When Elaine Richards first saw something move across the lanes of traffic on one of the busiest stretches of highway in the country, she thought it was a discarded magazine, pushed along by the brisk winds off the San Francisco Bay.
Then she hoped that's what it was, not wanting to consider the alternative. She saw people pop out of their cars in the midst of stalled rush-hour traffic. They would then close their doors, no doubt shaking their heads in helplessness.
And then she knew, for certain.
What had flittered across the lanes was a kitten, stranded on the roadway approaching San Francisco's Bay Bridge. She also knew she was his only hope.
A sensible woman, she realized the traffic was at a dead stop and that the kitten would die if she did nothing. He was standing on the center shoulder, every hair erect, his tail puffed out to the fullest.
"I couldn't live with myself if I left him," she said. "I knew the worst that would happen was that people would get mad at me. I said to myself, 'I'm going to get this guy off the road.'"
The terrified kitten wouldn't cooperate. He started across the traffic lanes, and Richards shooed him back onto the center shoulder. And then ... she lost him.
Another driver told her the kitten had disappeared under a nearby car. Richards asked the driver not to move, and looked underneath.
"I saw little white toes and great big eyes sitting on top of the wheel. I never heard a little animal hiss so loudly," she said. "I said to the driver, 'Do you have a coat or something so I can grab the kitty?' His passenger handed me a very nice scarf."
She took a deep breath, dug in tight with her fingers and pulled the little scrap of fur out. "He bit me like a stapler," she said. "But I couldn't let go. I knew he was dead if I let him go."
She scruffed the kitten and handed back the scarf with a thank you. Back in her car, she watched the kitten disappear under her dashboard as she headed for the animal control department in San Francisco. She knew she and the kitten both needed medical attention.
In San Francisco, the kennel attendant couldn't extricate the kitten from the dash and said that the animal control officer would have to try later. Richards decided the cat was fine where he was, and she'd come back after meeting her obligations in the city.
Later, the kitten was pulled out with no small amount of fuss. "She had a good grip on him, and he was making noises like something a lion cub would make," she said. "Hissing, spitting, yowling."
Eventually, it took a pencil in the fanny to get the little guy moved to where he could be reached.
Richards named the little gray ball Nimitz, after the stretch of freeway where he'd been found. She knew the bite meant he'd need to be quarantined, and she feared he was too wild to have potential as a pet. But soon she found allies: a friend who was willing to adopt him, and an animal control staff eager to tame and treat him.
She and the kitten spent the next 10 days on antibiotics, and eventually she was allowed to adopt the kitten for her friend Kerri Pidnow.
What she took out of the shelter was a completely different kitten from the one she'd left there. "He was purring in my arms," she said. "A little butterball."
Nimitz has settled in happily into his new home with Pidnow and her cat, Mouse. As for Richards, the experience has changed her.
She has now gone through two animal-behavior classes and has signed up to volunteer at the Oakland SPCA. When she was the only one willing to help little Nimitz, she realized she was capable of helping even more.
"I was a kitty's superhero," she said.
From the animals of Hurricane Katrina to a kitten on a California freeway, never underestimate the power of one person who says, "I need to do something."
If enough of us say it, the world will be a better place for us all.
More exercise for active dog
Q: I have a very active border collie/blue heeler mix. He is about 8 months old and has recently discovered how fun it can be to destroy the carpets. He also loves to make a mess. We have a dog door, so when we are gone he has full use of the house.
He obviously is getting very bored. We run him four miles a day, but besides getting a companion for him -- I can't get another dog at this time -- what can we do? Doggie day care? Doggie gyms? Behavior training? -- M.M., via e-mail
A: Sporting breeds, herding breeds and their mixes are notorious for their high activity levels, especially in their adolescent and young adult periods. That's why I never recommend dogs such as border collies for people who plan to do nothing more than give them a sedate daily walk.
These dogs are just too high-drive for many situations, especially when you factor in that these are also some of the smartest pets around. (Contrast the active herding and sporting breeds with sighthounds such as retired racing greyhounds. These "40 mph couch potatoes" are often a better choice for a more sedentary household.)
I do like the idea of doggie day care for active dogs, providing nonstop supervised play. These businesses are still relatively rare, though, and the prices can add up, so they may not work for you. (I've used day care from time to time with one of my young dogs, with good results.)
Normally, I'd say your dog needs exercise, but four miles a day ... wow! Can you supplement that with 30 to 40 minutes of retrieving every day? The more exercise, the better.
While you're gone, I'd limit your dog's range and leave him with something to keep him busy. One suggestion: stuffed Kongs.
You take your basic Kong dog toy, stuff it with peanut butter and bits of kibble or biscuits, and freeze it. Then give it to your dog when you're leaving the house. With a simple Internet search, you can find all kinds of recipes and ideas for stuffing Kongs. There's also a machine available for dispensing stuffed Kongs throughout the day. (KongTime retails for $140 to $150 from pet suppliers.)
Use a baby gate or other barrier to keep your dog in a small area with his Kong and other chew toys while you're gone to minimize distraction and destruction -- no more free run of the house!
You might also consider getting involved in a dog sport. Since you and your dog are both so fit and athletic, I bet you'd both be great at canine agility.
Q: We have a 14-year-old Westie who is doing very well, and we try to keep him on a diet. The problem is that my wife tries to slip him treats that I think may be bad for him, especially chocolate. I've read that chocolate is a no-no. Can you advise us? -- R.D., via e-mail
A: Chocolate is indeed toxic to dogs. Even though it would take more than a little treat to make most dogs really sick, you're better off not giving your dog any of it.
