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Heavy Petting

[whitespace] Bridget the toy poodle
Robert Scheer

Toeing the Line: Waiting patiently for another coat of nail polish to dry, Bridget the toy poodle ponders the lengths owners will go to for their pets.

Pets have scrambled up the social ladder, from companions to surrogate children to full-fledged peers. No indulgence is too luxurious, too expensive or too weird for Fifi and Fluffy.

By Kelly Luker

BRIDGET THE TOY POODLE looks beseechingly at me, a paw held high in the air by Reeni the pet groomer. Reeni continues talking while absently fanning the air around Bridget's paw, trying to speed the drying of the cotton-candy-pink nail polish adorning the five little claws. Those glossy nails will perfectly match the beaded pink bow that now rests in the teased and hair-sprayed bob on Bridget's head.

This surreal moment--when it becomes uncomfortably apparent that dogs may have access to better hairstylists than most of my friends--is only the first of many to come. Bridget is on the first leg--ahem--of a quest. Testing the theory that anything that's strange enough, exotic enough or New Age enough for humans will soon be on sale for pets, Bridget has agreed to enter the belly of the beast.

Offering herself up as an animal-research subject, the silver-haired beauty will spend the next few weeks sniffing out the delightfully rich, slightly decadent fields of '90s pet indulgence. She will discover more about her inner poet, her energy fields, healing chakras and astrological portents than one pup ever thought possible. Then again, maybe she won't, seeing as Bridget appears to be equally content rolling around in ripe gopher guts.

Our first stop is the Pet Spa in Los Gatos, where Reeni the pet groomer ("No last name, please") has been scrubbing, shaping and shearing man's and woman's best friend for a dozen years now and can share a wealth of information on the people-pet bond.

"They go through moods, just like we do," Reeni assures me. She loves to watch her little charges get all charged up after the primping and fussing.

"We have dogs who think they're all that after we fix them up," she says with a laugh. Bridget may not be one of those, unfortunately, because Bridget is doing what she does best--trembling uncontrollably. It is a phenomenon not uncommon to small dogs but it is unnerving to watch, especially when one is hoping for a more all that attitude.

Bridget shakes away on the stainless-steel grooming table, the claws from her remaining three paws tapping out a hectic samba on its surface. Lest one smell animal abuse here, rest assured. Bridget is neither wet nor cold nor frightened. Bridget quivers uncontrollably watching the screen saver change on a computer. Bridget looks like she has Parkinson's disease when the phone rings. It may be what tiny dogs do, but it heads the list of "issues" that we will be discussing with the New Age pros.

Working here in Los Gatos, Reeni and her co-workers get their share of Silicon Valley pet owners with way more money than time. Besides the requisite trim and fluff, Pet Spa has expanded its services to include herbal remedies, animal "communicators," pet-sitting, pet-walking and the ever-enjoyable yard clean-up. Any one of those services offers a Lewis Carroll-esque tumble into the dimension of pets as people. Pet Spa's pet-sitter Inge Keese-Farkas likes to tell of some of her more interesting clients.

"I pet-sit two cats," the emigré reports in a German accent. "I have to put on--not just TV--but the Disney channel at night and news during the day." Then she tells of other charges that are fed hand-prepared, carefully cooked meals.

"We don't have this in Germany," Keese-Farkas says thoughtfully.

[line]

Pets are good for you--up to a certain point.

[line]

'IT'S ESCALATED exponentially in just the last 10 years," agrees Kasey Grier, Ph.D., musing about the blurring of boundaries between the furry ones and us. A social historian who teaches at the University of South Carolina, Grier's specialty is 19th-century domestic life, particularly pet-keeping.

Grier is offering a reality check to my question--namely, is it just my imagination, or do pets seem to be scampering ever more quickly up the social ladder? Once content to see them as companions, we have gradually nudged our little four-footed buddies up the scale to surrogate children and now, it seems, peers. Not only have they pulled up a chair to the family table--in some cases, literally--but animals appear to have recently acquired a range of skills that far exceed "fetch" and "roll over."

A quick sweep through the local bookstore offers up titles that promise to reveal in our furry friends deep emotions, spiritual souls, complex thoughts and, often, superior relationship skills compared to the humans on the other end of the leash. The curious reader can learn When Elephants Weep, about The Dog Who Loved Too Much, What Do Dogs Know? and the answer to one of life's most vexing questions--What Your Cat Is Trying to Tell You. Indeed, there seem to be untold depths behind what appears to be the casual hacking up of a fur ball or the frantic hump of a leg. Our quest, then, will be to find a meaningful resolution for Bridget's quaking and shaking.

