Former vet technician, animal advocate, and editor-in-chief of the help-kids-do-good website Moomah, Tracey Stewart knows a thing or two about what makes a cat purr. From kitty massages to homemade cat treats, she has pets eating out of the palm of her hand — literally.
She recently talked to Catster about her new memoir-practical guide, Do Unto Animals: A Friendly Guide to How Animals Live, and How We Can Make Their Lives Better, and the love of all things furry she shares with her husband, former host of The Daily Show Jon Stewart.
When did you decide that you wanted to write a book about animals?
I’ve shared my life with so many animals. Each animal taught me something new. I always wished I knew more sooner. Our family was volunteering at a local shelter, and we were adopting and fostering. I realized how much this interaction with the shelter, the animals in our home and around us were bettering our lives. I felt compelled to tell others what we were experiencing. I’ve found the more I learn, the better I can love. When I learn something, I like to shout it from the mountaintops.
Your book illustrates cat body language, or “cat-ese,” to help others learn how to read cats. Why is this important?
Trial and error…emphasis on the error. I think the biggest misunderstanding people make about cats is that they read them like dogs. Dogs and cats have entirely different ways of using body language to communicate. They have different motivations, habits and drives. My family is constantly trying to learn how to better understand our animal family members. We’re always looking for ways to enrich their lives and take the best care of them that we can.
You mention in your book that your husband, Jon, inspired you to work with animals. Is he an animal lover, too?
I could have never gotten away with all I’ve gotten away with if Jon wasn’t a huge animal lover. Finding out that he loved animals like he did certainly made him even more attractive to me, but it also posed a potential problem for me initially. When I met him, he had cats and I am very allergic. I formulated that if his cats didn’t like me, then there was a chance he wouldn’t either … I mean, that would have been reasonable. There were some hilarious and bloody mishaps that ensued in me trying to ingratiate myself to his cat, Stanley.
What was being a veterinary technician like for you?
I was able to see over and over what animals brought to people’s lives, and I truly learned to face many of my fears. I talked myself out of working more closely with animals for many years. I didn’t think I would be able to handle seeing an animal suffer or feeling the sadness of death. What I found was that I was not only able to handle it, I was healed by it.
You currently have four dogs, two pigs, a hamster, three rabbits, two guinea pigs, a parrot, and two fish. You’re also in the process of opening a sanctuary for farm animals such as cows, sheep, goats, chickens, and pigs. How do you grow your family?
We have total harmony in the house right now, and so we all agree that we are good and full. Perhaps this is part of what inspired us to look into starting a farm animal sanctuary… If there isn’t room in the house, there’s always the barn. I just completed my second session at Farm Sanctuary’s Animal Care Conference in Watkins Glen, New York, this fall, and so I’ve learned the importance of having a plan and having a protocol for when it makes sense to rescue.
Your family spends a lot of time volunteering. How can you motivate others to do the same?
Sometimes, the best way is to start with the closest shelter that shares your values. The easier it is to get there, the more likely you are to visit. We were lucky that our local shelter had aligned itself with a humane education program that invited children in for activities and education. Even if your local shelter doesn’t offer something specific, be creative… Offer whatever skills you have to help.
And you’re an advocate of virtual adoption.
When our family reached maximum capacity, my kids chose a shelter dog or cat to champion. They’d make posters, decorate cages with lovely messages, and make videos and buttons. They’d drop off enrichment toys for their surrogate animal to play with.
Shelter animals are repeatedly mislabeled as damaged goods. I think we need to tell people to take a moment to ponder the many failings of members of the human race, and then imagine the gold that must get left at shelters every day. Having spent so much time in shelters, I can personally attest to the fact that fantastic animals are just waiting to be given a chance with a reasonable and kind human being.
Do Unto Animals: A Friendly Guide to How Animals Live, and How We Can Make Their Lives Better (Artisan Books) is in stores now. A portion of the book’s proceeds goes to Farm Sanctuary.
About the author: Whitney C. Harris is a New York-based freelance writer for websites including StrollerTraffic, Birchbox, and WhattoExpect.com. A former book and magazine editor, she enjoys running (with Finley), watching movies (also with Finley), and cooking meatless meals (usually with Finley watching close by).