Culture: Stories & Lit
Darwin’s beloved Polly
Words cannot begin to express the loss of this great wire-haired white bushy animal. An eagle-eyed observer. A keen hunter. Lost to the world for today and tomorrow. And that’s not me I’m barking about, but my master, Dr. Charles Darwin, who never had much to say to us, submissive as he was; he loved collecting those words, as much as his bugs and his barnacles, lining them up just so, sometimes bounding up, paws flailing, speaking them aloud (while I lay curled in a tufted basket before a fiery hearth) and taking one turn around the study before collapsing back into his sagging leather chair on wheels that he rolled up to his desk where he scratched at his books some more, leaving a long, long trail of tracks for all who could read his scrawl. Those words would lead any seeker right to where you could find him.
But, I didn’t need to. I was always by his side. I was the constant day and night companion to the squire of Down House. (Underfoot by day and yanked by the mistress off his bed at night). I answer to Polly. He called me that, “Oh, my good, good girl Polly,” he’d say. A small white Fox Terrier with black button nose and pleading eyes, I jumped to his every command from the terrible day I got there to the terrible day when he was gone.
You see, we critters are not so much the seeing but the sniffing kind, and when I first came to Down my litter of puppies was taken away from me. I lay down and when I opened my eyes, the devil herself was sitting on my belly holding me down (drowned they were, though that hag never owned up, but there my little pups were, still in their sacs like stuffed wet socks) and I went wild, wild, oh so whining wild. Spinning like a whirling dervish. Dis-POSSESSED, I had nothing to lick. To lick down, the mine that moments before was me.
Dr. Charles, quiet as he was, somehow had an instinct for my trouble and gave me his hands and his face to lick for hours on end until I could lick no more, snuggling into his chest where I simply sat and got comfort from that strong heart of his, ’til our beats were one, and I finally closed my eyes again and fell into a long sleep. This was bonding.
So he was a hunter as you all know, and a seer into the dog condition, as only I can tell you, but he was a lot more. He was nothing if not methodical. His kind have things called clocks. I heard them gonging all the time in Down House, reminding everyone to fall in line, not to stray off, but who needed clocks with Dr. Charles making his way around the oblong gravel Sandwalk morning, noon and sometimes evenings too. It comforted him and it thrilled me to hear the tick-tock of his iron-shod walking stick as he made his way around the walk, every now and then pausing to push his tiny nose into the head of a flower. He wanted to have what we have and if ever there were a man who deserved our superior snout, it was Dr. Charles. When he wasn’t stooped over looking under duff or turning over stones for worms, he was arching his back and shading his eyes, scanning the sky, pointing in wonder at the high-flying tumblers and the double-crested Baldheads, and then making his way to the pigeon loft at the end of the Sandwalk to listen to the low cooing of the males and the trumpeters laughing, and to count the new little wispy squabs and take his measurements of the various Rock doves in the aviary. He said that keeping pigeons in coops had to be the world’s most boring hobby but you’d never guess it to see his face light up at the yawning beak of a peeper.
His walks would lead us sometimes beyond the brick walls of the Sandwalk, out into the wild “Big-Woods” of the Orchis bank, where one day I so spooked a squirrel that my bark sent him scurrying up Dr. Charles’ leg clear onto his back, while he stood still as a statue, with the mother screaming bloody murder from a beech bough. He seemed to know our ways or want to, and that made him able to creep up very, very close. His prowling about was always to look and never to pounce.
Sometimes he seemed more comfortable with us than with them. He was always letting me out on the verandah or in through the drawing room window, cheering me on to bark with an ear-scratching whisper “those naughty, naughty people.” He was tender and playful, egging me on, and when I was scolded by one of the naughty people, he commanded me to be “a good little girl, now sit still,” and then producing a small biscuit from his pocket he’d place it on the top of my nose, urging me to stay and then he’d wink and I caught it and we both jumped for joy and I’d stand at attention for more. Sometimes out of the blue he patted the funny patch of red hair on my back, that had grown in red after a burn, and say with special fondness “Oh, Polly, you’re your father’s girl, you are.” Though I don’t know who else’s I’d be, and never knew him. Now, Dr. Charles was bald up top, but something about that red tuft of hair delighted him and made me feel special. So who would quibble with that?
Whether I came from wolves or jackals and how my kind found their way from the wild to the trash heaps to the hearths of man doesn’t much matter to me. We did. But it does to them, because you see, they think they came from us … Well, it’s a long twisting story with lots of dead ends, but one of their word trails from people of long ago gives it away, saying: “The dog is what we would be, if we weren’t who we are.”* So if I sniff it right, they think they lost something.
Being of the here and now, my paws firmly rooted in this earth and not yesterday or tomorrow, my nose was always at his feet. So when he took to his bed, with fever, coughing and crying out, and his hands now cold and clammy and his breath smelling sour, there was a stinking rot about him and I sensed his body becoming stiff and still like the earth. The play skittered right out of him, like a rogue breeze escaping to fresh air. There was no more going out, no whistle, no ticktock of his stick, no tasting the salt of his hand.
I began to ache and slink away from a body whose life was leaving him as he cried to stay. With me! I held my breath, swallowed my cry and the lump in my throat began to swell. A muffled whimper was all I could do.
Oh, they made fun of Dr. Charles, the naughty people did, for being sappy about dogs, for claiming we could return affection. [But the loving tickle of my belly or the taste of his tears returned in kind is something of the nature only he and I knew.] Dr. Charles once caught me barking at a parasol that was idly lolling in the wind on the lawn and he likened that to people’s belief in spirits. But that last day when I padded in to find him lying in the arms of our mistress, the wind blew the curtain twisting to be let out into the afternoon sunshine … and I jumped and with all the wolf in me, let go a longing howl to follow.
But he didn’t respond. Not even a lick and a promise. They latched the window and drew the drapes and his time stopped. The wind had swept him away as if there were no tomorrow … leaving no scent, no trace, no heart to rest a weary head on.
The outside lost its color, its voice, its touch, its breath. The old dog had gone away. They took his body and placed it in a gonging church. They took mine and buried me in a sack under the Kentish Beauty apple tree in the orchard, which was forever bearing fruit. … It was as if we’d taken one last turn on the Sandwalk, and he’d skedaddled off the path, and lost track of time.
*An Aboriginal Dreamtime saying
Culture: Stories & Lit
Look at Me
I have a border collie. which means i have a dog especially alert to motion of any kind. My Border Collie, Ainsley, is one of those who sometimes—well, okay, frequently—has rather explosive reactions to the motion of trucks, dogs, bikers and squirrels, to mention just a few. Which means I also need to be Border Collie–alert to motion so I can coach her on more, shall we say, appropriate responses.
Fortunately, I have a lovely path just outside my front door that wends between a river and canal, and curves in such a way that I can see almost anything coming or going for about half a mile in either direction. Even better, it’s traveled just enough to give us opportunities to practice self-control, but not so much that we can’t relax and enjoy our walk. It is not unusual to see fishermen along this path. While they don’t move much, they do wave their poles back and forth, an activity that can easily set off my dog. One day, as we walked, I saw a man on the bank of the canal about a quarter-mile ahead. I let Ainsley continue sniffing and scampering at the end of her 30-foot lead, worked on controlling my own breathing and, as we got closer, called her cheerfully to my side. Taking up the slack in the leash, I got a treat in hand, and together, we walked calmly by the man with the freaky stick.
This activity may seem absurdly straightforward to most dog owners, but it is actually hard-won for me and Ainsley. She is a rescue with a mostly unknown past, found wandering the woods, living under the porch of an abandoned hunting camp, gimpy from a broken leg that was never set and healed crooked, pregnant, full of bird shot, and blind in one eye. She is, true to her breed and in spite of her rough start, sweet, smart and trainable. She was, unlike her breed, very low-energy and cautious. Or so I thought. It turns out she was mostly just deeply inhibited. After a couple of years, as she became healthier, happier and more confident, she also became much more reactive. With a lot of help, advice, reading, consistent counterconditioning work and her ability to forgive my many mistakes, we found ways to manage this behavior. We never leave the house without a pocketful of treats. I taught her tricks to use as playful distractions. We work diligently at recalls. She is no longer an off-leash dog.
But one of the most fundamental building blocks of training remained elusive. As anyone who has dogs knows, you can’t teach them much until you teach them to pay attention to you. As anyone who has tried to manage reactivity knows, teaching a dog to make direct eye contact is the first step to effective counterconditioning. Ainsley is indeed very focused on me. However, she somehow learned shake, spin, down, come, leave it, enough, high-five, wait and so much more while simultaneously avoiding direct eye contact. She’d look at my face, but not into my eyes. If I insisted, she’d turn her muzzle askance and squint at me, blinking uncomfortably. I know that direct eye contact, while intimate among humans, is confrontational among dogs, so I accepted her oblique gaze. For a long time, Ainsley also did not know how to play— with me, with a toy, with a rawhide or with another dog— so it was clear that she had missed some pretty fundamental experiences. But slowly, over the course of several years, she has become engaged and responsive. Less hypervigilant. Goofy even. And from time to time, instead of looking at my eyebrows or cheekbones or chin, she will look steadily into my eyes. For a few moments, at least.
