2017-07-05 / Features

Animal Attraction

For millions of years, humans have coexisted with animals, sharing food and shelter with other species. While some human-animal relationships are simple, others are more mysterious. The following three stories of local animals and their humans illustrate the companionship that connects us with the animal kingdom.

Bringing Up Bunny

The largest domestic rabbits, Joe Jovinelly’s Flemish Giants have a lot of love to give.
By Maggie Anderson

Joe Jovinelly’s rabbits could probably win prizes. After all, they’re Flemish Giants, the largest breed of domestic rabbit that weighs about 15 pounds on average. And Jovinelly’s largest weighs 22 pounds.
But “they’re not here for show,” he says. “They’re here to get happy and big and fat.” Jovinelly’s rabbits are pets, and though he knows each one’s name, he doesn’t count how many there are. He estimates about 30.

“They’re much better than dogs and cats. They’re just unique,” he says. Flemish Giants are nicknamed “gentle giants” and have an excellent temperament, says Jovinelly, even as the one he is holding nips at his hand.

“When they bite, it’s more or less communication,” he says. “It’s not vicious or anything like that. If it was a pet in the house, it probably wouldn’t bite. But my guys don’t have any discipline at all. They do what they wish.”

The rabbits live in large cages — each has its own — on a quiet patch of rental property Jovinelly owns. The cages hang off the sides of sheds that are air-conditioned during the hottest days and heated once temps hit 15 degrees in winter.

Each rabbit has its own space because males will fight each other and, well, “Rabbits will be rabbits,” as Jovinelly says.

Jovinelly comes to visit his rabbits in the morning, when he feeds them produce and bagel treats donated by Irving’s Bagels, and again later in the day from around 4 p.m. until dark. The donated produce is about 50 percent of their diet; the rest is pellets, which require constant refilling. “I spend a lot of time here,” says Jovinelly. “In fact, if it starts pouring in the middle of the night, I’ll come down to make sure everything’s all right.”

Since he got his first rabbits in the ’90s, Jovinelly has worked to collect all seven colors of Flemish Giants: black, albino white, light gray, steel, blue, fawn and sandy. The blues, really a dark gray with a bluish tint, are his most recent acquisition, and he bred a male and a female to produce a litter of seven blue babies.

But he’s not keeping them. “They’re free to a good home if they can prove that they’re a good home,” he says. “I’ve never sold an animal in my life.”

Of course, he has paid for them, anywhere from $20 to $200. And the vet bills add up too. “Rabbits you probably bought for 20 bucks you end up paying like 500 bucks at the vet,” he says.

He also takes his rabbits on the occasional field trip, to show them at events like Centre Wildlife Care’s Wild for Animals, Centre Region Parks and Recreation’s Earth Day Birthday and Millbrook Marsh Nature Center’s Fall Harvest Festival.

“We just went up to Special Olympics, too,” he says. “I don’t charge. I just do it to give them exercise and such.”

They get some exercise as Jovinelly chases them around the hillside behind the sheds. “The best way to catch a rabbit is to not let them think you’re trying to catch them,” he says, reaching for a rabbit that jukes and eludes him. “Oh, is she bad!”

Female Flemish Giants get larger than males and have larger dewlaps, the fold of skin under the chin that grows as the rabbit does. But, Jovinelly says, males make the best pets — they’re a bit more docile — but it’s obvious he loves each and every one of these rabbits, quirks and all.

“They have really good personalities. You give them a lot of attention, and they give it back. Every one of them means something to me.”

Working to Relax

Lynn Whittaker’s dog Massey goes to work with her —
and takes a shift at the Cancer Care Partnership.

By Kristen Sanchez

One might expect the aura of the Lance and Ellen Shaner Cancer Pavilion to be a somber one at best. But thanks to Massey, a 2-year-old service dog and one of the most popular employees in the department, it’s difficult not to smile and feel the positivity that bounces from wall to wall as she trots about. With her owner Lynn Whittaker often in tow, the pair radiates positive energy to patients and guests.

As a nurse practitioner and self-professed dog lover, Whittaker took it upon herself to seek out Massey, a Labrador Retriever, and bring her into the facility to brighten the days of patients undergoing treatment. Massey lies across laps, sits in adjacent chairs and simply waits at the door while patients receive blood work, await results or just pop in for a checkup.

“Obviously in oncology, there’s ups and downs, good things and bad things, and she’s there to celebrate or comfort all of those things,” Whittaker says.

Though it’s easy to see how effective Massey is at lightening the mood — every face she passes lights up — she can make an even bigger impact on certain patients. “I’ve gone to see quiet and reserved patients multiple times, and it’s not until I bring in Massey that they suddenly open up and start talking,” Whittaker says, “which then opens the door for important, serious discussions.”

Not only do both pediatric and adult patients get to revel in Massey’s charm, but the employees get just as much use out of her services. As Massey strolls down hallways, nurses and doctors reach out to pet her and say hello. “Even people from other areas of the hospital come over just to visit her,” Whittaker says. When an employee is feeling stressed, Massey comes by and helps them relax, just as she does for the patients.  

