Guest Contributor—Andrea Chesney O’Neill is an advertising writer and speech writer, as well as traveler, and longtime lover of animals big and small. Her pets have brought joy to her and her family for years. From stray cats on Ocracoke Island, NC, to her own three rescue cats, Toola, Lilly and Bob, she has come to believe that if we pay close attention to our animal companions and to nature, too, we’ll help them live their best lives.
Frau Francesca stands outside the heavy wood door of my little Bavarian house one early spring afternoon with two bowls in her hand. One, she tells me, in careful, melodious Bavarian (because she knew I was still learning their old regional dialect, so different from the sparse German I knew), contained fresh goats’ milk. It was still warm; you could feel it through the smooth sides of the old pottery vessel. The other bowl held fresh goat meat, with some herbs, and two duck eggs.
Not for me, she lets me know, pointing to the big black and white tomcat in a basket across the room, but for him, for Harley. Harley has been visiting Frau Francesca and her husband of fifty years, Herr Josef, on the sly, you see, and they have come to love his calm, affectionate, big-hearted presence over the last few weeks – perhaps he could use some goat’s milk, some better food, to welcome him back from his visits at the animal clinic?
She comes in and pours some into a smaller kitchen bowl and puts it down. He sniffs warily, weakly, then begins to lap it up with serious intent. I am amazed, but she is satisfied, and nods, and explains she and her husband began giving him the milk at their house a few weeks ago, when he was starting to seem unwell, quieter than he usually was, not himself. It will help. She is sure he needs it now.
It turns out, she’s right.
A life-changing visit to Bavaria
Three months earlier, at the end of a cold, endlessly gray winter, I found myself driving into a Bavarian village on the banks of the Isar, taking a long dreamed-of holiday break while typing up notes for a writing project. My glass and stone house, the summer home of a friend in the center of a tiny village, boasted a big wood-burning kamine, stunning mile-long views of woodland and hills, and fantastically friendly new neighbors (from age 5 to 90) with their assorted pets, rabbits, horses and livestock. It was a treasure trove of great family stories, recipes, health tips, and new traditions shared over beer (at the “new’ Gasthaus which was merely 100 years old, apparently vs. the “old” Gasthaus, a much more respectable 325 years old).
A troupe of little village girls was determined to teach me German and Bavarian in exchange for English lessons, American chocolate chip cookies, and my agreement to be the judge when they decided to perform sing-offs or demonstrate their soccer cheers on Saturday afternoons. They pushed a baby buggy filled with their pet mice up and down my path until they were bold enough to approach “the English girl” with their plan to educate me, and we became friends.
A cheerful, kindly elfin baker drove to our village every morning at 6:30 a.m., his sparkling station wagon loaded with baskets spilling over with oven-fresh breads and pastries; the gossip and jokes shared as we all waited for his arrival with our clean canvas bags taught me half the language I would need (I had to hear out who ran off with Herr Max’s first wife on a popular tv show, and how Fraulein Maria did at the horse jumping event, after all).
The city cat meets his new world
It was all life-changing for me, much more than a little vacation escape; it was a new world filled with people I would love the rest of my life.
It was also going to be life-changing for Harley.
A dog-sized, broad-chested Norwegian Forest cat with huge paws and soulful, absolutely square green eyes, Harley began his journey as a tiny scruffy kitten I found in a parking garage. He grew up to be a muscle-bound, Thor-type of character who thought he was my bodyguard, covered in miles of snow-white and blue-black fur. He snorted when upset or impatient. He loved to jump five feet into the air, just because. He loved little kids. He talked non-stop, such a varied language that friends would bring people I didn’t know to talk to him. But before all that, at a vet visit, when he was just 5 months old, I was told a defect in his heart would likely claim him in a year.
When he turned three, a big resolute bodyguard of a cat who carried a small stuffed toy cat around the house, I was told more bad news: he might look like a giant parade float of cat, but his lungs had remained too impossibly small for him to live long, another genetic stumbling block. It was why he often sighed. The ultrasound shocked even me.
And yet, he lived on.
So when he turned five, still strong and hearty enough to please his vet, although showing signs of mild diabetes that we controlled with diet and occasional insulin, Harley found himself in a giant dog-size carrier, in a specially designed private pet cabin with a high ticket price, floating off on a direct Lufthansa night flight with me from Chicago to Germany. Show dogs, white tigers and pandas had used the unique cabin in the past, with its soft lighting, soothing music, and air pumped in from the passenger cabin, plus private vet check-in; now it was big Harley’s turn.
