Three books honor the human-animal bond
Some say it’s best to choose books that would make you look good if you were to die in the middle of reading them. And while The Dog, The Call and Unsaid all qualify as such books, they also, each in their way, pull off something far more subtle and significant: these three novels gently ask whether you will feel good should you die in the middle of them. Specifically, have you done all you could? Were you a good parent, guardian, partner, husband, wife? Did you, to your end, show compassion and courage?
Kerstin Ekman’s The Dog, a mild, poetic parable about the primal will to survive, ventures sotto voce where our imaginations tend to halt and falter: what happens when a tiny puppy follows his mother into the tall pines and then gets lost? As harrowing as the account is to read, Ekman’s intimate, omniscient narration never leaves the reader bereft. On the contrary, the story arcs ever upward, kindling a warm appreciation for the heroism involved in mere survival. And as restrained as the tone remains throughout, the dog at the story’s center grows fierce before our eyes, and returns, slowly, cautiously, to harmony with a hunter, a spiritual symbiosis that never could have happened had the pup stayed closer to the hearth.
Like Ekman’s dog, the hunter at the heart of Yannick Murphy’s inventive fourth novel, The Call, experiences familial loss—he must carry on with his professional routine despite having watched his only son slip into a coma after a tragic hunting accident. Told with wry wit and unabashed anger, the story unfolds through the rural veterinarian’s call notes. Despite their formal repetition, these records shift like the sea, revealing the imperceptible adjustments made by his family as they cope—day in, day out—with their suffering.
While Ekman sparsely populates her animal’s kingdom with humans on its fringe and Murphy stations her humans at the forest’s brink, Neil Abramson’s work intermingles humans with other animals, dissolving the boundaries between; indeed, Unsaid goes so far as to question the very legitimacy of these distinctions. A masterful novel wrought with exceptional sensitivity and intelligence, Unsaid is narrated from the afterlife by Helena, a veterinarian who clings to those she left behind: her devastated widower, David; her menagerie of heartbroken pets; her colleagues and friends. David is determined to retain the structure of their former life, but the more he learns about the narrative’s shining gem, Cindy, the more things change. Cindy, a chimpanzee Helena worked with, has a level of intelligence that could expand the frontiers of communication and consciousness and a passion that reorients the lives of every last person the author introduces. Abramson deftly draws characters whose interactions represent real issues central to animal rights—dignity, quality of life and human accountability among them. Unsaid reverberates with legal and ethical relevance well beyond the emotional close of this exciting debut novel.
What all three of these writers share is an understanding that the inevitable last stop on a journey of devotion, whether to one another or to our animals, is grief. And that’s one miserable reality. So it is a welcome testament to the redemptive power of literature that Ekman, Murphy and Abramson manage to allow us, despite the desperate sadness they fearlessly portray, to feel the comfort and tenderness of our shared transience so exquisitely.
Temple University Press, 304 pp., 2011; $35.00; William Morrow, 448 pp., 2011; $26.99
When dealing with ethics and adults, one cannot teach — one can only remind,” says Professor Bernie Rollin in his new book, Putting the Horse before Descartes. In this book and HSUS CEO Wayne Pacelle’s The Bond, two of the most influential “remind-ers” and animal welfare allies recount their battles for reform across the wide frontiers of controversy. Their victories are numerous, groundbreaking and far from complete; their predictions for the future are optimistic. I hope they’re right.
Bernie Rollin has invested his rich academic career building the ethical underpinnings of animal rights and welfare, steering generations of veterinary and other students in the direction of contemplating those issues and pursuing effective public advocacy based on that foundation. Here, he fools us into reading a philosophy tome, with a mix of often hilarious biography, condensed and readable expositions of his approach to animal rights, and (occasionally tedious) later accounts of his battles to improve animal welfare in venues as diverse as veterinary education, shelter practices, research, rodeos and industrial agriculture.
Central to Rollin’s ethical approach is the concept of telos, the fundamental animal nature of each species. Telos, the author states, means that “fish gotta swim; birds gotta fly.” Each species has the right to be treated by humans in ways that respect that essence. Indeed, the true animal husbandry practiced throughout most of agricultural history is an exchange that reflects that imperative; the farmer or rancher was only as good as the condition of his animals.
Decline of the husbandry principle is demonstrated in the recent rise of both factory farming and animal research. Food animals have become fungible commodities of inventory, and as research subjects, critters are means to the end of commercializing products that pass regulatory muster as “safe” (for humans). Rollin’s concern for lab animals deepens when he contemplates the unknown consequences of gene splicing, especially for the splicees.
In The Bond, Pacelle identifies and builds from the instinctive affinity that unites sentient lives across the boundaries of species. He believes that, in the intersection of our lives with those of other beings, we must honor that covenant, reminding readers of the violations that abound in mankind’s power over other animals. Pacelle skillfully describes his organization’s campaigns to redress those abuses: in factory farming, animal fighting, the fur trade and sheltering. Indeed, his ringing endorsement of “no-kill” would almost convince the new reader that HSUS invented the concept.
