Confessions of a Florentine Pet Sitter

Walking a Cat Walk

Copyright 2013 – By Susan Canavarro

When you are not writing, you are a writer too. It doesn’t leave you. Walk with an animal walk and take in everything around you as prey. Use your senses as an animal does. Watch a cat when he sees something moving in the room. He is perfectly still, and at the same time, his every sense is alive, watching, listening, smelling. This is how you should be when you are in the streets. The cat’s mind is not thinking about how much money he needs, or whom to write a postcard to when he visits Florence: he is watching the mouse or the marble rolling across the floor or light reflecting in crystal. He is ready with all of him to pounce. Now, you don’t have to get down on all fours and twitch your tail. Only be still – some part of you, at least – and know where you are, no matter how busy you are.
– Be An Animal, From Writing Down the Bones, by Natalie Goldberg, p. 90 ——-© 2005 (Shambhala, Boston and London)

I am reading Writing Down the Bones in a coffee shop called Mon Ami. Mon Ami sells antiques and estate sale items. Cindy, the owner, also serves delectable deli and bakery items, espresso coffees and teas. Her employees cook up fresh wicked apple-cinnamon and/or cherry turnovers daily. Her cappuccinos are deep and rich and soothing for my soul.

It is steamy outside. Sweat is beading up in my every nook and cranny and my bra, chaffing. I can feel my skin glowing red with rash. I have a headache. This is not your average Florence weather. This day I choose to drink iced tea at Mon Ami’s.

When I read the above paragraph by Natalie Goldberg, I sat staring off across the ocean with a grin spreading across my fat cheeks. Cindy waved her hand in front of my face to see if I was okay. Mustn’t stare too hard and too long when in a coffee-house. I smiled, nodded my head, yes. In fact, I was better than usual. Across the ocean across from my table was an antique soft creamy white dining buffet with ornate filigree decorating each cabinet-door edge. One door damaged and detached, leaned against the front of the cabinet. On the buffet top stood a large showcase trophy sailboat, two tall masts in full sail. This day, the ship, gripped in the stall of its display stand, was unable to fulfill its purpose–adventure on the open seas.

At one end of the ship was a small table-clock made to look like a ship’s helm, also an old gimbaled compass in its original box and two kerosene lanterns filled with red liquid. At the other end, a selection of three books leaning up against the base of a lamp: a first edition copy of Victor Canning’s novel The Chasm a story about adventure in the Italian Apennines; a first edition by Oregon writer Elizabeth Lambert Wood writing about the magnificent forests, ocean and lakes in her home state; and a 1931 edition of Funk & Wagnalls New Standard Encyclopedia Vol. IV of people and places, only the “B” list included. A set of very old binoculars with its original leather carrying case lies next to the books. And on the floor a small white, red & blue Route 66 sign, ticking time. A display of adventure signs, sailing the oceans and rivers, crossing a gorge in the Apennines, learning about new worlds and old times. Details observed.

A small table sculpture of two black Scottish Terriers standing on their hind legs holding up two interlocked rings declares an eternal cycle of loyalty, love, life, death and rebirth.

And here I sit in Florence, Oregon, not Italy as in Goldberg’s quote, living a life nearer to its ending than its beginning, yet dreaming of a desire to write, to publish, to create passable if not stunning paintings, to travel the world and sail down the canals of Europe, and to have the love, acceptance and tolerance of good friends.

I smiled at Goldberg’s words because I recognized that I had just experienced one of my Dad’s favorite synchronistic moments. Reading her book for the second time, wondering how to write about my animals while vicariously traveling to Lyon, France thru the email and picture journals from my friends just seemed to come together to bring more meaning to what I was writing. Dad believed that when you experience a coincidence such as this and it relates meaningfully to something happening in your life, it is a moment of Grace; one to which we should give our attention. And what’s happening in my life this moment is writing and armchair traveling and learning to walk like an animal. So it all fits.

