An artist's life and the dogs who have shared it, is examined
When Paul Fierlinger was living in Prague in the 1960s, his dogs kept his spirit alive. Living under totalitarian rule, surrounded by suspicion and class hatred, Fierlinger might have perished had it not been for Roosevelt, a charmer who knew how to sneak into restaurants undetected, and Ike, a friend so vital, true and ultimately essential that in six years Fierlinger was never once separated from him.
Those are just two of the tales of dog love that Fierlinger, an animator who emigrated to the United States in 1968, shares in his autobiographical 26-minute documentary, Still Life with Animated Dogs. Kind in nature, but tempered by Fierlinger’s sardonic Eastern European humor, Still Life is a marvelous work that offers more emotion, poetry and reflective wisdom than the vast majority of feature-length, live-action films.
Narrated by Fierlinger, who draws and animates himself at various stages of his dog-loving existence, Still Life is broken into episodes, each one remembering a special dog and the lessons he left behind. The animation is deft and surprisingly expressive, and the original music by composer John Avarese underscores the film’s delicate, affectionate, never-sentimental tone.
I loved this film, pure and simple, and recommend it with unabashed enthusiasm to anyone who loves dogs--and even to those not lucky enough to include themselves in that category. I make a living as a movie critic, so I see upward of 200 films per year--the good, the dreadful, the instantly forgettable. I doubt if I’ll see much this year that speaks to me more deeply than Still Life with Animated Dogs.
At 64, Fierlinger has owned a series of dogs, watched them with an acute eye and in Still Life finds occasion to speculate on the mystery of dogs and our relationship to them. He opens with the story of Spinnaker, a terrier who was picked up on the roadside by a dog lover en route to a picnic for Animal Rescue Society volunteers. The dog found his way to the home that Fierlinger shares with his wife and collaborator, Sandra, and quickly became the filmmaker’s constant companion.
Taking his friend on a walk through the woods Fierlinger, overhears the fatuous conversation of other dog owners and contrasts it with Spinnaker’s avid engagement with the natural world. What’s the secret of his dog’s unfathomable levels of perception? When Spinnaker stretches and bows, Fierlinger reasons, “He’s really saying, ‘Follow me.’ We are both practicing anthropomorphism...My dog uses the same signals with me as he would use with any other dog.”
From here, Fierlinger drifts into reveries of the dogs he lived with in Czechoslovakia and named after American presidents. His great love, its seems, was Ike, a burly but gentle guy who, on the day they met, walked across the entire city of Prauge with Ferlinger.
That hike, he says, “created a stronger bond that any amount of treats would ever have accomplished.” Together, they formed “an intimacy that only occasionally transpires between separate species.”
It’s upsetting, therefore, to see what happens next, when Fierlinger get his chance to leave Czechoslovakia and has to decide what do with Ike.
After 40 years as an animator, with TV commercials, political ads and shorts for “Sesame Street” under his belt, Fierlinger has the gift of saying a lot with his fanciful, deceptively simple art. His rendering of his crowded attic in Prague, for example, is so rich with detail and atmosphere that we can imagine how the room smelled, and feel how the cold wind felt as it leaked through the windows.
But Still Life is most amazing is its ability to incite our emotions. When Fierlinger recreates the day one of his dogs was hit by a car, I found myself jumping forward and yelling “No!” at the TV screen--astonished by the realism, but also reminded of the day my Cocker Spaniel, Nicky, was injured.
Still Life with Animated Dogs has that kind of power: to startle us, remind us of dogs we’ve known and cherished and illustrate the puzzling, ultimately unknowable nature of our friends. “Dogs were put on earth to make us better people,” a friend of mine likes to say, and Fierlinger’s film, at its best, offers unimpeachable proof of that fact.
Imagining the lives of famous people has always been a favorite American pastime. There are a whole raft of magazines designed to help us picture the inner worlds of the very talented and the very beautiful and the very rich. We envision the people we admire with such clarity that our ideas about them can seem, at least in the little movie theaters in our heads, quite true. Renee Fleming, for example. I imagine that she is always singing. I imagine her singing while she brushes her teeth in the morning. I imagine her wearing a modest rack of diamonds from Harry Winston while she trills like a lark to wake up her daughters, who pop up from bed, bright as daisies, singing in reply.
“Waf—fles for break—faaaasst?” Renee Fleming would sing.
“Yes, Mo—ther, pleeeeease,” the girls would harmonize.
