Non-Sequitur: Dog Friends vs. Dog Owners

chihuahuaSomeone once walked into my office with a basket of Chihuahua puppies. “Here, you want to hold one?” “Eww, no.” “What, you don’t like dogs?” “No, I LOVE dogs!” I threw up my hands and walked away. There was no way I was going to be able to explain why “loving dogs” and “feeling creeped out by Chihuahua puppies” could coexist in one person.

I’ve realized that most people, even supposed dog lovers, don’t really have a feel for the fact that there’s somebody THERE in a dog’s head, a being with feelings, a sense of self, and this other thing: a sort of life-agenda that has nothing to do with humans.

We command and demand so much from them, and mostly never let them be dogs. Which means … we never really KNOW them. We know only the fantasy-images of them we build up in our own heads. We ignore most or all of what they are.

They have no choice but to quickly adapt to whatever conditions we impose but, fairly often, it must be immensely frustrating for them.

This bears on the main reason I don’t like the tiny dogs. They’ve been interfered with so much they’re no longer capable of being DOGS. They’re more like toys with four legs — almost wholly the creations of the dimwits who made them that way.

News flash: The natural environment of the dog is not tucked into a purse. Or even cloistered away inside a house. Yet if these helpless little bundles of fur ever did get outside on their own, they’d still never have a chance of being a dog. Left to their own devices, they’d simply die.

In my mind, turning a dog into a little speck of “cute” is a betrayal of the bargain we have with them — the bargain of >>MUTUAL<< love and respect.

With Tito the Mighty Hunter, my big malamute-black lab mutt, I discovered I could find out who he was, what he wanted, what he might do, only if I made room in my life for an independent Tito, a Tito not of my making but of HIS.

I never expected him to do tricks, or be be “good” for my benefit or the benefit of others. My house was his house, my yard was his yard. If he wanted to dig a hole in the yard, that was fine with me. If he wanted to stop and gnaw on a deer carcass alongside the trail, I’d wait.

And oh boy, we took hikes, sometimes two a day. As a result, Tito was smarter, more relaxed, more aware, and friendlier than any dog I’ve ever known. He could annoy the hell out of me by occasionally going off and having his own adventures, but he was in all other ways a SPECTACULAR friend. Someone who taught ME things about life.

There are so many dangers in the human world that you can never let dogs be completely themselves, but you can let them be SOME of who and what they are.

When you do, they’ll surprise and amaze and delight — and yes, annoy — you. You’ll discover that dogs are not what you thought they were, and you’ll be a true Dog Friend rather than merely a Dog Owner.

Beta Culture: The Healthy Dog Registry

COE 235Pug dogs are an abomination. There, I said it. Someone had to.

But seriously …

A few years back, I was taking pictures of people’s dogs for the fun (and sometimes money) of it, and a lady called me asking if I would take pics of her little black pug. We met to discuss the project, exactly what she wanted and expected, and I got to meet her little dog.

The entire time we talked, the dog in her arms made a growling noise. I baby-talked to him “Yes, you’re scaring me! You’re scaring me bad, you dangerous animal!” The lady said “Oh, he’s not growling. That’s just how he breathes.”

Whoa. Here’s this dog that’s been bred to have a face that’s so compressed, with nasal passages so deviated, that the poor little guy has to struggle for every breath! I’m instantly both disgusted and horrified at that, but I keep it to myself and, a few days later, take the pictures.

With vivid memories in my head of seeing my own big healthy dogs run, play, swim, dig, chase rabbits, fetch tennis balls, roll in the grass, trot happily along mountain trails, I compare this pudgy little cripple and I feel distinctly sorry for him, for the entire breed.

I’m also angry at the people who create them. Nowhere along the way can you find anyone (breeders? owners? dog clubs?) to really BLAME for bringing about this physical form that tragically limits the individual animal and sometimes even promotes suffering, but in my view it is nevertheless a moral crime.

I’ve expressed this opinion more than once in public, and the typical response is “Oh, but they’re really happy little dogs! There’s nothing wrong with them!” I can never seem to get across to those people that breeding a perfectly healthy creature down to where it is defenseless and even debilitated — for reasons of human amusement or style — is wrong.