Although my editors would not pay for a nervous-system transplant to cure Bridget's anxiety disorder, they would spring for acupuncture--not a bad second.

We find ourselves in the office of a Santa Cruz veterinarian/acupuncturist, the exquisitely named Dr. Elizabeth Sharp. Maybe it's the smell of hundreds of victims that have gone before her, but Bridget begins quaking almost before we have walked through the door. By the time Sharp leads us into the examination room, the Silver Bullet (as she is affectionately called) is reverberating like a piston engine.

Sharp first tilts Bridget's head back and drops in a few drops of Rescue Remedy, a Bach flower essence that is a staple in any holistic healer's medicine bag. It allegedly calms a worried beast--or human--and Sharp suggests I stock up on it for home treatments. One assumes she means for the dog.

The veterinarian begins placing micro-thin needles in the little poodle's "energy points" as we continue talking.

"People and dogs are very similar," says Sharp, as she feels for an entry point at the crown of Bridget's skull. She and her class learned acupuncture by working on each other, but she notes that there are ancient Chinese drawings of acupuncture points not only for dogs but also for pigs and horses. Once considered New Age, acupuncture has slowly been treading into the mainstream and has finally been given a grudging nod of acceptance by the National Institutes of Health.

I am trying mightily to pay attention to Dr. Sharp, but am somewhat distracted by a trembling, acupunctured Bridget, looking for all the world like a porcupine with a bad case of palsy.

"You can't hurt them," assures Dr. Sharp, as if reading my mind. "If the chi isn't there, you'll pull up empty." Every Age of Aquarius dilettante knows that chi is the Chinese concept of life-force energy, and I find it troubling that the good doctor might hit a well tapped dry of life force. Or something.

On the other hand, one can also suck out too much chi.

"On the older animals, you can only put in a few needles or you'll drain them," Sharp says. "They'll sleep for three or four days."

But the doc has apparently hit the chi meridians just right. Within minutes of needle placement, Bridget stops shaking and slowly melts into a contented heap on the table.

"They get to love it," Sharp laughs, as she places a few more needles in to stimulate Bridget's "health" points. "The kids come in all happy and talking--they know the routine."

Like Reeni the Pet Groomer before her, and virtually all the professionals we will visit with later, Sharp seems to shy from the old-fashioned terminology "pet and owner." It appears to have gone the way of other politically incorrect phrases, like "man and wife" or "crippled people."

It was once an embarrassing secret that we thought of Scooter and Snowball as our little babies. Now, the lingua franca among worker bees in the pet-service industry--vets, groomers and psychics--portrays one big, happy fur-and-flesh blended family. The "kids," in this case, have claws and paws. The kids do not bark or meow--it's assumed that they are merely using a rather quaint method to chatter away at the "parents" (that would be you and me). Although we may not understand what they are saying, there are folks who know what they're thinking. But we'll get to that.

As Bridget gently snores away, Sharp explains that she does three or four acupuncture treatments a day. A typical vet, Sharp also sets broken bones, removes foxtails and dislodges unusual objects from the intestinal tracts of inquisitive pets. But with her Rescue Remedy and acupuncture needles, Sharp is one of the few animal docs in this area who combines East and West medicine for her charges.

Bridget the toy poodle
Psychic Petwork: Bridget shudders visibly upon hearing the words of her pet psychic over the phone. How is it possible that a complete stranger can know so much about her, especially her most private thoughts?

Robert Scheer



ALTHOUGH BRIDGET looks like she just popped a handful of Valium as she is carried out of Sharp's office, one must wonder: What if this nervous condition was ... predestined?

Unable to figure out how someone would do past-life regression for the little pooch, I settle for the next best thing--astrology. Astrologist Leo Farrell has done plenty of human charts but admits he's a little perplexed on how to chart the heavens for Bridget.

"Aren't most animals born during spring?" Sullivan wonders. Obviously, that would weight the pet world toward Pisces and Aries--a potential celestial disaster. But we are in luck. Bridget was born in early December, one sign shy of the Holy Child Himself. Armed with date, time and location of the poodle's birth, Sullivan hunkers down with his stargazing tools and programs.

