The Dignity of Animals

Whether I’m painting Old World Portraits or giving my dog a belly rub, my life is largely about animals. That’s why I spend a good bit of time each week volunteering for organizations who help the ones who are down on their luck. I’ve been doing that for nearly twenty years. I currently volunteer for a small, all-volunteer organization that traps, neuters, and returns feral cats. We provide food for feral cat caretakers who can’t afford to buy it themselves, too. My volunteer work keeps it real and personal for me. I am regularly inspired by people who decide to be kind to animals, even ones they will never get affection from. And I am humbled and amazed by the lives of the feral cats I get to learn about. Today I wrote my monthly article for a local magazine called AnimalLife. Here it is.

The Long Life of Sly

Though Animal DREAMS is an organization with a mission to help feral cats, it’s rare to know the details of any particular feral cat’s whole life. This is one of those rare stories.   slybarbarawithbarninbackgroundsm

Before Animal DREAMS was even an official organization, the volunteers who later started the nonprofit did a feral cat Trap, Neuter, Return project in Great Barrington behind a busy place of business. The cats were fixed and returned to live in an old abandoned barn on a property whose owner was agreeable to letting the cats stay there. A dedicated volunteer began feeding the colony. By 2008, another volunteer, Barbara Crocker, started helping the original elderly volunteer, and eventually took over the every-day feeding of the cats. On a wintery day in 2009, Barbara went to feed the cats and found that the barn had collapsed and the cats had scattered. Over the course of three weeks, all of the seven cats were trapped by the Animal DREAMS founder and held until new cat shelters could be put in place. Sylvester, or “Sly”, one of those original cats, was the most wary and the last one to be caught. The mother cat of the colony was found to be very ill and euthanized, one cat was friendly enough to be adopted into a home, and five cats were returned.



By 2013, Barbara had built a cat shelter that could only be described as luxury accommodations. There were three cats remaining; Crybaby, Munchkin, and Sly, and after so many years, Barbara had been joined by two other volunteers, Sara and Doug. They relieved Barbara from her 7 day-a-week feeding schedule. Of the three cats, Sly was still the least likely to warm up to people. Eventually Crybaby died of natural causes, and then Munchkin, who was looking unwell, was euthanized due to end stage liver failure.


So began a new phase for Sly, the remaining cat of the colony. We can only guess that he was a little bit lonely living his solitary life, because he began to enjoy visits from his caretakers. Of the many cars that came and went from the business near their outdoor home, Sly immediately recognized the vehicles of his caretakers and would run to meet them. Doug would bring a brush, and Sly happily walked back and forth against it to be groomed. Barbara, Sara and Doug had regular meetings to assure that Sly was getting the best care, which included more frequent visits, vet care and additional protection during winter weather.


This brings us to the last phase of Sly’s life. Several months ago, the caretakers found out that the area where Sly lived his entire life was slated to become a parking lot. At the same time, it became clear that his health was declining; A visit to the vet revealed that he has lymphoma and a hyperthyroid condition. Barbara decided to bring him to her studio to live. There, he has lots of privacy and five cat beds, one of which is heated. Sly is not agreeable to thyroid-supportive food, or daily thyroid medication no matter how it is administered. The caretakers feel it best that he be allowed to eat his favorite food and continue to live life on his terms. He gets to see Barbara often, and his other caretakers visit him too. He does not enjoy overt attention from them, but purrs when they are near. He sleeps very soundly, in a way that Barbara imagines he might not have been able to do outside, where he had to be alert for danger. Sly is not expected to live much longer. But with the help of people, he has lived a good life for 19 years, and he will leave this world peacefully.


Barbara thinks of Sly as a legend. We think he is too. But there would be no story or legend to tell, had it not been for the long line of people who recognized the dignity of his life and who did the day-to-day business of looking out for his welfare.

Carol Lew

TNR Coordinator


P.S. I am proud to say that my dad, Doug, is one of the people who cared for this cat colony.

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Buster made the New York Times


This shrine dedicated to the late Buster is not the only interesting feature in Chris Grabenstein’s apartment. And the New York Times thought his place interesting enough to showcase it in Easter Sunday’s “What I Love” feature in the Real Estate section. Chris and his wife were a lot of fun to work with creating this portrait as well as one of their dog, Fred.

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Wellington the Guinea Pig

Far far away, in a land called Australia, there lived a Guinea Pig named Wellington. He was well loved by his person, and when his life was over, his person was very sad.

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The friends of his person decided to commission a portrait of Wellington dressed as Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, and to surprise the dearly departed Guinea Pig’s person with it.

