Eleven years ago as I eagerly anticipated being a guide dog handler, it occurred to me that anticipating this dog felt a lot like what I imagine expecting mothers experience as they anticipate their baby. In the same way that the mom-to-be visits baby supply stores to select the crib, stroller, diapers, clothing and bottles, in July of 2008, I was visiting pet stores gathering dog supplies. The crate and leash were provided by Occupaws, the program that trained Gilbert, but I was asked to buy food and water bowls, dog food, grooming supplies and poop bags. I didn’t get to choose Gilbert’s name, but I loved this name and was glowing with joy as I told friends and teachers that my guide dog would be a boy named Gilbert!
I admit I was a little surprised when I went to the Jog For Guide Dogs fundraiser in May 2008 the event where I met Gilbert for the first time, and Gilbert’s puppy raisers introduced themselves as his foster parents. For a brief moment, this language seemed crazy and over-the-top, reminding me of the time Dad answered the phone when the humane society called to follow up on how things were going with Snickers, and how he was very polite on the phone, but I could tell he was rolling his eyes as he hung up the phone, remarking that “it was as if we had adopted a damn child.” My dad absolutely adored our German Shepherd Indy, who was fiercely loyal in return, and came to love Snickers, but he still has old-school attitudes toward pet ownership which influenced me. I hope I didn’t roll my eyes at the puppy raisers, as my parents say I am terrible at masking my emotions. If I did, and Gilbert’s puppy raisers ever read this, I apologize because it wasn’t long before I had fully embraced the modern language, and ideas about pet ownership. Now, I don’t even bat an eye when I read magazine articles about pets that refer to pet owners as pet parents, and in fact, I think such a term is very appropriate. Sure, being the parent of a human child is much different than being a pet parent, but there are quite a few similarities, and as I have written about before, pets are more than property. They may not be created in God’s image as humans are, but they are living creatures capable of love and emotion, and therefore should not be referred to as “it”, abused, bred irresponsibly for profit, or callously sold to the highest bidder. So I think using the term pet parent instead of pet owner is an excellent way to subtly remind readers that pets are more than property.
And because there are a striking number of similarities between being a pet parent, and the parent of a human child, with the adoption of our kitten Aslan in June, it has occurred to me that for people like me whose medical conditions, personality and life choices make the prospect of mothering a human child unlikely, pet parenting can mostly fill the void. Most of the time, I am perfectly content and accepting of the reality that it is unlikely I will mother a human child, at least in this life. But every now and then, something will trigger a maternal longing, and I will find myself seeking out articles about how medical intervention could possibly allow me to have a child, even with my condition, or articles about single mothers by choice, or articles discussing the advantages and legal challenges of using a surrogate mother. I have read a few articles about adoption too, although realistically, would any reputable adoption agency trust a single, totally blind woman with a child? I have heard that adoption agencies are reluctant to even place children with couples if one of the parents has a disability. Sometimes the triggering event will be hearing of a relative or close friend who just had a baby, or hearing stories from friends or coworkers about funny or beautiful moments with their children. Most recently, the event was turning 29 in March, which is almost 30! It caused me to reflect on life and wonder, am I making the most of it? Should I be trying a little harder to meet someone? When I am elderly, will I be lonely as was the case with our next-door neighbor when I was growing up? She and her husband never had kids and had a wonderful life together. By not having kids, they had time to be very involved in the church and community, and enjoy all kinds of fun social events. When he passed away, my parents, and some other church people would help her out with things like driving her to doctor appointments, and she had nieces and nephews that would pick her up on major holidays. But she was essentially alone in the world, and spent most of her remaining few years just sitting alone in her house. I have talked about this with my mom too, and she said I could make a point of finding community and making new friends, something this poor neighbor could have found by moving to an assisted living community, but she could not bare to leave the house, which her husband built. But I still wonder if a group of friends in an assisted living community, or nieces and nephews could really be an adequate substitute for the special bond with your own children. I don’t have any nieces or nephews yet, but