Both authors have devoted their lives to their missions as advocates and remind-ers. Both see the rise in public concern for animals as pointing the way to a better future. It’s not completely clear to me that it will: Is this trend a harbinger of a more humane age? Or does it simply indicate that we will palliate suffering and respect telos in the most intimate, immediate and convenient of bonds but continue to ignore, tolerate and tacitly enable the greater cruelties visited upon animals we don’t have to see every day? A first step in the direction of change is always transparency. Both these volumes ably raise our awareness, and push us toward lives that will require conscious choices between those contrasting futures.
Culture: Stories & Lit
Simon & Schuster, 336 pp., 2011; $26.99
With Susan Orlean’s much-awaited Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend, readers face a sad story, but not for the reason you might think — that a wonderful, heroic dog will die in the end. In fact, this dog lived many lives, first in silent movies in the 1920s and again in the 1950s in one of the most popular television series in American history. And to some degree, Rinty still lives, though when I mentioned this book to my 45-year-old, dog-loving sister, she struggled to recall him. “He was a famous dog, right? On TV?”
The story begins with Lee Duncan, a man whose entire life was defined by two things: his boyhood years in an orphanage and his unshakable belief in the puppy he rescued from a World War I battlefield in France and named Rin Tin Tin.
Orlean, author of The Orchid Thief, follows the story with the passion of an investigative reporter who’s also a lover of dogs, and her research is stunningly deep and comprehensive. Like the best of nonfiction, her book casts a wide net, and off the spine of Rinty’s biography she hangs a great many narrative excursions: the history of dogs in war; Hitler’s unsettling devotion to animal welfare; the story of Hollywood, from silent movies to color TV; the evolution of marketing in popular culture. But at the heart of Rin Tin Tin is “Lee’s private story about the possibility that love can be constant,” and that “a dog could make you whole.” This is what the dream, and the entire franchise, was built on.
The parts I liked best describe Rinty’s amazing acting talent: his ability to display an extraordinary range of emotion and his uncommon agility and physical grace. Unfortunately there’s little here to explain how Duncan actually trained the dog, and it’s not until halfway through the book that we learn about his first efforts at obedience training, which began in the 1930s after Rinty became a star.
Ultimately, Lee Duncan’s story is a lonely one of unfulfilled dreams, fortunes made and lost, and human connections that were at best tenuous. Despite the many hours she spent with his memoirs and archive, Orlean felt that he was “at once ingenuous and impenetrable … he remained a mystery.” The same can be said of Rin Tin Tin, the dog who has, for almost a century, stood as the embodiment of “bravery, loyalty and courage against evil of all kinds.”
This book leaves us hanging because, in the end, no dog is truly knowable. In this age of relentless human exhibitionism, it is perhaps this mystery that explains why we admire and revere dogs so much.
Author Susan Orlean describes Clash of The Wolves, a 1925 silent film starring Rin Tin Tin:
“The wolves, led by Lobo, attack a steer and the ranchers set out after them. The chase is fast and frightening, and when Rin Tin Tin weaves through the horses’ churning legs, it looks like he’s about to be trampled. He runs faster and for longer than seems possible. He outruns the horses, his body flattened and stretched as he bullets along the desert floor, and if you didn’t see the little puffs of dust when his feet touch the ground, you’d swear he was floating. He scrambles up a tree — a stunt so startling that I had to replay it a few times to believe it. Can dogs climb trees? Evidently. At least certain dogs can. And they can climb down, too, and then tear along a rock ridge, and then come to a halt at the narrow crest of the ridge. The other side of the gorge is miles away. Rin Tin Tin stops, pivots; you feel him calculating his options; then he crouches and leaps, and the half-second before he lands safely feels very long and fraught. His feet touch ground and he scrambles on, but a moment later he somersaults off the ledge of another cliff, slamming through the branches of a cactus, collapsing in a heap, with a cactus needle skewered through the pad of his foot.”
Culture: Stories & Lit
Scientists have only recently caught on that canines are not just a fertile subject for their particular specialties — psychology, anthropology, zoology, ethology and more — but also a topic that the publishing world seems eager to promote.
This trend has been a long time developing. Nobel Prize–winner and ethology’s co-founder, Konrad Lorenz, wrote Man Meets Dog (1950), breaking ground that lay dormant until anthropologist Elizabeth Marshall Thomas’s bestseller, The Hidden Life of Dogs (1993), reintroduced the genre of dog studies to the non-scientist reader. A few years later, journalist Mark Derr followed up with Dog’s Best Friend (1997), a book that grew out of his Atlantic Monthly investigative piece about the AKC and the dog-show world. Another dry spell was finally broken by psychology professor Alexandra Horowitz’s Inside of a Dog (2009), which garnered an extraordinary amount of well-earned praise. At long last, it seems that the (overly) popular dog-memoir craze has given way to illuminating and well-researched books that explore the science behind our favorite species, written for the general public.
