Butch was my seal. Or so I fantasized, and bragged to my grade school friends. His origins, age—even his true sex and name—were a mystery. But he was real. He wore a faded collar that had become painfully tight, creating a ring of raw red flesh, like a gruesome necklace he couldn’t unclasp. My own, childishly romantic theory was that he had escaped from a traveling circus. It was the 1960s, and his adopted home was near our dock, in Lake Sammamish, east of Seattle. Oddly, Butch’s presence felt normal for us.
Butch was beautiful, plump yet sleek, his dark form gliding effortlessly and phantom-like just under the lake’s surface. His skin had spots like silver dollars, and his whiskered muzzle reminded me of a dog’s. I would watch, transfixed and jealous: his head gently breaking the surface, nostrils exploding with exhaled breath, dark round eyes scanning my world before silently slipping back to his own. To be so weightless and graceful! Heavy and ungainly on land, he was elegant and agile in his watery element.
Dogs were as crucial to Butch’s wellbeing as the lake fish on which he dined. Dogs were his playmates. His favorites were Spot and Tar, large mixed-breeds with simple names that aptly described their appearance—one shaggy white with occasional black spots, the other all black. They lived nearby.
In my mind I still clearly see them playing: The dogs pace back and forth on our dock, signaling and waiting. Spying them, Butch stealthily swims under the dock, under them, setting up his moment. Spot and Tar crouch with tense anticipation. Then, with an explosion of speed, Butch breaks the surface, just inches below them, surprising and titillating the dogs into paroxysms of spinning and barking, just beyond the reach of their mouths, before he slips back under.
Spot and Tar maintain a frenzied focus, leaning perilously over the edge of the dock, tails wagging furiously in circles for balance while barking excitedly as Butch teases from below, literally brushing their noses with his, diving back down for several seconds to increase the tension, then breaching like a Sea World performer, slapping his tail fins against the surface with a resounding whop that drenches the dogs and the dock with the splash, leaving us all…breathless. Over and over, this sequence, with little variation, for as long as thirty minutes per session.
They played regularly over the years, to the obvious delight of all involved, especially me. It was almost as though they knew when it was playtime, because the dogs were rarely stood up. I would watch with intent stillness from a distance, for as soon as a human approached, the show ended with Butch swimming silently away.
Rarely, a dog would fall off the dock and into the water. Butch would gently grab them by a hind leg, briefly pulling them under before releasing them to swim to shore. Butch never hurt a dog. I think he just wanted them to swim with him, be like him, learn to play like a seal in the water. Butch surely was lonely, the only seal in the lake.
I felt a kinship with Butch. We both chose dogs as our favored and most trusted playmates—out of necessity for Butch, simple affinity for me. I never tired of watching them play. Butch’s trust of Spot and Tar grew to the point that he would beach himself while playing—exposing an almost lover-like vulnerability to them. He chose well, because while they’d bark from inches away, they never harmed him. They played with him in ways they all agreed upon.
I’m grateful Butch and the dogs allowed me into their unique and transcendent world of play. They taught me to ignore assumptions and overcome bias in interactions with animals and with people. I learned that play is the common language across species and across cultures. I continue to marvel at scenes of different animal species playing with each other, finding their common ground, communicating their playfulness and lack of aggression.
We humans can learn so much from dogs and all of the animals with whom we share this planet.