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Article: Las Vegas Life Magazine
Wild Tales from Pet Town

From bed-and-breakfast entrepreneurs to our resident ferret hero, Las Vegans exude animal magnetism

By Robin Flinchum
Photography by Jenna Bodnar

Cleared for takeoff: Las Vegan Mary Vail and Odie, her Australian flying squirrel. (She currently has no plans to get a moose.)

You can tell a lot about a dog's life by glancing at his chest. In poorer parts of Mexico, for instance, a dog's chest will be angular and drawn in, protected by the near meeting of his two shoulders in front. This is because he is wary and hungry and on his own. In Las Vegas, on the other hand, at Cragin Park on a sunny afternoon, every dog I see has a fat, shiny, fully exposed chest.

Perhaps that's because Las Vegas is the kind of place where, at a pet fair that same afternoon, the Hard Rock Hotel is unveiling a new line of logo pet wear, and the Metallica-style jackets (rough denim, sleeveless) are selling pretty well at $59 apiece.

It's the kind of city where dogs have their own newspaper, The Vegas Dog, complete with canine horoscopes; where picking up poop is a growth industry; where a pet masseuse can make a decent living. Where a former mayor, Jan Jones, raised eyebrows for having too many pets (a licensing quibble, long ago resolved). Reptiles have their own fan club, the Southern Nevada Herpetological Society. The Desert Potbellied Pig Club of Southern Nevada has about 1,000 members and supports a mobile clinic called Pigs R Us. Publicist Mary Vail owns flying squirrels. And a group of monkeys gets together for parties sponsored by their human companions.

A lot of this city's newer residents are young and have high expectations for the future. They've got money, they're willing to spend it, and they're often so busy earning it that they don't have time for children. Enter the family pet.

"Everybody wants little dogs, small enough to fit in an apartment," says Roger Martel, a suspicious East Coast native whose shoulders would probably be drawn together if he were a dog. Martel runs a spare little store on Eastern called Puppies 4 Sale (one of six purely puppy stores in Las Vegas), where most of the sweet-faced creatures that run to lick my hand when I kneel by the tiny stalls will get no bigger than 25 pounds.

Martel doesn't want to answer my questions, thinks I am some kind of marauding puppy thief. He will say that what makes selling puppies in Vegas different than in Boston is that here "there is a lot of criminal element." He gives me a significant look.

"I had two guys one time run in and lift two pit bulls and run out with 'em. They drive off but some other guys chase 'em and catch 'em. The other guys ended up adopting the dogs."

The word "adopting" creates a mental image of scruffy homeless pups being taken in by kindly folk willing to fork out a little extra for kibble and bits. These days, however, even high-dollar pet sales are referred to as adoptions. Martel's dogs are "adopted out" at prices ranging from a few hundred dollars to more than $1,000.

There are about 80,000 registered pets in Las Vegas. In reality, going by a formula that apportions half of a dog and two-thirds of a cat to each household in the city, Las Vegas Animal Control estimates that there are 200,000 domestic animals in town. There are also about 20 licensed semidomestic pets (including pigs and monkeys) that require site inspections and permits. Those, according to Animal Control, are about the same numbers per capita as in any other large American city. Where we differ may be in how we treat our pets. Vegas is a place of extremes, and for our domestic and near-domestic animals, it can be feast or famine.

C.J. Jones lives in a modest home in an older section of Las Vegas--the one house on her block where birds congregate on the front lawn. When I ring the doorbell, a chorus of frantic barking erupts. Jones answers the door, expertly keeping her body between me and the two Chinese crested dogs (small, hairless with pompom hair heads) howling behind her. They arrived a few days ago, Jones explains, and they haven't quite adjusted. A former veterinary technician and a single working mom, Jones is unperturbed by the noise. Also ignoring the yapping are the 35 rescued ferrets, five brain-damaged rescued cats, three other dogs, two coatimundis and the duck that all share Jones' house and yard.

Vegas is "such a transient, spur-of-the-moment town. There are a lot of throwaways," says Jones, founder and director (and janitor and major donor) of the 24k Ferret Rescue and Shelter. For three years, Jones has dedicated herself to rescuing ferrets abandoned or mistreated by their owners.