Natalie Goldberg said writers should walk like an animal, with your senses alert like an animal’s senses are alert to every nuance of sound, smell and movement. As a pet sitter, I walk a cat walk. My senses are alive to what my special charges are doing and feeling every moment of the day. If they had been my cat or dog living at home with me, I would not have been so focused. Their daily adventures and idiosyncrasies would become uninteresting to me and I would have ignored them. I would have said, Oh you’re hungry again? You eat like a bull, Taurus. What is your problem? It’s not time yet. Bootsie, why the heck are you biting my legs? What is your problem? Leave me alone.

But, as pet sitter, I watch. I become a peeping-tom, a stalker. I follow them around. I walk like an animal. I check to see what they are up to, to see if they are okay. I annoy them to no end, especially Trina and Simon. I look for details. And they follow me. Even the cats follow me like a dog as if they were afraid I, too, would leave them. I remember thinking in the beginning, Why don’t these creatures let me have a moment of peace? But secretly, I love it. I know they are feeling insecure without their people and I become their only source of comfort when they are home alone. They eventually get it. I am it! I have the hand that feeds them, that gives them a rub-down. I glean a small bit of satisfaction that my presence makes them feel better.

I’m learning a lot about pets and about myself. I’ve learned that I like to ascribe human emotions to them. I know when they are happy. I see a cat tail extend straight up when he or she walks into a room and I say Hello Simon or Hello Tai or Hello Bessie! I watch whiskers turn up or down, knowing sadness, irritation, anger or contentment; I know eyes half-opened is an expression of love and contentment and trust; eyes large and round with dark pupils in full-moon is an autonomic response to fear or anger, and preparation for an attack. Often, I’ve experienced that glare. In fact, I have been the feared one too many times, the recipient of those big, dark alert angry eyes. Scary. Suddenly I am their prey and I want to hide under the covers.

I see the young kitten-energy return over and over after they do their daily job in the cat box. They burst into the living room wanting to play, wanting attention and affection, as if they know they’ve done a good job and they want me to know…so I can scoop it out for them. Cat sluggishness goes with cat constipation; and cat energy and happiness comes after a good bowel movement! The emotional and physical behavior of animals is amazingly familiar. Language of the animal world is as it is for us humans, too.

Dog tails swish back and forth and I know they are happy campers. Tails wagging. Jumping up and down barking. Barking in embarrassment, barking to warn, barking in excitement. Running in circles. Dog whimpering. Each whimper and bark a language to be deciphered. Each look a look of desire or love or need. Each rump-wagging, tail-wagging, a sign of love and excitement. The white lab lifts her head and looks at me, a sad questioning look in her eyes. What is it this time, Belle? I know she is asking me something but I don’t know what. Are you sad, hungry, do you need to go out? I prefer to think she is sad, but her owner says she is hungry. Just hungry.

I become a cat watching them like a cat watches a bird, chattering, waiting to see what would happen next, my body quivering with tension and excitement over what I might see, what indiscretion, what new sign I can read and learn, what might become a good story to tell their owners, thus Confessions of a Florentine Pet Sitter is in the works.

Writing. Watching animals. In Florence, Oregon. Traveling from my computer chair from cat house to cat house while reading emails from Bonnie and Ralph in Lyon and Avignon, France. A synchronistic moment. Just maybe I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing.

The DogWalk (a.k.a. The Dogs of Florence)


The DogWalk  (a.k.a. The Dogs of Florence)
© 2006-2012 Susan Canavarro. All Rights Reserved.