The kicker of the story is that the lady called me only a month or so later, asking if I’d take pictures of her new dog. The first one had died mysteriously in its sleep. (Yeah, wonder why?)

I went to meet her. She’d gotten another black pug.


All of this is an intro to a single idea — the Healthy Dog Registry.

Because I’ve seen too much of that same sort of thing. Dogs with bad hips, eye conditions, cancer, so, so much more. All of it the result of DELIBERATE human action, actions — and results — which the breed registries and show dog supporters fiercely defend.

I wish there was such a thing as the HDR (and I wish it had started in 1820), an organization that followed dog lineages for many generations, with the aim of building health, longevity and intelligence into the dogs, FOR THE DOGS, but also to guarantee lasting companionship for the dog owners. Rather than breeding for, say, “cuteness” or good looks for dog shows. If it resulted in a single muttsky-looking breed called the Big Healthy Dog, I could certainly live with that.

A group of people who had the will to carry out such a project over generations — oh, call them Beta Culture — a project of reason and compassion to fix a problem that results from short-term focus on features profitable but unhealthy for the beautiful victims, I’d definitely want to be a part of that.

Farewell to a Feral Feline

cat tail
Photo courtesy Ruerd Leenstra:

There was this feral cat, a big gray fellow, skulking around the farmhouse where I lived a few years back, stalking the birds and squirrels at the feeders. I saw him out there for two years running, hot summers and snowy winters, and started putting out food.

He’d slip up and bolt down the food, then scurry off to wherever he stayed most of the day. I put a chair outside, about 20 feet from the food dish, and started sitting there reading every day at feeding time.

The first day, he came around the corner and saw me, sat there thinking about it, but eventually slinked near and wolfed down the food, while I carefully looked away. In the following days, he got used to me being there, and I started inching the chair closer and closer to the dish.

Eventually, I was right next to it, and one day I reached out as he was eating and touched the top of his head. The look he gave me was … astonished. “Are you insane? I’m a feral cat! You don’t touch cats like me!”

The next day I reached out again, gently scritched the back of his head with one finger. He tolerated it, kept on eating. In days after, he slowly started reacting to the scratching, coming to visibly enjoy it. The slinky behavior went away, and he started hanging around on the back deck.

Turned out “he” was a “she,” and I named her KittyBit. She’d been someone’s pet, I figured. How she ended out in the wilds, I had no idea, but as I had lots of elderly neighbors, I wondered if one of them might have died and her beloved cat fled the scary strangers who came in to deal with things.

She missed being touched! The first few months, she would go bonelessly limp and even drool when she was being stroked. One day I left open the back door and she came in and explored. She made herself at home.

I moved into an apartment, and she came along. I made sure she had windows to look out of, but she avoided them. She’d had her fill of living wild, and was now a pampered Indoor Cat. Good food, places to lounge and luxuriate, hands and laps to enjoy. She no longer drooled, but she would press into any hand. She was a square mile of desert, and every human touch was the pattering of spring rain.

Another move gave her a window to look out on a yard with bird feeders, and she took to lying in the window watching the living scenery. She developed a cute, weird behavior – she would lurk outside the bathroom when I showered, then rush in as soon as the door opened, leap into the shower and commence licking the water off the walls.

In all, five years went by. She wasn’t young when I got her, but she really started showing signs of age. Bones jutted out at hips and shoulders, legs bowed, fur snarled into ungroomed tangles.

Five days ago, she stopped eating. Started vomiting up yellow bile. The machinery of catness was running down, breaking, coming to an end.

Purring in her last hour under a stroking hand, she had a peaceful, painless ending at the vet’s.

The deal I made with her – a guy deal – was that I would save her, but wouldn’t necessarily love her. She was just a roommate. But the silence in the house, the hole that used to be filled with bright eyes and purring laply presence, brings me to unexpected tears.

So long, KittyBit.

Did God Mess With Biology’s Roots?

Tito & HankI’ve said many times that the true, full effect religion has had on human society is not something any of us is really equipped to notice. It’s so … everywhere … that we have little to contrast with it in order to clearly see the damage.