So having her trot at my side, glancing up at me, relaxed and unconcerned about the strange man with the weird appendage, was a not insignificant victory. In fact, I was so relieved and proud that I immediately let the leash unloop in my hand and told her to “go play,” which she happily did, sniffing along both sides of the trail as it took a sharp turn around an outcropping of rock. I rounded the bend behind her and saw a big blue bucket, net and tool bag lying in the grass just ahead. Ainsley was already there, nose to the ground. I quickly called “leave it” and began to take up the slack in the leash. But I was too late. By the time I’d crossed the distance from my end of the leash to hers, she’d found a pole hidden in the grass. Both her lip and tongue were pierced with two separate, four-barbed hooks. The look on her face was confusion more than pain. The look on mine must have been much worse. I held her jaw and spoke every comforting word I could think of as I tried to figure out how to keep her from getting more entangled. Fortunately, the barb in her lip came free. But the one in her tongue was completely set. I took hold of the hook, attached to 45 pounds of dog through a millimeter of skin, and tried to shove the miniature torture device back through the small hole it had made in the edge of her tongue. She squirmed and danced. Now her four and my two legs were also getting entangled in 30 feet of bright pink leash and several feet of invisible fishing line.
I said “easy, easy, easy,” my usual cue for getting her to slow her gait, and “wait, wait, wait,” my cue for getting her to stop moving, and blinked away the hot tears of fear. I tried fighting the hook without fighting my dog, but her tongue slipped in and out of my trembling fingers and the barbs pricked me instead of her. I tugged and pushed and twisted; the hook would not budge. I yelled for help. The fisherman was too far away and out of view. Blood, hers and mine, dripped off my fingertips.
I couldn’t back out the lure, so I had to snip it. With my free hand, I fumbled in the tool bag, looking for wire cutters— didn’t fishermen always have a pair for just this sort of eventuality? No luck. The only tool I could find was a knife. She’d recovered from so many much worse injuries in her life, I told myself she’d easily recover from a tiny slice in her tongue. I unsheathed the knife, set it against the hook, and pushed hard and fast into that sliver of flesh that held her. Suddenly, she was free.
She trotted off, shaking her head and spraying drops of blood into the landscape. I reordered the fisherman’s gear and tried to regulate my shallow breathing and pounding heart. Slowly, my panic was replaced with gratitude for Ainsley’s calmness during our little ordeal. She is, fortunately, a naturally sensible dog. But what struck me was that she had struggled against the hook, but not against me. She had listened. She had let me help her. I watched her return immediately to sniffing for feral cats and rabbit poop, and I was reminded, again, why it is so profoundly important that we train our dogs. Yes, we train because tricks are fun to show off to family members. Because a dog who doesn’t void in the house or jump on guests is easier to live with. But even more important, we train them to wait at an open door and walk on a leash to keep them safe. Dogs are, in many ways, human creations. We have domesticated them to live with us. And in doing so, we have brought them into immediate contact with things they might more naturally avoid: roads, cars, toddlers, garbage cans, toxic substances and so much more. We’ve bred them to be our best friends; training is the most essential thing we can do to be their best friends.
This small yet very stressful incident with the fishing hooks could have been much worse. Part of the reason it wasn’t is because of all the painstaking, frequently embarrassing and often frustrating but ultimately rewarding work I put into my relationship with Ainsley. I showed her what to do with a stuffed toy that squeaks when she bites on it, a dried-up piece of cowhide, a regal cat who refuses to be herded, a big white truck barreling towards us.
In the process, I suddenly realized, I was also showing her what to do with me. She learned I was good not only for putting kibble in a bowl and a leash around her neck, but also for introducing her to agility obstacles, playing “get it” games, removing snowballs from her paws and helping her sort through what to do about the strange things that pop up out of the landscape on our walks. This day, on this walk, she let me help her sort through a fishy, thorny problem with her tongue. More than teaching Ainsley to look at me, I realized I had finally, and much more importantly, taught her to look to me.
Culture: Stories & Lit
Chloe has an encounter with a marrowbone, Lee expands her tool chest.
Lately—because it’s a new year—I’ve been considering canceling my health insurance. I know it sounds crazy, but I never—and I mean never— go to the doctor, at least not allopathic doctors. Whenever I have some ailment I’ll visit an acupuncturist or a homeopathic practitioner or the like, and those visits often cost less than the co-pay for a Western doctor. Plus, there’s the fact that most doctors’ offices these days seem to run like factories, with new patients scheduled every 15 minutes; you barely have time to tell your doctor what your symptoms are before the doctor has to leave the room to tend to someone else. My dog Chloe gets better medical care. Speaking of which …
Chloe, a sweet-faced Spaniel mix, doesn’t look like a troublemaker or act like a troublemaker: she is well-behaved, well-trained and always remains within sight when I let her off-leash. But in the eight short years I’ve had her, she has troubled my bank account a bit, managing—through various small mishaps—to rack up several thousand dollars in veterinary bills. I’m not complaining; she’s worth every penny. Just don’t ask me about the time she ate a river rock and had to have emergency surgery. That procedure cost more than three months’ rent. Still—my dog is priceless.
A few years ago, Chloe and I had to make a special trip to the vet because she somehow managed to get a marrowbone lodged around her lower jaw. Yes, one could say it was my fault for letting her have such a small marrowbone in the first place. (I honestly didn’t know then that size mattered.) And yes, one could also say her torn ACL in 2009 ($3,300) was my fault, for letting her off-leash to chase rabbits (but I—a city person—didn’t know there were rabbits hidden in the brush so late in the season). And let us not forget the lacerated paw pads of 2008 from running through tide pools ($376); the epic river rock adventure of 2007 (swallowed for free, surgically removed for several thousand dollars); or even the strained shoulder, which wasn’t anyone’s fault—her boyfriend Rainbow, an exuberant English Setter whom we love, plowed into her on the play field (not that we blame him for wanting to play).
Anyway, any of these could be seen as my “fault” because I allow my dog to run in the woods, and play, and leap over fallen logs, and plow through bramble bushes, and swim in the river. And it’s not as though I ever let Chloe run around unsupervised. She, for one, never lets me out of her sight, so lack of supervision is not possible for either of us.
But off-leash recreation is obviously a larger topic. Should you keep your dog confined and/or leashed, keeping him/her safe but undoubtedly frustrated and bored? Which can then lead to destructive behavior such as chewing and incessant barking and a genuinely unhappy dog? (New sofa: $1,499; replacement for chewed-up dog crate: $189 plus s/h; irate neighbor: how does one set a price on that?) Or should you let your dog off-leash for quality playtime, stimulation and exercise? (Thus, some would argue, putting the dog at risk for injury.)
I have obviously chosen the latter approach. But does this make me, as a dog guardian, bad to the bone?
Let’s get back to the bone. Who knew marrowbones could be dangerous? And what dog doesn’t love a good marrowbone? Especially on a blustery winter day, when the winds are gusting at 60 mph and the freezing rain sounds like machinegun fire against the windows, and there is nothing to do but remain inside and stare at the hideously wallpapered walls of the Myrtle Beach, S.C., high-rise where we were staying to escape the chilly weather of New York. What dog doesn’t particularly love a bone when she has been condemned to strictly limited exercise, meaning three short pee-walks per day, because of a fairly recent rabbit-chasing incident that resulted in a re-strained ACL and two $250 trips to the vet? Chloe loves her marrowbones, and I love watching her enjoy them. Plus, it kept her occupied while I applied acupressure to her knee points. I was only doing what I thought was right.
That night, however, while I was in the kitchen making ginger tea, I heard a yelp and a helpless little whine, and rushed into the living room to see what was wrong. There, I found Chloe with the bone-ring lodged around her lower jaw. I have to admit that it was hard not to laugh—she had stopped whining and was looking at me with a completely perplexed expression on her face, the bone shaping her mouth into a goofy smile. And don’t be mad at me for laughing because everyone who has experienced this tells me they laugh, too. They take pictures. And videos. And post them online. Google it and you’ll see.
I did not take photos, however. Instead, I knelt before the dog, stroked her head and told her I would help her get the bone off. But said bone was wedged behind her canine teeth, and I could see no way to slip it back over those teeth and off her jaw. In fact, it looked as though I would have to wedge it off—no benign slipping allowed. I realized that this is why Chloe had yelped: one hard crunch had forced the bone behind her teeth.
Poor baby. As I inspected her mouth and turned her jaw this way and that, my good girl kept her head still and wagged her tail. She even tried to kiss me, but her tongue was, um, obstructed by a marrowbone.
I’m not a handy person, nor skilled at geometrical problem solving. I have difficulty with spatial thinking, too. But still, I kept analyzing the bone and its position in relation to the jaw, to see if there was any possible way it would slip off. To the best of my limited knowledge, it looked as though Chloe’s teeth were one-quarter of an inch too long to make this possible. Plus, the bone seemed to fit perfectly around her jaw— hugging the contours as though it had been custom made. There was no way I could get the bone off without causing my dog pain. And there was no way I would do that.
I went online, where I found all those pictures of all those other silly dogs with bones ringed around their lower jaws. I tried not to giggle at their goofy faces. As I read on, I realized that each of these dogs, in the end, had to be taken to the vet. I couldn’t find any solutions to the problem. Just comic descriptions of the episodes, concluding with those trips to the vet, where the marrowbones were either sawed (eek!), cut (ouch) or drilled (you must be kidding) off.
And here we arrive at another loaded subject: veterinary costs. How many of you hesitate, just for a second, when faced with a costly late-night trip to the emergency vet when you could wait until morning? Especially in a non-emergency, which you could quite possibly resolve yourself? This is what I faced that night.
