Ask Sherry Carpenter of Bloomsburg, Pa., anything about pets–any species, any breed–and she’ll cheerfully give you the answer or find it for you. Just don’t expect it to be a short conversation. She’ll answer your question, then others you may not have asked, then others you didn’t even know you needed to ask, leaping transitions of thought as quickly as she’s available to help.
“As long as I’m talking, I’m always learning about others,” she says. But, her rambling conversations are really a cover to keep others from probing too much into her life–“we’re very private people,” she says about her family. But, have a problem, especially about pets, and she’ll talk all night if she has to, and she’s not shy about talking about her English Springer Spaniels, three of whom were American Kennel Club champions.
Although she has raised AKC champions, her first English Springer Spaniel was from an SPCA shelter in New Jersey. “We had just lost Butch [a beagle],” she says, “and although we were still mourning him, we knew that you can’t have a home without a dog.” She doesn’t remember why she chose Joy, but it was the first of many English Springer Spaniels who would be her companion.
Carpenter, an award-winning freelance journalist, is executive director of Animal-Vues, a national organization which promotes “compassion for animals, and to help strengthen the bond between animal professionals and the public.” She takes no salary from Animal-Vues, and accepts only a fraction of the expenses to which she’s entitled. “The work is more important,” she says. In 1984, she and Dr. George Leighow, a Danville, Pa., veterinarian, founded Animal-Vues. The organization is an outgrowth of “Animal Crackers,” a popular weekly radio show they hosted for more than a decade on WCNR-AM (Bloomsburg). Animal-Vues, says Carpenter, “has given my life focus, purpose, vitality, and joy.” Animal-Vues has developed dog bite prevention programs, and is now working with local agencies to help autistic children to be able to be safe with dogs.
Among Animal-Vues’ other missions is one to assist in training individuals and local governments about emergency disaster evacuation. Until four years ago, most disaster organizations refused to take pets, forcing their human companions either to abandon them or not seek shelter. Hurricane Katrina changed a lot of attitudes. Television cameras showed the tragedy of abandoned animals, but it also showed another reality. “Far too many people refused to be evacuated in New Orleans unless their pets could go with them,” says Carpenter. Animal-Vues, which had pushed for pet evacuation for years, finally was able to help local and state governments figure out ways to provide shelter not just for people but their pets as well.
In addition to one-to-one counseling, Carpenter also taught non-credit classes about dogs and dog training at Bloomsburg University. Her six-session classes, with veterinarians as guest speakers, one of whom later became the president of the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), covered first aid, animals rights, and grief counseling. “It put me in touch with pet owners, and gave me more purpose in what I do,” she says.
This caring 77-year-old was always surrounded by animals, almost in opposition to her parents who, she says, “were not animal friendly.” As a child, Carpenter brought frogs’ eggs home and watched tadpoles hatch and go through metamorphosis to become an adult frog. She also had dogs and cats, turtles, rabbits, and birds–“any animal that can love you back,” says Christian, her younger daughter and co-owner of Murphy Communications, an advertising/public relations firm in State College, Pa. But she especially loves horses. As a teenager, she and Red, a horse “with a lot of personality and playfulness,” would go into the woods. “I’d ride him sometimes, but we often just walked together,” she says. They’d stop, chat, rest, and think. Like many animals, Red died violently. A man who was boarding Red became annoyed at some of the horse’s antics “and just shot him,” says Carpenter. “You never get over that.” She never owned another horse.
In one of the few contradictions in her life, although Carpenter is uncompromising in opposing cruelty to animals, she also believes that hunting is necessary, but “I couldn’t be a hunter myself.” Her father, a businessman, was a hunter and trapper. As her father became older, says Carpenter, “he became more compassionate,” although he still enjoyed duck hunting. She doesn’t talk much about her mother, except to say she was a Realtor and art gallery owner who liked to shoot birds.
Carpenter entered St. Lawrence University on a New York State Regent’s Scholarship, planning to become a physician. In her senior year, she married, and decided to go to graduate school in education not medicine “so I could devote more time to raising a family.” She earned an M.A. in one year at Alfred University, and then went to the University of Buffalo for doctoral work in psychology with additional courses at the medical school. She thought she could handle the demands of motherhood, psychology, and medicine. Six months into her first year of doctoral study, Carpenter dropped out.
“They were operating on brain centers in cats to test responses,” says Carpenter, who says she will never forget having to decapitate the animals in order to take histological samples while the animals were still alive, then hearing their death gurgles. “I didn’t like it,” she says, not defiantly, but with reluctant acceptance. She pauses, thinks a bit, as if searching for the right words, and then quietly adds that the other reason she couldn’t continue was “because I decided I’d rather be a mother full-time,” something she could do to help develop life, not take it.
“She always wanted to be at home when we came home,” recalls her older daughter, Sherilee, now an editor at Penn State. At home, Carpenter made sure her daughters developed a love of reading and writing. “She loved books about horses and dogs, but we read everything we could,” says Sherilee, recalling that the family “seldom watched TV.” Their mother “was pretty strict about that.”
She was also strict about establishing rules and “making us be good to people,” says Christian. “She taught us the spiritual side of life and what school can’t teach you.”