When I was asked by this magazine to write a profile of Renee Fleming’s dog, the story spilled out before me like so much red carpet on opening night: Of course this would be a dog who lived for music, a dewy-eyed Lassie who stayed hidden in the folds of her mistress’s Ferrer gown, a dog who slept beneath the piano, her tail brushing trustingly beneath the pedals. She would run from any corner of the apartment when the first scale was sung to be near the singer, leaving behind half a bowl of good canned food without a second thought in hopes of being present for a bright and shining high C.
This dog would never tire of rehearsals, and on performance nights she would pace vigilantly near the door, keeping an eye on the children while Renee took her fourth curtain call on the stage of the Metropolitan or Carnegie Hall. When Renee came home in the small hours of the morning, she would drop all the roses in her arms to scoop up the dog whom she loved, who loved her, who was, in fact, her muse.
Something like that.
There is a great deal of barking when I knock on the door, the kind of frenzied viciousness that implies protection of home and hearth. Renee Fleming greets me, looking extremely smart in high-heeled boots and a long black jacket, exactly the way I had imagined an off-duty opera star would dress. “That’s Rosie,” she says, and I catch a glimpse of my subject, a silky flash of pale fur who is both barking and backing up down the hall. Then she’s gone.
“She’s not great with strangers,” Renee says, leading me into the living room. I look wistfully over my shoulder, but there’s nothing there. I want to tell her it’s the dog I’m here to talk about, but then I realize not even Rin Tin Tin could give a good interview. The best way to get to the Diva’s dog is through the Diva herself.
And the Diva’s daughters. Sage and Amelia, 8 and 11, respectively, come and sit with us in the living room. They are anxious to tell me the story I want to hear.
“Her name is Rosie and she’s a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel,” Amelia says. “She has mahogany spots. She’s like a cow, only mahogany and white instead of black and white.” She tells me Rosie was born in Ireland.
“She came from Ireland before we met her,” Sage says.
“We got her four years ago,” Renee says. “It was after Christmas. It’s hard to find a puppy after Christmas, like trying to find a rose after Valentine’s Day.”
Even though the story is very clear in my mind, I take the time to ask them about their dog’s relationship to opera. The beautiful woman and her beautiful daughters stare at me. The little one blinks.
“What does Rosie do when I sing?” the soprano asks her daughters.
“She runs away,” the older one says.
“Sometimes she makes a weird noise before she runs away,” the little one says, “like a whine.”
The older one thinks it through carefully. “Or she sleeps.”
“She barks at oxygen,” Sage says.
“She barks at the air, at nothing, and she’s afraid of pigeons.” The girls explain to me that she is both ferocious and cowardly, that she was impossible to house-train, that she sheds, and that they love her madly.
I’m beginning to worry a little. I am not here to write a story about a dog who is afraid of pigeons, a dog who will not come out into the living room. I ask again, isn’t there some connection between Rosie and opera?
They are trying. Renee tells me a story about an Irish Wolfhound who howled along through her aria in Manon. She mentions that all of her mother’s Great Dane’s puppies were named after characters in Wagner. They continue to mull it over with great earnestness until I feel as if I’ve asked a heart surgeon how the family Basset Hound enhances her surgical skills. Why should a nervous Spaniel be artistically connected to the greatest singer of our time? Wouldn’t it be enough simply to be Renee Fleming’s dog?
But suddenly Renee is onto something big. “There was a King Charles in a production of Der Rosenkavalier,” she says, and I wonder how she could have failed to tell me this before I had my coat off. “Every night I played the Marschallin they brought me this lovely King Charles on stage, and we fell in love. That’s when I decided I wanted one.”
“And her name is Rosie,” I say excitedly. “Is it short for Rosenkavalier?”
Renee looks at her daughter Amelia, the namer of dogs.
“Rosie was just the first thing that popped into my head,” she says.
“So maybe Rosie could play the Cavalier King Charles in the next production at the Met?”
“No!” the three of them say in unison.
“She would start barking and try to run away,” Amelia says. Journalistic ethics prevent me from telling the story my way: Rosie was the puppy understudy for that King Charles Spaniel, and one night the famous dog mistakenly ate a box of bonbons meant for a tenor and was too sick to go on. It was Rosie’s big chance, and when she was handed to the famous soprano dressed as the Marschallin, their big eyes locked onto one another and in an instant, each knew she had found her destiny. Rosie gave up the stage to be a lap dog. Renee’s heart nearly broke with gratitude.
I think the story is better my way, but I’m not the one who gets to make those choices.
My 10-year old Boxer, Otto, and I have a ritual in which the work of Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Maxine Kumin plays a central role. The ritual is enacted during our annual late-spring pilgrimage to a farm owned by generous friends in a profoundly underrated portion of upstate New York. Along with Otto, the main players in the rite are the dozen or so frogs who reside in the pond that lies just steps away from the farm-house. The ceremonial text is Kumin’s wonderful poem “Custodian,” from her book Nurture, published in 1989.
