Pets do so much to make us better people. They also can bring two people together.
Here’s a story I heard recently.
“We were invited to a pool party by a mutual friend. I was busy with my new career, and not that interested in dating,” the wife told me. “But he persisted and found out I took in a stray cat, who promptly gave birth to kittens in my closet. One small kitten was sickly and couldn’t nurse.”
Turns out the future husband came to the rescue.
“He brought tools from his neonatal intensive care unit, and together we built a feed apparatus. He saved my kitten, named Lamont, who lived with us for many years afterward,” the wife continued. “Who could resist such a great guy?”
The married couple is none other than Pam and Ralph Northam. Ralph—a pediatrician, Army veteran and former state senator— currently holds the office of Lieutenant Governor and is running for Governor in next month’s Virginia election.
Poised to be the Old Dominion’s first lady, Pam in her most recent job used to run advocacy and outreach programs focused on sustainability for Lynnhaven River NOW, a nonprofit environmental group that works to improve the water quality of the Virginia Beach body of water. She also used to teach high school biology.
I recently reached out to Northam’s campaign as well as the campaign of opponent Ed Gillespie about writing a nonpartisan story looking at the role companion animals play in the lives of these two men. Despite a few contacts via e-mail, I never heard back from the Gillespie campaign. But Pam’s press agent said she would be pleased to respond to a few questions.
To provide full disclosure, I am a volunteer with the Northam campaign and have met both Pam and Ralph at campaign events. I’ve found them to be delightful people, so it didn’t surprise me that pets have been beloved family members in their home. After all, it was a kitty who brought the two together.
These days, the gubernatorial candidate and his better half share their lives in Norfolk with a dog and cat. Parents to both a son and daughter, they have been married for 31 years.
“All of our animals came from people in need or rescue [or] shelters,” Pam told me.
In addition to their current pets, Boo, a Labrador retriever, and Amadeus, a Shetland sheepdog, have been part of their lives in the past. Felines have included the above-mentioned Lamont, Top Cat, Whiskers and Genius. The cats were “all different breeds of strays that adopted us,” said Pam. Other pets were Amber the hamster and Hermie the hermit crab.
“Boo, who was named for her Halloween birthday, was the Lab our kids grew up with,” Pam explained. “She lived many happy years and in the end, we would haul her around in a special wagon, so that she could come on walks even when her legs wouldn’t cooperate. She would sit like the Queen of Sheba, and the neighbors loved to shower her with attention.”
The two resident animal companions in the Northam home these days are Murphy, a black Lab, and Odysseus, a tabby cat who came to their family as a stray. Pam reported that she runs daily with Murphy.
“We try to get to the beach to ‘run to greet the sun,’ which is always a great way to start the day,” she said. Odysseus was named after Homer’s epic hero because of “his long journey to our home.”
The Northams’ son Wes and daughter Aubrey have had their own pets. “We also had one grand-dog, and two grand-cats, who also were adopted,” noted Pam. Aubrey volunteers at an animal control shelter.
When Pam was a science teacher, she had many classroom pets, including four rats and two birds. In addition, a class project included raising trout in a tank and then releasing them into a stream.
Animals also played a role in the childhoods of the Northams.
“I rode horses and spent summers on a ranch with many animals that I loved and learned from,” said Pam. “Ralph grew up on a farm. It was his job to take care of the chickens, sheep and goats.”
Ralph and his brother grew up with a Lab given to their family after the dog was picked up by the Navy following a jump into the Chesapeake Bay from a traveling ferry.
“Ralph grew up on the bay with an intimate knowledge of the animals found there,” Pam told me. “Watching the wild, native animals disappear due to climate change is one of the things that drove him into politics.”
At this juncture, the Northams have no immediate plans to add a new companion animal to their household. They cite busy lives at this time coupled with a desire to be responsible pet parents who have enough time to spend with the new pet.
But Pam hopes others will adopt their animals from a shelter or rescue group.
“We feel strongly that there are so many pets in need, and encourage folks to adopt whenever possible,” explained Pam. “Rescue animals and pets have been a core part of the Northam family, and that will continue to be a focus of our family if Ralph is elected governor.”
In October, Ralph was endorsed by Humane Dominion, a PAC that supports candidates in Virginia who will look out for the interests of our fellow species. Humane Dominion cited Ralph’s support for legislation banning gas chambers to euthanize companion animals and making animal fighting, including cockfighting, a Class 6 felony. The PAC also said he pledged to increase funding for cruelty investigations and advocate for restrictions on outside tethering of dogs.
Consequently, I am hoping that the vote goes the Northams’ way. Of course, the Norfolk SPCA will do what we can to provide Virginia’s newest first pet for the governor’s mansion in Richmond.