It was stormy outside. The roads were icy. I was also in an unfamiliar city. I did not know any local vets on Myrtle Beach. Then there was the fact that, at that point in my life, I was financially strapped. I am a writer, after all, which means that there are many stretches of time during which I don’t get paid, and if you’re a slow writer like me, those stretches of time can get really stretched out. There was a time when I couldn’t even afford pet insurance, because my savings account kept getting drained by Chloe’s veterinary bills. It was a game of cat-and-mouse that, I am happy to say, I no longer have to play. We are all insured.
Even in those toughest times, Chloe always came first. Some people thought it was crazy that I would, for example, delay my own trips to the dentist so that Chloe could get her horribly chipped incisor repaired. I know that dog people always understand. Love is the reason. When I first adopted Chloe, and rescued her from a life of neglect, abuse and abandonment, I made a vow—an oath. I vowed to always take care of her. To keep her safe and warm and healthy and fed and happy. No matter the cost.
So back to the bone. I spent another 20 minutes trying to calculate—geometrically—if/how I could wedge it off my patient, now-drooling dog. I tried to lubricate it with extra-virgin olive oil. Nope. I tried arnica gel. Nope. Petroleum jelly (which can’t have tasted good). Still, the bone wouldn’t budge. Chloe wagged away, seeming to enjoy the attention. I looked out the window to see if the storm had cleared. Nope. Back to the olive oil.
Finally, poor Chloe had had enough, and she crawled off into the closet to avoid me, her tail between her legs. At that point, I decided to call the nearest vet I could find online. When I told the receptionist that my dog had a marrowbone ring around her lower jaw, and that I needed to find someone who could cut the bone off, the receptionist replied, “You mean you want us to cut off your dog’s jaw? Hold on while I ask the vet if he can do that.”
I didn’t hold. The next vet I called was able to comprehend that I needed to have a marrowbone removed from my dog’s jaw—that I did not need to have the jaw itself removed—so we made an appointment and I was there within an hour.
The first thing I heard as I entered the waiting room was the terrible, piercing howl of a dog in pain, but let us not talk about that, or about the fact that I overheard that the dog’s owner was currently in jail or that the poor sweet man taking care of the dog in the interim could not afford to get the dog’s nails clipped, which was why the dog was now suffering from embedded toenails. My heart ached for all of them.
Chloe, meanwhile, happily greeted the man and the receptionist—wagging her tail rapidly at first, then more slowly as she began to comprehend that she would be going to that same back room.
When I sat down to wait for a consultation, the nice man with the dog in pain whispered to me, “Gotta be careful, ma’am. They-uz here’ll try to jack up your bill here with things y’all don’t need. Ask for an estimate ’fore you let ’em do anything.”
“Thanks,” I whispered back, grateful for the tip.
“That’s a good-looking dog you got there,” he said. “’Cept for that there bone ’round her mouth.”
We laughed despite ourselves, and Chloe wagged her tail.
Soon, I was called into a consultation room, where a young vet, seemingly nervous, inspected Chloe quickly—looking rather than touching—as though afraid she might bite. Now, by that point, I already considered myself an expert on marrowbone removal, given that I had spent 40 minutes on the Internet reading about it. (Don’t we all consider ourselves medical experts now that we have the Internet?) Thus, I listened with skepticism as the vet recommended a complicated series of painkillers, penicillin, antibiotics and some other pills I’d never heard of but that sounded unnecessary.
“All this to clip a bone off?” I said.
“She’ll need to be anesthetized, too.”
Now, I’m not a fan of anesthesia personally, nor am I a fan of anesthesia for my dog (let alone the bills). The first time Chloe was anesthetized (see the aforementioned River Rock Incident) I swear her personality changed. But that also is another story to add to the list of other stories. “I’d prefer not to do that,” I said. Plus, instinct told me this would not be necessary. Nor would the antibiotics or painkillers.
Following my instincts (and the man in the waiting room’s advice to be prepared for overcharges), I pared the bill down to two things: office visit and removal of foreign object.
“You sure?” the vet said.
“Absolutely,” I said.
“Okay, then.” The vet said he’d take Chloe to the back room and that I could wait where I was.
But I insisted that I be allowed to remain in the room during the procedure. I am a New Yorker, after all, and we must uphold our reputation of being pushy, obnoxious Yankees. “I want to be with her,” I said. “I’m going to apply acupressure to one of her calming points so that she’ll stay still.”
“Acu- what?” the vet said.
“Acupressure. It’s a form of Chinese medicine in which you stimulate certain meridian points to relax your dog in stressful situations.” I did my best to explain what this was. Acupressure is the practice of applying light pressure with the fingertips to specific meridian points in the body with the aim of sending healing energy (or chi) to those parts of the body. “My vet at home practices acupressure,” I told him. “And homeopathy.”
Homeopathy is hard to explain. So I just said it was another form of alternative holistic medicine.
A vet tech came and led us into a treatment room. The vet went off to prepare. In the meantime, I started to think about his recommendation for a painkiller. Even though I sensed Chloe would not need it, I began to second-guess myself. Did people with unwanted wedding rings stuck on their fingers get painkillers when it came time to clip the rings off? (Or was the divorce painful enough?) And what about that poor dog I’d heard howling when I first walked in? Had that been a sign?
I put my hands on Chloe and began applying pressure to her various calming points. Beneath my fingertips, I could feel her warm pulse, and within minutes, she was relaxed, mellow and trusting.
I had expected the vet to return equipped with saws, drills, rubber gloves and a headlamp, the way a dental surgeon might. Instead, he came in with a pair of what looked like wire cutters, such as you might get at Home Depot. Sharp tool aloft, he sank to his knees in front of Chloe, who rested calmly on the floor. I, however, was not calm, and increased my acupressure on the dog, whispering “It will be all right” into her ear. Suddenly, I heard a clip and a quick snap, and the marrowbone fell to the floor. Matter resolved. Chloe did not even yelp.
“That was brilliant!” I said, truly impressed. “What kind of tool is that?”
“Just your basic pliers,” he said.
“Pliers,” I said. “Wow.” I am a single female living in New York, which means I am impressed by things like tools. I do not own a wrench. Or a screwdriver, or a hammer. My toolbox consists of eyebrow tweezers and nail files.
“Yes, wow,” the vet said, smiling. “Pliers.”
I love the way southern people say the word pliers. “And how’d you do that Chinese acupressure thing?” he asked. “Your dog sure is calm. Lots of dogs here are afraid of the vet.”
I showed him the points I had tapped, which have beautiful names such as the Governing Vessel and the Place of a Hundred Meetings. “People can do this on themselves, too,” I told him.
“Is that right? I’ll have to try it on my wife.”
“Absolutely.” I showed him a few points on his wrist he could press for peace of mind.
“Learn something new every day,” he said. As we walked with the dog back to the reception area, I asked, “Um, where did you get those pliers?” I worried for a second that he would laugh at me. I could hear him telling his buddies later that night, “These damn Yankees don’t even know where to buy pliers.”
But he just said, “Any hardware store’ll have them. Seven ninety-nine.”
And then he surprised me by giving them to me. I was very touched. In return, I offered to pay the bill for the man in the waiting room and his howling dog.
New-agey northerner learns down-home southern ways. We can all learn from each other, I realized. And that’s what makes it priceless.
So I now have a few new resolutions: Renew veterinary insurance. Get pliers/wire cutters ($7.99). And make sure that none of the bones I give Chloe from this day forth will fit over her jawbone.
April 3, 2016, marks the 92nd birthday of Doris Day — adored for her nonpareil career as a singer and actress, and equally admired for her dedication to animal welfare and the creation of the Doris Day Animal Foundation. In 2006, Bark had the opportunity to interview Ms. Day by phone, and was joined by singer Nellie McKay, an incredible singer and animal activist in her own right.
She said "Call me Doris," and my heart leapt with joy. How do you describe her voice? A smoothie cocktail with a southern inflection—warm, rounded and welcoming. I was dying to tell her about my Uncle Patrick, who entered adolescence listening to her records because he thought her purring voice was the sexiest sound on earth.
There was also the time I fled a screening of G.I. Jane to escape to a better place, courtesy of my Young Man with a Horn LP. Doris Day was always a refuge for me, transporting me to a time of innocent romance, when there were no bad hair days, men had good manners, and the music was pleasant and sweet.
These days, I have fewer illusions, but Doris Day continues to inspire me, because even though the world can be ruthless and inhumane, we still have people like her working to help those less fortunate. Through her Animal League and Foundation, Doris Day is a beacon of hope for the animals who need our help so badly.
Talking to her was a dream come true—there's no one I admire more.
—Nellie McKay, Recipient of the 2005 Doris Day Music Award
Cameron Woo: I must tell you that I’m quite a fan of yours. Some of the first films I recall are the movies you made with Gordon MacCrae…
Doris Day: Silvery Moon and Moonlight Bay—I loved doing those. You know, if life could be like it was in those movies, it would be beautiful, wouldn’t it?
Nellie McKay: Every time I hear one of your records or see one of your movies, the world becomes that way for me, if just for the length of the record or movie. It’s that transporting.
