My Learned Beasts

(Author’s note: this is an older essay I wanted to include here. Neither Smudge nor Columbus are alive anymore, and eight years ago, I traded in my longtime loft on the Bowery–where this was written–for an old Victorian house in Orange County, New York).

My animals are getting a terrific education. I feed them all the fascinating biscuits of information I’ve learned and assimilated over five decades. Wholesome, statistically-weighted facts like: 18.5% of Americans get cremated, as opposed to 97% of the Japanese. Like, Finland has the second highest suicide rate in the world and their national dance is the Tango. I don’t know why they kill themselves over there, especially since the U.N. has twice now declared them the “happiest nation in the world”. It’s an interesting conundrum, thought I have to define that word when Smudge and Columbus tilt their heads in mutual puzzlement.

More than forty one million Americans own dogs, and more than twenty eight and a half million buy their dogs holiday gifts. Of course, I wait until my cat leaves the room to mention this statistic to Columbus, my border collie. The record of gifts for felines hasn’t been established yet, and Smudge will only get a hairball from the stress.

“Did you know…” (how I often start my dissertations to them), “That in 1846, there were ten thousand Jews living quietly here in New York?” (Although the thought of that many Jews living quietly is almost an oxymoron.) “But because they kept such low profiles, anti-semitism was almost nonexistent”.

Smudge is immediately disinterested. Neither people nor historical facts are his taste. “Did you know that Rome has the largest population of stray cats?” I add quickly. He looks back at me, cautiously. “They do: they have the run of the city, are protected under local laws and are fed by all the locals. And we’re talking more than 300,000 kitties”. Columbus groans, the idea of such a large feline community likely depresses him.

I realize it is not a helpful bit of news for Columbus’s sake. Already fully-entitled and vain, the statement seems to assure Smudge of global feline superiority. He jumps on the couch where Columbus has been and wheedles his way against his spine, until the dog is forced to leave.

I think of all animals as savants, possessing instincts and sensitivities beyond human ability. She is one of the most brilliant animal scientists of all times, but I don’t agree with Temple Grandin’s belief that one has to get away from words to understand an animal. I have always used language and speech as a connective device to the pets I have had; it is a particularly useful tool when working professionally with dogs. Their hearing is acute and their willingness to understand, immense.

My previous dog, a labrador retriever named Little Face, was nicknamed”Professor” by my circus teachers. Face possessed a human-like vocabulary, which I attributed to the fact that I spoke to him incessantly since he was three months old. Conversationally, I’d say things to him, but he quite understood key words. If I asked him to get something specific from the other room, he would accurately retrieve an object, even if it was something left randomly out of sight. When friends phoned, I would tell him afterwards who it was. For someone he was fond of, his reaction was immediate and graphic: anywhere from a tail wag to a bark. And I’m not alone in terms of the faith bestowed in how my dog thinks.

To create his famous work, The Ride of the Valkyries, the composer Richard Wagner sat his beloved Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, Peps, on a chair and performed sections of the work for him. Depending on the dog’s reactions, Wagner either kept or eliminated those passages.

A grey tabby cat named Nora, short for Leonora Carrington (a surrealist from the thirties whom I admire), learned how to play piano when she was just a year old, by listening and watching her owner teach the instrument at home. There are other cats who lived in the house, but Nora was the only pianist among them. She responded to the lessons she overheard being given and took to the keys herself one day. Various recordings of her concerts exist.

“Did you know…” I pose to Columbus, “Dogs have the same brain structures that produces emotions in humans”? He blinks. “And a cat’s brain structure is about 90% similar to humans.” He looks away.

The kitchen is the only room where my belief that my animals love my speeches, wavers. There it is clear that the prospect of being fed or given snacks rules. Columbus chooses to communicate from the doorway with Smudge wedged beside him. He’ll lift his whole head to stare at the top of the refrigerator where I keep the treats, then lower his gaze to look directly at me again. This will be repeated several times until I ultimately comply. If I offer him a tidbit, to be democratic, I have to offer Smudge something, as well. What astounded me was, the first time Smudge ever appeared in the doorway on his own, looked up at the fridge, then right at me, three times in rapid succession. The parody and his new learned behavior earned him my praise and a snack.

Smudge came to me via a neighbor who’d rescued him from the upper West Side during a storm. Alex already had two adult cats who didn’t take well to Smudge’s invasion of their pre-claimed palace.

“He’s a shy thing, as you can imagine”, Alex told me, “and hasn’t much of a personality”.