my parents don’t see their nieces and nephews (my cousins) very often, and so while my parents seem close to their siblings because they grew up together, they don’t seem to have that close relationship with their nieces and nephews, and I really don’t have a close relationship with my aunts, uncles or cousins. Granted, all of our relatives live out of state, so maybe the dynamic would be different if they lived locally, but I imagine that even living locally, my aunts, uncles and cousins would still go about their own lives, prioritizing time with their own immediate families, and I still wouldn’t have that special, hard-to-put/into-words bond I have with my parents and siblings whom I grew up with and saw on a day-in, day-out basis. So if I outlive my siblings, which theoretically could happen since I am the youngest, I am sure one of my theoretical nieces or nephews I might have by then would come through in an emergency, and make sure I had a ride to major holiday gatherings, but I would basically be alone in the world with no one I was really close to. But I digress. Pets cannot fully fill the void of loneliness in old age of course, because you cannot engage them in real conversation, although another elderly neighbor who was alone in the world seemed much happier when she had a dog, perhaps because this dog was energetic and motivated her to go outside for walks every day where she could chat with neighbors. Neither can pets fill the void of human longing to pass on your values to the next generation. Sure, pet parents also get the reward of teaching their babies right from wrong, but only on a basic level. Pets can be trained to obey commands, and relieve themselves in a designated place. They can be trained to suppress some of their animal instincts like biting or digging. But you cannot have intellectual debates around the dinner table with them about religion and ethics, council them on how to handle a difficult situation at school that day, or discuss with them the pastor’s sermon on the drive home from church each week, activities I would love to experience in the parent role with children of my own. But perhaps because there are so many similarities between pet parenting and real parenting, I noticed that when I started preparing to bring home a kitten, I no longer felt the urge to read articles on fertility or parenting. For now at least, my maternal longing has been satisfied with Aslan.
Although Mom was fully in favor of adopting a kitten, and she would assist me with his care, one day around the dinner table, she said she was going to consider him my cat. As someone who enjoys dark humor, my first thought was to tell my parents this made sense. After all, if this cat lives as long as Snickers did, my parents will be in the nursing home, so I could eventually be the sole caregiver for this cat. To that they responded just for that they were going to make a point of living healthy and proving me wrong! What my parents meant by designating him my cat was that I would get to name him and pick out most of the cat supplies. (i didn’t have to buy a litter box because my sister told us we could keep the litter box she gave us when we cared for Kary last December.) Although preparing for Gilbert eleven years ago was also extremely exciting, and of course more significant a life event than preparing for a pet cat, in some ways preparing for the cat was even more fun.
To start with, Gilbert was already named. Fortunately I loved his name and wouldn’t have changed it even if I could have, but it was fun to be given the exclusive honor of naming this pet, which also gave me an idea of the excitement real parents feel as they have the exclusive honor of naming their children. In another fun conversation when I hadn’t fully decided on a name yet, my mom asked half-jokingly, “what about naming him Snickers II?” to which I made her laugh when I responded that I never did like that name. It was true. I compromised and went along with it because the rest of the family liked it. It wasn’t the pretty name like Shadow my sister and I wanted, but not as terrible as Miz Bojangles, the name my brother suggested. (I wonder where he came up with that name. I did a Google search to see if that was a movie character or something since I am not in tune with popular culture, but all that came up was some hair salon in Canada.) I also didn’t really know what cats were like. My family had a cat that died when I was around a year old, but of course I had no memory of this cat. So Snickers was really my first cat, and the more I got to know her, Snickers seemed just too cutesy and dumb for her sweet, but sassy personality. Fortunately, I didn’t have to utter it much because she did what she wanted, when she wanted and didn’t really respond to her name anyway. But I promised myself if I ever got to name a cat, I was going to choose a name befitting a cat, something with a majestic ring to it, or a name that conveyed attitude! Ultimately, I decided to go with Aslan, a name with a majestic ring to it. Aslan is the lion in the Chronicles Of Narnia series who represents God.
