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Pet sitter mines her animal affinity

Ginger Matyas handles creatures Great (Danes) and small (millipedes)

If pet sitter Ginger Matyas gave a prize for the weirdest owner she's ever worked for, it would go to a woman with 20 cats whose house was pockmarked with cat doors, littered with hairballs and the feathers of dead birds, and reeked of everybody's least favorite smell.

'It was gross,' Matyas says. 'I definitely should've charged more for that job. It took me hours just to open 20 cans of cat food and set them out on plates.'

But never, Matyas says, has she encountered anything so disturbing as the recent dog poisonings in Laurelhurst Park. She was walking a client's Alaskan malamute there as usual not long after the poisonings. Though leashed as always and kept out of the bushes, the dog suddenly gobbled up an object in the open grass before Matyas realized he'd found anything. She was 'haunted for days,' she says, until assured the dog showed no signs of being sick.

'You can understand my fear,' she says. 'If 12 have died, and 16 more are sick, what kind of odds are those? I mean, how many dogs use that park?'

When she started her pet-sitting business 15 years ago she called herself Kat-Can-Du, but by now the name is irrelevant. For one thing, her w ork goes far beyond cats; for another, with a consistently full load of clients, she doesn't need to advertise or market her services. She's widely known now simply through word of mouth.

'The animals are the testimony,' she says. 'If people are really in touch with their animals, they'll know their pets have been treated well while they've been gone.'

Before meeting Matyas, you might expect someone clad in grubby yard clothes covered in fur; instead you encounter a compact, artfully dressed woman of indeterminate age, with the kind of hair that can be worked into an elaborately beaded, multibraided hairstyle few Caucasians can pull off.

To look at her, you'd presume pet-sitting must be terrific exercise. But her fitness is as much the result of daily workouts as it is her pet sitting. She rises at 4:30 or 5 in the morning and performs a variety of exercise routines. It doesn't hurt that she's a licensed massage therapist as well, a business she limits to two massages per day to avoid repetitive motion injuries. The rest of her time is devoted to pet sitting.

'I figured out how to make money at the things I love to do, and it worked for me,' she says. 'I don't know what I'd rather do. I get paid to exercise.'

Giving hands-on care

While an amateur pet sitter might do little more than make a brief stop to feed the animals being looked after, Matyas' idea of pet care goes well beyond that. Besides walking a dog, she might also give it a bath, engage it in playtime and administer a 'petrassage,' as she calls it, a pet version of a massage. Different varieties of pets obviously call for different services ÑÊshe might brush a cat, uncoil a snake or give a bird some flying time. She's taken care of everything from llamas and potbellied pigs to miniature horses, a hairless cat, an iguana and a giant millipede.

Her services can extend to home security such as varying the lights, blinds and drapes and bringing in the newspaper and the mail. They can even include de-pooping the yard and, on occasion, videotaping the soaps. Her mission statement, if she had one, would name flea death as her

No. 1 goal, and pet owners often return to find tally marks scrawled on their phone pad representing the numbers decimated.

Although her job is filled with pastoral strolls in the park with her charges, she also has a ton of nightmarish stories.

One of her clients left two dogs in the utility room on the Fourth of July. Freaked by fireworks going off in the neighborhood, they chewed their way through drywall and got out. Matyas didn't find them until the next day, as they wandered the neighborhood in a post-traumatic stupor.

Another client failed to leave a house key as promised in the designated hiding place. Meanwhile the dog she was to care for was inside the house, desperate to be fed and let out. Matyas had to pillage county records to track down the landlord to get the key and save the dog and the carpeting.

Escape from the Midwest

When asked how much she would charge to sit for a millipede, Matyas says her rates tend to be lower for small rodents and insects, but for most pets she gets about $15 per visit. By the time she figures in her travel time and the time it takes to complete the pet chores for each client, that comes out to about a $15 hourly wage.

What kind of life experience would lead to a pet-sitting career?

Growing up in Cleveland in a family that raised and trained Great Danes might have had something to do with it. Every one of Matyas' six-member clan had a dog except her. She had a cat, which she trained to obey basic voice commands. At age 10, despite pesky child-labor laws, she landed an after-school job in a pet store, which she held for four years.

When she was 18, she bought a round-trip ticket to San Francisco ÑÊround trip because her father hoped she'd return to Cleveland ÑÊbut she cashed in the return portion the minute she got off the plane. After a year in the Bay Area, still clinging to her childhood companion, Niddy the Nitty Gritty Kitty, she boarded the legendary Gray Rabbit, one of the counterculture bus lines that thrived then, and headed north to pick apples in Yakima, Wash.

Niddy urinated on the bus, which so upset another passenger that Matyas abandoned ship in Eugene, where she ended up staying for 10 years. Then, inching up another increment on the map, she landed in Portland, where she's been ever since.

Does Matyas keep pets of her own today? She still has a cat, Violet, who, Matyas claims, administers facials when not adhering to a 23-hour-a-day sleeping regimen. If Violet senses that Matyas is involved with a multitude of other creatures, she doesn't let on.