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Pets Large & Small

Remembering what Thanksgiving is really all about

Jennifer Vanderau
Cumberland Valley Animal Shelter

(11/2016) The humans here talk about something called Thanksgiving. Iíve heard them mention turkey and family and Iím not sure what they mean.

When the lights go out, I look through the bars of my cage to see if Old Man Smokey is still awake. Heís been here since March of 2015. Heíll probably know what all the fuss is about.

Smokeyís lying with his back to the bars of his cage, so itís tough to tell if heís sleeping or not. I let out a little meow, but he doesnít move. I try getting a little louder and I see him heave a sigh. I know he hears me. I go for one more trilling sound and I find success.

"I hear you kid," Smokey says. "Whatcha want? Tryiní to get my beauty sleep here."

I know Smokey has adapted this persona because heís been here the longest. He tries to play it tough, like the fact that heís lived in a cage for more than a year doesnít bother him at all, but sometimes, just sometimes he lets go of that gruff exterior and shows me that big teddy bear heart of his.

I know heís a softy so I ask him my question.

Then he starts talking about tradition and the harvest and tons of food and how itís a time to be grateful for the bounty that people have been given.

I scoff. Grateful. Yeah, right. What do we have to be grateful for? We live in cages.

Myrna in the cage above me sneezes and sniffles. Sheís been on medication practically since the day she arrived at the shelter and she says she knows itís because she has to live with so many other cats. Sheís not used to it. Says something about her immune system. Sheís convinced the only way for her to get better is to get out of a cage.

But she has to wait for someone to pick her.

The kittens are still playing. The lights have been turned off, guys. How about some sleep? I donít even bother saying anything. Theyíre young. They donít yet understand where they are. Must be nice.

I sigh and realize Smokey is still talking and the rest of the cats around me seem to be listening.

He says gratitude is important for everyone and everything. Including us.

I hear Myrna sigh above me. Sheís not buying it either.

He rolls over in his cage and seems to focus those gold eyes on me. I know heís been through a lot in his life and when he gets serious like this, I know Iíd better listen.

He says Thanksgiving is the one time all year that people stop and look around them. He says out on the streets humans are in constant motion. They always have somewhere to be and somewhere to go and theyíre always looking for the next bargain or sale or purchase. He says when youíre out on the streets, it can be difficult to stay out of their way, especially if you donít know what youíre doing.

Street wise, he calls it. You gotta be street wise.

He says some of them seem like theyíre always trying to find something outside themselves. They gotta have the better car, the better house, the better job, the better income. Better than what, he doesnít know, but thereís a real push to get that extra something. He thinks itís supposed to make them happy.

"But see," he says, and he gets real quiet now and I swear you could hear a pin drop in this place because weíre all glued to Smokeyís words, "it never really does. All those things, everything they collect, that constant drive for something more, it doesnít really make them happy. Not in here." He curls a paw near his chest.

He says for some humans Thanksgiving is the time to stop the bizarre race. Itís a chance to look beyond all the items in their lives and see what really counts Ė the people, the friends, the love.

"Thatís what itís about, you all," Smokey whispers. "Love."

Myrna coughs and it sounds a lot like a sarcastic, "yeah, right."

"Donít discount the power of love or gratitude," Smokey warns. It sounds kind of funny coming from him, but you can hear the sincerity for sure.

He says we all have a lot to be grateful for and itís like you can hear the eye rolls. Smokey asks if anyone in the room is hungry. Truly hungry. Thereís no answer.

He asks if anyone is thirsty. Really thirsty, like you havenít had a sip of water in days. Not a peep.

He wonders if anyone is cold. Actually, rattle-your-bones, Iím-never-getting-warm-again cold. None of us were.

"Living in a cage isnít ideal," he says. "Iíll give you that. But the thing is, we donít have it so bad. Believe me, there are plenty other animals out there way, way worse off than us. Iíve seen it. Iíve been there. The truth is when your basic survival needs are met, your natural state is contentment."

Weíre all pretty quiet.

"Would we like a home? Sure. Thatís what weíre all here for, after all. But donít any one of you forget that we have people here who care a lot about us and we have bowls of food and water and a comfortable blanket to sleep on. We actually do have a lot to be grateful for and maybe while the humans celebrate Thanksgiving, it wouldnít be a bad idea for us to think about it, too."

We all fall asleep that night with Smokeyís words whispering through our minds.

And the next day something incredible happens. A woman comes into the shelter looking for the cat who has been here the longest. The staff members take Smokey out of his cage and into the bonding room.

Weíre all watching intently.

When they come out, the staff member still has Smokey in her arms. She squeezes him and says, "I knew it would happen for you. Great job, buddy!"

Sheís taking him out of the adoption area and heís draped over her shoulder. When I look up, he winks at me and thatís the last I see of him.

We all seem to sigh collectively and wish our longtime friend well.

As I fall asleep that night, Myrna sniffs above me and whispers, "Happy Thanksgiving," and the sentiment echoes throughout the room.

The power of love and gratitude. There may be something to it after all.


Jennifer Vanderau is the Director of Communications for the Cumberland Valley Animal Shelter in Chambersburg, Pa., and can be reached at The shelter accepts both monetary and pet supply donations. For more information, call the shelter at (717) 263-5791 or visit the website

Read other articles by Jennifer Vanderau