  • Weeeeee, this is more fun than riding in a car, Max!
  • No, Monty, it is not fun and you know it.
  • It is too. It’s fun, isn’t it Dox?
  • You can be sure it’ll be even more fun when the wind comes up, Monty.
  • Oh, boy! Can’t wait! His rump and tail wagging like crazy.
  • Dog, if you don’t watch out you’re gonna wag yourself right off the edge. Now stop it!
  • Geez, every gall dern Tuesday we gotta take this darn dog walk. What’s it all about Max?
  • Challenge, Kiddo. It’s about challenge. Like when we try to eat snowflakes or when we try to follow the cat Scrwuffy up a tree.
  • But still…every week?
  • Yup. You gotta challenge yourself, Monty, fill up your dog years with learning and insight and adventure. Besides, every Tuesday is Dog Show Day across the river. We may live in a small town, Kiddo, but we still gotta keep up with other dogs, how they’re grooming, what commands they’re paying attention to, what they’re eating, how well they’re running, you know, that kind of stuff.
  • Gosh, Max, lighten up, will ya? This is simply an adventure. All it is. Nothing more. Sky is blue. Gorgeous day. Stop trying to turn it into something educational, for cat’s sake. It’s a heck of a lot easier today in the sunshine than it was last week in the wind and rain. So lighten up!
  • Who said that? Pipsqueak?
  • Yeah. What of it? Don’t be such a sour-puss, Max.
  • Hey, Did you just call me a puss? I aint no puss. And I sure as heck aint no sour-puss. I’m pure hound. Pure bloody hound dog is what I am. Everybody stop! Shut up!
  • Why? What is it?
  • What’s wrong Max?
  • What happened?
  • I think I see a bird, Monty.
  • A bird?
  • Oh for goodness sakes. Not again with the blue bird thing, Max?
  • Yeah, a blue bird.
  • A blue bird?
  • Geez, Monty, would you stop repeating everything I say.
  • Repeating?
  • Yeah, REPEATING!
  • Be careful Max. Remember what happened the last time you thought you saw a bird?
  • Shut up! Will ya?
  • But Max, the last time you thought you saw a bird it turned out to be a porcupine with long sharp quills. You got your nose all stuck up, remember? And your tail bit off.
  • Grrrrr.
  • Hey?
  • Yeah, Monty?
  • Does this bridge structure remind you of anything?
  • Hunger. It reminds me that I’m hungry.
  • Hey, Max?
  • Yeah, Dox?
  • Do you think they’ll be serving dinosaur bones and fish hors d’oeuvres at the dog show?
  • Most likely, Dox, and escargot.
  • Yea! Let’s car go!
  • No, Monty, we’re on a dog walk, remember? You’re such a silly cat!
  • I am not.
  • You are too, just a plain silly cat.
  • I’m not a cat. I’m a dog! And I’m not silly. Hey look, Max, I can turn around up here! Uh oh. Oops! Maaaaaaax! Dog overboard! Dog overboooaaaaard! Maaaaaaax?
  • Oh MONTY! A belly flop?
  • Paddle, Monty, paddle. You’re really close to the other side. You can make it. Just move your paws like crazy and keep your head above water. We’ll meet you over there.
  • The dogs of Florence ran over the bridge beam and skidded down to the water’s edge on the other side.
  • Come on, Monty. You can make it!
  • Yea! Monty!
  • Monty climbed up the bank, sloppy with water-soaked fur. He shook himself in a ripple dance from head to tail. Water flew everywhere.
  • Hey, cut that out. You’re getting me all wet.
  • Boy, Max, that was sooooo much fun!
  • For cat’s sake, you are incorrigible.
  • What’s corrigible, Max?
  • The word is incorrigible, Monty. And you are.
  • Come on Dox, let’s go for another dive.
  • No way, Monty. Not me. Let’s get outta here, Max. I’m starved.

Top Dog Embrace

One day, in the quiet stillness of the morning, I crept to the edge of the living room to discover why Trina was so quiet. I wanted to catch her off guard. I enjoyed the covert observation of the cats and dogs in my charge. With wonderment, I recognized myself in some of their behavior.

My life had come down to this: I had become a stalking, peeping, sighing, humphing pet sitter.

I found Trina sitting trance-like, staring at Belle. Usually, she spent her time vying for my attention or begging for food, not off somewhere in quiet meditation. A King Charles Cocker Spaniel, she is black, white, and rust with big floppy ears and wide-open bulging brown eyes. She hungers to hear “You’re a pretty dog, Trina, yes, a very pretty dog. Yes you are.” When she hears those words in that sugar daddy tone, she rolls over to a sexy pose on her back expecting a tummy rub. Her eyeballs roll up disappearing under her eyelids. And she is in heaven. But she is also a very clever, stubborn, demanding, narcissistic little creature. The world revolves around her and her only.

