Love, Animals & Miracles
Inspiring True Stories Celebrating the Healing Bond
By Bernie S. Siegel, Cynthia J. Hurn
New World Library Copyright © 2015 Bernie S. Siegel
All rights reserved.
The Siegel Zoo
She filled her own mouth with warm milk, put the wheat straw between her lips, and slanted the straw down to the mouth of the little racoon.... "This is the way you have to feed him, Sterling."
— Sterling North
The first thing you heard when you entered our house was chirping crickets, followed by an ever-varying mixture of sounds: squawks, purrs, chirrups, squeaks, barks, and so on, plus the talking, yelling, and laughter of kids and adults. When I tell people our house was a zoo, I'm not kidding.
Our circular street hems a rise of wooded acreage that is divided into several properties. On one side of our house, we fenced about thirty-eight hundred square feet for the animals and built a small barn at the end for the goats. In the mornings, when I would leave for the hospital, I'd let all the animals who preferred to be outdoors into this enclosure, where they'd stay until evening. Dogs, cats, goats, ducks, geese, skunks, squirrels, bunnies, and so on — all got along.
Inside the house, turtles lived in kiddie pools under artificial sunlight. I built platforms so they could climb out of the water, soak in the light, and go back in again whenever they wanted. Did the turtles get out of the pools now and again? Did I find turtle eggs in my shoes? Oh yes. Before I stepped into my shoes, I always tipped them up. If there was an egg — about an inch or so in diameter — it would roll to the heel. I'd take it out and put it in the incubator until it hatched.
Each of our five children had their own preferences for animals they raised. They educated themselves by attending lectures on the species they were caring for, and it was fascinating to hear them repeat what they'd learned.
Our son Stephen was the one interested in herpetology. We put a dead tree in his room, where, among snakes and other reptiles, he raised and bred Jackson's chameleons. These ate crickets, so he bred those too; and year-round, that end of the house sounded like summer. The chameleons wouldn't stay in Stephen's room. Sometimes you'd see them hanging from a painting in the hallway or in another unexpected place.
Among the guinea pigs and various other creatures Jeffrey raised were quail, for he was doing something with quail eggs. John had the keeshond dogs, named Oscar, Ike, and Nicky. Carolyn had the parakeet, Tweeter. And Keith, who was interested in pretty well everything, had tanks in his room for exotic turtles and frogs. While Stephen's crickets brought summer to the household symphony, Keith's frogs made it sound like spring. My wife, Bobbie, and I had the cats — Miracle, Gabriel, Dickens, and Penny — and the smaller dogs. All these animals had cages or cardboard boxes where they slept at night, and the rest of the time they were free to wander through the house. We had creatures with fur, feathers, skin, and scales living in the house. I told visitors, "If you see a mouse running across the living room, don't scream. He's family." Sometimes it was hard to get babysitters. If they weren't comfortable with animals, they were in big trouble. We broke many zoning laws, but no neighbors reported us, nor did the police, because they knew it was done out of love for these creatures.
The largest animals we had were the goats. I'd be standing in the yard chatting with a neighbor, and suddenly, wham! There's a hoof on each of my shoulders. The goats used us as props to reach their favorite tree leaves. We also had ducks and geese in the yard, many of them hatched in the incubator. When the chicks hatched, the first beings they saw were our children, so the birds imprinted on them, thinking these human kids were their parents.
Every day the school bus would pick up our kids at the bottom of the drive. The ducks and geese would follow the kids, watch them get on the bus, and, when they were gone, waddle back to the yard. When the bus returned in the afternoon, the ducks and geese were already lined up, waiting by the road for their "parents" to get off the bus. Eventually we had too many waterfowl to keep them all at the house. My parents lived beside a lake, so we took the ducks over there and released them. Days later my mother called to say that every time a school bus turned up their road, the ducks deserted the lake and lined up for the bus, watching and waiting for their family to come home. Imagine that. It broke my heart, but the ducks needed a good place to live.
All our animals had names. We didn't talk about "the snake" or ask, "Where's the turtle?" We talked about Monty Python or asked, "Where's Paris?" A name might reflect something about the animal's personality or traits, as in the case of the racoons at our summer house on Cape Cod: Bobbie named them Raisin and Beggar. We wouldn't call a three-legged dog Tripod, focusing on its handicap. Instead we'd name it Hope or Luck. I could stand in the yard shouting, "Has anybody got Hope? I need Hope!" Or I might say, "Uh-oh, my Luck has run out."
One day I came home with one more rescued dog, and Bobbie said she didn't want any more creatures leaving "furphies" all over the furniture, which was what she called those little clumps they shed. Suddenly I knew — that's it! I handed her the dog and said, "His name is Furphy." Bobbie laughed.
