Friends and Tails
by Father Paul A. Keenan
Some of my best friends have tails. I’ve had animals
in my life forever, but it has only been in the last
decade and a half that animals have really become part
of the passion of my life.
It began in the strangest way. The year was 1988, and
I was finishing a month of lying flat on my back at Our
Lady of Mercy Medical Center in the Bronx. Lying there
at the end of the month was a major achievement. Earlier
that month, the doctors had told me that I might not
have long to live. A hypothyroid problem left me with
fluid around the heart, hepatitis, jaundice and lots of
other lovely symptoms that, by the end of the month in
the hospital, had all but dissipated. My being alive was
something of a medical and spiritual miracle. Thirty
days before, I had plopped my head on the pillow on my
hospital bed, and told God, "It’s up to you. Take
me if you want. It’s your decision."
Shortly before I was about to leave the hospital, a
kind of intuitive knowing jumped out at me. Later, I
would learn to describe it as coming from the depths of
my soul. Then, I didn’t know where it came from, and
it was the strangest thing. It said, "I want a
In some ways, that was the beginning of the rest of
What’s so strange about that? Well, I had never had
a cat in my life. I had never even been around cats. I
probably could count on the fingers of one hand the
number of cats I had been around in my entire life (I
was 42 way back then). Yet there it was – I wanted a
My prior history with animals was less than sterling.
When I was very young, my parents had a canary, Peter,
in our three room third-floor apartment. I remember
seeing Peter hop around his cage, and hearing him sing.
But then there was that tragic morning when I awoke to
find poor Peter lying feet up on the bottom of his cage.
That was the beginning and the end of birds in my life.
Except for my grandmother’s parakeet, whose name I
think was Timmy. My grandmother – Nana, I called her
– loved the bird and managed to teach him to talk. My
father never believed Nana’s story, but she stuck by
it nonetheless – Nana claimed that after having been
away from her apartment for a few days, she returned
home only to have the bird greet her with, "Where
the heck have you been?" Or words to that effect.
That was it for birds, but there were two dogs in my
childhood. One was Bounce, a nervous fox terrier puppy,
a gift from my uncle. Recently, I watched a documentary
on fox terriers, which helped me to understand why our
relationship with Bounce didn’t work out. The program
said they tend to be nervous, independent and difficult
to train. That gave me a more comfortable frame of
reference for poor Bounce – my clearest remembrance is
that my parents thought he was, well, intellectually
challenged. It seemed he could never get the knack of
housebreaking, and I remember my father regularly
picking up Bounce’s leavings from the kitchen floor.
Bounce was pretty nervous, and was not particularly fond
of me. If I were anywhere near his bowl when he was
eating, he would snap at me and try to bite me.
The Bounce phenomenon was a perfect example of why it’s
not a good idea to give pets as gifts. Though my uncle
was well-intentioned in giving Bounce to us, the puppy
was just not right for a child – or for my parents,
who were good parents but terrible communicators. One
morning, I woke up to find that Bounce was gone. No one
would tell me what happened.
The other dog was Spike, an adorable Boston Terrier
puppy, who was a great delight. He would play and wag
his little screw-tail and would wait at the window every
day for me to come home from school. I was twelve when
we got Spike; and while I loved him, there were times
when, as an only child, I resented his place in the
house. I’m not happy about that, but that’s how it
was. Someday, I’m going to get another Boston Terrier
and smother him with the affection I wasn’t able to
give Spike back then. Nonetheless, it was a much better
experience than poor Bounce.
That is, until I went to college. Since I was staying
home for college, my folks moved to a part of Kansas
City that was more readily accessible to school and to
Dad’s work. The place my parents chose to rent would
not allow pets; and it was decided, without consulting
me, that Spike would have to go. My father found him a
nice home with a friend from work, and Spike left us and
that was that. I was positively heartbroken. For the
second time, my parents had removed a dog from my life
without my permission.
That’s why the "I want a cat" epiphany
was so amazing. I really had had little to do with pets
from the day Spike left us in 1963 until my hospital
stay in 1988. I had met other dogs and cats along the
way, but there was just nothing there for them in my
heart. Looking back, it seemed my heart had just closed
to animals. Two losses, I guess, seemed like enough.
After I left the hospital, I decided to move to a
different parish assignment. The priest there had a cat
himself; and when I said I wanted a cat, he offered to
let me care for her. But Bigelita – her mother,
Bigelow, was a feral cat who bore her in the Bigelow
carpeting that had been ripped up in the renovation of
the church – was a wily, one-man cat who simply never
took to me. It looked like my cat dream would have to be
put on hold.
It all changed with a phone call – one that would
alter the course of the rest of my life. A friend called
to say that the couple across the hall from her had four
cats and were giving away two, Teddy and Flicka.
"You’ve got to come and meet Teddy," she
told me. "He’s cute and cuddly, just like my
Jazzpurr." So off I went to meet Teddy.