Even science, which escaped the grasp of religion and went off to change the world in ways religion could never have managed, still — in my view, anyway — suffers aftereffects.  For instance:

Here’s a pretty good article about something humans and beasts have in common — thoughts and feelings.

Carl Safina Makes A Case for Anthropomorphism

The subtitle, in my view, is more correct, though:

The marine biologist’s latest book uses science to show that animals, like people, have complex inner lives.

I would argue that “anthropomorphism” is a mistaken word, a mistaken concept. It springs from an error injected into biology at its founding. The mistake — the belief in a separate creation for humans alongside the more general magicking into existence of the “birds and beasts” — was a religious one. Because Christianity was the paradigm of the day, Western biologists had no way to know it was a mistake, and automatically assumed humans were totally different from all other forms of life. Which would mean that attributing “human-like” characteristics to animals would be viewed as automatically wrong unless you could present masses of evidence for it. Which is what we’ve had to do for the couple of hundred years since.

On the other hand, if that starting slant was that humans evolved from common roots with all other life forms, a more workable initial view would be to assume similarity, and lots of it. Anyone asserting we had nothing in common with other forms of life, THEY would be the ones who’d have to present masses of evidence.

Our similar traits — feelings, a sense of self, grieving, so much more — aren’t “anthropomorphic.” They’re part of a non-anthro common heritage, handed down to humans from earlier sources. Specific traits possessed exclusively by humans would have to have evolved only very recently and are likely minuscule, something like the tiny capstone on a pyramid, compared to the massive block of similarity below. That similarity occurs in areas as diverse as body mechanics and function, biochemistry, neurology, behavior, and yes, thoughts and feelings. It took us hundreds of years to begin to really understand that, when it could have been a founding principle of biology.

On a side note, the question of “language” always comes up in these discussions, and though I can’t clearly point at religion as a root cause, I see it as the same sort of a mistake. The capacity for language might have originated with us, but communication didn’t.  Communication, the conveying of information from one animal to another, that’s something pretty much everything on two legs or four does. (And it’s not always aimed at, or received only by, members of one’s own species.) Bird calls and fox barks MEAN something; when they don’t wish to convey information to the world around them, animals are generally silent. Dogs convey messages all the time to their owners — in body posture, ear position, tail movement, and vocalizations — and it seems to me that most of it is deliberate. The question of intentionality is certainly worth examining in each case, but the basic truth of communication seems undeniable.

An Unpopular View of Pets — and Pet “Lovers”

I’m conducting an argument on Facebook with a “lover” of cats, following the announcement of her soon-to-be-acquired hairless Sphynx cat. Argument follows:

SF: This is the Sphynx kitten I will be getting in a few weeks. [ Photo attached, not the one shown here ] Right now he will be two weeks on the 28th. If you have any idea’s for names let me know. Right now Mr. Wrinkles is what we have so far lol

Hank Fox: If this is one of those hairless cats … argh. I would never, ever own one, or support the breeding of them.

If you really LIKE cats, you have to have SOME feeling for their right to bodily integrity, to their health and comfort, apart from the freakish and cruel tricks breeders play on them.

Doing this to cats is a moral crime.

AA: I’m sure the SF has done his or her research on keeping a breed like this happy and healthy. Sphynx cats generally are a quite healthy and long-lived breed. I agree breeding certain types of cats or dogs is immoral (Scottish Fold cats can be unhealthy and many breeds of dogs are purposely bred to not be able to breathe properly, or the breeders don’t do the responsible thing by doing genetic health tests to clear certain breeds of inherited genetic illnesses. I’d be more worried about those types of breeds than simply a hairless breed.)

Plus, no hairballs.

SF: Hank Fox, I have never heard such crap. I have researched the breeder and they are wonderful with their cats. I have also spoke with several people that also have a Sphynx and they said they are a great breed very affectionate.

HF: Apparently none of you have any idea what I’m talking about, and I guess I’m not going to get it through to you in one conversation. But breeders who deliberately create genetic monsters for the amusement of fools and simpletons are not “wonderful” with their cats. They barely know cats exist; instead they have these amusing little toys that also happen to be hapless living creatures subject to human whims.

