POSTED ON JUNE 20, 2012:
Thinking Outside the Litter Box
Not satisfied with the conventional dog or cat as a lone pet at home, many animal lovers are taking their husbandry to a new level with new methods and new species (at least to most domestic scenes). Dogs and cats, yes. But add now to the family mix chickens, lizards, pigs and any number of creatures that used to be booted out of the city -- including various branches of the rodent clan. We've ventured into urban back yards and suburban barn yards to find out what's up with this trend.
Pick a Peck
If there were such thing as the "it pet" of the moment, it would probably be urban chickens, and former country girl Cameron Dennis is all over this trend. Hailing from Oologah and now residing in Tulsa, this yoga instructor and musician missed the familiar crow of a rooster.
Her first idea was to get bees, but then she found out they were too expensive. "So I thought, 'Well, what's the next thing that I can get that will be cheaper and really easy to do?'" The answer was chickens. "They're here really for comic relief," she said. She didn't want them for the eggs; she wanted them because they're so cool.
She brought home four of them a few months ago, when they were just five weeks old. "They are part Dominique and part Silkie," she said, describing their breeds. They have the gorgeous coloring of a Dominique: black and white semi-stripes.
There's a large hen named Bertha and the other two hens are Ga and Ga (together: Gaga). The rooster, named Joe, probably won't get to stay at her house for very long, as he is learning how to crow. He's also "starting to get really aggressive," she said. "He's bit me several times and it is starting to hurt."
Interestingly, they like to roost in the trees. At first this was concerning because of the neighborhood cats running around, but it hasn't been a problem. "Hopefully they will lay their eggs in the coop," Dennis said, but she assumes they'll end up somewhere in the yard.
At this age, they are very easy to take care of. It's pretty much just giving them food and water. However, raising them from birth is much more intense. "I will probably do it again, but I would not recommend [it] to other people," she said. You really have to know what you're doing.
Since chickens are not domesticated animals, they don't have a bond with Dennis, although they do know her as the person who feeds them. She doesn't think they have emotions or personalities, but their behaviors can differ, especially Joe and Bertha's.
She enjoys having chickens around and will probably raise them on and off for the rest of her life. "I want to look out my window and see chickens. And I also want to live in the city, so now I'm having the best of both worlds."
If you're interested in urban chickens, Dennis recommends looking at backyardchickens.com.
Mother of two sons (Justin and Wyatt), Shari Nasworthy of Glenpool has adopted one of the other popular unique pets: a chinchilla. Several years ago, her oldest son wanted to get an unusual pet. He had really bad allergies and asthma, so they didn't own dogs or cats. At first he got a hamster, but they only have a life expectancy of 2-3 years, so before long it was time to find a new animal.
"He wanted a rat, and I could not handle the rat. I was too grossed out," she said. They went to the pet store to see their other options and her son was then drawn to the ferrets, but Nasworthy found their stench unacceptable. That's when they noticed the chinchilla. "It was just so adorable that we totally agreed together to get [it]." The Nasworthy's named their new chinchilla Mork. In Shari's eyes, the best part about him is he doesn't have an odor.
The chewing is the worst part. "We've been through several cages he's chewed out of," she said. She had to get creative, putting a Rubbermaid container underneath, finally solving the problem. "He's chewed up water bottles, he's chewed up food containers," she continued. At first they put him too close to the windowsill and he destroyed it. He also chewed a piece out of some antique furniture: a mom's worst nightmare.
However, Nasworthy said she loves that her children can learn responsibility through having a pet. When her oldest son got to high school, he decided to hand over the duties to his little brother. He cleans Mork's cage, feeds him and gives him water. He gives him a "dust bath" about once a week because chinchillas can't bathe in water; their dense fur holds moisture and can get moldy.
"They say they can't get ticks or fleas or any kind of insects because their fur is so dense, and I've never noticed him to have a problem with that. They're just very clean," she explained.
Since chinchillas need a lot of exercise, Mork has a wheel in his cage. "He's nocturnal, so he likes to exercise all night long," Nasworthy said. They have to keep him in a room where no one is sleeping because it's louder than you'd expect.
While males are friendly, female chinchillas have a "moodier disposition," she said. "If they don't like you, they will spray you with urine... You definitely want to get a male." According to Nasworthy, they "are not highly social." While anyone can pick them up and handle them, they don't really know the difference between their owners and other people.
