Animal Nature

Local Pet Owners express why our furry – and fur-less – creatures beguile us.
Theresa Cassagne

My first pet was a cat named Tabby, her name inspired by the character of Tabitha on Bewitched. I was six years old, and little did my parents know at the time that they officially made me a cat lady for the rest of my life. If a man I was dating didn’t like cats, he didn’t last for long. One former boyfriend professed an allergy to one cat, Whiskers, and when I gave him a look that said, “The cat isn’t going, but you are expendable,” in a few days he magically overcame his allergy.

If you go to Google there are, at the time I searched, 184,000,000 sites devoted to pet supplies, pet adoption, pet health, reptile pets, small pets – even virtual pets. It is a devotion to creatures that, except for certain birds, can’t speak English.

Pets are companions (though I wouldn’t say totally non-judgmental, as anyone who has had a pet who has disliked a choice in a loved one), our willful surrogate children who can damage a priceless object with a swipe of a paw or tail, yet offer us a chance to vent after a bad day of work, knowing it won’t get back to the boss. Yes, the cliché holds true: we may think we own pets, but they actually own us.

As fitting for the city, these New Orleanians have pets that reflect their personalities, yet each still have their own individual flair.

What is it like to have two young and very active beings of the male persuasion in your life? Katy Beh can tell you.

As the mother of Sammy Beh, a 7-year-old boy, and David Beh, a 10-month-old Tabby cat, and the owner of her own business, Katy Beh Contemporary Jewelry, it can be a bit busy – and she wouldn’t have it any other way.

Recently divorced, Beh had moved to a third-floor condominium and wanted a pet that could fit in her lifestyle, “Cats are low-maintenance,” she says. “And there’s less fur.” Her two other pets, Maggie, a beagle/basset mix, and Ruby, a Marmalade cat she found under her store, were living at the home of her former husband, Tom Beh, with whom she shares custody of Sammy.

Katy and Sammy went to the LA/SPCA and came upon two polydactyl kittens. The attendant picked one up and said, “This one is bad.” It was love at first sight.

So what to name this creature? Sammy was veering towards naming the cat Jim or David, but ended up with David because he was studying the story of David and Goliath at St. George’s Episcopal Sunday school.

The name is apt, as David seems to have no fear – and lives up to his bad boy reputation, according to Beh.

Mouse and roach patrols, as well as stalking Beh’s calves are a favorite activity. “He’s a true predator,” she laughs.

When she brought him over to her house, he chased Ruby, while Maggie tried to make her self scarce.

However, like any bad boy that women love, he knows when to charm. David sleeps on a pillow on Beh’s bed – “He’s my Mr. 12-toed boyfriend,” she says – and he has an a.m. routine of “making biscuits” on her.

Has she ever brought him to the store? Beh says once or twice when she first got him, but her look says it all. Imagine the havoc David would cause if a well-dressed woman came in and he stalked her calves? Though I think David would somehow beguile them just like he has Beh and her son.

When meeting African Sulcata Tortoises, one best not be wearing sandals with red nail polish on your toes. It seems that red nail polish, in this case a variation of Jungle Red, proved too tempting to nip at for three tortoises of this variety: Remus (the largest at about 60 pounds); Elvis (slightly smaller); and Boy George (weighing in at 20 pounds). My introduction to these large tortoises with great taste in nail polish came via their owner: WWL-TV/Channel 4 anchor Eric Paulsen.

But don’t think Paulsen’s Dr. Doolittle tendencies stop at just three very large tortoises. Sharing the home with Paulsen are goldfish and other varieties of tropical fish (in a sugar kettle in front, a pond in back and a large tank in the game room), the aforementioned tortoises – plus three small turtles that Paulsen says just appeared one day, five finches, a rabbit called Hef (short for you-know-who), and a cat named Eartha Kitty.