Sir_Arthur_Wellesley,_1st_Duke_of_Wellington   WellingtonSketch4   IMG_0338

Their friends planned a party. They wrapped the painting to look like a British flag.

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They traveled from far and wide to come together, and they gave the gift to Wellington’s person, who was touched by the thoughtfulness of her friends, and glad to have a happy reminder of her pet.




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Sebastian the Saint Bernard

Sebastian’s people live near a Civil War battlefield in the south, and felt that a portrait of Stonewall Jackson would be a good refrence for their dog’s portrait. He does look quite handsome in uniform.


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Tales from the Appalachian Trail

Earlier this week, I saw a facebook post from Ben Montgomery. He’s the author of “Grandma Gatewood’s Walk”, a book about a 67 year old woman who walked the whole Appalacian trail back in the 1970s in Ked’s sneakers and a pillowcase of supplies slung over her back. This post was a link to an article about a fellow who is in the process of walking the AT from Maine to Georgia. He started his hike in December. So that’s really cold.


I got to reading the article, and realized that in just a few days, he’d be walking the section of the AT that’s about 1/2 mile from my house. Tom Gathman is cataloging his journey on his facebook page: The Real Hiking Viking. I messaged him an invitation to come to our house for food and a warm place to stay. For good measure, I posted a big sign on the AT at the point where he’d need to deviate from the trail to trek to our house.


Wednesday, at around dusk when the temps were in the single digits, Tom was knocking on the door. He was in great spirits and grateful for warmth. I know so much more now about how a person would go about keeping warm in frigid temperatures. A lot has to do with high tech clothing, but you also need to really use your head. You’re not likely to run into other people who can get you out of a jam in January and February on the Appalacian Trail. It’s all you.


Tom was an enjoyable guest. It’s a lot of fun feeding a really hungry person. For dinner, he drank a pitcher of orange juice, a couple of beers, and ate a big pile of hash browns, about 8 eggs and a stack of pancakes. For dessert, he ate a small fruit pie. You burn a lot of calories hiking in the cold. It’s was a treat to hear stories about his hike. Here’s one of them: He was hiking in New Hampshire and landed in the evening at the three-sided shelter that’s perched on a cliff over Gentian Pond. He hiked to the pond and had to break the ice to fill his jugs with drinking water. It was so cold that parts of his shirt were frozen stiff. He’s used to crawling into his sleeping bag wet; it keeps him warm enough and usually he’s dry by the morning. But sleeping in frozen solid clothes was out of the question. He put on his emergency shirt for sleeping, but he’d need to put his hiking shirt back on in the morning. So he put the shirt in a bag and into the sleeping bag, where it thawed out enough to be supple; still wet though, so when he took it out in the morning, the steam coming off of it was as thick as a sauna. He had to put it back on, wet, within a minute or it would freeze solid again. Dang. This is hard core stuff.

Tom slept next to our wood stove, ate a hearty breakfast, and was on his way. His goal was to hike 23 miles that day, some of them after dark. I don’t know if he reached that goal… he had a backup plan that was 17 miles from us. He’s always thinking about how to monitor the weather, his physical condition, and the stopping points ahead of him.


All of this trail hiker business is not new in our house. The owner of our house from the 1930s to the 1970s regularly invited hikers in for food and a soft bed. Her name was Genevieve Hutchinson, and she was known as the Grand Madam of the Appalachian Trail; at that time, the trail went right by our house. She was a remarkable woman, and she hosted thousands of hikers throughout her time here.

1971 two hikers one

Grandma Gatewood was one of the hikers who stayed in our house on her way from Georgia to Maine. Here’s a story from the trail that Emma Gatewood told Genevieve, as recounted by Genevieve in writing: “Well”, she had said, “I was coming up over a rocky Trail in the Smokies, when I saw a big tree blown across the path. I could not get around it, and started breaking off branches so as to try to climb over it. One branch came off in my hand and I fell backwards, with the big branch on top of me. I lay there, and my head felt funny and I started to get up, and… nothing saved me…”, she exclaimed triumphantly, “nothing saved me buy my twist!” She meant her back hair, which she wore twisted a knot at her neck [which provided a cushion]. The relief of that moment when she realized she was not cut by jagged rock or paralyzed by her fall, was in her ringing voice as she made this statement of credit for her safety to her hair-do.

There are many “Trail Angels” now and throughout the history of the Appalachian Trail. I’m glad to be a small part of that tradition.





