June 2015 Review: Paw Prints at Owl Cottage (The Heartwarming True Story of One Man and His Cats), by Denis O’Connor.

~by Michele Gregoire

One of the sequels to Paw Prints in the Moonlight, which was reviewed in 2013 for this column, Paw Prints at Owl Cottage takes up the author’s life in retirement when he was able to return and purchase again the cottage he had lived in all those years ago with his beloved rescued cat, Toby Jug (who is buried under an apple tree there), about whom his first book was written. Published in 2010 the current book tells the story of the author’s life in retirement, focused entirely around his cats. It is, like his first book, a sweet memoir but this one tells of his current life as he was living it at the time of publication. Mr. O’Connor apparently married later in life and his wife, Catherine, loves cats as much as he does so their world revolves around the interactions with their beloved Maine Coon cats, all males.

The first chapter is titled ‘Beginnings’ and serves as an introduction and the final chapter is ‘Endings,’ which functions as an epilogue. The book is organized into six chapters, the lengthiest four of which are titled for each of the cats he has had since returning to Owl Cottage – Pablo, Carlos, Luis, and Max. Sadly, two died during the time period the book covers. One, who was a very specially bonded cat with him and whom he adored in the extreme, was killed by a car at just one year and six days old. That loss affected the author so profoundly it was a challenge for him to get through his grief. Indeed, the chapter about this cat (Carlos) was 102 pages long, twice the length of the next longest chapter. This event forced him to take precautions about letting the cats roam freely outside, so he built an enclosure for the back yard to protect his remaining cats from harm while they enjoyed the outdoors. One always approaches a memoir with the understanding there is going to be the experience of loss for the author, which for most readers translates into an emotional upheaval as well. We feel the writer’s anguish and pain at the loss of a beloved pet and those are the hardest parts of true stories to endure. Denis O’Connor writes purely from the heart, but he’s also a psychologist and he intersperses a variety of understandings from his own education and life experiences to elaborate upon the personal situations shared in the book. Some of these are heart-rending as well, such as the time he was forced to kill and dissect a white rat for a college anatomy course and came face to face with the cruelty of science after having promised the rat he would keep him safe. The whole incident made him sick and gives proof of the absolute humanity and love for other creatures that this dear author exudes. The kindness and loving nature of Mr. O’Connor are evidenced throughout the book, and most certainly all the other books he has written as well.

In writing about his beloved cats O’Connor describes the specific personalities and special relationships he has with each one of them. He also shares quite a bit of his own personal philosophy about nature and humanity. For example, in the third chapter (‘Carlos’) the author proposes owls hooting and foxes barking as sounds that are sources of solace and are healing for anyone with a ‘stressed or troubled mind.’ He says humans cannot afford to separate themselves from the natural life of our planet, which made him think ‘of how our domesticated creatures can provide us with friendship, solace and succor and how helpful and supportive these relationships can be especially when we are troubled.’ He also explains how he has been throughout his life impressed and enchanted by watching animals go about their daily lives, and has observed that their capacity to cope with the ‘exigencies of life far outweighs those of some of their human counterparts.’ Thus he is ‘constantly overcome with admiration for the qualities shown by cats in their relationships with people as well as the environment.’ He recounts situations in which he has had to deal with people who hold the attitude that cats and other animals are vermin and perpetrated extreme cruelty on them. But, O’Connor mostly shares uplifting experiences and information, such as the origin of the Maine Coon breed which was started by Marie Antoinette. Of course, he is so smitten with Maine Coons that throughout the book he sings their praises quite frequently and attributes much of their intelligent behavior to the breed. He says, “Cats, like other mammals, are sentient beings and Maine Coons are reputed to be the most intelligent of all cats.” (He does not elaborate further on this statement. Many of us have favorite breeds so I might say the same about the Turkish Van, but in reality, all cats surprise us with their intelligence quite regularly!) The author also gives some interesting historical DNA data showing that cats became domesticated by farming people in the Middle East about 130,000 years ago, while dogs originated only 15,000 years ago in Asia. Apparently cats and humans have lived alongside one another for a very long time, and yet they are still quite distant from us compared to dogs.

As he ends the final chapter on his cats (‘Max’) O’Connor states, “…how I am with our cats, I can honestly state that quite apart from loving them deeply and being loved in return, I know them inside their minds and they know me; we are linked on a mental plane of mutual affection and understanding. They have even responded to my growing love of music, especially classical…Who can deny therefore that cats not only have mindful awareness and intuitive intelligence but also that they possess aesthetic appreciation of the creative arts?” The author has truly shared the entirety of his life – all joys, pleasures, and sorrows – with his cats, his life enriched because of it. And, for those who read this book, or any of his memoirs, your life will be enriched for it as well. The gentle soul of Denis O’Connor provides a model of love for God’s creation, exemplified through the relationship between him and his beloved cats.

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Dr. Michele Gregoire has been Chair of the Education Department at Flagler College since 2004 and a member of the faculty since 1988. She came to Flagler College from Georgia College in Milledgeville where she had been Director of Music Therapy for four years and prior to that she spent one year in the same capacity at Willamette University in Salem, Oregon. Dr. Gregoire earned her bachelor’s degree in Music Therapy at Florida State University, her master’s degree in Music at California State University at Long Beach, and her doctoral degree in Special Education at the University of Florida. She has conducted research and published articles related to music therapy and special music education, consistently maintains a strong record of professional conference presentations, and her current interests are historical research in music education, special education, and music therapy.

Dr. Gregoire has been involved in several professional organizations throughout her career, and has served in leadership capacities in most of them. She worked for ten years as a clinical music therapist and director of internship, specializing in developmental disabilities, at the beginning of her career and continues to provide consultation in both music therapy and special education to individuals and organizations.

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