Still Wild About Hank (And Damned Proud of It!)

On Sunday, August 14, Nancy and I attended the Virginia/US Premiere of the new documentary, Wild About Hank, the true story of the cat that ran for US Senate in 2012. Hank’s story holds a very special place in both our hearts. We learned about his bid for Congress shortly after it started. We bought bumper stickers and a lawn sign. We followed him on Facebook, liked his campaign messages, and even drove to meet him at Felix and Oscar’s pet store on Backlick Rd. in Northern Virginia when he was on the campaign trail. On Election Day, in the race between George Allen and now Vice-Presidential Democratic nominee Tim Kaine, we proudly wrote his name in and voted for him. Though he came in third, Hank received just shy of 7,000 votes statewide. Yes, Hank was a cat, but to many of us he was more than that: he was a movement. One we proudly supported.

Nancy and I posing before the Wild About Hank movie sign

Nancy and I posing before the Wild About Hank movie sign

Now, four years later, much has changed, much has stayed the same, and, generally speaking politically, things are worse than ever. Hank passed away in 2014 due to declining health complications so there’s no comeback possible. The 2016 Presidential Election is made up of two candidates who are arguably the two most distrusted and/or despised people in America, all the while other candidates are either denied or manipulated out of having a voice by the two big machines, and everyone is bracing for the potential violent response that could be the day after Election Day. It’s not hard to despair in such times, and I’ve written about some of my feelings on this previously in another post, “Primary Colors,” so there’s no further need to dwell here. Needless to say, sitting in the Cinema Arts Theater in Fairfax, VA when the movie finally started around 7 PM, I was hit with a wave of nostalgia and sadness for the good old days…from just four years ago.

The documentary, Wild About Hank, is a short and sweet 30 minute reminiscence of the late beloved feline visionary. Utilizing Facebook quotes, stock footage from the campaign, and seven primary interviews – including Republican challenger George Allen (Tim Kaine was unavailable for some reason) – the documentary briskly recounts owners Matthew O’Leary and Anthony Roberts’s reasons for Hank’s run, the process of getting him on (or not on) the ballot, the campaign itself, and the post-campaign life and eventual death of their beloved boy. Very lovingly crafted by director Emma Kouguell, who was on hand to introduce the film and be a part of the post-screening panel Q and A, the film is a valentine to those fans who took part in Hank’s rise, run, and decline. On a very personal level, when the stock BBC footage surfaced about halfway through the film that included both Nancy and I snapping photos of Hank, only to be followed by a still photo of he and I discussing his campaign finance reform policies, we nearly leaped out of our seats with joy.  But the real substance of the documentary lies in the interviews of a few of his biggest fans, and in their responses as to why they would ever vote for a cat.

Hank the Cat for U.S. Senate, March 2012

Hank the Cat for U.S. Senate, March 2012

In one very emotional and poignant response toward the end of the film, one of the interviewees is recalling Hank’s run for Senate and discussing it with a mix of pride and deep-felt sadness. She recounts how her own district was so close to call that before she cast her ballot, she was pressured by friends out of voting for Hank, being told she was throwing her vote away on a third party write-in, and that it was her civic duty to vote for a particular candidate. She caved, didn’t vote for Hank, and through tears has regretted it ever since. She recounts emotionally how supporting Hank made her feel a part of the democratic process, and how proud she was to be supporting a clean-run campaign where due to Hank’s presence, candidates “would have to show up and be kind,” and where she knew the intentions of her candidate were noble. She then, to paraphrase, asks the question of us all, “What does it say about the state of American politics that a cat can win the hearts and minds of disaffected voters in a way that the humans we run for office can’t?”

What indeed.

With almost 7,000 votes, and over sixteen thousand dollars raised for animal charities in Virginia, to say nothing of the intangible amount of good his campaign did to raise awareness on animal rights and spay and neuter issues, I proudly supported Hank in 2012, and will gladly do so again when the right cat comes along.

Till then, we’re stuck with the Fat Cats. Lucky us.

Long Live Hank,

Jason

 

P.S. Here is the link to the official Wild About Hank website where you can view the trailer. http://www.wildabouthank.com/ We were told the film will be available for streaming later this year, so check back regularly.

Here is the BBC stock footage that includes Nancy and I: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-17348212

Here is Hank’s Wikipedia Page:https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hank_the_Cat

Happy Exploring!

Ciao and Meow.

