Meet GeriJoy. He’s a virtual dog. He’s a talking dog. He’s even described as “a compassionate” dog.
He was developed by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to be an interactive companion for older people with dementia or memory problems, serving to provide what his makers call “continual stimulation.”
But there’s something about GeriJoy, noble as the idea may be, that I find a little bit patronizing, a little bit insulting, and highly phony. His creation also seems an awfully circuitous and robotic route to take to provide a virtual experience with an animated creature when the real thing is so abundantly available.
Clearly, I’m cynical, or at least wary, when it comes to technology — and perhaps more. It was only yesterday, after all, that I cruelly bashed soft and fuzzy stuffed animals.
Despite that, techno-wizards keep trying, intent, it seems, on trying to capture a no-shed, no-drool, no bark, no worries version of dog — be it stuffed, virtual, or mechanical — and then convince you that their inanimate, or animated, object will love you unconditionally forever.
The truth is, close as they might come — and cloning probably comes closest — they never will. Ha ha. Take that.
If GeriJoy, the virtual dog, is making some old person happy, even if it’s a delusional kind of happy, we’re all for it. If it’s being used as a substitute for human attention, we’re not. With all the growth in and demands on senior services and facilities for the elderly, there’s a tendency to look for quick and easy shortcuts, when the keys to doing job right are already obvious — caring staff, ample staff, staff with hearts.
And maybe some dogs — real dogs.
What I’d rather see is not a nursing home where dozens of residents are lined up in wheelchairs, stroking animated images on their hand held devices, but one that’s taking advantage of programs — or even creating some — in which dog ownership among residents is encouraged, and assistance with those dogs is provided; ones where dogs live under communal ownership, or short of that, therapy dogs visit regularly; one that’s investing in building a qualified and caring staff, as opposed to investing in devices that substitute for real human, or dog, contact.
Here’s how the GeriJoy website touts the product: “Have an older loved one who is lonely and suffers from dementia or geriatric depression? GeriJoy can help. We provide talking pets that are intelligent, compassionate, and available 24/7 to talk about anything, including photos and updates from family.”
The virtual dog can be displayed on a computer or other Internet-connected device. The virtual dog, the website claims, ”provides all the availability and unconditional love of an adorable pet, combined with the ability to talk with true intelligence and compassion … It’s as if it lives inside a picture frame, so you get the benefits of pet therapy without any smells, allergies, cleaning up, bites, or food and veterinary bills.”
The virtual dog can provide around the clock stimulation, his developers say, and, in the video snippet above, GeriJoy certainly sounds stimulating, or stimulated, almost orgasmically so. “Oh, you’re so good,” GeriJoy coos as an elderly man strokes the image on the screen.
We’re not sure if that’s what GeriJoy told the Senate Special Committee on Aging’s Healthy Aging Forum this month when he appeared before it. He’ll also be on exhibit at the AARP Health Innovation@50+ Tech Expo on May 31 at the Las Vegas Convention Center, according to the AARP blog.
To get GeriJoy, one must subscribe, and pay from $99 to $129 a month. The hardware costs up to $349 for the most sophisticated, Internet-connected version.
GeriJoy was co-founded by Victor Wang, a former Canadian Army officer who did research on human-machine interaction for NASA while at MIT. He says he was inspired to develop the virtual dog by his grandmother in Taiwan, who became depressed while she was living alone.
Wang says GeriJoy can even serve as a watchdog. In one case, a user’s human caregiver was being verbally abusive, and GeriJoy “contacted the user’s daughter to let her know about it.”
“Whatever your loved one wants to know, the companion can find out and report back,” the website says. “It can send and receive messages and photos between you and your loved one, also via the Internet. All this is done through the intuitive metaphor of a talking dog. Your loved one doesn’t even need to know what a computer is.”
We don’t care if the day comes when a virtual dog can cook dinner, push a wheelchair, administer medications or help you understand your health insurance.
A real dog is better — even with his shedding and drooling. Real dogs bring one into, and keep one in, the moment. Real dogs can help you keep a grip on reality, as opposed to pulling you into fantasy land. And real dogs offer a true form of love and validation — even if they can’t say, at least with words, “Oh, you are so good.”
Posted by jwoestendiek May 24th, 2013 under Muttsblog, videos.
Tags: aarp, aging, animals, animated, app, assisted living, computer, dementia, dog, dogs, elderly, gerijoy, health, image, internet, memory, mit, nursing homes, pets, talking, technology, unconditional love, virtual, virtual dog
For as long as it keeps ticking, and however strong the attachments it already has are, it’s capable of finding new things to adore.
Which brings us to this sordid tale — one that is also partly uplifting, and, if you want to be all technical about it, also partly shoplifting.
My dog Ace has always been No. 1 in the eyes of my father, a lifelong dog-lover.
My dad was able to quickly detect what a special beast Ace truly is. Watching them snuggle on his couch when we visited always made my insides glow.