So when Paulsen admits he wanted to be a veterinarian as kid growing up in a suburb of St. Louis, Mo., it’s not hard to imagine him sizing up a kitty – or a large tortoise – with the same aplomb he does with subjects he’s interviewing on TV. It is his interest in animals that weren’t cuddly – he fondly remembers his mother giving him a garter snake (“It was the best present,” he says. “My father hated it.”), as well as having bats and squirrels as pets – that makes his choices a little less than ordinary. And, as he got older, his pet choices remained quirky, but practical.

“My lifestyle is so hectic,” says Paulsen. “It’s hard to keep a high-maintenance pet.”

So how does one exactly get interested in tortoises? It was an African Leopard Tortoise named Laverne who was his first true turtle love. Laverne, whom Paulsen taxidermied, lived to be 45. Paulsen was her second owner via a TV story he had done on her original owners who lived in Slidell.

African Sulcata Tortoises are surpassed in size only by giant tortoises from the Galapagos Island and Seychelles, and can weigh anywhere between 80 and 110 pounds, which may mean that Remus, Elvis and Boy George have a bit more growing to do. Not like they lack for appetite, as they are voracious eaters of vegetables – “I don’t need a garbage disposal,” says Paulsen – as he gets cases of greens from a local market. While these tortoises are used to a hotter climate, for the cooler months, Paulsen built a “turtle house” that is raised. There is a ramp into it, which he has trained them to use to get into the house. Their picket-fenced pen, while lacking grass (they’ve eaten it), is located within Paulsen’s backyard, which if they could run loose in it would be a turtle/tortoise paradise with it’s lush tropical feel. (Probably the reason why the small turtles showed up in the pond.) Paulsen designed the backyard landscaping – creating a haven for him and his fiancée, as well as for his pet menagerie.
 

 

Cats, as most of us know, think they’re the stars of their own show. At the home of Cecil Haskins and Mary Beth Romig, the felines named Spencer Tracy, Bing Crosby and Ella Fitzgerald are the stars of a sitcom called, The Cats of Life, or as Romig says, another alternative could be Survivor, as Bing Crosby had a harrowing journey during and after Hurricane Katrina.

Before the storm, Haskins, Romig and their cats were Lakeview residents. The Haskins cat family then consisted of four indoor/outdoor cats – Spencer Tracy, Bing Crosby, George Gershwin (but in Romig’s mind, really “Ira” because she was a girl), Ella Fitzgerald and two feral cats, Bisquit and Khat, who stayed strictly outdoors.

When Katrina approached, Spencer Tracy sensed the storm and flew into Haskins’ arms to leave. Ella Fitzgerald and Gershwin were in the house, but Bing Crosby, Bisquit and Khat were nowhere to be found. Haskins and Romig left out food and water, and their neighbor said she would be on the lookout for the cats. When the levees broke, Lakeview was one of the New Orleans neighborhoods with extensive, destructive flooding. Many people and animals perished, but many held on to hope. While in exile in Baton Rouge, Romig was watching a TV news segment about one of the temporary animal shelters set up to house rescued animals and swore she saw Bing Crosby. So she and Haskins went to the shelter looking for the cat, searching rows upon rows with no luck.

Seven weeks after the storm, Romig, who was working on a book, Missing New Orleans, went back to her neighborhood with photographer David Rae Morris. When she approached her house, she saw a note on it: “Bing is at my house – Wendy.” She tore down the block leaving Morris wondering what had happened. There was Bing Crosby – “skinny and disgusting,” Romig admits. During their reunion, Bing, ever the individualist jumped out of Romig ’s lap and ran away. Fortunately, another neighbor, who happened to be a veterinarian, Dr. Pat McSweeney (Animal Medical and Surgical Hospital), found Bing Crosby, who then spent two weeks being treated in a veterinary “spa,” says Romig. There was sad news, however, because Bisquit, Romig thinks, never survived, and Khat, who did survive, died shortly after.