The cake at the Virginia Premiere of Wild About Hank

The cake at the Virginia Premiere of Wild About Hank

 

The Boy Who Lived

The killing of Harambe over Memorial Day Week (May 28), the male Lowland Silverback Gorilla who refused to vacate his facility after being summoned by his handlers when a four-year-old boy climbed into the gorilla enclosure at the Cincinnati Zoo has, as usual, brought out the best and worst in us as Americans. Collectively, we have breathed a sigh of relief that the little boy has escaped unharmed. Had he been killed, maimed, crushed to death, it would have been a national tragedy caught on numerous cell phones and iPads for the entire world to mourn. We thankfully avoided that and the boy is safe. That done, we have turned to “armchair quarter-backing” the zoo officials for their decision to kill a beloved fixture at the zoo, and even more so, looking to vilify the mother of the boy who, through some measure of distraction, incompetence, irresponsibility, or inexperience, let her son wander far enough from her care that he could enter a gorilla pen, and as a result, Harambe had to be sacrificed. That the family is African-American, the father was not present, and the father has a criminal record, have all become fuel for a disturbing racial fever dream, and the mother has received numerous death threats as the dark underbelly of America attempts to hold her accountable and make her pay for the death of beloved Harambe. Where we should be celebrating the rescue of the child and reverently mourning the sacrifice of Harambe, we are more preoccupied with blaming, judging, and race-hating. Sadly, this is just status quo in 21st century USA.

The story has some extra special meaning for me because when I was growing up my family owned two monkeys. Yes, that’s right, monkeys. Most people nowadays don’t remember a time in America when primates were household pets, but I do. When I was growing up in the early 1970s we owned two monkeys: Dottie and Cheetah. Many people don’t even believe me when I tell them that, but I have the pictures to prove it.

Dottie was a Spider Monkey and, truly, I don’t remember much about her; I was very young. My parents loved her, she got big, unwieldy, and a touch unpredictable – read fierce – and as a precaution and with great sadness, my parents gave her to a local PA zoo to live out her life, protected and in peace. Cheetah I remember much better. Cheetah had a place of honor in our house, a giant elevated cage smack in the middle of the dining room. She wore a little cloth diaper when she was out of the cage, which was frequent; she climbed gleefully up and down my Mom’s blue curtains; and she loved to steal and eat everyone’s maraschino cherries off their ice cream sundaes on the dining room table. She was gentle, intelligent, childlike, almost human. When she passed away after a good life, my parents inquired about getting another monkey, but the laws had changed. Primates were no longer pets; my parents were outraged, and thus ended monkeys (kinda) in my family tree.

Cheetah and Me19740002

Cheetah and me, 1974

As a parent of a two-year old, I can’t help but agree with the Cincinnati Zoo’s decision to put Harambe down. Jane Goodall, Jack Hanna, and many other experts have supported the decision and I believe I must also, but like them I don’t have to like the sacrifice. I know that if John Adams had gotten away from me and somehow gotten into a dangerous animal’s cage, I would want the authorities to do everything they could to protect his life, whether he or I was at fault or not. And from the moment that little boy entered that enclosure and Harambe disobeyed the command to vacate, the gorilla was doomed. Had the zookeepers hesitated and the child had been killed, it would have been a public relations nightmare: the zoo’s reputation would’ve been ruined, a human family destroyed and outraged, jobs would’ve been lost, lawsuits enacted, revenue lost, and on and on. There was no other choice available: a human child, knowingly or unknowingly, broke the rules, and a gorilla was going to make the ultimate sacrifice.

To date, I’ve seen little credible journalism on the attending mother, so it’s hard to comment knowledgeably on what happened there, though many are doing so anyway. Was she on her cell phone as many have speculated? Was she using the confines of the zoo as a babysitting service rather than managing her child? To what extent was she negligent? It’s hard to say at this point without all the facts; however, I do feel confident  – while acknowledging that accidents happen – saying that there was at least some fault on her part. Unless she was dealing with another emergency and he just slipped away, it would seem that she simply overestimated her ability to manage the child, and that hubris cost Harambe his life. Let’s hope she has learned something from this.

All through Memorial Day Weekend I’ve been reminded of that beautiful penultimate scene in Saving Private Ryan where Tom Hanks, as he’s dying, looks at Matt Damon’s character and says, “Earn this.” So many people died to bring Damon’s character, Ryan, safely home. His life was deemed important enough that many others sacrificed theirs for his. The metaphor is unfortunate, clear, burdensome, and disturbing. The Four-Year-Old-Who-Lived has no clear idea at this point in his life what just was done to save him, but he will be made aware of it someday, the media will see to that, and his life will be called into account. The burden of national recompense can’t really fall to the parents. They’ve been turned on, shamed, vilified, and threatened by the public. That kind of societal contempt doesn’t breed lasting gratitude. So, unfairly or not, the burden has fallen to the child to make Harambe’s sacrifice of his own life worthwhile, and to heal the national wound that has been Harambe’s loss.

I truly hope when the child grows up he is healthy and strong, wise and kind, and knows what one beloved animal gave in the summer of 2016 so that he might live, and makes some effort to make redress. We as a nation need this. Our national soul requires healing and cries out for a meaningful happy ending that places Harambe’s sacrifice in a positive context beyond, I’m sorry to say, the fact that he had to die so a human boy might live. That’s not the boy’s fault necessarily, but it is now, I fear, his burden to bear.

So I say to him: Accidents happen. No blame, no punishment, no judgment; truly. Only love. We are all happy and lucky you are alive. But when you grow up – and we all hope you will – please, PLEASE do the right and kind thing by the men and women who saved you, and by Harambe who died for you:

Earn This.

