People and Their Pets

Meet the lovable creatures that have captured our hearts.

Pets long have been intertwined with human lives. That is truer today since the COVID-19 pandemic sent everyone home for long stretches of time, causing people to foster stronger bonds with their companions. From their cuddly snuggles to the way they play, and especially the unconditional love only they can provide, we can’t get enough. Here, get to know some of the Tri-State’s pets and the people who love them.

Teddy is a Treasure

Piglets, by nature, view humans with suspicion. These aren’t puppies or kittens, with a predisposed attitude of friendliness. Building a relationship with a young pig takes time and trust.

One of Teddy the Pig’s favorite places to enjoy the outdoors is Moutoux Park on Evansville’s West Side, near where he lives with owners J.J. and Toni Howley, brother and sister pigs Rupert and Tilda, and five dogs. The Howleys take Teddy, a certified therapy animal, to special events, nonprofit agencies, and libraries throughout the Evansville region to spread community cheer. Photo by Zach Straw

J.J. and Toni Howley have made the effort with three of them. One has risen from pre-adoption neglect to become an Evansville celebrity, promoting the message at every opportunity that “knowledge and kindness are what change the world.”

His full name is Theodore Wolfric Tiberius. But he’s Teddy to friends, and in Teddy’s world, pretty much everybody is a friend. This is especially true if you have a snack in your hand; carrots, watermelon, and cucumber slices are among his favorites.

With Teddy, the often-arduous task of bonding came easier than normal. The Howleys observed a demeanor that was docile and even sweet. Teddy was adopted from Oinking Acres Farm Rescue & Sanctuary in Brownsburg, Indiana, and even there, Teddy wasn’t shy about approaching people.

When the Howleys adopted Teddy in 2021, they were mourning the loss of a beloved therapy dog, and J.J. wondered if Teddy could step in its footprints.

Teddy relishes the role, popping up everywhere from the River City Pride Fest to the Koch Family Children’s Museum of Evansville, brightening the day of people he meets.

Long-term care facilities are among the Howleys’ favorite places to take Teddy. He has a special relationship with Cancer Pathways Midwest in Evansville, and he also loves when children read to him at libraries.

But it’s not all about bringing cheer, the Howleys say. The long-time animal rescue advocates also want people to know that pigs are intelligent creatures who, with a little patience, can become wonderful companions.

They offer their own family as proof. In 2019, the couple took in a piglet named Rupert from Evansville Animal Care & Control.

After Teddy came along two years ago, the Howleys adopted a female named Tilda from the Brownsburg farm who was recovering from wounds suffered after an attack by a pack of dogs.

Each pig has its own living quarters and television in the How- leys’ West Side home. “Peppa Pig” is a favorite show of all three. “A really important part of a pig is making sure they are mentally stimulated,” Toni says.

They also share their home with five dogs: Lil’ Man, Raven, Baby, Puddin’, and Ginger. Four are senior pups, and all were adopted from animal rescues. Although few pigs warm up to humans quite as fast as Teddy, the Howleys love all three of theirs and say they receive plenty of love in return.

“Once they bond, I can’t describe how deeply they bond with their people,” Toni says.


A New Chapter

Katrina Gerling was familiar with racing greyhounds, but Spanish hunting dogs were new.

Erin Floyd, a friend who works with American Greyhound, a sighthound rescue agency in northern Indiana, described a grueling, unforgiving environment in which dogs used to hunt hares are minimally fed and then turned loose or euthanized at the end of each four-month season.

“The hunters say it’s cheaper to do that than feed and take care of the dogs in between seasons,” Gerling says.

Cobalto has embarked on a new and better path thanks to the care of Katrina Gerling. Now a healthier weight and with canine companionship in his sister Brietta, Cobalto has adjusted well to his American home. Photo by Emma Bayens

She began fostering rescued Galgos, as the Spanish hunting dogs are called, a year and a half ago. She hosted three lurchers — a greyhound-sighthound mix — before Cobalto. The 5-year-old Galgo was emaciated and had three kinds of worms when he moved into Gerling’s household in December.

