Pets pets pets
My “Pets” column in the Babylon Beacon is 30 years old this week. The first one was published on Feb. 24, 1983. That means that there have been 1,560 weekly columns with at least 3,000 shelter poster pet photos over the last three decades. Hopefully this column has brought homeless pets to people who have cherished them.
The Beacon column was supposed to be a shortterm experiment. Back in 1983, Leslie Hill and I, both new members of the now defunct League for Animal Protection (LAP), South Shore Chapter, were asked to pen a column that would promote animals at our town shelter. Since I was teaching at the time, doing tons of “homework,” I said I would give it a try “for a few weeks.”
Leslie approached the late Mr. Wolfe with the shelter idea because she had covered school board meetings for the Beacon. The format would be an informational pet article followed by a list plus photos of adoptable pets at Babylon Shelter. Barbara Von Bartheld, pet columnist, had recently left the paper. Leslie and I began visiting Babylon Shelter each Saturday to take Polaroids of the dogs and cats. The two best would go in “Pets;” the rest would hang on adoption posters in store windows. Pet food stores were the best spots.
We had a poster in a West Babylon deli for only a brief time because the owner complained our depressing photos caused his customers to lose their appetites. Most of the Polaroids, costing a dollar each, would go in the trash because exuberant shelter dogs have a way of being uncooperative. I used to joke that I kept the failing Polaroid Corporation solvent for years.
We were the only shelter volunteers back then. We’d use our sales pitch on potential adopters and even chase old men from Wyandanch into the parking lot, telling them that they forgot their free neuter certificate. They’d look at us as if we had two heads.
Our goal was to make the invisible visible, to lead people to the buried treasure at their neighborhood pound. Few residents realized we had a town shelter, then next to the dump on Edison Avenue. Extremely naive, we thought we could “save” every shelter dog/ cat just by advertising. We were up against huge obstacles. The municipal mindset was different. Most animals, mixed and purebred, were put down in a week, sooner if the owner surrendered. Many times the poster dog published on a Thursday had already been euthanized. No matter how creative our copy, no matter how boldly I marked shelter paperwork, we couldn’t find a home for a dead dog.
Disease was also rampant. There was no shelter medicine or vet care provided by the town back then. Kennel cough more potent, parvo new, distemper always lurking. By the time we had a place, a dog could be too ill. At times we were too late for dogs still wearing their ribbon from the LAP adoption day at Town Hall’s Craft Fair. Rather than deliver them to their foster home, they received the final kindness at our vet.
A few years later when Leslie began working on Saturdays, I soloed. The column had to be finished Saturday evening so I could devote Sundays to schoolwork. Before computers (the real B.C.), we used typewriters, taped on the Polaroids and slipped the column under the door at the Doll Den and later at 65 Deer Park Avenue. “Pets” became a regular feature in the Massapequa Post and Amityville Record after I retired from teaching in 2005.
When we started, Leslie and I found out that sitting down together to write was impractical. The first piece about how dogs and cats play was a bit dull; the second advocating spay/neuter was better. Here’s an excerpt: “Has Fido been coming home with lipstick on his collar? Has Fifi been preening in front of the mirror? Yes, spring is in the air, love is all around us and your pet feels it too. Now let’s face the fact: pet love stories rarely have a happy ending. Thousands and thousands of puppies and kittens are born each hour in this country…..”
Little did I know 30 years ago that “Pets” would become a labor of love; or that this column would morph into a passion about shelter rescue; an historical quest to locate the site of the Westminster Kennel Club and Sensation’s 1887 grave in Babylon and a passport to become friends with the most interesting and influential folks in the dog and cat worlds. In 1983 I was handed a small spotlight to shine on overlooked pets and a tiny megaphone to sing their praises. I will be forever grateful to the Beacon and Babylon Shelter for giving me such a wonderful opportunity.
To make the 30th anniversary more special, “Pets” won the Maxwell medallion for best newspaper column at this year’s Dog Writers Association of America (DWAA) banquet in NYC on Westminster eve. DWAA was founded at Westminster in 1935. The Maxwell Medallion was named in honor of past DWAA president Maxwell Riddle who was known in his day as the greatest authority on dogs. He wrote a syndicated dog column in the Cleveland Press for 30 years and also wrote a column for Dog World for 50 years. Riddle served as an AKC dog judge and his widow made sure that the amazing Junior handler Diana Chan, her mother and their Pointer Zephyr (featured in “Pets” last week) were present at the DWAA dinner this year too.
“For Adoption at Babylon Town Shelter (631- 643-9270) Lamar St. W. Babylon” are words typed here countless times. The Chihuahua-“Foxy” #13-82- is a big dog in a tiny dog’s body. “Callie May” #3-52, a young calico tabby, has a coat like a patchwork quilt. She purrs while you stroke her.
Cats: “Tiger” #3-47-young gray male; “Misty” –declawed black female.
Dogs: “El Presidente” #12-813- adorable Pit, office dog; “Peppy” #13-103- Shih tzu mix; “Polly” #13-104 sweet Pit mix.