For example, in the May issue of Bark, we reviewed Dog Sense, a fascinating book by British anthrozoologist John Bradshaw, in which the author provides a compendium of current research (both his own and others’) into dogs’ origins and behavior. More specifically, he details their evolution from a wolf-like ancestor into proto-dogs and then the first domesticated species; he also investigates how this very long-term relationship has affected both canines and humans. He goes on to clearly explain how today’s dogs differ behaviorally and culturally from wolves, and why the dominance/ pack paradigm put forth by many trainers (including Cesar Millan) is not only the wrong way to understand dogs but has also done them a great disservice. It makes for engrossing and thought-provoking reading.
Paleoanthropologist Pat Shipman takes a similar synoptic approach in her engaging new book, The Animal Connection: A New Perspective on What Makes Us Human, and adds valuable insights into the dog’s evolutionary story. She combs through research in her own field as well as in archeology to test her hypothesis that animals (dogs among them) have shaped our species’ evolution. As she says, “I believe that a defining trait of the human species has been a connection with animals…. Defining traits are what make humans human … and they are partially or wholly encoded in our genes.” She does a rigorous investigation — every bit as compelling as a forensic TV drama — into the three big advances that contributed to our modernity: tool-making, language and symbolic behavior, and the domestication of other species to support this position.
In the chapter, “The Wolf at the Door,” Shipman suggests how domestication might have happened. As importantly, she refutes other theorists, such as Raymond Coppinger and his “protodog- as-village-pests” model. She writes about Belgian researcher Mietje Germonpré, whose work recently dated a proto-dog fossil skull to 31,680 BP — proving that dogs were domesticated long before humans congregated in settlements. (It was an amazing 20,000 years before the next species, the goat, was domesticated.) Shipman questions why so few representations of wolves/dogs (as well as human figures) appear in prehistoric art, and incorporates anthropologist Anne Pike-Tay’s suggestion that if domesticated dogs were helping us hunt, they were “perhaps placed in a completely different symbolic category from other animals,” adding, “dogs might have been put into the human family category as an extension of the hunter.” All of which attests to the fact that dogs have been a part of the human family since our own prehistory — an extremely long time.
All of these books, the classics and the current crop, should be read by dog lovers. Not only do they contribute to our understanding of our first friends, they also have the potential to improve dogs’ welfare by educating us as to what we can and can’t expect from them. We owe it to dogs to learn more so this age-old relationship can grow even stronger. Here’s hoping this trend continues and more groundbreaking books are on the way.
Culture: Stories & Lit
Dogwise Publishing, 136 pp., 2010; $16.95
As human to a couple of large, highly prey-driven dogs, I was thrilled and relieved to learn of Clarissa von Reinhardt’s book, Chase! I had done a fair amount of research over the years on the topic but hadn’t learned much beyond the fact that good management and a fail-proof recall were in order. Until I read Chase!, that is.
Every good training program begins with a solid foundation, and Reinhardt’s is no exception. The fundamental element of the program is what Reinhardt calls “communicative walks,” which she defines as “using the walk as an opportunity to build a strong bond between you and your dog through interaction and communication,” including discovering “sausage trees” together, among other activities. (The sausage tree is one of several unique and creative training ideas.)
Reinhardt provides instructions for humanely and effectively training behaviors ranging from basic to the more unusual. She also includes a chapter on mental stimulation, in which she emphasizes the importance of play and outlines games that are appropriate and inappropriate for prey-driven dogs.
While I found everything in the book to be of use, I did not find everything of use to be in the book. Two things in particular were conspicuous in their absence: instructions for training a fail-proof recall and a serious discussion on working with dogs who have killed prey animals.
Regardless, Chase! is definitely worthwhile if you’d like to be able to allow your prey-driven dog off leash. Reinhardt’s training philosophy is right on: “The success of anti-predation training doesn’t just depend on how well you train your dog to steer his natural tendencies in an alternative direction— toward you—but also how well you concentrate on the dog as your partner.”
Avery Publishing, 320 pp., 2010; $26.00
After the birth of Snuppy, the world’s first cloned dog, a handful of biotech entrepreneurs envisioned a thriving business that would provide grieving dog lovers with genetically identical clones of their deceased pets. In Dog Inc., Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist John Woestendiek exposes the grave folly behind those science-fiction dreams.
Woestendiek travels between the United States and South Korea, following the companies looking to cash in on cloning technology, and their clients, who hope cloning really will approximate resurrection.