Also, this is not an ideal pet for young children because they are very fragile. "Their ribs can break easily if they squeeze them too hard," Nasworthy said.
If you decide to bring a chinchilla into your home, be sure to hold them and never let go. They are nearly impossible to catch. Hopping like bunnies (only faster), "they'll do flips to get away from you."
Kirby Thomas, a teacher at McAuliffe Elementary, is the proud owner of a hedgehog. "I wanted a class pet. I wanted something for them to have that we could take care of, and I didn't want to do just your average hamster or fish," she said. "My next-door neighbor when I was a kid had a hedgehog and it was really nice... It would ball up and you could roll it around. It would sleep on you, and it was such a cool pet. I remember as a kid always thinking they were really cool, so I started investigating if you could buy them in Tulsa anywhere."
Soon Thomas discovered that the place to look for exotic pets around town is at PetSmiths in Bixby. She stopped in to check it out, saw that they had a bunch of baby hedgehogs and ended up leaving with one that day.
"I wanted the class to have ownership of him," she said, so the kids helped name him." She let them come up with some ideas of their own, but the one she had in mind won the vote. Belonging to a group of 5th graders, the name Cinco was simply perfect.
The students "take turns feeding him, making sure he has water and cleaning out his cage... It's just part of their job in the morning," Thomas said. They also trim his nails about once a month and give him occasional warm baths in the sink. Some hedgehogs love to bathe, but "Cinco hates every minute of it. He is not into it," Thomas said.
She said it's really important to keep hedgehogs warm. "He has a heat lamp. In the winter, if they get too cold they go into forced hibernation, which is really bad and it can kill them." Typically, they live 7-10 years. During their lives, they exercise by running on wheels and inside balls, just like hamsters. Sometimes Thomas lets Cinco wander around the classroom, if her students aren't too busy working on something that requires a lot of concentration.
They keep a pair of gloves in class, so students can pick him up. Thomas said she thinks he knows her smell and is comfortable enough not to get "spiky and nervous" when she handles him, but he is less familiar with other people. Along with getting prickly when agitated, he also bites sometimes. "He bit me the first day I had him," she said. One time he latched onto another teacher's finger and wouldn't let go. "That was probably the funniest thing that's ever happened."
Next year Thomas will be transitioning from teacher to librarian at McAuliffe, and Cinco is moving on up, right along with her. She will still let the students help take care of him, and she's excited for him to become the "library mascot."
Best in Show
Some people with average pets, like cats and dogs, have anything but an average relationship with them. For whatever reason, they are born with a capability to love animals with great intensity. Many of these people join clubs, professionally train their pets and sometimes compete with them or show them.
For Michal Oplotnik of Companion Dog School, dog training was part of her destiny. Her first experience with it came when she was a teenager. She taught her brother's dog how to walk with her off-leash and learned how to do it by reading a book. Still, she always considered herself a cat person, until she met her current husband, who at that time "had three Labradors and had been showing for quite a few years."
About a year later, she met and fell in love with Blaze, a Border Collie, and that's when she started officially training. She said her husband is a natural, but she has to work at it. "But I love animals. I absolutely love animals," she said. "I can't imagine not having a dog. I love my cats and I will always be a cat lover, but there's something special [about] the bond with my dog.
"I've been training just over 20 years. I always liked the showing too, though it is stressful. But I like teaching... helping people learn those little basics." She said there are many theories on training, but she prefers gentle correction. Her adorable Yorkie, Harvey, helps her demonstrate lessons in class.
In typical obedience shows, "there is confirmation, obedience, rally and agility," Oplotnik said. Companion Dog School is considering also having a scent competition. With additions like that, "there are more opportunities to do more with your dog.
"We are a U.K.C. (United Kennel Club) sanctioned club, so we actually put UKC shows on here. We have obedience, we have separate agility shows," she said. "We do the rally also," which is a more casual, timed obedience course. Some members don't show their dogs; they just enjoy taking classes. The competitive members are at the school 2-3 times a week, practicing at least an hour every day at home.
Oplotnik said she has loved animals for as long as she can remember. She thinks of Harvey as her baby, a part of her family, and looks forward to seeing him every day when she gets home. She said she will always have a four-legged friend around, and couldn't imagine life any other way.
