my apartment, tracks up my cream-colored couch cover and wants cooked chicken breast in exchange for letting me near her. Her name is Camille and I’m finally in love again. In a few weeks I’ll be wondering how I got along without her all this time. For pets sake, you know how it is.

Mordecai Siegal’s next book is, “”THE CAT FANCIERS’ ASSOCIATION COMPLETE CAT BOOK. The Official Publication of the CFA”” published by HarperCollins. It will be in book stores everywhere in September, 2004. This reference book will be the equivalent of the AKC’s Complete Dog Book. His most recent book is “”The Good Life: Your Dog’s First Year (Simon and Schuster). His most durable books are “”Good Dog, Bad Dog (Henry Holt,)”” “”When Good Dogs Do Bad Things (Little, Brown,)”” the 10th Anniversary Revised Edition of “”I Just Got A Puppy. What Do I Do? (Simon & Schuster)”” “”The Cornell Book of Cats (Villard),”” “”The Davis Book of Dogs (HarperCollins),”” He is President Emeritus of the Dog Writers Association of America and a founding member of The Cat Writers Association.


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