The companionship of pets is good for the soul
Photos by Shannon Cornman
Make no mistake, we love our pets in the good old U. S. of A. Americans own some 78 million dogs, 85 million cats, 14 million birds, 12 million small mammals and 9 million reptiles, according to pet industry statistics. The American Pet Products Association estimated more than $60 billion was spent on pets in 2015, up about 25 percent from 2011.
While most of us limit our furry family members to cats or dogs, and maybe a couple of each tops, Laurie Anderson knows no such limits, nor does she ever intend to. At last count, Anderson estimates she has 73 pets, ranging from chickens and ducks to llamas, alpacas and mini cows.
She’s the founder of Milo’s Barn, a farm animal rescue and sanctuary in eastern Oklahoma County – and when it comes to pets, this gal knows what she’s talking about. “Each animal I care for comes with a unique set of circumstances, and I have to meet them where they are and accept them,” Anderson says.
She spends hours each day tending to her critters. “My day begins around 5:30 a.m. with coffee on the porch. As I sit there, my animals start to walk up, and I say hi to them for about 20 minutes,” she says.
By 6:15, she’s woken her two children up for school, and while they get ready, she goes out to feed her chickens, rabbits, baby alpaca and Clark the pig. “It comes as a surprise to people, but there is actually no such thing as a miniature pig. There are young pigs, but not mini pigs,” she says. After the first group is fed, she takes the kids to school. Back at her family’s acreage by 7:45 a.m., it’s time for Anderson to feed, water, clean up after and generally check in on – as she puts it – “everyone.”
By 11 or so, she’s done with morning chores and is free until about 4:30 p.m., when she does it all again. She comes inside for dinner and to help the kids with their homework, but then she’s back out to make her last rounds at 8 p.m., when she also feeds the chickens again. “I’m generally asleep by 9,” she laughs.
Anderson knows how much pets can add to the quality of their human companions’ lives, and she’s an outspoken advocate for their humane care and treatment. Milo’s Barn, soon to officially become a 501(c)3 nonprofit, was born when Anderson met Milo, a miniature horse and her first farm animal rescue. “Someone contacted me about him. He was terribly neglected, his hooves were uncared for and had gotten long, and he was all alone.” He’d been bought by an older couple as a gift for their grandchildren, who had grown tired of him, thus sealing his sad fate. Heartbroken, Anderson took him home, nursed him back to health … and now “Milo runs the show,” she laughs.
Her next save was a goat she found tethered to a two-foot long rope at a Midwest City flea market notorious for its animal cruelty, where he’d been tied for two years. “He was scrawny and clearly depressed. I offered them some money and got him out of there, and now he’s the happiest goat ever, a very sweet guy.” Anderson, whose goofy wit is endearing, named this fellow Vincent Van Goat. “People treat animals like they are disposable. Maybe it’s because people consume animals for food, or maybe it’s that people assume animals can fend for themselves, I’m not sure,” she says.
Clark the pig was rescued at the same flea market – Anderson discovered him incarcerated in a small cage in the back of a truck, with no water or shade in the middle of an infernal Oklahoma summer. “Poor Clark was so sunburned, he was covered in blisters. He was dehydrated, and despondent.” These days, he’s, well, as happy as a pig in mud, thanks to Anderson.
Nora is a blind mule, bought from a kill lot where employees were riding her around for the entertainment of watching a sightless creature attempt to navigate. After a successful Go Fund Me effort, Anderson was able to pay for surgery Nora required, and she, too, is now happy and safe at Milo’s Barn.
Anderson often takes her animals on the road, to schools and to visit her Meals on Wheels clients. Juniper the llama is one of Anderson’s best schoolchildren whisperers, and also enjoys driving with Anderson on her food-delivery route on Thursdays. “When I bring my animals to a school, I can see children developing empathy. I get tremendous joy from seeing the kids’ reactions to the animals, and often when I run into kids at my daughter’s school, they remember very specific details of our visit.”
► Which Pet’s Your Best Bet?
Laurie Anderson’s list will guide you to the less-traditional companion animal that’s best for you.
Pros: Very entertaining, certain breeds provide milk, great weed eaters
Cons: Destructive and loud, eat everything
Pros: Cute, smart, can be loving and entertaining, very loyal to their person
Cons: There is no such thing as a “teacup pig,”high-maintenance, very bossy, can be destructive and loud
Pros: Cute, soft and cuddly (sometimes)
Cons: Very messy, hard to contain … and they smell
Pros: Easy keepers, built-in pest control, eggs, can be very friendly and smart
Cons: Very routine-centered
Pros: Very smart, most are very affectionate, great in most climates, wonderful guard animals, easy keepers
Cons: Require commitment; they can live over 30 years, can be ornery
Pros: Great guard animals, fiber is good for all kinds of things, quiet
Cons: You have to maintain their fiber, require a lot of consistent time with them in order to be friendly
► A Place to Play
Most of us are not lucky enough to be able to take our animal companions with us to the office. Some pets are content to Netflix and chill while we’re away, but for others, particularly young canines, dog daycare is where it’s at – and for April Campbell, owner of Central Park Dog Daycare, it’s a dream come true.
