By Katie Marsico
There are few sights more precious than a little girl cuddling a kitten in her arms or a family romping through the dog park with their much-adored Golden Retriever. Yet these are not the only images that represent the affection and partnership that binds pets to their guardians. It’s important to remember that the human-animal bond spans all shapes, sizes, and species. The critters who prompt double-takes are often the same ones who demonstrate how even the most unique relationships teach responsibility, inspire laughter, and embody love.
I’ve known 12-year-old Ashley Nacyk of Elmhurst, IL, practically since she was born. Our families are friends, but I was still surprised when I received a somewhat frantic email from her last July. Ashley was extremely concerned because Pixie—one of two pet rats she has cared for over the past two years—had what appeared to be a tumor on her abdomen. She wanted to know if I could recommend a nearby veterinarian who treated small animals.
Why was I floored by Ashley’s email? For starters, I know that, at age 12, I would have run to my mother blubbering and hysterical if one of my pets was sick, expecting her to use her maternal magic to make everything okay. (The big asterisk to that confession is that, being so young, I’m not even sure I would have been observant enough to spot a suspected tumor in the first place.) Secondly, I was impressed by the level of personal responsibility that Ashley exhibited as a guardian. She clearly loves her rats enough to take an initiative that I all too rarely see, even with adults when it comes to vaccinating their dogs and cats.
“I got scared and went on the computer to research,” Ashley recalls of the steps she took after noticing what she describes as a “big, round, fat part” on Pixie’s stomach. “I was so, so sad. I realized how much I loved my rats.” Though the Nacyks consulted a veterinarian and recently told me that Pixie was happy and pain-free until the end, she passed away in December 2010. Ashley cherishes the time she spent with her and continues to enjoy caring for her other rat, Princess. “Most people have not ever [considered] having a rat as a pet and think we are crazy for having them,” she explains. “When they come over to our house, they usually change their minds and realize [rats] are great pets that are gentle, sweet, and fun!”
Like Ashley, Johnna Nelson of Leonardtown, MD, is well aware that beauty is indeed in the eye of the beholder. She also understands the value of having a sense of humor. Otherwise, the eyebrow-raising that Turk, her 4-foot iguana, invites might bother her a bit more. Nelson’s had Turk since 2001, when she took the already fully grown lizard into her home as part of her foster work with Triangle Iguana Rescue of Raleigh/Durham, NC. Nine years later, there is little doubt that the reptile has gained the status of a treasured family member.
“We fell in love with her [in 2001] and decided to keep her permanently,” says Nelson. “There are many reasons I love her. Turk is very gentle and calm—our gentle giant. She’s definitely a big part of the family.” At the same time, however, Nelson quips about the reaction that Turk periodically elicits from guests who aren’t big fans of tails and scales.
“Most people are incredulous about [having pet iguanas]. I’m a piano teacher, and I guess not everyone thinks music and lizards mix!” She adds that she can almost see some visitors to her home saying to themselves, “Do you need your head examined?” Regardless of Turk’s questionable fan base, though, Nelson emphasizes that her bond with her cold-blooded companion by no means lacks affection. Perhaps Turk more resembles a dinosaur than a dog, but she still appreciates a guardian who is able to provide a gentle rubdown, a little praise, and a snack.
“She loves to be petted,” reports Nelson. “I do this every day. Turk is by the back door right off of the kitchen, so I talk to her all the time. She likes to eat treats from my hand.”
Nelson is not alone in her realization that the love between animals and their guardians applies to far more species than what many people would classify as “traditional” pets. Rebecca DiNolfi of Madison Township, PA, and her potbellied pig, Funny Farms Reggie, proved that fact to numerous individuals who needed a little kindness and compassion. Though this remarkable animal—who was often simply called Reggie for short—passed away in 2007, her caretaker will never forget how she changed numerous lives for the better.
“Reggie was my constant companion and guardian . . . after I had suffered three major heart attacks in 1991 and 1992 and was unable to function as a normal human being,” notes DiNolfi. “I brought Reggie home when she was only seven weeks old, and . . . was able to go off almost all my heart medications within six weeks . . . because I was able to forget about myself and concentrate on her.” Despite her having no prior experience with pigs, it didn’t take long for DiNolfi to recognize the positive impact that Reggie could have on other people, as well.
The pair ultimately became certified to perform animal-assisted therapy in nursing homes, orphanages, adult day care centers, hospitals, and special-needs schools. In 1997, LIFE magazine even honored Reggie as one of seven pet heroes for her work throughout the Delaware Valley. Eventually, DiNolfi also developed her career as the world’s leading zoning consultant for companion potbellied pigs.
“Because our pets are pigs, they are not allowed to be in a lot of municipalities as pets,” she explains. “So we fight every day to change the laws that were put on the books forbidding us to have them in our homes.” DiNolfi currently shares her residence with two other pigs—Pepper and Little Willow White Feather—but emphasizes that Reggie left a legacy unrivaled by most humans she has known. Whether a companion animal achieves this level of acclaim, fills a house with humor, or instills a sense of responsibility in young caretakers, he is a source and a recipient of love. To that end, his whiskers, scales, or snout are far less significant than his heart.
The Rat Fan Club
Triangle Iguana Rescue