A painter’s view of family and friends.
In one of his earliest paintings, simply titled Woman with Dog, the painter of private French life Pierre Bonnard caught his sister Andrée as she solemnly leaned down to touch the family pet; in response, the dog knowingly raised a paw to “shake.” In this gentle, sweet scene, the figures turn inward; at the bottom, near the center of the composition, hand and paw come together, forming a triangle within the frame of the painting. Despite the apparent unity of the scene, the dog’s attention strays; his eye, a beady brown spot of paint, looks into a world beyond the frame. The dual nature of this scene—domesticated dog with a wandering eye—recurred in varying forms throughout the artist’s career. Photographs taken at family gatherings and sketches drawn in private moments at home tell us that dogs were a primary presence in Bonnard’s everyday life. They were companions in his daily walks, and he wrote of them in his letters. A memorable photograph taken by the noted photographer André Ostier shows an aged Bonnard tenderly cradling his Dachshund on his lap. In this picture, Bonnard stares solemnly at the camera and the dog looks away—as in his paintings, intimacy and isolation exist side by side.
The year after he painted Woman with Dog, Bonnard set out on his own eccentric path to domesticity when he met Maria Boursin, the woman who called herself Marthe de Méligny. The two became lovers, living together for 32 years before marrying in 1925, the year the artist bought a house in Le Cannet in the south of France. Over the course of their lives, whether in a Parisian apartment at the foot ofMontmartre or at their house, Le Bosquet, in the Midi, Bonnard followed Marthe from room to room, sketching her as she bathed, dressed and ate.He later synthesized these sketches into major paintings—some were of Marthe and their Dachshund at table, others were scenes of Marthe in her bath with the dog nearby. In these works, the model and muse dissolves in light and fuses with the interior space. In contrast, the dog gazes outward, a dark and witty presence in an otherwise harmonious scene.
In 1913, Bonnard began a series of etchings for Dingo, the classic tale of a wild Australian dog by Octave Mirbeau, a popular Parisian writer and critic.Uncorrupted by social institutions, the maverick pup tried, and usually failed, to adapt to French civilization.At about the same time as Bonnard began these illustrations, a dignified Dachshund, the very opposite of the raffish Dingo, found a place in his paintings.
In Dressing Table with Mirror, for example, painted in the year he began the Dingo etchings, Bonnard abandoned the freewheeling stray in favor of his own little pet. Here the dog is triply trapped, enclosed once by the actual frame of the painting, next by the frame of a mirror and finally by a small square red rug. For all its apparent normality and pretty color, Dressing Table with Mirror presents an uncomfortable scene. In the foreground are ordinary objects: a brush, a soap dish, a vase of flowers, bottles of perfume and a large oval bowl, emblems ofMarthe’s private world. In contrast, in the reflected scene above the table, the dog tensely crouches at the bottom of a bed;Marthe sits at the other end, a decapitated nude. One can only wonder at the brutality suggested by that view. Yet table, objects, mirror and nude blend together in soft shades of blue, orange, lavender, white and cream. A solid dark form of the Dachshund, squarely centered inside the mirror’s frame, strikes a dark, dissonant note in a tranquil sea of pastels. But there is a contradiction here. This pup is funny, too. Out of place, incongruous, he solemnly shares a bed with his mistress.
In the 1890s, Bonnard belonged to a brotherhood of adventurous artists; they called themselves the Nabis (the Hebrew and Arabic word for prophet). Each member of the group had a nickname; Bonnard was punningly called the “japonard.” Captivated by the flat planes of color and intimate interiors he found in Japanese woodblock prints, the artist liberally borrowed these forms and conventions for his own work. In prints, Japanese artists often signed their names against a rectangular block of color—the signature carefully set apart from the scene. In Dressing Table with Mirror, the dog on his rectangular red cloth mimics the form of these signs.