Today, Bing Crosby is a fluffy, well-fed 14-year-old cat, who with his owners and fellow cats, is now an Uptown resident. Equally as furry – probably because they are both part Maine Coon (a cat known for its long hair and charming personality) – is the 16-year-old Spencer Tracy, who’s a six-toed (polydactyl) Marmalade. Ella, a “Tuxedo” cat, is now 9, and according to Romig and Haskins, is a mama’s girl who likes to sleep next to or on top of Romig. George Gershwin, a full-blooded Maine Coon, passed away from cancer about a year and a half ago.

The three surviving cats were all pet adoptions: Spencer Tracy was chosen from a box of kittens someone brought to work and he had “the largest paws,” says Romig. Bing Crosby was from a pet store in Lakeside Shopping Center, while Ella is from another box-of-kittens, this time in the parking lot of Barnes and Noble.

A common denominator of the cats is that “I like fuzzy cats, despite all the hair,” says Romig. This despite, “I’m allergic to them, as is my daughter Lindsey Price.” Romig also admits that their love of cats wouldn’t happen without Haskins, who’s the official cat litter changer, and as Romig says, “Cecil also makes our cat love possible.”

And the cats love Haskins – who had dogs growing up – back. “Spencer likes to lay on my shoulder,” he says.
If you’re wondering about Bing Crosby’s wanderlust, it’s been tamed after a close encounter with a raccoon, and like Spencer Tracy and Ella Fitzgerald, is a happy indoor cat.

Finally, I had to ask, why the names?

“Because we love old movies and particularly old musicals,” says Romig.
 

Calm, cool and collected. And he likes to lick, a lot. That is Gentilly, a terrier mix, but upon appearance looks like what’s more commonly known as a pit bull.

Gentilly, who’s about 3, is the chief guardian, bed hog and lick monster of doctors Chris and Amy Voigt. A native of New Orleans, Chris practices emergency medicine at Ochsner Hospital, while Amy, from Middletown, N.Y., is a neurologist in private practice. Gentilly, as far as they know, is a native of New Orleans.

So how does a couple, one of whom didn’t particularly like dogs – that would be Amy – get a dog, particularly a pit bull, a breed that is commonly maligned? As with any good dog, there is a tale to tell (or wag?).

About nine months after Hurricane Katrina, Chris was working night shifts during his residency, and “I didn’t like leaving Amy alone at night,” he says.

“And we thought it would be nice to have a dog in the house,” says Amy, who had two cats when she was growing up.

The duo visited Petfinder.com, where they went through a list of what kind of dog they wanted – size, temperament, good with kids and other categories – and viewed photos of dogs that fit in their categories. Originally, Chris and Amy fell in love with a particular pit bull who had a blueish-gray coat, and went to adopt her from Animal Rescue of New Orleans.

This particular dog, a female, had a great photo, but when they got there she turned out to be high-strung and anxious. Not giving up just yet, they walked through the warehouse and by doing so the dogs all started barking – all but one, who casually came over to the cage door when the Voigts approached. He sniffed them once and lay down. It was Gentilly, whose calm, sweet demeanor won the Voigts over. “We had [originally] overlooked him, because his photo on the site wasn’t great,” says Chris.

Gentilly, who they think was about 1 1/2 years old when they adopted him, had a rough life before. He was found in Gentilly (hence his name) tied to a stake at what looked like to neighbors as an abandoned house. Neighbors called ARNO, which removed him from his dire situation. By the time he was rescued, Gentilly had a bad case of mange and had managed to grind down his teeth from chewing on the chain so that when the Voigts adopted him, it was recommended that they pull those teeth. Ark Animal Hospital performed the surgery and cleaned Gentilly up.

Since then Gentilly has gained about eight pounds, making him a very solid 62 pounds. His coat is now shiny. Alas, he inadvertently, occasionally drools out of the side of the mouth where his old teeth used to be. Habits? He likes to chase squirrels and bark at dogs that go by the house. Mardi Gras toys are fun and he has a particular fondness for Hawaiian Punch flavored snow balls. And as befits a handsome boy like Gentilly, he has his fan club (in addition to Chris and Amy): Bev, a collie/Australian sheep dog mix; Polly, a pit bull (his official girlfriend); and Priscilla, a Labrador retriever.