The annual custom commences just as soon as we arrive. Once Otto is relieved of his leash and I of my shoes, we make our way down to the pond with me well-worn copy of Nurture in hand. There, Otto circumambulates the water’s edge, gently disrupting the concentration of each and every frog, one after the other, until all have been evicted from their cozy spots in the sun to wait it out in the water before calmly kick-stroking back to the muddy shore. As Otto conducts this painstaking effort, I stand, barefoot in the mud, reading Kumin’s “Custodian” aloud.
I read it partly by way of apologizing to the frogs--formal recognition that our presence here brings a certain amount of inconvenience to them. I read it partly as an invocation to the pleasures of being outdoors, dog and woman sharing the day, free of our urban fetters. I read it because saying poems aloud when out-of-doors is, for me, one of life’s greatest pleasures--all the more so when the poem is so perfectly suited to the occasion, simultaneously reflecting on and enlarging it.
As you’ll see in the sampling of work presented here, reflection upon and enlargement of the occasion--be it feeding the many creatures in one’s care or recounting the life story of a much-loved Dalmatian--are important aspects of Maxine Kumin’s writing. The author of more than a dozen books of poetry, the most recent of which is The Long Marriage, Kumin has also published four novels, a collection of short stories delightfully titled Why Can’t We Live Together Like Civilized Human Beings?, over 20 children’s books, and four books of essays, including Women, Animals, and Vegetables, in which her essay “Mutts” appears. Animals of all kinds--dogs and horses frequently among them--populate much of Kumin’s work, which may be seen, at its essence as an ongoing treatise on empathy.
The annual ritual enacted by the pond in upstate New York with the Help of Maxine Kumin’s poem is, for me, a way of honoring the importance of poetry, the arrival into nature and the beautiful ways of dogs and other animals. And, like Kumin’s “Custodian,” the ritual celebrates ritual itself--continuance, inevitability, the endless cycles of living as passing away, “the taking and letting go,” as Kumin puts it, “that same story.”
I treasure the last time I saw John Steinbeck. We met for lunch in San Francisco while he was on the final lap of driving his camper around the United States, the basis of his best-selling book Travels with Charley. We were at Enrico’s sidewalk care, and Charley, the big Poodle, sat obediently in a corner near our table. With us was Howard Gossage, the innovative advertising man who, among other things, had given the world the current rage, Beethoven sweatshirts. Oh, to have had a tape recorder and been able to catch the sound as well as the words on the following dialogue, because John growled out his sentences in ursine grunts while Howard’s congenital stammer heightened rather than hampered his wit.
“Look at that dog over there,” said John. “Yesterday in the great redwoods of Muir Woods he lifted his log on a tree that was twenty feet across, three hundred feet high and a thousand years old. Howard, Howard! What’s left in life for that poor dog?”
Howard thought of the terrible dilemma for a moment and then said, “Well, J-J-John, he could always t-t-teach!”
Nobel prize-winner John Steinbeck had a great affinity for domestic animals, as can be seen in many of his novels and short stories, but nowhere is his love and understanding of dogs more apparent than in his picaresque and picturesque Travels with Charley. I recently re-read the book and was dazzled by it and fascinated by the eponymous dog, Charley.
Early in the 1960s, Steinbeck, who had left California and was living on Long Island, New York, was feeling restless, with a growing and insistent urge to renew his acquaintance with America—all of America. Accordingly, he bough a small, one-man camper truck, which he christened Rocinante, after Don Quixote’s horse. He outfitted it for a long and serious hegira that would last for sixteen weeks and result in a classic literary work. At first he was going to do it all alone, but then he asked his wife if he could take along their beloved big Poodle for companionship.
“That’s a good idea,” she said. “If you get into trouble, Charley can go for help.”
“Elaine,” John answered sternly, “Charley isn’t Lassie?”
But John, at the age of 58, was somewhat worried about traveling alone off the beaten path, and he was delighted that his dog would be with him. Tough gentle in disposition, Charley was, according to Steinbeck, “a good watch dog—has a roar like a lion, designed to conceal from night-wandering strangers the fact that he couldn’t bite his way out of a cornet de papier.”
Day by day as Steinbeck prepared his camper for the long swing around America, Charley grew more excited—and more worried about being left behind; like so many watchful canine companions, he could read the signs of departure, “long before the suitcases come out.” But this time Charley would not be left behind. Finally they set out, Charley sitting in the front seat, his head almost as high as the six-foot Steinbeck.