DD: Oh, what a compliment. I had the best costars you could ever have, and I miss them so much. We had such a great time working together. Some years ago, I made a special with John Denver and was asked to sing Memories, Barbra Streisand’s song, which she did so beautifully. Then I was told that huge pictures of all of my leading men would be shown as I sang, and I said, “Oh my God, how do you expect me to get though that?” But I did it.
NM: Your autobiography is incredible—you have such heart.
DD: Well, I’ve been through everything. I always said I was like those round-bottomed circus dolls—you know, those dolls you could push down and they’d come back up? I’ve always been like that. I’ve always said, “No matter what happens, if I get pushed down, I’m going to come right back up.”
CW: You’ve been such a success in an amazing range of careers, from singer to actress to animal activist. What moved you to begin speaking out for animals?
DD: You have to do things, you have to step out and stick up for animals, because they can’t do anything for themselves. And really, I’ve been led by God to everything I’ve done in my life. I’ve been put here and put there—out of Cincinnati and into a band, then to Hollywood, and now, the foundation and animal league.
CW: Can you talk a little bit about the Katrina rescue effort? I know your group was instrumental in one of the airlifts; I understand those animals went to Santa Cruz.
DD: Yes, right to Santa Cruz. Some were quite ill and couldn’t be put on the plane, so people drove to the Gulf Coast and brought the sick ones back by car. Both groups were accompanied by a veterinarian. They’re coming in every few days from Santa Cruz and whenever they’re brought in, I’m there. The hard part is that I want them all!
There’s another thing I’d like to mention here. People sometimes say, “Oh, Miss Day, I can’t take another animal, I just can’t replace my darling little dog.” Many people, when they lose their pet, can’t face getting another. I felt like that once, and then I realized my baby would understand, and would want me to give a home to another animal. I want people to know they’re not replacing the one they lost. They’re giving another wonderful little soul a home. I’ve done this over and over again, and have never regretted it. I’ve only been rewarded.
CW: When you were a child, did you form a bond with animals?
DD: Immediately! I always had pets. We had a puppy, and I adored this little dog, a little Manchester Terrier. My father said, “The puppy has to be in the basement,” and I never forgave him for that. I realized he didn’t like animals. But I put up such a fuss that that little dog wound up in my bed. And they still are!
CW: People certainly develop intuitive connections with their animals—scientific studies have demonstrated that. But I imagine that as an animal lover, you know that.
DD: Oh, I know this so well. My dogs are sensitive...when I pick up my bag, they know I’m going out, and they walk around and around. Before I come home, I call to say I’m on my way, and by the time I ring the gate bell, they’re all at the door. I get this big greeting, and I’ve only been gone 45 minutes! You can’t beat that. And now, as I’m speaking with you, they’re all gathered around me. I’ve always found inspiration and comfort in animals.
CW: I was reading your letter in the Doris Day Animal Foundation magazine, and in that, you noted that when you were on the set of The Man Who Knew Too Much, you demanded that animals used on the set be better taken care of.
DD: Oh, well, I didn’t want to act like a big shot; it wasn’t like that. But I did go to Mr. Hitchcock, whom I loved dearly, and we had a long talk about it. I said “Hitch, I can’t bear it, I can’t bear to see what goes on here with animals.” The horses were so thin, the donkeys were overburdened, and I was just horrified at the dogs running loose and starving. I told him I really couldn’t work unless we fed these animals. And he said, “We’re going to do that, I want you to just relax and know that they will be taken care of.” But then I thought, once we leave, it will go right back to the way it was.
CW: I think that was very courageous of you to take a stance like that. I also recall reading that there still are problems in Hollywood in terms of the treatment of animals.
DD: Yes. Though I understand there are actors and actresses who really care and are letting the studios know their position on this issue. Cameron Diaz said that she will never work with animals again because of the way they’re treated.
CW: Our readers have pointed out that there seems to be trend in movies to victimize animals in the name of humor. Dogs are thrown out windows, cats are flushed down toilets, and that’s considered amusing. Even in these mainstream, family-oriented movies, it’s somehow acceptable to use animals as the butt of jokes.
DD: Everything’s acceptable in Hollywood now, it seems. I’m glad I’m not there, because I would be screaming. I hope and pray that the Hollywood stars who are making so much money really take a stand. It’s hideous to have families watching these movies, and children seeing this portrayed as though it’s okay.
CW: You were also a pioneered in another groundbreaking effort, pet-friendly hotels. Carmel’s Cypress Inn, with which you’re involved, was among the first to make this available, I believe.
DD: Well, thank you, but really, I consider that an inspiration from God. The man who owned the inn was looking for a partner, and my son spoke with him; our only condition was that the hotel had to be animal-friendly. After he got used to the idea, he agreed, and we were ecstatic. Carmel is so dog-friendly, and now many of the hotels allow guests to bring their pets.
DD: I want to tell the truth, and maybe that’s why they trust me. When I was acting, I believed what I said ... every line. I’m so grateful to my fans and donors and friends, people who do trust me. When people donate, I write to them and say, “I love you for caring,” because that’s what it is in life, caring.
NM: When you’re working to have people care about animals, do you think it’s best to start with companion animals, rather than, say, farm or lab animals?
DD: Companion animals are what I know best, but it all needs to be addressed. We’re involved with Greyhounds and the dog-racing issue, and we’re finally getting the bill banning the slaughter of wild horses passed. And puppy mills—we’re really involved with that issue. We’re putting what we can into stopping them.
CW: Speaking of companion animals, tell us about Spay Day.
DD: Well, spaying and neutering are the most important things you can do for animals. Everything is cause and effect—the cause: people don’t alter their animals; the effect: the SPCA is filled with animals that are euthanized weekly. It really is the most important thing we can do.
CW: We thank you for your time, and are happy to support Spay Day. We hope it’s bigger than ever this year.
DD: I loved meeting both of you, and I hope to meet you in person some day. That would be great fun!
Check for the date of the next Doris Day Animal Foundation Spay Day.
Culture: Stories & Lit
The Chloe Chronicles
My dog Chloe has been in a serious relationship for two years now. Her boyfriend is a handsome English Setter named Rainbow, and they are very well-matched. Both weigh about 60 pounds, and both are not-very-birdie bird dogs. Both love to play tug and keep-away; both love to swim in our nearby creek and hunt for fish. (Chloe actually sticks her snout into the water and tries to catch them; Rainbow barks at the fish from a safe place on the shore.) In terms of hierarchy, Chloe is definitely the boss, which suits them both fine. Chloe always passes through doorways first, always wins the rope during games of tug-ofwar and always tries to steal Rainbow’s food. And because he will so willingly let her steal his food, we try to feed them separately, for Rainbow is always on the verge of being too thin and Chloe is always on the verge of being too fat.
“Chubs” is what Rainbow’s guardian, Greg, calls Chloe behind my back. I know this because Greg and Mindy’s seven-year-old son, Clayton, tells me everything. We are neighbors in idyllic Woodstock, N.Y.
But anyway, it makes me happy to see Chloe and Rainbow together. It makes me happy to witness dog love: the joyous, raucous way they greet one another; the impish, playful ways in which they bite each other’s ankles; and, at the end of the day, the adorable way they nap together, sometimes facing with legs entwined, other times spooning like an old married couple. Always, their bodies are touching, and I love to see the content, tired look on Chloe’s face when she sleeps with her head draped across Rainbow’s neck. That look speaks of companionship, and ownership, and true love. It makes me want two dogs, but that second dog would have to be Rainbow, and he’s not on the market. So, as with most relationships from which we want more, we take what we can get. I call Rainbow my half-dog.
Recently, however, Chloe and I went on an extended book tour, which meant that for seven weeks we had to leave Rainbow behind. That’s seven weeks without anyone biting your ankles, or pinning you to the ground so that he can bite your neck, or trying to take away your saliva-soaked stuffed bunny rabbit, or cuddling with you on a big stinky dog bed. By “you” I mean Chloe, of course. Every night, before we went to sleep, I promised Chloe that soon we’d see Rainbow again. I even, as a joke, marked the calendar with our return date and pointed to it as proof. “See? That’s Rainbow Day!” She always smiled at me and thumped her tail.
About two weeks into our tour, I called Greg to check in on the family. “Rainbow has a new girlfriend,” Greg said.
“Who is she?” I said, in the same exact voice I used, oh, 20 years ago when the Love of My Life told me he was in love with someone else.
“Her name is Phoenix,” Greg said. “She lives next door.”
“What kind of dog is she?” I said, again in that voice.
“A black Lab.”
My heart stopped. You see, Chloe hates black Labs. I can’t explain this hatred; it seemed to come out of nowhere 12 months prior. One day Chloe was a friendly, open, I’ll-play-with-anyone kind of dog; the next day I had to pull her off a female black Lab who had had the audacity to say hello at the dog park. Since then, any time we see a black Lab, Chloe makes a strange rumbling noise—not quite a growl, more like the revving of an engine—and strains determinedly on her leash. It’s the sound of hatred, I guess, of exacting some sort of revenge. But for what? Maybe Chloe was psychic. She knew the love of her life was going to cheat on her with a female black Lab.
“Rainbow really loves Phoenix,” Greg was saying. “They play all day long. She’s a really fast dog.”
I was offended. Chloe, being on the verge of being fat, was not as fast a runner as Rainbow. But that was part of her charm.
“But what about Chloe?” I said to Greg in a whiny voice. “Chloe’s in Massachusetts. So are you. He has to play with someone.”
So, basically, it was out of sight, out of mind. Spoken like a true male.