“I immediately got attached to him. He’s so sweet,” she says.

Although he pulled at Gerling’s heartstrings, it was her other dog that sealed the deal.
Twelve-year-old Brietta, a boxer mix adopted from It Takes a Village, lay near Cobalto and looked after him as he recuperated. With Brietta’s approval, Gerling started the adoption paperwork within a month.

Now healthy, Cobalto is settling into his forever home. He’s still nervous at unfamiliar noises but displays a goofy side. He enjoys toys that squeak and plays with a canine friend named Cal. True Spaniard that he is, Cobalto savors his meals.

Cobalto was trained in Spanish but is picking up English. In another callback to his Galgo life, he sits at attention — back ramrod straight, notched ears erect — whenever someone new enters the room.

“Colbie” is Gerling’s first “foster fail,” but after seeing how well her prior fosters fit into their new families, she’s found joy experiencing that herself.

“You foster each indefinitely until a match is found,” she says. “Once you meet their forever owners … they’ve been perfect matches.”

About American Greyhound

Founded in Hobart, Indiana, American Greyhound rescues all breeds of sighthounds. Its work with Galgos began in 2018 when 24 Galgos were flown to the U.S. through a Denver, Colorado-based rescue initiative called Daphne’s Legacy Tour, run by Christina Azharian. Since then, American Greyhound has been instrumental in receiving and adopting out the 148 dogs the Daphne Legacy Tour has brought to the U.S. Supporters continue to lobby the Spanish government to include Galgos and other hunting dogs in the country’s animal cruelty law.

Brotherly Love

After the Littrells tragically lost their pets in a house fire, guinea pigs Gus and Skweequs joined the family and have provided a much-needed dose of daily joy. Bethany and Raylan Littrell take on the responsibility of caring for the pair of pigs and even celebrated Gus’ and Skweequs’ first birthdays in June with miniature party hats and treats. Photo by Emma Bayens

There are two pairs of Littrell siblings in Newburgh, Indiana: Humans, and guinea pigs. Bethany, 10, and Raylan, 8, are the proud owners of Gus and Skweequs. The former is named for his round resemblance to Gus from Disney’s “Cinderella” and the latter because he squeaked a lot when brought home. The brothers celebrated their first birthday in June with pint-sized party hats and fruit and veggie treats.

The guinea pigs were adopted from PetSmart in December after a house fire claimed the lives of the Littrells’ prior pets. A smaller pet is needed while the children and their parents reside in a rental house. Lorrie owned hamsters as a child but didn’t enjoy losing the tiny critters or getting bit by them. A friend recommended guinea pigs.

The result has been the building of a strong bond. The children, who attend Newburgh Elementary School, are responsible for the guinea pigs’ feeding and care and have learned Gus and Skweequs quirks. Gus likes Bethany’s hair and tries to climb her shoulders, while Skweequs often burrows in Lorrie’s robe. Both pigs hop around — called “popcorning” — when they’re excited. Bethany enjoys stroking Gus’ soft fur. Raylan has asked to take Skweequs to school.

Lorrie confesses the whole family has learned as they go. The biggest revelations have involved nail trimming, cleaning, and litter box training.

“Some, you can litter box train. Ours aren’t,” Lorrie says. “When we put a clean litter box in the cage, they do go to it, but not all the time.”

In addition to teaching responsibility, Gus and Skweequs have given the family a therapeutic outlet after the emotional devastation of the home fire.

“They’ve helped heal our hearts a bit,” Lorrie says.

The Cats from Mount Olympus

When Joanne Mrozak first met Ragdoll cats, she fell in love with their docile nature and the way they went limp when held — hence the nickname. “I thought that was kind of funny,” she says. Mrozak eventually came to breed Ragdoll cats, naming each one she keeps after Greek gods and goddesses. Photo by Zach Straw

When Joanne Mrozak and Ronald Gittler and their granddaughter, Rose Hall, moved from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to Newburgh, Indiana, their cat of 20 years had just passed away.

