Los Angeles pet lovers.
By Felice Catena
Alicia is the talented actress who stars in a new video for Pet Orphans Fund’s Humane Education Program, which has already reached more than 11,000 children, teens and adults in the L.A. area. In this video, she frankly conveys what really happens when someone takes their animal to the shelter or buys animals from breeders and pet stores. As you’ll see, this was not just another acting job for this young animal lover.
Alicia grew up in a “petless” home in Massachusets, where she was a child prodigy pianist. She played and studied piano every day, entering many piano competitions. But with a busy acting career that takes her all over the world these days, she doesn’t get as much piano practice as she would like. When we spoke, she had just returned from filming The Upside of Anger with Kevin Costner and Joan Allen in London and was preparing to leave for South Africa to film a new movie called Das Niebelungenlied. “It’s the fable on which Tolkien based Lord of the Rings,” explains Alicia. “This is a darker and more tragic story. It’s not a fairy tale.”
Alicia became involved with Pet Orphans Fund four years ago, when she met a POF volunteer on a San Francisco movie set. “He told me about the organization and that he volunteered as a dog walker on the weekends. When we returned to L.A. I went along with him and loved it!”
Since she didn’t have a dog companion of her own, spending time with the dogs at Pet Orphans was the perfect way for Alicia to get that much-craved “dog love”- and to give the lonely dogs love in return. “Pet Orphans is such a good place,” Alicia says, “but it reminds you that for every dog that’s been rescued, there are so many others who were killed because they were homeless. Many people don’t understand that if they turn their dog in at a city shelter it will most likely be killed. I can’t believe that somebody could give their hearts to a pet or pretend to, and then when they move, they give it up like a couch they don’t need anymore. A dog who has been put to death like that has no idea what he or she did wrong.”
As a volunteer for Pet Orphans, Alicia met and adopted Jake, (whose hair is the exact same red as Alicia’s!! Too bad The Pet Press isn’t in color!). “I fell in love with Jake the moment I saw him. He was such a tiny puppy.” Later she also adopted Maggie from Pet Orphans, who is “just over a year old, and is even more of a mix than Jake is. She’s so beautiful.... she’s black, brown and white, with a curly tail and floppy ears, and the sweetest face. She looks like she’s part Burmese or Australian Shepherd or possibly Rott. She’s got some big dog in her.”
Alicia’s demanding film schedule often requires long-distance travel. “The saddest thing I ever have to do is to go away without my dogs; I would love to take them with me. It’s just bad luck that the last two jobs I’ve had have been so far away. They have a quarantine in England, and I don’t know what the situation is in Capetown, but it’s a 24-hour flight, and you can’t put a dog in cargo for so long. I looked into flying them first-class, but the airlines won’t allow it. I just have to look at Jake’s face when I’m packing my suitcase to know that he understands SO much. He knows I’m leaving. I don’t really get homesick. I get dog sick!”
For a three-month job in New York, however, Alicia did take Jake with her. “He flew cargo which, according to my research, is relatively safe if you’re flying direct, and you make certain that the dog is on the plane before YOU get on the plane. He didn’t mind the flight at all. I had spoken to my vet, and contrary to what I had heard, he told me that you don’t need to give them tranquilizers. I just gave him a little Rescue Remedy, which is homeopathic, and it worked really well. He wasn’t stressed or upset. I was more anxious than he was through the whole flight, just knowing that he was down there; it was my first time traveling with him.”
“When we got to New York he wasn’t traumatized a bit. The only problem was, he couldn’t figure out where he was supposed to pee. He was used to grass and didn’t like the pavement. He wouldn’t go. We had been warned that often when you take them out of the crate, they will go right there in the airport. But he wouldn’t do it, even outside the airport. He thought he would be going someplace he shouldn’t because there was no grass - he’s well-trained. I walked him around the block, and he still wouldn’t go. He wouldn’t go on a tree or in a planter or anything. He just refused. We ended up taking him to Central Park and he finally went there. I would always travel with my dogs if I could, but traveling internationally becomes a bit more difficult. I think you have to balance how much you want to bring them for YOU, or if it would be a trip that they would really enjoy.”
