If you’ve ever heard the phrase “animal person,” you probably automatically picture someone with a fluffy tabby on one knee or a golden retriever underfoot.

But some folks in Yakima are cut from more of the Dr. Doolittle mold, sharing their homes and lives with more unusual critters.

Insectivores Unlimited

Jill Adams, 45, is a one-woman insectivore encyclopedia. Her stories about raising mice, hedgehogs and opossums have followed her into the Wide Hollow Elementary classrooms where she works.

“People don’t know how fascinating these animals are,” she said, lifting the lid on a large tote that houses several families of her multicolored fancy mice. “They buy a single mouse for their kids and then they miss out on watching how mice interact and work together to raise their babies.”

That said, she’s also quick to warn people that “pocket pets,” particularly unusual ones, might not be ideal for a child’s first pet.

“People looking for an unusual pet sometimes will buy an animal over the phone because they’ve had a hard time finding what they’re looking for,” she said. But purchasing an animal like a hedgehog without vetting the critter’s socialization skills often means families wind up with a pet that nobody wants to handle.

Exotic insectivores, like Adams’ Brazilian short-tailed opossum, also often have exacting dietary requirements. Adams raises dubia beetles for Rico because they have a higher protein-to-shell ratio than pet-store feeder crickets and are easier for opossums to digest. Rico’s relish of the beetles is obvious; he crunches them down like Doritos.

Adams knows she’s an anomaly here in Yakima. People on the East Coast join fancy mouse breeders’ associations and attend mouse shows like other folks attend dog and cat shows — but in Yakima, “a mouse is a mouse, no matter what the color,” she laughed.

Like many of the animal lovers we interviewed, Adams quickly gained a reputation for her deft hand with small creatures in her West Valley neighborhood — she fosters dogs and cats, and even wound up with some lizards for a few days.

“Once people know you’ve rescued anything, stuff just starts showing up,” she said. “My motto is that if it shows up on the front porch, let it in and love it.”

Sticking up for starlings

Pamela Collins Pruitt helped rescue a lot of injured and orphaned critters when she was growing up because her mother was a licensed wildlife rehabilitator in California.

What Pruitt wasn’t used to was rescuing wildlife that talked back.

When a concerned neighbor brought the Selah resident an orphaned European starling nestling several years ago, she was less than thrilled. “I never wanted a starling … I thought the same thing about starlings that everyone else did.” Not only was the tiny nestling rescued without siblings (meaning Pruitt knew the starling couldn’t be successfully released later), the youngster was, well, less than photogenic. “She was really ugly,” Pruitt admitted.

Pruitt also knew from her previous rehabilitation experience that she was looking at a huge commitment to keep the nestling alive. That little gaping beak would be expecting food every 45 minutes, 18 hours a day — for six weeks or more.

But little Fiona was lucky. She went everywhere with Pruitt for about two months. As a baby, Fiona couldn’t regulate her body temperature and was completely dependent on Pruitt for regular feedings and warmth.

The first time Fiona spoke, casually saying, “Hey, baby!” Pruitt remembers being in shock — but that two-word phrase was only the beginning. At 4 years old, Fiona’s vocabulary includes multiple strings of five and six words, Mozart melodies she’s picked up from a musical toy in her cage, and more. Although Pruitt doesn’t think Fiona speaks in context like a large parrot might, it’s hard to believe that when the little black bird sits on the edge of an empty bird bath and announces she wants fresh water. People have known about the starling’s ability to mimic for hundreds of years (a character in Shakespeare’s Henry IV mentions teaching a starling to talk); wild starlings can imitate everything from the cries of a red-tailed hawk to car alarms.

Pruitt said now that she knows more about European starlings, it weighs on her to see them trapped and killed by farmers. “People think they just damage fruit, but a flock of starlings can eat up to 30,000 insects in a matter of days,” she says. They are particularly good at targeting cranefly larvae in our area, and are often spotted probing lawns when the larvae are emerging. Starlings also eat wireworms (click beetle larvae), which are prevalent in Eastern Washington and can be a real problem for homeowners and farmers.

As an adult, Fiona still demands plenty of attention and effort from her human pals to keep her healthy and entertained, and Pruitt is in the process of building an outdoor aviary for her.

“People have long thought of starlings as dirty and ugly,” Pruitt said. “If people aren’t educated about how intelligent and beneficial they are, they just don’t have much respect for them.”

Little Leopards

West Valley resident Nancy Dickman always thought it would be fun to have a Bengal cat. But once she got one, she found out the beautifully marked cats were like Lay’s Potato Chips.

“I tell people you can’t just have one,” she laughed.

The breed’s history began back in the 1960s when researchers noticed the Asian Leopard Cat was immune to feline leukemia. Breeders wanted to develop a domestic cat that was immune to the fatal disease, which remained a death sentence for pet cats until a vaccine was developed in 1985.

Breeders crossing the wild cats with domesticated felines soon found the Bengal needed to be at least four generations removed from the African cat in order to be fully domesticated. Cats three generations removed are usually not suited to living in a household situation, Dickman said — primarily because some of the wilder cats will avoid litterboxes.