During a visit with Gittler’s sister, the couple fell in love with her two Ragdoll kittens, a breed known for its blue eyes and pale colorpoint coat that darkens around the extremities. These silky-furred felines are friendly and relaxed; their habit of going limp when picked up inspired their name.

It would take another year before the couple took the plunge and purchased two Ragdoll cats from an Indianapolis breeder.

“Ares is our king and Athena is our queen,” Mrozak says.

Athena’s first litter of four kittens was given to friends and family. Many in the second litter were sold. By Athena’s third litter, Mrozak registered with The International Cat Association. The couple have bred Ragdoll cats for nine years and try to have at least one litter of kittens available throughout the year.

The rest of the breeding clowder — the name for a group of cats — includes females Rhea, Persephone, and Artemis, and males Ares and Posiden, as the family spells it. Females Hecate and Hestia and male Apollo are too young to breed. All are named after Greek gods and goddesses and prevented from breeding with relatives.

Mrozak and Gittler kept Artemis and Hecate because they are brown, a rare recessive gene affecting fewer than five percent of Ragdolls that makes them highly sought after. Persephone stayed because Mrozak “fell in love with her face,” says Hall, who helps her grandparents with the birthing process and takes the cats to the vet.

Mrozak loves interacting with the kittens, whose favorite toys include laser pointers and anything dangly or crinkly. Seeing the cats and kittens leave for new families is a bittersweet experience.

“It is hard to see them go, but we know they are going to a nice, safe home,” Hall says.


Find Joanne’s Ragdolls on Facebook and Instagram @joannesragdolls

Furry Fostering

As the Presdient and first lady of the University of Evansville, Christopher and Siobhan Pietruszkiewicz maintain a busy household. But the couple and their sons, John and Ryan, have a big heart for dogs needing a healthy start to life.

John and Ryan Pietruszkiewicz provided by Siobhan Pietruszkiewicz

In 2021, Siobhan reached out to Warrick Humane Society about fostering. Late that year, the family received its first set of puppies, Valentino and Vinny. The Pietruszkiewiczes have since welcomed about 40 fosters to their East Side home.

Fostering is a constant need, local shelters say. A common circumstance involves underage or underweight litters, and the Pietruszkiewiczes typically take in puppies about five weeks old and keep them until 10 weeks, when they are spayed or neutered.

While gratifying, fostering isn’t always easy. Each puppy has its own personality — rambunctious or shy, obedient, or mischievous.

“You don’t develop a bond with everyone you have,” Siobhan says.

Even so, each animal needs guidance, as well as loving care, in its earliest days. That’s where foster families come in.

Siobhan has a sister in Virginia who cares for foster animals while also owning dogs. Siobhan describes her as a great resource who influenced the family’s decision to foster.
The family has picked up tips to help foster puppies acclimate to their home.

“The first thing we try to do is walk them around our property,” Siobhan says. “We’ll make the biggest perimeter from the outside to the front and back around, and they just follow us. And that gets them calmed down.”

For an animal-loving family that frequently travels and maintains a hectic lifestyle, Siobhan says fostering can be a good fit.

When the Pietruszkiewiczes began fostering, “I was preparing the boys that we’ll have them for a certain time,” she says. “We have adopted, rescued, and kept dogs in the past. I told the boys we move a lot, we travel a lot, our life is too different. But we can create stability in the dogs, create some good behavior, and make them adoptable. We give them structure and consistency. And that’s our philosophy.”


Can Wildlife Be Pets?

That rabbit scampering across your yard may seem like a sweet candidate for a pet, but don’t go getting any ideas.

In Indiana, keeping wildlife at home is legal only with a permit. The most common domestically bred wildlife animals that Katherine Turpen, an associate veterinarian with U Vet Animal Clinic in Newburgh, Indiana, sees are raccoons, turtles, baby birds, rabbits, and squirrels.