She took in about 90 ferrets last year alone, and she is not the only person in Las Vegas rescuing them. "People come here thinking they're going to get rich, and when it doesn't happen they leave," she says, flinging out a hand toward the cages that fill her living room. "Or they buy on impulse and then they get bored."

The Mike Tyson ferret scandal is a case in point. In November, Jones was called to Tyson's house to remove two ferrets; one was dead and the other nearly dead of starvation. Usually, Jones maintains a don't-ask-don't-tell policy regarding those who surrender their animals to her. If she gets a reputation for going after people, they will be more inclined to dispose of their animals in some other, less humane way. But when she came across what she calls the "gross neglect" of these animals by someone with the resources available to Tyson, she was too angry to keep quiet.

Jones filed a complaint of neglect and cruelty against the boxer. The charges were eventually dropped when the district attorney maintained he could not prove the ferrets were Tyson's responsibility.

During the episode, Jones learned something about human nature--not from Tyson's alleged negligence, but from the many people who called her afterward wanting to adopt his ferret. "I'd tell them, 'We have plenty of other ferrets that need a home, come on down,' and not a one of them did," she says, shaking her head. Tyson's animal, renamed Robin, has been retired from the adoption list and has shacked up with another of Jones' permanent fixtures, a fat, bald fellow that Jones says is the oldest ferret she has ever seen.

Jones, it seems, is a sucker for any creature that doesn't fit our ideal pet mold--like the kitten lying on her sofa. He suffers from an overlarge skull and protuberant forehead, his eyes are crossed and lackluster, his tongue lolls out. Jones is surprised to find him there, having left him on her bed, thinking he was unable to move. "He's getting stronger,'" she says, delighted. The Chinese cresteds yip in unison. They are delighted, too.

A friend showed up at my door recently, obviously agitated. It took her several hand-waving, misty-eyed tries to tell me what was wrong. She had gone to the animal shelter to visit the dogs, but managed to go in the wrong door. She found herself standing beside a wheelbarrow full of dog carcasses. Me, I don't go anywhere near the animal shelter because I can't bear the grief and anger that well up in me. Fortunately, Ann Herrington is made of sterner stuff.

In 1997, when she worked for KNPR 89.5-FM, Herrington began Media Partners for Pets after visiting the Dewey Animal Shelter for the first time and being devastated by what she saw. The group, made up primarily of women radio and television executives, pooled their resources to promote the adoption of shelter animals. Dewey alone receives about 80 animals a day. A third of those will be euthanized to make room for the next 80. Media Partners stages adopt-athons all over town, showing hundreds of dogs and cats at each event, trying to tip the scales just a little in favor of the animals.

The good news is that Vegas is home to several no-kill shelters where any animal brought in is guaranteed a chance at life, even if it is not adopted, even if it is disabled or deformed. Sanctuaries like FLOCK (For Love of Cats and Kittens) attract volunteers who prowl Las Vegas' back alleys at night, looking for injured or abandoned cats. Then there was the FLOCK lady with the lovely British accent who answered my call when a feral cat left a sweet pair of blue-eyed tabby kittens under my front porch. They hissed and spit like bobcats.

The volunteer told me, in a voice fraught with frustration, that FLOCK didn't have room. Founder Sylvia Lyss was on the verge of collapse from caring for all the kittens already under her guardianship--the sick and injured ones especially. There simply wasn't room for two healthy ones. Could I find them a home?

I hung up and looked at the little beasts, now hunkered down in a corner of my office, staring at me with their big kitten eyes. I sighed and called the vet to see how soon I could bring them in for shots. And since it looked like they'd be staying for a while, I decided I'd better name them: Frank and Jesse James. Soon I'd be at PetSmart, buying cat trees, catnip mice and books like Dancing with Cats. Heaven help me.

Luckily, I'm not the only easy mark. Many of the animals that end up in shelters will find homes through the efforts of groups like Media Partners. Adopting a shelter animal makes a human feel good, and the animals tend to be grateful. Most pet experts say the relationships are harmonious more often than not, and the next time there is a pet fair, or a Bow Wow Brunch at Wild Oats Community Market (where natural foods and dog treats are served), the shelter dog will strut alongside its human, attending the function as a patron rather than an exhibit.