For the next sixteen weeks the pair would travel around the United States, eating and sleeping together in the little camper, Steinbeck recording his impression of the places and people he encountered. Charley loved the traveling and would take a great interest in the scenery as well as the people and animals they encountered.
There are so many wonderful happenings in this delightful odyssey. I had not read the book in thirty years, and I was amazed at how informative, fresh, funny and often profound it is. I was sorry when Rocinante finally came to the end of its voyage of discovery, but in reading I learned a great deal about America, as well as John Steinbeck. And perhaps best of all, I came to know and love a remarkable Poodle.
In a film career that spanned nearly 60 years and more than 130 films, Myrna Loy played many parts, but her greatest fame came from her role as Nora Charles in the series of six Thin Man movies made between 1934 and 1947. She starred opposite William Powell as Nick Charles, the martini-swilling, wisecracking detective loosely based on a character by Dashiell Hammett, and a little dog named Skippy, whom millions of movie fans came to know as Asta.
One not-so-secret ingredient in the success of the light-hearted series, besides the obvious chemistry of the two human stars, was their willingness to share the screen with Asta, a Wirehaired Fox Terrier who perfectly complemented the tipsy detective and his spunky high-society wife. Though a high-society dog himself, Asta was masterful at finding dead bodies or sniffing out guns in drainpipes, but prone to hide under a bed or table with his paws over his eyes when things got rough. These unlikely crime fighters made up an unforgettable trio. “Not one day in my life passes,” Loy wrote many years later in her autobiography, “without someone asking about Bill (William Powell) or Asta.”
Before Lassie’s debut on the silver screen in 1943, Asta was the top dog at MGM. Owned by Hollywood’s legendary animal trainer, Henry East, he was born into the business. Like many in Hollywood, Skippy adopted a stage name, in his case from the first Thin Man movie, which was made in 1934. Born in Van Nuys, Calif., Skippy made his first appearance in a Three Stooges picture as a pup of six months.
In The Thin Man, Asta makes his grand entrance at the same time Myrna Loy makes her own, not-so-grand entrance. As the little rascal desperately pulls his leading lady—who’s struggling with a giant pile of Christmas boxes—she falls flat on her face in front of the camera. When asked to take the dog outside, Nick assures the waiter, “It’s all right. It’s my dog. And uh, my wife.” To which Nora replies, “Well, you might have mentioned me first on the billing.”
By the end of the film, Asta had earned his spot on the marquee. The audience loved the inscrutable but loveable terrier, and his popularity spawned a national craze for his breed. When the first Thin Man sequel was announced in 1936, the New York Times noted that the dog detective was no bit player. “Asta, the dog that fought with William Powell and Myrna Loy for top honors in The Thin Man,” the Times noted, “will compete again with the two in Metro’s After The Thin Man.” True to the Times’ prediction, when the second film appeared, Asta not only received major billing, but the film opened on his wagging tail, and introduced a subplot concerning Asta’s strained relationship with “Mrs. Asta,” whom Asta believed was having a romance with the dog next door.
Skippy was trained by the best in the business: brothers Frank and Rudd Weatherwax and their assistant Frank Inn, whose Studio Dog Training School went on to train many of the biggest dogs in Hollywood, including Toto, Daisy from the “Blondie” series, Old Yeller, Benji and many generations of Lassies. Skippy lived on a special vegetable mash, was sure to get 12 hours of beauty sleep a night, and retreated to his own dressing room when not working so as not to be distracted by the attention of fellow cast members and crew. He always did his own stunts, and was particularly adept at hide-and-seek.
Myrna Loy said she never really became friends with Skippy (he actually nipped her once on the set) but he was a wonderful dog. One of the secrets of his motivation was a little rubber mouse named Oslo. “He did everything for a little squeaky mouse,” Loy said. “I’d squeak the mouse and put it in my pocket, and then Asta would do whatever he was supposed to do.” One squeak sent him into “ transports of delight.”
Skippy’s film career lasted through 10 years; nine pictures; and screen time with greats such as Cary Grant, Katherine Hepburn and Irene Dunne. The last Thin Man movie, Song of the Thin Man, made in 1947, starred his son, “Asta II,” whom Powell was said to have called “Half Asta.” But no one could replace the original, a four-footed amateur detective who helped Nick and Nora put the bite on crime.
Dr. Eric Davis and the RAVS team take their veterinary show on the road to benefit underserved animals everywhere.