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Napoleon, If He Was A Guinea Pig

Of all the many images in my Etsy Shop, Guinea Pigs are at the top of the popularity list. I confess, I have never known a Guinea Pig, but I do think they’re adorable. They look awfully cute in clothes too. I figured it’s a good idea to add a few more GPs to my Etsy Shop, so here’s a new portrait, soon to be scanned and made into prints and magnets.

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Portrait Happily Received

One of my clients, Gretchen, sent me a video of her sister Heidi opening a gift; the portrait I had painted of Heidi’s beloved, departed cat, Baldwin. Only once before have I seen a person receive one of my portraits as a surprise (it was you Ann Mintz!). If you want to watch but cut to the moment, it’s at about 3:45. She first gave her a print of a dapperly dressed Bearded Dragon, and then the commissioned portrait of Baldwin. Such a gift to me to see my paintings land in appreciative hands.

Baldwin baby boy

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My Volunteer Work; TNR


Being a work-at-home artist give me the flexibility to do volunteer work I’m passionate about. For over a decade, I was very involved with a local shelter. It was fulfilling to watch cats and dogs get a second chance at a great new life with a new family. Over time, I began to learn more about the great, complex problem of cat overpopulation. Our small shelter had enough room for only 18 cats at one time, so I dedicated myself to creating a kitten foster program so we could help more cats. Successful though we were, it became clear that no shelter or foster program could make a dent in the problem. Many cats are born outside, living as wild animals. Other cats living outside had at one time been pets, but have traded their pet-like behavior for a new focus on survival instincts. The vast majority of these cats have not been spayed and neutered. In a short time, a few cats become many.


Now, I volunteer for an organization dedicated to the spay and neuter of  “community cats”; cats who are living outside. This was a banner year for our small organization. With just a handful of volunteers, we are well on our way to fulfilling our goal of fixing 500 cats in Pittsfield, MA. PetSmart Charities® gave us a grant to fund it, and Berkshire Humane Society, the most established shelter in the county, supported us in many tangible ways.


My volunteer work is to oversee TNR (Trap Neuter Return) projects. I get the calls about community cats, and work through the puzzle of figuring out if someone is feeding them, how many there are, and where they live. These cats are amazing, clever creatures! Some have several caretakers, each who think they are the only ones watching out for them. Coordinating the trapping of a colony to fix and return them takes the dedication of lots of people who care about these cats…. volunteers, veterinarians, members of the community.


My favorite thing about this volunteer work is hearing how much happier the cats in a colony are after they have been fixed; they don’t have to deal with the stress of raising kittens, and male cats don’t fight for territories any longer. People in the community are happy about that too.

My next favorite thing, is returning cats who have been fixed. Boy do they hate it when we trap them; They’re so scared. When I bring them back to their stomping ground, they dash off as fast as they can. Then, often, they stop and look around, and I imagine that they can’t believe their good fortune that they are home again. These “clients” are never grateful for the service we provide to them, but nonetheless, they live happier lives for our efforts…. and we are preventing a great deal of suffering.


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Wine and Spirits Magazine

A few weeks ago, our friend and neighbor, Josh Greene, called to invite me and Kent to dinner. “I’m roasting a chicken and serving a nice wine. And also, I am going to take a photo of wine being poured near the chicken as soon as it comes out of the oven. If you can join me, I could use your help.” This was not a surprising invitation. Josh does a great job cooking chicken, he serves better wine than we will find anywhere else, and he is the publisher of Wine and Spirits Magazine. Sometimes he is on deadline and he has to get very resourceful. So Kent brought his camera and lights and I brought kale from the garden and my creative spirit, and we did a photo shoot. Then we at a fabulous meal, and Josh gave us the outstanding leftover wine. Life is good.




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Anne of Cleves


History is much more fun when dogs are involved!

Anne of Cleves was the fourth wife of Henry VIII, and only held that post for seven months in 1540. She was luckier than most of Henry’s wives in that she left the annulled marriage with a hefty settlement and more importantly, her head. Given that photography would not be invented for quite a few centuries, portraiture was the avenue Henry used to see what Anne looked like before he committed to marriage. He sent Hans Holbein the Younger to Germany to paint Anne and her two sisters with instructions to NOT exaggerate.


Seeing the portraits, Henry thought he might like Anne so he began plans to marry her. Upon seeing her though, he complained “She is nothing so fair as she hath been reported.” The betrothal took place nonetheless because the political consequences of reversing marriage plans would have been dire. But Henry never could get over her appearance and, being king and all, was able to get the marriage annulled.

Given the historical context, it does seem appropriate that the Anne of Cleves here in my Etsy Shop is a dog, but I think this Boston Terrier is QUITE adorable. Being as she was a queen, an ornate frame would be appropriate.

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