Monday, 15 August 2022
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The Pet Issue: Let me tell you ’bout my best friend

For many of us, the relationship we have with our pet is the best one we’ve ever had. He never gets moody, he listens when you talk and he’s still interested in cuddles despite having seen you naked so many thousands of times. This issue takes into account the good, bad and furry side of pet ownership, because, while he’s usually down to eat anything (another plus!), sometimes that includes poop from the litter box. (Hey, every relationship has its compromises.)

By Caite Hamilton, Jonathan Haynes, Tami Keaveny, Jessica Luck, Erin O’Hare, Sam Padgett and Nancy Staab

A purrdy good life

Carr’s Hill kitty is a commewnal pet

Frat Cat, as she’s known on Grounds, can usually be spotted at her favorite haunt, Carr’s Hill. Photo by Stacy Smith.

University of Virginia groundskeeper John Sauer remembers the first time he saw the cat. It was a cold and rainy February morning, and the fluffy-tailed feline sauntered up to Carr’s Hill from the fraternity houses below.

This was back in 2005 or so, and it wasn’t unusual to see an animal roaming around—Carr’s Hill was a veritable menagerie during John T. Casteen III’s nearly 20-year tenure as UVA president.

There were the dogs, Whiskey, Brady and Alice (a storied wanderer); a parakeet; chickens; and Sebastian the cat, who decided to forsake the house for the garage, though he stood near the front door of the house to greet guests (and, at least once, shake a dead squirrel at some pearl-clutchers).

But this new cat, Sauer hadn’t seen before that morning. He and other folks at Carr’s Hill started calling her Frat Cat, assuming she belonged to one of the many frat houses nearby. Frat Cat soon moved into the garage with a reluctant Sebastian who eventually grew to tolerate her presence.

Sauer kept space heaters going for both cats in the winter, and a variety of folks made sure the cats were fed; Frat Cat and Sebastian both earned their keep by helping Sauer deal with a variety of pests in the garden.

When the Casteens moved out of Carr’s Hill and Teresa Sullivan moved in in 2010, both Sebastian and Frat Cat stayed on, though Sebastian died of old age a few years later.

“Over the years, especially after Sebastian’s death, Frat Cat would let me pat her and [she] would rub against my leg, but she would never sit in my lap like Sebastian,” says Sauer, who is perhaps Frat Cat’s closest friend on the hill, though the cat who tends to play it cool has had plenty of other pals over the years.

Carr’s Hill was recently fenced off for a multi-year renovation project, and the UVA presidential operation—including Sauer’s gardening duties—moved a few blocks away to Sprigg Lane. At the time, Frat Cat was suffering from ear mites, so Sauer took her to the vet. Upon their return to the Carr’s Hill garage, he posted her certificate of vaccination above the old food table in the corner of the garage, where Sauer keeps Frat Cat’s food and water. “The workmen at Carr’s Hill know who she is and have spotted her going in and out of the garage. I go up to Carr’s Hill…regularly to make sure the food and water are okay,” he says.

Frat Cat often ventures to the School of Architecture, and when it snows, she’ll disappear only to come trotting back in good shape. Sauer can’t help but worry about the inadvertent communal pet, but he knows he doesn’t have to, he says: “Her story is one of survival.”—EO

A lush new home for rescued parrots, thanks to Project Perry

Louisa’s parrot paradise provides a safe haven for exotic birds who have been illegally imported into the U.S. Courtesy of Project Perry.

Green-winged macaws, blue crown conures, scarlet macaws…the very names of parrots conjure images of exotic, covetable, brilliantly plumed birds. Combine this with a parrot’s uncanny intelligence, personality and way with language (at least in some cheeky breeds, like the African grey), and you have some of the reasons why the trade in pet parrots has exploded. But keeping parrots as pets is problematic. They can be extremely needy, aggressive, loud and, with an average lifespan of 40 to 80 years, likely to outlive their well-intentioned owners.

This is where Matt Smith, founder and executive director of Project Perry comes in. His lush nonprofit sanctuary in Louisa offers a safe haven for exotic birds that have been captured in the wild and illegally imported to the United States, raised as breeder birds to support the pet trade or simply in need of rescue or rehabilitation. According to Smith, “Most owners are poorly equipped to offer their birds the two things they need most: flight and flock.”