Growing up in Portola Valley, California, Dr. Eric Davis lived in a household with lots of animals around—dogs, cats, sheep, cattle and birds. He learned to treat living things humanely, but acknowledges that “little boys will be little boys.” When he was five, he taped a “daddy long-legs” spider to the floor by its legs. His mother saw him, and pointed out that he was hurting the spider, which was just as alive as he was. “My parents started me down the road to working in animal protection,” Davis remembers, “by teaching me that all living things had value and feelings, and deserved kindness and respect.”
Davis became a veterinarian and an advocate for animal welfare and outreach. “Every animal deserves to be taken care of with the best quality care possible,” he maintains. Today, he’s the director of Rural Area Veterinary Services (RAVS), a program of the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) that provides veterinary medical services and education to underserved rural communities in the United States and around the globe. In 2005, RAVS’ four full-time veterinarians, working with hundreds of volunteers—veterinarians, vet students, vet technicians and others—provided health care to more than 32,000 animals in 115 communities. Though the estimated value for aid rendered was in excess of $1.5 million dollars, communities receive RAVS’ services at no cost.
RAVS began in 1995 as the veterinary arm of Remote Area Medical (RAM) Volunteer Corps, a private medical aid group for people, headquartered in Knoxville, Tennessee. At the time, Davis was on the faculty at the University of Tennessee; his wife, Ila, also a veterinarian, was a graduate student in immunology. At RAM’s request, the couple agreed to set up a rabies vaccination clinic in Rosebud, South Dakota. They took some supplies and three volunteers with them, and the five-member team worked hard and treated the people and animals kindly and respectfully. Neighboring tribes heard about the program through word-of-mouth, and realized that their animals could also benefit from the sort of veterinary attention that Eric and Ila Davis and their associates were providing. The program steadily grew. Davis ran this animal-aid project as part of RAM until 2001, at which time the project affiliated with HSUS and became RAVS.
The organization primarily deals with companion animals, but also treats livestock, horses and, according to one vet, “whatever critter needs help.” Basic health care services for dogs and cats include spay/neuter surgery, vaccination programs and parasite treatment and control. The education component, which is designed for both adults and children, addresses disease prevention, humane pet care and dog-bite prevention.
RAVS teams visit countless rural communities and Native American reservations in the US, places such as Scott County in Appalachia and Turtle Mountain in North Dakota, which have little or no access to veterinary care. Internationally, expeditions travel to the Pacific and Caribbean islands and Central and Latin America, among other remote locations. Even Easter Island is on RAVS’ well-beaten path.
Clinics last between two days and two weeks. Some consist of a full-service mobile veterinary facility, complete with surgery suite, state-of-the-art equipment, and separate intake and recovery areas. Others are more makeshift, operating with limited personnel, water and electricity, instruments, and supplies. Regardless of the conditions, Davis maintains strict protocols regarding pain control, basic surgical principles and anesthesia. He insists on providing whatever is needed for each animal’s comfort. He credits Ila, “the smartest veterinarian in the world” in his words, for helping him maintain this focus. In every case, he poses the question, “Are we doing the best we can for the individual animal?”
“The biggest thing I’ve learned from Dr. Davis is the absolute value of the individual animal,” says Dr. Jennifer Scarlett, a veterinarian at a private clinic in San Francisco. In her eight years with RAVS, she’s traveled to Romania, Chile, Bolivia, Micronesia, the Bahamas, the Marshall Islands and Easter Island. It can be tempting to allow standards to slip, she admits, “but if it’s not good for the individual, it’s not good.” She explains that by setting the bar higher than just getting the job done, RAVS provides a great example to communities at home and in other countries. She loves helping people by improving the lives of their animals. “RAVS has been nothing but absolute joy for me,” she says.
The realities of busy field clinics—rustic living and working conditions, long hours, unfamiliar environments and cultures, limited resources, and unforeseeable challenges—are not for everyone. However, for some, these realities are what draw them to sign up for trip after trip. Lisa Toolen, a third-year student at California’s UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, is a five-time participant. “RAVS encompasses everything I love about veterinary medicine,” she observes. “Dr. Davis is a natural-born leader.” She pays what may be a student’s ultimate compliment to a teacher: “I know there will be situations throughout my career where I’ll hear his voice in the back of my head.”
The trips offer participants a mother lode of experience: performing physical examinations, administering medications, helping with anesthesia and surgery, communicating with clients. Some vet students claim that one RAVS trip gave them more practical surgical experience than four years of school. Davis hopes participants also gain a sense of altruism and an appreciation for the animal welfare problems that exist in the US and beyond. Three of the organization’s staff veterinarians started as RAVS student volunteers. Toolen, for one, says her RAVS experience has truly shaped her career goals; in the future, she hopes to concentrate on animal overpopulation.