He was given souvenir “wings” by an enraptured flight crew for his handsomeness, his 007-cool “yeah, so?” demeanor and friendly “let’s shake paws on that” trick that he apparently invented on the trip over. At the Munich airport, Lufthansa’s vet proclaimed him a king, and several French tourists took his photo (“is he real? But his head is the size of melon!”). A handsome Japanese businessman with two frantic assistants in matching Chanel suits offered me $1000 for “the lucky cat.” When I declined, his assistants placed his card in my hands with a bottle of duty-free perfume and urged me to think about it and call.
Of course, I wouldn’t call them, but I loved that my big survivor kitty was seen by someone to possess a lot of luck. I felt he’d need it.
“A cat with more soul”
As we waited for my ride, an Air Iberia flight attendant stopped beside us and looked at him, then grabbed my hand and looked intently at me. “He has the eyes of god,” she said. “In my home village, once every seventy years, there is such a cat, with more soul, who is meant to bring something more to all of us, and teach us. This is your cat.” She kissed her fingertip, touched his nose, and was gone.
“Harley,” I told my easy-going emperor, “I think we were meant to make this trip together.” He seemed, with his newly-named soulful eyes, to agree.
So when I saw my lucky rock star taking his first happy footsteps on the path of our new temporary home, tugging at the harness and leash he wore as a city cat in a strange exhilarating new world of good smells and fresh breezes, breathing the crystal air as a few snowflakes fell on his big broad head, I was happy he’d made it this far. When a few weeks later he shot out the back door on his own to swat a big Bernese Mountain Dog/Shepherd mix with one blind eye that had decided to hang out at our house, and then the two made an instant invisible friendship pact and romped off together to go watch the swans in a pond by the woods (fast friends that would never be parted again until we returned to the states), I knew again I was right to bring him along.
If his life was going to be short, let him go out and enjoy this beautiful place with me, let him breathe the freshest air and hear birdsong. We had all his shots, U.S. and German, every box checked. I told him, “Together forever, little guy” every day, with extra meaning knowing the hidden time-bombs within his strong-looking self. Now we were together for this visit to a stunning country, too.
Harley quickly acquired a posse of village cats. They appeared one day at the door as if they knew him already, to invite him out, and he looked at me, eyes pleading. I opened the door hesitantly, and he quickly stepped out and joined them like old friends, noses smelled, a few kind licks on ears. Not a hiss or a puffed tail. They walked off together to sit under the trees. In days ahead, they would play in the cornfield, lay on the riverbank to swat at (or catch) little fish this tiny branch of the river carried, or pile on my terrace to nap.
He learned to chase wild rabbits and long-eared squirrels with the dog, always skidding to an elegant stop as their prey scampered safely off. But he also rescued the village girls’ kittens and floppy eared bunnies when they escaped their houses, and would delicately carry them home, one by one, then return to the terrace to flop down with a sigh: another’s day’s work done. He visited other homes with the dog, too, looking for treats. The neighbors would point and laugh in English for me: “Vagabonds!”
Harley also posed nonchalantly in the garden near the road, just inside our fence, when international cyclists, training for races, skidded to a stop to take his photo and ask if all American cats were this big?
He watched television on Tuesday and Friday nights with my elderly neighbors across the road, Frau Francesca and her husband Josef; they waited for him at the door and he would glance back over at me like “’later, my fans need me, see you in the morning.” If strangers parked in the road and then knocked at the door to see the “big American cat?” with their kids, he obliged with his new “shake my giant paw” trick. In Germany, he came alive, running, thriving, chasing, trying to climb the apple tree.
Then one fine early spring day, he was sick. He went overnight from lively explorer, shiny fur and sparkling eyes, stamping the ground with excitement as he followed our chicken Hermione around the yard, to still and quiet, distant. Always at my side or eager to play, he stayed in his basket. The next morning, his eyes, his expression told me something was going wrong. I rushed him to a vet I’d heard about, a small family-run practice that offered holistic care too. They didn’t like his gum color, from what I could understand, and I was sent to another village, to a vet who had the latest ultrasound machine.
