This article first appeared in The Positive Side, a publication of CATIE.
Une version française est disponible ici.
Interviews by RonniLyn Pustil
Mark Lipton, 43, Toronto, HIV+: 17 years
Dog: Bingo Falafel Lipton, 14
Breed: Rat terrier
Nicknames: Bingus, Bakalaka, Mr. Handsome.
What made you decide to get a pet?
I didn’t. My ex-boyfriend came home one day in 1998 and said: “I got you a present. This will save your life.” And he presented me with this crazy puppy he had rescued. I’d been having difficulty dealing with my HIV diagnosis. Many of our friends were dying and I was feeling very lonely and depressed.
And did Bingo save your life?
Yes, in many ways. He also got between me and the boyfriend, and when I had to choose between them, I took the dog and ran. For the first few years Bingo didn’t let me have strangers in the house. He would bark at them or attack them, which forced me to choose who I brought home more carefully. In this way, he kept me in check.
How does Bingo affect your quality of life?
He keeps me active because I have to go to the park with him several times a day. He keeps me centred because I have to step away from whatever I’m doing and give him my focused attention a few times a day. He reminds me to eat, because when I feed him, I remember to eat myself.
Does he still attack strangers?
He’s mellowed as he’s gotten older. Also, I’ve since gotten married and my husband is much better at domesticating and training him. I had accepted that I had a wild dog, but my husband has tamed him…and me as well!
Does Bingo do any tricks?
Absolutely! Bingo can sing. And he can balance a cookie on the tip of his nose and hold it there until you say “go!” Then he flips it and catches it in his mouth.
What has Bingo taught you?
He’s taught me to breathe, to trust and to stretch. He’s taught me great patience. He’s taught me how to love.
Richard Baker, 42, St John’s, Newfoundland, HIV+: 24 years
Dog: Charlie, 9 months
Breed: Border collie and lab mix
Nickname: Charlie Brown
Why did you decide to get a pet?
My partner and I lost Sonny, our 10-year-old black lab, last May. Shortly after, we realized we couldn’t live without a dog. So we started looking for a small dog (Sonny was 120 pounds). I found out that there was someone looking for a good home for a 10-week-old pup that was left on their doorstep. When we went to see him, we fell in love, but he was going to be big. We thought for a minute and then found out that he was born the day that Sonny passed away. Talk about karma! We had to get him.
How does having a pet affect your quality of life?
Charlie makes me feel needed. He motivates me to go outside for walks, which is hard for me with my medical conditions. And without him, my mental health would be a lot worse.
Does Charlie do any tricks?
He can pick up bricks with his teeth and carry them around the yard.
What has your dog taught you?
That love, laughter and patience go a long way.
Charlene Anderson, 50, Victoria, BC, HIV+: 21 years
2 cats: Min, 12, and Mr. V., 5. When we first got Mr. V., they said he was a girl so we called him Miss Vivien, but then he developed testicles so we changed his name.
Dog: Pekoe, 4
Nicknames: Pekoe is the only one with nicknames—Pig and Squeako.
How do your pets affect your quality of life?
They make me participate in life. Having responsibilities makes me accountable, especially having a dog. I have to walk her a few times a day, which keeps me motivated. I’ve developed some good relationships because of her; there’s a group of us that goes on dog walks five days a week. And she keeps me calm. When things are going on, there’s nothing better than having my little Pig curl up in my lap. It’s unconditional love from all three of them.
Do they all get along?
Yes, but the dog knows that she’s at the bottom of the food chain. When the cats go by, she just looks the other way.
Do any of your pets have remarkable talents?
Pekoe does everything: She rolls over on command, dances and gives you a high five and high 10. She also enjoys dressing up. In Victoria we have the Big Gay Dog Walk, as part of Pride week activities. Pekoe has won the prize for best tricks and the prize for best-dressed pet—she wore her pleather vest and rainbow tutu. She was in the newspaper; they called her “the essence of Pride.”
What have your pets taught you?
Pekoe has taught me to not judge people. We go to an off-leash dog park where you get the big burly dogs with their big burly owners who look scary until you get them to talk about their dogs and they turn to mush. Also, I volunteer and I’m on the board at AIDS Vancouver Island. I bring Pekoe there sometimes and she loves everybody unconditionally.
Brenda Campbell, 54, Regina, Saskatchewan, HIV+: 2 years
14 cats: Pinky, Sambo, Babykins, Cocoa, Noodles, Miss Tippi, Rascal, Peekaboo, Minnie, Jellybean, BJ, the Bear, PJ and Pinto, the kitten.
Whoa! How do you keep track of them all?
I try to keep them inside because I live on a busy street. When they do go out, they always come home, except for Rascal. That one I’ve got to watch.
Do you have any favourites?
Babykins—and he knows it. He’s spoiled rotten. He sleeps with me all the time, just curls up in my arms. He’s adorable. Of course, they’re all adorable. Sambo’s the gay cat. I always have to chase him to get him off Babykins. He’s also toothless.
Why 14 cats?
I’m the cat lady! My eyes are green and my sign is Leo. Some people actually know me as the cat lady; they don’t know my real name. I have so many because no one wanted the kittens from the last batch, so I ended up keeping them.
Are there ever any catfights?
Sometimes. When the full moon is out, they act up.
How do your cats affect your quality of life?
If it weren’t for them, I wouldn’t be around now. I’ve been off cocaine for over three years because I realized that I wasn’t taking good care of my cats. They are more important to me than drugs. I’m a breast cancer survivor, I have MS, hepatitis C and HIV. My cats give me the will to live. It’s hard work taking care of myself and all the cats, but it’s worth it.
Do any of your cats do special tricks?
Sambo used to steal my bra every time I went into the bath. Also, he doesn’t usually cuddle up with me, but whenever I get my cheque, he curls up to me. It’s like he knows it’s tuna day.
What have your cats taught you?
I grew up on the streets, and my cats have taught me that I could love and be loved unconditionally.
Denise Becker, 53, Vernon, BC, HIV+: 22 years
Dog: Ziggy, 3
Breed: Doberman pinscher
Nicknames: The Zigster, The Zigmeister, Zig, Puppy Dog, Poppit. His show name is Liberty’s Walks with a Friend.
Why did you decide to get a dog?
Why not? They are the greatest companions. Dobermans are smart, short-haired, loyal, indoor dogs—and they’re great defenders. They are also astoundingly good at picking up men.
Does having a dog affect your quality of life?
Absolutely! When I am sad, he comes over and licks my tears. In the morning, he gets me out of bed with incessant whining. During the night, he gets up and comes to my side of the bed just to check on me and then returns to his bed. He sleeps on my feet, which is not only warm but also comforting. He makes me feel safe from intruders when I am on my own.
Does Ziggy have any remarkable talents?
When I say “dead dog,” he falls to the ground; then when I say “doggy heaven,” he circles the table; and finally when I say “pearly gates!” he reaches up and licks my nose. He’s a show dog so he can stand like a statue for about a minute without moving. He licks me when I say “kisses” and he licks my boyfriend when I say “Kirk kisses.”
What has your dog taught you?
Ziggy has taught me to always forgive. Dogs seem to have huge hearts and forgive humans for some crazy things. Also, he’s taught me that he will never judge me for anything and he would defend me to the end. He’s sad when I am away and glad when I come home. He makes me feel wanted and needed—in fact, loved.
Is it true that Ziggy has his own Twitter page? What does he tweet about?
Yes. I am amazed at all the other dogs and cats that have befriended him. Ziggy tweets a lot about his owner and writes things like “Breakfast: kibbles again!” His Twitter handle is @akaLordVader