For years now, the first thing my father asks when he calls has always been, “How’s Ace?” The first thing he asked me when he came out of a coma, that followed a heart attack, that followed some stomach surgery, was “How’s Ace?” When I visited him in Arizona a few months ago, without Ace, the first thing he asked was, “Where’s Ace?”
Since his lengthy hospitalization, my dad has mostly resided in a skilled nursing facility in Mesa, where, at one point, he was having physical therapy sessions with a dog named Henry, who belongs to one of the therapists. While those sessions are no longer part of his daily regimen, he still sees Henry — full name Henry Higgins — regularly, and apparently they’ve grown quite attached.
According to my sources, after dinner one night last week, my father rolled into the therapy gym unnoticed and snuck off with a photo of Henry that hangs there, planning on taking it back to his sparsely furnished room. It was reportedly his second attempt to steal the framed photo. After getting caught the first time, rolling along the hallway with the picture in his lap, he stuffed it under his shirt the second time.
I found this news upsetting — not because my father was engaging in larcenous behavior, but because I’ve done my best to keep Ace first and foremost in his mind. I’ve made sure his room had a “Travels with Ace” calendar. For his birthday, I sent him a sweatshirt with a giant photo of Ace emblazoned on the front. I’ve supplied him — even though my father’s not doing any traveling — with an Ace travel mug.
For some reason, whatever else he forgets, even temporarily, I want him to remember Ace eternally.
I realize it is petty jealousy, and that it’s likely limited to me. Ace, in all probability, wouldn’t mind a bit that my father has another dog to entertain, comfort, calm, console and warm him.
And in truth, I am far more grateful than I am jealous when it comes to Henry, who I got to meet when I visited, and who is pretty special and wonderful himself.
On my dad’s 89th birthday, Henry was there; Ace and I weren’t.
I can understand my dad being smitten with Henry, and I’m glad he is. Dogs and love, if you ask me, are among the top five reasons to go on living. (The other three are books, music and pizza.)
It makes me want to get Ace — not to mention myself — out there for another visit.
Once he was confronted — when he was noticed, after the second attempted theft, with a bulge under his Maui t-shirt — my father confessed and revealed his ill-gotten bootie.
No charges were filed.
And the framed photo of Henry, according to Henry’s owner, will be placed in a new location:
My father’s room.
Posted by jwoestendiek April 22nd, 2013 under Muttsblog.
Tags: ace, aging, animals, bill woestendiek, dog, dogs, elderly, henry, henry higgins, jealousy, love triangle, mesa, nursing, pets, photo, physical therapy, stolen, therapy, therapy dog, william woestendiek
Today is my father’s 89th birthday and, while he’s spending it in a skilled nursing facility in Arizona, I expect he’ll see a friendly face or two, at least one of them canine.
Therapy dog Henry Higgins, who belongs to one of the physical therapists at Mission Palms, has formed a pretty close friendship with my dad — to the extent that my dog Ace, were he aware of it, would probably be jealous.
The closest we could come to a real visit from Ace was putting his image on the front of the sweatshirt that my father will be getting — probably a few days late – for his birthday.
But until he has Ace on his chest to wear on his chest it appears — at least from these pictures Henry’s owner sent me — he’ll have Henry to bring a smile to his face.
And, even though I’m thousands of miles away, and it’s not my birthday, mine, too.
(Photos: By Cristina Higgins)
Posted by jwoestendiek March 14th, 2013 under Muttsblog.
Tags: aging, animals, assisted living, bill woestendiek, birthday, dog, dogs, elderly, happy birthday, henry, henry higgins, mission palms, pets, skilled nursing, therapy dogs, woestendiek
If there’s anything Ace and I enjoy more than sitting on the beach, it would be sitting on the beach and eating a sandwich.
But don’t go jumping to any conclusions.
The beach is where we have been since Friday — and where we still are, a good day after we were supposed to leave.
Extracting ourselves from the beach is always hard. It’s as difficult as trying to get the sand out of your swimsuit. No matter how much you rinse, a little always lingers, then falls out once you get home and unpack, as if to to remind you of your good times, and that you need to vacuum.
This, as best as I can recall, is our fourth visit to the reunion of University of North Carolina college buddies that my friends in Wilmington host at their beach house every year. Most of us were members of the class of ’75. We reminisce, update each other on what’s been going on in our lives, eat heartily, drink some, sing, dance, act silly and play in the ocean.
I have to to say most of them seem to be holding up quite well — even though we’re all nearing 60.
At 60, or even 59, which I will turn next month, it’s more important than ever — and a far bigger battle — to stay in shape.
Between watching the Olympics and sitting on the shore, I’m seeing — not ogling, mind you, just seeing — a lot of young, tanned and toned bodies, all of which serve to reinforce that point. Exercise is vital and should be part of your daily regimen. I may try it some day.
We’ve had a few walks on the beach, and I did engage in one strenuous ping pong match, beating my opponent handily, but the beach to me has always been about relaxing, and I am very good at that.