In one dining room scene, Woman with a Basket of Fruit, a pannier bursting with overripe apples, pears and bananas rests on a snowy white cloth and dominates the composition. At the top,Marthe, a remote figure behind the basket, rests her head on one hand as she dreamily looks off into space. Her head echoes the shape of the basket, her blouse blends into the tablecloth, and her red collar and cuffs repeat the apple red of the fruit. Though she is physically one with the scene, her gaze reveals that her mind is wandering afield. Below, her canine companion, a profile head without a body, pokes his nose hopefully upward—a silhouette against the white cloth. Though the tip of the dog’s nose aligns neatly with Marthe’s nostril above, there is no eye contact between the two; the dog’s eye, like that of a pharaoh, stares unblinkingly outward. This could be a quick snapshot of ordinary life, an unremarkable moment with Marthe and her dog. It is as well a funny correspondence of noses. But viewed in another way, the scene echoes with loneliness. The figures catch separate scents, those that evoke longing for different worlds beyond a limiting frame.
Though there is no clear equation of dog with artist in this dining room scene, a correspondence occurs, as it did in the Dressing Table with Mirror, in some later works picturing Marthe in the bathroom at Le Bosquet. The strangest and perhaps the most magnificent of these bathtub paintings was also one of Bonnard’s last works. He began Nude in Bathtub in 1941 and worked on the painting long after Marthe died in January 1942. Even four years after his wife’s death and a year before his own, the artist continued to add touches to the work. In this scene,Marthe lies entombed, floating in a narrow oval tub that, in turn, floats in the shifting space of the room. Intense, prismatic colors describe a grid of tiles on the walls and floor; these colors—orange, yellow, blue and magenta— bleed from the background and define Marthe’s body. Hazy brushstrokes fuse her with the ambiguous space of the room. Dead center in the foreground, the incongruous Dachshund intrudes. A tight little body with his head raised up, the dog is framed by a square of dappled pink rug, a restatement of the Japanese signature. In this scene, he is neither a comic wiener dog and prankish pup nor a loyal companion and placid presence. The Dachshund, like the artist always sketching, intrudes on Marthe’s privacy, a jarring note in a lyrical scene. Perhaps here the dog, as elsewhere, really is Bonnard standing watch.
Jon Provost and his Collie co-star.
He was the favorite boy of America's favorite dog. For Jon Provost—“Timmy” on the “Lassie” television show—50 years later, life is still very much about dogs.
“When I was 10, 11, 12, Lassie and I would travel around the country for parades and special events. In every city, we visited children’s hospitals,” Provost said. Lassie’s trainer, Rudd Weatherwax, insisted that Lassie be allowed to visit ailing children at their hospital bedsides, something unheard of at the time.
“Rudd had a saying: Every child should have a dog and every dog should have a child. He just knew that the thrill of meeting Lassie would do a child good,” Provost said. Those visits also had a profound impact on Provost. He feels that the special bond he had with Lassie taught him empathy for animals, ingraining in him the conviction that caretakers must always be loving guardians.
His mother took him on his first audition after reading about a “cattle call” for children in a Hedda Hopper newspaper column. He made his film acting debut in 1953 at age three in So Big, a film starring Jane Wyman and Sterling Hayden, based on Edna Ferber’s Pulitzer Prize–winning novel about the struggles of a widow trying to support herself and her son. A year later, his film parents were Bing Crosby and Grace Kelly in The Country Girl.
An interesting chapter in his new book focuses on his relationship with Lassie’s trainer, the late Weatherwax. A hard-working, hard-drinking, old-school sort, Weatherwax was also something of a grandfather figure for Provost.When the series’ initial boy, Tommy Rettig, who played Jeff Martin, left the show, Weatherwax insisted on checking out Provost’s rapport with Lassie before any filming. The boy-dog chemistry was quickly confirmed.
“One thing that Rudd really instilled in me was respect for animals. On sets you see animal trainers of all sorts.Rudd always trained his dogs with lots of love,” Provost said.Weatherwax’s Lassies (now raised by his descendants) were all males; a primary Lassie usually had five or six backups for long shots or special stunts.
