Many of you know that I have been incapacitated since mid-February. At first, the doc thought that my problems were respiratory– bronchitis and perhaps pneumonia, so he sent me to the ER.
My daughter met me there, and after I was finally admitted and assigned to a room, we noticed a couple walking two large therapy dogs down the hall. We invited them in. One animal was a Rhodesian Ridgeback and the other an Akita. It lifted my spirits just to have these animals near me. Nuzzling the furry ruff of the Akita and wrapping my arms around its neck brought me great pleasure. Of course, I know that when we pet an animal, our blood pressure goes down. Aside from the science, when embracing another living creature, it makes us realize that all’s right in the world, or more precisely, I was going to be all right. And eventually I was after surgery for unexpected two compression fractures of the spine and a one week stay in a rehabilitation facility.
Decades ago, I wrote a paper called “The Horse Bar Mitzvah,” that became a chapter in a veterinary medicine textbook.* I presented examples and analyses of the relationships between humans and animals in different settings: horse bar mitzvah; cat mitzvah; dog wedding; festivals honoring the human/animal bond, for example, Blessings of the Animals. In addition, I researched the role of service animals: therapy horses, war dogs, rescue dog, therapy dogs.
Since publication (2000), dogs have increasingly played a vital role in our culture, e.g., at airports, sniffing out the taboo garlic and sausages, as well as drugs. And since 9/11, new roles have developed especially at airports, with the focus on explosives and terrorism.
Human/animal relationships keep evolving. Comfort dogs is a new title given to animals that show up at scenes of disasters. I was moved seeing televised dogs disembarking from a van within 48 hours at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School after the school massacre in Parkland, Florida. Who could not be cheered by seeing these eager animals there to be stroked and embraced by traumatized children and staff?
New duties for dogs progress. Yale University has developed a program utilizing rescue dogs in New York low-income public schools. The dogs become reading buddies and foster social development. At my local university (NMSU), dogs are brought in at exam time to lower the distress students feel during this time of high anxiety. Courthouse Dogs allow specially trained service dogs to accompany children during testimony in a courtroom.
Since my return home from the hospitals, my cat, Sweetie Beattie, is never more than inches away from me. At first, I employed a caregiver to help me with pain issues during the night. Whenever, she came into the bedroom to take care of me, Sweetie Beattie lay at the foot of my bed skeptically eyeing all the caregiver’s movements. Or else she sat on the dresser warily watching the activities. During that time, I called her the Night Nurse for she acted as if she were supervising – definitely looking out for my interest.
As aloof as she may ordinarily be, Sweetie seems to sense that I need more of her attention now. Even as I am here at the keyboard, she is on top of my desk backed up against my computer, and with my extended pinky I can stroke the fur on her back. Can that compete with steroids and antibiotics? No, but she is a fantastic supplement.
Norine Dresser is a folklorist who is mad about her Sweetie Beattie.
*Companion Animals and Us:Exploring the Relationships Between People and Pets. Eds: Podberscek and Serpell. Cambridge University Press, UK., 2000.
Visit my online museum: Gallery of Folklore and Popular Culture, https://flpcgallery.org