More good news is that, although many of the animals going into Dewey never come out again, the Las Vegas Valley Humane Society does reunite an average of 2,000 lost animals with their owners every year.

I can't say Las Vegans love their pets any more than other people, but it may be that we show it differently. Many of us are, perhaps, obsessive. Maybe "single-minded" is a better term.

Consider, for instance, the woman who called me the other night, frantic about her monkey. "You're in the media world," she said to my answering machine. "Maybe you can help me. My Mugwhy needs an ultrasound and I can't find a vet who has a machine. I need a machine and access to it after hours. I'll pay whatever I have to."

Feeling terribly inadequate, I called Lisa Whiteaker to tell her I had no idea how to help, but by then she had the situation under control. Whiteaker is the alpha leader of a troop of four white-throated capuchin monkeys (the species that accompanied the organ-grinder of old). Tall and leggy, with a head of spiky hair just growing in after a bout of breast cancer and chemotherapy, Whiteaker is a suburban Jane Goodall. In a posh home in the Summerlin area, with immaculate wall-to-wall white carpeting and custom-designed primate playrooms, she spends nearly every waking moment in a world of monkeys. Her interactions with humans are generally limited to things monkey-related.

Whiteaker adopted her first monkey, Mugwhy, several years ago from a breeder. She had given up on having children and decided instead on a pet that would require a similar commitment. "Living with a monkey is like living with a 2-year-old for 50 years," Whiteaker says. But she and Mugwhy were instant kindred spirits.

"Mugwhy made me what I am today," Whiteaker says. Mugwhy was diagnosed with terminal cancer at an early age, and her medical needs are sometimes all-consuming. When Whiteaker herself was diagnosed with cancer, the bond between them grew stronger. Eventually, Whiteaker adopted another capuchin--Maddie, rescued from a drug dealer--so Mugwhy could be with her own kind. The third, Cheena, was also a rescued monkey, and the last, Chloe, is Mugwhy's sister. They are all about 10 pounds or less, and extremely intelligent.

When Whiteaker approaches, the monkeys gather at their playroom door, calling out to her. Their tiny hands, from a distance, look like those of a human infant. I am thinking how sweet they are until one of them reaches under the door and grabs my big toe. Chloe, I think. She has a powerful, hard, sharp grip. I step back. Whiteaker opens the door and commands the monkeys to move back, which they do, and she feeds them their carefully made lunch.

Whiteaker, a natural primate leader, gives classes, workshops and personal training in how to deal with monkeys. Through her organization, Southern Nevada Association of White-Throated Capuchin Monkeys, and her website, monkeyzone.com, she's been contacted by monkey owners from all over the country. If she can't help them over the phone, she will fly to them and stay until the problem is resolved. Mugwhy frequently travels with her, occupying her own seat on the plane and acting as Whiteaker's assistant in the trainings. Together they attempt to correct aggressive behavior, such as biting, throwing feces and ignoring commands.

Whiteaker also throws two primate parties every year so monkeys in the area can socialize. (About 40 monkeys and their owners, from around the nation, usually attend.) She tries to celebrate most major holidays with her capuchins, as well. This year she hid Easter eggs and hired an Easter bunny, something she will never do again--the monkeys shrieked and scattered in all directions when they saw the big bunny coming.

And because the capuchins can live as long as 50 years, and Whiteaker is a realist, she has arranged for them to be taken care of after her death. "They will stay here in this house, and there is enough money to hire someone to look after them," she says. "My monkeys are well taken care of. They're top priority." Then she gives Mugwhy a smooch on the lips.

My friend Lois Thornton is 83 years old and has better legs than I do. She's had dogs all of her life. She and her husband, John, when they traveled in their motor home, had good relationships with the wildlife along the way, including raccoons, birds and coyotes. And I believe this is part of what keeps her so young. When I first met Lois, she and John had parked their motor home at a hot springs resort near Death Valley, and she took her dog, J.R., for long walks every day. Wearing a big black cowboy hat and sturdy shoes, Lois roped her 100-pound Dalmatian and strode out among the alkali and volcanic rock, climbing up and down the desert hills while J.R. tagged along, tongue and tail wagging.