Randolph Runs After is a tribal environmental health specialist on the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation in north–central South Dakota. About 14,000 tribal members and their animals live in this remote land, and the closest veterinary care is 40 miles away. RAVS has made annual trips to the reservation since 1997. “RAVS is one of our invaluable resources,” Runs After says. “It’s an integral piece of the puzzle for our animal efforts.” His own dog, Sissy, a Blue Heeler/Lab-mix, is a rescued RAVS dog
Davis has garnered accolades and recognition for his contributions to animal welfare from a variety of sources: the American Veterinary Medical Association, the Surgeon General, his peers and students. His home is filled with gifts of appreciation: porcupine quill earrings, a rattlesnake tail, beaded bracelets, ceremonial blankets, pieces of Mayan pottery. Yet some of his greatest rewards have been simple words of thanks.
He recounts an exchange with an “old, grizzled Chiklero” (someone who harvests chicle—a gum obtained from the latex of the sapodilla tree—in the jungle) after an equine clinic in northern Guatemala. His bony horse was the only thing this man had in the world, Davis remembers, and “he thanked me for treating his animal so kindly.” The man’s gratitude touched Davis. “This told me that the people really cared about their animals and that the clinic had given them an opportunity to recognize that.”
As RAVS heads into its 11th year, there are signs that it is bringing about long-term change. In some communities, returning vets report a decrease in dog bites and mange or an increase in animals as pets as opposed to semi-ferals. They revaccinate animals they had previously spayed and neutered. Local people seem to be responding to the educational resources and support as well. High school kids volunteer in the clinics and express an interest in public health and animal welfare issues. In some communities, groups have formed humane societies, brought in an animal control officer or started raising money for a shelter.
The Davises live in Salinas, California. Ila works as a veterinarian for Monterey County, and both teach at Hartnell Community College. They have their own sanctuary, which, according to Davis, is filled with “unadoptable dogs, unadoptable bunnies, unadoptable horses, an unadoptable ox, several unadoptable sheep, and numerous unadoptable chickens and ducks.” The similarities between his own animals and those he encounters on the road are not lost on Davis. In part, they fuel his tireless efforts and dedication. “I would not operate a clinic where I would not take my own animals.”
Following her discovery of a small pamphlet about Dogtown, a long-gone Massachusetts hamlet, Anita Diamant set to work creating a deeply imagined story of its life, and its demise. She captures the town’s story in her latest book, The Last Days of Dogtown (Scribner), in which the lives of its few remaining citizens, and the pack of dogs tat lived in their proximity, are perceptively rendered. Recently, Anita was kind enough to indulge a few of Bark’s questions.
YES. Buddy (Miniature Schnauzer from Schnauzer Rescue of NE) is my current canine companion. He is my mood elevator, exercise machine and pal. He is also the “neighborhood dog,” especially beloved by the kids on the block. He is my third dog: first was the Beagle, Bartholemew, them Pom the Poodle. I have written about my love of dogs for publication, too. (See the “Dog and Katz” essay in my collection, Pitching My Tent: On Marriage, Motherhood, Friendship, and Other Leaps of Faith.
In your research, did you come across information on dogs of the time—how they lived, how they were regarded?
I didn’t come across anything about the dogs of the 1800s. There were farm dogs, wild dogs, and pet dogs, as there have been for centuries. In all matters canine, Elizabeth Marshall Thomas’ wonderful book, The Hidden Life of Dogs, was my guide.
What led you to incorporate dogs into the story?
Well, the name of the town was Dogtown. However it should be noted that “dogtown” was kind of a generic and not-very-nice term for a place that was on the skids, especially a rural, “slum.” Someplace that was “going to the dogs” was called a dogtown.
In all of these cases, the loving relationships were not planned by the humans. These were not farmers, who kept working dogs, but very lonely poor people, for whom dogs were a sort of last resort, and for whom the shared affection comes as a surprise, and ultimately, a form of salvation from loneliness. As for the relationship of the dogs to one another, I really, really tried not to anthropomorphize (in honor of Ms. Thomas) though that’s probably not possible for a human.
What lay behind your decision to tell part of the story through Greyling’s eyes?
I suppose I wanted an outside perspective and also to introduce the intelligence of the dog. That was a challenge since, even in that case, I really wanted to avoid “humanizing” the canine. So while she’s intelligent, she’s totally non-judgmental, which is a non-human attribute.
Wellness: Food & Nutrition
Donald Strombeck's book cooks up nutritious recipes for your dog.
