Ginger Matyas handles creatures Great (Danes) and small (millipedes) The Portland Tribune, By Kate Gawf
If pet sitter Ginger Matyas gave a prize for the weirdest owner she’s ever worked for, it would go to a woman with 20 cats whose house was pockmarked with cat doors, littered with hairballs and the feathers of dead birds, and reeked of everybody’s least favorite smell. “It was gross,” Matyas says. “I definitely should’ve charged more for that job. It took me hours just to open 20 cans of cat food and set them out on plates.” But never, Matyas says, has she encountered anything so disturbing as the recent dog poisonings in Laurelhurst Park. She was walking a client’s Alaskan malamute there as usual not long after the poisonings. Though leashed as always and kept out of the bushes, the dog suddenly gobbled up an object in the open grass before Matyas realized he’d found anything. She was “haunted for days,” she says, until assured the dog showed no signs of being sick. “You can understand my fear,” she says. “If 12 have died, and 16 more are sick, what kind of odds are those? I mean, how many dogs use that park?” When she started her pet-sitting business 15 years ago she called herself Kat-Can-Du, but by now the name is irrelevant. For one thing, her w ork goes far beyond cats; for another, with a consistently full load of clients, she doesn’t need to advertise or market her services. She’s widely known now simply through word of mouth. “The animals are the testimony,” she says. “If people are really in touch with their animals, they’ll know their pets have been treated well while they’ve been gone.” Before meeting Matyas, you might expect someone clad in grubby yard clothes covered in fur; instead you encounter a compact, artfully dressed woman of indeterminate age, with the kind of hair that can be worked into an elaborately beaded, multibraided hairstyle few Caucasians can pull off. To look at her, you’d presume pet-sitting must be terrific exercise. But her fitness is as much the result of daily workouts as it is her pet sitting. She rises at 4:30 or 5 in the morning and performs a variety of exercise routines. It doesn’t hurt that she’s a licensed massage therapist as well, a business she limits to two massages per day to avoid repetitive motion injuries. The rest of her time is devoted to pet sitting. “I figured out how to make money at the things I love to do, and it worked for me,” she says. “I don’t know what I’d rather do. I get paid to exercise.” Giving hands-on care While an amateur pet sitter might do little more than make a brief stop to feed the animals being looked after, Matyas’ idea of pet care goes well beyond that. Besides walking a dog, she might also give it a bath, engage it in playtime and administer a “petrassage,” as she calls it, a pet version of a massage. Different varieties of pets obviously call for different services ÑÊshe might brush a cat, uncoil a snake or give a bird some flying time. She’s taken care of everything from llamas and potbellied pigs to miniature horses, a hairless cat, an iguana and a giant millipede. Her services can extend to home security such as varying the lights, blinds and drapes and bringing in the newspaper and the mail. They can even include de-pooping the yard and, on occasion, videotaping the soaps. Her mission statement, if she had one, would name flea death as her No. 1 goal, and pet owners often return to find tally marks scrawled on their phone pad representing the numbers decimated. Although her job is filled with pastoral strolls in the park with her charges, she also has a ton of nightmarish stories. One of her clients left two dogs in the utility room on the Fourth of July. Freaked by fireworks going off in the neighborhood, they chewed their way through drywall and got out. Matyas didn’t find them until the next day, as they wandered the neighborhood in a post-traumatic stupor. Another client failed to leave a house key as promised in the designated hiding place. Meanwhile the dog she was to care for was inside the house, desperate to be fed and let out. Matyas had to pillage county records to track down the landlord to get the key and save the dog and the carpeting. Escape from the Midwest When asked how much she would charge to sit for a millipede, Matyas says her rates tend to be lower for small rodents and insects, but for most pets she gets about $15 per visit. By the time she figures in her travel time and the time it takes to complete the pet chores for each client, that comes out to about a $15 hourly wage. What kind of life experience would lead to a pet-sitting career? Growing up in Cleveland in a family that raised and trained Great Danes might have had something to do with it. Every one of Matyas’ six-member clan had a dog except her. She had a cat, which she trained to obey basic voice commands. At age 10, despite pesky child-labor laws, she landed an after-school job in a pet store, which she held for four years. When she was 18, she bought a round-trip ticket to San Francisco ÑÊround trip because her father hoped she’d return to Cleveland ÑÊbut she cashed in the return portion the minute she got off the plane. After a year in the Bay Area, still clinging to her childhood companion, Niddy the Nitty Gritty Kitty, she boarded the legendary Gray Rabbit, one of the counterculture bus lines that thrived then, and headed north to pick apples in Yakima, Wash. Niddy urinated on the bus, which so upset another passenger that Matyas abandoned ship in Eugene, where she ended up staying for 10 years. Then, inching up another increment on the map, she landed in Portland, where she’s been ever since. Does Matyas keep pets of her own today? She still has a cat, Violet, who, Matyas claims, administers facials when not adhering to a 23-hour-a-day sleeping regimen. If Violet senses that Matyas is involved with a multitude of other creatures, she doesn’t let on.