After Greg and I got off the phone, I sat down on the floor next to Chloe. I smoothed out the sun-bleached fur on her ear flaps, I stroked her heart-shaped little brown nose, I told her she was a pretty, pretty girl. I can’t explain how heartbroken I was at even the thought that Rainbow loved another dog more than he loved Chloe. That Chloe had been replaced. Just like that. We turn our backs for 10 minutes and look what happens! I actually started to cry.
Now is probably the time to admit that I myself do not have a boyfriend. I am not the love of anyone’s life. No one nips at my neck or my earlobes. So, of course, it gave me pleasure that at least my dog was getting love. Someone in this equation has to get the guy. I mean, in order to believe in love you have to see it, every day, in action. That’s why so many women read romance novels and see sappy movies. You have to keep that hope alive. Otherwise you become the pathetic single woman who lives alone in Woodstock and apparently lives vicariously through her dog. This was quite disturbing.
I did not tell Chloe about Rainbow and his black Lab mistress. I simply pointed at the calendar and told her that Rainbow Day was coming soon.
Meanwhile, there we were on Cape Cod. Which is not a bad place to be Without Love. We spent our mornings at the shore of a tiny freshwater pond in Brewster, Mass., watching the mist rise off the water in the postdawn light. Chloe swam around hunting for fish while I meditated and read Harry Potter. In the afternoons, we went to the beach, where Chloe hunted for more fish—a smorgasbord at low tide—and I just watched the horizon, never growing tired of how vast and mysterious and promising the world could seem if you just kept your eyes on this proverbial horizon rather than on your computer screen. It’s hard to find love through a computer screen, which doesn’t even show your own reflection.
Meanwhile, Chloe went and fell in love.
It happened at the Brewster Book Store. I had gone in to sign some copies of my paperback, and to introduce Chloe to the store’s owner, Nancy, a real dog lover who has rescued several dogs herself. Nancy had set up a wonderful display of dog-themed books on a small antique table, and had placed, at the table’s base, a large stuffed animal— a black-and-white Husky, with one of those benign Husky smiles embroidered onto its fake-fur face. He (I assumed this stuffed Husky was a he) was about the size of a real-life Springer Spaniel, and his straight-legged, straight-spined stance made him look noble and rugged and devoted. Which is perhaps why Chloe fell so hopelessly in love with him.
You should have seen it! First Chloe stood in front of this stuffed animal—this Love Effigy—and touched her nose to his. (This is what she does to me when she wants my attention—she pokes me with her snout.) Then she went down into a play-bow, with her tail swishing madly. Then, because the Husky still had not responded, she barked at him—just a playful, flirtatious little yip. Still, the Husky remained mute, stiff and guarded.
I decided that the dog’s name was Skipper, because he looked like a Skipper (his steady, glass-eyeballed gaze seemed to imply he was looking beyond the horizon of a great blue sea).
I also decided that maybe Chloe wasn’t as smart as I’d always made her out to be. We’ve always thought she was part Border Collie—the smartest dog out there—but no self-respecting Border Collie would ever mistake a stuffed dog for a real one, right?
Ah, love. It makes even the smartest females blind.
Chloe poked Skipper with her snout again, and then threw herself at his feet, rolling onto her back and displaying her pink-spotted belly.
Nothing. No response from Skipper.
She shimmied a little and barked and flailed her legs in the air dramatically. Nothing. Skipper remained impassive. Finally, she nipped him on the ankles—a sweet, playful gesture that always worked with Rainbow.
Meanwhile, Nancy and I watched, along with a number of very amused customers. We laughed. We made comments about “men.” How aloof they can be, how non-responsive, how no female can resist the strong and silent type.
I’ve always loved cross-species friendships: the tiny kitten who snuggles with a Pit Bull, the horse who nuzzles a pig, that famous Ridgeback in South Africa who foster-mothered a baby lion. This says to me that love knows no boundaries— that love is simply Love. So even though I was standing there watching my dog Chloe flirt with an inanimate object, and worrying that she was less intelligent than her brethren, and basically making a fool of herself, I also told myself that didn’t matter. Whoever said love had anything to do with intelligence, anyway?
Finally, after receiving a particularly vigorous ankle bite from Chloe, Skipper finally toppled on top of her and then just lay there, on his side. Chloe, in response, sprung onto all fours—in that remarkably quick way dogs have— and proceeded to bite Skipper on the throat—another one of her favorite moves with Rainbow. But Skipper continued to lie there, unmoving.
“I used to date a man just like that,” one of the bookstore customers said. And we nearly died laughing.
This leads to a tangent: About a year ago, I developed a disturbing and all-consuming celebrity crush. I’m really not the celebrity type—I don’t watch TV or read magazines or even see all that many movies. And I certainly have never followed celebrity gossip. But in this case, I happened to meet the man in person, locked eyes with him (eyes as blue as the sea!) and experienced, well, a form of zap that stayed in my system for months. I won’t bore you with the web-trolling, image downloading, fan-site drooling details… (okay, it was Viggo Mortensen) but I will share with you the conversation I had with one of my friends, who’d had a similar obsession with Orlando Bloom. “It’s nothing to be ashamed of,” I remember her telling me. “This crush has awakened something in you. Since your divorce you’ve been kind of shut down toward men. You should be thankful that this person has brought back your capacity to love.”
“And lust,” I said.
“Oh, yes, that too.”
Anyway, seeing Chloe flirt happily and unabashedly with her fake-dog boyfriend made me think fondly of my own fake boyfriend, and of all the happy times we had together (in my head). It made me realize that it can just be so much fun to love someone. It almost doesn’t matter if he/she loves you back.
And what does this have to do with Rainbow? Nothing, really. We were totally over that cad.
When we got back to Woodstock, the first thing Chloe and I did was visit Rainbow. Their reunion was riotous. Leaping, chasing, biting, throwing themselves at one another. Rainbow brought Chloe one of his toys—a little rubber doll—and Chloe immediately stole it from him and then flaunted her triumph, tossing the toy in the air and refusing to let Rainbow have it. They chased each other around the pool, across the tennis court, in and around a grove of pine trees that bordered the land. They took turns tearing mock-savagely at one another’s scruffs; they bit each others’ rumps and ankles. They played until they were exhausted and too weak to stand up anymore. And even then, lying together on the rug at the hearth, they played, mouthing each other silently, clacking teeth. Finally, after another hour, they fell asleep entwined, their very breaths in sync.
As I watched them, I found myself filling with happiness again. And relief. It was clear that Chloe was still Rainbow’s favorite girlfriend. She had not been replaced. At least not at this instant. Plus, the thing about Dog Love is, there’s always plenty to go around.
I never told Greg’s family or Rainbow about the stuffed dog. Primarily because they would have made fun of me. Plus, Chloe’s brief affair was like any summer fling… fleeting, insignificant, all style no substance. So it was a private joke between me and my dog when we presented Rainbow with his reunion present: a stuffed black Lab.
Culture: Stories & Lit
An unexpected gift takes its recipient on a wild emotional ride
I wish I loved my dog, but I don’t. I know that makes me sound like an asshole, which I am. But it’s baffling. I’m one of those embarrassing Dog People prone to falling on the sidewalk and allowing strangers’ pets to lick my tonsils. I’ve always had a dog. So what’s the deal? Perhaps it begins with a tiny truth: this one showed up in my apartment as a surprise gift, a barking turd machine tied with a bow, and I’m not certain I’ll ever recover.
Three years ago, my beloved Samoyed, Ripley, was put down at the age of 15. My friend Chris’s sympathy call that night included the line, “I’m getting you another one immediately.” Drunk as I was, I managed to curb his loose-cannon instinct and talk him out of it. Mere weeks later, his birthday gift to me was a dog collar with a tag that read, “I’ll pay for whatever dog you put this collar around.” How sweet, I thought. Actually, I thought, That dangling preposition sounds so awkward, but how sweet that he fit all the words on this tiny bone-shaped tag.
I knew I’d get another dog eventually, but I needed a breather. I’d had Ripley since I was 25, and in her last couple of years, she had numerous health problems, including diabetes, so I was dipping a stick in her pee every morning to test her ketones and giving her two insulin injections a day—serious tasks on top of the everyday care of a geriatric dog. As much as I adored Ripley, I felt a liberating absence of the sadness and tension that surrounded her final months, the dog-hair cloak of melancholy finally cast aside. If nothing else, it was much less stressful riding my apartment building’s elevator without a large and incontinent companion. I was free. The only urine issues I had were my own.
A carefree year-and-a-half later, Chris and I were having lunch, and the topic of My Next Dog arose.
“Are you ready yet?” he asked. “It’s still my treat.” Which conjured a mental image of Milk Bones, not a live creature. I said I’d been thinking about it, that I’d been ogling some neighborhood Bernese Mountain Dogs and their short-haired versions, the Greater Swiss Mountain Dog; the Appenzeller; and another one with a name so foreign even the Swiss can’t pronounce it. And that maybe I’d start thinking about a rescue, or possibly investigating other breeds, but certainly not until I got back from an upcoming vacation in Rio. Little did I know that Chris’s Insane-o-Meter was hitting red something fierce.
The day I returned from my trip—a 13-hour overnight flight that got me home at 6 in the morning—I opened my apartment door and saw a savagely chewed-up plastic two-liter bottle on the floor. Before the idea registered, reality hit. Literally. A beautiful, clumsy, nine-week-old Bernese Mountain Dog came flying around the corner and mowed right into me.