"Okay," she said, "he can stay," and Furphy became family.
When we went on vacation, the animals came too. With five kids, the best solution to summer was a house on Cape Cod. We didn't bring the geese or ducks, but all the four-legged animals came, and we brought fencing to keep them safe. Everybody piled into the big suburban station wagon; the kids sat in the two front rows and the animals in the back. People would turn and gape as our car passed. You'd hear them say, "That's a goat!"
Before we left the house, we'd do a head count, which included the animals. Upon arrival at the Cape, everybody would go in and unpack, but there was always someone missing from the roll call. If you came in the house and thought, "Oops, there's a frog missing," you went back out to the car and looked until you found it hiding under the seat.
The kids also liked summer camp, where they were allowed to bring their animals. Our son Jeff brought his goat. The camp always had a pregnant cow, giving kids a chance to experience a delivery while they were there. One year the cow went into early labor on the day the camp opened, and I stepped in to help deliver the calf. The cow was lying down with all the kids crowded around, making noise and scaring her, and her labor kept stopping. I got the kids to be quiet and just watch.
I explained the process while petting the cow and reassuring her that all would be well, and then the calf finally appeared. I helped the calf out and taught the counselor what to do with the umbilical cord, the placenta, the mama cow, and her calf. It worked out very well, but I was sorry they didn't name the calf Bernie.
Living with a variety of animals, both at summer camp and at home, taught the kids respect for other living creatures, and it also blessed them with memories they still share and laugh about. Our daughter, Carolyn, had her bedroom next to Stephen's, making her vulnerable to the tricks brothers play on their sisters. Carolyn was happy to write down some of those memories for this book, and reading them made me laugh, bringing back so many wonderful memories. Allowing your children to grow up with animals is a gift that never stops teaching.
Growing Up the Siegel Way
Carolyn Siegel McGaha
* * *
It was the rat snake who worried me the most; he had gone missing for several months. He had a reputation for getting away and showing up in the strangest of places. The first time he escaped, I took the cover off my old IBM typewriter to discover "Monty Python" curled on top, glaring at me with that intense snake stare. Of course I let out a whoop and holler, and my brothers thought it was hilarious. The next time Monty went missing, they started leaving rubber snakes outside my door. I'd wake up, open the door, step on the snake, and scream — great entertainment for them, but not for me!
I soon realized it was better not to react; I'd just pick up the rubber snake and fling it at my brother's door. One day I came out of my room, and there it was again. I reached down to pick up the fake snake ... but it moved! I let out a blood-curdling scream and ran down the hall and into the yard, where my family was. I'd had such a scare I could hardly get the words out to answer the question "What on earth are you yelling about?" Finally, I screamed at Stephen, "Your snake — at my bedroom door!" The whole family ran into the house, and sure enough, there was Monty guarding my door. This time Stephen made the tank secure, making sure Monty Python didn't do his Houdini act again.
Another animal that used to go on walkabout was the kinkajou, a nocturnal mammal from South America, sometimes called a honey bear. Kinkajous look like a cross between a monkey and a racoon; in fact, they come from the same family as racoons. Dad had rescued ours after someone abandoned it, and "Kinki" spent the evenings in a roomy cage downstairs. Once when I was about ten years old and my parents were away for a few days, we had a babysitter staying with us. I had noticed little powdered footprints all over my parent's bedroom, but I said nothing about it, even though it did seem odd, with them being away. Later that evening, company dropped in, and we gave them a grand tour of our big house with all the zoo animals. When I opened the door to the bathroom, talcum powder was all over the floor, and there was Kinki sitting on the toilet, just like a human. Days earlier Dad had put Kinki in diapers, but Kinki had scraped them off by dragging his butt on the ground. Maybe now Kinki was toilet training himself. It was the funniest thing we'd ever seen. We finally enticed our nocturnal friend back into his cage with a nice banana.
We were always rescuing animals and taking them in. Sometimes they'd been found wandering, or the local vet would call about an exotic animal that people could no longer cope with. We would observe Dad while he attended to their injuries, did emergency cesareans, or gave them mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. I loved growing up like that.
I had just got my driver's license when I saw an injured pigeon on the side of the road. I picked him up, put him in the back of my truck, and brought him straight home. Dad and I bandaged his leg and put him in the bathtub with food and water. We named him Louis.
It took several months to nurse Louis back to the state of health in which he could be safely set free. But when he was fully recovered and we brought him outside, Louis refused to leave! He flew into the tree, and for days he just stayed there. We put food out to make sure he was okay; then, after five or six days, Louis flew away, never to be seen again. It broke my heart, but knowing that we'd saved Louis and given him the freedom to make his own choice softened the blow.
