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Thursday, May 31, 2012

Exploring the Limits of our Relationships


I always like to push myself. Learn something new, think about a topic in a different way and maybe go under the table to the dark corners where no one ventures because .... it's dark? Unknown? Scary? Uncomfortable? All of the above?

Yes, I believe in pushing myself to see all that I can be aware of, know all that I can, and find the gestalt meaning in things. So, I’ve been thinking about how we treat our pets lately, compared to how we treat our fellow human beings. And I didn’t want to go there. But I forced myself, anyway.

I just finished reading In the Garden of the Beasts by Eric Larson, a non-fiction account of U.S. Ambassador William Dodd’s assignment in Nazi Germany. Larson reports that Dodd, in his diary, noted how much Germans love animals—particularly horses and dogs. A law prohibiting cruelty to animals kept the animals “happy and fat” while we know they largely chose not to see the Nazi regime’s atrocious treatment of their fellow human beings. I also learned from this book just how much the rest of the world turned away from the reality of Hitler, not wishing to acknowledge his true motive of killing all the Jews, and instead always hoping for the best. He ends one chapter with a vision of Berlin’s pampered horses running with flames on their manes and tails when the Russians attacked. A horrific image that stands among those more common to the era—the Concentration Camps and their victims—to underscore the dangers of imbalance: not looking and taking action.

So what does this have to do with how we treat animals? I believe that we Americans are not too different from the Germans—we love our animals and treat them well for the most part. Thankfully, we have a free society without a fascist dictator who controls our actions and oppresses us. But we do tend to look the other way a lot. Are we taking for granted our freedoms? Do we lavish too much attention on our animals that instead could go toward our fellow human beings? Would it hurt to treat our fellow human beings with as much love and deference as we do our pets?

I once told my son, “It’s okay to spoil our pets, but it’s not okay to spoil our children.” Now, I believe it’s not okay to spoil our pets, either. They can get the better of our natures. I know, from personal experience, that they will take advantage. It’s up to us, with the big brains (supposedly), to provide the balance in the relationship.

According to Larson, Dodd wasn’t liked very much in the State Department, (or in the Nazi regime) even though he was proven to be correct in all of his warnings. He was a history professor who executed his duties as Ambassador by giving speeches about past examples of extreme behavior resulting in disastrous outcomes, in a diplomatic move to get Hitler to change his ways. Needless to say, it didn’t work. Larson notes that Dodd’s critics in the U.S., who favored using more appeasement, wouldn’t have been successful, either. The easier route for Dodd would have been to conform to the expectations, but he didn’t do that. Perhaps he understood that the only way to control Hitler was to take him out, but he knew that wasn’t his role. In the face of this, it would be easy to use appeasement. But he chose to act in the best way he knew how, in conformation with his values.

This is a wildly extreme example from history, I realize, but it gets you thinking. Do I want to take the easy route with my relationships, or do the hard work necessary that most reflects my values? This should be true with my pets as well as my human relationships. I hope I am brave enough to always choose the latter. Next time I will talk about what this means:  how do I treat my pets so that it conforms to my values? How do you treat your pets that conforms with your values?

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Squirrels are my Religion


Singer is like a religious person when it comes to squirrels and chipmunks. She’s actually quite zealous. But unlike some religious types who try to force their religious beliefs down your throat, Singer is not interested in sharing her religion. In fact, she wants it all to herself. I doubt that she’s interested in converting Dakota, for example, although she has had an influence on him. Dakota definitely perks up his ears these days when he hears the sharp chirp of a chipmunk. Although always interested in wildlife, he is several degrees more attuned lately and I believe it is due to Singer’s example.

Canine religion is probably about chipmunks and other exciting things that have so much meaning for dogs. I can just hear what some people would say about this—“how heretical—worshiping animals!”

If you constructed a line graph of a typical canine’s life and compared it to a human’s, you would find some similarities. A dog will have its high points, such as reaching maturity, leaving the nest, finding a forever home, that should be marked as significant in its life. The line graph would show roughly 12-14 years, and a lot of a dog’s significant events would occur early in life. I think this graph would approximately run parallel to a person’s life:  leaving home, falling in love the first time. But that is where the similarities end.

A dog might have other events, if it were reviewing its life at the end, which would earn a mark on this line graph of significant events. For Singer, it would definitely be hunting squirrels and chipmunks and mice. The day a herd of squirrels ran right in front of her would certainly merit. When Saylor lay on the clinic table near death, as I kissed her and whispered how much I loved her, images of her life flooded my mind. Most of the images had to do with the walks we took through the years. How much joy and pleasure I got out of those walks, and how much pleasure I think Saylor did, too. I hope she and I were reviewing the same images at that special time in her life. Saylor wasn’t much of a hunter, but she did love her walks, and she did love food. Perhaps one of her significant events in life involved food as well.