Standing off to the side of the entrance, trying to be invisible, I watched Trina as she sat staring at Belle’s glimmering white back.  She looked like she was pondering the question: Should I or shouldn’t I?

Blue Belle of Southview

 Belle, a large white Yellow Lab, reclined on the living room carpet, holding her head up so she could watch the road through the front windows. She waited patiently everyday for her folks to come home. It had been a long wait.  I liked to call her BlueBelle because no matter what, she wore a sad countenance. Her folks told me it was her look of hunger, but I think it was her look of depression; she missed her people. She is a good loving, patient, non-demanding dog who is fiercely loyal to her masters and she puts up with Trina’s annoying activities without a nip or a growl of irritation.

This day, Belle paid no attention to Trina at all. When Trina could no longer stand it, when she could no longer resist the urge, the temptation of Belle’s beautiful back, she rose, walked over to Belle’s head and used her own head as a tool to force Belle’s down to the floor. She raised one foot ready to climb on Belle’s back when she sensed someone else in the room. She turned and saw me standing there, watching. She sat back with a humphy sigh, with a how-dare-you indignation, claimed a bit of embarrassment, and barked only once at me.  I had foiled her plans.

On another day, with full knowledge that I was watching, Trina climbed on Belle’s back to ride her. She moved her hips rhythmically back and forth, over and over again. When she got off, she stared at me with quiet defiance.  So determined to ride Belle, she didn’t care if I watched.  After a few seconds, she circled around Belle and climbed on her back again, riding her like she was riding a bucking horse. Trina, bucking power and domination.  I’ll show you, I can do anything I want. This is my house, my sister-dog, and if I want to hump her, I will!  Hump! Hump! Hump!

Several weeks went by until I saw Trina on Belle’s back again. This time she looked like she had fallen asleep. Too exhausted from her humping to climb off Belle, she lay there for a short time, quiet, restful, then began to ride again, licking Belle’s ears and brow while rocking back and forth. She stopped, rested her head softly against Belle’s cheeks. Relaxed into a trance-like state, her body like putty in blissful orgasmic nirvana, she was not aware I was spying on her.

Suddenly she bucked and rocked a few more times only to relax into a big embrace with her front paws encircling Belle’s fluffy neck. While like this, she lolled her head back and forth in slow movement across the back of Belle’s head.  It was a moment of Grace, a moment of one dog showing love for another, an instance of warm fuzzy human-like cuddling.  As she turned her head in my direction, she opened her eyes a sexy sleepy crack and in that instant, saw me watching. In utter shock, she jumped high off Belle’s back, straight up like a tarantula, landing on all four feet with her body convulsing in spasmodic barking. She was so angry to have been caught again, but it also seemed like  this time she was even more embarrassed by her behavior.

Of course, I had little restraint and broke into a loud belly laugh which turned her bark even more indignant. How dare you laugh at me!

I’m a firm believer that dogs and cats experience emotions and some of those emotions—like love, anger, frustration, longing, and embarrassment—seem to require a bit of thought process. Otherwise Trina wouldn’t give a hoot if I saw her antics with Belle. She wouldn’t jump off of Belle, she wouldn’t react with such vigorous indignation when caught, and she wouldn’t bark at me.  Did she know she was not supposed to hump Belle? Was it instinct that told her it was wrong, or had her folks told her No?

My fascination with cat and dog behavior grows. And in this family of creatures, I realized soon enough who the alpha dog was…and it wasn’t me! Recently, a dog expert confirmed my suspicions that their attempts to hump another dog, whether female or male, and/or to hump a human’s leg or foot, is, in fact, their desire to maintain dominance over the pack and  a dog’s human family is a part of its pack.