Saving lives is a family tradition I carry on to this day. A few years ago, I purchased an Australian snake-necked turtle without knowing it had an ear infection. I came home and found it lying upside down in the turtle tank, not moving, not breathing. When I picked him up, his legs just dangled. I was determined to save him!
Holding him at face level, I began gently blowing air into his face, while pulling his front legs in and out, in and out, for over an hour, just like I had seen Dad do. The turtle took his first breath in a mighty gulp about twenty minutes into my work. Then water came out of his poor little nose. Finally, he came to and started moving around. As I drove him to the vet, such a beautiful feeling overwhelmed me. I had just saved a turtle's life!
Another time, Ginger, our toy poodle, choked on a piece of food that had fallen off the table. My husband said, "Ginger is having a seizure," but I realized from her purplish color and the lack of any sign of breathing that it wasn't a seizure. Inserting my hand down her throat, all the way to my wrist, I did the finger sweep, and pulled out a slice of onion that had become lodged in her windpipe. She immediately jumped up and started running around, so happy to be alive.
Several days ago we found a female snapping turtle that had been killed. Every year she used to make her journey from the pond across the road to my yard, where she'd lay her eggs. Sometimes she would be so exhausted after laying her eggs that we'd place her in a bucket, carry her back to the pond and release her. It was the least we could do.
I now felt it was my duty to save this turtle's offspring, so I called Dad to get his blessing for opening her up, and he replied with a yes. We managed to rescue all of her thirty-eight eggs. We placed them carefully into the soil where she used to lay, and we put wiring around the area to protect them from predators. We've since been eagerly awaiting the hatchlings.
When your children are raised with animals and taught to be responsible for their care, you help your kids to become caring, gentle people. Our son Stephen recently wrote to me about his encounter with an animal in need of assistance.
I'm in Virginia for two weeks. I went for a walk yesterday near the woods and found this baby hatchling turtle all dried out and lying in the middle of the road. I picked him up and spent a half hour looking for a pond to let him go in. No idea how he got in the middle of the highway to begin with. He must have been really lost and didn't want to ask directions (that's how I knew it was a male turtle).
Stephen went to law school and became an FBI agent. It really shook me at the commencement ceremony when I learned that agents' work requires them not only to carry a gun but also to be prepared to use it. So when I read his email I was thinking, "Here's a guy with a gun who goes out of his way and spends half an hour just to help a turtle." And I was so proud of him. No matter what may happen to him while in the line of duty, he had been impregnated with the understanding that we are here to save lives, and he carries that with him wherever he goes. He sees the funny side of things too. Laughter is a great healer when we're sick, and it strengthens our immune system during times of stress.
Animals often inspire us to create. When I write poetry, it helps me to make sense of the world or to have a good laugh at myself, especially when it includes the animals, as in the following poem.
What Is So Important I Can't Sleep
I need to get out of bed
And then I will write my book
And then I will enlighten the world
And then I arise
And then I uncover the rabbit cage
And then I open the cage
And then I rub her back
And then I feed her
And then I clean the cage
And then I clean the fish pond
And then I clean the kitty litter
And then I let our cats out
And then I fill the bird feeders
And then I walk our dog
And then I jog to Jeff's house
And then I pet his lonesome cat
And then I use his exercise equipment
And then I feed his dogs
And then I check on his chickens
And then I feed his ducks
And then I go home
And then I eat breakfast with my wife and pets
And then I decide what my life is truly about
And to write the book tomorrow
He needed the companionship of a family member. Someone who was there for him, who had proven time and time again her devotion to him. He slept as a child curled up in her [elephant] trunk. His tears were known only to her.
— Ralph Helfer
The main building block of any society has always been family, followed by community. Ancient books, such as the Bible, teach about a spiritual family, one drawn "of all nations, and kindreds, and people, and tongues" (Revelation 7:9). The defining characteristic of a spiritual family is love for one another.
Consider a line in one of Robert Frost's poems: "Home is a place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in." Think how secure you feel if you know that no matter what happens in your life, your family will let you in. That's powerful.
One day while we were at a family event, I was looking at my mother, when it suddenly hit me that every single person in the room was alive because of her; they came from her. It struck me then how incredibly important each and every being is. Without them, so much would never exist — would never happen. Whether it's Adam and Eve or your mother and father, we're talking about the beginning of life: it just expands and goes on.
When we help another living thing, we are immortalizing ourselves, kids or no kids. We are giving birth to spiritual family. Lloyd Biggle Jr. said to "guard the life of another creature as you would your own, because it is your own." Animals accept you as family; when you feel their love — the sharing, the forgiving — you know they're attached to you, and your life is not empty. (Continues...)
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