After earning 100 “Lassie points” for good behavior on the set, Provost was given his own Collie. The dog, whom Provost promptly named “Rudd,” grew up running through orange groves near the Provosts’ home in Pomona.When a move to Beverly Hills meant Rudd was limited to an average-size backyard, a family decision focused on what was best for the dog.
“We’d take Rudd on summer visits to my grandmother’s.After a few summers on 120 acres in Arkansas, Rudd retired from Hollywood to chase rabbits there. He got the true Lassie life in the end,” Provost said.
Although the philologist and fantasy writer J.R.R. Tolkien did not himself keep a dog, he put several memorable canines into his books. Indeed, a dog is the “start” of the most recent of his stories to have been published, Roverandom (1998). In 1925, Tolkien and his family were on a seaside holiday when his middle son, Michael, lost a beloved toy dog on the beach. To console him, Tolkien invented a story in which a real dog, named Rover--no points for an original name!--annoys a wandering wizard, is turned into a toy as punishment and goes on adventures to the moon and under the sea. On his travels he meets two other Rovers, a moon-dog and a mer-dog, while he himself is renamed Roverandom, because he doesn’t know where he is going to next.
One never doubts that Rover/Roverandom is a dog, or rather a puppy, young, impetuous, prone to mischief. When we first meet him he is playing with a ball; by page two he has bitten the old wizard’s trousers. Even when given wings or webbed feet he remains true to his canine nature, and he reacts just as a dog would when he is on his way to the moon on the back of the seagull Mew and sees a dark island below:
Over the water and up to them came the sound of a tremendous barking, a noise made up of all the different kinds and sizes of barks there are: yaps and yelps, and yammers and yowls, growling and grizzling, whickering and whining, snickering and snarling, mumping and moaning, and the most enormous baying, like a giant bloodhound in the backyard of an ogre. All Rover’s fur round his neck suddenly became very real again, and stood up stiff as bristles; and he thought he would like to go down and quarrel with all the dogs there at once--until he remembered how small he was.
“That’s the Isle of Dogs,” said Mew, “or rather the Isle of Lost Dogs, where all the lost dogs go that are deserving of lucky. It isn’t a bad place, I’m told, for dogs; and they can make as much noise as they like without anyone telling them to be quiet or throwing anything at them. They have a beautiful concert, all barking together their favourite noises, whenever the moon shines bright. They tell me there are bone-trees there, too, with fruit like juicy meat-bones that drops off the trees when it’s ripe.”
Of course there really is an Isle of Dogs, without the bone-trees: a tongue of land the projects into the River Thames in southeast London. Its name, on which Tolkien is playing, may have come from Henry VIII of Elizabeth I having kept hounds at that place when in residence across the river in Greenwich.
A rather different dog, Garm, appears in Tolkien’s mock-medieval tale Farmer Giles of Ham, first published in 1949. Garm is Welsh for “shout” or “cry,” and is also recorded as a dialect word in Cornwall meaning “scold, vociferate loudly.” The name suits Farmer Giles’ dog very well. Dogs, Tolkien writes, “had to be content with short names in the vernacular: the Book-latin was reserved for their betters. Garm could not talk even dog-latin; but he could use the vulgar tongue (as could most dogs of his day) either to bully or to brag or to wheedle in. Bullying was for beggars and trespassers, bragging for other dogs, and wheedling for his master. Garm was both proud and afraid of Giles, who could bully and brag better than he could.”