When he wrote Home-Prepared Dog and Cat Diets: The Healthful Alternative, Donald R. Strombeck, DVM, PhD, created one of the first-of-its-kind pet nutrition books. It went on to become a standard reference for veterinarians and those looking for an alternative to commercial pet food.
Once again the professor emeritus at the University of California School of Veterinary Medicine is breaking ground and demonstrating that his overriding concern is for the health of dogs and cats. When the first edition went out of print, the good doctor made all the information available free at dogcathomeprepareddiet.com.
So, why DIY? Here are a few simple reasons to homeprepare your dog’s food, according to Dr. Strombeck.
Click here to read our 2007 interview with Dr. Strombeck.
YouTube hit touts the joys of adoption.
Stuck in a shelter, a resourceful Terrier named Harvey markets himself to prospective adopters with a video showing him delivering slippers, playing chess with junior, doing laundry, roasting chicken and even cleaning windows. It’s a commercial within a commercial created by UK-based Thinkbox to promote TV as a marketing medium while making a sweet case for the joys of adopting a shelter dog. (The pup performer who plays Harvey was once a stray himself.) Harvey crossed the pond late last year via YouTube and Facebook — check him out.
Bill Plympton draws upon a universal doggedness—the search for love.
Animator Bill Plympton earned his first Oscar nomination in 1987 with the short film Your Face, but it was his 2004 short Guard Dog (also Oscar-nominated) that gave him a character audiences wanted to see again and again. The Dog, a goofy-looking pooch always on the hunt for love, has gone on to star in three additional shorts, and inspired Plympton to launch Guard Dog Global Jam, inviting animators all over the world to remake two- to four-second segments of Guard Dog, creating one collaborative, multi-style film.
You can also see the Dog bounding throughout Plympton’s new book, Independently Animated: Bill Plympton. We talk to Plympton about his canine inspirations and why audiences empathize with the Dog.
In Guard Dog, we meet the Dog, who imagines that everything he encounters (a girl with a jump rope, a songbird, a flower) is a threat against his owner—with tragic results. What was the inspiration for this film?
There’s a couple of influences for that film. One is, when I was a kid, I used to go to baseball practice, I was like 10 years old or so then. And there was this dog on the road that wouldn’t let me pass. And I was on a country road, so there was no alternative route. And he used to chase me, barking at me all the time and I was frightened by it. I think psychologically, it kind of gave me this obsession with barking dogs. And then it was about six years ago, I was in the park right near where I live—it’s called Madison Square Park—and I saw this dog barking at a little bird. And I wondered, “Why is a dog so afraid of a cute little bird?” And then I went inside the dog’s brain and realized that he was afraid the bird would attack his master and he would lose his companion, his meal ticket, his master. So I thought, “Oh, that’s a funny idea.” And I immediately went home and started writing this storyboard about this dog who was so paranoid about these strange creatures that he imagined that they’re like these fictitious fantasy attacks on his master. And the film was a huge hit. Really, I was amazed how popular this dog was.
So often, we see animated dogs anthropomorphized, but here it seems like you did the opposite and really tried to get at what the Dog was thinking.
Yeah, I don’t like real cutesy talking dogs that take on human form. I like it when they’re actually real animals that you can identify with and it sort of feels like your own dog, like you really know this dog and it’s one of your own dogs. To me, that’s what gives a resonance to this character. That’s why people love him. It’s because they know he’s a real dog and not half-human.
In the later films Guide Dog and Hot Dog, we see the dog take on these more vocational roles—being a seeing-eye dog and a firehouse dog, respectively. Do you see some aspirational quality in dogs?
No, the basic idea for this dog is that he’s searching for love. Everybody’s looking for love and looking for companionship and someone to spend their life with, and that’s what he’s doing. So it’s part of his search to find a caretaker, a master. And he goes to the fire department and he wants to be adopted as a firehouse dog. And then when he’s a guide dog, he wants to help the blind people and he’s hoping a blind person will adopt him as their guide dog. And there’s actually a fourth one...and that is called Horn Dog, and that’s where he falls in love with another dog, a beautiful long-haired Afghan. And that obviously goes very badly, too. So, that’s his life, just getting rejected when he finds a companion, finds someone to take care of him.
So will the Dog ever find love?
No, that would be disaster. That would end the series. You know, he’s sort of become my Mickey Mouse, and he’s been identified with me quite strongly. So as long as I keep making the films, people want to see the dog. I like that, so I need to have him always in constant search for the love of his life.
Why do you think audiences connect so well with the Dog?