The Indiana Department of Natural Resources grants permits to people to possess wildlife domestically bred for private ownership. Even then, there are strict requirements for how wildlife can be kept, including enclosure and room sizes that vary depending on the animal. The DNR will not provide a permit for anyone removing a wild animal from its natural habitat.

“People have to be very careful with these animals,” Turpen says, who since 2016 has specialized in treating animals categorized as wildlife.

Wildlife also has specific nutritional needs and temperaments that make them ill-suited for domestic life. Raccoons, for example, may seem cute and friendly when they are young, but once they reach the age of sexual maturity, they often become aggressive.

Veterinary clinics also need specially trained staff for wildlife, which can be treated only in life-saving circumstances unless the owner has a permit. All in all, critters are best left to roam the wild.

“If it is healthy and not injured, leave it be,” Turpen says.


Snoots to Boop

Give these local pets a follow on your socials.

Guests at this independent bookstore owned by Annie and Matt Fitzpatrick are greeted by head of security Huxley, customer service specialist Eleanor, or resident kitty Tammy 2. Customers even can buy stickers featuring the pups’ mugs.

This 4-year-old Evansville Shar Pei had a ruff start at life, losing his broken front right and back left legs to amputation at only three days old. Having two legs hasn’t limited the Missouri native, though: He enjoys traveling, shopping, and trips to the beach with his owner, Jennifer Crittenden.

Betty photo taken from Instagram account


@bettytheweathercat @RonanRhodes
It’s a battle of the weather cats. Betty cemented her celebrity status as WFIE-TV Chief Meteorologist Jeff Lyons’ trusty side- kick during at-home broadcasts in 2020, and even was turned into a local meme. New on the scene is Bagheera, who keeps WEHT-TV Meteorologist Ron Rhodes company. Could Bagheera develop her own Instagram handle and steal Betty’s thunder?



Fans of Give a Dog a Bone are familiar with owners Liz and Quincy Zikmund’s pair of pugs. Otis, the younger, features heavily in the business’ marketing, making a tail-wagging appearance on everything from billboards and bus stops.

‘Truly Transformational’

A childhood trauma involving a dog prevented Roli Asthana from ever considering bringing a canine into her home. But her perspective shifted in 2022, and she dipped her toes into the pool of pet ownership. Enter Phoebe, an Aussiedoodle with caramel eyes, tan and white fur, and boundless energy. Now 15 months, Phoebe performs tricks like sit and shake, dutifully observes the boundaries of her yard’s electric fence, and loves playing fetch with a ball — but still is learning to retrieve. Asthana, meanwhile, has discovered a new strength and confidence from training Phoebe. Photo by Zach Straw

Roli Asthana never anticipated owning a dog. As a child in India, she developed a fear of canines after a stray dog chased her to the school bus one day and bit her friend.

A life change altered her stance. Asthana went through a self-described rough patch in spring 2022 and became curious about what she heard was dogs’ healing nature. She began reading pet blogs and joined an online group of Australian shepherd-poodle enthusiasts.

“I felt like there was a need in me that maybe a dog could answer,” she says.

A family north of Indianapolis shared a photo of the Aussiedoodle litter they had just bred. Asthana immediately was captivated by a brown and white puppy. Her two daughters attend medical school in Indianapolis. One daughter visited the family and reported to her mother: “You’ve got to get this dog.”

“I told myself, if I don’t do it now, I’ll never get to experience how having a dog can change your life,” she says.

The puppy was 10 weeks old when Asthana adopted her in May 2022 and named her Phoebe. YouTube video-guided potty training followed. A neighbor recommended a veterinarian, who suggested using a gentle leader dog collar to counter Phoebe’s pulling during walks. Along the way, Asthana gained confidence in her own ability to lead and discovered a change in herself.

“I’d seen in movies the unconditional love of a dog. It’s almost mythical. For me to experience that is completely mind-blowing,” she says. “She makes me laugh with her silly behavior. Sometimes, I think she’s altered my brain chemistry.”

