Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Dogs, gods, humans, cats, responsibility

My mum stopped the car in front of her house on the farm, which is long and ranch-style, bookended by rusty-roofed iron shacks and a bristly menagerie of potted plants. (Unlike the house in Pearce she used to live in - which, furnished with all the stuff she'd shared with my dad, still bore the ghostly marks of his perfectionist personality and dictatorially pervasive good taste - the farm is the apotheosis of life the way my mum likes it: laid-back, and comfy.) The dog, Fenris, came up to greet her with an amiable wag of his tail. And then he noticed me.

It was as if every particle in his golden, still-puppyish body wanted to vibrate independently, and he dashed over, leaping and wagging and panting and shaking and turning and licking and howling wee howls: "Oooooh, ooooh!", but he just couldn't get close enough. Eventually he decided that his favorite position was to rear up on his hind legs with his paws on my shoulders, because that meant I had to hug his chest to keep from falling over, and he could get in some licks at my face - but it wasn't a very stable position, and so he'd coil around my legs a few times before jumping up again. Then sometimes he'd melt to the ground, undulating on his back with his four legs splayed, peering at me winsomely, so I could rub his stomach, until the excitement exploded and he'd jump up again. It had been two years, but he remembered me, ohhh, he remembered me. And I'd forgotten how it feels, to be confronted with dog love.

Supposedly we can divide ourselves into dog people, and cat people.* As far as I understand, the rivalry goes thus: dog people wonder why cat people waste their efforts on heartless if elegant killing machines who'll never love them back, instead of energetic pals who are always in the mood to play, and in fact if the cat owner wakes up two inches tall one day and Puss hasn't had breakfast, watch out. Meanwhile cat people are awed and inspired by their mini-deities of beauty (and sometimes, humorously over-guarded dignity), and look down their noses at people who need unquestioning worship from a shaggy drooling piss-sniffer, as in, is that really the only way you can get the love you need? And is that really the kind of love you crave: hopelessly unconditional?

But as with many other things in my life, I reject the choice. Cats are splendid, almost holy in their elegance and sensuality - and it's very relaxing to love a creature that brims with world-swallowing narcissism: you can love it just as long as you want to, and when you take the love away, it couldn't care less. Their selfishness is a perfect, and perfectly beautiful, icy zero. Ahh, but dogs. Not only are they a hell of a lot of fun, but they are a marvellous psychological tonic (even better than ashwagandha.) So many times I have been wallowing in a morass of self-centered and resentfully circular thoughts only to be nudged into a game by a dog: shaggy, drooling, wriggling, gleefully dignity-free. What was so important again? So many times I have been prostrate with despair and felt a soft nose against my arm - unquestioning, ever-lasting, all-encompassing. Who doesn't need unconditional love? Who are we kidding?

And that's what dogs give us, because that's what we need, so that's what we made them for. We made dogs, playing god: we've made them in all shapes, sizes, colours, and personalities - some so inbred (golden retrievers, for example) that they suffer from congenital disabilities like hip dysplasia; some so physically altered for style that they live their lives in pain (bulldogs, with their "cute" squashed wrinkly faces, wheeze their whole lives and never once draw an easy breath); some, like Rottweilers, with inherently mean and paranoid personalities, occasionally snap into madness, killing children, and then we kill them; and some, like Chihuahuas, are just inherently silly, so their hidden depths that still remember howling wolves in the forest suffer immense cognitive dissonance, which leads to towering neurosis, manifested by incessant yapping.

And it's not just their genes we make. We train them or we don't train them; we dump these sensitive and devoted animals into the middle of chaotic families, so they always smell fear and frustration in the air; we spoil them so that they're fat and ridiculous; we throw loud parties around them with strange people. A dog needs us to know what's right and wrong, and if we don't provide that, or if we provide it inconsistently, they basically go crazy.

We made them without inner resources, because that way, they depend on us. My dad said, "It's more cruel to put a dog into prison than a man. A man has memories, he can think, he can remember stories, he can do math in his head. A dog can't do that; he depends on external stimulation from the world, and if he doesn't get it, the boredom is very quickly overwhelming."

My dad believes our responsibility for dogs is total, even more than for a child ("Whom you hope, someday, will be independent," he'd say, giving me a meaningful glare). If we choose to live with them, we've got to make sure they're happy. I was in the Australian National Art Gallery today and there was a striking painting by Albert Tucker of a man's twisted, baggy face. Tucker said he'd been flipping through the newspaper and saw a photo of a man who was arrested for kicking a dog to death. He was so struck by the marks of moral depravity on the man's face that he turned the photo into a painting, pointing to, he said, "our universal human condition."

Who so thoughtlessly torments their creations? Who demands unquestioning adoration and yet refuses to reciprocate? Who would ever do a thing like that?

And yet the forgiveness of dogs surpasses perhaps even Job's. In one of James Herriott's essays**, he describes finding a golden retriever bitch who'd been locked up in a dark shed for the first year of her life, and yet she feebly wags her tail as she gazes at him with sweet wide eyes. That's the most terrifying thing about the love of a dog: if they'll forgive you anything, the moral responsibility is all yours.

In her essay "24 Hour Dog" Jeannette Winterson describes getting a puppy: an intelligent, wise puppy who adores her and follows her on a walk, miraculously sensitive to her moods. Her dog-training manual tells her that she's got to force the puppy to sleep alone, even on the first night, to teach it self-reliance - and so she listens to him wail in desolation all night. The next morning she thinks, "It is too much for me. He has found me out." And she takes the puppy back to the family who sold it to her: "Give him to someone else. I can't take responsibility for his soul."

I came back to the farm again today and Fenris repeated his enthusiastic greeting, this time with a hint of desperation: I thought you'd gone away again! I whispered, No, no, I'm here. I'm here for a little while. As I pottered around the house he followed me, lying nearby watching me as I read, circling the kitchen as I made tea - he would have come with me into the bathroom if I'd let him. I was reading in bed tonight, about to go to sleep, when he pushed through the door and jumped onto the bed with an apologetic tail wag. Fenris needs a bath; he's got a distinct doggy smell at the moment, and bad breath. "I can't sleep with your horrible doggy smell," I said, and opened the door to let him out. He obeyed slowly, tail meek between his legs, and settled down just outside the door, peering back dolefully over his shoulder. A factory manned by ten thousand Jewish mothers could not have manufactured the guilt I felt.

So I went over to the computer, and I wrote this, and Fenris is snoozing at my feet.


*I'd argue that there's also fish people, and no-pet people, but that's another story.
**A vet in Yorkshire from 1939 until his death in 1995 who wrote a series of memoirs about his life with the animals, his eccentric fellow vets, and the gruff but lovable farmers; the first is called "All Creatures Great and Small." His writing is hilarious and heartwarming and very, very life-affirming - check it out.


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