That vet was modern, brisk, and direct: Harley had cancer, a tumor near his tiny lungs, and we should put him to sleep. It was best. He had beaten the odds with that heart, those lungs, but he could not beat this.
Shocked, I found myself driving back through the winding Bavarian country roads to our holistic vet. We talked. He and his daughter, both vets, were kind. They had talked to the ultrasound vet and suggested I take a few days, and try a holistic oil, a few drops in his food or on his tongue, let him rest. At least a few days to say goodbye. They sent another prescription to the Apotheke, run by an animal-loving pharmacist who was also happy to help us.
At home, Harley nibbled food lightly, turned his head away, and lay in his bed next to the long ceiling to floor windows. Outside, on the cool hard spring ground, his loyal friend Rocco the dog hulked like a mountain range, watching his feline friend through the glass, unwilling to leave, unwilling to go home with his owners when they came. We agreed Rocco could stay at my house. He came in and slept near Harley that night, tried to offer Harley his food in the morning and then slumped home, repeatedly looking back over his big wolf-like shoulder.
Harley’s village steps in: eat, pray, love
Word traveled quickly through the village somehow, and the little girls, worried, brought Harley their favorite toys and petted him and sang quietly. Then, right after I’d hung up after talking to our American vet, Frau Francesca appeared with her two bowls. The goat milk would strengthen his blood and muscles, she told me in Bayerisch and a few American words her son had armed her with for the visit. The goat meat. From their own animals, healthy, only good food, playing the fields…. good meat. Raw, and fermented. Healthy traditional foods good for us all.
Crack a duck egg open in another bowl, or a chicken egg, freshly laid; let him lick it up. This helped all their animals. It helped Frau Sofie’s calico cat when it fell off the roof and was healing after surgery at the finest vet in Munich; it would help our big American cat, too. She knew this because sometimes she gave Harley goat milk and eggs when he would visit and look at his nice fur! She, proper and bright, but also tiny, bones still stiff after a tractor accident on their farm decades earlier, then suddenly lay down upon the floor, murmuring to Harley, petting him, talking, telling him in her way to eat, eat, such a brav boy… He looked at me, but, for her, he shifted and made the effort to lick at the goat milk. He licked egg off my fingertips.
The next few days melted into a swirl of neighbors and friends checking on Harley, bringing us fresh butter, duck meat, more eggs, broth. Some suggested their freshly baked bread placed in the goat milk (fresh bowls daily) would be more nourishing. Some added garlic to their homemade chicken broth. I was a girl alone in village in Germany with a gravely sick best friend, but I wasn’t. The village showed us love, compassion, and climbed over barriers of the several dialects spoken there to offer advice and hope, or watch him while I tried to work. They each had a Harley story somehow, this cat that they had only known for a couple of months.
And he, ever the king, obliged one and all, obediently licking the milk and broth and eggs, then the next day, licking more. On day three, he wanted the fresh goat meat, a piece of goat cheese, and some pickled vegetables. The vets called me: was I ready to say goodbye? No, I told them, looking at Harley chewing goat cheese for his fans with a new glint in his eye, no, not yet.
Day five, there was a shout of laughs from the village men and boys outside the house. The giant loyal dog Rocco had furiously dug a massive pit, six feet across, three feet deep. He emerged to cheers utterly filthy with a squirming mouse in his teeth that he had unearthed.
He marched proudly with it to the window of the French doors. Harley, in his bed looked up. A look was exchanged. Harley slowly stood, and as we watched holding our breath, indicated he wanted to go out. I opened the glass and wood door and Harley stepped out shakily to Rocco. With the dog leading the way, they went around to the terrace. A moment passed and two little boys returned to say excitedly that the giant American cat ate the mouse promptly and then curled up to sleep with Rocco.
Each day he was better. Each day, his diet was his dab of special cat food topped with a duck egg, plus a small bowl of goat milk or kefir. In the evening, we had our choice of the fresh-caught fish or goat meat or rabbit, or what seemed to be a sort of pickled duck meat, brought by our village supporters. I gave him a drop of the little vial of holistic oil every night. In two more weeks, he was ambling around again, turning back into the king he was. I noticed that when he resumed his visits to favored houses in our village, bowls of goat milk and plates of fresh meat would magically appear. “We had too much, we were about to eat, he can have it,” his host would shrug. “See, he likes it. Good for cats! German cats are strong, he knows what is good, he is really a German cat, see?”
