"Making a Difference, One Paw at a Time"TM
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Richard and Uma

Aurora Beacon News - May 29, 2007

Long before they became his passion, animals appeared early in Rich Nye's career.

For example, he's well-versed on the curse of the billy goat. And he witnessed the black cat that skittered behind Ron Santo in the on-deck circle at New York's Shea Stadium.

Nye, a lanky left-hander, pitched for the '69 Cubs. Yep, those guys. Despite the crushing reality that saw the Cubs blow a 9 1/2-game lead in early August, and finish eight games behind the "Miracle Mets," who ultimately won the World Series, the players remain folk heroes today. Santo, Billy Williams, Ernie Banks, Fergie Jenkins, Randy Hundley ...

During that year, the 24-year-old Nye made 34 appearances and went 3-5 with a 5.11 ERA. Most of his mound stints occurred in a relief role.

"When I played, the Cubs had been in the cellar for so many years, but we spawned a lot of fans at that time," Nye said. "There are a lot of teams that have done worse things than we did. I have people all the time come up to me and declare that they're diehard Cubs fans, to which I say, 'Is there any other kind of Cubs fan?' No, there's not. "They like to support the underdog. And if the Cubs actually ever get into the World Series, it would change the whole temperament."

Speaking of underdogs, these days Nye can usually be found with his dedicated long-haired chihuahua, Uma -- all 7 pounds of her in tow.

A job to do

As one of 40 "teams" at the Fox Valley Therapy Dog Club, Nye and Uma visit area hospitals, where the 13-year-old pooch injects a cheery feeling to an otherwise sterile environment.

Recently, Nye and Uma spent an hour at Rush-Copley Medical Center in Aurora. They visited the pediatric ward, and some others, where patients were beginning their recovery process.

Sporadically and at odd times, Nye pulled a tiny treat from his shirt pocket and handed it to Uma.

"They're not necessarily given in response to something she just did," Nye said of the treats. "The idea is not to get her to focus on food, but more on the job she's here to do."

On and off her leash, Uma behaved perfectly. She responded to all of Nye's positive-toned commands, as her handler gently knocked on patients' doors.

"Do you want a little doggie visit?" Nye would ask. All who were awake said yes.

Oswegoan Peggy Bendowski said she and her husband recently housed two pot-bellied pigs, and that she grew up in a home with golden retrievers. Bendowski works at the Osco warehouse in Elk Grove.

"I love animals," said Bendowski, who stroked Uma into a deep sleep. "If I ever quit my job, I'd always volunteer down at the animal shelter if they needed anything."

Home or small zoo?

Nye's wife, Dr. Susan Brown, gave her husband Uma, then 5 months old, for a Valentine's Day gift. Dog and handler have been inseparable ever since.

At their Batavia home, Nye and Brown care for six dogs, four cats, two tortoises, two miniature horses, two alpacas (they look like llamas), and five birds. Three of the couple's dogs work in patient therapy.

Both Nye and Brown are veterinarians, and Nye is known as one of the world's top experts in dealing with exotic birds. He and his wife owned the Midwest Bird and Exotic Animal Hospital in Elmwood Park for 20 years.

After his major league career ended in the spring of 1972 -- due both to baseball's first strike and arm troubles -- Nye decided to lean on his engineering degree from the University of California-Berkeley. It didn't last long.

"I found out that engineering wasn't my passion," Nye said. "But animals were."

In order to retain their license, therapy dogs and handlers must pass an annual K-9 Good Citizen test, and must make at least 12 hospital visits per year.

Diane Moreau, Rush-Copley's director of patient support services, started the hospital's pet therapy program in 2000 -- one that "our physicians totally embrace," Moreau said.

"It's a very vital program here," she said. "I've seen patients overcome obstacles by actually holding the pets. Their response to the healing process is so much better. It's just been remarkable, and I wish I could capture everything I've seen on patients' faces."

Nye does covet a few trinkets of his playing days -- a framed leaf of Wrigley Field ivy, a ball signed by Ted Williams -- but he doesn't reminisce much, aside from meeting his old ballplayer buddies during summer charity events.

"I don't think about what could have been (in 1969) ... I think about what it was -- a fun time," Nye said. "Though it's fun to be in that little fraternity, I just keep looking forward to all the fun things I still have to do."