Portlander Alex Wijnen-Hannon was the first in line when the first of 125 dogs rescued from deplorable conditions in Burns were put up for adoption at the Oregon Humane Society last month. Alex and her husband, Todd Hannon, had already adopted two dogs from the Florence Humane Society when they lived in Eugene several years ago — a black Labrador mix named Pogo and a collie mix named Cooper. Now the couple thought it was time to start looking for another one. “Our dogs are getting older now, and our oldest one won’t be with us much longer, so want to get another dog so the younger one won’t be alone,” Alex said as she stood in the lobby of the humane society offices at 1067 N.E. Columbia Blvd. The couple had read about the dogs when they were seized from their owner last month. Ted Tellefson, a dog breeder in Burns had about 200 dogs of all sizes and ages on a remote, wind-swept patch of the Eastern Oregon high desert. Many had never been in a house or around other people. Some were chained to sagging doghouses or confined to makeshift pens. Others roamed free, searching among discarded mattresses, refrigerators and oil drums for scraps of food. A few had burrowed into the dirt and lived in underground dens. All were neglected and malnourished. “Our hearts just went out to these dogs when we first heard about them,” said Alex. “They deserve good homes.” Alex is not alone in her concerns for such dogs — especially in dog-loving Portland. “Some people seek out the dogs that no one else wants,” said Barbara Baugnon, the society’s public relations director. “We call them our animal angels.” The need for such adoptions is great, according to statistics compiled by the society. More than 37,000 dogs were brought to animal shelters around the state in 2006, the most recent year for which such figures are available. Most, nearly 25,000, were strays. The rest were brought in by owners who could no longer care for them. The majority of those dogs were adopted. But slightly more than 8,500 had to be euthanized. When the first 25 dogs from Burns became available, Alex visited the society Web site and quickly settled on a 9-month-old male golden retriever mix. When they first met in a small room at the shelter on the morning of March 19, the dog was initially very shy and hesitant. After a few minutes, however, he calmed down, rolled over and let Alex pet him. Still, Alex did not want to make a mistake. She left the dog but returned that evening with her husband and their two dogs to make sure that everyone would get along. Things seemed to go well, but Alex wanted to be sure. “My husband was very quiet the whole time,” Alex said. “Finally I asked, ‘Do you think we should take him home?’ And he just said, ‘Of course.’ ”Today all three dogs are living and playing together at the tidy brick house where Alex and Mark live in Northeast Portland. The new dog — now named Tucker — adjusted quickly, Alex said. He became housebroken within days and now walks easily on a leash with the other two. “Tucker was the right dog for us,” said Alex. Dozens of other people feel the same way. Fifty of the dogs have been adopted so far, and shelter officials are confident the rest will find new homes within a few months. Couple touched by older dogs Portland is well known as a town for dog lovers. It is consistently ranked as one of the most dog-friendly cities in the country by such publications as Dog Fancy magazine. One reason is the large network of public and private animal shelters that keep in touch with one other, frequently transferring dogs between them to find the best setting to prepare them for adoption. Most dogs given to shelters come from families who can no longer care for them. A number of shelters have programs to deal with those that show signs of abuse or neglect, however. They include the Oregon Humane Society, the Pixie Project at 510 N.E. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., and the Family Dogs New Life Shelter at 9101 S.E. Stanley Ave. and Multnomah County Animal Control at 1700 W. Columbia River Highway in Troudale.In addition, many volunteer organizations in the area help place specific breeds of dogs in new homes. Nearly 100 rescue groups are listed on the Oregon Humane Society’s Website, ranging from affenpinschers to Yorkshire terriers. One includes mixed breeds. Even with such community support, however, Oregon Humane Society employees still remember the first time Shannon Ward and her husband Mark Adimski visited the shelter in 2000. The couple was interested in a 7-year-old female Catahoula named Kayla they had seen on the organization’s Web site. The dog raised a tremendous ruckus when they walked up to her cage, however, getting all the other dogs in the room barking and raising questions about her temperament. But when the couple looked at the Kayla’s paperwork, their decision was clear. “She had been there eight months, the longest of any of the dogs at the shelter,” said Shannon. “When we saw that, we just said, we don’t care what the problems are, we’re