I realize that Saylor didn’t ascribe as much meaning to her ending as I did. I don’t believe dogs view death, or birth, like we humans do. I’m sure that death is just another event, not rated very highly in the emotion department for dogs. I think they view it as a necessity, and I don’t even know if they wish it over quickly. They just endure. I’ve seen two dogs pass in recent years, and that is the impression I got—they endure the pain and wait. There may be anxiety due to pain or suffering, but that’s it. No existential spiritual suffering common to humans—will I make it to heaven? Will I see God? I love that about dogs (and cats, I might add, one of which is sitting on my lap right now, while I awkwardly type on the arm of the couch…) Death is just another passage. And birth. One day a pregnant dam is fat and uncomfortable, the next day she has a litter of puppies. Oh. Okay. But she knows instantly what to do. Do humans? Hardly.

There’s a picture of Saylor I took while she was dying—one that elicits a lot of feeling when one sees it. It shows her in pain, an oxygen tube up her nose and another one threaded through her front arm, a pink gauze bandage around it. She looks sad. It triggers a flood of emotions for me, and for most people who have seen it. But I know that Saylor didn’t ascribe the same emotions to this last event in her life. And for that, I’m grateful.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Summer Camp for Doggies


Is there a doggie summer camp somewhere close to Madison?  I want to send my Irish setter, a nice young female, to camp in a rural area with lots of rolling hills and woods to play in, nice young doggies to run with, and a good camp leader to walk through basic discipline with her.

I thought of this yesterday, when I was home in the afternoon with a headache, trying to get a blueberry bush planted. So my headache may be influencing this, but I got the great idea as Singer tried to get my attention as I looked online for information on amending the soil and where to plant the blueberry bush. She was excited and impatient that I was home in the early afternoon and kept pawing my laptop (both she and Dakota hate my laptop—it takes so much of my attention!) I found what I was looking for and went to the garden center to purchase the soil amendment ingredients I needed. One of them was cocoa bean shells, the kind that smell like chocolate.

I got my gardening done, and spread the rest of the cocoa bean shells around my Vanderwolf pine because it loves acidic soil. Something about this, though, didn’t sit right with me as I put away my tools so I went back online to see what else I could learn. Bingo. After just a quick search, I found out why.

I finally remembered reading about cocoa bean shells being toxic to dogs when several links popped up. So, knowing Singer loves to munch on inedible items, like dirt and cat poop, I decided to send Jeff to the garden center again to get some wood chips to cover the cocoa bean shells. Husbands are good for things like this—they run errands when you’re making dinner, or feeding the animals, or when your headache just won’t quit. And mine wasn’t.

After dinner, we spread the cedar mulch over the cocoa bean shells, and then just to be safe, I put a plastic fence-like material around the drip line, weighing it down with sticks. And put an actual rabbit fence around my blueberry plant, which, by the way, was a Mother’s Day present. And so, Singer is watching me, trying to contain her excitement, waiting for the moment my attention lapses. I can see her out of the periphery of my eye. She prances like a young girl, practicing ballet. My headache seems to worsen and I can intuit what will happen next.

When the moment is right, she moves in and starts to nibble some of the beans around the edges. Both Jeff and I catch her, yell at her, and she runs away, duly cowed. But then she sneaks back, again and again, to try to eat that enticing chocolately yummy stuff Mom has spread for her to eat. She knows it’s for her, why would her mom put it out in her backyard if it wasn’t?

We spent the better part of the evening watching her try to sneak the shells, stopping her as she approached. She’s very obedient when someone is watching her. But I worry she will dig up the treats when we’re not looking. That’s when I got the bright idea that this young dog needs a summer camp—a place where she can run and play and tire herself out, learn some discipline and come home all relaxed and happy. Just like Nathaniel did when he was eleven or twelve. He learned a thing or two. We missed him terribly for a week, but knew he was having fun. And he grew up a little bit, too!

We probably won’t be sending Singer to summer camp this year, or next. Instead, I will probably dig up the cocoa bean shells and throw them away, using only cedar mulch. I just don’t want to chance it that Singer will eventually learn to keep away. Sigh.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

A Day in the Life


Singer leads on her walk like a sailor on the prow of a ship. She looks out as she floats along, stepping like hot peppers—quick and spicy—her nose doing the navigating. Her green world today is misty from ground fog, and the spring is well under way with leaves and flowers halfway grown. A lovely time of year. But she is all business—her nose is scouting out the animals within a radius of a hundred feet or so, and there are a motherlode of them in this park. Garner Park is decorated with spots of prairie, woods and open fields where all kinds of animals are lured into thinking the city is reverting back to nature. Deer and turkeys, wild muskrats (there’s a fetid pond surrounded by trees—sort of a coven for animals), and who knows what else come here. I wonder if they feel cheated when they realize it’s only a sham? Singer’s nose keeps track of their numbers and kinds, I’m sure, better than an Excel spreadsheet. Other dogs and their owners are taking a stroll through this unreal patch of wilderness, too.