Hello, next decade-and-change.
Apparently it was my only-slightly-less-crazy friend Zeke who had emailed Chris 90 seconds after my plane took off for Brazil and really put the plan into motion. This being the 21st century and both of them being webheads, Zeke sent Chris a link to a family in Arkansas whose teenage daughter was raising college tuition money by selling their Berner’s litter. Online. Like an all-mammal eBay. Pictures were pondered and my life was altered with one click. The dog, at this point named “Add to Cart,” was flown in and Zeke picked her up at the airport.
Others were in on the plot. My friend Haven in Durham bravely volunteered to take the dog (which she named “Precious Agnes”) if I flipped out and refused the gift. PA’s North Carolina life would be wonderful for many reasons, one of them being Haven’s genetic predisposition to hoarding, so one more dog (she already had three) would actually fulfill a palpable need. Rob in Chicago was more practical. “I’m not so sure this is a good idea,” he warned. “I know he’s a dog person, but I can just see that look on his face.” (Rob has known me longest.) Chris uncharacteristically attempted to frame it in a sunnier way: “This is a rescue. We’re rescuing a 16-year-old girl from Arkansas.”
When Precious Add to Cart Agnes clobbered into me that first morning, she was already wearing a name tag that said “Rio.” Her slightly asymmetrical white facial markings gave an adorably wonky quality to her full-on stare. When she lay down, she crossed her gigantor front paws, and she was so meltingly cute there was no way I was going to send her back. Remember? I’m a Dog Person! And she was a dog! How could this not work out?
Let me just say it: I have never seen diarrhea emerge so copiously or violently as from My Internet Canine. I’ve lived through “puppy stomach” before, but this was … Biblical. When I emailed Haven about one day’s misadventures, she inquired, “What are you doing—reading her the Mass in Latin BACKWARDS? Are her intestines on the OUTSIDE?” Hundreds of dollars, several prescriptions and a couple of dietary shifts later, the dog (now named “DiarrhRio”) appeared to be slightly more settled, with only the occasional outburst. Usually in the middle of the night by the side of the bed, a guarantee I’d step in it.
Then there was the steep learning curve for absolutely everything. Housebreaking, obedience, even meal time—her inability to grasp these concepts after serious repetition was stunning. I grew up with Toby, a mutt of average dog intelligence, then I had Ripley who was extremely sharp. Not only was Rio proving to be no Ripley, she was no Toby, who was one of those neutered females who humped a lot.
One day I walked into the office and my co-worker Sara innocently asked, “How’s Rio?”
“Aside from the fact that she’s shit on every surface in my home and she’s retarded and I didn’t want her in the first place? Great!” I snapped. Sara is used to me after many years, but even she recoiled from my harshness and what she probably knew was not entirely true.
There has been a dog at my side for over three-quarters of my life. I can point to those relationships with pride in the love and care I provided. So what was the problem? Was it simply that I wasn’t over the last one yet? Had I really become that much more of a crusty bastard in those fleeting dog-free days?
I barely had time to contemplate it before the specter of a costly medical emergency loomed large. Suddenly Rio was limping quite badly, the cause of which x-rays revealed to be elbow dysplasia in both front legs. (One of the genetic Berner specialties, right up there with the brain cancer that kills a number of them before they reach five.) She was a good candidate for arthroscopic surgery, so after much (albeit rapid) thought, I tossed my 90-pound “treat” under the knife. When I picked her up from the animal hospital, she was shaved and rickety and in obvious pain though she was wearing two morphine patches, and she still tried to run to greet me, clearing a table of magazines with her tail/weapon.
My heart shattered. This was the loving animal on the receiving end of my feigned indifference? The brave, sweet creature I was calling Fat Girl and comparing unfavorably to a previous dog? She looked up at me with such love that even I hated me.
As I nursed her back to health, she showed extraordinary resilience and strength and tenderness. Many times I contemplated how much more of a trooper she was than, say, I would be if a doctor were to shave bone fragments off my joints and send me right out onto the street. Our very slow walks were nostalgically similar to the very slow walks from Ripley’s later years, a near-human-sized head pressed into my leg as we shuffled along. The day after a blizzard, Rio simply stepped to the curb, shakily climbed up a snowbank and lay in it, gigantor front paws crossed, waiting for people to admire her on her throne.
Did I say I didn’t love her? That was a lie. She’s barely two and already we’ve been through so much together. She’s big and beautiful and goofy and, despite the glaring fact that I didn’t ask for her, mine.
Pets make great gifts but I don’t recommend buying one as a surprise. Heartfelt as it may be, it’s an enormous responsibility for the recipient. Yet in some weird way, I understand why Chris made this ballsy move. So next weekend I’m going to visit him in his new home in Massachusetts, and I’m giving him a fabulous housewarming gift: a baby.
Culture: Stories & Lit
Animals In and Out of Books
[Guilty Pleasures] Like kale and cod liver oil, books about string theory or shenanigans on Wall Street are no doubt good for us. But are they what come to mind when we’re looking for something to read? No, they are not. When we want to relax and lose ourselves in an engrossing puzzle, give us a mystery every time, especially a well-written British police procedural. In this category, Deborah Crombie’s Duncan Kincaid/Gemma James series definitely makes the short list. These two Scotland Yard detectives, their lives with their sons Kit and Toby, and the nuances of their work are so well articulated that we were utterly gobsmacked to discover that Crombie isn’t British but rather, Texas born and raised. Today, she lives in northern Texas with her husband, German Shepherds and cats, and divides her time between the U.S. and the U.K. Read on for the origins of Crombie’s dog love.
The German Shepherds were my husband’s fault. When he was very small, his parents kept a German Shepherd for friends who had to go overseas for a summer. He adored the dog, which was very gentle with him, as Shepherds usually are with small children. He would put his hand in the dog’s mouth and pretend he was a lion tamer. (I can imagine the little blond imp shrieking with glee at his daring, and it has just occurred to me that my fictional little blond imp, Toby, might bear some relation to my real-life husband as a child.)
The German Shepherd went back to his owners, and my husband grew up with other dogs — a Bloodhound, a Boxer. But none replaced the German Shepherd in his imagination or affections.
I, on the other hand, did not grow up in a pet-friendly household. My mother did not care for cats and she was afraid of big dogs — she’d been bitten as a small child — and above all, she didn’t want anything in the house that shed!
When I was nine, my parents gave in to what I’m sure was my incessant and annoying whining, and took in an adult toy Poodle (no shedding) from some elderly relatives who could no longer care for her. Oh, dear, oh dear. The disappointment on all sides. The poor dog, Jolie, had been raised as a faux-human, and never adjusted to the deterioration in her circumstances, although she bore with us bravely for a good many years.
But this dog, who didn’t care for children and had never been taught to play, was not Lassie or Rin Tin Tin, and my heart was broken. I consoled myself by reading books about imaginary dogs, and spending hours poring over dog encyclopedias trying to decide on the perfect pup.
My first dog as an adult was a buff Cocker Spaniel, bought as a surprise for our seven-year-old daughter. His name was Taffy. He had every bad trait that plagues Cocker Spaniels. I adored him, and he me. We lost him to cancer when he was nine, and we found we couldn’t bear being dogless, even for a week.
I’d had visions of an English Cocker, perhaps a bi-color or a blue roan, but my husband had his heart set on a German Shepherd, and so Hallie came into our lives. She’s 14 now, and frail. Our younger Shepherd, Neela, is seven, and they have been everything that that long-ago little girl imagined as the ideal dog — brave, loving, loyal, smart, playful and funny. Oh, and we live in a sea of dog hair.
Gemma, of course, got the blue roan Cocker Spaniel, Geordie, and he is the dog of her heart. Kit’s Tess, on the other hand, the little foundling who might be a Norfolk Terrier, sprang out of nowhere, just as dogs sometimes do in real life. A frightened boy seeking shelter and solace found a frightened little dog behind a supermarket, and a match was made.
Before the fictional dogs, however, Duncan acquired a cat, Sid, a big black fellow who had belonged to his late friend and neighbor in Hampstead. Having resisted the temptation to give my primary f ictional characters German Shepherds, I’ve given the GSDs walk-on roles in a number of novels.
Dogs and cats weave in and out of all the books in the series. I notice I’ve had a particular fondness for black Labrador Retrievers, which pop up in a number of books. Duncan’s parents have a lovely Border Collie. One of my favorite fictional dogs has been Mo, the English Mastiff in Where Memories Lie (Wm. Morrow, 2008). Mo was modeled on a real English Mastiff named Big Mo. Big Mo’s owners bid at a Humane Society auction for the opportunity to have him appear in a book, and I hope I did him justice. I certainly enjoyed spending a book with him, drool and all. I particularly love the scene where he eats the tub of ice cream.
But if working dogs have had minor roles in previous books, they get their due in No Mark Upon Her (Wm. Morrow, 2012). Finn, a black Lab, and Tosh, a female German Shepherd who just happens to look exactly like our Neela, are search-and-rescue dogs with a volunteer organization I’ve called Thames Valley SAR in the book. TVSAR is based on a real volunteer group called Berkshire SAR, whose members were extremely helpful when I was researching the book. They allowed me to handle a search dog in training exercises, and to hide and pretend to be a victim. (In the dark, in the mud, I might add. All the more fun.)