A week later, the fax machine belches out planetary alignments for the Silver Sagittarius. "Dogs with the sun in Sagittarius tend to be optimistic and cheerful," her reading begins. Certainly, the sun in a fire sign and an earth sign rising will explain the infernal shaking. But it is not to be. The fax continues, "Dogs with the moon in Libra are very conscious of their own inner balance and the balance with the entire universe around them."

One vaguely wonders if Mr. Farrell had tongue firmly planted in cheek when he worked up Bridget's chart. Although the astrologer has divined no divine reason for the poodle's problems, Bridget would be the first to eagerly note that there's more than one way to skin a cat. Or, to be more politically correct, other paths lead to enlightenment. Actually, as it turns out, many, many other paths to enlightenment.

The search leads us back to The Pet Companion, a free monthly newspaper found in pet shops, vet hospitals and feed stores. Between a movie review of Paulie (starring a blue-crowned conure), health articles ("Anemia in Dogs," "The Avian Home Exam") and "Opetuaries" ("Pike D-Rat. A very attached and loving rat. Passed away from cancer and has always been missed.") runs an ad from Gentle Winds Designs, offering "alternative healing herbs, T-touch and homeopathy."

Calling the East Bay-listed number, I get in touch with Maryanna Semans, who started the animal holistic health-care business about four years ago. Semans had been making flower remedies, massage oils and aromatherapy products for bipeds for about 15 or 20 years, she explains, until she noticed a void in the animal sector. Besides her line of healing products, Semans also has a degree in jin shin jyutsu ("helps to unlock the energy locks in the body"), is certified in refloxology and is a third-degree Reiki master. Clearly, Semans works with a bagful of serious ju-ju.

But, the deal is sealed when she tells me she also does feng shui--the ancient Chinese practice of determining a house's good and evil energy by its placement of furniture. In Semans' case, of course, this is doghouse feng shui.

"Sometimes you go in a home and the pet bed is right in front of the TV or computer," Semans observes. "And that energy is really noxious."

Recognizing that feng shui may be the key to the poodle's serenity, we set up a date, and Semans and her healing hands soon arrive.

Admittedly, we got off to an inauspicious start. Slow traffic delayed Semans so that she arrived dangerously late, cutting into my sacred space known as "nap time." Grimacing, I turned down the volume on The Jerry Springer Show as she pulled out her first formidable weapon--a clearing spray of herbal essences that promised to air out the noxious energies in the house.

There were none, I assured her, as she looked around the room for bad feng shui. Since Bridget's bed is any bed with a warm body in it at the time (not unlike certain ex-husbands, but don't get me started there), it's a little difficult to work with that particular piece of furniture. So Semans aims higher and looks ceilingward.

"Open beams aren't good," she muses, looking at the open beams. "The chi gets erratic and falls down."

Semans looks unhappily at the television.

"I had a client with a bed in front of the TV"--by this time, I'm used to the species-blending and assume she's talking about the animal's bed--"the radiation goes in and can destroy your life force and put holes in your aura."

Semans continues on through the house, heedless of the trail of splattered chi and gouged auras left in her wake.

"Colors," continues the healer. "Animals need colors." When she points out that yellow will attract longevity and gold brings prosperity, I can't help but wonder what pets would do with more prosperity. Perhaps have gopher guts FedEx'd to them or, better yet, hire servants to deliver the goods on a silver platter.

Then there's the feed bowl. Embarrassingly, it is only plastic. Semans points out that plastic does not have a good vibration--unlike ceramics. Fortunately, there are now upscale mail- order catalogues featuring hand-painted (and one would presume hand-thrown) ceramic doggie dishes for a mere $60.

The feng shui is completed, and Semans digs into her other arsenal of alternative treatment, beginning with a few drops of the ever-popular Rescue Remedy on Bridget's tongue. Next, she pulls out a custom-made flower remedy that should work to calm Bridget's nervous system. However, the remedy loses much of its attraction when the healer points out that a couple of drops must be placed on Bridget's tongue--six times a day.

Now Semans is ready to demonstrate her most potent skill, the combined styles of healing touch. Holding the doggie carefully, Semans places her hands on various parts of Bridget's body, explaining that she is doing acupressure, then Reiki, then therapeutic touch.

Bridget seems to be responding well. But then, it's hard to imagine what beast or biped would not respond favorably to being lovingly touched, held and, most importantly, being the center of attention.

In fact, Bridget is doing much better than certain others at this point, others who desperately wish everyone would leave so they can take their damn nap. By the time Maryanna hits the road, a tumbler-full of that calming tincture she left behind looks mighty attractive to Bridget's mom.

