September 2013 | Afraid of Thunder, With Good Reason
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Afraid of Thunder, With Good Reason

September 2013 - Maureen Donnelly

Afraid of Thunder With Good ReasonMaureen Donnelly, who was John Servis's assistant trainer when Smarty Jones won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, adopted Derby (pictured above) after lightning struck the hot walking machine in which she lived as a motherless kitten.
Photo Credit: Maureen Donnelly

Throughout my many years on this glorious and sometimes merciless planet, the instances of storms with severe thunder and lightning have been many. The fear of lightning has subsided somewhat for me, but for my cat, the phobia lives on. As a matter of fact, I can recall three instances which have left severe emotional scars on both me and my pets.

I’m sure we were all taught to count seconds in order to calculate (I’m a math teacher) the distance of lightning in miles (every five seconds between a lightning strike and the clap of thunder equals approximately one mile). The problem with that method of ensuring safety or ease of mind is that the initial bolt of lightning comes without warning. The other problem is that pets cannot calculate distances.

The first instance involving one of my pets and thunder (an intelligent and loyal German Shepherd named Poncho) happened before I adopted him. Stories circulate that Poncho was grazed by a bullet when he was a puppy (a small scar on his left front leg as proof) as a result of wandering into nearby hunting grounds. As if the fear of gunshot sound was not enough of a signal for fear to this poor victim, the sound of firecrackers and thunder was eerily the same and would initiate the same response. Luckily, in my former neighborhood, gunshot was a rare occurrence; unfortunately, firecrackers and thunder made a terrific substitute. As a result; those incidents would spark terror in Poncho’s eyes (and legs). Also, the spark of lightning would signal the ensuing thunder as an added phobia. At that point, Poncho would run, (and I mean run like the wind) with no conceivable direction. He would jump four foot fences, bolt through all barriers (including screens), and break every “non-breakable” collar in order to find some sort of safe haven. Many times I would find him miles away, thanks to the surrounding neighborhood dog watch who would “direct me to his direction”. So although my dog did not regard lightning dangerous, in and of itself, the “gunshot” that it represented haunted him his entire life.

Fast forward a few years--my encounter with lightning was not as distressful as Poncho’s however, with age and in hindsight has come the thankful realization that I am still here. At that time, as an exercise rider at Belmont Park Racetrack, I feared little. Galloping 1000- pound horses at full speed was thrilling enough but when coupled with controlling their enormous strength with the touch of a hand, I was Hercules. The problem on that particular day was that metal and lightning do not make a good (or safe) combination. Apparently, the unforeseen lightning strike was close enough to generate a current from the metal bit, my horse’s mouth (saliva is a great conductor) through rubber-coated reins and me. The shock to my horse’s mouth made him lose his footing and barely keep himself up. For me, despite enduring an intense shock throughout my body, my innate reflex was to stay on my charge. It was only during reflection (and many years later) that I became aware of the danger I faced that day, and that all should be wary of the intense power of Mother Nature.

And now we come to my cat, Derby (named after Smarty Jones when she appeared at the barn on Kentucky Derby day). Only last night she disappeared during a severe lightning storm, but thankfully re-appeared when the frighteningly long episode had passed. Her life-altering encounter with lightning happened eight years ago when she was a motherless kitten. It should be enough heartache to be without a feline caretaker at such a young age, but I suppose especially during a thunderstorm. She was a barn cat, and because she was terrified of the older feline inhabitants of the barn, spent her time mainly outdoors. As if that wasn’t enough, the metal enclosure where she resided (which we call a hot-walking machine) was an excellent conductor of electricity. On that particular day, the lightning bolt apparently struck the top of the hot walking machine, and the entire enclosure appeared for a brief second as something out of a sci-fi flick. And out ran Derby, obviously devastated emotionally and possibly physically (luckily no burns to confirm that) by the strike.

Fast forward eight years, and amazingly, Derby can sense an approaching rumble of thunder or flash of lightning. She is my weather forecaster for an oncoming storm. At that point she will bolt outdoors through the pet-door. It is rare that she takes shelter within the confines of the house, and on those rare occasions, hidden under the chair, she cowers. It must be that wherever she hides outside, is far better than her instinctual recollection of being trapped within the confines of the hot-walking machine when she was prone to the shock. As a result, she gets a nature-driven bath during each thunderstorm.

Who’s to know the intellect of our pets, but for now, I’ll linger on the premise that with good reason, they are afraid of thunderstorms.

Maureen Donnelly was assistant trainer to John Servis during Smarty Jones’ wins in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness.  Now a science and math teacher, she writes:  "Ever since the days of Smarty Jones, I have been a fan of the PA Equestrian. Your articles are interesting and informative and I am thankful that I get it monthly. I thought you might have a place in your newspaper for this type of pet-related story. Feel free to use it if you like it."  And we did!