Remembering Homer on 9/11

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Probably no part of Homer's Odyssey has provoked more outraged response (yes, there are readers out there who were outraged--outraged!--by Homer's Odyssey) than the chapters dealing with 9/11 and my attempts to rescue my three cats who were trapped in my apartment mere blocks from Ground Zero.  I have been called "selfish," "utterly self-absorbed," "eerie," and just plain "stupid" for thinking about my cats on a day when so many human lives were lost.



I've always felt that any reader who comes away from those chapters describing my very visceral reactions to witnessing the loss of human life that day and remains convinced that it wouldn't have ruffled a hair on my head so long as my cats were okay is...well...not a very intuitive reader.  And, going back to my non-profit days, I've always been particularly irritated by the type of person who takes no helpful actions himself, but feels that so long as he criticizes your actions and attempts to help, he's achieved a kind of helpfulness-by-proxy.  (I like to refer to this as the Cheez-Whiz of helpfulness--it isn't actual helpfulness, but it's a helpfulness-like product.)

Forgive me for such a cranky beginning to a blog post.  But the thing that really chaps my hide--and that I'm using today as a platform to discuss--is this idea that helping people and helping animals is somehow an either/or proposition.  It is one of my firmest, most deeply held beliefs that when you help animals, you help people, too.  I spent this summer traveling to no-kill shelters all over the country, each one of which has programs that serve their local human communities--anti-bullying programs, literacy programs, programs that serve the elderly, the disabled, military families, disaster survivors, and so on--as a direct extension of the work they do saving animals.  Certainly more has been done for people by the people who help animals than by those who sit comfortably on the sidelines offering nothing beyond one more opinion about how things should be done (and we all know how much one more opinion is worth).

On September 11th, the ASPCA helped rescue animals trapped near Ground Zero--but, in doing so, they also helped me, and I'm a person.  The same goes for Garrett, my pet-sitter, who did everything in his power to get to my cats.  It was something he was able to do for a 9/11 survivor forced to flee with nothing but the clothes on her back and the $500 she had in her savings account, and who--for all she knew--might have nothing else left in the world.

I don't even want to get into the debate as to the relative value of human life versus animal life, mostly because I think such a debate is ultimately pointless.  We couldn't live in a world with only humans and no other animals, nor would most of us want to even if we could.

On September 11th, we remember that all life--whether that life goes on two legs or four--is precious and fragile. 

We remember the men and women--the office workers, the police officers, the firefighters--who lost their lives that day.  And we also remember the rescue dogs who rushed bravely into the fray.  Some of them didn't live to see September 12th.  Many of them have since been claimed by the lung diseases and cancers that have taken the lives of so many 9/11 first responders.

And I, at least, remember a little blind cat whose life was spared that day.  Just a little cat, whose loss might not have shaken the world to its core, but who meant the world to the person who loved him.



  • Nydia White Wednesday, 11 September 2013

    Amen too

    Gwen, the part of Homer's Odyssey describing the events of that terrible day was very powerful. I appreciated your descriptions of events around you and I imagined that if I were in similar circumstances I would have had the exact same reactions and feelings that you had during that time. Thank you for including the events from your perspective. I thought about Homer first thing this morning - don't know why. I am thinking about you and L as you adjust to life without your little man-cat.

  • Mary Beth Sharples Wednesday, 11 September 2013

    Lovely tribute

    As I said on your Facebook page, this section of the book made me sob (both when I read it and when I listened to the audiobook: driving down the road with tears streaming down my face). Your shock at what happened in your neighbourhood, and having to flee the city, not knowing what else was going to happen was channelled into concern for the three little lives that your were responsible for, and who made life bearable and liveable. Your joy and gratitude at finding them alive must have helped you deal with the unbearable sorrow that surrounded you. Having read and listened to the book, it NEVER OCCURRED TO ME that people would criticize you for being concerned for those 3 lives. I agree wholeheartedly with your statements above. All life is valuable.

  • Yvonne Graf Wednesday, 11 September 2013

    Good comments...

    I agree with everything you said. There is no way we can put human life up against animal life, but that doesn't mean that an animal life is worth less then a human life. Many pets are family to people and I for one would do all I could to save my cats if something happened. You see and hear many stories of firemen going into burning buildings and saving animals, giving them CPR and oxygen. They think nothing of doing this yet you get criticized for wanting to save your fur babies? I recently lost a dear cat and am having a hard time dealing with her loss. I've lost pets before, but she was a very special cat that I lost too soon. A co-worker you has openly told everyone how much she dislikes cats, wasn't cruel, but when I asked for time off to take care of her she said OK only if I can have this time off... what if I had said to her if her child or grandchild were sick or dying after she asked for time off... OK but I want this time off, not really caring about her loss or pain? To me my cats are just as important as her kids/grandkids but she can't understand that. I feel sorry for her for never having the kind of love pets bring you. It's unconditional. It's pure. Kids want something from you. All pets want is food, water a warm place to sleep and love. 911 was a horrible thing filled with tragedy, bravery and lots of loss. There were a lot things bad that day, but there were good things, and I'm glad you saved your little blind kitty. He in turn has changed lives for people and animals. No life is not worth saving.