The other night, we broke out the guitars and played some songs. As our host thumbed through the pages of a songbook, naming songs, she came upon “When I’m 64,” by the Beatles.
“Wow,” she commented. “We’re almost there.”
We skipped singing that one.
I remember how old 64 sounded when that song came out — truly ancient. One that age is bound to be decrepit. But I have a feeling, when it comes to this particular group, they’ll cruise right through that year, and still be reflecting the kid that, thankfully, seems to remain inside each of them (some more than others).
My plan is to come every year, and — if they still need me, if they’ll still feed me –especially that year.
Perhaps by then I’ll be in shape.
(Disclaimer: That is not my sandwich in the photo above. That’s not my body, either. But that is my dog.)
Posted by jwoestendiek August 6th, 2012 under Muttsblog.
Tags: ace, aging, animals, beach, bodies, dogs, fit, friends, health, north carolina, olympics, pets, reunion, sandwich, toned, travels with ace, university of north carolina, when i'm 64, wilmington
Leo fell into a Dumpster and couldn’t get out.
An aging Australian cattle dog mix, Leo apparently climbed a ramp attached to a large Dumpster and, when no one was looking, either jumped or fell in.
Barbara Grabell and her husband George Anderson searched high and low for Leo after he disappeared from their ranch in Alfalfa, Oregon.
“I thought he – sometimes, they just go off to die privately. I was walking the property, looking under trees, the sagebrush,” Grabell told KTVZ.
Grabell said she walked over to the nearby trash transfer station and looked in the 9-foot-tall Dumpster, which has a ramp that allows residents to more easily dump their garbage. It was about two-thirds full of garbage by then, but she didn’t see Leo. She shouted his name, but he’s hard of hearing.
Four days after Leo disappeared, the Dumpster was picked up for the trip to the Knott Landfill in Bend.
There, Paul Decker, a driver for Bend Garbage and Recycling, was watching its contents pour out when he saw, amid the trash, a dog — dazed and confused but alive, apparently having survived on a diet of garbage.
The dog was taken to the Humane Society of Central Oregon, which Grabell had called earlier to report Leo missing. They notified her he’d been found. She picked up Leo, took him to a vet to be checked out, and then back home.
“He’s home and he’s resting comfortably,” she said Saturday night. “I’m so thankful and relieved, you have no idea.”
Posted by jwoestendiek March 12th, 2012 under Muttsblog.
Tags: aging, alfalfa, alive, animals, australian cattle dog, barbara grabell, bend garbage and recycling, bin, climbed, disappeared, dog, dogs, dumped, dumpster, fell, garbage, humane society of central oregon, jumped, landfill, leo, lost, mix, old, oregon, paul decker, pets, survival, survived, trash, trash bin
Are we old yet?
Sure, age is just a number; sure, it’s relative; sure, you’re as young as you feel, and all those other clichés that, when applied liberally, work much like salve on dry and wrinkly skin.
But feel-good truisms aside – those truisms are, after all, nothing more than Botox for the brain (and generally not true, either) — the answer is yes, we are. I may do all in my power not to act like it in public, and not to admit it, often, to myself, but old age is not-so slowly and ever-so-slyly creeping up on us.
During our year of travels across America, Ace and I became the same age. For six years, he was the youngster and I the elder. Then he caught up, as dogs do, and while I stayed 57, he passed me – at least according to the mathematical formula we’re basing all this on.
I don’t need math to know I’m getting old. There are reminders everyday – like the day I tried to open the front door of my apartment by pointing my car key at it and pushing the unlock button, like the day I put Preparation H on my toothbrush, like all those times I’ve been enjoying the smell of coffee brewing only to realize I neglected to place the pot in the machine.
On top of these golden moments of mental lapse, on top of the physiological ones, such as hills, or stairs, that magically get steeper each time you go up them, there are visual reminders, too, and they may be the most painful of all – those mirror moments when your generous perception of yourself and harsh reality collide.
A couple of weeks ago, driving down the interstate with my son, I saw a truly hideous sight. My window was open; my left arm – you remember my left arm – was resting on it, forming an “L,” my hand on the roof.
Did you ever see your grandma, in a sleeveless outfit, screw in a light bulb? Remember how the underside of her upper arm, that pasty part that never gets any sun, became something of a kinetic miracle — excess skin in perpetual motion, like a slowly swinging hammock, or perhaps a pendulum would be a better analogy?
This was worse than that.
When Ace sticks his head out the window, the effect is something like a facelift — his loose skin is pushed back, giving him that tightened-up look, like Joan Rivers has. The same cannot be said of my arm.
The wind, at 65 miles per hour, was not just sending my skin to flapping, almost audibly, but transforming my arm into an entirely different shape, stretching it out like Silly Putty and yet, at the same time, accentuating all the leathery wrinkles that I’d never noticed before. It seemed an alien appendage. I stared at it in something close to horror. “Look what’s happening to my arm,” I told my son. “Let’s turn the air conditioner on.” (It occurred to me my left arm would be less flabby if we still had roll-up windows.)
