2010-04-15 / Columnists

Pets, Pets, Pets

“Acquiring a dog may be the only opportunity a human ever has to choose a relative.”

The above quote belongs to Mordecai Siegal, prolific dog, cat and horse writer, author of 33 books plus many more columns, president emeritus of Dog Writers Association (DWAA), and founding member of Cat Writers Association (CWA) who died at the age of 75 on April 1st. To today’s pet press, Mordecai was a trail blazer and mentor. Although his quip about four-legged relatives is so true, “Uncle Morty” embraced many folks in the pet periphery who, besides the furry adopted ones, became part of his extended family.

Mordecai was a true blue New Yorker. Living in the Village for many years, he wanted to be a playwright or an actor but in the 1970s side-stepped into a career as an “accidental” pet writer when he joined forces with dog trainer Matt Margolis. Their first of ten books together- Good Dog, Bad Dog (Henry Holt and Company) - paved the way to a new section in book stores. Before their collaboration, dog books were found sandwiched between nature or wild animal publications. The success of the Siegal/Margolis team showed that dogs, soon to be followed by cats, earned their own spacious shelves at booksellers.

Mordecai Siegal, 1935 – 2010. Photo by Mary Bloom. Mordecai Siegal, 1935 – 2010. Photo by Mary Bloom. His total works are too numerous to list but to mention a few, Morty authored The UC Davis Book of Dogs with consulting editor Jeffrey Barlough DVM (Harper Collins); The Cornell Book of Cats (2nd edition) with the late Dr. Jim Richards (Villard-Random House); Choosing the Perfect Dog for You and Your Family (Contemporary Books, Inc.); Simon & Schuster’s Guide for Cats and Mordecai Siegal’s Happy Pet/ Happy Owner (Rawson Associations, Inc.). He was also the pet columnist for various magazines such as Good Housekeeping, House Beautiful and Women’s World, and for the Goodnewsforpets.com website long before there were bloggers.

Often the master of ceremonies at pet events, Mordecai was an entertaining public speaker as well as a talented writer. In 2006, his close friend, Roger Caras, author, past president of the ASPCA, longtime voice of Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, was being inducted posthumously into the DWAA Hall of Fame. The widow and children of Caras were present at the annual banquet when Mordecai told the funny story of how they met. Years before Siegal and his wife were driving in the Hamptons. He decided to knock at the Caras farmhouse to introduce himself and ask about breaking into pet writing. Caras actually invited them in for breakfast and a life long friendship followed.

It’s not unusual to stumble upon pet writing. I was an elementary teacher by profession. Pursuing this column as an avocation and adjunct for rescue began as a fortunate fluke. Twenty seven years ago when asked to fill a void for a humane organization, I said I would give column writing a try temporarily. Because the Fates handed me this sustained, journalistic gift called Pets, Pets, Pets, I’ve had the chance to be a Forrest Gump at prestigious pet happenings mingling with real writers like Uncle Morty. One time we were at a National Dog Show luncheon. Mordecai was getting ready to write I Just Got a Kitten. What Do I Do? (Simon & Schuster/Fireside) I offered several safety tips to add to his book. He actually jotted them down. I felt honored that he would even listen to a nobody like me.

Mordecai, the Pooch Patriarch, loved to be in the Madison Square Garden press room at Westminster. There he was surrounded by his extended family. He said it was his favorite place on Earth.

Four Westminsters ago (notice how I count years), I had just begun the search for sites of Sensation’s grave and the Westminster clubhouse. Their presence in Babylon was still startling news to me. Mordecai was about to publish Dog Spelled Backwards (St. Martin’s Press) which is a collection of soulful writing by literary dog lovers such as Mark Twain, Jack London and Roger Caras. He included the June 1888 Outing article by Pentz that described the Babylon clubhouse in detail. When we started to compare notes, Mordecai looked at me in a matter of fact way, as if to say, “Of course, Sensation is buried in Babylon.” After all, if the Pooch Patriarch knew, I should have known too since I was the local correspondent. Later as the research progressed, I’d show him new discoveries.

Later, Dog Spelled Backwards won the DWAA competition’s award for the best of the best and Mordecai, seven year president of that same international canine press organization, was inducted into the DWAA Hall of Fame. The next night during Westminster Mordecai was introduced to 20,000 spectators on the floor of the Garden.

Uncle Morty, an eloquent advocate for companion animals was always ready to welcome rookies into the pet writing stadium. Mordecai’s words below come from a memorial page on the DWAA website: “Most of my colleagues are fellow dog writers who belong to the organization nearest and dearest to my heart, the Dog Writers Association of America. If you have a passion for dogs, write a lot, a little, for the love it, or for the hell of it, I invite you to join us at the DWAA. Sometimes we’re good company and sometimes we are irritating beyond belief, but we are always interesting.”

Before the movie Marley & Me opened, members of the Metropolitan Dog Club attended a private screening. That day, Mordecai gave several of us little notebooks inscribed with the words that start this piece. He remarked that a company in Maine had marketed his dog/relative quote on novelty items and over the years it had made as much, if not more money, as some of his books. In several respects this is a sad epitaph. His 33 books and shared wisdom will be forever more valuable. Mordecai Siegal (1935-2010), in your honor, let there always be a chair left empty in the Westminster press room.

For Adoption at Babylon Town Shelter (63-9270) Lamar St. W. Babylon: Our poster pets are good looking young strays this week. “Wesley” is a Cocker Spaniel with a body wave in Cage 5, so far overlooked by visitors. He is lovable but gives off mixed signals about other dogs, so he may do best as “an only child”, while “Alexa” in Cage 37 is a happy American Bulldog who is responding well to training. Both dogs are about a year old.

Female: “Becky” Rottweiler Cage 27; interesting Bull Terrier mix Cage 9; yellow Lab mix pup Cage 30; “Star”- patient Pit; “Missy”- welcome wagon tabby in the lobby.

Male: “Darwin” Beagle Cage 16; “Teddy” dieting Retriever Cage 6; “Buddy” brindle Pit Cage 4.

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