If the utterly defenseless cats could choose, you can be damned sure they’d choose to have good healthy fur. But screw them, right? They’re just stupid cats. Fortunately we “love” them enough to make these choices on their behalf.

AA: Defenseless, how, exactly? I’m presuming this will be an indoor house cat?

HF:  Defenseless how? Pets are absolutely unable to defend themselves against US. Against what breeders do to them. Against what people think is funny, or cute, or convenient, no matter what it does to the animal itself.

If you love animals at all, you have to recognize that they have SOME rights, SOME life apart from us. Otherwise they’re just furniture, or toys. Witness how many millions of them we casually throw away each year, because they’re no longer convenient, or fail to match the new furniture, or can’t fight anymore.

I think there are limits on how much genetic and surgical meddling we should allow ourselves to do to them, and still call ourselves animal lovers. Depriving a cat of its claws is horrible, in my opinion. Depriving it of its fur … something so basic it goes without saying in the definition of catness …that’s even worse.

AA: I don’t agree with declawing.

HF: AA, with a little bit of thought, you might also be against de-furring. Fur isn’t some jettisonable convenience for cats. It’s how they regulate their temperature, protect their skin against infection and injury, interface comfortably with various surfaces, guard themselves from injury by other cats, allow themselves to be readily RECOGNIZED as cats by other cats, so much more.

I adopted a feral cat a few years ago. She lived outside for at least two years, in the snow in winter, and she did it because she had a comfortable thick coat of fur. She belonged to somebody once — we suspect she was some elderly lady’s best friend and the lady died, after which she was left outside by uncaring neighbors or relatives and went looking for food. She ended up in our yard, which was well supplied with rodents from our bird feeders, and eventually we started feeding her too. And then, once she got used to us, invited her in.

She survived out there because she was still a cat. Still able to survive without humans. Still had her fur and her claws. A declawed cat would have been less able to catch rodents, a defurred cat would have died in frozen agony that first winter.

HF:  SF, I don’t necessarily want to hurt your feelings here. But … there are some things you may not have thought about. Not because you’re a bad person, but because NOBODY thinks about these things. Nobody talks about them. People filling the world up with pug dogs who can’t breathe and German shepherds with crippling congenital hip defects are absolutely convinced they love animals, and have no idea what ongoing agony they’re continuing to propagate.

But the thing is, animals have feelings. They have their own lives, their own existence, somewhat apart from us. And they suffer from the things we casually do to them. They may not even know they suffer. But WE should.

AA: Sphynx cats are meant to be indoor house pets. While I agree with most of what you say, I would say purposely breeding a dog that can’t breathe is worse than a hairless cat, provided the cat is kept indoors and is well cared-for.

SF: Hank Fox, I think you’re nuts. These cats are not genetic monsters. They happen to be very beautiful cats. Just because you do not like a breed does not mean you should be so nasty about it. The problem isn’t with the breeders. I have researched and talked with several if anything these cats are spoiled rotten. They are given baths weekly and have their paws wiped every time they use the bathroom.

HF: AA, And you have no consideration to what the cat might choose, if it could? No thought that a hairless cat, even kept indoors and “well-cared-for” might suffer discomforts that we humans are not well-equipped to recognize, or notice? And that IF there’s a chance that might be the case, it’s better to err on the side of leaving a cat with all its innate traits?

HF: SF, you’re still not getting ANY of what I’m saying. I can’t really blame you, I guess. It’s a tough thing to think about.

SF: Hank Fox, you could say the same thing about a dog or bird or another animal.

HF: SF, I DO. Often. And I usually get the same blank response. Like I say, nobody thinks or talks about this. Most “animal lovers” have no idea they don’t really understand the private lives and needs of their pets. They’re totally comfortable with dogs that can’t breathe, can’t run, can’t even breed on their own. The more hideously deformed a dog is — tiny delicate bodies, bugged-out eyes, mashed-in faces, long fur that would be constantly fouled with shit — the “cuter” it is.

AA: Define innate traits… we have to generally teach dogs bite inhibition from a young age. Shall we stop that as well?

We created/domesticated pets like cats and dogs and it only makes sense that we’d tailer some breeds to our vanity and needs, we’ve been doing it for thousands of years. I am a studwnt in the animal health sciences field and plan to get into shelter medicine, so I am all for protecting animals and encouraging breeding for health and temperament, but I have to consider if the animal is suffering in order to make an ethical decision about it.