But domesticated doesn’t mean Bengals are like regular housecats. Dickman said she and her husband had to change the levered doorknobs in the interior of their home because the cats learned how to let themselves out, and they also figured out how to open her kitchen cabinets. Bengals also love water — one of the Dickmans’ Bengals now lives in the Netherlands and goes boating with his new owners (Dickman says they even provide a special lifejacket for him). Bengals are also quite trainable, and some compete in agility contests.

The cats come in all colors with two main patterns: spotted and marbled. They have incredibly soft, minklike fur, and some sport metallic hairs in their coats called “glitter,” which makes them glisten in the sun. Neutered males and females are about the size of a regular housecat, but breeding males usually are about 15 pounds or more.

Dickman said some locals have told her they’re shocked about the idea of buying a cat (Bengals average $900 for a neutered pet, and more for a show-quality or breeding animal), but she noted that people often think nothing of spending hundreds on hunting dogs and other animals.

“They’re a very social and interactive breed … I just think they make really nice pets,” she said.

Is that an octopus in your purse?

It’s hard to describe the initial shock of meeting Rhonda Cornwell’s two hairless Donskoy cats. Cornwell often carries one along on public outings in a specially made purse, and the reactions of people who catch a glimpse of the wrinkled, bald cats never ceases to amuse her.

Once, Cornwell said, a little boy spotted an emerging paw and ran to his mother, shrieking: “Mommy, that lady has an octopus in her purse!”

Sometimes people even initially mistake the cats for human babies, a much more accurate assessment given the place the two Donskoys have in the Cornwell family here in Yakima. Hairless cats require regular bathing and protection from the weather — they’ll burn in the sun and easily get too cold — so Cornwell buys clothing for them on Ebay and has learned to sleep with them under the covers at night. “They travel with our family everywhere,” she said.

Donskoy kittens have to be incubated at 85 degrees for the first weeks of life, but when their special temperature and bathing requirements are met as adults, they have the lifespan of a regular housecat.

Cornwell’s friend Tracy Moore breeds Donskoys at her home in Selah, and that’s how Cornwell ended up with her two girls. Moore became interested in breeding Donskoys when she starting thinking about the people she knew whose allergies precluded them from having a pet. The hairlessness is caused by a genetic mutation that’s present in other hairless breeds (like the Sphynx).

Donskoys are known for having doglike personalities. They bond very closely with their owners. “I read somewhere that regular cats allow you to live in their world,” Cornwell said. “But these guys live in our world.”

Feathered therapists

West Valley resident Linda McCartney cares for an astonishing array of animals ranging from three-legged dogs to special-needs parrots … but what’s most unusual is that her animals help care for others.

About 20 years ago, McCartney’s mother-in-law was suffering with painful bone cancer, and McCartney started taking her own pets into the hospital in an effort to cheer her up. Her mother-in-law noticed how the other patients also brightened whenever they saw the animals, and she begged McCartney to find a way to develop a pet therapy practice.

McCartney has been perfecting a pet therapy show with her parrots and dogs, and she’s been visiting schools and local nursing homes ever since.

McCartney has trained a black-headed caique parrot to swing on a rope and ride a toy pig, a scarlet macaw to drink out of a bottle, and her cockatoos to boogie. Her audience gets to cuddle her dogs (which are usually dressed in zany costumes) or one of her loveable white cockatoos.

McCartney said it’s amazing the way stroke victims and disabled people will make an effort to connect with the animals. “They’ll forget that they’ve had trouble moving and completely forget they’re in pain,” she said. “And once people who are feeling sorry for themselves after a broken hip see the way a little three-legged dog can get around, it inspires them.”

McCartney cares for about 25 birds in her home, which is specially outfitted to accommodate the needs of her large parrots and cockatoos.

But McCartney faces daunting limitations as she chases her dream of inspiring other pet therapists. She’s been hearing-impaired since birth, and has fought emphysema her entire life, a condition she says was brought on by her parents’ chainsmoking. At 70 years old, she’s getting close to the maximum level of medication for her lung condition, and once she’s on the highest dose, her doctor has told her she’ll have to part with most or even all of her birds. Even though the McCartneys have installed special home ventilation systems, the bird dander and dust can’t be avoided — and that’s not good for someone with lung problems. “I think I probably have about two more years before I have to give it up,” she said.

But McCartney has big plans for the time she has left with her parrots: she’s writing books about them, and developing a training program for other people who are interested in pet therapy. Like the other exotic animal owners we met, she’s well-versed in the care and feeding of her menagerie.

McCartney believes that being born hearing-impaired has left her with special skills — she notices behaviors and nuances of body language that other people miss. Her enhanced powers of observation serve her well when she’s working with birds; parrots instinctively hide illness and require a great deal of attention and care. But McCartney also closely watches the behavior of people and the way people interact with her animals. She’s seen the way patients with Alzheimer’s disease respond to finches and how even rambunctious children will settle down and focus when they’re handling birds.

“I really want to inspire others about the therapeutic benefits of pet therapy,” she said. “I’d love to see this take off.”