Senior Profile: Lynden woman a late bloomer when it comes to owning pets

FOR THE BELLINGHAM HERALDNovember 18, 2013 

11 13 mag Gatto

Judy Gatto and her adopted cat Amber at her Lynden home, Sept. 20, 2013.

PHILIP A. DWYER — THE BELLINGHAM HERALD Buy Photo

Name: Judi Gatto.

Age: 72.

Hometown: Born and raised in Brooklyn, N.Y., Gatto visited Hawaii in 1962 with a high school friend - "It had recently become a state and we both fell in love with it." - and moved there the following year.

She attended the University of Hawaii and worked in Hawaii until she retired in 2003 and moved to Bellingham sight unseen on the recommendation of friends. She now lives in Lynden with her dog, Sunny, and her cat, Amber.

First pet: Growing up in a Brooklyn apartment meant Gatto never had pets as a child.

"My parents weren't interested," she says, "and I'm not sure if we were allowed."

It wasn't until she was in her 40s, employed as a social worker in the intensive care unit at a children's hospital, that Gatto fell in love with her first pet.

"One of the nurses came in with her," Gatto says. "This little boy was 9 and he was dying from cancer. She brought this puppy in for him to see."

Gatto learned the black Lab was up for adoption and signed on to take her home. She named the puppy Pepper, and the two formed a strong bond that lasted well into one of the hardest times in Gatto's life.

Serious illness: Pepper was 14 by the time Gatto moved to Bellingham. Within a few months of settling in, Gatto started volunteering with Whatcom Humane Society. Six months later, with plans to move to Lynden, Gatto was diagnosed with a rare form of uterine cancer.

"I was taken aback by that because I was a very healthy person my whole life," she says. "That put everything on the back burner as far as moving."

The empathy between dog and owner was so strong that when Gatto became sick, Pepper was sick for the first time.

"When I got chemo that first time, she got sick," Gatto says. "She had a kidney infection, that's how tight our bond was."

On the mend: She fought the cancer for several months, getting surgery in Seattle and radiation in Bellingham. When she was strong enough, she went back to volunteering with the Humane Society. She played with cats at the shelter and helped clean kennels, freeing up staff time and giving herself the opportunity to socialize with other animals and people.

"I always felt better," Gatto says. "I really believe that it contributed to my recovery."

Pepper lived until Gatto went into remission.

"I really felt like she was trying to hang in there for me," Gatto says.

Pepper was almost 18 when she died.

Busy volunteer: It was thanks to Pepper that Gatto first volunteered with the Hawaiian Humane Society.

"The Hawaiian Humane Society had a lot of community activities," Gatto says. "I would take her to that; that's how I got involved."

Gatto helped with fundraisers and volunteered with a program taking care of animals for seniors and for people who were injured or sick and couldn't care for their pets.

"It was good for the people and it was good for the animals," Gatto says.

Gatto now volunteers at the Lynden Library book sale and continues to work with both the Whatcom and Alternative Humane societies. She says volunteering is especially important for seniors who live alone.

"It's very easy to get isolated," she says. "You can use the skills you had when you were working and do something different or that you love."

Two pets: Gatto wasn't sure she would ever have a dog again, because her radiation treatments weakened her bones, causing painful cracks in her spine and pelvis. So, in July 2008, she adopted her first cat, Amber.

"It was easier to take care of her," Gatto says. "Cats can kind of manage on their own."

Two years ago Gatto decided she had regained enough strength to handle another dog. She opted for a smaller exercise buddy and adopted Sunny, a 9-year-old Shih Tzu mix.

"They're very spry," Gatto says. "I'd like to sleep all morning, but she has to go out, so she'll put her paw on the bed and I take her out and we walk."

Samantha Wohlfeil is a freelance writer in Bellingham.

Growing up in a Brooklyn apartment, Judi Gatto never had pets as a child.

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