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Neutering Edgar
Gina SpadaforiBy Gina Spadafori

"Snip, snip and you're done!" cartoon-strip character Elly Patterson said recently in explaining how easy it is for a male dog to be neutered. Her husband, John, responded with horror at her description, a reaction every veterinarian or shelter worker probably smiled at -- they've seen it a thousand times.

Despite John Patterson's initial misgivings, by the end of that week's "For Better or For Worse," the family dog, Edgar, had been to the veterinarian's and back, and John was explaining to his youngest daughter:

"Neutering is an operation that's done to pets so that their owners feel better."

No doubt "For Better or For Worse" creator Lynn Johnston felt better as well, for she likely reclaimed more than a few fans lost when Edgar joined her cartoon family last year, after the unplanned liaison of the Patterson's old sheep dog, Farley, and the neighbor's dog, Sera. (Sera, Johnston was careful to reveal in the same set of strips, was spayed after her puppies were placed.)

"I had many letters," said Johnston of the response to Farley's last fling from her home in the Ontario province of Canada. "I wrote to every one saying I absolutely agree with you (about spaying and neutering). But for my comic-strip purposes I needed to have a son of Farley."

That's because Johnston, whose characters age over time, realized the 14-year-old sheep dog would have to pass on soon. The dog died after saving 4-year-old April Patterson from drowning, in a series so powerful that there are still letters in pet publications such as the current Dog Fancy discussing it.

The death of Farley drew one of the biggest immediate responses of Johnston's career as well, both in terms of mail and in media coverage of the tale, which coincidentally appeared in her more than 1,600 subscriber newspapers at the same time as the terrorist bombing story unfolded in Oklahoma City.

"People's emotions were kind of raw," said Johnston of the time. "I received 2,500 letters, about one-third negative. I didn't expect the response to be so great. The letters were open and emotional and honest and personal, full of stories and love."

While she is surprised at the volume of response to her animal-themed strips, she isn't surprised that so many animal-lovers follow her family-oriented stories. Her sister-in-law is a veterinarian -- Johnston gives her credit for pointing out Farley was already pushing the edge of a sheep dog's life span -- and animals have always been an important part of the cartoonist's life. She often works with her 10-year-old black cocker spaniel, Willy ("neutered!" she says) resting at her feet. Willy's the only pet now, but that wasn't true a few years ago.

"Our kids are grown and gone," she said. "But when they were younger ... gerbils, white mice, the gamut of things kids bring home."

Such may have been the case in Johnston's own family, but in her strip, the Pattersons are dog-lovers -- as are many of those who cried over Farley's death. It's to those her next book is aimed, a collections of strips honoring the life -- and death -- of Farley, scheduled for spring release from her publisher, Andrews and McMeel. The book will include some of the letters people sent her remembering their own pets, she said.

Will animals continue to play a role in the Patterson family drama? Johnston indicated they would, sharing a belief common to all animal-lovers.

"They're really part of the family," she said.

Gina Spadafori is an award-winning pet-care columnist for the Universal Press Syndicate. She is also the author of Dogs For Dummies and co-author, with Paul D. Pion, DVM, DACVIM, of Cats For Dummies. Dogs For Dummies was named Best General Reference by the Dog Writers Association of America and was given the DWAA President's award for the year's best work on dogs.

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