If you’ve been following the continuing adventures of Marshmallow Man and Wonder Dog, as we’re thinking of renaming our saga, you know that Ace is six, going on seven and that, in recent months, he has been slowed by some back troubles. He seems to have gotten over them, though he’s still using the ramp to get into the back of the car. (That’s him in the first three photos, young Ace on the top left, current Ace on the top right; these others are other old dogs I have known and loved.)
You know that I am a not-particularly-buff, not-particularly-health-conscious 57 — about the same age John Steinbeck was when he set off on his trip across America with his poodle, Charley.
You may realize, too, that Travels with Ace has been — in addition to a modern-day retracing of Steinbeck’s route, in addition to a search for dog friendliness and human friendliness, in addition to seeking out America’s dog-loving soul — a quest for identity. (At least for me; Ace seems comfortable with his.)
Being a newspaper reporter without a newspaper, an author whose book was finished, a workaholic without work, I think that, in addition to showing my dog a good time, I was trying to find my new self. My old self – a newspaper reporter, for 34 years – was gone, ever since I left my last job in 2008, departing an industry that was sickly, desperately searching for a cure and not aging gracefully at all.
I left to write a book and, even though it has been published, I have trouble proclaiming myself an author. Maybe you’re not an author until you’ve written two books. “Rambling Man” was a great identity, and a great time, but it doesn’t pay the bills. Being a “Blogger” doesn’t pay the bills, either, or work for me as an identity. Everybody in the world is a blogger.
As an adult, I’ve always identified myself – rightly or wrongly — through my occupation, probably because it was what I was most proud of. I’m less proud of the industry now. And I’m not sure what to make of myself. I’m nearing retirement age but in no position to do that. The uncertainty, the trepidations, the lack of confidence are similar to the feelings I had when I started my first real job in Tucson, even as I approach “senior” status, though I’m not sure when that kicks in these days.
In some ways, Travels with Ace has been a coming of age story. Unfortunately, that age is 57.
Fifty-seven has its advantages – I just don’t remember them right now — but to be honest (OK, there’s one of them) it is not the prime of life, for either man or dog.
I think Ace and I concur on this point.
When we gaze into each other’s eyes for extended periods of time, as we are wont to do, having wordless conversations that somehow sum up the sum total, and then sum, of the shared pain, joy, uncertainty, contentment, confusion, gratitude, respect and love that make us us — I get the feeling we are on the same page, and the same paragraph. I get the feeling that, being peers now, age-wise, we are even more bonded and syncopated.
In those silent conversations, we encourage each other to live in the moment, because our hips could go out in the next one.
As best as I can figure, it was somewhere around Fargo, curiously enough (for one actual winter there seems like five years) that our aging arcs intersected. It most likely happened in a Motel 6 (which in dog years would be Motel 42).
There are various formulas for converting dog years into human ones. Under the traditional view, one human year equals seven dog years. That would make Ace about 45. But that formula has been all but thrown out the window by experts. According to most recent research, which incorporates a dog’s size into the equation, your big dog is probably older than you think he is, and aging at a truly frightening clip.
Based on the formula we’re inclined to believe — you can see the chart we’re using here — Ace and I converged at the age, in human terms, of 57. By the time I’m 60, Ace will be nearing 70. By the time I’m 65, Ace, if he’s still around, while 13 in actual years, will have passed 100 in dog ones.
It’s not fair. It’s not fair at all – and by that I mean aging in general, and the fact that dogs age more quickly, and the fact that a big dog ages so much more rapidly than a yappy little one.
A yappy little one – and we know all little ones aren’t yappy, and love them even if they are – lives much longer. When Ace turns 100, a little one, on earth for the same amount of time, would only be 60.
My hopes are that, being a certified mutt, Ace might outlive comparably sized purebreds, and that if we both drop 10 pounds or so, we might buy some extra time, which we can spend whimpering and groaning about our aches and pains.
As near seniors, though I am running ahead in terms of my fur turning grey, I think we are both a little crankier, more easily annoyed. We both sleep more and grumble more.
We heave more sighs, and utter more harrumphs – getting down on the floor harrumphs, getting up from the floor harrumphs, getting resituated harrumphs, and sometimes harrumphs that have no apparent reason at all.
We both walk more slowly, and only rarely see cause to run.
We both take more pleasure in consuming food, and in voiding ourselves of it. One attaches more importance to digestive issues the older one gets, leading to our motto: Stay regular, but be exceptional.
We both have energy spurts. I’m not sure where his come from. He uses them to chase something briefly, chew a stick, get some human attention, or to just joyfully romp for a couple of minutes. I get mine from coffee, and use them to write things like this, or clean the house.
John Steinbeck, when, 50 years ago, he took the trip we emulated, was 58. He was chronically cranky by then. He missed the “good old days” and wondered “what’s this world coming to,” like old men do everywhere. Were it not for his poodle, who he took along as an afterthought, “Travels With Charley” – in addition to just being “Travels” — would have been one extended, ponderous, but well-written downer.