HF: Oh, shit, AA. WTF: Bite inhibition?? If you’re determined to misunderstand, I can’t stop you.

If you’re going into shelter medicine, I do wish you’d think about this more than this superficial argument has shown. If you’re so casually comfortable with “tailoring” breeds for human vanity, you will never understand what sort of misery you’ll help continue.

In view of the rest of your convictions, I don’t really understand why you think declawing cats is any sort of problem. After all, they’re “happy,” right? As long as they’re kept indoors, and “well cared for,” what’s the diff?

AA: While bulldogs tend to have goofy, delightful temperaments, I do have more of a problem with the purposeful breeding of brachycephalic dogs. While I fully support responsible breeding (breeding for health, temperament as opposed to simply appearance) I find disregarding health in favour of an exaggerated breed standard (extreme wrinkles, extreme brachycephalic features, etc) is an ethical issue that should be addressed.

A reputable breeder of English Bulldogs should only be breeding dogs that, at the very least, have genetic health clearances for the following: [ link ]

HF: Amy, yes. You will. You’re almost with me on this. Collect up your convictions about declawing, and dogs that can’t breathe normally, and GENERALIZE those understandings into this larger view. There are some things you haven’t yet thought about, things that haven’t gotten real to you. I hope you’ll think about them.

There’s a bit of profound cognitive dissonance in realizing that some large fraction of animal lovers are nothing of the sort. Some of them, despite their ardent protestations of love, can’t see their pets as having any real existence.

AY: I have German shepherds. I’m not much of an animal lover, but they’ve grown on me. Mine had a few growing pain problems but are fine now. Humans also have generic problems specific to their particular race, should they quit having kids?

HF: Humans have a choice. That is VASTLY different from pets being bred by humans for purposes of amusement, or style.

I had a German shepherd too. Loved him more than anything, literally. The only time I might have killed someone was when a former roommate came close to threatening to hurt him. (I knew what he was about to say. He saw the look on my face and backed off in a hurry.)

Hated watching him, later in his life, struggling to run, or to do other things, with his slanted, loose hips. Hated having to force him to accept the eye drops that allowed him to not go blind. Hated having to watch him grapple with his miserable too-delicate appetite.

Argument ends. I probably came on too strong, but … this stuff really bothers me.

As Granny Aching said in Terry Pratchett’s “Wee Free Men”:

“Them as can do has to do for them as can’t. And someone has to speak up for them as has no voices.”


Followup: SF’s final comment, in reply to a question, is that she’s paying $1,400 for her hairless kitten.

I don’t buy into the too-common argument that anyone buying a pedigreed dog or cat is some kind of traitor to pet-love because of all the pets going wanting in shelters. It’s a huge and absolute tragedy, the number of unwanted pets in shelters, but the monied-person in question didn’t put those cats and dogs there, and people have a right to spend their money on whatever they want. If you think about it, anytime a friend told you he was buying a new car, or a house, or just new shoes, you could lay into him about how much he hated all the poor shelter dogs.

However … $1,400? Dayyum. Why not get a normal, healthy one?



Bullies With Four Legs, Bullies With Two

This video has come up a lot lately, posted or referred to by people who think it’s hilarious.

I have a rather different view of it. But  then, I’m the guy who thinks it’s mean to dress up pets in Halloween costumes:

I have an advantage over most people in that I had an extraordinary dog named Tito the Mighty Hunter, someone — and I deliberately say someONE and not someTHING — who managed to get it across to thick-headed me something of what goes on in dog heads. He did that by … well, I couldn’t begin to describe the process to you. But mainly he was just being himself, subtly encouraging me to stop TALKING AT him — which is what most of us constantly do with pets — and one day start LISTENING TO him.

What’s taking place in this video is bullying. The cats are bullying the dogs. And no, I’m not kidding.

And the people are letting it happen. Which means they, too, are bullies.

Tito the Mighty Hunter

Picture any one of the dogs in this video as a two year old, and the cat as an older child threatening to hit him in the face if he tries to pass. Now imagine the dog’s owner as the parent, gleefully beckoning the kid past the bully, laughing at how funny it was that he was afraid to pass.

