How I Became an ‘Emotional Support Human’ for Three Furry Critters
This story is part of the CelebrEighty Series written by Judy Katz… An impressive 65% of American households currently have a pet—primarily dogs—but also cats, birds, and other creatures. There are significant psychological and physical benefits to sharing your life with a four-legged creature. “Animals can help reduce stress, lower blood pressure, and increase social interaction and physical activity,” according to Barbara Ballinger, in an article on the topic in www.agingcare.com I am here to give you another perspective from my experience: the benefits we get as a pet’s “emotional support human”—especially as older adults adopting older animals.
In my Upper West Side neighborhood, you see signs that say “No Pets Allowed. Service Animals Welcomed.” on the front doors of restaurants, supermarkets, or in the windows of retail shops. Service animals, eh? Walking inside, one would expect to run into (not literally, of course) seeing-eye dogs guiding their visually-challenged person. But no. While you might sometimes see such a pair, it is rare. In those stores that ban pets, what you run into around every corner (and in restaurants under every other table or on every other lap) is a fuzzy Pomeranian or Mini-Poodle or Bernadoodle with their “emotionally challenged” human.
Speaking of challenges, at least in these neighborhoods and these days, people who enter these establishments with their dogs—and a few cats or, in one case, a ferret—are seldom challenged by managers or employees. Most of them can produce a certificate attesting to their dog’s supportive status or say they left it home. Such certificates are easy to purchase online. All you need is around $99 and, in some cases, a psychologist or psychiatrist willing to sign off.
Frankly, I’m all in favor of allowing dogs into supermarkets and sidewalk cafes. I think inside restaurants is a bridge too far—not for me but for those who are allergic, fearful, or plain don’t want dogs inside. I often walk my dogs past a store I would like to go into on impulse but would never tie them up outside. Aside from weather issues, there are dog-napping issues—let’s not even go there.
Some people think pets should be banned everywhere, citing those who don’t pick up after their dogs. I resent those people, though I sure agree about the pathetic lack of pickup by some. But a few bad apples don’t spoil the bunch. To me, dogs humanize the city. I would never live in anything but a pet-friendly building or neighborhood, even if I did not have three small creatures that very obviously view me as their Emotional Support Human.
Let’s begin with my newest fur “boss,” Lia. She was taken from a supposedly bad situation in Puerto Rico. Details are sketchy, and she’s not talking. Her rescue group, loveofalldogs.com was one of several organizations I contacted after my beloved Sophie died of cancer at age ten and a half. The fantastic animal advocate and rescuer Nydia told me they had an eight-year-old Chihuahua that needed fostering till they could find her a forever home. The volunteers arrived in front of my building three weeks later at midnight with a tiny bundle of quivering fur. I reached out for her, and she stared into my eyes. I guess she liked whatever it was she saw because then she proceeded to lick my hand and any unexposed skin she could reach. That night, after peeing on a Wee-wee pad, she went into the bedroom, climbed up the four carpeted stairs, and looked back at me. Her experience was clearly: What are you waiting for? Lia has slept under my armpit for the past three months.
After three husbands, followed by several devoted boyfriends, I can tell you honestly that no one has ever looked at me with such admiration, such goo-goo eyes, as Lia. Wherever I am—there she is. It’s a bit disconcerting to be behind the stall shower glass door, look down, and discover a tiny beige dog with huge brown eyes staring at you like you are a goddess that just landed on earth.
My fur companions know they own me. I have never eaten an entire hamburger or a whole piece of cheese for that matter. All three of my fur creatures let me know with their barks, meows, stares and body language that what’s in their dish and what’s on my plate is theirs. How dare I not share!
Bindy was flown here from Dead Dog Beach in Puerto Rico by the remarkable animal “patron saint” Chrissy Beckles and her fantastic team at The Sato Project. Bindy is also eight years old, but she’s been with me for four years. She’s more standoffish than Lia but gets her licks in. Bindy’s love is subtle, but she is fully aware that she owns me. Lightning and thunder terrify her—I can only guess what her life was like on that dreadful beach, where thousands of dogs are abandoned or born into intense hardships each day, week, month, and year. So far, Chrissy has rescued 6,000 dogs and puppies. There are half a million more dogs still there. Bindy is one of the lucky ones. Still, she has canine PTSD, and I am there for her to hide behind or hold and conform to when loud noises or other phenomena trigger.
The day I went to Costco on E 117th Street and the East River to grocery shop with my daughter Heather and assistant Layla, we stopped first in the PetSmart in the basement to shop for a birthday gift for Heather’s dog Dakota. I wandered into the back of the store. I sure wasn’t looking for a cat. But I suddenly stopped in front of a small case. In it, barely able to move around because it was so small and cramped, with a kitty litter box that took up most of the space, was the most beautiful cat I had ever seen. Raina was snow white and had bright emerald eyes, and when she saw me looking in at her, she let out a sad meow.
There was nothing I could do that day, but after a sleepless night I called the manager at PetSmart the next day. I asked him to transfer that cat to a larger cage. He said I should speak to the woman who brought her in for adoption. Two nights later, Raina arrived at my apartment. I had only agreed to foster the cat. No way could I have a cat—though I love cats and have had several over the years, including Seal point Siamese and domestic shorthairs. I was now a “dog parent,” and two was enough. Plus, I had no idea how we would all get along.
Raina, as I said, was gorgeous, young, and healthy—but no one was adopting her. I soon found out why. Some cats—most cats—purr for you. Sit in your lap. Give you a few little tongue kisses. Raina would as just soon scratch and bite you, and she has never purred. Not once, and we’re going on our third year together. She terrorizes both dogs, and Lia is much to blame: it’s been a war between the two when Lia joined us. But Raina stays—and I may be dreaming, but they seem to be less aggressive these days.
Raina has chosen me as her person. She continues to be a biting, scratching, hissy type of cat, but her love is palatable—and so is her need for my emotional support. She used to sleep at the foot of my bed. Lia took over the entire bed, so now Raina sleeps in a cozy dog/cat bed on the floor next to the bed. She also follows me from room to room. She’s a brilliant cat. When she wants breakfast, she wakes me up every morning lately by coming to the side of the bed and reaching up to tap me on the leg. I kid you not. And if I don’t react fast enough, she goes into the kitchen and starts throwing vitamin bottles on the floor. I never yell at her. I pick them up, put them back, and feed her. If she doesn’t like what I feed her on a particular morning or night, she pretends to be buying it and keeps on with the charade till I open a different can of food, and she gives it a triumphant little “humph” of approval.
I put up with Raina’s shenanigans because I love her and feel bad for her that she doesn’t have another of her species, while the dogs have each other and spend hours grooming each other on the couch when I’m on there.
Oh wait—I don’t have one of my species to cuddle up to either and “groom” at this point in my life. Fortunately, I get a lot of satisfaction from providing emotional support to Raina and all three of my little furry ones. I’m not sure who rescued whom. Let’s call it a draw.
Are you emotionally supporting a four-legged critter these days?