My Heart Belongs to Laddy

My Dad, who woul dhave been 91 tomorrow, was a lifelong cat lover, but he had room in his heart for dogs. This is Laddy, our collie who made life interesting in our tiny house until he bit the mailman and had to move to a farm where there was more room for him to run off his high energy.
My Dad, who would have been 91 tomorrow, was a lifelong cat lover, but he had room in his heart for dogs. This is Laddy, our collie who made life interesting in our tiny house until he bit the mailman and had to move to a farm where there was more room for him to run off his high energy.

Did we learn nothing from Planet of the Apes?

While that classic sci-fi film may be a bit dated and far-fetched, the ideas it raised remain compelling. In particular, the way the film exposes the tendency of humans to view themselves as masters of all other species.

Of course, we have books, written by humans, which codify this conceit. However, simply because something is written in a book, or even a law, doesn’t make it necessarily true or right. The argument has been around for centuries, long before Darwin suggested another way of looking at things. Yet we are no closer to a clear understanding of the Big Picture, even when it’s screened on IMax.

So why do I care? Well, this morning, in my glutton for punishment way, I was reading the newspaper and came across a story about recent research into the mechanisms that cause depression. Such studies have been going on for decades. You might hope they would have figured it out by now. But no. What they have figured out is how to cause debilitating depression in mice. And dogs.

That’s when I began to feel depressed myself.

I mean, obviously I understand the need to conduct research to find life-saving drugs. And I realize that it isn’t always possible to use human subjects for all tests. Yet when it comes to problems humans face, stress doesn’t seem to me to be high on the list. Yes, we live in stressful times. But there has always been stress. Being chased by a sabre-toothed tiger? Not exactly a theme-park thrill. Yet stress is a natural part of existence, and overcoming naturally occurring stress is part of the process of being alive.

But there’s stress and there’s stress. Someone you love dies or becomes very ill, that’s stress. When someone forces you to walk barefoot on an electrified floor with no apparent means of escape, that’s torture. A different breed of stress entirely.

That electrified floor was used on dogs in a well-known 1967 study which showed that when dogs are made to feel that they have no options, they develop what is called “learned helplessness.” In other words, they learn to give up hope. This induced depression can be traumatizing to a human. How much more traumatic it must be to a dog, a creature which has been bred to trust humans.

I have no moral high ground on the issues of animal rights. I’m no vegetarian. But I draw the line at dogs. Also cats, but that’s a much harder argument to win.

Dogs, on the other hand, are, in fact, Man’s Best Friend. Everybody knows this. Even people who claim to dislike dogs have to respect the heroic qualities of our canine companions. They sniff out bombs, they save babies from burning buildings, they lead the blind, they comfort the sick and aging. They go into battle and they don’t do it for medals. They do these things because we ask them to.

For some incredible reason, dogs love us. God knows why.

Some may argue that we humans deserve our “right” to dominion over all the animals because of our superior intellect. I would argue that if we wish to consider ourselves “superior” to any other species the proof of this edge must begin with greater compassion for all other species. But especially dogs.

A few years ago the brilliant comic writer Tom Holt penned a remarkable satire called Blonde Bombshell which riffed wildly on the idea of a planet where “a dog’s best friend is his man.” It’s a lot funnier than Planet of the Apes, though that may owe something to the fact that a human dressed up as an ape could never hope to rival a golden retriever.

It’s been more than two thousand years since a wise teacher gave us a golden tip: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” The luster of that line has sadly dimmed in these me-first  times, and realistically, maybe we’ll never be able to love one another. But if we can at least learn to treat our best friends as well as we’d like to be treated, that would be a start.


The Beauty in The Beast

The spirit of the wolf lives on in every dog.
The spirit of the wolf lives on in every dog.

Beasts: how we love them. Love to fear them. Love to hate them. Love to hunt them. Love to tell tales about them.

Since before the dawn of printed words, stories of wild animals whose actions blur the line between species have fascinated humans. To talk to the animals, to know what they think and feel, remains a subject of vivid interest. And of all animals, dogs have shown the greatest ability, and desire, to bond with humans, to serve, follow, and work for them. But . . . inside every dog, from the tiniest Chihuahua to the burliest mastiff, lurks genetic memory code of its ancestry — the wolf. Not exactly man’s best friend.

Wild inside.
Wild inside.

The romance of this idea has been exploited for centuries. And while modern teenagers may think, judging by some of the gushing postings on the web, that werewolves were reinvented solely by the author of the “Twilight” series, the truth is more complicated. The concept of the man/wolf, or the beast within us all, has been the subject and/or inspiration of many imaginative works, both literary and cinematic. When the “Twilight” generation were still wearing Pampers, Jack Nicholson astounded audiences in 1994 with his riveting portrayal in “Wolf.” One of the things that made Nicholson’s performance so impressive was that his convincing transformation from man to wolf was produced without the aid of digital enhancements or fake fur. It was all in the eyes, the attitude, the snarl.

Last week Benicio Del Toro joined the ranks of fine actors who have taken a walk on the wolf side in the new film, “The Wolfman.” It’s a grittier rendition than, say, Hugh Jackman’s pimped-out Wolverine character in the X-Men movies. But that’s part of what makes the genre entertaining. In literature and film, you really can teach a dog new tricks.

In Toby Barlow’s brilliant 2007 debut novel “Sharp Teeth” the myth of the lycanthrope is given a terrific noir spin. Set in modern LA, with a cast of characters that include a down on his luck dogcatcher, some female werewolves with sharp teeth of their own, and some competitive bridge players with more than cards up their sleeves, the story deals with issues of loyalty, justice, compassion and community without ever slipping into sentimentality. And, did I mention the entire thing is written in blank verse? I know. I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to hack it. But the clarity and occasional poetic power of the language, the nimble pace, and the fine-edged tone of the whole is such that you forget about the form and get swept away by the wonder of a good story well told.

Allen Ginsberg would have loved it.

The Paws That Refresh

Forget RinTinTin. Forget Lassie. And weep no more for Marley.

In this bright New Year, my heart belongs to Tillman, the snowboarding, skateboarding, surfboarding bulldog extraordinaire.

I first saw Tillman skimming along on his skateboard a year or so ago in a video clip. Cute, I thought. Little did I know that millions of fellow Americans would share my fondness for the squat, chubby, daredevil pooch.Tillman the Wonder Dog

Seattle is full of dogs and it’s not uncommon here to see dogs going the extra mile to please. Some pull their owners along on skateboards, others accomplish acrobatic feats with Frisbees and whatnot. But I have yet to see any canine equal Tillman for sheer charm and entertainment value. So this morning, when I crawled out of bed with a dull headache to face the New Year, and went down to watch a bit of the annual Tournament of Roses Parade, I was delighted to see Tillman and three of his pals boldly sliding where no dogs have slid before, down a specially constructed record-breaking long float.

Man. I don’t know what it is about that dog. I have never had the slightest desire to snowboard myself, and I tend to feel that skateboarding is best left to those with a lower center of gravity, but watching Tillman in action just makes me smile. Say what you will about Americans being a bit unbalanced when it comes to pets. I don’t care. The modern world is full of peril, problems and petty bickering. Yet if a dog like Tillman can banish gloom, even temporarily, that gives me hope for us all. Perhaps we can’t all move through life with the kind of grace and resilient good cheer that Tillman exudes.

But this year I’m going to give it a try.