With Love and Light,

Jason

Harambe

Harambe RIP

What Makes a Family?

On June 10, a friend of mine, Ellie, shared a blog post on her Facebook that she said made her “sad.” The post, No, Your Dog Is Not Your “Baby” — Saying That Is An Insult To Moms by Elizabeth Broadbent can be found at this link for those of you who desire a personal glance:

http://www.yourtango.com/2015275999/your-dog-is-not-one-of-your-kids-insult-to-moms

In the post Ms Broadbent compares raising a dog to raising a baby and finds that there is no comparison. After a string of examples she concludes with the following words:

“Say you love your dogs. Say they make your life worth living. Say they’re your one-and-only. Call yourself a dog person. But don’t call your dog a baby. Don’t call him your ‘furkid’ or ‘furbaby’. Because baby, it’s not even close.”

Though I don’t share her opinion, it’s not my intention to take Ms. Broadbent to task (hundreds and hundreds of angry responders have already done so), but rather to share two examples from my own life where the species of the family member was really not the yardstick by which we measured how much we could love each other.

When I was quite young, for about three or four years, we had a Great Dane named Max. Max was a black Dane with a beautiful white star on his chest and an even more beautiful disposition. We were inseparable and he and I all too briefly were the best of friends. I used to lie on Max’s belly and watch television, and he would sleep in my bed during thunderstorms. He was protective and kind and I sometimes think he thought I was his boy. In a way I was. Max developed cancer of the back end but as a child I was left unawares of this by my parents. One Sunday my mother and I were sitting in church while the minister droned on about some such and in a moment that I can’t explain I leaned over to my mother, said, “Max is gone,” and continued to not listen to the sermon. When we arrived home we discovered my father weeping in the garage over a blanket, under which lay the deceased Max. I can’t explain what happened in church that day other than to say that Max loved me and I loved him and before he crossed over the Rainbow Bridge he dropped by the church to say goodbye. We were, after all, family.

Max

In December of 2010 I lost another great love of my life, a Russian Blue cat named Ivan that I often refer to as my “first born.” Ivan and I shared life together for twenty years – literally half of my life up to that point – and were for large parts of it inseparable. Ivan had wandered into my father’s music classroom at Conestoga Valley High School around 1990, a kitten straight off an adjacent breeder’s farm. When my father tried to return the kitten the breeder remarked that he would just drown him as Ivan had been born impure (he had faint white rings on his tail signifying tabby blood), and as such his life had no value. Enraged my father stormed off, cat in hand, and Ivan became officially a member of our family. Ivan and I had twenty years to play together, laugh together, eat together. We romped in and out of the house; he briefly stayed with me at my first apartment; he moved with me to Virginia when my mother went into a retirement home. In October of 2010 it became apparent that Ivan’s kidneys were failing. For the next few months Nancy and I gave him subcutaneous injections of IV fluids to keep his kidneys from shutting down. He grew weaker and weaker and it became evident by Christmas that he had had enough and was ready to cross over. On December 27, after days of round the clock watches, my mother, Nancy, and I went out for a rare breakfast. We returned home to find Ivan in our bed, but gone. He had wanted to cross over with dignity and wanted to do it without us present. Ivan is never far from my mind and often when I think about my own time to cross over he is the first face I envision seeing.

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I do pity Ms. Broadbent. I think her blog was wrongheaded though well-intentioned; I just don’t think she thought it through. We live in an age where far too many people are making a cottage industry out of telling others who they should love and what that relationship should be. Her remarks about not calling pets “fur babies” strike a broader chord in our culture. Who is she, or for that matter anyone, to decide how you or I will love and how we will choose to label that relationship? For many people a pet is all they have, all they can afford, or all they know. Rather than wasting time trying to define the rightness or wrongness of the relationship and its labeling, perhaps we should all just be thankful that within the diversity of life on this planet there are other species that want to cohabitate with us. And some of them, some very special ones of them, become family.

RIP Max and Ivan

I’ll be seeing you again

Children’s Book Announcement: Daddy Doesn’t Purr

I haven’t written a post in about a month, but this one is an important one. On November 12th my first children’s book will come out on Amazon.com and CreateSpace.com. Daddy Doesn’t Purr (But I Love Him Anyway) is the story of Duke, my cat son’s, journey to accept me as his new daddy. Told from his point of view (and written by him – I just transcribed it) Daddy Doesn’t Purr is a short picture book for young readers about accepting our differences and about realizing that families come in many shapes, sizes, species, and configurations.

The book was beautifully illustrated by two of my wife’s cousins, Michelle and Francis McNally, and a portion of the sales from each book will be donated to two animal charities in Virginia: Meow Stories, who first fostered Duke before our adoption, and King George Animal Control, with whom I volunteer.

We’re hoping to donate some decent money to each organization over the holidays (when animals need the most help) so please help spread the word. I’m very excited to get this story out there and in print. If you’re looking for a sweet little stocking stuffer for a young loved one this Christmas, Hanukkah, or some other holiday of your choosing, please give it a thought.

Namaste and Meow

Jason (and Duke)

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