By contrast, Project Perry offers a veritable birds’ paradise—27 acres for spreading their wings (literally), ample opportunities for socializing among the 200-plus parrots, cockatoos and other smaller birds, and six climate-controlled aviaries equipped with closed and open-air atmospheres, playful perches, native vegetation and even spa-like mistings.

Most recently, the vibrantly hued macaws moved into their new home, quickly adapting to the 39,000-square-foot space that allows for impressive flight paths. Their spacious digs were named after and funded with a $200,000 donation from Bob Barker and his animal welfare foundation, DJ&T, in 2015. When Smith received the call informing him of the generous donation, he confesses to being “a little bit starstruck” to be speaking to the TV legend himself, “with that same gameshow voice we watched on ‘The Price is Right.’”

The inspiration for Project Perry (named after Smith’s deceased pet conure) came to Smith while volunteering at a bird sanctuary in New Hampshire. The need for a parrot sanctuary “opened up a whole new world to me,” says Smith. Soon after, he quit his health care job, relocated to his native Virginia and established his own sanctuary in 2006. “It was a completely grassroots movement,” he recalls. He purchased the initial acres of land in rural Louisa “because birds are noisy,” designed and built the aviaries by hand and recruited local volunteers. Twelve years later, the facility boasts four full-time caretakers and an accreditation from the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries.

Though Smith refuses to play favorites among his flock, he admits to a special fondness for Peach, an elderly African grey who was wild-caught in her youth for breeding purposes and is now “retired.” Arthritic, partially blind and deaf, the old bird still displays her “zest for life” via acrobatic displays and a fondness for her playmate Sparky, says Smith.

“They are really like little people,” he says. “They show love and crave attention. There is something very fascinating and exceptional about a bird that you can do that with.”—NS

Doggone it!

Safe to say Thomas Jefferson wasn’t a huge fan of dogs: “I participate in all your hostility to dogs and would readily join in any plan of exterminating the whole race,” he once wrote in a letter to a friend. “I consider them the most afflicting of all follies for which men tax themselves.”

That is until, during a trip to France, Marquis de Lafayette introduced him to the Briard, a guard dog known to be both excellent at herding and great companions to their owners. Jefferson paid 36 livres (about $6) for a pregnant one before boarding the ship back to America in 1789. She delivered two pups, which watched over his Merino sheep and served as household companions.

They didn’t accompany the third president to the White House, though. That honor went to Dick, one of Jefferson’s prized mockingbirds, whom he let fly around his office.—CH

Chickens, snakes and bees—oh my!

Classroom pets enhance learning

The Covenant School’s pet corn snake, Buttercup, provides a living learning opportunity. Courtesy of The Covenant School.

Pets are an unquestionably important part of our lives. From companionship, to teaching responsibility, there aren’t many lessons that can’t be learned by caring for a feathered, scaly and even chitinous friend. It’s this instructive aspect of pet ownership that has made critters mainstays of classrooms, allowing young students to dip their toes into the seas of responsibility. While the stereotypical idea of a class pet is something like a hamster named Chuckles, or a passively floating beta fish in a small bowl on the teacher’s desk, there are several local class pets that show the variety of ways they can be beneficial to young minds.

First, there is Buttercup, The Covenant School’s resident corn snake. Aside from being a living biblical allegory, Buttercup helps students “shed” their fear of snakes. Buttercup’s current chief caretaker, teacher Corrine Lennard, believes that “our general fear of snakes is a learned behavior.” She notes that Buttercup reminds her of a puppy, evaporating her students’ potential apprehension. “She loves being held and being close,” Lennard says. Most importantly, though, Lennard sees a great educational opportunity in Buttercup.

“Having a classroom pet is experiential learning at its finest,” she says. “Watching Buttercup shed her skin in front of the students was more valuable than any YouTube video.”

Also at Covenant, teacher Betsy Carter has been raising live chickens. Since the chicks are raised in an incubator in the classroom, the students are accordingly interested. Carter describes their hatching as a “zany” experience, but ultimately one that is fulfilling to her class. “For the most part, they all take pride in their roles as parents” she says.