Harley and I returned to America, then made another trip back some months later. Harley was thriving, but clearly longing for his German fields and friends, and the fresh wholesome food I was having trouble replicating back in the States, so back on the plane he went for a little visit. He could breathe air, walk, visit with village friends to eat well, play, boost his health. We booked visits with our German vets.
Our holistic vet was happy but not surprised; nature’s food is best, he explained. He had studied in Vienna and went to seminars, and good, natural healthy food, this is what our pets need. The modern ultrasound vet with his sleek modern clinic was stumped. Harley was still with us? How could this be? He offered to do another ultrasound, free, just from curiosity. The tumor was smaller, hard to see. No one could explain it. We crossed our fingers.
One more feast from nature
Harley went back to his Bavarian diet, especially thrilled to have his goat milk and kefir and nest-fresh duck eggs again. Now 6 years old, he ran through the fields with his old friends and made his visits, enjoying the summer evenings as he slept under a bench as neighbors gathered at someone’s courtyard in the evening to laugh and talk. Some nights, he went home with Rocco the dog to sleep in the dog’s lavish, two-story chalet-style doghouse, side by side in the doorway, best buddies always.
Everyone had milk or eggs for Harley’s visits. His fur was glossy, and he bounded around again on strong muscular legs. He made the most of his little vacation in every way.
Harley and I returned to the States, and he lived another five years as an indoor city cat again, before heart issues and pancreatic cancer, mimicking a fake bout of diabetes again, caught him short. I had trouble sourcing the milks and meats I wanted for him, though when I could find them, he ate them; though perhaps the cartoned pasteurized goat milk and processed duck eggs weren’t as appealing to him as the treasures carried to him by his loving village friends. I would always wonder if I should have left him in his beloved village with the people who eagerly offered to take him in, the people’s whose knowledge of nature, and animals, gave him seven extra years to be his delightful, strong, loving self on this earth.
But what Harley taught me still lives on. Before his death, a tiny sickly stray Maine Coon came into our lives, frail, nearly blind from malnutrition, suffering from failure to thrive, not recognizing food as something she needed to consume. As he had done back in Germany with the village kittens, Harley took little three-month-old Toola under his wing, chewing food and carefully placing it into her mouth like mother bird might, carrying her around the house on his massive back like a cat taxi, washing her, sleeping with her, until she began to get well. Uncle Harley was her hero.
A few months later as he was living his last days before we put him to sleep, Toola spent 24 hours washing him nose to tail, and back again, a tiny undersized piece of fluff trying to clean and soothe a jumbo jet. The love she had for him echoed the love I, and an entire distant village, would have for him forever.
A beautiful life goes on, with good nutrition
Eighteen years have passed, and Toola is now in her twilight years. Two years ago, we were told she had just days to live. But as Harley and a group of wise Bavarians taught me, why give up easily? Although very picky about eating her whole life, forcing us into a diet regimen we aren’t crazy about to just get to eat and maintain weight, she has been willing to lap up a little goat milk and goat cheese, sardines or kefir every few days. But then, finding Answers Pet Food at our local better pet food shop a little over a year ago meant she can also have the kind of goat milk Harley enjoyed, farm fresh, filled with nourishment few other foods supply. She’s holding her own, still asking us to take her outside to scratch the bark of a favorite tree, or sit on the porch with us for a few minutes, then curling up in my husband’s lap with a look of pure devotion on her face.
At every vet visit, the team’s happy amazement at Toola’s continuing journey as she gives them one of her sweet, doe-eyed looks, this gentle little cat reminds me that nothing is over until it is over, that more answers are always around the corner, that just like her superb vet, Mother Nature knows what she’s doing – as a village filled with new friends taught me when I needed the knowledge most.
There’s always another day when the answer can come, and beautiful life can go on, here at home, or along a distant riverbank where a waterfall tumbles to the delight of group of lazy country cats.
And Toola reminds me every day what Harley and I learned years ago: that sometimes we are lucky enough to have a real village or a village of friends, or a farm filled with caring people like everyone at Answers. A family we didn’t know we had, who know what to offer us to help our pets thrive when they are most in need, and help those little ones we love so much stay by our sides for the journey ahead, wherever it takes us.