For eight long weeks of pet sitting Trina disobeyed me. She walked me, rather than me walking her. She would not let me pet the three cats or Belle wihtout horning in on the action, reminding me it was she who was to be petted, not the others. We struggled every day. She both surprised and disappointed me because I had seen that she was so good with her owner. Just tell her No when she’s bad, her owner said. She’ll understand.

Well, not so. Trina liked to sit in front of the kitchen stove when I cooked. I worried about tripping over her, about spilling hot oil or hot water on her. I worried that  if I dropped a veggie or a piece of chicken, she was on it, charging from her sitting place like the slashing whip of a lizard’s tongue catching flies and ants. Give her a treat and send her to her bed when she gets underfoot in the kitchen—as she was wont to do every single meal no matter how many times I sent her to bed. Tell her and she’ll go to her dog bed.  Humph! Not a chance! Never never never happened!

Trina’s behavior with Belle was a blatant symptom of “top dog” syndrome, as was her stubborn disregard for my stewardship. Belle took it all in stride, good-natured lab that she is. As for me, I didn’t want to be handled by a dog or anyone else, so I found it frustrating and wandered the house with much humphy sighing.

© 2011  Susan Canavarro. All Rights Reserved.

Confessions of a Personal Sort
July 27, 2010, 12:39 AM
Filed under: cat paintings, cats and dogs, dog paintings, pet paintings-stories

Confessions of a Florentine Pet Sitter

Copyright 2010 by Susan Canavarro

I can remember when I was a teenager and a young woman that I always had sense of hope about life. I had unrealistic dreams that I would be cherished by someone, by a famous actor or musician; I had desires to be the light in someone’s eyes. I found the head guy in a folk and rock band and pursued him until I had him only for a few short months; I pursued a wonderful outgoing happy old artist who was a Flax’s Art Supply customer where I worked and he used to tease me about my shiny forehead. I loved it. I was 18. He was probably 45 or 50 at the time. I wanted to date him. I fell in love with Clint Eastwood and felt I had a connection with him because we both lived on the Monterey Peninsula. I know, it’s silly, but surely he would SEE me and be madly smitten simply because I existed in the same town. I fell in love with a guitar player, a second guitar player, a third guitar player, a pianist, a writer, an artist, and last, I fell in love with and married a carpenter.  I would sit high on the bluff in Mendocino on a roughly-built wood bench overlooking the Woodyard beach and the wide Pacific Ocean and wait for my love to rescue me. I had hope. I had dreams. I had ambitions. I had not died yet.

I remember feeling this same sense of hope when I began pet sitting here in Florence. No, not for romantic dreams, but a desire for unconditional love from the cats and dogs I was caring for. Am I weird or what?

I wanted to pick up the cats and hold them close to my chest, hear them purring, feel the tickle of their whiskers on my cheek, kiss noses like Eskimos, and feel the warmth of their bodies and soft fur; to have them come when I called their names, sleep on my bed by my feet or head; for them to know, as they often do for their people, when I was sick and tend to me with their own brand of vigilant healing presence by my side. I wanted the dogs I cared for to wag their tails, be happy, excited, come to me for a pat on the head, play fetch with me, let me brush or groom them, and obey me when I tell them not to get under foot in the kitchen. The obeyer’s part never happened! 

What they wanted was food and water, a walk, a treat, a pat on the head, a good dog, good cat, beautiful cat, hello Baby, a clean litter box. They needed and desired to be recognized and loved. They needed to be cherished while their owners were away.

I understood why these animals couldn’t love me unconditionally. I don’t love unconditionally – people, or animals for that matter. Trust has to be earned. The pets need to know I’m trustworthy and that trust takes time to build. Even after 3 or 4 years sitting with the same cat, with each visit, it took most of the pets 3 or 4 days before they realized I was “it” for a while, for food, attention and potty habits. Others, the trust never grew. But my understanding of this did not mitigate the pain I felt when one of them ignored me, or wouldn’t let me pick her up, or touch her, or ran from me when I walked in the room. Oh, woe is me.

