Written By Barbara O'Brien
For those of you have been following my essays, you know that I am married to a wonderful fellow. For almost 30 years, Kevin has put up with me and all of my crazy ideas. More important, he has put up with my animal related lifestyle.
Having said all that, I feel compelled to let you in on a little secret: Kevin talks to the animals. Not in a Dr. Doolittle sort of way. He has never mentioned any of the animals talking back. Not in an animal communicator sort of way: “Ginger doesn’t like your new boyfriend and that is why she chewed up his iPhone.” No, it’s more like Kevin talks to the animals and they agree to listen.
I learned about this early on. We had only been dating a week
or so when his parents, Bud and Dee, invited me over for dinner. I had met his parents briefly but this was the first time we had all been together at their house. Kevin comes from a long line of animal lovers. His parents seemed normal enough as far as pets were concerned. They had a black and white cat named Pretty Cat and a German Shepherd/Golden Retriever dog named Elsa.
We were at the dinner table when I noticed Elsa the dog watching Bud’s hand, which was holding his fork, with great interest. Elsa stared intently as the fork moved from the plate to Bud’s mouth and back down again. Nothing strange about that, I thought; a lot of people feed their dogs scraps from the table. Then Bud, talking to us all the while, speared a piece of pork chop with his fork, and pointed it towards Elsa. The dog gently took the piece of pork chop into her mouth, gulped it down, and resumed her fork-watching vigil. Okay, I thought, maybe Bud didn’t want the rest of his pork chop and this is his quick way of giving it to the dog. But then Bud speared another piece of pork chop and ate it with the very same fork he had just used to feed the dog. “Guess dogs are really part of Kevin’s family,” I concluded all those years ago. This casual approach to people and dogs living together that Kevin grew up with has proven to be a very good thing for me because I make my living with animals, have a house brimming with them, and cannot imagine a life without them.
Fast forward nearly 30 years to the house I share with Kevin, our sons, and our animals. We have a naughty cat, Louisa. She thinks she should be fed at 4:30 am on the dot and does her best to wake us up to meet her demands. I ignore her or in a semi-awakened state, I grab her and banish her from the room and stumble back to bed again. But if I have slept through her announcements, I wake to hear Kevin saying softly to her, “Oh, what a pretty cat you are…such a good girl. We are trying to sleep and I can’t feed you right now because then I would have to feed all of the other cats and we can’t be doing that, now can we? There you are…such a good girl.” All the while he’s petting her velvety blue coat. I roll over in bed to look at them both in sleepy astonishment, and I swear I can see her grinning at me as if to say, “See, I told you he likes me best!”
And it doesn’t stop there. When Kevin goes out to do chores he shouts out with a ringing cheerful voice, “Hello everybody! Good morning! How are my kids today?!” The horses perk up, the sheep start to baa, and the chickens respond with clucks and crows. The cats meow and rub against his legs as he makes his way down to the barn.
“Hello, Churchill. Good morning, Bullet. And how is Helen today?” Kevin will say to the assembled cats as he distributes their food and makes sure each one has enough to eat. “Hello, Cleveland. Hello, Teddy. Don’t worry, it’s coming. HEY! NO FIGHT! Oh, there you are, Franklin. Where’s Charlie?” He speaks to each cat one by one and makes sure they’re all accounted for.
The sheep spot him and beseech him to let them out to graze. As a rule the sheep and goats are not allowed to free graze unless we are there to supervise them closely. The sheep are notorious for getting into the farm fields and the goats get into all kinds of trouble jumping on and chewing on everything you don’t want them to jump or chew on.
Every day, Kevin’s conversation with the sheep goes something like this:
Sheep: “Baaaa! Please, Mr. Farmer Man, please let us out.”
Kevin: “What? Do you guys want to go out?”
Sheep: “Oh yes, please open the gate.” They say this politely, thinking they can fool him once again.
Kevin: “Do you promise to be good?” He asks them this in all sincerity and with all the sincerity sheep can muster they say, “Yes, yes. Of course we will be good.”
Kevin: “No, I don’t think so. Last time you broke the garden fence and ate the heads off all of the tulips.”
Sheep protesting loudly: “Baaaa! It was the goats! The goats did it! Baaaa! You know those goats can’t be trusted.”
Goats: “Hey! Did not!”
Kevin considers their argument for a moment and then smiles broadly. “All right,” he says “But you better not get into trouble.” Like rude children at a birthday party they don’t even bother to thank him as they barrel out the gate into the green pasture ahead. “Be careful,” he admonishes them. “Don’t wander too far.”
Two of our young horses, Johnny and Cierzo, hang their heads over the fence with hopeful expressions as he sneaks them each a handful of grain. “Don’t tell her,” he whispers as he strokes their necks, knowing full well we don’t grain them until evening chores.
I have often spotted Kevin talking to the horses as if they were respected friends whose opinions mattered. “So what do you think of those kids that came last week to ride you, Louis?” he will ask our elderly Morgan gelding. “Did you have fun? Was it nice being brushed and ridden by those kids? They were nice kids, weren’t they?”
When he cleans the sheep and chicken barn I can hear him telling the chickens just what he is doing and how much they are going to enjoy the clean shavings and fresh straw in their laying boxes. He thanks the hens for their eggs and tells the roosters how handsome they are.
He talks to other people’s animals, too. When I need Kevin to hold an owner’s second dog while we work with the first dog on the set, I can hear him talking as we walk away. He draws the anxious dog close and says in a quiet reassuring voice, “Don’t worry, they are just taking Buster’s picture. You will get your turn. You mom will be back for you soon.” While he waits with the dog, he caresses it’s head, strokes it’s fur and tells the dog, “There now. That’s a good dog.” When the owner and I come back to Kevin with the first dog, Kevin says to the dog he’s been comforting, “See, I told you,” as he hands the leash over. “She came back. It’s all right now…such a good dog.”
I suspect that Kevin has always talked to animals. Since we moved to the farm nine years ago he seems to do it more and more. Maybe it is just part of getting older or maybe our four sons are tired of listening to us. Or maybe there is something else going on. An old Swedish farmer, Wilfred Larson, owned this farm before us and lived here with his wife, Ruth, for almost all of his long life. I’ve been told Wilfred was known for how much he loved his animals. Back in the day animals were considered more of a utilitarian commodity than they are now. His neighbors found it odd that he would talk to his cowsjust like they were people. They were even more amazed that the cows seemed to understand him. As Kevin walks through the same barn that Wilfred did and tends to the animals the way that Wilfred did, perhaps good old Wilfred Larson is smiling down from heaven knowing that his farm is being run by someone who talks to the animals, too.
I don’t mind. Kevin can talk to the animals all he wants. I don’t mind at all – as long as he remembers to talk to me, too.