But it’s not all cuddles all the time. “There’s a lot to learn yet,” Whittaker says of the constant training necessary to keep Massey “employed” at the facility. “I never would have thought it would involve this much.” Though most of Massey’s training was completed with the Susquehanna Service Dogs organization, Whittaker had to go through rigorous examinations and training as well in order to learn the many commands taught to Massey. And the obedient Lab still needs to keep up with training and pass regular tests to continue her job.

Whittaker also mentions the different ways she and Massey have tweaked her training. Though she was taught to stay by her owner’s side, she’s learned to warm up to the other patients and focus on keeping them company instead. “She’s just perfect,” Whittaker says. Even after she takes Massey’s vest off — a sign that she is off duty and can run around as a free puppy until her next shift — she remains a well-behaved and loyal companion. “Her temperament is definitely an interesting characteristic that she has.”

“It sounds so cliché to say dogs are a man’s best friend,” Whittaker says, “but she really does have that effect on people.” The decision to add a dog to the department was clearly not a simple one, but was undeniably a beneficial one. Massey was hand-selected from hundreds of other candidates as the best for the position at that specific location. And so, every day, one woman’s best friend makes a bunch of new best friends, if only for a few hours.

Raising Champions

Three generations of a Penns Valley family breed and train majestic stallions.
By Maggie Anderson

Bentley, a 5-year-old Percheron stallion, strikes an imposing figure outside the barn at Windermere Farms in Brush Valley. At 18.3 hands — that’s 6 feet tall at the withers, or shoulders — it would be difficult for him not to, but this horse’s proud stance also demonstrates his position as current national champion. A little less imposing and quite a bit more humble are the figures who got him there — the Allebach family.
Gerald Allebach, with his wife Melissa and their son Abraham (whom everyone calls “Hammer”), has been raising world champion Percherons since he was young. Being a farmer, he says, is in his blood.

“Our family’s been Mennonite all the way back since they came to this country and every generation has been farmers,” he says. His parents, Abe and Mary, bought the farm, originally a dairy farm, in 1962, and over the years it grew to the 400-acre family compound and horse farm it is today.

“When I was a little boy I knew I wanted to farm, but it didn’t take me long to figure out that the dairy industry was not for me,” Allebach says. He took a break from country life to work as a car salesman for Gene Stocker. “That was my college. He taught me about sales and servicing customers and so on, and I brought that home to our horse business.”

Today, that business is not only a livelihood but also a life. Hay from the fields feeds the horses, of which there are about 50. Horses and oxen graze in the pastures. Chickens cluck from their coop, next to which sit enormous trailers that haul horses to about half a dozen shows a year. And at those shows, these horses win.

“Together Melissa and I have bred and trained and showed four consecutive world champions,” says Allebach, “and that’s a record that stands.”

All of that stems from a central tenet. “It’s part of my own personal convictions and with our religious beliefs to be a good steward of the earth and to be a good steward with our horses,” Allebach says. “We put our whole life into it.”

That makes for a close relationship with the horses, even when there were 110 at the peak.

As Melissa brushes Bentley with care, Allebach reflects on the pair’s special relationship. “He’s my wife’s pride and joy,” he says. “I mean these horses are all ours together. But everybody kind of claims his or her horse. That is her horse. She is very serious about caring for him.”

Melissa “is a gifted trainer,” Allebach says. The farm takes in outside draft horses to train alongside their own. And for those who aren’t nearby, the couple’s expertise is available through their podcast, “The Draft Horse Digest Podcast.”

While training horses may be difficult, when it comes to breeding Allebach keeps it simple. “We never breed with a stallion that’s not as good or better than his own sire, so you’re constantly getting better,” he says. “My wife helped me articulate when people ask, ‘What do you want to see in a horse?’ And her answer is, ‘We want them to be magnificent.’”

They breed for conformation but also good attitude and trainability, and some of those genes have been passed down generations from the original horses Allebach’s father bought. “It’s truly for real a family deal.”

Even Hammer, at 17, helps out before heading to hang out with his friends. “He even has three generations of his own horses here,” says Allebach. “And he’s won the last three world shows as a showman himself… My parents made [this farm] available that we can do this and then that’s in turn what we’re trying to do for our son. He says he wants to be a farmer and to take over what we’re doing.”

With three generations of people living on the farm — Allebach’s parents still live in their original house and remain active in their 80s — and many more generations of champion horses, Windermere Farms has quietly and purposefully become highly respected in the horse community. After all the shows, the ribbons, even marching in the Rose Bowl parade in 2013, the Allebachs are just happy to share their lives with these magnificent horses.

“I tell people if they knew the little kid that lives down the street that wanted to play in the Super Bowl — I’m that kid. And this is our Super Bowl. We get to play in our Super Bowl every day.” •SCM

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