The latter was the case when Alicia was working in New York on Two Weeks Notice with Sandra Bullock and Hugh Grant, and she could take Jake to the set with her. “Sandra had 2 dogs, and one of the producers had a Welsh Corgi named Buster who became Jake’s best friend. They hung out. We had a good system - in the morning one of us would drop our dog in the other’s trailer and they would play while we worked. That was a very dog-friendly set. All the hair and makeup people had their dogs with them too, so it was lovely, and I found that there is a lot to offer a dog owner living in New York. There are a lot of off-leash times when you can be in Central Park, and there are lots of doggy daycare and dog walkers for when you just can’t be home or take them with you.”
Alicia also has an adopted cat. “Jessie is 10 now and gets along great with the dogs. She spent most of her life as an only pet, because when I first moved to L.A. I was in apartments and never found the right circumstance where it made sense to have a dog. I wanted to wait until I had a yard for them. A friend of mine found Jessie wandering down the street; she was 5 months old, covered with fleas, and very skinny. My friend already had 2 cats and a dog, and said, ‘Look, I have a cat! I know you want a dog, but your apartment doesn’t allow dogs, so maybe you can adopt this one.’ So I did.
Jessie rode under the seat with me when I took her to New York to work and on a family visit to Massachusetts. She does really well on planes. I’ve taken her many places - San Francisco, Vancouver, Toronto. She usually stays in the apartment, but I have taken her to the set. When I was doing the series I did for 4 years, she would come to my dressing room. I put a sign on the door that said, ‘Be careful entering, do not let the cat out!’”
“Wherever I go, whenever I’m on a movie set or doing publicity, or anything I do that puts me in front of the public or an individual person, I’m always talking about animals. Any time I hear someone is about to buy a pet from a breeder, I talk their ears off about how they’re ending another animal’s life when they do that. That’s a big pet peeve of mine! Working in this industry, I meet a lot of people who think that because they have money, it makes more sense to buy a pedigreed dog from a breeder or a pet store. I explain how much healthier, smarter and more well-balanced a mixed breed animal is. Not only that, there are purebred animals in rescue and shelters all the time. If you really have your heart set on one specific breed, you can go to Golden Retriever Rescue, or Poodle Rescue, or Silky Rescue and get whatever breed you feel you want.”
It’s no wonder that when Pet Orphans asked her to star in their Humane Video, she didn’t hesitate. “I would like to do as much as I possibly can. The most important benefit of having people know who you are is that, for some bizarre reason, they actually pay more attention to what you say. I hope that through the video people WILL pay attention and change the way they think about having pets. They should think of them as children. It just makes me sick to think of the people who don’t.”
“I think what I’m doing with Pet Orphans Fund is important” Alicia continues. “And I think it’s my responsibility as someone who has the gift of the “celebrity forum” to use it as best I can. I just try and explain to people what I believe whenever I get the opportunity.”
“Some people, even those who are good pet guardians and take good care of them, and would never put them to death because they are moving… they still treat them like ‘pets.’ They make them sleep outside, they can’t come up on the couch, they can’t come up on the bed, they can’t sleep with you… that sort of thing. That makes me sad because they so want to be a member of the family. When they’re relegated to sleeping outside, they’re not really a member of the family - they’re ‘the family dog’; I don’t like to think of animals in that way.”
“It’s really sobering to look into an animal’s eyes, and realize that they feel so much. I think animals have the most intricate emotions. They are so much more sensitive than we are. They pick up on people’s inner selves more astutely than we do. They don’t really have any filters; they don’t worry about how they’re acting; they just exist. They’re completely present in every moment. And if you are sharing your life with animals, it causes you to be much more present as well. That’s one of the reasons I tell anyone who doesn’t have a pet to share their lives with one immediately. It’s a great thing!”
(If you are unable to have an animal of your own, Pet Orphans Fund can always use volunteers to spend time with their dogs and cats. Look what effect it had on Alicia Witt! For more about their volunteer program, visitwww.petorphansfund.org or call Erica at 818-901-0190 ext. 102.)
(Alicia Witt can be seen in The Upside of Anger, co-starring with a cast that includes Kevin Costner, Joan Allen, Erika Christensen, Evan Rachel Wood, and Keri Russell, later this year.)
(Felice Catena has been a member of the Los Angeles Humane Community and an animal rescuer since 1994. She has a soft spot for silly small dogs and the smell of puppy breath. Dogs drool at the sight of her, mostly because they know she has pockets full of cookies.)
First published in August of 1999, The Pet Press has become THE only local resource for
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