Many people who have their dogs on good, sensible diets seem determined to botch things up by stuffing their pets full of treats all day long. Although an occasional treat won't do much harm to a dog's diet, acting like a nonstop goodie dispenser will sabotage your overall efforts to keep your pet at a healthy weight.
Get your wife to understand that food is not love. Keep treats to a minimum. And instead of handing out foods with chocolate, high fats or processed sugar, give tiny amounts of healthy pet treats, or even slivers of carrots or apples, or small pieces of rice cakes.
(Do you have a pet question? Send it to email@example.com.)
Rough rope perfect for feline clawing
You don't have to declaw your cat. If you discourage your pet from clawing your furniture and offer attractive alternatives, it's likely you can have your décor left alone without putting your pet through the ordeal of surgery.
Some cats like to scratch horizontally, some vertically. It's good to offer choices -- sturdy cat trees and posts, as well as products designed for a good horizontal scratch. Sisal rope is an attractive scratching material for many cats, and it can be wrapped around vertical elements to freshen up a worn post or tree.
For corners of the furniture that are attracting feline attention, use double-sided tape (or a product like Sticky Paws) to discourage your pet. Place cat trees or posts next to the area you're trying to get your cat to avoid, and reward your pet for using an acceptable alternative. You won't have to live with a cat tree in the middle of the living room forever: Move it in small increments until it's where you want it.
If your pet's a catnip junkie, be sure to rub some fresh clippings on to the approved scratching area to make it even more appealing.
ON THE WEB
Plenty to learn on SF SPCA site
The San Francisco SPCA has been one of the most influential animal shelters in the country, a pioneer in the no-kill movement, as well as its efforts to humanely reduce feral cat populations and increase the reach of kinder methods of training and behavior modification for pets.
The organization's Web site (www.sfspca.org) shows its interest in spreading the word beyond the borders of the notably progressive city. Printable information is available on topics ranging from disaster preparedness to pet loss and providing for a pet in a will. There's also top-quality information on working through behavior problems with dogs and cats, and on fostering orphaned kittens.
While a lot of the information is of interest only to people in the San Francisco Bay Area, there's enough here to help all kinds of pet lovers to make the site worth a visit. Plus, you can order cool SF SPCA logo gear online!
Ridgeback excels as family companion
The Rhodesian ridgeback was bred in Africa as an all-purpose farm dog, family guardian and hunter. They have developed into a breed almost ideally suited to be a family companion: athletic but not hyper, friendly but not fawning, protective but not aggressive.
The ridgeback is a short-coated dog ranging from 70 pounds to 90 pounds. The breed gained its name from the distinctive ridge of hair along its spine, the probable legacy of an African dog believed to be one of its ancestors. They are clean and quiet, and they shed very little.
Ridgebacks are hounds, and therefore somewhat stubborn and independent. Because they will cheerfully take off after anything that smells interesting or runs past, good fencing is essential. They also need daily walks, and a chance to get some free running exercise in a safely fenced area once or twice a week.
Rambunctious as a puppy, the mature ridgeback is quiet in the home and great with children. And in the home is where a Ridgeback needs to live, as these dogs are very attached to their human family members and will be unhappy if isolated.
Rhodesian ridgebacks also possess one other notable breed trait: They like their food. It's critical that you not allow your dog to overeat, because few ridgebacks have any kind of "off" switch when it comes to food.
Ridgebacks can suffer from hip and elbow dysplasia, thyroid disease, cataracts and a congenital defect known as dermoid sinus. Some Ridgebacks are ridgeless. So if the ridge is important to you, make sure the puppy you obtain has one. To avoid problems with health or temperament, get your ridgeback from a reputable rescue group or from a breeder who is a member of the Rhodesian Ridgeback Club of the United States (http://rrcus.org). -- Christie Keith, pethobbyist.com
BY THE NUMBERS
Little birds rule
The ownership rates for birds have remained pretty steady at 6 percent of the total U.S. population. Small birds such as cockatiels and parakeets are the most popular among bird keepers (multiple answers allowed):
Cockatiel 38 percent
Parakeet 32 percent
Finch 7 percent
Lovebird 7 percent
Conure 6 percent
African Grey 5 percent
Canary 5 percent
Dove 4 percent
Amazon 3 percent
Cockatoo 3 percent
Macaw 2 percent
Source: American Pet Products Manufacturers Association
Spring brings garden hazards
Snail bait, weed killer, fertilizers and even some mulches can be toxic to a pet, which is why it's important to keep your animals in mind when thinking of spring gardening.
Read all labels and follow directions carefully when handling yard chemicals, making sure substances have dried and the containers are properly put away before pets are allowed back into any treated area.
Hand-pick any mushrooms for disposal, and check your yard for other toxic plants. The American SPCA's Animal Poison Control Center (www.aspca.org/apcc) has a list of potentially deadly plants on its Web site.
And always know how to get in touch with your veterinarian if your pet gets into something dangerous. A delay in getting help can cost your pet his life.
(Pet Rx is provided by the Veterinary Information Network (VIN.com), an online service for veterinary professionals. More information can be found at www.veterinarypartner.com.)
Gina Spadafori is the award-winning author of "Dogs for Dummies," "Cats for Dummies" and "Birds for Dummies." She is also affiliated with the Veterinary Information Network Inc., an international online service for veterinary professionals. Write to her in care of this newspaper, or send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also read her frequently updated Web log or view her column archives at www.spadafori.com.
4520 Main St., Kansas City, Mo. 64111; (816) 932-6600