02 Aug The Life in My Hands Part 3 — The Family Dog as Teacher
The Life in My Hands Part 3 — The Family Dog as Teacher
I suppose we all have our mythologies, our threads of endless and eternal truths and lies that we utter to ourselves to keep grounded while clambering around Samsara’s hamster wheel. Gramp figures largely among the timeless heroes I keep on hand to shield me in my weaker moments; and emerges to remind that all living creatures in their own right, beyond their utility, are deserving of a kind attention; that we must try, at the very least, to do no harm.
Like many an animal lover of whatever stripe, I grew up with animals. I should say, an animal. A dog named Laddie; Lad for short. My father, a Royal Canadian Mounted Policeman, boasted of Lad that he was no less than a “purebred killer dog, born and bred in the mines of England to kill stoke rats and timber wolves.” This might have been somewhat of an exaggeration. In the early 1970’s, to my mother’s horror and the infinite delight of the little white-haired girl, dad brought the legendary puppy home in an Alpine beer box to our bungalow in Truro, Nova Scotia. He was my first dog love.
Laddie was what was commonly known as a “bad dog.” Let me put it another way, Lad would not have been awarded a role — not a leading, supporting or even an extra role — in A Dog’s Purpose. He would have been kicked off the set. He appeared to have an affection for us all, but he listened to no one but the Mountie. When my father was transferred to St. John’s, Newfoundland in 1977 (“back home” as we called it, as both mom and dad were born there, and their parents before them), Lad too made the trip. To all outward appearances, he looked like an innocuous little beagle: tri-color black, white and brown, shorthaired, truly as cute as could be. Unfortunately, the scrappy Manchester terrier also lurked deep in his gene pool, deceptively nowhere to be found in his phenotype, and would surface daily. His misbehavior could largely be attributed to us, his irresponsible doting owners. Back in the day, neutering was not de rigueur. And Lad did bite just everyone who didn’t appeal to him. The mailman complained. Even threatened to stop delivering mail at one point. Parents of children who had been bitten complained. Owners of cats that Lad had chased into houses, complained. Needless to say, these were less litigious times. He lasted 16 years, ripping down countless sets of curtain sheers while barking at everything that came to the door. We attributed his longevity to the fact that neither god nor the devil could handle him. But as all legends must, he did finally expire, and the loss was truly unimaginably painful for the emotionally fragile teenager. After Lad, though, there would come many more little legends: a foot-long rat named Tolstoy, a rabbit named Easter, and countless cats, including Mr. Bird, the only one of my pride to attend college.
In her early twenties, this animal lover evolved into an animal shelter and rescue volunteer. Since 1989, my hands have seldom been without a leash, and my evenings and weekends seldom without a shelter dog to walk, no matter what the season. All of this is to say that after years of interacting with nonhuman beings, being pulled all over hell’s half acre by them; walking alongside them; running behind them; feeding them; talking to them; laughing with them; receiving comfort from them; being bitten, scratched and at times badly injured by them; and holding their paws as they journeyed onward and upward, I now know too much.
I can no longer obliviously lay my head on that soft pillow of widespread belief: That we humans sit midway in the great hierarchical chain of being, with only god, angels, demons, stars and the moon above us; and that our placement somehow justifies our dismal treatment of nonhuman beings further down that chain. To slightly rejig and borrow a phrase: This much I know is NOT true. In fact I have it on good word that cats are actually privy to the top spot of that great motley chain, or so I’ve been admonished by my pride of five. But in all seriousness, when you spend so much time with the animals, they can no longer be perceived as lesser beings, but rather different beings toward which we have a great responsibility.
This realization in and of itself has caused me no end of torment. Almost as much torment as my commitment in 2017 to go vegan one month on and one month off. I managed to get through January, and take it from me, there is no such thing as vegan cheese or eggs. Don’t let those flawless skinned vegans tell you otherwise. I know I’ll be traipsing around the eighth circle of hell in February as I return to rennet-free cheese and eggs from nicely treated chickens. But the realization cannot be unlearned. You can’t un-see or un-think it. You can only henceforth see through the fur-covered glass darkly.