I have tremendous respect for both dogs and handlers, and if the dogs in my book are heroes, their real-life counterparts are more so.
Will there be dogs and cats in future books? Undoubtedly. I can’t imagine my own life without their companionship, and my characters deserve to be equally blessed.
There is one caveat, however — the dogs and cats are not allowed to talk.
This essay first appeared in the “Animal” issue of Mystery Readers Journal and is reprinted with permission.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
The social patterns of a dog park
The West End cemetery is full of old dead sea captains and soldiers from the War of 1812, kids that died of cholera and wives that, after six or eight or ten children, just gave up. There are rich people under monuments, the Longfellow family in a vault, and paupers without so much as a wooden marker. No one’s been buried here since the middle of this century, and so the place has fallen into disrepair. You see a lot of the marble and shell headstones in puzzle pieces on the ground or standing at crooked attention. About ten years ago the cemetery was a popular hang-out for prostitutes and junkies—but now it’s just dogs and their owners.
When I first moved to town a couple years ago with my girlfriend Sara we walked our dog in the cemetery. There was this guy there named Jeff, a big brawny American Indian, from the Duckwater tribe I think, who sort of qualified as my first friend in Portland. He told me how he grew up in Nevada and was adopted by white parents and then raised in a little redneck town where people really didn’t like Indians. He’d moved around a lot and I pictured him as I was now, the stranger in a strange place. He walked with me in the cemetery, sometimes twice a day, whatever the weather. Or rather, we were both being walked by our dogs. His was a wolf mix named Keana, with a vacant, slightly menacing glint in her eye, who liked to rough up young puppies. And mine is a simple mutt named Trout, whose passion for chasing squirrels follows her lifetime commitment to rolling in poop.
It seemed like Jeff was always at the cemetery, sometimes up to eight hours in a row. He said he worked at night, supposedly for a local scuba-diving outfit, and that’s why he had so much free time during the day. He told stories, endless stories, about his high school football exploits and the blown-out knee that ended his college career at safety. He talked about fishing, how he gill-netted in the rivers of southeast Alaska and then how he and his girlfriend had bought a house and now they weren’t together anymore, and she had the house and he was here, a country away, walking his dog with people like me. He didn’t seem angry at all. No, in fact, he seemed happy. Like every day he was as happy as he’d been the day before. And because of it he was good at drawing people out, at connecting the various factions inside the cemetery so that everyone stood around, nodding dumbly, listening to Jeff, our oblivious mayor, holding forth on Keana’s new collar or perfect shampoo, while Keana took her pound of flesh out of some hapless pup.
This is not the way things usually work in the cemetery. The mere fact that I knew Jeff’s name was unusual. Usually people didn’t interact that much. Instead, we knew each other by handles. There was Dalmatian Man, father of three speckled dogs, one to whom he spoke in sign language. There was Greyhound Lady, regally walking her trio of Greyhounds until the day that Lightning, her beloved, dove through a plate-glass window during a thunderstorm and died. There was the man who walks and reads, and Frisbee Dude, and the Lawn Chair Family: an old father and his fifty-something son who daily set up their folding chairs near the cemetery gate. And the Pickup Artist, around whom no one was safe. And there was Crazy Shouting Man, owner of three ragtag mutts and an elder statesman of the cemetery, who, when I finally talked to him wasn’t Crazy Shouting Man at all. His name was Al.
“There are loads of people up there that I see all the time, some of them I’ve been seeing for years and I don’t know their name. I recognize them and they recognize me, we talk about all sorts of things, and it just never really occurs to you to ask their name because you know their dog’s name.
“As a matter of fact, I’ve always had these funny occasions where you run into people that you talk to a lot at the cemetery—you meet them somewhere … we were down at Granny Killams when it was open one night and this woman came over and said, ‘Al, how are you? how’s the dogs? how’s all this?’ and I was with a bunch of friends and I thought, ‘And this is …,’ and I realized I had no idea, it wasn’t that I had forgotten her name, it was that I’d never known her name. I knew her dog … I mean, I had no idea. And, this was not somebody that I just knew very casually, this was somebody that I probably walked with three or four mornings a week. But you always find you know a lot more dogs than you know people, which, I think, says something about who’s worth knowing anyway.”
Even today what strikes me as amazing about the cemetery is that there are people here, people who show up twice a day and see other people here twice a day for years and many of them just don’t know each other’s real name, let alone what the other does for a living, or dreams of at night, or loves or hates. They just know each other’s dogs’ names. So when they refer to one another, they might say, “Circe’s mom said Milk Bones are full of preservatives, which is why she cooks her own.” Or when they bump into each other downtown Christmas shopping, they’ll say, “Ellroy’s mom!” and then when nothing’s left to say, say, “Uh, how goes it?”
Was this intimacy or a complete lack of intimacy? Sometimes it felt like both at once. You had the warmth of intimacy and the comfort of hiding behind your dog. And yet every day you saw people at their most naked, talking baby-talk to their hounds, kneeling to pick up poop. I asked my friend Julie, Reuben’s mother, about this.
“I think I really get a sort-of window into people’s … well, into people’s souls. You watch people very contentedly walking around, throwing the ball, interacting with their dogs or totally ignoring their dogs, and going at their own pace and every once in a while yelling for their dog and ….”
Here’s Al again: “I mean, I really judge people by how they behave toward their dog. When I see people hit a dog, I’m really sort of appalled and amazed that you would do that.
“I mean, I know who really, really likes their dogs and who doesn’t. I know people who’ve got trophy dogs and people who’ve got the scruffiest, ugliest dog, but they really, really love that dog.”
I think it was the love part that kept me going back to the cemetery. And then it became my social hour, my escape, where, more often than not, I’d find Jeff and Keana. The minute Jeff realized I was a writer he went to the library and over the course of a week read everything I’d ever written. And then, to my horror, wanted to talk about it. And he did this kind of thing with others, too.
When the leaves began to change during my first October in the West End cemetery, Jeff was already talking about a Christmas card he was planning—a photograph of Keana and himself. He brought it up obsessively, about how Keana was going to have a haircut and shampoo and have her nails clipped, and how he had arranged for a photographer, and how they were scouting locations. There were ups and downs in the saga as it played out over weeks—a good location that might not work out the day of the shoot if a nor’easter hit, the need to time everything just perfectly so that Keana would leave the beauty parlor and then immediately sit for her picture before she could come back to the cemetery and get muddy.
In retrospect there were little clues even then that something strange was going on with Jeff. While he said he owned a truck, I only saw him at bus stops around town. And the scuba-diving … later when I called various outfits in Portland, no one had ever heard of him. In the end, he had the photograph taken at Sears, he and Keana in the stiff, unsmiling pose of a Civil War-era husband and wife, he in his familiar blue sweatshirt hulking behind Keana who was perfectly coifed. He was beaming when he handed the Christmas card to me, literally beaming.
After Christmas I left the country for several weeks and when I came back, some time after a massive ice storm, Jeff was nowhere to be found. The cemetery glittered with glazed headstones. It took days to unravel the story because people didn’t seem to want to talk about it … didn’t seem to want to talk about anything. Everyone just bundled into themselves, and Jeff … he was a very touchy subject, one that suddenly made us all feel defensive. What I learned was this: he’d had health problems, an infection of some kind. He went to the hospital at the same time that he was apparently forced out of his apartment. Money was tight. He’d asked someone from the cemetery to put him up, another line crossed. But that hadn’t worked out. Keana was taken to a kennel by Megan, Matty’s mom. And now she was calling the kennel regularly to see if Jeff had picked her up, but he hadn’t. Week after week she called until it was clear that Jeff couldn’t or wouldn’t pick up Keana, that he was gone. That’s when Keana was adopted by someone else.
Here’s Megan: “You start talking about this stuff with somebody and then you realize, “I didn’t even know this person … like with Jeff, I mean, it was like you knew everything about his life but in the end how much of that was actually true? And, you know, you didn’t even know this person … it was like August to December and he was gone. But it seemed like forever.”
There were completely unsubstantiated rumors that he’d robbed a bank. Someone knew someone whose cousin had seen his photo on a Boston newscast. Maybe. But then most people were quick to accept this as fact. In a weird way, I wonder if we felt betrayed. Betrayed because Jeff had broken the simple rules of the cemetery. He’d become too intimate. Now he was gone and it was hard to say hi, let alone catch someone else’s eye. During those dark winter months the cemetery became a kind of haunted, trustless place. In one of the endless conversations we had about him later, some people worried that he knew where we lived … someone threatened to track him down. But what for? So that he might never again bamboozle other hapless dog owners in other seaside towns into chatting about doggy shampoo?
Sara and I kept the Christmas card on our refrigerator right up until a couple of months ago, actually, when it quietly fell to a new rotation of refrigerator photos. We kept it there in hopes, I think, that he would come back and explain where he’d been, for I was pretty certain that he couldn’t have robbed a bank. And if he had, I told myself, maybe it was because he had to. Maybe he’d been inches from a life he imagined for himself, with a dog that gave unconditional love, with friends he was guaranteed to see every day and he’d had a couple of bad breaks—got sick, ran out of money, lost his dog and then panicked.