Nowadays, Lois, John and J.R. are back in Las Vegas, where Lois takes J.R. to PetSmart for regular baths and worries that none of them are getting enough exercise. Her heart is giving her trouble, and walking like she used to is out of the question. "J.R. and I are getting fat," she wrote me in a letter. When I got to her house to visit, she was sitting on the sofa with J.R., watching television. He was definitely bulking up at the sides and haunches, but Lois was looking as slim and fit as ever.

Even if they can't walk together anymore, I believe J.R. is part of what keeps Lois and John strong. Joan Coleman, a Las Vegan who wrote a book about people-pet relationships, Forever Friends, says pets can be essential to older people. According to K-9 Therapists, a group that coordinates efforts to bring dogs into retirement and nursing facilities, the advantages of regular contact with animals include stimulation of the memory, improved motor skills and depression-relief. For those who aren't blessed, as John and Lois are, with good health and many children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, receiving regular visits from a friendly dog (especially one you don't have to clean up after) gives a person something to look forward to.

At Pet's Bed and Breakfast, a Chinese pug named Mitzi greets me in the foyer. Wearing a tuxedo jacket and ruffled shirt front, Mitzi leads me into the main reception area, furnished in French Provincial, and to the dynamo that is Benita Bellamy, owner and receptionist extraordinaire. Tall and forceful, with lots of hair under a big straw hat, Bellamy shows me around the homey ranch-style house. Mitzi flops her thick little body down on the carpet with a sigh, signaling the end of her participation.

In one bedroom of the house, several small dogs are playing together and have access to a small courtyard where silk flowers are stuck in the dirt to brighten their day. Big dogs stay out back, in a large yard with a mister and plenty of shade (no sissy flowers for these guys). Several caretakers play with the dogs, cleaning up after them and making sure they are fed to their owners' specifications. Cats have their own room, where they tend to stick to their cages.

"I'm the happiest I've ever been in my life," Bellamy says, pointing out the luxuries of her facility. "I used to be an MGM camera girl, making money for other people. Now I wouldn't do anything else."

If the pet-boarding business makes Bellamy happy, it's making entrepreneur Andrea Collier just about ecstatic. In a truly Vegas-style venture, Collier and her partner, Niki Messologitis (of Café Nicolle fame), are preparing to open what they believe to be a one-of-a-kind pet hotel. Their ambitious plans include a set of luxurious suites equipped with video cameras that will pipe images of the pet onto the Internet for the traveling owner to view (something Bellamy plans as well) and TV screens for movie time (featuring Lassie and 101 Dalmatians, of course). Collier envisions a grooming salon, a spa with hydrotherapy, a veterinary clinic, dietary consultation and a gift shop with imported items for your pet. The proposed site is close to the airport and convenient for travelers, but the facility is really meant for Las Vegans rather than out-of-town visitors.

"I'm tired of people," says Collier, now the general manager of a steel company. "I love animals. I might as well be doing what I love. I know this will be successful."

At lunch in the bustling Café Nicolle, Collier hands me a two-inch-thick research document she's put together that outlines why a five-star pet hotel will work in Las Vegas. "People in LA are spending thousands of dollars on pet weddings," she says. "They are willing and happy to pay reasonable rates to make sure their pets will be well taken care of." Las Vegans support six successful pooper-scooper operations, eight chain pet merchandise stores, many more independent shops, a large number of other boarding facilities and veterinarians who rent space to healthy animals.

Pet sitters in Las Vegas who do in-home care charge as much as $50 a day. Bellamy's bed and breakfast charges no more than $20 a day, and Collier and Messologitis' proposed Canine Country Club will charge about $25 a day. The hotel will feature special VIP luxury bungalows, coordinated in theme to resemble all of the major Strip hotels, going for $75-$100 per night, including a personal attendant. If you stay at New York-New York, where they don't allow pets, your pooch can stay at the New York-New York bungalow of the Canine Country Club.

Pet masseuse Amy Herzlich, a regular columnist in The Vegas Dog, maintains that your dog should spend time apart from you, and that he should handle it well. Herzlich says, in fact, that when you return from an outing, there should be no greeting ritual.