Phoebe — now 15 months old and around 60 pounds — has become Asthana’s companion since she and her husband became empty nesters.

“It’s been one of the best decisions I’ve ever taken,” she says. “I cannot imagine my life without my dog.”

Working Like a Dog

Crypto has been a valued addition at Heart to Heart Hospice in Jasper, Indiana, since he started going to work with handler Amy Hofmann four years ago. Adept at detecting hidden emotions, Crypto patiently comforts patients, relatives, and health care workers in a high-stress environment. Photo by Zach Straw

At home, Crypto is a playful, five-year-old Australian shepherd. But when he puts on a red bandana adorned with his name, a light switches on — he knows he’s going to work.

The 60-pound therapy dog visits with children at libraries and attends a weekly grief support group. His main occupation, though, is providing therapy services at Heart to Heart Hospice in Jasper, Indiana. Striding into morning meetings with a toy of the day, he sees an average of six patients a week as one of nearly a dozen pet therapy partners at Heart to Heart.

“Crypto’s specialty is sensing emotions,” says his handler, Amy Hofmann, who is the volunteer coordinator at Heart to Heart in Jasper. “He’s really good at calling people out if they’re upset and not showing it.”

Crypto came from a breeder near Bowling Green, Kentucky, and trained through Pet Partners. Therapy animal certification takes about a year, with six months of basic training and another six for a specialty. Crypto has worked as a therapy dog for a little more than four years and started at Heart to Heart Hospice’s Evansville location when Hofmann was a volunteer there.

“We love being a volunteer,” Hofmann says. “We see patients every Friday. Whenever we get into their neighborhood, he gets excited.”

During his downtime, Crypto enjoys watching the reality TV show “Pit Bulls and Parolees,” swimming, and playing with anything that squeaks. He also has siblings: Four of Hofmann’s five dogs are therapy animals. Captain, Crypto’s best friend at home, used to be a therapy dog but started having seizures — which Crypto detects and alerts Hofmann to.

“He really is such a good dog,” she says.

An Australian shepherd’s lifespan is 13 to 15 years, meaning Crypto could continue working as a therapy dog for several more years.

“He loves to work,” Hofmann says. “He’ll work until I see he doesn’t enjoy it.”

About Pet Partners

Through Pet Partners, thousands of animals and handlers are trained and certified in therapy services internationally since 1977. All therapy animal teams must renew their certification every two years. Pet Partners also offers continuing education courses for
the public and community engagement opportunities for volunteers. Next up for Crypto is a joint venture between Pet Partners and Evansville Regional Airport to offer therapy dog services to regional air travelers.

Well Rounded

Charity Peech believes teaching humans how to train their dogs is just as important as making sure the dog becomes a good companion. Between her raw pet food and supplies shop, show dog training, and work rescuing Great Dane, Peech’s entire life revolves around canines and their well-being. Photo by Laura Mathis

Charity Peech’s entire life revolves around animals. She owns a farm with livestock guarded by Anatolian shepherds. She rescues and shows Great Danes and offers horseback riding lessons. She bred her first litter of show dogs after graduation and even makes fresh raw pet food. Many of her ventures operate out of her Rockport, Indiana, pet business The Whole Shebang.

A large part of her work, though, is devoted to training dogs.

“It is very rewarding for me to know I can shape someone’s dog to be the ideal companion for them,” Peech says.

She became a trainer through the American Kennel Club’s Canine Good Citizen program after recognizing that “most people want well-behaved companion animals,” Peech says.

“I don’t just train dogs. I train people to train their dogs,” she says. “It’s about learning basic manners and then specifically teaching the dog what you want them to do.”

In addition to basic commands, Peech also trains show dogs and future working canines. Show dogs must learn how to stand and move properly and become desensitized
to inspections by a judge.

The search and rescue team covering Spencer County, Indiana, and Daviess County, Kentucky, pre-selects its dogs, then Peech “adds to” their education and evaluates their strengths and weaknesses.

Working with future search and rescue dogs is “more like soldier training,” she says. “Those working dogs know they have a job and want to work.”