On a feeling level for the dog, THIS IS WHAT’S HAPPENING. It’s not funny. Not the least bit “cute.” It’s mean as hell, and the dog knows it. But his stupid owner is unable to read the dog’s VERY CLEAR expressions and body language.

Now add this into it: If the incident DID involve kids, any decent bystander would stop it, maybe even call Child Protective Services. But these animals have nobody like that in their corner. They’re stuck with people who think it’s funny, people who are not just willing to let it go on, but who WANT it to go on, so they can laugh at it, so they can film it to show to others.

Think about it: If the dog actually did defend himself, he really might face getting kicked out of his home. A 70-pound dog who bites a 12-pound cat? Which one is the bully? Gotta be the dog. Gotta get rid of that vicious dog. But it would be the owner’s fault, not the dog’s, for allowing the situation to take place, for egging it on and not doing anything about it.

Question: How many dogs get adopted by prospective owners who already know that this animal will attack and possibly kill other household pets? Answer: Zero.

Pets are not toys. They’re conscious beings with feelings at least as intense as ours. It disturbs me that so many people, even plenty of pet owners, are either unaware of this or willing to ignore it.



The Religion of Bears

One of my pet peeves has to do with bears. You know — covered with hair, four big paws, occasionally shows up around human habitation and causes people to freak out?

It’s not the bears themselves, it’s the general reaction to them, the body of beliefs associated with them, that bugs me so much.

I lived in a little mountain town in California for 22 years, and there were usually a good dozen or so resident ursids cruising around, usually at night but sometimes in broad daylight.

I had one that came through my yard every night, a big boy I called “Mr. Bear,” probably the largest black bear I’ve ever seen. He would amble past my front door, sometimes as close as 8 feet away, and some nights I would open the door to say hello to him. He’d look over at me but continue his patient plodding and disappear into the night.

Not once in those 22 years did anyone get so much as a scratch from a bear. I never heard of a dog or a cat getting killed or injured. There was, on rare occasions, small amounts of property damage.

Yet INEVITABLY, when you say anything at all about bears, someone will chime in with “Yeah, but they’re wild animals. They’ll kill you if you’re not careful.”

The old-timey magazine covers certainly agreed. Every cover-bear might as well have carried the caption, “Killing machine with fur.”

Yet my experience — with black bears — is that they’re safer than your neighbor’s dog. No, I wouldn’t walk up to a bear and try to pet it. But I also don’t walk up to a Dachshund and try to pet it … not without asking the owner first if the little thing is apt to bite.

In my view, beliefs about the deadly danger of bears constitutes a pocket religion, a “faith” that requires no evidence, spreads automatically and enthusiastically (get city people talking about bears sometime), and usually has little or nothing behind it other than the desire to hear, or tell, an impressive story.

Wikipedia lists Fatal Bear Attacks in North America, dividing them into Black Bear, Grizzly and Polar Bear categories, and including captive (zoo, animal park and circus) bears. If you’re looking for some statistical conclusion about the hazard posed by black bears, I hardly think it’s fair to include captive bears in the mix, considering how unnatural their situations often are. And certainly Grizzlies and Polar Bears are not the same animal.

Yes, black bears are dangerous.  But again, they’re safer than your neighbor’s dog. For the past 3 years, the number of people killed by dogs in the U.S. has hovered between 30 to 35. Already in 2013, there have been 14. In raw numbers, pit bulls and rottweilers are more deadly than bears. (In the year 2000 a baby was killed by a jealous Pomeranian!) And of course this statistic doesn’t include the thousands upon thousands of non-fatal bites and maulings.

Sure, dogs are more common in our lives than bears, and therefore more likely to be involved in fatal accidents. But all the more reason not to spread scary bear stories, isn’t it? You have to really work at it to get into bear country. And once there, the Forest Service or local guides will clue you in to the real dangers, if any.


Unless, of course, we’re talking about Australian Drop Bears.