  • bob slentz Wednesday, 11 September 2013

    very well said Yvonne, my boss is understanding. When I had to put my cat to sleep he let me take as much time off as I needed.

  • jennifer Wednesday, 11 September 2013

    Wonderful reflection!

    Truer words have not been spoken...well said! Thank you for all you have done for special needs animals.

  • Stacy Horn Wednesday, 11 September 2013

    I live below 14th Street and we were in lock-down, but at least we could go home. The minute I heard about people not being able to return to their homes I thought of their pets. I felt horrible for the owners, for the pets.

    By the way, sometimes I get comments from people if I contribute to a charity for animals. I always respond with, "Did you go on vacation this year? Wow, you could have given that money to cure cancer, etc." So you could say something like, "Did you go on vacation this year? Wow, you could have spent that time volunteering at a homeless shelter or a nursing home ..."

  • a fan Wednesday, 11 September 2013

    to family

    Thank you for sharing Homer's story. Who ever would say such things to you is plain ignorant. What some people fail to see, is that it may be a cat to you, but to someone else, it may be all they have in the world to stave off loneliness. I lost my Mandie this year to liver failure as a reult of hyper thyroidism. She would have been 20 in Novemeber. I had her since she was a kitten. I was very depressed when I took her to the vet to provide what last mercy I could, and left with my bab bundled up and limp in my arms. Even took off of work. I know people had snarky things to say, without knowing that I was a very depressed growing up. There were so many time I was on the precipice and decided life was just to painful to carry on anymore- and there was my Mandie. Pawing at me, head butting me, and meowing so loudly that the only think I could think was: She NEEDS me. Who would take care of her if I wasn't around; who would know she likes a single cube of ice in her water or licking the icing off a honey bun, or her favorite food? She gave me strength and purpose and I know if it weren't for her, I probably wouldn't be here today. So it hurts me when people diminish the lives on animals. Life is life, who has the right to say what life is of greater value? What could you have done for the 9/11 victims? Absolutely nothing, But you COULD try to save your feline family members. 9/11 was awful and some people act indignant when you don't feel and react as they think you should. But when the world is crumbling around you, your thoughts push immediately to the ones you love. You did the right thing, you already know that. Homer and Mandie will watch over us until we can see them again...

  • bob slentz Wednesday, 11 September 2013

    to A Fan

    You said everything I feel, including depression and I didn't act on it either because of my kitties, few would have the patients for their quirkiness or understand their needs.

    Peace be with you.

  • Maria Appleby Wednesday, 11 September 2013

    No love, for a person, or for a beloved pet, is wrong. I would move heaven and earth to save those I love. Love isn't "either/or". It just is. For those who demean your love for Homer and Vashti, and all your cats....need to review a few what the word means to begin with.

  • Gini Wednesday, 11 September 2013


    I listened to Homer's Odyssey as an audio book while driving in the car with my children. It is, and always will be, one of the best books I have ever read. Thank you.

    As we listened to the book, the setting, the year and location, connected in my brain long before September 11 came, and when that connection happened I wept. I wept for you and your cats and all the beings who would be caught in the coming nightmare. Humans are not the only ones who suffered. I actually wept for days when I thought of the book and could not continue. Eventually I did go back and finish the book and I regard it as a work that brings people right into the heart of New York on September 11th. With a real person, and one who loves cats. There is no better way for me to connect with history than to see it from the eyes of someone like you. Thank you again for sharing your story, I am grateful.

    I advocate for homeless and abused cats (and really all animals but my focus is cats) and I am sometimes criticized for it because I should be spending my time, energy, and money on people, according to my critics. I like to ask the critics what they think I should do instead. Regardless of their answer, I tell them that I adopted my children as orphans from third world countries where they would probably have died or become slaves. My life is dedicated to them above all else. And I also work to better the lives of other innocents, including animals. I have a heart and mind large enough to do both. Then, as my critic stands before me, mouth gaping like a fish, I ask what specifically they have done to help humans. There hasn't been an answer to that question yet. I say the world needs enough help that each individual should find their passion and follow it. It is all good.

    You actually met my children, who adore you, at Tabby's Place once.

    Thank you, Gwen. I hope you have peace on this day and always.

  • Claudia Wednesday, 11 September 2013

    Pets are FAMILY too!

    The fact that you care about your animals, doesn't mean that you do not care about people.
    Pets are family too.
    Garret, thank you!
    ASPCA, thank you!
    Gwen, thank you!

    **Reading your books and seeing pics of all your cats, Lawrence and you, made me put "faces" on the names. I would love to see by any chance a picture of Garret, because this guy is a very good soul.