One of the more unexpected local class pets—bees—is at the Waldorf School, which has recently built an apiary on its campus. According to the Waldorf’s gardening teacher, Dana Pauly, the bees are an indispensable teaching tool. While only certain students will directly handle the bees (barring any allergies), the insects’ presence alone on campus helps facilitate learning. “One of the things that a Waldorf education seeks to engender is a sense of wonder,” says Pauly. “For them to understand where their food is coming from and what’s involved in it is essential.”—SP

Recount your chickens

Rugby Hills were cock-a-doodle-bamboozled when a neighboring hen, Darlene, turned out to be a rooster.

The world can easily be divided into those who are morning people and those who are not—and you know who you are. For her part, Mother Nature has endowed us with morning animals. Enter the rooster, whose full-throttle, break-of-day crowing can needle even the cheeriest of early risers.

In April, when Rugby Hills resident Zak Billmeier was awakened by a bird “making a racket early in the morning,” he posted on NextDoor to ask if anyone else heard a rooster in the area, wondering if there was an ordinance: “I know female chickens are allowed in the city for making eggs, but does anyone know if a rooster is allowed?”

C’ville residents on the neighborhood social network dug in on both sides of the debate with tales of pastoral joy (“How lovely to hear farm sounds in town!”) and woe, with some citing the ordinance Sec. 4-8-Fowl at-large, which states it’s “unlawful for any person to permit any chickens, ducks, geese, pigeons or other fowl belonging to him to go at-large in the city,” and most conceding that the feathered noisemakers are a legal part of the local lifestyle.

A few months earlier, another Rugby Hills dweller, Jenn Silber, had purchased two young hens for the production of fresh eggs and named them Darlene and Ethel. Darlene developed beautiful tail feathers and grew larger than Ethel, then sometime around the six-month mark, Darlene let loose at sunrise and the Silber household realized it had a rooster on its hands.

“The first morning that Darlene started crowing, I immediately posted to NextDoor and our neighborhood Facebook group to apologize for the noise and let everyone know we were working on getting him back to the farm,” says Silber. “I had seen Zak’s post on NextDoor regarding a loud rooster in the Westwood/Rose Hill area a month prior.  It seemed like people were very divided about that rooster—some enjoyed the farm sounds and others were extremely bothered by the noise.”

Being that Silber wanted the hens for eggs, and roosters were creating an online dust-up, Darlene was exchanged for a hen about a week after his circadian rhythms had activated.

“I’m not a chicken-hater,” says Billmeier who wants to be sure neighbors know he’s supportive. “I was curious to know if they [roosters] were allowed in the city. I think it’s great that people can have chickens and get eggs.” The moral of this story? Keep counting your chickens after they hatch.—TK

Louie the tabby keeps his owners on their toes

That darn cat! Louie, who also appears on the cover of this issue, loves to join his owners on hikes along Rivanna Trail.

Stopping by the DJ booth at Wild Wing Café, chasing teenagers around the Downtown Mall, exploring the Charlottesville Fire Department—Jenn Spofford says it’s hard to know exactly how many people have crossed paths with her cat, Louie, on his travels. But it’s a lot.

“I think the funniest, strangest thing about Louie is his tendency to follow people,” Spofford says. “Even after three years, we get about a call a week from someone who has walked home and found him on their heels and eventually in their apartment.”

She and her partner, James Rutter, adopted Louie and his sister, Nico, from the SPCA in Lovingston at 8 weeks old, and found out pretty quickly after bringing them home that the kittens had an adventurous streak. But whereas Nico would prowl around and mainly keep to herself, Louie was much more friendly.

“He would explore the neighborhood, but if he saw someone walking by, he would start to follow them,” Spofford says.

Then, while housesitting for her family in the country, the couple went for a walk and noticed Louie trailing behind them.

“He would tag along for long hikes, and so in the last couple years we’ve decided to lean in,” Spofford says. “Our favorite place in town to go is Darden Towe Park, where we’ve hiked some portions of the Rivanna Trail and taken breaks by the river.”

And don’t even get her started on how Louie taught himself to use the restroom.

“One morning I walked in the bathroom and found him peeing in the toilet, with absolutely no training,” she says.—CH

Walking the walk

Give yourself—and your dog—a break

Cynthia Elkey started her first pet-sitting and dog-walking business three decades ago. Rover’s Recess has been offering pooches-and their owners-a break as a midday walking service since 1999. Photo by Tristan Williams.

