Empathy for the People and Animals of Fort McMurray

For the last couple days I’ve been reading the news and watching video about the Fort McMurray fire, and I have been repeatedly brought to tears, thinking about what the people of that town are going through. One incredibly dramatic video shows flames right next to cars as people tried to flee their neighbourhood. Another shows footage from someone’s security camera; this person remotely watched his house burn and there was nothing he could do. This is deeply emotionally affecting me. Anyone who thinks Aspies don’t have empathy is very mistaken. I absolutely do have empathy; I just don’t always know what to do about it and I can rarely think of the right things to say.

My feelings also run deep for the animals affected by the fire. It breaks my heart thinking of people who had to evacuate straight from work and weren’t able to pick up their pets because their neighbourhoods were already inaccessible. I think about how awful those people must feel, but I also think about the sheer terror the pets must have felt as flames engulfed their homes, or how hungry and scared left-behind pets must feel right now in houses that are still standing. I’ve been glad to read that there are efforts being made to rescue these pets. Of course, I also think about the wild animals in the burning forests; I pray that their instincts have kicked in and they have been able to flee to safety, but realistically know that not all of them were likely to make it out.

I’m feeling bad that I bought those concert tickets a few days ago, because I would really like to send a donation to the Red Cross for the displaced people from Fort McMurray, but buying those tickets really stretched our budget for the month. I feel guilty that I am going to do something completely frivolous when I could have helped people instead. But I suppose that would have been true even if the Fort McMurray fire hadn’t happened. There are always people in this world who need help. It’s just that when dramatic things like this happen, and it’s all over the news, it really drives it home.

The Puking Pipeless Pied Piper

Photo by Benjamin Griffiths, via Flickr. Used under Creative Commons.
Photo by Benjamin Griffiths, via Flickr. Used under Creative Commons.

*Warning: This post may be triggering for those with odor and gag reflex sensitivity.

Through no effort of my own, I seem to be some kind of Pied Piper for cats and dogs. Is this an Autism/Asperger’s thing?

As I mentioned in a previous post, when I was a small child I used to go for walks in the woods with my dog and cats. They would all follow me or walk alongside me completely of their own volition. No leashes or harnesses. This does not seem weird to me, but my mom often brings it up. She says she’s never seen anything like it. She says even other animals would join in sometimes. It was like a fairy tale.

Animals have always appeared to be drawn to me. Dogs I’ve never encountered before get really excited when they see me, as if they already know who I am and think very highly of me. As if I’m some kind of celebrity in the canine world. If I’m with a group of people, I’ll be the one dogs run to.

Photo by Nadir Hashmi, via Flickr. Used under Creative Commons - Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).
Photo by Nadir Hashmi, via Flickr. Used under Creative Commons.

Often I’ve been told things like, “He’s not usually like this with anyone. He was abused before we adopted him and is afraid of new people.” Meanwhile, he’s frantically wagging his tail, jumping all over me, and trying to lick my face.

Photo by Eric Danley via Flickr. Used under Creative Commons. Photo has altered from original (slightly cropped).
Photo by Eric Danley via Flickr. Used under Creative Commons. Photo was altered from original (slightly cropped).

I’ve even had aggressive dogs calm right down and sit down submissively at my feet. My mom is afraid of dogs because she’s been bitten before, but I have never had a dog act aggressively towards me in my whole life.

Cats are naturally more aloof than dogs, but they like me too. (My cat is cuddled up on me as I type this.) Again, it includes cats who don’t usually warm up to people. I’ve inadvertently pissed people off by somehow managing to be a magnet for a previously feral cat that they’ve just claimed will only come to them. These cats will saunter right up to me and push their head into my hand so I will pet them.

Photo by Peter Stevens via Flickr. Used under Creative Commons. Photo was altered from original (cropped).
Photo by Peter Stevens via Flickr. Used under Creative Commons. Photo was altered from original (cropped).

A long-time friend who has witnessed this happen to me many times once said that animals sense that I am just completely harmless. But a lot of people are harmless. This seems like something else.

People have often said that I should be working or at least volunteering with animals in some capacity, but I have a problem. I am extremely, cripplingly sensitive to odors. If I so much as get a whiff of excrement or even a wet dog (among many other things), I will vomit. This has caused problems for me many times in life.

I try not to let it happen. At home I keep a bottle of scented oil from The Body Shop nearby so I can immediately get another scent into my nostrils. I try to use mind-over-matter to think of other things and ignore the revulsion. I have a specific song that I quietly sing to myself as a distraction: My Favorite Things from The Sound of Music.

My husband now tries to help me by singing it to or with me when he sees that I’m about to spew. More often than not this is all to no avail and the inevitable happens. If I can’t get away from the smell, I will continue to dry heave even after my stomach has long been emptied, making it impossible to function in any useful capacity.

Obviously there is no way I can volunteer in an animal shelter or start a dog-walking service. I would be useless. It’s hard enough sometimes to have a pet, but our cat brings so much joy to our lives that we work around my issues. Outside of my own home I would not be able to have so much control. The litter box is kept in a storage closet with the door left open just wide enough for our cat to enter. Every time I need to be near the closet door I breathe through my mouth (this doesn’t always work because if the odor is strong enough I will smell it through my mouth too). My husband handles all the litter box and cat puke issues. That was our arrangement before we adopted her and is the only way we can manage having her. If my husband goes away to a conference or something, I have to get someone else to come and scoop the litter box. It is difficult to explain to people why I require this and I know they don’t understand and probably just see me as a fussy princess who finds icky things unpleasant, but it is so much worse than that. It is completely undoable for me. I’m sorry I’m like this. I hate being judged.

I hear about volunteer opportunities for animal lovers and think I would be ideal for them if only it weren’t for my odor sensitivity. I especially love cats and I wish I could handle having more than just one, but more cats mean more odor. I watch kitten cams on Livestream, which I greatly enjoy and find to be quite therapeutic, but it’s not enough. Whenever I hear of homeless or sick cats my heart just aches for them and I wish I could take them in.

Photo by California Chan via Flickr. Used under Creative Commons. Photo has been altered from original (cropped).
Photo by California Chan via Flickr. Used under Creative Commons. Photo has been altered from original (cropped).

It’s frustrating to feel or be told that I have some kind of gift with animals and yet not be able to do anything about it. So is this an Autism thing? I mean, I know the sensory issues are, but is the animal-magnet thing? Since I’ve suspected that I have Autism, I am seeing a lot of aspects of my life in a potentially new light.