Now time has passed. People come and go and every six months the galaxy inside these gates breaks apart and reconfigures. Dogs die, people leave for nursing homes, others move, more arrive and every day, today even, people are here walking in spectral circles like they’re in Mecca. Circling the Ka’ba. In general I’d say things are back to the way they were—intimate but not intimate. We stand around in dumfounded joy with ten, twenty, thirty other gaping grown adults, reveling in the simplicity of stupidly entertaining dog play. Dalmatian Man still flashes sign language at his deaf Dalmatian, the Pickup Artist still works his magic, the Lawn Chair Family still sets up by the cemetery gate each day, covering their legs with wool blankets.
Fact is, even without somebody like Jeff pulling people together, if you stand on a corner with a bunch of strangers, eventually something happens that brings you together. Sometimes something small. The other night I went to the cemetery at sunset. There were the same broken headstones, the same sea captains and paupers, and there were all these living people, too, who only know me as Trout’s dad, or as the guy who stupidly named his dog Trout, or however they see me. The dogs were playing hard, racing in circles, not wanting any of it to end, and a gigantic moon came up, came up tangerine. It was the kind of moon that stills everything, and we stood in a circle watching it rise. For a minute or two we just stood there glowing orange, the dogs didn’t exist at all.
Culture: Stories & Lit
When I’m asked if I live alone, I reply, “No, I live with Lucy.” Lucy is my 12-year-old Beagle. She’s a stubborn little dog, but especially sweet and loving. My late husband, Don, and I adopted her from the local shelter nine years ago. We had been checking the shelter weekly, and when we drove up one Sunday in early June, the attendant said, “I have just the dog for you.” He led us to a tri-colored hound, unlocked the pen and said, “Her name is Lucy.”
The frisky Beagle charged toward us, running from one to the other. She wiggled all over when we stooped down to pat her. We were hooked immediately by her affection. “Her ears are like velvet,” I said, stroking her and smiling up at Don. He nodded, then asked the attendant, “Where do we sign?”
Within minutes, the paperwork was completed. Don opened the back door of our Buick station wagon and Lucy hopped right in. The trip home took about 10 minutes. She sat looking out the window as though she had ridden with us all her life. When she placed her front right paw on the armrest, we knew she was special; later that night, as we listened to her snore, we agreed she was a perfect fit. I intended for her to be Don’s dog. He had recently been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and I had read that a dog would be helpful. They became buddies at once. Don spent hours in the back yard throwing a tennis ball, which Lucy raced after but never retrieved. She’d sit at the ball and wait until Don traipsed across the yard to pick it up and throw it again. They never tired of that little game. As his illness progressed, his stride became a slow shuffle. Lucy waited patiently for him to reach her. “Go get it,” he said, tossing the ball again.
One afternoon, it became quiet in the back yard. I headed toward the door to check on them, then noticed that they were both asleep on the braided rug in the family room. Don’s arm was around Lucy. When I approached, she opened her eyes without moving an inch, so as not to disturb him. I ran for the camera.
When Don puttered around the yard or went down to the basement, she was at his side. Evenings, after they had their ice cream, he sat in his recliner with Lucy curled up on his lap.
In September, we signed her up for obedience training. I handled her during classes, as Don’s memory was failing; he sat on a bench nearby and watched. The instructor said Beagles are stubborn, but Lucy surprised us. Head and tail held high, she pranced along beside me like a show dog. As a proud mother, I beamed.
When I could no longer provide Don’s care, he became a resident at a nursing facility. Lucy mourned his absence in our home. She waited at the back door with the tennis ball in her mouth. If I opened the freezer door, she dashed into the kitchen, expecting ice cream.
Each afternoon, we visited Don. Lucy was so excited that she dragged me across the parking lot. She stood on her hind legs at his wheelchair, her entire body wagging. Don’s laughter filled the hallway. As his illness progressed and he was no longer able to acknowledge us, Lucy was completely undemanding. She sat quietly at the foot of his wheelchair and grieved.
Evenings at home, when I sat in Don’s recliner, Lucy would jump up on my lap. I welcomed the closeness, but her 36 pounds was too much for me. I’d point to the floor and say, “Down, girl, down. You’re too heavy for me.” Reluctantly, she’d jump down and nestle alongside the chair, looking up. I rubbed her velvet ears, and we were both comforted.
It’s been nearly four years since we lost Don. That sensitive little Beagle has transferred her love to me. Her companionship and loyal devotion fill the void in my life. She is never far away, and I talk to her all day long. Her bed is in a corner of my bedroom. Every night before she settles down, she comes alongside the bed for a little smooch. I pat her head and say, “You’re a good girl. Mommy loves you.” It fills a need for both of us.
I’ve had many dogs in my 83 years, but never one as loving and devoted as my Lucy. She keeps me company, makes me laugh and snuggles up when she senses I’m lonely. She is the perfect housemate. I don’t know what I’d do without her.
Culture: Stories & Lit
We were on our daily walk, and my dog became startled by a cow in someone’s nativity scene. Christmas decorations in general freak him out, so during the holidays, we approach many reindeer from behind, so he can sniff them and see that they aren’t real and aren’t going to chase us down the street. I don’t want him afraid of things in his environment, so I always make the effort to let him work through his fears.
Anyway, we’re walking along, and all of a sudden he stops and stares. I look ahead, and realize that the cow is staring directly at my dog. Or so he thinks. I smile, because his child-like discovery of new things is always refreshing to me. I walk him around to the rear of the cow, I touch it and let him sniff my hand, then he approaches the cow nonchalantly and stands in the middle of the nativity scene. He starts sniffing Baby Jesus, which I think is very touching. Of all the statues surrounding him, the baby lying on straw is the one that draws his attention. Then he starts to lift his leg. “No! Oh no!” I sputter, as I hurriedly pull on his leash and get him away from there. I’m not sure if any pee landed on its intended target — I was too ashamed to look closely and wanted to leave the scene in case anyone had witnessed our “crime” and wanted to give me an earful about how disrespectful it was.
I am a Christian, and I think my dog is too. I wouldn’t let him pee on anyone’s religious icon, because I believe that my dog should learn to respect all faiths. I can understand him not knowing the significance of icons from religions he’s not familiar with. But why on earth would he pee on Baby Jesus? When I talk about Jesus, my dog settles down and gives me a sage look — “Oh yes, Jesus. It’s not well promoted, but he was very good to the animals.” Christmas hymns are one of his favorite kinds of music and put him in a very relaxed state. And when we set up our Christmas tree, he alternates between lying where he can gaze at it with admiration and lying underneath its sheltering boughs, looking like he is getting the best rest he gets all year. For these reasons, I’m pretty sure my dog is Christian. So, his peeing on Baby Jesus must have some amazing, profound explanation.
Has God sent my dog to warn us of worshipping false idols? The Old Testament commands us not to worship any “graven image.” The companies that sell these religious figures assure us that as long as we put God first and realize that the figurine is just a figurine, then our money is well spent on inspiring others by our faith. But is that why we display a nativity scene these days? Lately there have been so many legal arguments over displaying nativity scenes on public property. It seems that as the arguments build, more and more people are buying nativity scenes and displaying them on their front lawns. Do they buy the nativity scene because they are divinely inspired to demonstrate their faith, or do they buy the nativity scene out of anger, daring a neighbor to say something about it? Dogs have a wonderful sense of smell. Perhaps my dog smelled the anger hormones left behind by the homeowner as he thrust his nativity scene on his lawn, laughing a cynical laugh and planning what he would do to the person who dared to challenge his display of faith.
Then again, perhaps it was the quality of the figurine that my dog took issue with. This was a cheap-looking, plastic nativity scene. It was fairly new, but if you’re going to have a representation of the Baby Jesus, shouldn’t it be the best quality that money can buy? Perhaps my dog knew that this was a cheap imitation that didn’t stand up to the life that Jesus led and the lives that he is still touching today. Could it be that my dog decided to let someone know exactly what he thought of that piss-poor representation of our Lord and Savior? Or maybe my dog smelled the cynical hormones left behind by the worker in the Jesus factory. Maybe the factory owners laugh as they count their money, knowing that they can charge whatever they want and cut costs wherever they want, because no one would dare say that Baby Jesus is too expensive. Or perhaps they get irritated with the frustrations of their job, forgetting about the magic they create. “How in the heck did we end up with 30 Marys and only 15 Josephs? Jeez, the guys running the assembly line are idiots!” Maybe my dog was smelling the hormones left behind by workers who handled the Baby Jesus.
Or perhaps it was the timing of the episode. This happened around January 8. For some reason, people in my neighborhood left their Christmas decorations out longer than usual this year. I don’t know if it’s because of the depressing news about the economy — maybe people are trying to hold onto the Christmas spirit a little longer. Or maybe it’s because we had a lot of dreary, cold days around the first of the year, and people just procrastinated going outside and taking down their Christmas decorations. At any rate, perhaps my dog is sage enough to know that if we drag out the Christmas season, it will become just another set of dreary days to get through and will lose its magic. People need to put their Christmas decorations away so that when they pull them out again next Thanksgiving, the decorations will have the needed effect of pulling on our emotions and making us present to the love of mankind that we neglect the rest of the year.
All of these things run through my mind as we make our way back home. What is the message my dog was trying to send to that homeowner? I have learned some amazing things by watching my dog, and what was I meant to learn this time? When we get settled back at the house, I sit on the couch and stare at my dog, trying to figure out what he was communicating. Then all of a sudden the realization dawns on me. I know exactly why my dog tried to pee on Baby Jesus. It’s because another dog peed on Baby Jesus first!
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