  • Tara Wednesday, 11 September 2013

    Some people see animals as things. I view my animals as a vital part of my life and family members. I would have done anything to get to them if I had been in that position. People that do not understand this will be critical of our behaviors and judge us for such actions. I found that part of the story to be the most touching. I praise the police officer that allowed you to pass. That act gave me faith in humanity.

  • Hope Prinzivalli Wednesday, 11 September 2013

    Perfectly Written

    Dear Gwen,
    I felt a total connection with your love for your kitties after I read that chapter, I would of felt the same way! I can barely leave the house w/o mine acting like I've been gone 4 days when it's only been an hour. I'm sure your babies are the same, and you get that. not to mention poor baby Homer who was BLIND!! Little bugga bug!! I think of the little guy every day. He truly was everyones cat!! Love him.......You know, some people are just very critical, what are you going to do!! Let's face it..people that are animal lovers are usually, not always, but usually , very loving people towards humans too. I miss the little guy and think of you guys often. I know how hard it is.

  • Mary Watson Wednesday, 11 September 2013

    I too am very baffled by the idea that we should either help humans or animals... Surely we can and should do both. I find that far from being narrowed minded in their approach(as some old have you believe) most people who care deeply about animals and their ethical treatment nearly 100% of the time care just as passionately about human life. In fact the 2 things in my experience go hand in hand, just as your piece acknowledges. I always think that you can measure society by how well it cares for animals and the vulnerable. So Boo to the naysayers and thank you for trying to show that love for an animal can change your life!

  • Loretta Grace Wednesday, 11 September 2013

    Pets ARE family.

    Those that do not have the honor of having a beloved pet will never understand. I have 2 human children and 5 fur kids. (4 Cats and a bunny.) I love them all. Pets become part of your family, for some they are better than their human family. Animals never judge like us humans do. Animals love us because they love us, not because they want anything from us. I have a photo in my wedding album of me and my beloved Siamese that I wanted no matter what. Maybe to some I was an idiot but that cat was my best friend, at times the only one I could really be myself with. Homer affected so many people in his story, showing far more bravery, compassion and love than most humans. He and his sisters are examples of what we should all strive to be like

  • Erin McNamara Wednesday, 11 September 2013

    Well Said!

    In any disaster, I agree that the value of human/animal life cannot be quantified and measured...if they mean a lot to a person, it is a personal decision. I would be devastated if I was unable to go and get my dog Paddy, and I would do anything in my power to save my boy and others pets in a heartbeat, as well as people of course!! Well said, and shame of those who have spoken about your heroic actions in a negative way!!

  • Kathy Grigg Wednesday, 11 September 2013


    Beautifully said, thank you. One of the things I remember most vividly about Homer's Odyssey was your description of 9/11 and how you could not get to your cats. It was so hard to read, because having animals I love dearly, I felt desperation and panic just at thought of going through what you did. It never crossed my mind that worrying about your animals on 9/11 was selfish. Love is love, regardless of what kind of animal it is, human or not. Thank you for sharing yours and Homer's life together with the world. You are both the reason that when I saw a little, black, blind kitten on a local veterinarians Facebook page, I started crying. I knew I had to have her. And now I do. She is one of the greatest things about my life.

  • John Crick Wednesday, 11 September 2013


    Dear Gwen, my take on this is that people who love,care and take care of their pets love and care about Humans as well. Those that mistreat and are cruel to animals have no respect for Humans.

    Gwen take no notice of those people.

  • Rose (IndyRose) Wednesday, 11 September 2013


    That day everyone was focused on what mattered most to them: FAMILY. Your family was your three cats and getting home. It was that simple. No one should have room to criticize you for that, others were looking for friends to be with and family. A co worker was trying to locate her half brother there and he just had wandered over to a friend's home and the sat and watched the news since they had no family there. So you had family to get home to that needed you badly. And CRAP on those who are so high minded they are no earthly good. They would have done the same thing. Not like you didn't know that many humans had been killed, that was almost too big for all of us to grasp. The task before you gave you hope, and you needed that right then. The cop let you through, G-d bless him and your kitty-kids were fine. So that was done.

  • Connie Wednesday, 11 September 2013

    beautiful post

    I also have never understood the 'you can't care about x because of y' attitude people have. it drives me absolutely batty. Especially when it comes to reading a book about a beloved cat.. I mean seriously what were they expecting you to do?? No longer care about your cats because of this? Isn't being able to love and care for a pet one tiny facet of our way of life that they hated so?

    Cheez-Whiz of helpfulness - lol.. actually I think that gives it too much credit.. criticizing what you choose to focus on helps no one (and really when you boil it all down, that is kinda what those men did on that day.. although they were much more forceful than a simple outrage at your love for your kitties.. )

    I personally was outraged at the situation you were in, and how you were unable to get the help you wanted.. I was so relieved to read it all came out in the end.

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