“It’s awesome. He hangs out with us in a relaxed way. He just comes us and sits,” says Amy. Gentilly even sleeps at night with the Voigts in their king-sized bed.

And while Gentilly is the cool dog on the block, he’s probably best known by family and a friend as someone who licks – a lot.

So when you visit the Voigts, be prepared, as Gentilly will look fierce upon appearance, but is truly a four-legged “The Dude,” who will no doubt greet you with a casual once over, then a lick.
 

 

How many of us would like to bring our pets to work? For three gallery owners on Julia Street – Arthur Roger, Denise Berthiaume and Cathy Bienvenu – their dogs are not only part of their family and “staff,” but can some times be the main attraction at work.
 
Arthur Roger, Arthur Roger Gallery, and Arial
Among the works of art at Arthur Roger Gallery, one particular four-legged one stands out. That is Arial who, like Guy LeMieux, is a fan of life along Julia Street. Arial is a favorite of the children walking by from the nearby Louisiana Children’s Museum, and of artists and art patrons. “She loves company,” says owner Arthur Roger, as Arial can also be seen mixing with those who go to parties at Roger’s home. She also has a regular set of friends that she visits in the dog park in the French Quarter.

A five-year-old chocolate brown mix of a basset and Labrador – a “Bassador,” as Roger says – Arial was adopted from Looziana Basset Rescue. Roger had gone to them before for his previous dog, which was a basset/beagle mix.
While you may think Arial is a city dog, she has a definite feel for the country. She accompanies Roger to his Mississippi camp, where a favorite activity is to sit at the front of a pirogue on the Wolf River. Two other favorite activities include sleeping at the foot of Roger’s bed and a fondness for a duck from which she’s removed the stuffing. And, I suspect we could add another: Lounging (and greeting customers) at Arthur Roger Gallery.

Cathy Bienvenu, Gallery Bienvenu, and Callie
If you’ve been to an opening at Gallery Bienvenu, you have no doubt admired the art. But also part of the scene is something definitely not for sale. That would be Callie, the engaging 6-year-old Shih Tzu of owner Cathy Bienvenu.

“At art openings everyone asks if she’s for sale,” says Bienvenu. “My reply is ‘You do not have enough money.’”

When not nestled in Bienvenu’s arms, Callie’s favorite spot in the gallery is on one of the gallery’s Barcelona chairs, which coincidentally complements her white-and-tan coat. You could almost say it’s her throne: “She thinks she owns the gallery,” says Bienvenu. Despite her regal appearance, Callie is quite social (a “party animal,” perhaps?) – and in addition to art openings, she’s fond of visiting her friends at Petcetera and entertaining the Bienvenu family.

“She’s my third daughter,” says Bienvenu. “The one that will never grow up.”

And Callie, no doubt, is planning to remain the beloved masterpiece she is.

Denise Berthiaume, LeMieux Galleries, and Guy LeMieux
For Guy LeMieux, Julia Street is like a live theatrical performance – there’s always an interesting cast to entertain him. A 4-year-old black-and-red dachshund, visitors to LeMieux Galleries can find him on his bed looking out on the street scene, and if you’re lucky he may even get up to greet you. If he really likes you, be prepared for a lot of friendly licks.

According to Denise Berthiaume, who has owned LeMieux Galleries for 26 years, he has regular – human – friends who stop by to seem him, and if he’s not there, they ask, “Where’s Guy?” whose name is pronounced the French way, and is also a family name.

 A Christmas gift from her husband, Steve Schwarz, “Guy could fit in my hands,” says Berthiaume. Guy is still small, about 10 pounds, and even though he’s a people dog, Berthiaume shies away from having him at openings due to his size.

Like most New Orleanians, Guy likes to costume and has a small wardrobe of ensembles, including a smoking jacket, sweaters, a Santa suit and a yarmulke. And he’s paraded in Barkus with a krewe of dachshunds.

Guy also likes to travel with her owners, but home is with them on Julia Street.
 

 

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