Although much of the book focuses on the salacious story of Bernann McKinney, a woman obsessed with cloning her Pit Bull, the strength of Dog Inc. is in Woestendiek’s ability to lay out the science and laboratory politics in a way that’s both accessible and engaging. Readers will understand the X-inactivation process that made the first cloned cat so physically distinct from her progenitor — and, consequently, such a public relations failure — as well as the allegations of scientific fraud levied against Woo Suk Hwang, one of the pioneers of canine cloning.
Woestendiek never outright condemns canine cloning, but the details leave little question as to where he falls in the debate. He shines light on the poor treatment of the laboratory dogs used in cloning, the cloned puppies who do not survive the process and the heartbreaking fate of Snuppy himself. As for the actual clones, Dog Inc. tracks kittens, puppies and even a bull cloned at great financial and biological cost, only to prove physically and behaviorally distinct from their genetic parents.
The book serves as a valuable reminder that, like people, our pets are far more than the sum of their DNA.
News: Guest Posts
Jonathan Balcombe studies the animal pleasure principle
In our house, we call it sun-dogging: When Lulu and Renzo stretch out on the hot slate of the porch or cool grass and heat up in the sun. Their black fur gets pretty hot to the touch, but still they soak it all in, moving to shade long after it seemed like a good idea. We love watching them sun-dog because they seem to be enjoying themselves so much.
Apparently, there is a scientific term for the habit, “behavioral thermoregulation.” But it just doesn’t capture the pleasure of the moment. “Oh, honey, look at Lulu behaviorially thermoregulating.”
Based on recent reviews and preview materials, I’m thinking animal behaviorist Jonathan Balcombe would understand “sun-dogging.” In his new book, The Exultant Ark, he doesn’t mince words about animals experiencing pleasure—the study of which he calls, hedonic ethology. Yum.
Of course, you can’t really get away with saying animals experience pleasure (a little too anthropomorphic), so in amongst the photos he makes his case for the biological imperative of pleasure, but I’m happy to let the photos do the work. I mean, look at that cover!
More about The Exultant Ark: A Pictorial Tour of Animal Pleasure.
Watch an interview with Jonathan Balcombe (in parts on YouTube):
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
It’s a great kids book!
Like most people who live where I do (an hour from Grand Canyon), I consider it part of my backyard and I love stories and art inspired by and about this wonder of the world.
In The Adventures of Salt & Soap at Grand Canyon, Park Ranger Lori April Rome narrates the true story describing how two lost puppies became her own dogs. Salt and Soap were just three months old when they were found wandering together in a remote area of Grand Canyon National Park. These puppies had a variety of adventures, including capsizing during a ride on the river, lots of hiking, a thunderstorm, and finally a helicopter ride out of the canyon. Though written for kids ages 4 to 8, this story appeals to a much broader age range.
Tanja Bauerle’s illustrations capture the wildlife in the area, the facial expressions and body language of these two exuberant puppies and the grandeur and beauty of Grand Canyon. The puppies take their names from Salt Water Wash and Soap Canyon, which are features of Grand Canyon near where they were first found. Their permanent home in Grand Canyon Village near the rim of the canyon is also beautifully depicted.
Among the many reasons I adore this engaging book are the fact that the puppies are mixed breeds, that it was a cooperative effort by many people to help the puppies survive in this harsh, unforgiving habitat, and that there are other animals in this outdoor adventure tale. The puppies see a variety of wildlife while they interact with rangers, hikers and river runners. It’s refreshing to read a children’s book in which dogs are one of many species inhabiting our planet.
The story is told with that sense of wonder that is so captivating to children. The emphasis is on positive aspects of life: the friendliness and trust of the puppies, the compassion of strangers, the majesty and vastness of Grand Canyon and the contagious happiness that dogs bring to us all.
In 1960, a young Maltese made his way from England to America, stopping along the way in Hollywood at the astoundingly dysfunctional home of actress Natalie Woods’ mother. From there, he landed in the lovely lap of Marilyn Monroe, a gift from Frank Sinatra, and lived with her until she died in 1962. As Maf (short for “Mafia Honey”) observes, “A dog’s biggest talent is for absorbing everything of interest,” and here, he not only absorbs it, he recounts it. Telling a story in the voice of a dog is a risky business, but O’Hagan pulls it off in this entertaining novel, which looks at the life and times of an iconic and much-mythologized woman through the eyes of a dog who loved her.
“It’s never too late to begin again,” says veteran trainer Pat Miller, and in her new book, she shows us how to do just that. Whether you have a newly rescued pooch or a long-time canine companion with lingering “issues,” Miller offers guidance and insights that are both practical and inspiring. Her discussions of the shelter world, adopting a do-over dog, and the science behind training and behavior provide valuable context in which to understand and apply her advice.
Copyright © 1997-2016 The Bark, Inc. Dog Is My Co-Pilot® is a registered trademark of The Bark, Inc