My Dad’s a vet, and my Uncle Chuck was a zookeeper, so you can see what I mean when I say I grew up around animals. One of my earliest memories is playing with kittens in a hay mound while Dad put the calf-bed back into a cow. We kids tagged along to help Dad on emergency visits, rubbing new-born pups from C-sections and holding limbs during surgeries. Twice Dad brought home leopard cubs from the zoo that the mother was too anxious to care for. (He could tell because the mom had licked the skin off the first one’s tail. Dad amputated it; we called him Bobby.) The cubs slept in an incubator and Mom wore leather gloves to bottle-feed them. They had the run of the house and trailed along on our Sunday walks in the woods. They were probably the most exotic animals we had around growing up (except for maybe the baby polar bear in Dad’s office), but pets of all sorts were always showing up in our yard or coming home with Dad: cats, geese, spraddle- legged ducks, goats, three-legged or one-eyed dogs, chickens (in the laundry room), cows, peacocks with abscessed beaks that scared the neighbor sober, guinea hens, a foundered pony (in the basement), an orphaned woodchuck, a stray pot-bellied pig (OK, I brought home that one), even a series of one-legged finches rescued from Woolworths (“I got them half off!” Dad crowed.)
And Uncle Chuck was a zookeeper at the Erie Zoo, where Dad was zoo vet. Uncle Chuck raised the baby alligators in his bathtub and took no guff from anybody, including the monkeys that threw poop; he threw the poop back. He nursed Bubbles the elephant through colic and stayed up nights with the big cats when they were ill. One of my backdoor trips to the zoo involved a black panther that had fallen asleep with its tail twitching into the Bengal tiger cage. I held what remained of the tail as Dad worked on it. I remember hearing someone say, “She’s passing out!” and Dad answering, “Prop her against the wall; she’ll be fine.”
When I moved back to Erie in 1993, Dad told me that the veterinary hospitals in the area faced a crisis in caring for pets after they had passed away. With his help, I founded Animal Friends Cremation Services on the same beautiful farmland where I’d grown up with all those wonderful animals 25 years before. My crematorium is in the pole barn we built for the pony who started in the basement. I know it’s a privilege to care for these precious creatures we all love; of course, that includes the zoo.