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Pet Sounds

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A real vet tells the truth of 'Cats and Dogs'

By David Templeton


Petaluma writer David Templeton takes interesting people to interesting movies in an ongoing quest for the ultimate post-film conversation. This time out, David makes an appointment with renowned veterinary surgeon and best-selling author Terri McGinnis to see the much-hyped romantic fable The Truth About Cats and Dogs, a story of a talk-show veterinarian and the people who love her.

Terri McGinnis is all charged up and full of energy, chatting and laughing as she leads me from the movie theater and down a side street where, she recalls, there is "a pretty good coffee place." The movie we've just seen, The Truth About Cats and Dogs, has apparently put her in a giddy mood. Or perhaps she's always like this. After 25 years of practice as a vet, one would expect her to be skilled at building rapport with strange animals, even newspaper columnists.

McGinnis, a resident of Berkeley, is the author of two classic handbooks for pet owners: The Well Dog Book and The Well Cat Book (Random House, 1974, 1991), updated and recently released for the first time in softcover editions. Written in comforting, clear-cut language, these books have become the cat and dog Bibles for generations of panicky human pet owners. A frequent guest on television and radio programs around the country, McGinnis was herself the host of a call-in radio show in San Francisco, and found herself identifying with Dr. Abby (Janeane Garofalo), the vet in today's movie. "Oh, I identified with her on a couple of different levels," McGinnis explains, sliding her iced mocha onto the table and settling in for our talk. "As a veterinarian, of course, and as a talk-show host, but also as a woman who is aware of the ways in which people judge women."

She is referring to the Cyrano-esque theme of the movie, wherein the smart and witty but physically insecure doctor coerces her beauteous, blond, not-so-bright neighbor, Noelle (Uma Thurman), to stand in for her when a grateful caller asks her out. As lightweight as Noelle's IQ, the movie's charm lies in it's examination of the interplay between physical attraction and mental stimulation.

"I think it was sweet," McGinnis pronounces. "There aren't too many movies that say you don't have to be exclusively attracted to stunning beauties. I know if I were a guy, I'd have been more attracted to Abby, but she was more my kind of person, the whole package, brains and all."

How was she as a vet? "She was pretty good," McGinnis smiles. "Though this thing of doing acupressure on a dog's ears to calm him down, that's not one I've heard about."

I mention a scene involving a turtle. "The turtle!" she shouts, recalling the doctor's advice that to get a turtle's leg out of its shell to give it a shot, one must probe the amphibian's rectum with a cellophane-wrapped finger. "That's not how I've ever done it," she laughs.

When I suggest that thousands of turtle owners may now be influenced into using this method, she cannot contain her laughter. "Oh, those poor turtles," she gasps.

We regain our composure and return to the subject of attraction. "We can learn a lot by studying the animals," she muses. "With dogs, it's the female dog that chooses her mate. How does she choose? I'll never know because I can't become a female dog for 20 minutes to find out, but it's really clear that when a female dog is in heat, and a pack of dogs appears, she will usually be very selective about which male she allows to mate with her.

"And it wouldn't necessarily be the one that we, as human beings, might think is the most attractive," she adds. "In a wolf pack, only the dominant male and female in the pack will breed. There are some parallels to humans, if you think about it. If you think of us back in the caves, well, who might be the most attractive male there? The one who can get the food and beat up all the other guys and protect the babies. And the attractive female is the one who can reproduce.

"In a domesticated situation, such as we're in now," she continues, "there are a lot more options, but we are still pretty driven by instinct. The attractive men are the ones with the money, and the attractive women are, you know . . . "

The ones that get a guy's gonads going? "Exactly," she affirms. "And I think we should acknowledge that and deal with it and get beyond it. If you're a young, attractive woman and you don't realize that there is this whole instinct thing going on, you're going to get paired with a guy who doesn't value you for a whole person. He values you for being a baby-maker, even though the guy doesn't realize it's his baby-maker drive that attracts him to you."

She pauses, then bursts once more into peals of laughter. "See?" she asks. "See how much we can learn from cats and dogs?"

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