06 September 2012

Channeling Dr. Doolittle

Indra teaching us how to communicate
Participants of the "Communicating with Animals" workshop at Indraloka Animal Sanctuary in Northeast Pennsylvania were given a list of questions to ask Duncan and Nugget, two 1500+ pound pigs who share a new home built for them by architecture students of Scranton's Marywood University.  Leading the workshop, sanctuary founder, Dr. Indra Lahiri, suggested questions that reminded me of Vanity Fair's Proust Questionnaire: Do you like your house? What is your favorite food?

Upon hearing answers fellow workshop participants elicited from Duncan and Nugget, I realized I misheard the final question. Instead of asking what the pigs wish we (meaning humans) knew, I asked them what they wished they knew.

"How to get in and out of my yard so I could go in to the barn and get food whenever I want without mom knowing," was the answer I got.

Okay. So it's not exactly a stretch imagining that two very large pigs would like the freedom of unsupervised access to food. And maybe my experience from attending one animal communications class doesn't qualify me as a pig whisperer. But for a few moments I felt as if I had connected with Duncan (or Nugget) and viewed life from his perspective. I saw him, a big grin spreading over his cherubic pink face, walking to the gate, unlatching it with his nose and sauntering into the barn where he opened lids of food containers and helped himself to corn on the cob and oats. I left the workshop feeling a sense of accomplishment.

Having lived with animals, mostly dogs, for virtually all of my life, I've been frequently baffled by some of their behavior. JuJu, my Lhasa-Poo, who loves going out for walks more than anything (even food) hides under my desk when he hears me pluck his leash from the closet. Why on earth would he do that? Why do I have to pull him out from under the desk every time even though once he's out he bounds toward the elevator, eager to hit the road? I still don't know the answer to that. But I bet there are a few workshop participants who would be able to find out.

Making it quite clear what he wants: a girlfriend!
When a woman who runs her own sanctuary, sheltering 30 dogs on her property, asked Izzy the Rottweiler how she arrived at Indraloka, she was told "in a blue truck." Tim, who is a contractor with a law degree, received a less prosaic response. "The hard way." Izzy told Jeanie, a young woman who described herself as extremely shy except when she's with animals, she arrived via a long, dark road and that it took hours to get there. Indra confirmed that she drove her blue truck far out into the country at night to rescue Izzy.

When my Shih Tzu, Jersey, was diagnosed with kidney failure three weeks after his brother and best friend Gus (a collie) died, I consulted a marriage and family therapist and recent graduate of the California Institute for Integral Studies, Heather King Singh, to help me communicate with Jersey. Heather had decided to focus her practice on companion animals. Initially, I was dubious, unsure Heather would be able to communicate any more effectively with Jersey than I did, but I was willing to try anything to get Jersey to eat, which he had not done since Gus died.

After meditating for about 10 minutes while Jersey sulked in the corner of her office, Heather told me Jersey wanted bananas.

"Bananas?" I scoffed. "Dogs don't eat bananas. Starving street dogs in India won't even eat bananas."

Heather returned to her meditation. "He wants bananas and pineapple." Heather was firm. "Jersey says if you give him bananas and pineapple he'd be willing to eat some of the food you want him to eat."

That afternoon Jersey ate for the first time in three weeks: a half a banana, a quarter cup of pineapple and a small jar of Gerber's chicken baby food mixed with white rice.

For the next two years, Jersey saw Heather weekly as he grew stronger and stronger, surprising his kidney specialist with his will to live. Each meeting with Heather turned into a bargaining session. "He'll agree to acupuncture if you let him play with ponies," Heather told me.

"Ponies? He won't even play with other dogs!"

"If you take him to see the ponies, he'll let you take him for acupuncture."

This, being San Francisco, where anything is possible, it just so happened that one of my neighbors spent his weekends driving pony-drawn carts. Jersey began biweekly trips to Whisper Equestrian Center in Watsonville, California, where, as a 17-pound, 12-year-old dog in kidney failure, he frolicked with ponies. The ponies' owner, Julie Mabie, looked on nervously.

But I wasn't worried at all. By then I'd grown to trust Heather implicitly.

I should have trusted her from the start. The first thing she told me upon meeting Jersey was that he loved his blue bed (Jersey's bed was indeed blue). When Heather came to our apartment, he gave her a tour. When he slipped under my desk and laid down, Heather began laughing. "Jersey just told me this is the place he's always getting kicked out of."

So true, with its tangle of wires and cords all precariously hooked up to heaps of office equipment, the only place in the apartment I didn't allow Jersey to lie down was under my desk.

When I was planning our trip to France, I consulted Heather to explain the process of getting from San Francisco to Antibes via flights to Houston, then Paris, then Nice. Is there anything I can do to make him more comfortable during the journey and during those times in France when he'd be alone while I was out?

"He wants you to bring his hot pink toy with you."

I racked my brain. Jersey had literally dozens of toys, but none of them were hot pink.

Heather went back to her meditation, which is how she connected with Jersey. She laughed. "Okay. He's says it's not exactly his pink toy and it's not exactly a toy. He wants you to bring the hot pink sweatshirt you always wear."

That sweatshirt, a gift from my friend C.J. five years before Jersey was born, was something I wore virtually every night. It was the most me thing I owned.

Jersey in Antibes, looking mighty healthy, non?
Three and a half years after meeting Heather, Jersey succumbed to kidney failure at age 14 and a half. He'd outlived his prognosis by three and a half years. His kidney specialist, Craig Maretzki, probably the most gifted veterinary internist on the planet, credited me with extending not just Jersey's life, but his quality of life as well.

But I know who the credit really goes to: his therapist, Heather Singh.

I'm not great at communicating with humans, so my hopes for communicating with animals are rather modest. Still, I know last Saturday I made a real connection with Duncan (or Nugget) and for that one moment I understood what he was thinking.

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