This does not bode well for me. My life is scheduled around the existence of a nine-pound rescued poodle named Annie Oakley, who sleeps on my pillow at night. Annie and I don't do well with separation. I worry about her; she thinks I'm never coming home and sits with her nose plastered to the window. And we have a very involved ritual when I do come back. Herzlich says this is not healthy for the dog, and my vet says it is not healthy for me.

But things are looking up. Nowadays Annie has a way to entertain herself when I'm gone--she terrorizes the poor kittens, barking at them, stealing their catnip mice, making sure they don't go anywhere in the house they're not supposed to. I'm afraid she doesn't realize that one day they will be bigger than she is (I swear they're half bobcat) and that this sort of behavior may have consequences later on.

There are probably all sorts of things I should be doing that I'm not, and things I am doing that I shouldn't. Caretakers such as Collier and Bellamy don't render any judgments about this. Not their business, they say. Their business is to take as good care of your pet as you would. Truthfully, most of the time they probably do better.

I suppose I could consult one of the many dog-behavior specialists in Las Vegas, such as Sit Means Sit (for "dogs who don't know sit from Shinola") but I just don't see my delicate little Annie mingling with the tough crowd at obedience school. And I think she's happy being the boss of our own Wild West show. If Collier's country club opens this fall as scheduled, I believe Annie and I will attend the black-tie gala, if we can find something to wear that Frank and Jessie haven't shredded.

Top LV Dogs

1. Labrador retriever

2. German shepherd

3. Golden retriever

4. Dachshund

5. Pug

6. Poodle

7. Chihuahua

8. Yorkshire terrier

9. Beagle

10. Pomeranian

Compiled from data provided by the Las Vegas Valley Humane Society, Puppy Palace and Meadows Pets.

Tears are OK
By Scott Dickensheets

One day, years ago, backing out of the driveway, I felt a bump where there had never been one. My kitten, Coltrane, had slipped out of the house and hidden behind the car. Even now, the memory of his crushed, bleeding body carries with it a pinprick of abject sorrow.

It never occurred to me to seek out a pet-loss counselor--it never occurred to me that there were pet-loss counselors. But Joan Coleman has been doing just that sort of work in Las Vegas since 1990 (she started doing neuro-linguistic programming counseling here in 1986). She's self-published a book, Forever Friends: Resolving Grief After the Loss of a Beloved Animal (available at www.jctara.com) and speaks on the subject nationally.

Coleman got into pet bereavement after her two beloved German shepherds died within six weeks in 1990. It hit her hard. "I would be crying all the time," she wrote in The Vegas Dog, a local newspaper for dog owners. "Sometimes it seemed uncontrollable." She experienced the same stages of loss that accompany a human death.

She worked through it, and for those suffering similar grief, she advises acceptance: "Please do realize that what you are experiencing is a normal, natural process that needs to be honored and resolved." Tears are OK--many people bond more strongly with their pets than their peers. Keep the animal's memory alive by hanging a holiday stocking for it, writing about it, volunteering at a shelter, adopting an older shelter animal.

I haven't done any of that in Coltrane's memory, but I do remember him in one important way: I'm extra careful when I back out of my driveway.

A Real Meow Mix
By Robin Flinchum

Some 500 cats and their people from all over the world will converge on the Cashman Center this Labor Day weekend (September 2-4) for the International Cat Association's annual show. Competition will be fierce, says show manager Gloria Mahan. Roughly 100 pedigreed animals will compete for 10 titles and points that can lead to a rating of "supreme," a coup for any serious breeder. The rest will compete as household pets. It's a rags-to-riches story as felines of questionable heritage and unknown beginnings are judged on their beauty, poise, personality and grooming.

"We already have a higher number of bookings than last year's Jackson, Mississippi, show," Mahan says. "Women are bringing their husbands; they never do that." Attendees will stay at Circus Circus--the only place in town willing to allow the cats, and only after management was convinced of the high grooming standards owners maintain for show animals.

To the DOGS...

Novelist Bill Branon has known and loved a few infuriating canines

Damn dogs.