“I opened in 2005,” Campbell says. “Before that, I’d worked part time for a vet, and was a full-time office manager for a financial planning company. I love dogs and I’d always dreamed of opening a dog daycare and boarding facility – but didn’t plan to do it until my 40s, because I had a great job.”
Fickle fate had other plans for Campbell, who was driving to the store one day and noticed a vacant building that would be perfect for a dog daycare. “My job was great but had begun to feel a little stale. So I did it: I opened my business. I had no plan, and no money, but I did it anyway.”
Fast forward 12 years, and Campbell and her staff take care of an average of 100 dogs a day. The dogs are divided into packs of 20-25, based on size, energy level, temperament and age. Each dog undergoes a two-hour temperament assessment before being assigned to a specific pack.
“Most of our clients are younger dogs with lots of energy, whose owners work full time,” Campbell says. “They bring them in in the morning before work, and pick them up on the way home, just like a daycare for children, and the dog is calm and relaxed because it’s gotten plenty of exercise and socialization and has spent the day with its friends.”
Dog owners already know this, but yes, dogs make friends. Campbell says that when her canine charges arrive, they look for their buddies and can appear bummed when a buddy isn’t there. They communicate very clearly about how they are feeling. “When a dog feels stressed, it becomes physically stiff and big-eyed, and will adopt a pulled-away posture. It may drool or pant, and its tail might be tucked. A relaxed dog will have a neutral posture and tail and will look relaxed. A happy dog’s posture will be loose and wiggly, wagging either the tail or the whole body, and they will often smile.”
Dogs’ days with Campbell’s crew are largely spent enjoying unstructured playtime outside. There are enrichment activities, like playing with puzzle balls or bubbles, or in pools. About two years ago, naps for each dog became a requirement. “A typical dog needs a little downtime during the day, like a toddler. They need a mental and physical break,” Campbell says.
A rare dog and cat person, Campbell has three dogs in her own home, along with three cats, three children and a husband. To say she’s high-energy is an understatement. Admittedly reliant on caffeine, Campbell’s bright brown eyes don’t miss a thing, and her conviction that animals make humans better beings is unflappable.
“Our pets absolutely have the ability to console us and cheer us up. The unquestioning love a pet gives us is therapeutic. Your dog loves you no matter what. Everyone should have a dog.”
► Our Pets are Sentient Beings
Melanie Anderson, vice president and program director of the Summerlee Foundation, is at the forefront of a new school of thought regarding our fellow furred, finned and feathered citizens of Planet Earth. She graciously answered a few questions, and her answers are eye opening.
How have our attitudes toward our pets and their ability to think and feel shifted? “There has been an enormous change over the last 30 years, and perhaps even more in the last decade. Science and technology have informed this new knowledge through brain imaging and advancements in understanding the brain, emotions and intelligence. So much of our work was anecdotal until the last 15 years or so.
“Technology has given us the tools to provide the facts and support our previous notions. The ability to share videos and posts on the internet while instantly reaching hundreds of thousands of people with these videos on non-invasive research of animals has also led to a new understanding and appreciation of our animal kin. I think even embracing acts of anthropomorphism helps us identify and better understand other beings. It’s a way for us to relate and recognize.”
Do all animals experience emotions? “Yes, absolutely. It isn’t the same in all animals, but we all share sentience, pain and suffering, emotions.”
What kind of research is being or has been done on the subject of pets/animals as sentient beings? “It’s taking place all over the world, and [there’s] too much to list here, but a good place to start learning more would be The Humane Society Institute for Science and Policy, animalstudiesrepository.org, under the direction of Dr. Jonathan Balcombe.”
How did you find your way to your current position? “I grew up with a special attraction and feeling toward animals, and had pets – cats and dogs – all of my life. I became a member of the Animal Protection Institute while I was in college, and attended their events and conferences, which gave me an enormous education in the field of animal protection, animal abuse, suffering and exploitation.
“While I went on to work in journalism and advertising, my passion and activism remained with animals. A friend and colleague – Belton Mouras, founder of the Animal Protection Institute – introduced me to Annie Lee Roberts, who created the Summerlee Foundation. She invited me to help her and the foundation with its work for animals. It became a full-time job.”