Cynthia Elkey is so dedicated to her work, she’ll wriggle through a dog door to get to her clients. Elkey, owner of dog-walking business Rover’s Recess, had misplaced the key to the house of one of her clients (who were out of town for the week). Elkey didn’t have the housesitter’s number, so she scaled the backyard privacy fence and stuck her head through the door to gauge how big it was. Immediately, a barking Shar Pei came charging toward her—and began licking all over her face. Elkey was laughing as she tried to catch her breath between licks while squeezing through the dog door.

Elkey had wanted to be a veterinarian as a child, and when she was living in Alexandria, a friend mentioned she was doing some part-time pet sitting. In 1985, primo pet care was not the topic du jour—you either knew some neighborhood kids who helped take care of your pet or Fido went to the kennel. Elkey filled a niche and launched a petting-sitting and dog-walking business for the Northern Virginia area; when she sold it in 1998 she had 40 employees.

A year later, Elkey launched Rover’s Recess, a weekday dog-walking business that serves about 70 clients each month in Charlottesvilkle. New customers meet with Elkey in their home, along with the dog walker who is matched with their pooch. The goal is to make sure each canine feels comfortable with its walker—there’s only been one instance where a dog was too afraid to come out from under the bed, Elkey says.

Each Rover’s Recess walker sees four to eight clients a day, and walks them for between 15 and 45 minutes each (on hot or rainy days, walks are kept short or playtime is spent indoors). Elkey requires any new hires to commit to at least a year with the business (most employees are semi-retired and looking for part-time work) because she wants to make sure her clients feel comfortable and build a trusting relationship with their caretaker.

“You’re the highlight of their day,” Elkey. “Dogs wear their heart on their sleeve—they’re just great.”—JL

Walk this way

Cynthia Elkey gives a few tips for dog walking:

• Using a harness like Easy Walk that attaches on a dog’s chest and makes the walking experience easier.

• Walk against traffic, so you can see what’s coming.

• When the dog is outside, know you’re the last thing on its mind: “All they want to do is sniff the doggy newspaper, see who’s been walking around here,” Elkey says.

The Wildlife Center’s animal rehab

The Wildlife Center of Virginia urges people to not take care of wild animals on their own, instead recommending they contact the center. Courtesy of The Wildlife Center of Virginia

Oftentimes, when people encounter a wounded animal, they take it home and care for it themselves. The Wildlife Center of Virginia says don’t. It’s illegal and it has unintended consequences on the patient.

In some cases, this well-meaning nursing causes a bird to imprint on humans instead of other birds.

Gus, one of the center’s barred owls, imprinted on a human family that raised her during her early phases of development. She came to perceive her human caregivers as her own kind, which triggered behavioral issues, such as repeated attempts to mate with humans and an inability to mate with other owls.

Gus is housed outdoors in a five-acre tract of land that extends into the George Washington and Jefferson national forests, where the center shelters each animal in a custom-built, wooden enclosure screened with wired mesh. Most animals are treated or rehabilitated so they can be released back into the wild.

But some that cannot be released because of medical or behavioral issues—mostly snakes, raptors or opossums—are retained as “educational ambassadors” who assist the staff in teaching visitors about wildlife.

Gus is a popular ambassador.

Alex Wehrung, an outreach coordinator at the Wildlife Center, recommends that when people come across a sick or wounded animal, they contact his staff or the 200 other rehabilitators permitted by the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries to handle wild animals.

Tucked in a niche off the side of the road, the center operates in a lodge-like facility that provides office space for employees in one wing and a laboratory for animal care in the other.

It was founded in 1982 by Ed Clark in Weyers Cave, where it serviced wildlife until it relocated to its current location in Waynesboro in 1995. Relying entirely on donations, the nonprofit employs 20 full-time staff members and admits between 2,000 and 3,000 animals each year.

On its website, the center streams live feeds of some of its bear yards and flight tents, and it posts updates on most of the animals’ health—no matter the outcome. “We let people know that not all of our stories have a happy ending,” Wehrung says. “Sometimes we have to euthanize animals.”

Unlike a nature center, the Wildlife Center is not open to the public because of its obligations as a veterinary hospital. But individuals, businesses and schools can schedule a tour through the website.—JH

Top dog

Get to know the Downtown Mall’s gentle giant

Mozart the mastiff, says his owner, is as sweet as he is big. Photo by Eze Amos.

If Mozart likes you, he leans on you. He’ll take a seat at your feet and lean all 198 pounds of his apricot brindle body into you, a gentle invitation for a scritch on the head.

