My Pet Project
To those of you who think my career is going to the dogs, I say: You’re right. It’s also going to the cats. Because they need my help. Yours too.
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IT’S TRUE, FOLKS: I’M KNOWN FAR AND WIDE as the Gandhi-like figure of the Utopia Animal Rescue Ranch. What, you might ask, does a Gandhi-like figure do? Nothing, of course. And what kind of profit does this modern-day prophet earn from the daunting task of doing nothing all the time? None, of course. But if you keep asking questions, you’re going to irritate the Gandhi-like figure, who has his hands full as the spiritual leader to 63 dogs, 22 horses, 3 donkeys, 9 pigs, 2 goats, 15 chickens, 11 cats, 2 turkeys, and a rooster named Alfred Hitchcock who crows precisely at noon.
It all started one morning late in the summer of 1996 at the ungodly hour of seven o’clock as my dog, Mr. Magoo, and I were driving the campers’ dirty laundry into Kerrville from my family’s summer camp, Echo Hill. Some might find it rather sad that, after fifty years of camping, my role had devolved to this pathetic, menial task. To me and Magoo, however, this was an important mission, fraught with many obstacles and challenges, one of which we spotted in the middle of the road that very morning. I slammed on the brakes of the old pickup, leaped sideways out of the cab, and discovered a kitten nestled between the yellow stripes of the highway, roaring like a tiger. The pitiable creature, all of five inches long, was bleeding profusely from a gaping wound in its right front leg.
Certain that the animal was dying, Magoo and I scooped him up and raced him to our friend Bill Hoegemeyer’s animal clinic, in Kerrville. Dr. Hoegemeyer’s diagnosis was that the tiny fellow had been shot by some great white hunter. I told him to do whatever it took to save the cat. He amputated the leg, gave the patient two injections during surgery to restart its heart, then gave me a bill for $1,200. I didn’t know it then, but Lucky—for that was to become the cat’s name—would have a worth that would be virtually incalculable.
In a short period of time, I realized that I’d be on the road too much to adequately provide for the care and feeding of the little convalescing feline patient. So I, for want of a better word, dumped him on Cousin Nancy Parker, a friend of mine who lived in Utopia. In all fairness, Lucky was not the first, nor would he be the last, furry soul I was to deposit on Cousin Nancy’s doorstep. I have always felt that what we do when a stray spirit crosses our path—how we react to the hungry, homeless stranger—is indubitably a measure of our own humanity.
In time, Cousin Nancy’s little menagerie grew. Soon she had so many animals that she didn’t know what to do. Because of this, in 1998 the Utopia Animal Rescue Ranch was born. It was and still is a never-kill sanctuary for stray and abused animals, a court of last resort for those at death’s door. But playing God is a role with which Cousin Nancy and I have never felt comfortable. We always knew we could not save every starfish on the sand, only this one.
Today, as before, Cousin Nancy runs the show; her husband, Tony Simons (who can identify each dog by his or her individual bark), is our ranch manager; and I suppose I fall into the category of modern-day Ronald Reagan pitchman. About three years ago, my father, Tom Friedman, in the last year of his life, provided the Rescue Ranch with a new home on the scenic east flat of Echo Hill. Here the animals, in spacious outdoor pens, are cared for by Nancy and Tony, sheltered by the surrounding hills, and protected from a world that, at best, has never been very kind to them. The zip code is Medina, but the ranch is still Utopia. More than anything else, it feels like a peaceful, happy orphanage.
During the six and a half years of the ranch’s existence, many friends and angels have come to our rescue, just as the ranch has come to the rescue of so many animals in distress. My friend John McCall, the Shampoo King from Dripping Springs, has donated more than $50,000. Dwight Yoakam, Jerry Jeff Walker, and Robert Earl Keen have all headlined “bonefits” to raise money for the ranch, and Jerry Agiewich has distributed a line of salsas that has similarly been a financial pleasure. Laura Bush graciously headlined a luncheon for us several years ago at the Four Seasons in Austin. She spoke, posed for photographs with everyone, and narrated for the crowd a hilarious slide show depicting animal life in the White House. More recently, the artist Peter Max has donated the piece of art—a portrait of the Kinkster with two of the Friedmans, Chumley and Brownie. (We’re auctioning it off to the highest bidder, with all proceeds going to the ranch; details available at kinkyfriedman.com.)
What can the rest of you do to help? Consider adopting an animal. More than one thousand Rescue Ranch residents have already been welcomed into loving homes all over the country. (To see photos of the animals up for adoption, go to utopiarescue.com.) Taking in a stray or abused animal can be a life-changing experience, but don’t be surprised if your new pet gazes wistfully over his shoulder as you both drive away. Utopia is quite possibly the only home he’s known. If you watch carefully, you might even see Cousin Nancy cry.
Of course, she’ll always have Lucky. The three-legged cat shares Cousin Nancy and Tony’s trailer on the Rescue Ranch with twelve dogs, whom he routinely keeps in line with the mere swat of a paw. With the same solitary front paw, he has killed two rattlesnakes. He is, indeed, a very lucky cat. Strong, handsome, and high-spirited, he is a symbol of what a little love can do.
I’ve always believed that dogs are cowboys and cats are Indians, natural enemies fighting forever across the wide-open prairie of the imagination of a child. Taken together, however, they could well constitute the yin and yang of our souls. It probably wouldn’t rain if it weren’t for cats and dogs. Their only fault is that they don’t live long enough.
Mark Twain once said that when you meet Saint Peter, it’s best to leave your dog outside. Heaven, he claimed, runs on protocol. If it ran on merit, your dog would go in and you would stay outside.
While I agree with Twain, I see things a little differently. I believe that when you die and go to heaven, all the dogs and cats you’ve ever had in your life come running to meet you.
Until that day, rest in peace, dear friends.