Cockatiels and Koi
Michelle Kincaid, a receptionist from Owasso, shares Oplotnik's love of dogs. She has a Giant Schnauzer named Rebel; two Yorkshire Terriers, Scruffy and Pumpkin; and Buddy, a Schnauzer mix. But that is just the beginning of her long list of animals.
She has a passion for koi fish, and her backyard has become a refuge for homeless cockatiels. She has a large aviary that once held as many as 17 birds simultaneously.
"So many people just decide they don't want their cockatiels and I feel sorry for them," she said. At one point she thought she'd get rid of the aviary, but these birds just keep falling into her lap. She's got the perfect setup for them, which includes a cold weather shelter and open space as well. "They can go in and out... When the rain's coming down, they'll move over to [the] perches and they'll hang upside down and spread their wings out, catching the rain. It's so cool to watch."
It makes her feel good to help these birds out when no one else wants them. "I feel like I'm doing a good service," she said. Since they're tame, she can go in there and spend time with them. "They'll come and lie on my shoulders or they'll come and talk to me through the wire when I'm feeding and watering everybody."
But her love of birds doesn't stop there. "I've got two parrots indoors, Willow and Echo. Willow is a Blue Front Amazon and Echo is a Timneh Grey," she said. Echo copies different sounds in the house, such as the beeping of the microwave, and Willow likes to use words. According to Kincaid, "she can say everything."
Perhaps even more than birds, Kincaid adores fish. "They have personalities like puppies almost," she said. She has an Oscar Fish named Tony. Just like a dog, Tony gets excited when you give him a treat (in this case, a worm). The star of her other tank is a Violet Goby named Draco. Describing him as "eel-like," she said he's "about 12 inches long now.
"Then I have my koi pond outside, which I dearly love. It's like my little peaceful garden. It takes a lot of work, but it's worth it... They're even more like puppies," she said. You can feed them right out of your hands and they follow you around when you're out there. Naturally, she has all 18 of them named: Hot Lips, Darth Vader, Princess Di, Han Solo, Butterscotch, Chewy, Pickles, etc.
"I go to a lot of the koi shows and I'm real active in my koi club. I'm a member of Ikona, which is an Internet koi club and we meet [about] once a month on Saturdays on Skype," she said. People from all over the world participate in these meetings. A lot of the people in the club show their fish, although Kincaid does not. Koi shows are similar to dog shows; they're judged on different things such as their breeding and size.
Her turtle, Paddles, shares the pond with the koi. When it's time to eat, "they just knock him out of the way because he's about the size of a small dinner plate now, but the koi are big. They're like 26 inches long." She said she's always been "turtle crazy" and has had several throughout her life.
Her love of animals is everlasting.
A Horse of Course
If you want to spend every penny you earn on a pet, here's a great idea: Buy a horse! As Broken Arrow native and lifetime horse fanatic Caitlin Parham knows, those things aren't cheap.
"Most of the full care barns are around $500 a month," she said. That doesn't include de-worming, farrier visits, vet visits, shots, blanketing, tack purchases, fly spray or any of their daily needs. "And that's not including lessons, which start around $40 an hour."
In Parham's mind, it's all money well spent. "I loved horses from longer than I can consciously remember. It was never a decision, and even with the financial hardships and the complicated situations (like injuries) that I've dealt with, it's just an absolute in my life. You can't separate me from horses. It's who I am."
She loves them for their beauty and companionship. "They require so much of your attention and love that they are basically children to you," she said, explaining her deep connection to them. She also loves "the extremely rewarding feeling that you get from working with them and seeing progress."
On the other hand, she worries constantly about something happening to them, noting their fragility. Her mare was very accident prone and even experienced colic, which is the most common cause of death in horses, with the exception of old age. "She spent a lot more time hurt than she did well. But fortunately so far my geldings haven't had any of the same problems," she said.
Many of us have rescued pets that needed a home, but it's quite possible that nobody has a bigger heart for animals than Tinisha Cotta. "During the last eight years, I've spent all of my spare time as an advocate for animals with local rescue groups," she said. She has rescued four pot-bellied pigs: Missy, Chloe, Lucy Lu and Precious, and they all live with her and her husband in Broken Arrow.