Garm is a coward in other respects too, a selfish animal more interested in saving his own skin than in protecting his master’s, and as such is an ironic opposite to the Garm (or Garmr) of Norse mythology, the powerful dog who guards the gates of Hel. But Giles’ Garm is not so afraid of his master that he won’t sneak out of the kitchen at night without permission and roam the fields looking for rabbits. Unluckily for Garm, one night he comes upon a giant, and on a longer expedition runs into the tail of a dragon. Giles deals with both menaces, with no help from man’s best friend: In the face of danger Garm runs away, or hides. Nevertheless, when Giles becomes lord of his land, Garm also rises to a higher station: Though he does not deserve it, he is given “a gold collar, and while he lived roamed at his will, a proud and happy dog, insufferable to his fellows; for he expected all other dogs to accord him the respect due to the terror and splendour of his master.” In contrast, dogs make only brief appearances in Tolkien’s most famous book, The Hobbit (1937) and The Lord of the Rings (1954-55). In the former, very much in the realm of children’s fairy-tale, the shape-changer Beorn has “several large long-bodied grey dogs” among his servants--”the dogs could stand on their hind-legs when they wished, and carry things with their fore-feet”--while in The Lord of the Rings Frodo and his friends encounter three huge “wolvish-looking dlogs,” Grip, Fang and Wolf, who belong to Farmer Maggot. But the lack of canine characters in these works, set in the Third Age of Middle-earth, is more than made up for by the greatest of Tolkien’s dogs, Huan, the wolfhound of Valinor, who plays an important role in a key tale of the First Age. Huan means “great dog, hound” in one of Tolkien’s invented Elvish languages.
He first appears in the “Tale of Tinuviel,” one of Tolkien’s early “Silmarillion” legends published in The Book of the Lost Tales, Part Two (1984). There Huan, Captain of Dogs, is the sworn enemy of Tevildo, Prince of Cats, and in their enmity is reflected the rivalry of all cast and dogs. In those days long ago, many dogs had chosen to dwell with Men and guard them, while cats, led by Tevildo, were inclined toward the dark lord, Melko. “Did ever any of these” dogs who were foes of evil “viewTevildo or any of this thanes or subjects, then there there was a great baying and a mighty chase.” With guile and strength Huan defeats Tevildo but sets him free. “Little to Huan’s liking was it that Tevildo lived still, but now no longer did he fear the cats, and that tribe has fled before the dogs ever since, and the dogs hold them still in scorn since the humbling of Tevildo in the woods nigh Angamandi; and Huan has not done any greater deed. Indeed afterward Melko heard all and he cursed Tevildo and his folk and banished them, nor have they since that had had lord or master or any friend, and their voices wail and screech for their hearts are very lonely and bitter and full of loss, yet there is only darkness therein and no kindliness.”
This tale over the years evolved into the version published in The Silmarillion (1977), in which it is told that Huan was born in the Blessed Realm far in the West of the world, and raised by Orome the hunter, one of Valar, or angelic powers. Therefore he was of a special breed: “Nothing could escape the sight and scent of Huan, nor could any enchantment stay him, and he slept not, neither by night nor day.” He understood human speech, and was permitted himself to speak with words three times before he died. It was decreed moreover that he should not meet death until he encountered “the mightiest wolf that would ever walk the world.” He aided the Elf-maiden Luthien Tinuviel and the mortal man she loved, Beren, in their quest to wrest a great jewel from the crown of evil Morgoth, and at last he fought to the death Carcharoth, the Wolf of Angband: “No battle of wolf and hound has been like it, for in the baying of Huan was heard the voice of the horns of Orome and the wrath of Valar, but in the howls of Carcharoth was the hate of Morgoth and malice crueller than teeth of steel.”
One of the results of the fame Tolkien enjoyed from The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings was that readers asked his permission to name their pets after characters. To one of them he replied that Bilbo, after Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit, seemed a good animal name, and indeed, his own brother had given the hobbit’s full name to his dog, a young animal of “variable behaviour.” The dog was called Bilbo when good and Baggins when bad--he knew the implication of each.
The video adventure of a smiling French Bulldog.
If you look at the subscription card bound into the Summer 2011 issue of The Bark, you’ll notice a new Smiling Dog: Elvis the French Bulldog. Elvis adores car trips, and his mom Debbie frequently films his adventures. On a recent trip to San Diego’s Balboa Park, Debbie captured Elvis’s close encounter of the Greyhound kind!
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.”
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