► Reading List
If you’d like to learn more, Anderson made some recommendations for good books to further explore the subject of animals’ mentality and feelings:
The Genius of Dogs, by Dr. Brian Hare and Vanessa Woods
“Brian Hare, dog researcher, evolutionary anthropologist and founder of the Duke Canine Cognition Center, and Vanessa Woods offer revolutionary new insights into dog intelligence and the interior lives of our smartest pets. In the past decade, we have learned more about how dogs think than in the last century. Breakthroughs in cognitive science pioneered by Brian Hare have proven dogs have a kind of genius for getting along with people that is unique in the animal kingdom.”
The Animals’ Agenda: Freedom, Compassion, and Coexistence in the Human Age, by Dr. Marc Bekoff
“The Animals’ Agenda critically addresses our relationships with animals in factory farms, research labs and entertainment venues, as well as our interactions with pets and wildlife, exploring what we know of their capacity not only for pain and frustration, but also joy and empathy. Using the latest science, renowned animal expert Marc Bekoff and leading bioethicist Jessica Pierce argue for a paradigm shift: They demonstrate that the current approach of animal-welfare science, while offsetting some of the worst aspects of animal suffering, falls far short of promoting true animal well-being and freedom.”
Minding the Animal Psyche, Spring: A Journal of Archetype and Culture, by Dr. Gay Bradshaw
“In the past, in-depth psychology has largely confined its reflections upon animals to human dreams and encounters. [This journal] seeks to greatly broaden this inquiry, turning the psychological eye from its inward gaze to honor and explore the psyches of our animal kin, and the mutual interrelationships that exist among species.”
Dr. Lori Marino’s blog and website, kimmela.org
“Dr. Marino is a neuroscientist and expert in animal behavior and intelligence, formerly on the faculty of Emory University. She is internationally known for her work on the evolution of the brain and intelligence in dolphins and whales, and comparisons to primates. In 2001, she co-authored a ground-breaking study offering the first conclusive evidence for mirror self-recognition in bottlenose dolphins (Reiss and Marino, 2001), after which she decided against further research with captive animals.”
What a Fish Knows, by Dr. Jonathan Balcombe
“Balcombe upends our assumptions about fishes, portraying them not as unfeeling, dead-eyed feeding machines but as sentient, aware, social and even Machiavellian – in other words, much like us. What a Fish Knows draws on the latest science to present a fresh look at these remarkable creatures in all their breathtaking diversity and beauty. Fishes conduct elaborate courtship rituals and develop lifelong bonds with shoalmates.”
►It’s Always a Dog Day in Switzer-Land
Barry and Becky Switzer have always been animal lovers, rescuing as many dogs as they can. “We rescue dogs because we love dogs,” Barry says. “We just drove up to Bixby to pick up a dog from Hurricane Harvey. This poor dog is eight weeks old, has mange, has kennel cough, but we got it and it deserves a chance.”
Both Switzers have loved dogs since childhood. Barry grew up in southern Arkansas, surrounded by bird dogs, collies and mutts. Becky got her first dog, a cocker spaniel, when she was just 7 years old.
For anyone new to the 405, Barry Switzer is football royalty, having coached the University of Oklahoma for 16 years and the Dallas Cowboys for four. His wife Becky has been a dedicated animal advocate for just as long, and together they have taken their game to the next level by founding Ground Zero K9 Emergency Training Center.
“Ground Zero is a $20 million facility we are building in Tuttle,” he says. “It is a 180-acre complex, which will allow first responders to bring their dogs for advanced training.” When completed, the compound will contain kennels, training and fitness facilities for humans and dogs, offices, dormitories and an education center.
For Becky, the idea for Ground Zero began to take shape after the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Building in downtown Oklahoma City. “After the bombing, I was watching how the dogs worked, and how they were able to find people so much faster and go where human first responders couldn’t. When the Moore tornado happened, that was the turning point. Dogs can clear areas so fast,” she says.
The Switzers spent time developing their plans. “We went to Wilma Melville’s training center in Ojai, California. We happened to be there on the 20th anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing. It’s ironic to us that we’d already secured the land for Ground Zero, in Tuttle, and we learned that Alfred P. Murrah was from Tuttle,” Barry says.
Aside from Ground Zero, Switzer says there are only four canine emergency training centers in the country, and they are affiliated with universities or other specific entities. And none of them is in the middle of the country. “Oklahoma is in the top-five disaster states,” Becky says. “And we are in the center of the country,” meaning that dogs can be quickly deployed anywhere in the United States.
Even without a finished facility, the Switzers are training and deploying dogs throughout the state. “We have given eight trained dogs to firemen in Oklahoma,” Becky says. “It usually takes 18 months to train USAR dogs, but we train ours in eight or nine months.”
Ground Zero is a nonprofit organization. To learn more or to make a contribution, visit groundzerosaveslives.com.