Good grief: Islanders share stories about losing pets

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Danielle Mulcahy's angora rabbit Cadbury. — Photo Courtesy of Danielle Mulcahy

We’re crazy about animals these days. Maybe not all of us — I’m trying to think if I know anyone who lives in curmudgeonly separation from even a tiny turtle? Hmm. Can’t bring any to mind. Point is, the family dog of the 1950s was largely ignored except by the kids, whereas today, a typical household, especially here on our unapologetically rural Island, has a dog or three, a cat or two or seven, perhaps a pair of thoroughly amiable goats — those lovable playmates that people have realized are practically dogs in their delight in our company — and some chickens pecking outside a proper henhouse.

So a new development has come to light: As people lose pets, the bereavement is sharper than they ever anticipated. In the old days you might tell someone your cat died, and the response would be something along the lines of, “Bummer,” followed up by, “You gonna get a new kitty?” But nowadays, with more of us aware of the wrench after a cherished pet has died, the reply holds true commiseration.

For the past year now, my friend, poet Rachel Baird, who divides her time between the Vineyard, Vermont, and Edinburgh, has made it clear that the loss of her dog Bella has weighed her down with a melancholy hard to relinquish. Recently she wrote to me, “Bella’s one-year death anniversary just passed, and I am still grieving so much. I have had other pets, but losing Bella was different. I guess when someone sleeps on you for 12 years, it is a huge adjustment when they are gone.”

You might think it’s mainly dogs that register in a pet owner’s grief inventory, but a variety of animals arouse our sorrow at their passing. Recently West Tisbury artist and filmmaker Danielle Mulcahy lost her angora rabbit, Cadbury. Danielle had worked for a time at an agricultural tourist farm in Sterling, and became the go-to person for rabbits, specifically the ultra-soft angoras.

She writes in her Instagram posts, “While the farm closed to the public for the winter, I kept a bunny in my apartment in Boston. After a stressful day in art school, coming home to brush a rabbit was perfect therapy. I knew other bunnies, and other angora rabbits, but I got to watch Cadbury grow up. I taught him to come when he was called, and I harvested his amazing wool for spinning yarn. I thank my experience with Cadbury for inspiring my love for fiber art, which has become such a huge part of my life now as a freelance artist.

“When you are in tune with the other creatures around you, you become in tune with your own rhythms, and with your place in this world as a human. Not above them. We are breathing the same air, and for at least a moment sharing a mutual understanding.

“For four years I would wait every fall to get Cadbury back from his summer job. He would eventually come to Martha’s Vineyard, and accompany me to the Farmers Market, the beach, and even to the Charter School to educate the kids about spinning yarn. I could stick him in my infinity scarf, and he would just look like another poofy accessory. He chased the cat, he would pick up my clothes and toss them if they were out of place on the floor; he was my constant amusement. In my studio where I worked, he would come lie down by my feet.”

Cadbury died of a rare parasite. “I had him cremated and received him last week in a small box. I cried from the pain of loss, but I also cry for the beauty of the life we are granted in the first place.”

Some of us still mourn a beloved cat. For me it was Daphne, with enough Siamese blood to be smart and interesting, but not enough to display the full neurosis. My now ex-husband Marty fell in love with her too (well, if he hadn’t, there would have been little in the way of a relationship), so when she began to decline from heart failure, I called him at Paramount Studios where he produced the sitcom “Laverne & Shirley,” to tell him she’d passed. He left an important run-through to come home and help me bury her in the Malibu hills. When Penny Marshall looked around the soundstage and asked in her nasal Bronx drawl, “Where’s Marty Nadler?” she was told his cat had died. It says a lot about Ms. Marshall that she nodded with sympathy, and stepped back into the scene.

My sister, Cynthia Mascott, lived in many places with her white cat Chloe, but she knew her blue-eyed pet was happiest on the Vineyard when the two of them lived in a cottage in West Tisbury surrounded by meadows (Cynthia was the recreation therapist at the new Windemere). She writes, “Chloe was more than a little bit daunted by the snow during the winters we were there. She could jump out and back into the cottage, turning in midair, when the snow was piled up. But during the other seasons, she literally frolicked outside. She’d run in and out of the cottage throughout the day. It was a wonderful time for both of us.

“When she finally died, I was living back in Los Angeles. I asked that Chloe be cremated. I kept her remains with me until I was on the Vineyard a couple of months later, and scattered her ashes off the cliffs of the East Chop Lighthouse.”

Also in our family’s lore was our cocker spaniel, Chopper, given to our son Charlie when we moved to our East Chop house year-round in ’91. Now Charlie writes, “Chopper was fiercely passionate about his family and eating facial tissues, defending both with vigor. He passed when I was at college, so I never got to say goodbye. His birthday is on my Google calendar in perpetuity, though, so I never will.”

And then there’s the incandescent Doris Ward of Edgartown, who in the fall of 2001 fell in love with a horse during a trip to Ireland, bought him on a wild impulse, shipped him to the Vineyard, and took up riding lessons to, in effect, consummate their being together. When you talk to Doris today, you’re aware that Danny Boy was not only the love of her animal life, but the love of her entire life. He died on May 12, 2015, and Doris threw a funeral for him in her backyard behind the Whaling Church. She piled on all the trimmings, including a tent, noted speakers, and singer Joanna Cassidy bringing tears to the eyes of all with her soulful rendition of “Danny Boy.”

Says Doris today: “I could never have thrown Danny Boy in a hole and walked away. All those in attendance were awestruck at how beautiful it was.”

And finally, a story on pet grief would be incomplete without the tale of a lost — and talkative — bird. Back in the 1990s and the early aughts, writer Jib Ellis of Oak Bluffs lived in a Civil War–era house with his blue and gold macaw, Felicity. This clever girl’s main vocabulary was an ear-shattering jungle screech followed by a man’s voice shouting, “SHUT UP!!” — a constant reenactment from early days with an owner who hated her racket. With Jib she became a gourmand. She received any tidbit of food — a pineapple chunk, a cube of Stilton cheese, a morsel of bluefish, sampling it with a few delicate taps of her tiny red tongue. “Mmmm,” she’d comment, sounding uncannily like Julia Childs.

Some years ago, Jib moved to Florida with his now ex-wife, who’d insisted on leaving all unnecessary baggage, such as squawking macaws, behind. Jib reminisces, “Someone said that if you must choose between your bird and your partner, be careful because the right answer is matrimonial.” He found a 12-year-old girl, “a wee Dr. Doolittle” to take Felicity. Now that he’s divorced and happily relocated on the Island, he wishes he could go back in time and switch that fateful choice of bird or wife.

So what does this enhanced intimacy with our pets tell us? As an old ‘60s rock band famously sang, “Somethin’s happenin’ here . . . “ It seems to me that our growing attachment to all creatures great and small — from the ones in our homes that make us laugh and love all day, who in turn increase our awe of all the wild things in nature — this oneness with all beings can only help us go forward and improve the health of a planet filled with billions of species worth loving and protecting.