Always hustling you for a crust at the table. Nagging you for an early morning walk in that delicious last hour of Sunday-morning sleep. Dog hairs Velcroed to your black sweater. Mud on the carpet. Barks in the night. Pee holes in that patch of green you euphemistically call a lawn.

Damn dogs.

I suppose it's the same no matter what kind of pet you're saddled with. Cat or kangaroo. Monkey or mare. Parakeet or python. Maybe different kinds of irritations, but irritations all the same. They have a hell of a nerve.

I just happen to be cursed with dogs.

The dog we have now, Wiley, was picked up cowering in the median strip of a Southern California highway. Picked up by my wife three weeks after our old dog, Sam, died. Picked up despite my threats not to get another dog, since we still owned a two-year-old German shepherd. We inherited the shepherd, a dysplastic wonder named Charka, from our youngest son, who discovered that his landlord would put up with a six-pack of grungy, foul-mouthed surfers but not with a dog.

I knew Wiley was trouble right off. After a short quiescent period, what I would term the dog equivalent of boot camp, I watched him one night stalk into the den and pull a pillow off the couch. He had just been scolded by my wife, Lolly, for some indiscretion. With a sideways glance at me (some sort of male communication regarding females), he crept into the kitchen where Lolly was doing the dishes. He inched up behind her and dropped the pillow on the floor. Then he backed off several paces, eyes never leaving my wife's back. He let out a sharp bark. Lolly, startled, whirled around. Her foot caught the cushion and she fell flat on her duff. Wiley barked twice and raced off, Lolly in hot pursuit. She was yelling the kind of words that reinforce my belief that she was a bosun's mate in a former life.

And animal behaviorists get excited when they see a chimpanzee use a stick to dig bugs out of a log.

Sure, these things called dogs have their moments. Like that night in Korea, up on Nightmare Range. I had just lost a good friend and was sitting alone on a sharp rock with a cigarette and a busted heart, trying to put it all in perspective. This no-account mangy dog came out of nowhere and nudged my hand and lay down next to me. She stayed with me for an hour. An important hour. Probably looking for a handout.

And that story in the news a few weeks back about the dog that woke up the Indiana couple when their house caught on fire. The couple escaped by climbing down a balcony support. The dog didn't get out.

And when Charka died, I typed an article for the San Diego Union the next day about her passing. I used the word "typed" because that's all I did. She "wrote" it. The phone didn't stop ringing for two weeks. That article walked across the country over the next two years. Newspapers and two magazines reprinted it. By some peculiar twist of fate coincident with the request from Las Vegas Life for this essay, I received a letter just 10 days ago. Though it says more than I want said about some of my friends, it also says something about these things called dogs: "... When your packet arrived, I was halfway through Ken Kesey's Sailor Song. When I read about Charka, and about how she had dropped Sam's ball into his grave, I couldn't maintain. I cannot now, as I write this. It seems so weird that someone like myself, who can cap another human being as easily as sneezing, can come to tears when thinking about a dead pet because you put Charka's death into a frame of reference I've so often experienced."

That from a Vietnam vet, a U.S. Marine.

So, maybe country singer Tom T. Hall isn't too far off:

"Ain't but three things in this world

that's worth a solitary dime

but ol' dogs and children

and watermelon wine."

In a skipper's lonely stateroom, Captain Raymond Helms of the U.S.S. Prairie and his doc (me) listened to those lines more than a few times as the Prairie trekked through mile-deep Pacific nights to Westpac duty. So maybe we were both getting a little soft in the head. That happens to old guys, you know. Sea dogs.

After 60 years of observation, I think I've figured out what makes dogs special. Like us, though much less choosy, a dog simply wants to belong. And that's as sweet a definition of love as any.

Someone once asked me what my idea of heaven was. I wasn't thinking too clearly. Must have been the gin and tonics. I said that I'd settle for a nice green island with big trees, grass and rabbits needing to be caught. Maybe like one of those islands up in Washington State, off Whidbey. Just me and all those dogs that I knew, now gone to earth. Charka. Boots. Holly. Sam. Bonny. Jojo. Ding. Max. Barney. Whiskey. All the rest.

Damn dogs.