Every now and then some of the pets would slip into their comfort zone and forget that I was not just the baby sitter. For a few glorious moments, I could feel that they had slipped back into trust and love, and I was fortunate to be the recipient. But it was oh so brief a moment. Back rub, walking up and down my body, sleeping curled up behind my legs, or on my chest or hip. Tail’s up, happy, running to me as I called their names or said hello or clapped my hands in delightful play. Those are the moments I cherish.

Now and then I was pleasantly surprised. However, I experienced the pleasure and then the consequent guilt:  should this be happening?  

Simon - I just don't want to play ball, okay?

Simon - I just don't want to play ball, okay?

One night Simon gave me a back rub by kneading between my shoulder blades. I wasn’t sure I should tell anyone. I felt giggly guilty at having enjoyed it so much. It felt soooo good. Simon woke me up one morning by walking the length of my body, rubbing against me, and finally settling on the pillow next to my head. He began to chew and pull at my curlers, at which point I got up!  Simon had an ulterior motive: to wake me up either because he was hungry or I was snoring. Simon walked in front of the sofa when I was sitting, back and forth, each time rubbing my legs as he went, giving me little “love bites” now and then. He wanted me to know he was there. Whenever he came into a room where I was sitting, I said “Hello Simon” and watched his crooked tail stand tall. A happy cat. I knew then I was doing a good job!

Bessie - Bag lady

Bessie - Bag lady

Bessie loved to walk around my body, rubbing up against me. Round and round she’d go, every time I lay down on the bed on the fuzzy. She was a frantic fanatic about it. It was fun. She did not have an ulterior motive other than fun and love. Bessie also lounged on my chest for periods of time, until I had to move. Blue would lay flat on her back, all four legs splayed open, vulnerable, in a brief moment of trust, but when I bent down to rub her belly,

she ran away. She enjoyed riding on the shoulders of her master, and thought once that she might enjoy it with me, but she never trusted enough to ask again.


Knuckles Poking head thru the blinds.

In rare moments Knuckles a.k.a. Noodles slept next to my body on the bed, or under the covers, but Beans wanted nothing from me but her dinner or to be let outside. Rarely would Knuckles or Beans crawl up in my lap in the TV chair. 

Belle (Yellow Lab) of Southview wanted to be in the same room with me.

Trina of Southview

Trina of Southview

Trina (King Charles Spaniel) wanted to be wherever anybody was, in the same room, on the same bed or chair or sofa, or at my feet. She didn’t care who was

Belle Of Southview

Belle Of Southview

sitting next to her, just if they would. Francis loved me when I was eating mint chocolate chip ice cream. Violet loved me when I was not in the room. Rhody loved to watch me surreptitiously while she wandered past my chair, around to the other side, tail up, energetic. She was flirtatious, wanted attention, but couldn’t hang around long enough to let me give it to her.



Freddie, Nicky (cats) and Rudy (dog) all wanted to be in the loo with me. Rudy liked to sit right up close to the toilet seat between my knees. Hm-m-mmmmm.

Tai the Terrible

Tai the Terrible

Tai the Terrible steals food from Brillo the Black’s dish while Brillo is still eating. Brillo simply ignores Tai, turns his head while he is chewing, and allows Tai to sneak in with his curled paw to grab another piece of kibble. The kind of symbiosis I like: Tai gets more food and he’s not hungry all night, and I don’t have to tell Brillo to clean his bowl. And no matter if I’m not his master, Tai sits amidst the tall grasses in his front yard, waiting

Brillo the Black

Brillo the Black

for me to get home. It’s a beautiful sight to turn in the driveway and see his big fluffy body among the grasses and flowers. The contrasting textures are wonderful. Welcome home, he meows.

When I ponder all this, I realize I am a cat person mostly, despite owning a large St Bernard for thirteen years that I loved dearly, who was my baby, my only child. And I confess, I’m thinking I should get my own cat.

But then again, I couldn’t earn a living as a pet sitter…

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