Obviously, Smudge had a low opinion of Alex and his terrorist roomies. I’d brought my dog along to make sure that he was comfortable with this orphaned feline. Smudge strolled up and beeped Columbus once with his nose, then looked directly at me. “O.K.” I said. “I’ll take him.”

No sooner had I let Smudge out of the carrier into my studio, he began an earnest inspection of the entire loft. Returning, he sat down in front of me, wacked a shadowing Columbus on the nose and proceeded to groom himself. The attitude and message was clear: “Yeah, I’ll stay awhile, and I guess I’ll let you guys stay too”.

The cat with “no personality” was decidedly half Groucho Marx (cynically funny) half Fidel Castro (dangerous and charming). My vet judged his age to be under two years and declared he would always be small, probably due to the rough start he’d experienced out on the streets. One year later, when I returned, we had a huge argument.

“This CAN’T be the same cat you brought in.”

“Of course it is. It’s the ONLY cat I have.”

“No, it’s not. This is a different cat”.”

“I’m telling you, this is the same exact cat, it’s Smudge.”

“I remember that cat. It was a little skinny thing. There is no way this cat went from six pounds to sixteen pounds in a year.”

I don’t think she ever believed me, and I chose another vet after that.

Smudge was anything BUT shy. He ruled our household like a Viking, examining every visitor who came and deciding whether they were worthy of his further attentions. He bossed Columbus terribly; yet the two would sleep back-to-back on the couch or sit facing each other companionably.

“Would you believe?” I’d query him, “That you were once a teeny thing?” He glared at me and turned away. He was not, even weighing in at sixteen pounds, ever obese. I just think he’d been much younger than the vet decided and simply filled in and reached his potential once he had a real home. Not quite a tuxedo; he was mostly all white, with a black yarmulke capping his head, a large black oval on his back and a namesake swipe of black down his nose.

Growing up in a chaotic Jewish household, overlapping voices and loud conversations were commonplace. My mother had a green thumb and a penchant for exotic growths, including the scrawny marijuana sprigs my brother brought home from his first year at college. She tsk-tsk’d at their puny appearance, not recognizing what kind of plant they were. By the time Robert returned to school at the end of the summer, she had nurtured and transformed them into four foot-high bushes of showcase pot. My brother was thrilled. he supported himself that year from the sale of organic joints reaped from her tree.

The practical element I inherited from my mother was her habit of talking to all her plants, sometimes even singing in French (one of only two songs she knew). She spent her time praising or complimenting them as she watered and fertilized their soil. Everything she laid a hand on bloomed and rooted in profuse colors, health and radiance.

Our household rarely held less than four dogs and fourteen cats, and my mother memorized all the animals’ names before us kids. She’d run through the entire list of their monikers before coming to mine. I was used to being addressed as, “HEY…Jennifer, Josephine, Fifi, Figaro, Snowball…”

“Did you know,” I ask Columbus, “That we had a beagle named Bagel and a mutt named Love who my brother refused to call in late at night?” (He did, I had told him that story before.)

Both my fur boys love music. I play mostly classical at home. Smudge prefers Mozart to Shostakovich (too sharply dramatic), and Chopin puts Columbus to sleep. Sometimes, we sit on the couch–the three of us–listening to concertos together.

“Did you know,” I say nostalgically, “I used to perform with philharmonic orchestras across the United States?”

They glance at each other with what I recognize as their, “Go ahead and let her ramble on about what she’s done. It makes her calmer and then she’ll offer us a snack.”

Clever little beasts.

Published by Humanity Tales

Mine has been a life defined by words, paint and performances. Having earned a BFA with Honors from Pratt Institute. I've exhibited and am collected globally; illustration clients include Warner Bros. Records and Henson Associates. A Russian-trained acrobat, I was a founding member of Big Apple Circus, Circus Smikus and Friendly Bros. Circus, and toured with ballet and theatre productions. Physical and visual arts taught me to be observant and writing journals have accompanied all my lifelong travels. From them, I have compiled my stories of life in NYC and on the road into a comprehensive narrative memoir. This blog represents separate compositions evoked by these recent difficult times.

4 thoughts on “My Learned Beasts

  1. Excellent! Love Little Face’s cameo. I’ll never forget him.

    On Tue, Feb 2, 2021 at 4:54 PM Humanity Tales by Karen E. Gersch wrote:

    > Humanity Tales posted: ” (Author’s note: this is an older essay I wanted > to include here. Neither Smudge nor Columbus are alive anymore, and eight > years ago, I traded in my longtime loft on the Bowery–where this was > written–for an old Victorian house in Orange County, New Yor” >

    Like

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