As a child, I only read the second book of the series, The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, I think because it was the only one available in Braille when I was the right age for this series, and I had no interest in listening to books on tape. In 2015, shortly after starting my job and getting my first credit card, I found and ordered the first book of the series from the Braille Superstore in Canada out of a desire for some nostalgia and outdoor reading material. (I don’t take my braille notetaker outdoors to read as that technology is so expensive it gives me anxiety). But now with Bookshare, I could download and read them all, so I don’t know why I haven’t because I loved the first two books. Maybe I will make that my goal this winter! Anyway, Aslan is portrayed as gentle and kind, but also mighty, someone to be respected. I thought that was a perfect name for my cat. In second place, only if the cat was a black female cat like Snickers of course, was Aretha, named after Aretha Franklin because if she was anything like Snickers, she would have a lot of soul and demand r-e-s-p-e-c-t!
The only problem that came up with this name was no one, including myself, was sure how to pronounce it. Was it As-Lan, or Oz-lahn, or maybe As-lahn? I had read the books in braille, but had not seen the movies, so I had never heard the name spoken, and the rest of my family wasn’t familiar with the books or the movie. My sister found some YouTube clips of the movie, but the name would go by so fast it was hard to catch how they pronounced it! It wasn’t until the Tuesday after his adoption that we came to a consensus that the pronunciation was As-lan. His nickname is The Lan Man!
Similar to a real parent, I also got a sense of the great fun, and great responsibility of selecting cat supplies, which I got to do with Gilbert to some extent, but with Aslan I had even more liberty. Occupaws told me what brand of food they wanted him to eat, and since I didn’t have my own credit card in 2008, and online shopping wasn’t even as ubiquitous then as it is today, I didn’t have the degree of independence that I had when selecting Aslan’s supplies. I had a lot of fun going to pet stores and deliberating over what to buy with Mom, and she gave me a lot of latitude to make my own decisions. But my decisions were limited to the inventory the brick-and-mortar pet stores had in stock, and while I can see where some blind people might prefer shopping with a sighted family member at brick-and-mortar stores, which have the advantage of allowing you to feel the item for yourself before you buy it, I personally have found that I feel better informed by reading the product description and customer reviews, as in most situations, a brief feel of a product doesn’t really tell you a whole lot compared to reviews from customers who have been using the product for awhile. For Aslan, the whole world of pet products was opened up to me between Amazon.com where I bought his carrier, and Chewy.com where I found everything else. (I would have bought the carrier on chewy.com too, but at the time I picked that out, which was the middle of April in case my sister and I found a kitten to adopt May 2, for some reason I had the impression that Chewy.com only carried pet food. It wasn’t until mid May when I created an account on Chewy.com to start researching the best kitten food for my baby that I discovered they carry everything!)
Snickers ate Purina Fancy Feast cat food, but when we adopted her, we were ignorant as to the ingredients used in many pet food brands. It wasn’t until around the time I was preparing for Gilbert that I started to hear about how many brands use animal bi-products, which have very little nutrition compared to real meat, as well as artificial colors and fillers like corn and soy. But just days after receiving Gilbert, Mom commented that Gilbert produced a lot less poop than Indy and Mojo used to, and she suspected the higher quality food was the reason for this. So Mom and I resolved to feed all of our dogs higher quality food, even if they are just pets. I was about to put Purina Fancy Feast in my Chewy.com cart for Aslan too, but noticed that this brand also used animal bi-products. I decided I wanted better for my kitten too. I found a great article from a cat rescue organization which recommended feeding cats a grain-free diet, and suggested several brands that used quality ingredients and no bi-products or fillers. I didn’t actually order Aslan’s food until June 2, the day after we brought him home. I didn’t want cat food sitting in the pantry for months where it could get stale, or chewed open by Gilbert if we didn’t find a kitten, and I knew the humane society would give us a bag of the food he had been eating because cats need to transition to new food gradually anyway. But by Memorial Day, I had decided my kitten deserved Wellness Complete Health kitten food. In addition to being free of bi-products and fillers, it was also highly recommended as one of the few brands that does not use carrageenan, an emulsifier with no nutritional value that can cause stomach upset. It was a little more expensive than Fancy Feast, but actually not by much, and in my journey to better personal health, I have come to a deeper appreciation of how nutritious food is essential for optimum health, and this informed my decision regarding Aslan’s food as well. Some may say it is silly how much money I spend on kitten food, but by spending a little more on high-quality food, I may have fewer vet bills in the future!