Steinbeck seemed seething with impatience at times, stuck in the past a lot and not an entirely happy camper, on those occasions he actually camped, or at least alleged that he did.
The most glorious moments in the book, the most graceful moments in the book, Steinbeck’s most patient and whimsical moments in the book, all revolved around Charley.
As with life, the book’s best moments centered on the dog. I am of the opinion there should have been much more Charley in the book, and that there should be a dog in the life of every person nearing 60, or above it.
That’s not just because they are exemplars of growing old gracefully. It’s also because it’s good to have a dog around when we grow old, especially if one is growing old alone, and even though the dog is growing old faster.
A dog helps us fight the crankiness, avoid an all-too-somber and serious outlook on life, keep the mind open and the legs moving, and, I think most important of all, maintain the whimsy.
Some people lose the whimsy way before they get old. Life, they seem to think, is too serious a proposition to waste time doing something spontaneous, or outlandish or just plain silly, something that doesn’t further their personal goals. It’s a terrible thing to see an old young person. It’s a wonderful thing to see a young old person.
Whimsy, I think, is the key, and if you don’t understand what I mean by whimsy look at it this way: It’s the human equivalent of a dog’s wagging tail. It states “I’m up for it,” “I’m open to suggestions,” “Let’s take a trip with no destination.”
It says, “Guess which direction I’m going to go in?”
It says, “OK, I’m going to do something really goofy now.”
It says, “Even with all that life has thrown at me, I’m still happy. Haha.”
The whimsy is easier to maintain when you have a dog – it being a whimsical creature itself.
Getting tied to a routine, and making that routine the most important thing in the world, is part of getting older. It’s also a whimsy-killer. I think an underlying reason we set off on our trip in the first place was the feeling that we — and using the editorial “we” when I mean I could be another sign of aging, I never used to do that — had fallen too far into a routine, and were sinking into it like quicksand.
Now that the trip is over, now that we’re settled down, at least for now, it sometimes seems like something’s gaining on us.
What do you think that might be? Actually, I don’t much care what you think. (Not caring what others think is often described as another benefit of being old, but in truth I haven’t fully reached that point yet.)
The biggest downside of getting old, of course, is death. I find myself thinking about it more, but that could be because, for my book, I spent a year immersed in the topic, at least as it applied to dogs. Part of it, too, may be spending more time at the retirement community in which my mother lives, where at least every month there’s a reminder of it.
But probably the biggest part is the simple and steady tick tock of advancing time, that swinging pendulum, mechanically and monotonously dancing towards what’s inevitable – despite the best efforts of doctors and scientists, drugs and cosmetic surgery.
The only real way to combat it is with a wag of the tail.
My brother says he once asked my mother how she would like her remains disposed of after death – if she wanted to be buried or cremated.
“Surprise me,” she said.
Now that’s whimsy.
(Tomorrow: The kudzu dogs return)
Posted by jwoestendiek July 14th, 2011 under Muttsblog.
Tags: ace, aches, aging, aging gracefully, america, author, blog, blogger, book, cranky, death, dog inc., dog years, dogs, elderly, fargo, flapping skin, getting old, grouchy, growing old, grumpy, human years, humans, identity, john steinbeck, newspapers, old dogs, old man, outlook, pains, purpose, reporters, retirement, road trip, seniors, tail, tired, travels with ace, travels with charley, wag, wagging tail, whimsy, years
As safaris go, ours in the mountains of North Carolina was a pretty laid back one — but then we were a pretty low-key foursome: my current roommate, Ace, and two former ones from my college days, Dr. George Fish and Dr. John Stringfield.
To understand how we came to be in the wilds of the Brevard College campus, searching out our rare and elusive prey, you have to go back to the day before, when we arrived at our campground in Pisgah National Forest.
I’d never heard of white squirrels — or that Brevard, N.C. was renowned for being home to them — and, to make matters more confusing, for a fleeting moment I thought the woman at the campground gate had said “white girls.”
She went on to explain that the peculiar species could be found in town, mostly in residential areas, and that it was just a matter of driving around until you saw one.
“The White Girls of Brevard” became our running joke — and every good outing with friends, like every good sitcom, needs a recurring joke. So as we sat around the campfire drinking beer — debating what we might do the next day, other than sit around the campfire and drink beer — the phrase would inevitably come up.
Rock-climbing? A five mile hike? Whitewater rafting? Or go in search of the White Girls of Brevard?
There was a day, and it was back in the 1970s, when the possibility of encountering a female, of any color, would probably have been our top priority. And there were probably many nights that we set off, safari-like, with that goal, if not stated, at least in the back of our heads. But, for us, in college, it was more a dream than a mission. At that time, all three of us put together probably had the self-confidence, when it came to females, of one normal man.
John and George are married now – both for 29 years, though not to each other — so, even if they captured, humanely of course, one of the White Girls of Brevard, they couldn’t bring her home.