Whether training show or working dogs, the ultimate reward is a tight bond between the canine and its handler. Peech’s favorite part is knowing she is helping the dogs do their job, however big or small.

“I like knowing that my training is being utilized because I could help the dog be better at what it’s doing,” she says.


“What’s My Dog Saying?”

We like to think that we are the ones who know our dogs best, but there often are things pet owners overlook. Trainers such as Mike Goebel, co-owner of River Valley Dog Training with Jennifer Bennett, can help a dog become the best possible companion.


“What I look for when I’m training a dog is relaxation,” Goebel says.

A dog with its ears up and straight, tongue out, eyes open and bright, and even barking a little, is relaxed.


Timid dogs do not immediately jump up to greet you. In that case, “take a little more time with your approach,” Goebel says.


When a dog ignores a person entering a room, that can be a sign the dog believes it is in charge, which can create a larger problem.

“It’s not relaxation, it’s disregard,” Goebel says. “Even if it is not rapid, I want a dog that is willing to approach and communicate.”


If dogs turn their back on you when you try to get them to do something, it is not threatening behavior, but the dog is ignoring you.

“They still want to do the behavior. They just are not happy about it,” Goebel says.

Saying Goodbye

The loss of a pet can leave a big hole in your life, as Brian Buxton knows. Brando’s passing in 2022 meant parting with a companion that he had a close connection with. Buxton honors Brando with a memorial area near his front door and by celebrating his best friend’s birthday. He also raised funds for local animal organizations in Brando’s memory. Photo provided by Brian Buxton

Whenever Brian Buxton visited new real estate clients, worked in the office of his auto dealership, or ran errands around Evansville, his dog, Brando, often accompanied him. So well known was Brando that when the 17-year-old Yorkshire Terrier passed away Sept. 8, 2022, his loss was felt throughout the community. Here, Buxton describes the experience of saying goodbye to a beloved pet.

“There isn’t a way to prepare for death — it’s more of a coming to terms. Without any real warning, Brando was in serious kidney failure and lived another six months. When the vet told me he may only have a year left, it was like someone punched me in the gut.

Brando passed away on my chest, hearing my voice and heartbeat and feeling me pet him. It was very peaceful and the best possible outcome of the worst situation.

Of all the pets I’ve had, the connection with Brando was the strongest. He was just ‘that one.’ The grief of his passing wasn’t just the loss of him in my life. It also was the loss of something that loved me unconditionally, that depended on me. He needed me as much as I needed him.

Brando went to work with me, traveled with me, and was with me pretty much everywhere he was allowed to go. Most days, I was around him 20-plus hours. The loss is as much a loss of a way of life as it is the loss of his physical presence.

I saw something online that people tend to think that grief shrinks over time, when in fact we grow around our grief. It never goes away, we just learn how to deal with it and sometimes turn it into something else. I do observe his birthday and will observe the day he passed.

I made a memorial area next to my front door with photos, Brando’s favorite toys, and his ashes and collar. His paw prints are incorporated into custom pieces of art and a tattoo on my wrist. I trimmed some of his hair and have it in a glass jar. When I pass, I plan to be cremated, and I will have his ashes buried with mine.

I enjoy telling stories about him and hearing others tell me things they remember or sharing photos. I start a Go Fund Me called “Brando’s Giving Paws” in his memory that benefited local shelters and rescues, which raised close to $4,000. The fundraisers have helped, as I want to use his memory and ‘notoriety’ around town to help animals in need and raise awareness for the needs of local shelters and rescues.

I do have another dog now, Riley. He doesn’t take the place of Brando in any way, and there is still that empty place, but he does bring that life and joy back into the house.”


Maggie Valenti
Maggie Valenti
Maggie Valenti joined Tucker Publishing Group in September 2022 as a staff writer. She graduated from Gettysburg College in 2020 with a bachelors degree in English. A Connecticut native, Maggie has ridden horses for 15 years and has hunt seat competition experience on the East Coast.

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