When Cotta was a senior in high school, Missy was about 3 weeks old and her mother had passed away. "She needed a place and my mom couldn't say no, so I brought her home," she said. She had to bottle feed her and let her sleep in her bed, raising her as an "only child" for two years. After she got married, her husband said one was enough, but she continued to work with a rescue foundation and ended up keeping three more.
"They're very simple. Their needs are easy, but they need to be met. A lot of people neglect those needs," she said. Hoof trimming is very important; if you don't do that, their feet become crippled. Tusks also need to be trimmed. Their ears and eyes should be cleaned regularly. "Males have to be neutered. Otherwise they stink horribly," she said.
While she loves them, she still says, "This isn't a pet for everybody." Hamalot Pot Bellied Pig Rescue will make sure you know what you're getting yourself into before giving you one of their pigs. They also do a home check.
Cotta said her pigs show unconditional love, just like a dog would. But raising them "is like having a three year old child that never grows up." She has dealt with behavioral issues and even biting, and she has to discipline them as if they were human children.
With a baby on the way, she knows she can't take in any more pigs. It's expensive, and her husband doesn't share her love of them. Plus, they can live up to 20 years or so, which makes traveling nearly impossible. "It's a commitment," she said, and one she will probably at least need a break from.
Some passionate pet owners get insurance for their furry (or not so furry) friends. Insurance companies claim it can be cost effective due to rising vet bills. Sometimes pets can get incredibly expensive, if they get really sick or have a damaging injury, but most people prefer to take their chances and pay out of pocket when problems arise.
Somewhat surprisingly, even Oplotnik and her most active friends at Companion Dog School said they don't have pet insurance. A lot of them have looked into it, but didn't like the "fine print." Oplotnik said her last Border Collie developed seizures and every so often they had to pay for blood work and tests. Since they spent so much money on that dog, she has wondered if she should look into getting insurance. "Her last six months or so, I was spending probably $200 a month on meds," she said.
Kincaid has looked into getting insurance, but didn't really know if it was worth the money. "I'm hoping that eventually it will be where it's really affordable," she said. She had a Giant Schnauzer who ate a tube sock and had to have surgery to remove it. "It was like $350 to do the surgery," she said.
Chinchilla owner Nasworthy has a friend who spends about $800 a year on pet insurance for her dog. "She had a pet that died of cancer, and the treatments are so costly," she said. "A chinchilla will run you around $100, but I don't know if it's worth it. And there's very few vets that will work on small animals." She said she would only consider insurance if she had an animal of a higher value. The most she's ever spent on her chinchilla was $75 to treat an infection in his leg.
Cotta is doubtful she'd be able to get insurance for her pigs, since they are obese. Their previous owners didn't raise them properly. In any case, "once a pig shows signs of being sick, it's usually too late because they're strong," she said. Plus, she does most of her own vet care.
"They do have pet insurance for horses and that's actually something that we're looking into," Parham said. "My boys are so important to me and I really want them to be protected, and they're being handled by people who are not me. So that is something I've started to realize has become very important, and a lot of people I know do have it.
"With horses, not only do you have death insurance and illness insurance, but you have loss of use insurance because the horse a lot of the time is your athletic partner."
Rest in Peace
The worst part about having a pet is saying goodbye. Many people bury their lost animals in their backyard, but others choose cremation or a pet cemetery. Some of the crematories offer jewelry that holds your pet's ashes, memorial plaques, engraved urns and more.
"I have two cats at Pet Memorial Gardens in Norman," Oplotnik said. "My Blaze is in a special urn, and I still sometimes go up and say 'hi' to him. I don't even go to gravesites of people."
Wendy Barnett with Companions Forever, a 16-year-old local company, said at least 80 percent of their clients "choose to have a private cremation to get their pets' ashes back." These clients can scatter the ashes in a special place or keep them if they'd rather. Noting our "mobile society," Barnett said that cremation allows people to take their pets with them if they move. Others prefer to have the ashes scattered at Companions Forever's Pet Memorial Wall, 40 acres south of Glenpool.
"I've always just buried mine at home," Kincaid said. "I'm kind of worried [about] what I'm going to do with Rebel because he's so big... I bury all my koi fish outside, and the same thing with my birds." Hedgehog owner Thomas and pig rescuer Cotta bury their pets at home as well.
No matter what, they all know that these animals will live on in their hearts and memories forever. There is nothing like a truly great, cherished pet, and if anybody understands that it's these dedicated, caring people.
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