Singer’s field of vision is like a video game as she moves through the environment. The greenery flashes by as if we are players whose quest is to find the hidden animals. I join her in this game, and try to spot the animals before she becomes riveted. But of course, I fail. She is always several steps ahead of me, her scenting powers almost magical and unparalleled by any of my modest abilities. I’m just content to stay behind and watch, like the novice sibling whose skilled sister is a master gamer.

While turning onto our block to go home, we hear the lamentably familiar urgent barking from Arrow, our neighbor’s Border Collie who is always outside, unhappily, in the backyard. He is barking now as he scents us coming near his front yard. Arrow is hardly ever out of his yard, a misfortune for such a young and energetic breed. Singer walks by and although the house is across the street, she quickens her pace slightly. Is she hurrying so she can avoid her less fortunate neighbor? I’m reminded of how people react when confronted with those who are down on their luck. I know I hurry past the homeless and try not to think about their fate.  Sometimes I guiltily add a few dollars to their outstretched hands.

I doubt dogs have the capacity to compare their lives to other canine lives, especially based on such little evidence. But I listen to Arrow barking a lot, and I know that he sounds lonely. I want to do something to help him out, but don’t know what I can do. It seems unfair that Singer gets at least one walk a day, sometimes two or three, while Arrow hardly ever gets out. One time, (I didn’t witness this, my neighbor did) Arrow was let out of his yard and the children were supposed to be watching him. But Arrow attacked a man while he was walking his two little white dogs, and one of them ran away. I guess Arrow got punished for that.

I hear the sadness in his bark as we walk by, every day, or later while on the couch reading. He barks because he is alive and he wants his people to know that. He barks to let the neighborhood dogs know that he is alive. He barks to hear his own bark. I hear you, Arrow. I wish I could help you. 

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Animals and Selfhood


 Singer and Dakota await to be fed on a recent night...

One of my favorite novelists, Barbara Kingsolver, says that good writing involves “relaxing into who you really are.” We humans have to learn how to be who we really are by relaxing. We can’t just be ourselves all the time? Since when? Where’s the research? This is so not true with animals.

Singer is naturally who she is all the time. She doesn’t need to relax. She knows she loves to look out onto her backyard and monitor all the wildlife, whether they’re scurrying in the grass, in the bushes, among the tree branches or flying across the sky. She can spend hours, sitting straight up and attentive, watching her domain from the deck like a powerful landowner. She knows she owns this land. She knows who she is. How do I know this? Last weekend, as I brought in a strange, coiled object to her yard, she showed me just how audacious I had been. While I dragged it right in front of Singer, she pranced around it, barking and yipping, and play growling. She thought this large “snake” was invading her territory. I stopped dragging the hose and called her to me, then offered the nozzle for her to smell. She usually takes her cues from me, who she understands is the “empress” to her “landowner” status, and decided to accept the new object in her yard. Singer: “I guess that thing can share my yard…but I have my eye on it!”

She knows what frightens her and is not shy about showing it. Last night, thunder and lightening scared her, so she stepped up on my side of the bed to paw me awake. Petting her didn’t calm her down. She then hopped up on the bed and settled between us, our bodies putting pressure on both sides of her to help her feel calm. She breathed short, quick huffs until the storm died down. When do we as children learn to cover our fear of thunderstorms, or nightmares, or whatever fear we might have? When do we “outgrow” those fears? Do we ever? Or do we learn to cover them up and forget we once were afraid of loud noises? Neuroscientists might tell us that we learn to “habituate” to fearful stimuli. But I also wonder how quickly we learn to cover up those fears and erase them from that image of who we think we are. Our selves are constantly changing. Dogs and cats don’t do this, although they may habituate to fearful stimuli, I’m told.

My yoga teacher urges us all to confront our fears. She believes in self-knowledge and that certain yoga postures will help us deal with our fears. She encourages us to think about how we affect others around us with our thoughts and communications. All very new-age kinds of ideas. But this also goes to the issue of finding out and expressing who we “really are”. A complicated process for us humans, and not just children—even adults.

I just have to think of Singer or Dakota, relax a little, and pop, suddenly myself is there, right before me. It may waver a bit, like a mirage. The tender side of me is there to recognize my pets in the early morning storms while their frightened bodies quiver beside our legs. Dakota found a safe little cove in the curve of Jeff’s bent legs and snuggled in, while Singer huddled between us, her head right next to mine on the pillow. There’s no pretense to fear. She didn’t care that she was breathing shallowly right in my face. She just knew she felt safe there with us, and that was all she needed to know.