Not that there’s much Mozart doesn’t like, says his human, Susan Krischel, co-owner of the IX property downtown. The nearly 4-year-old English mastiff loves eating ice cream, sucking on stuffed animals, walking through puddles and playing with his best dog friend (who happens to be an 8-pound Pomeranian). Mozart is as sweet as he is big.

He’s lazy, too, requiring a nap after just a single tennis ball chase, or after four rambunctious laps around the coffee table in Krischel’s Downtown Mall apartment.

On their morning walks, Mozart—“Mozey” for short—stops when he’s tired and lies down spread-eagle, drooling and snoozing until he’s ready to proceed. Because of these rests and greetings from Mozart’s adoring fans, Krischel plans extra time into all of their walks. “He’s the ambassador of the mall,” she says of her pet. “A celebrity.”

At a recent party at IX Art Park, Mozart somehow made it into the MoxBox photo booth and sat there for two hours, getting his photo taken (sometimes wearing big plastic sunglasses) with more than 250 different people. He’s very agreeable, unless you’re a skateboarder—then he’ll bark at you.

Krischel especially loves when tiny kids run full-speed up to Mozart and fling their arms around his neck for a hug while the kids’ parents look on, wide-eyed—and possibly terrified—at what might happen. Mozart always just nuzzles them, she says. “He’s a big love muffin.”—EO

Therapy dogs provide helping paws to those in need

Kristen Bowsher and Kuiper, a Leonberger, make regular visits to UVA Hospital as part of a team with Therapy Dogs International. Courtesy of UVA Health System.

When Kiwi’s owner, Julie Walters, puts on her gentle leader and fluorescent green vest, the Labradoodle knows she’s going to work. Specifically, she’s volunteering as a therapy dog through Green Dogs Unleashed, which is a rescue/rehabilitation/therapy training nonprofit based in Troy. Green Dogs mainly rescues special needs dogs that are deaf, blind or amputees, and its therapy dogs run the gamut: Mr. Magoo is blind, and all ages and breeds have come through the program. Currently the organization has 26 teams of dog/human volunteers who visit schools, nursing homes and hospitals to help spread joy.

Walters started fostering dogs four years ago, first through the Fluvanna SPCA after seeing a photo of a dog-in-need on Facebook, then through Green Dogs (she’s fostered more than 65 dogs). After her children aged out of 4-H, she was looking for another way to volunteer and immediately thought of training a dog to help others. She went through the several-weeks-long training process (each segment takes six weeks) with two of her fosters, but both weren’t suited for the work. Then she got Kiwi when she was surrendered to Green Dogs at 4 months old. The puppy had been given up for “bad behavior,” but Walters says it was more likely a case of the original owners not understanding the breed they had gotten.

“They didn’t give her much of a chance,” she says.

Walters had a hunch Kiwi would make a great therapy dog, and says it was clear during training how much the year-old dog loved it: She was calm, paid attention to commands and—perhaps most important—loved the attention. “You can’t pet this dog enough,” Walters says.

Kiwi, 3, is a “foster fail”—as soon as she graduated from therapy training Walters knew she had to keep her; she had fallen in love with her. And Walters isn’t the only one.

The pair visits Central Elementary every Tuesday during the school year to interact with children who have attention deficit disorder. Starting their day petting or reading to Kiwi calms the students down. And Kiwi has become somewhat of a celebrity: During one of their twice-monthly visits to Mountainside Senior Living in Crozet, Walters said a child shouted across the parking lot, “Is that Kiwi?!”

Anne Gardner and her 18-month-old mixed breed, Chewy, just completed the Green Dogs therapy training program (including basic commands, therapy scenarios such as riding an elevator and walking near wheelchairs and learning nonverbal cues), where they met Walters and Kiwi. Although Chewy is still a puppy, Gardner says she’s eager to continue honing his skills so he can pass his test, and start working in schools and the hospital system. And he’s picking things up on his own. The Gardners have new neighbors with young children, and without being told, Chewy sits and waits for the kids to run up to greet him.

“I’m fortunate I have a home that can accommodate an animal; it’s something I know I get my own sense of joy and relaxation and purpose out of,” Gardner says. “There’s more than enough love to go around with these animals.”—JL

Get involved

For more information on fostering or getting your dog certified to be a therapy animal, go to


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