Teddy never materialized. I had heard that he was a
blonde, fluffy Persian kitty with a beautiful tail –
but I never got to see him. Painfully shy, Teddy managed
to lodge himself in some remote corner of the apartment,
out of everyone’s sight.
Flicka, however, was a different story. A hefty but
beautiful Maine Coon, she instantly turned herself into
Miss Adorable. She let me pick her up and cuddle her,
all the while crying what sounded for all the world
like, "Take me. Take me."
I had come for Teddy, but it was Flicka who captured
my attention. Someone upstairs was guiding me, because,
in retrospect, it would have been a terrible mistake to
have separated the two of them. As I came to know them
better, they were truly a couple. Flicka was the boss,
the disciplinarian. Teddy was the meek, mischievous kid
who was always finding ways to annoy her. She had no
problem hunting him down and smacking him once or twice
with her huge paws to get him to settle down. They were
a team. Had I not taken them both, I would have made a
They both came home with me; and when they did, I
realized why poor Flicka had been such a saleswoman. To
my amazement, she was deeply depressed; and at least in
the first few weeks of her stay with me trembled so
badly that at times she couldn’t eat. Later, I
discovered that she had been profoundly unhappy in her
previous home; and later still, one of the former owners
apologized to me for things they had done to bring that
about. That was the first time I experienced the power
of praying over animals. I didn’t know much about it
at the time, but I simply did what I had seen done in
charismatic prayer groups I had visited – I lay my
hands upon her and asked Jesus to help her. Before I
knew it, there was no more trembling. The depression was
another story. Flicka had the blackest, most penetrating
stare of anybody I had ever met. That’s pretty much
what I got for six solid months. As a new and
inexperienced cat owner, I was pretty much at a loss as
to what to do. Teddy was fine – fun-loving and
incurably adorable. Flicka was another story. I almost
gave her back.
I’m so glad I didn’t. I’m going to write a book
about Teddy and Flicka and my other animal friends, and
I’ll wait until then to tell you the full story.
Suffice it to say, Flicka became what I affectionately
termed "my Bunny Rabbit." She lived to be
twenty-five years old, and lived and died pretty much on
her own terms. She loved vacation and loved nature. She
loved Teddy – they slept together and played and
fought just like a couple. And she loved me. The last
few months of her life, she followed me everywhere I
went, directly underfoot. Two nights before she died,
she did something that she had never done before in her
life – she hopped up and single-handedly stole an
entire piece of steak from my plate. At the time, I
thought it was hysterical. Two days later, as her little
body lay in a shoebox waiting to be buried in the
garden, it was a bittersweet memory. In the last week of
her life, that rigid disciplinarian had managed to
fulfill a lifelong dream of mischief. No surprise that
it involved food. Flicka loved to eat.
In the twelve years that Flicka lived with me, she
and Teddy became my family. Teddy grieved terribly the
loss of his life-partner; and since he had always been a
delicate fellow, I was worried that he would get sick.
It wasn’t the best of times for me either. The day
after Flicka died, one of my closest friends dropped
dead without any warning. My instincts told me that with
two huge losses back to back, I had better do something
to bring some new life into the picture.
That new life came in the form of a tiny jet-black
short-haired kitten who was languishing in a cage at the
Humane Society. I opened the cage, picked her up and
held her in my arms…and it was love. At the same time
she snuggled in to me, her bright mischievous green eyes
darted upward to see if she could leap up onto a beam in
the ceiling. That was portentous. The kitty whom I
called Midnight (but who answers only to Sweetheart,
Dear and Precious), is the funniest combination of an
adorable ball of love and an inexhaustible ball of
mischief. One of the most athletic animals I have seen,
she can leap directly from the floor to the top of an
open door. I have learned to watch her face to discern
when she’s getting ready to do that. One of her other
pastimes is field hockey – she can play for hours with
a plastic ball, batting it all over, retrieving it, and
batting it some more. Much to Teddy’s chagrin, she
cannot resist chasing him. Though he complains when she
does it, there’s no question – this little kitty has
kept Teddy alive. He’s twenty now, and very much alert
and alive, thanks in large measure to her lively pursuit
One Saturday morning, about a year and a half ago, a
friend and I were driving by the Humane Society. Without
any warning, that same intuition I had had back in 1988
hit me. I said, "There’s a cat in there that
needs me." Less than an hour later, Lionel came
home with me. Whatever his story, Lionel had been badly
abused. A tattered ear and bowed rear legs told enough
of the story for me. This big boy came home, and after
the usual hissing and pawing from the resident felines,
amazingly stepped in to the role of senior cat. Lionel
was the perfect name for him; he was a little lion, a
perfect example of courage, the king of the beasts. He
loved to sit in the chair next to mine while I read. I
would put my arm around him and listen to him purr.
Sometimes I would wake up in the middle of the night and
hear him from across the room, purring his little heart
out. It was music to my ears.