Mom decided to get rid of all Snickers’ old dishes because she said they looked worn. When she made this decision, we weren’t sure whether we would be cat parents again, but even if we did get another cat, she decided he/she deserved a fresh start with new dishes. So I got to pick out dishes as well. I was going to order the same type of standard little metal bowls Snickers used, but as I was scrolling through the different types of cat bowls on Chewy–i had no idea how many different options are out there–I discovered a brand called Petrageous Designs, which made ceramic dog and cat bowls that were touted as microwave safe and stylish. I didn’t need microwave safe bowls for Aslan, but it occurred to me that microwave safe dishes would be a time saver when feeding Gilbert. Gilbert has constipation issues now in his old age, and the vet recommended giving him a tablespoon of pureed pumpkin with each meal. To keep the pumpkin fresh, she recommended scooping dollops of pumpkin onto a tray with wax paper and freezing it to thaw as needed. Rather than having to remember to put out a pumpkin cube a few hours in advance to thaw in the fridge, I prefer to just thaw each cube a few seconds in the microwave, but the metal dishes Occupaws recommended are not microwave safe, so I had been microwaving the pumpkin on a separate plate and then scraping it into his dish, which wasn’t a big deal, but kind of an annoying extra step on hurried work mornings. So I bought two dog bowls for Gilbert, and then decided to look at this brand’s line of cat bowls just for the heck of it. All of their cat bowls were described as oval shaped, which I learned was a more comfortable shape for cats because it allowed them to eat without their whiskers getting into their food. And although I am blind and don’t know or care about style, with design names like Silly Kitty and Frisky Kitty, I imagined these would be cute bowls that the sighted folks would enjoy. So I bought four cat bowls from this brand as well, two with a 1-cup capacity, which has been a perfect size for his half can of moist food in the morning and evening, and two bowls with a 2-cup capacity which we usually use for water and dry food for him to snack as needed, until Gilbert steals it that is. (I’ll be talking more about that in the next post).
Even though as a blind person, my hearing is very in-tune, Snickers fooled me many times over her life, stealthily sneaking past me to sleep on my pillow which I was trying to keep her away from due to allergies, or darting outside when I didn’t realize she was standing by the door. But by the time it occurred to us that a collar with a bell would be nice, Snickers was full-grown and made it clear she would not put up with such an indignity. But I knew if I introduced Aslan to this collar right away as a kitten, he wouldn’t mind wearing it at all. After doing some research and finding that all pet experts recommend break-away collars that unbuckle if they get entangled in something while the cat is playing, I picked out a little red break-away collar, as well as a customized personal cat-shaped identification tag with his name and our phone number. I knew he would be microchipped as well, but figured an old-fashioned identification tag might lead to a more efficient return home should he escape.
Last but not least, after consulting with Mom to make sure we had space for it in our house, I splurged on a 5-foot tall cat tree with multiple perches, a cat condo he could crawl into for solitude, scratching posts and some mice that dangled from it on strings for him to bat at! (Actually, it wasn’t too bad a splurge, as I only paid $54 for it on Chewy.com, and my parents said the pet stores had smaller ones that weren’t near as nice and were charging more!) I saw cat trees like this on display in the pet store when I was ten years old and we were picking out supplies for Snickers, and it looked awesome! As a girl in my bible study group that meets at my house said out loud when she saw this tree in our living room, so at age ten I too was thinking, “If I were a cat, I would love something like that!” But my parents wouldn’t splurge on one then, and actually with five people living in the house back then, as well as some extra furniture we helped Grandma store for awhile, we really wouldn’t have had room for a cat tree. Snickers lived a full happy life without a cat tree, but I vowed that someday when I was grown up and had my own money, I was going to get one for my kitty! Mom and I put it together on the afternoon of Memorial Day, and then Mom took a picture of me sitting next to it, a picture which I posted on Facebook with the caption “Aslan is going to be one spoiled prince/princess!” With the presence of this cat tree in our living room, I felt an even deeper sense of anticipation, which is perhaps comparable to how human parents feel after putting together the crib. The investment of money and space for this piece of furniture made it even more official that we were about to welcome a furry bundle of joy! I could barely wait for the following weekend when my sister would come home for the occasion.