Eleven years ago this week, my first dog as an adult passed away. Caper, a gorgeous Golden Retriever, was my “heart dog,” the one who holds a special place in my heart forever.

That’s not to say that all of my other dogs aren’t in my heart always! They certainly are. But Caper was responsible for leading me into a new life to work with animals. She and I had a special connection, and we still do.

I often get asked how I came to work with the animals after a 25-year career in the corporate world. I would like to share my story with you here on this blog. Once a week, I will post a portion of my yet-to-be-published book, The Trumpeter in the Woods. It is the story of how Caper and many other animals showed me the way to be their voice. For anyone who says they wish they could quit their jobs and work with animals, this story is for you because I did it!

Content and title copyright Christine Palm Shaughness. No reproduction allowed.

The Trumpeter in the Woods
Chapter One – Blame It on the Dog (part one)

In the darkness of the woods,
The tall trees shelter the lone wolf.
He lets out a soulful howl
That fades into the mist of night.
Come out of the woods,
Let the world hear your music.

I don’t recall the song he played or the clothes he wore, only the striking image of a young man standing on the stony ledge above me in the middle of the woods. He was playing a trumpet. All alone; until I came upon him, that is. He didn’t acknowledge me but kept on playing. Even my big blonde Golden Retriever’s gleeful zigzagging down the tree-lined path didn’t distract him from his haunting melody. What an odd sight, one that has never left me. My dog Caper and I silently moved past the trumpeter with the reverence of being in an empty church. Why was he there? Maybe his parents made him leave the house because his music was too loud? Or could it be that he just liked the solitude of the woods where no one was there to judge his music?

That was 1992, the year I separated from my ex-husband, attempting to find happiness that eluded me in my marriage where my husband was more focused on his career and playing golf than with me. I clearly remember the day when he said,

“You have so much earning potential. I think I’m going to retire and play golf and let you make the money.”

That did it. I moved out of my dream home in November 1992.

Little did I know that almost twenty years later, I would be that soloist, crying in the woods and feeling that my music was not being heard. Until the animals pushed me to tell my story.
My life is not extraordinary. I haven’t travelled the world, I’m not a celebrity. No miracles instantly changed my life. I’m just a regular person, like most of the people in this world. I grew up in the suburbs of Baltimore, Maryland into a middle-class German-Irish Catholic family. My dad died when I was 12 years old. While this may seem like a great loss, my dad was a quiet man. In fact, I don’t recall ever having a conversation with him. He worked hard and, when he came home from work at night, he liked to read The Baltimore Sun newspaper as the rest of the family watched television. Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In was the hot show in those years. Dad sat in the beige faux-leather and wood Early American recliner with a cigarette in one hand and the ashtray not far away, and laughed at the TV as he took a break from his reading. He was a hands-off dad which was quite typical for that era of the late 50s and 60s. Moms stayed home and took care of the kids while dads made the money.

When Dad died on December 10, 1969, I was more aware of watching my mother struggle to support my seventeen-year-old sister and me than of any grief from the loss of my dad. My brother had already married and was still in graduate school at Northwestern University near Chicago. We all missed him terribly. Fear gripped my mom, for she hadn’t worked since 1943 when she married my dad and started to raise a family. She was the stereotypical housewife of the post-WWII era. Her skills as a secretary were as aged as her steno pad.

That Christmas, just 2 weeks after the breadwinner of the family had died, my mom bought me a radio – an extravagance for a family whose only income was now a small Social Security check each month. When she presented the radio to me on Christmas morning she said, “Enjoy it, this may be your last Christmas present.” A child doesn’t forget that too easily.

We lived very frugally. I remember Mom buying inexpensive beef bottom round roasts, only when they were on sale, and cutting them into meals-for-three sized packages and freezing them for future use. My sister and I would scan the newspaper food section for recipes to use that cheap cut of beef; we had Swiss steak, steak and onions, steak and peppers, Hungarian Goulash, beef stew and my favorite contribution, beef cacciatore. Ground beef was also inexpensive in the early 70s so we ate hamburgers, sloppy Joes and other concoctions that my sister and I could find. Recipe collection became my hobby. You often hear people say that they were “Depression babies,” explaining their extreme frugality. My family suffered our own Depression in those years and the habit of being frugal has never left me. And neither has the memory of my mother’s anxiety about not having enough money. I’ve forever feared becoming homeless since those days.

My life from when my dad died in 1969 up until 1992 when I left my husband was rather unremarkable: I graduated from college, landed a job as a technical writer, got married, went back to school for a Master’s degree in Information Systems at the University of Maryland, and held various management positions in telecommunications. I had twenty years of normalcy. Until the animals decided it was time to wake up my soul; it was time for me to work on my purpose for living.