For me, though – with no wife to say, “You’re not bringing that thing into the house” — it’s a different story. Perhaps, I thought — whimsically of course – I should scope out the White Girls of Brevard, select one and bring her home. She’d have freckles and look a lot like Sissy Spacek. She’d be small, yet of hearty mountain stock — a ”tiny little” thing. People would say of her, “She’s a tiny little thing, but she can lift a bale of hay twice her size.” She’d call her mother “momma,” and her father “papa” and have quaint names for all six of her dogs. She’d know how to work a plow, and cook real macaroni and cheese, and those green beans that are boiled for three months, and she’d hang on every word I say — no matter how few and far between they were. She’d be more than happy to care for me well into my golden years and dodderage, both of which she would find sexy.
A sharp crackle from our fire pit snapped me back to reality. The three of us weren’t here to hunt anything, or even fish, just to meet up again after a few decades, build a fire, drink some beer, reminisce and perhaps take a short hike or two.
The next day, after one of those short hikes, we deemed the white squirrels worth checking out and drove the few miles into town. Upon seeing a college campus, I turned in, figuring if I were a squirrel, that’s where I’d hang out.
My hunch paid off. We rounded a corner and saw one who was already being viewed by a couple with a camera. The squirrel was flattened out and clinging to the side of a tree — that being a defensive mechanism squirrels use. It works when they are grey, but, for some reason, the white ones do it, too, thinking no one can see them. Apparently, they don’t know they are white.
Ace stayed in the car looking out the open back window with interest as George and I took photos of that squirrel and several other white ones we came across on campus.
Back in the car, we spotted several more, and we pondered opening up a business in town, offering white squirrel safaris to tourists — perhaps a big open-air bus that would shuttle them to where the white squirrels hang out. There they could snap photos — the squirrels are far too cute to otherwise shoot — to their heart’s content. We would charge exorbitant fees for that, as well as all the white squirrel merchandise we would make available. Perhaps, upon conclusion of the tour, they could enjoy a home-cooked meal, prepared by my mountain wife Sissy — if she’s not too busy plowing – eaten at picnic tables with red checkered tableclothes.
On the tour, we would explain how the white squirrels came to be there. We’d opt for the the most oft-repeated and fanciful version — that being that they are descendants of some traveling circus squirrels who escaped when their circus truck overturned.
That supposedly happened in Florida.
In that account — and it’s the one that both whitesquirrels.com and the local tourism website go with, supported by local newspaper reports in the Transylvania Times (Brevard is in Transylvania County) — the squirrels escaped when the truck they were in overturned. Two of them set up camp in the yard of a man in Madison, Florida.
She kept them inside and hoped they would breed, but they didn’t — probably because everybody was watching.
In 1951, Barbara Mull got married, leaving the squirrels with her father. One of them escaped, and not long after that, Barbara’s father let the other one, who apparently was deemed heartsick, loose in the wild.
By 1986, the White Squirrels of Brevard had become so famous that, in addition to capitalizing their name, the Brevard City Council saw fit to unanimously pass an ordinance declaring the town a sanctuary for the white squirrels and — apparently not wanting to be seen as racist — the grey ones, too.
“The entire area embraced within the corporate limits of the city is hereby designated as a sanctuary for all species of squirrel (family Sciuriadae), and in particular the Brevard White Squirrel,” the ordinance reads. “It shall be unlawful for any person to hunt, kill, trap, or otherwise take any protected squirrels within the city by this section.”
As it turns out, other towns with white squirrel populations have adopted it as a mascot as well, including Olney, Illinois; Marionville, Missouri; Kenton, Tennessee; and Exeter, Canada.
Unlike some of those squirrels, Brevard’s are not albinos, but a variant of the Eastern Grey Squirrel. More than a fourth of the squirrels in Brevard are white — and the town knows because a squirrel census is regularly conducted.
Brevard is home to an annual White Squirrel Festival (it’s this coming weekend), and The Squirrel Box Derby downhill race, and it considers itself the “White Squirrel Capital of the World.”
In Marionville, which is where some believe that Olney’s squirrels originated from — victims of squirrelnappings — other theories on their origin range from the squirrels once belonging to a traveling circus to being the result of a mad scientist’s experiments.
As for the White Squirrels of Brevard, an article in NC Farm Bureau Magazine says they are not true white squirrels, but a color variation of the Eastern Gray Squirrel. Most have white bodies but pigmented patches, spots and stripes.
That doesn’t make them any less beloved. To make sure the population stays viable, the White Squirrel Research Institute, based there, conducts a white squirrel count every year.
On our short safari, we spotted at least five. And, in reality (a nice place to visit but I wouldn’t want to live there), they weren’t that elusive at all.
After John left, returning to his home and practice in Waynesville, N.C., George and I lingered another night and discussed the possibility of making the camping trip a tradition — either in Brevard or going each year to a different location, where we could seek out, if not white girls, other elusive species.
I’m thinking unicorns.