Last August, Lionel began to have difficulty walking
on those two hind legs. I thought it was arthritis, but
the vet said no, it was diabetes and cancer. He didn’t
give my buddy long to live. But I had learned more than
a thing or two about those sorts of diagnoses and about
healing through prayer – besides Flicka, I had healed
Teddy of a kind of chronic fatigue syndrome -- and over
the next few weeks I saw a remarkable change in Lionel.
He didn’t hop up in the chair so much, and he limped
on the rear legs, but the depression, the listlessness,
the uncharacteristic lack of interest in food and water
all disappeared, and he was in no pain. Bright and
alert, he went back to purring with a volume you could
hear all over the room. One unexpected side effect of
his early trips to the vet – it became clear that
Lionel loved the car. His eyes would brighten; he would
sit up in his carrier and watch birds, people, trees
going by. So, whenever possible, Lionel got trips to the
beach and the park. It was a joy to hold him and talk to
him and see his sheer delight in being out and about.
Not bad for a boy of, say, nineteen or twenty.
On Friday night, September 27, I came home to find
Lionel lying on the floor unable to move. He had been
fine in the morning; in fact, he had pushed Teddy away
from his bowl! He had been fine in the afternoon when a
friend looked in on him. Apparently, he had had a stroke
sometime in the late afternoon. When I found him, it was
6:25. I picked him up, grabbed my Bible and my cell
phone and sat him on my lap in our favorite chair. I
called a friend who is a healer, and she agreed to pray
for him. I took my Bible and began to read favorite
scripture passages aloud and to recite others I
remembered. Around 8:00, I noticed he was filling up,
and periodically began wheezing. Around 9:00, I said to
him, "I would like you to stay here; but if you
really need to go, it’s fine." At 9:25, he laid
his head in my lap and died. The wind began to blow
outside, and I knew that my friend had gone to God.
Lionel’s death was the most peaceful passing I have
ever witnessed, so peaceful that neither Teddy nor Kitty
had any trauma or upset from it. Throughout his illness,
Lionel taught me the meaning of moral courage. Like a
little lion, he continued to walk, to eat and to jump
whenever he could. He never gave in to his illness.
People sometimes wonder if I felt disappointed that I
was not able to heal Lionel. Lionel taught me that death
could be a healing. Apparently, he no longer needed his
body in order to do the work his spirit had come to do;
and now that spirit needed to go elsewhere. Death healed
him from the limitations of illness and freed his spirit
to triumph and move on. Lionel taught me that about
death; I had never experienced it so vividly before.
Yes, some of my best friends have tails. Knowing
nothing about cats years ago when I first brought Teddy
and Flicka home, I remember spending a nervous night
before they arrived. I made a promise that I would never
treat them as my cats, but always as my friends. It was
the best promise I ever made.
For these animals have taught me so much. They
insisted that I get past those early sad experiences of
animals, and open my heart to a depth of love that I
never thought I could know. They’ve given me hours of
fun. They’ve shared their sadness and illnesses with
me, and have allowed me to heal them. Teddy and Flicka
were part of my healing from my nearly fatal illness,
and today I notice that whenever I am down or sad, my
kitty friends make every effort to cheer me up or at
least to let me know that they care.
I’ve also come to know God through them. Sometimes,
when God seems very far away, all I have to do is reach
over and pet a tail or massage a furry head, and there
he is. I have learned that each animal in his or her own
way represents an aspect of God’s goodness. Flicka was
his tough, durable love. Teddy is his precious heart,
childlike and adoring. Dear is his life-loving, daring,
and oh, so deep, zest for life. Lionel was God’s
courage – confident and unflinching in fighting evil.
I think it was Khalil Gibran who said that work was
love made visible. I believe that pets are God made
© Copyright 2002 Father Paul A. Keenan. All Rights Reserved.
Father Paul A. Keenan: Popular speaker, author and
radio co-host of WABC Radio’s "Religion on the
Line," Father Paul Keenan likes to talk and write
about the issues that matter to people. Widely
experienced as a national and local television and
radio news commentator, he is the author of Good
News for Bad Days, Stages of the Soul and Heartstorming.
As Director of Radio Ministry of the Archdiocese
of New York, he supervises, produces and writes for
various radio and television programs. In addition, he
serves as a parish priest in New York City.
Father Paul Keenan, came to his
now-ten-year-old career in New York broadcasting after
having been a college teacher and administrator and a
parish priest for many years. He hails from Kansas City,
where he graduated from Rockhurst University and
completed an M.A. in Moral and Pastoral Theology at
Saint Louis University. He was ordained to the
priesthood in 1977, and went on to complete an M.A. in
Philosophy at Fordham University.
Father Paul is also known for
his work on the Web. He hosts his own website (www.fatherpaul.com)
and contributes regular articles to various other sites.
He is a regular columnist for the monthly newspaper,
"Catholic New York." His other talents and
interests include reading, cooking and being humble
servant to his three cats, Teddy, Lionel and Midnight.