Carpenter says she was neither helped nor hindered by the feminist movement for equality, even when confronted by the flaming rhetoric that questioned why women would want to give up careers for motherhood. “Equality really means that each woman should be allowed to be whatever she can be,” says Carpenter, proudly stating she is “so much because I am a mother.”
Both daughters, when younger, constantly said they wanted to be mothers–“just like Mom.” They married, but neither gave birth. “For many years, their nurturing instincts,” says their mother, “have been sharpened by cats and dogs.”
In 1969, Carpenter’s husband, William, by then a corporate executive, had a stroke at the age of 39, leaving his left side paralyzed. “He had given up hope for recovery,” says Carpenter, noting “I don’t remember how many times I saw him fall.” But he had the support of his wife and a special assistant. “Willie just looked at him and wondered what he was doing,” says Carpenter. ” Willie was an English Springer Spaniel, Ch. Holly Hills Winged Elm—”We called him Willie Lump Lump,” says Carpenter. Willie was one of the first therapy dogs, an affectionate 50 pound bundle of encouragement. Willie helped William regain his will to do the necessary exercises to regain mobility; there was never any question as to which breed Sherry Carpenter would prefer over the next four decades. Because of Willie, Carpenter’s husband improved and “never had to go on permanent disability.”
The Carpenters had received Willie from the wife of a Penn State professor. “She told us that when Willie received his championship, we could have him.” It’s not uncommon for show dog owners to give away males, says Carpenter, noting ” the female is more important in breeding.”
Willie, “who gave us a great deal of joy,” died in 1978. “He just laid down under an apple tree and died,” says Carpenter. Willie, the fourth English Springer Spaniel the Carpenters owned was 10 years old. “He was such an influence on my life that I decided to pursue writing in order to give back to him all he had given to me.” Carpenter thinks a moment, makes a couple of random thoughts, and then quietly adds, “I hope there will be service dogs like Willie for all our returning veterans suffering from physical or emotional disabilities.”
Carpenter’s husband, having regained most of his muscle use except for his left arm, eventually returned to a career in corporate personnel, including work at Johnson & Johnson in Somerville and Princeton, N.J., the Geisinger Medical Center in Danville, Pa.; and as personnel director of Centre County, Pa., home of Penn State, where both daughters graduated with journalism degrees. “I still go to the home football games,” says Carpenter, almost as agile in climbing the steps to Beaver Stadium in 2009 as she did in the early 1970s when her daughters were journalism students at Penn State. Sherry and William Carpenter separated in the early 1990s; William died in 1998. By then, Sherry Carpenter had established herself as a journalist. Writing “was my own therapy,” she says.
She had written her first magazine article while a high school student, using the income to “buy presents for my family and friends.” During her four decade career, she was a newspaper reporter and columnist in both New Jersey and Pennsylvania, a radio news director, a public relations account executive, and a substitute teacher, all part-time jobs, always a full-time mother. For almost 20 years, she wrote a monthly column for Dog World magazine. It was the first column to focus upon the Canine Good Citizen program, which is open to all breeds, whether pure-bred or mixed. Dogs must pass the program to become therapy or rescue dogs. Carpenter proudly recalls, “In some way, I hope my column had been the reason why that program expanded.” Equally proud, she has kept many of the letters she received from readers “who said they learned something from my column.”
Carpenter also wrote a weekly column for the Danville Daily News and the Sunbury Daily Item, both of them Pennsylvania dailies, and several articles for the AKC Gazette. She is the winner of five Maxwell medals from the Dog Writers Association of America (DWAA). In addition to her column, she was honored by the DWAA for a video about the Canine Good Citizen program and a widely-used handbook for police officers to learn how to deal with dangerous dogs. She and Leighow also won a special DWAA award for their Animal Crackers radio show. Among other awards she received for her writing are two from the New Jersey Press Association and the Thomas Paine Award for Citizen Journalism. The Pennsylvania Veterinary Medical Association honored her in 2005 for her columns, one of the few times the PVMA gave any award to someone not a veterinarian.
Her insight into both psychology and medicine gives her a special perspective few writers have. She occasionally reviews scientific articles for the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, and often contributes book reviews. “As a non-veterinarian, especially, it’s a real mark of distinction,” she says, her pride evident that she has been making a difference for pets, their companions, and those who work with them.
Like many who work for others, Sherry Carpenter doesn’t have a large income, now living off of social security, a few investments, and small monthly checks from her writing. “Sometimes it doesn’t matter how much you make as long as you enjoy what you’re doing,” she says. She pauses again, another of her rare pauses. She doesn’t say much more about what she intentionally hides about her life, but she reveals all anyone needs to know. “Everything I do is an extension of my motherhood,” she says. “That’s just who I am.”
(For further information about Animal-Vues, contact the association at 570-784-0374. Carpenter blogs at http://www.stdtc.org/)
WALTER BRASCH is author of 17 books, a syndicated columnist, and professor of journalism at Bloomsburg University and recipient of the Martin Luther King Jr. Distinguished Humanitarian Service Award. You may contact him through his website, www.walterbrasch.com