Posted by jwoestendiek May 26th, 2011 under Muttsblog.
Tags: aging, albinos, animals, barbara mull, brevard, brevard college, camping, dog's country, dogs, dogscountry, exeter, friends, george fish, john stringfield, john woestendiek, kenton, legend, marionville, mountains, north carolina, olney, pets, photography, pisgah national forest, prey, reunion, safari, sanctuary, species, squirrels, travels, travels with ace, trip, unicorns, white girls, white girls of brevard, white squirrels, white squirrels of brevard, wildlife
With exactly what, I don’t know. But in the past four days, he has taken to yelping when he gets up from a long nap or makes a sudden move.
At the dog park this week, he has plodded along lethargically, showing little interest in other dogs — even when he ran into this little white fellow who shares his name. How’s that for a pair of Aces?
I have poked and prodded every inch of his oversized body, but I’m unable to pinpoint what particular spot might be hurting him.
So today, we’re off to the vet.
My first thought was the hips. That’s based partly on the simple fact that he’s very big. Then, too, some of you might recall, when I took Ace to an animal communicator three months ago, she told me he was having some mild discomfort in that area. Add in the 10 months we’ve been traveling, and all the hopping up into and down from the back of my jeep he’s been doing, and the hips seem as good a guess as any.
I knew the day would come when the jumping in and out of the car would need to cease, and given his size, maybe that practice should never have started. Chances are — at age 6 — that day is here, earlier than I expected, and not without some accompanying guilt on my part.
Then again, it might not be his hips at all. Although he’s hesitating to jump into the car, he’s not yelping when he does so — only when makes a sudden movement, usually after laying still.
I’ve pushed on his paws, rubbed the lengths of his legs, looked into his ears and down his throat, poked his belly and prodded his hips. None of that seemed to bother him. He didn’t yelp. He didn’t do that thing he does where his eyes get big, which signifies, to me, anyway, rising alarm on his part. That would have told me I was getting close.
The only time he yelped was when I lowered his head, making me think maybe the pain is in his neck, or spine-related. A half hour massage followed, which, though it might not have helped at all, he seemed to appreciate.
Twice, I’ve come home to hear him howling — not howls of pain, I don’t think, but howls of loneliness. Twice I’ve left the video camera on, to try and capture their onset, but he didn’t howl those times. And the times he did, he immediately cheered up and ran around when I walked through the door.
I’m pretty sure Ace is less than in love with our new basement quarters, though he likes the upstairs and yard just fine. He has shown a distinct preference for being outside, content to lay at top of stairs, keeping an eye on the kitchen window of the mansion owner, who gives him a daily biscuit.
Something about the basement bothers him. And friends I’ve talked about it with have different theories. Maybe he was mistreated in a basement in his puppyhood. Maybe the old mansion we’re living under is haunted. Maybe, with a firehouse around the corner, the sirens are bothering him, though they never have before — and we lived in Baltimore, where sirens are background music. Maybe it’s the lack of sunlight, or he’s getting arthritic and the cold and dampness of the cellar aggravate it.
He’s moving slowly, lethargically (except when the treats come out), and rather than circling twice before laying down, he’s circling about eight times.
Yesterday, working with my theory that it might be his neck, I took a treat and moved it around in front of him — from side to side, then up and down. There were no yelps. Either it caused no pain, or the thought of getting food superceded it.
So, with fingers crossed, we’re headed to the nearest veterinarian, with hopes that whatever is bothering him is something minor, something that will pass or doesn’t cost too much to fix, something unrelated to all the traveling I’ve put him through — 21,000 miles of it over the past ten months, something that is neither chronic nor old-age related.
Because he’s too young to be old.
Posted by jwoestendiek March 16th, 2011 under Muttsblog.
Tags: ace, aches, aging, america, animals, back, basement, depression, diagnose, discomfort, dog's country, dogs, dogscountry, emotional, health, howling, howls, mansion, neck, north carolina, old, pain, pets, physical, road trip, sick, spine, travel, traveling with dogs, travels with ace, veterinarian, veterinary, vets, yelping, yelps
Puck’s family thinks their aging dog has lost most of his senses. He’s deaf. He’s blind in the one eye he has left. And if you put a treat on the ground in front of him, he can’t seem to hone in on it by sniffing. It’s more of a random search. He may or may not taste his watered down food.
But at least one sense remains — not one of the big five, but an important one all the same — his sense of dignity.
At 17, Puck doesn’t run anymore. In recent years, his three block walks shrunk to two block walks, then one block walks, then no block walks. He can’t do the stairs anymore. He has epilepsy, an enlarged heart, a hacking cough. He goes through long periods where he seems to zone out – standing motionlessly like a mini-cow in pasture — possibly the result of mini-strokes. He wears a diaper around the clock.
These days, Puck doesn’t jump, doesn’t play – instead he spends his days asleep or in quiet reflection.
And that’s just fine with George Fish and Kathleen Sullivan.
Puck can cuddle as well as he ever did; relishes a scratch behind the ears as much as he ever did – maybe even more.