Bridget may have had her energy fields acupunctured and manipulated, she may have had her abode feng shui'd and cleared of noxious energies--but the poodle still shakes. It's time to explore the final frontier: the perhaps less-than-vast resources of Bridget's mind.

JASMINE INDRA, M.A., M.F.C.C., is uncomfortable with the term "animal psychic." As her business card states, the San Rafael-based owner of Perfect Harmony Pet Services is a specialist in "interspecies telepathic communication." She is part of a growing field of animal communicators, men and women who say they can read the minds and emotions of our pets.

Indra explained that she was a therapist for humans until she realized that animals were her true calling.

"I found working with people was emotionally draining," Indra says. "I like working with animals because it was so refreshing and they are so willing to change."

There's no animal--or vegetable, for that matter--that Indra cannot communicate with. Besides dogs and cats, she says she's chewed the fat with raccoons, deer, ants and redwood trees. She tells of a poem that was dictated to her from a cat named Chico San.

"This cat was quite a poet," observes Indra, then recites a few stanzas of Chico San's work--a thoughtful meditation on life and healing. As Indra is talking, my mind drifts to an earlier conversation with a co-worker who mentioned she was channel-surfing when she hit on a public-access show that featured a fellow reading a poem allegedly penned by his trusty mutt: You gonna eat that??/You gonna eat that??/You gonna eat that??/You gonna eat that??

With all due respect to Chico San, the mutt wins for authenticity.

But, I am not interested in Bridget's creative impulses. It is time to discover what undergirds her anxiety. Indra agrees to a telephone session--a face-to-muzzle meeting can be too distracting, explains the therapist--and I call her the following week.

All Indra needs to know is the location of her client, its age and general description, and she takes it from there. There is a minute or two of silence as Indra tunes into Bridget--and vice versa--then she comes back on the phone.

"She's still grieving," explains Indra. "She doesn't feel as bonded to you as to her other family, but it could happen in time."

OK, it could have been an easy guess on the psychic's part, but it worked. Slowly, inexorably, I slide through the looking glass, where rabbits need stress-management counseling and caterpillars struggle with substance abuse, and now there's a toy poodle on the landscape dealing with abandonment issues.

I start to feel very, very sad for my poodle. Hoping no one is listening in, I ask Indra to tell little Bridget that we all love her. Another long silence follows.

"Her energy just got lighter," Indra reports back, and I feel better again.

The hell with skepticism, I figure, and ask Indra to check in with all the other animals out here. I've spent more time than I want to admit wondering exactly what farm animals think about all day.

The chicken demands more respect, Indra reports, and the goat is still dealing with grief over her goat buddy dying two years ago. But when my ancient and beloved German shepherd tells Indra that I'm his whole life, I burst into tears.

One might argue that Indra is merely interpreting her own thoughts. One might argue that Indra has a few too many hamsters loose in the attic. But one thing is certain. Since that day, the creatures around the Luker compound have never appeared quite the same. Just entertaining the possibility that a potential Sunday dinner struts around harboring resentments, or that a cud-chewing, complacent beast of burden is quietly nursing a broken heart, pokes holes in the emotional lifeboat that keeps "us" safely from "them."

"They" are not our children, our lovers, our best friends. Each of those relationships demands a give-and-take that pets--much as we would like them to--cannot deliver. It's like my brother once reminded me with some exasperation years ago: "It's a dog, Kelly--in China, they eat them."

But giving the little tykes some credit as emotional, sentient beings may not be such a bad thing--especially for us moms and dads. Treating the rest of the food chain with a little more decency and kindness cannot help but make us better humans. It was the poodle-lovin' Gandhi himself who made the observation that how a culture treats its animals is a good indication of how it treats its people.

Bridget still trembles when the screen saver of giant cockroaches starts crawling over the computer monitor. She still yaps incessantly (along with trembling, the other job requirement for small dogs) for no apparent reason. But she is also unbearably cute when she puts her little paws over her eyes or howls along with ditties sung to her like, "Mommy's Lil' Bridge-Bridge, Princess of the Universe."

Maybe there's another New Age concept at work here. Like Bridget, her human family is also a mixed bag of neurotic quirks, annoying tics and charming habits. But the little poodle doesn't seem real interested in trying to fix and change and rearrange our psyches. Perhaps she could write a book on the wisdom of acceptance. Perhaps you would buy it for $24.95.

And she'll throw in the ancient art of rolling in gopher guts at no extra charge.

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From the July 23-29, 1998 issue of Metro.

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