I think they empathize with him. They’ve been there. They know that oftentimes they make a fool of themselves trying to gain love or gain acceptance or gain approval and oftentimes it goes bad. And it’s funny. If people loved him, it wouldn’t be funny. It would be a romance. I prefer humor over romance. Well, that’s hard to say. I do other films for romance.
Are there any more Dog films in the works?
I do. I have another one that I’ll just tell you about briefly. It’s called Cop Dog, and this is where he works in an airport, sniffing for smugglers, drug-smugglers. And he finds a valise that’s full of drugs and he tears it open and the whole airport is filled with some sort of aphrodisiac. And everybody starts taking their clothes off and the airplanes start doing loop-de-loops and it’s total, total madness—a little mayhem. So I’ll probably have that one done over the summer.
The way you draw the Dog—his expressions, his walk—is so delightful. Do you spend a lot of time observing dogs?
The park where I first discovered the dog has a wonderful dog run, and so I do go over there occasionally and do sketches of dogs. They’re fun to draw.
My dog is a Pug, I think; the one I use for the model, I think was a Pug. I love drawing dogs and I’ve spent hours there sketching dogs and finding the right animal. I like the Pug. I think he’s a very handsome animal—very emotional, too. You know, the big tongue, the sloppy smile, that stuff.
And now you’re working on Guard Dog Global Jam.
Yes, we just finished it, actually, and we’re sending it out to festivals, and I think it’s going to have its world premier at the South By Southwest Film Festival.
It must be incredible to see that so many people want to reinterpret your work.
It was amazing. We had over 200 submissions and we only had space for about 70 artists. So we had to say no to a lot of people; it was very sad.
From what I’ve seen, the styles are so varied. Did you give people a lot of license?
We told everybody the same thing. We just said, “Reinterpret my artwork in your style.” And so the variety of styles is quite refreshing. I mean, we have one where it’s little bits of dog food, and then someone recommissioned 100 other people to do every frame of fill, which is just mind-blowing. It’s really beautiful. We have one that’s very theatrical; it’s almost puppets. .... It’s really interesting, the variety of different looks and styles. I like that. One’s a 10-year-old Chinese kid who did one, too. We had a Disney animator—a couple Disney animators and then a 10-year-old Chinese kid. So it’s a wide spectrum.
You’ve said that you don’t like anthropomorphized dogs in animation. Are there any animated dogs that are particular favorites?
I’ll tell you what I don’t like is the Hanna-Barbara stuff, like Scooby-Doo and Huckleberry Hound. They just don’t feel real to me, emotional to me. I don’t know; I’m trying to think. Goofy—I remember as a kid I loved Goofy. Pluto was not such a big favorite, but Goofy I liked a lot. I loved his sense of humor. He was an inspiration for a lot of my humor, the Goofy films.
I love how specific the movements in your animation are. Are you working in colored pencil?
Regular colored pencil. Regular, number two, Ticonderoga pencils that you use every day.
It adds so much texture. It’s so amazing to see when so many people are moving away from hand-drawn animation.
Well, that’s my specialty. It’s sort of my trademark. Whenever I say, “Oh a Bill Plympton film,” people always say, “Who’s Bill Plympton?” and I say, “Oh, the colored pencil guy.” And they say, “Oh! That guy!” Everybody knows who I am; they just don’t know what my name is. They know my style. They know my technique. They know my stories.
Why do you hold so firmly to hand-drawn animation?
A lot of reasons. One is hand-drawn is much faster. Computer animation is very slow. Also, it’s a lot cheaper. Computer animation is very expensive. For example, Toy Story 3 cost about $200 million to make, and it’s a beautiful film. I don’t deny it. It’s money well spent. Whereas my films cost about $200,000. So I could make a thousand Bill Plympton films for one Pixar film. That’s why I stay hand-drawn.
Is that true for 2D computer animation as well?
No, 2D is much cheaper, too. Especially with Flash, you can do it for a much cheaper price. But I still think it’s a little bit more—well, it depends on who the artist is. You know, a film like The Illusionist, which is hand-drawn, that was not cheap; that was about a $40 million film. So it depends who’s doing the art and how long the process is and what the market is—whether it’s TV or movie theaters.
It seems like you have a lot more control in hand-drawn animation as well.
I totally agree. There are so many things that you can do in hand-drawn animation. The only limit is really your imagination, and that’s why I love animation. I love drawing it and doing it. I did do a couple live-action films, and they were complete disasters because I couldn’t control the actors 100 percent. They didn’t allow me to sever their heads and have them start flying through the sky. They weren’t into that. So, with animation, I have no problems with that.
Take a peek at some samples from Guard Dog Global Jam:
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