George was once my college roommate; and my overnight visit with them last week at their home in Fredericksburg, Virginia, was the third time I’d seen Puck – the first being when he was a youngster, the second about two years ago. When I reconnect with George on the phone, I’m usually afraid to ask about Puck, fearing the worst. But George generally volunteers the information: “Puck’s still alive.” Or “Puck’s still around.”
George and Kathleen’s daughter, Elizabeth, was 7 when they got Puck, and she came up with the name — as in pucker up — based on how much he liked to kiss. She’s 24 now and living in California.
The dog – part of a litter that resulted from an unauthorized get-together between a poodle and a terrier — didn’t look anything like a poodle, Kathleen notes. “But it was cute.”
She called her husband to let him know: “We sort of have a dog now.”
“George came home and I think in three seconds he was in love,” she said.
Nearly a generation later, Puck remains – less lively, less mobile and diaper clad. It attaches with Velcro and holds a sanitary napkin, a regular one during the day, a maxi pad at night. It’s removed for his trips outside, where he mostly stands motionlessly, his tail periodically going into bouts of wagging.
Every night, they tote him to his upstairs bed. Every morning, they carry him to his downstairs bed, which they call his “office.” Next to it is a family portrait, a toy fax machine,a stapler and a collection of Puck’s other favorite things.
George says he has learned a lot from Puck – both about patience and grace.
Puck has had to put up with eye ulcers, which led to the removal of one of his eyes a year ago, and after that he lost sight in the remaining one. Vet bills amounted to about $4,000 for the eye problems alone. He also has been on medication for epileptic seizures since he was a pup. He’s probably had some small strokes, and his cough has led to more vet bills and interrupted sleep.
How much does all that matter in the big scheme of dog-family love? Not a bit.
Some friends tell George it’s time to put Puck down, but George can’t see doing that – “not as long as his tail keeps wagging.”
Posted by jwoestendiek August 29th, 2010 under Muttsblog.
Tags: ace does america, aging, animals, dog, dog's country, dogs, dogscountry, elderly, fredericksburg, george fish, kathleen sullivan, mixed breed, mutt, old, old dogs, pets, poodle, puck, road trip, terrier, virginia
Other than Ace’s periodic visits, there’s probably nothing residents of Arbor Acres — a retirement community in Winston-Salem — like better than the ducks that waddle and swim in and around the large pond that graces the acreage.
Actually, even though Ace has some pretty big time fans there, the ducks probably rate higher – at least in the eyes of some residents, including my own mother (that’s her to the left, explanation to follow). She, I think it’s safe to say, prefers watching ducks outside her window to having a dog inside her room.
On at least one occasion, she harbored some fugitive newborn ducks who, like all newborn ducks, needed a little protection from the bigger creatures, like foxes and turtles, who tend to snatch them away.
Because of that, the duck population at Arbor Acres sometimes dwindles down to a precious few, and the residents who like to watch them, feed them, and sometimes name them, worry about losing the closest thing many of them have to pets.
(Dogs are allowed there, but only a handful of residents have them.)
Instead, most often, they enjoy the animals nature provides, the ducks, the geese, the fish in the pond and the two blue herons that call the area around the pond home for much of the year.
Sometimes though, even nature needs a hand.
And that’s where Bo Bowers came in.
Bo, who moved into the community in March, brought with him some duck-raising skills, and when the duck census recently dropped he made a deal with the administration — if they provided materials to build the pens, he’d buy some baby ducks and raise them until they were big enough to survive on their own.
He ordered 16 baby ducklings — of five different breeds — through a catalog. They were 12 days old when they were delivered, and he started feeding them in the 4-foot by 12-foot cage, complete with swimming pool, set up behind his home.
Last month, in a ceremony attended by many residents, he “launched” his babies, releasing them into the pond as residents, staff and at least one TV news outfit looked on. Many of the ducks, by then, had been named after residents, including one named Jo, after my mother.
Bowers has been raising fowl — including some blue ribbon winners — almost his whole life, he said. “They are like my children.”
Wake up early enough and you can see Bowers, tall and gangly, striding down a sidewalk with the still-growing ducks following him. He puts out food, talks to them, takes a count to make sure everyone’s still there.
Two of the ducks are of a breed called white crested.
They have tufts of feathers on their head, like bouffant hairdos — quackfros, we called them. There are black ones, brown ones and silvery blue ones, and, diverse group that they are, they all, after several weeks, still hang together – a pack, as it were.
At least two residents warned me to keep Ace away from the ducks, though he has little interest other than watching them.
I’m pretty sure dogs don’t rule at Arbor Acres. Ducks do.
Posted by jwoestendiek August 5th, 2010 under Muttsblog.
Tags: ace does america, aging, animals, arbor acres, community, dog's country, dogs, dogscountry, ducks, ducky, herons, nature, north carolina, ohmidog!, pets, photography, pond, retirement, road trip, wildlife, winston-salem