taking her home.” According to Shannon, Kayla turned out to be the best dog they ever owned, reinforcing their devotion to older dogs, especially those who have been abused or neglected. They have adopted 10 older dogs so far, some so sick they passed away in a year or two. “It’s heartbreaking,” Shannon said of the plight of older dogs. “You know what lives they’ve been through, and you want them to have good care at the end of their lives. They have alot of issues with trust, but if you open your heart to a deserving dog, they’ll repay you 100-fold. A vacation adoption Elizabeth Pollock went out of her away to adopt a dog in 2002 — way out of her way. The Southwest Portland resident was vacationing in Mexico when she saw a pack of dogs running down the beach. Although most were small and yellow, one was a large dark female. She reminded Elizabeth of Charlie, her black Lab back home. When Elizabeth sat down in the sand, the dog walked over and laid down beside her. “She put her head in my lap and looked up at me, and it was all over,” said Elizabeth. “She just stole my heart.” Elizabeth asked around and discovered the dog had been thrown out of a truck passing through the area days earlier. Realizing that she had no owner, Elizabeth took her to a local veterinarian who gave her a health certificate for the dog — a document required to take her out of the country. Elizabeth named her Rosa Marie. “It cost me $200 to buy a crate big enough to fit her and $75 to fly her back home with me,” she said. This was not the first time Elizabeth adopted a pet on the spur of the moment. Fourteen years ago she bought Charlie as a puppy off a downtown street kid who could no longer care for him. Elizabeth intended to find another home for Charlie but ended up keeping him until his death last November. Once she returned to Portland from Mexico, Elizabeth quickly realized that Rosa Marie was a lot different than her Lab. Charlie was easy to train and live with. But her new dog was rambunctious, growling at other dogs, racing after squirrels in the park and trying to eat everything on the ground, including Nerf and tennis balls. “I don’t know what kind of life she led before I found her, but I think it was pretty tough,” she said. But Elizabeth was not willing to give up. Instead, she started working closely with Ginger Matyas, her longtime dog walker, to develop routines that would give Rosa Marie a sense of stability and normalcy. They include daily walks where treats are used to reinforce good behavior. Ginger has specialized in difficult dogs in Portland for more than 20 years. “I’ve worked with hundreds of dogs over the years, and most of them were rescued,” said Ginger, one of the very first Portlanders to start a dog walking and pet sitting business. “A large number of them have behavior problems that require you to really focus on them, especially when they are around other dogs.” Today, Elizabeth says Rosa Marie has blossomed into a wonderful companion for her and her 5-year-old daughter, Magnolia. “She’s a lover,” said Elizabeth. “She always wants to be with me.” Elizabeth admits Rosa Marie has not completely dropped all of her bad habits. She still eats the wrong things from time to time, occasionally requiring emergency trips to the vet. “She’s been a very expensive rescue dog,” Elizabeth laughs. Another person who helped Elizabeth was Camilla Welhaven, a certified dog trainer who owns a business called Ain’t Misbehaving. A former veterinary technician, she is a member of the Association for Pet Dog Trainers, an organization that promotes reward-based training techniques. Camilla established the training routines for Rosa Marie that Elizabeth and Ginger follow. “Dogs learn incredibly quickly,” said Welhaven, who believes that many if not most behavior problems stem from a lack of socialization. If dogs are isolated from people and other animals, they do not learn how to behave properly, Welhaven said, creating problems for their new owners. “Even older dogs can have problems if they are not socialized properly,” said Welhaven. “But this does not mean they are bad dogs. It means they need to be worked with and taught how to behave — which is what they want to do.” One of the largest pet adoption events of the year in the Portland area is the annual Northwest Pet & Companion Fair, scheduled for Saturday and Sunday, April 18 and 19, at the Portland Expo Center, at 2060 N. Marine Drive. Organizer Patrick Dinan said 7,000 to 9,000 people are expected to attend the two-day event, which will also feature pet products and service companies. “If you’re looking for a pet, this is a great opportunity to network,” said Dinan. “All of the shelters and rescue groups will have pets for adoption. And if you don’t find the one you want, you can meet people who will help you find it.” The following organizations also offer information on pet adoptions on their Web site, including local contact information: The Oregon Human Society Pet Guardian Angels of America Adopt a Pet Portland Pooch MuttCats