News stories, often written by wildlife-ignorant writers, help spread the faith, but here’s a nice surprise from today, a not-too-unbalanced bear story at Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner. Loved this quote:

 There are ways to live with the bear population that is both safe for us and safe for them. Perhaps it could even evolve into a mutually beneficial relationship.

Beta Culture: Earthman’s Journey – Part 5 of 8

[ Part 12345678 ]

Molly (cont.)

This kind of thought wasn’t completely new for me – I confess I’d dwelt many times on the fortunes of other men, wistful and envious of the assets they enjoyed.

“What would it be like to be him?” I had asked myself, him way up there with all that money, with a daddy who provides private airplanes and the family’s own airport, with new trucks and horses and jet skis and scuba diving lessons there for the asking.

“What would it be like to be him?” … riding high, the life of the party, the totally unselfconscious, self-assured fellow who plays pool like a master, drives cars like a professional racer, rides horses and ropes calves like a rodeo champion.

“What would it be like to be him?” … towering above toads like me, with that tall muscular body, with such good looks and so many women hot after him that he callously brushes the discards out of his life every few months.

This, though, was the first time the question had ever been aimed in the other direction, asking “What would it be like to be her?” … not UP there above me, but DOWN there, below me. Down there with all that loneliness.

I shifted in that illuminated second from my one-down perspective, that blunt yearning known so well by the poor, the uncool, the disadvantaged, to a one-up view, the sudden knowledge that I had unintended power over this small creature. It was the same type of thought, but painted now in the colors of sympathy rather than those of envy.

I stood and considered the consequences of this new idea. How would it feel, I wondered from this new perspective, to care about what her life was like? How would it feel to do something about it?

I called her back over, and she came, very reluctantly. Suspiciously. Worriedly.

I stroked her head and neck tentatively and she cringed under my hand. I petted her some more, telling her what a good dog she was. She relaxed a fraction. I scratched behind her ears, and stroked along the length of her back. She leaned against me, snuggling up close. I dug my fingers gently into her fur, roughing it up and scratching down her side. She flopped down in the grass. I slapped her shoulder a couple of times, stroked the side of her face. She rolled over onto her back. I patted her chest and scratched her belly. She closed her eyes and sighed blissfully.

As I rested there on my knees gently stroking the fur under her chin, reflecting on how little this cost me and yet how it had never occurred to me to do it, she lay there absorbing the touch as if she was a sponge as big as a house, a desert a thousand miles square, and I was the first drop of water she’d felt in a year.

Yet rather than happy I had made the discovery of this new way to look at Molly, I was deeply bothered that I had only now noticed.

I was doubly bothered that this lesson was not in any of my schoolbooks, not in anything my parents had ever told me, not in anything I learned from my friends. In fact, it was just about 180 degrees opposite of anything I got from any of those sources.

To us, animals could be disposable entertainment devices or rare meat walking around on four legs, but they were never anything more. I myself had treated animals as targets, and even found pleasure in it.

I was a hunter once, sort of. My Wicked Stepfather took me up into deer blinds for East Texas’ frigid fall deer season in my teens. I grew up with coon-hunting friends and a peer group of friendly killers to whom hunting of any sort was a threshold of manhood. Later there was an adopted Dad in California who took me out on pack trips into the wilderness and infused me with his deep love of the mountains, and who regaled me with great stories from a lifetime of hunting exploits – of bringing down bear and deer and other difficult and worthwhile game. I had a Ruger .30-06 rifle that I was so proud of – though I no longer own it, I can still picture the matte beauty of its walnut stock, and the shiny perfection of its barrel.

It only happened to me once, but I can tell you what’s it like to see a big muley buck on a hillside across a canyon, and to raise such a rifle to a position firm against your shoulder and cool against your cheek. I can tell you that there is a feral joy in getting that animal in your sights, and I can describe the leap that a hunter’s heart makes at the thought of having that deer. Of owning its life, bringing it down with a shot through the chest. I can tell you what it’s like to visualize bringing it home bloody and gutted, hunter triumphant, full grown Man.

We humans really do have such things in us. A cat readying to pounce on a mouse, all feral intent, teeth and claws ready for the kill, could feel nothing more intense.

But fortunately or unfortunately, I can’t tell you what it’s like to actually do those things, because I missed the shot. I never got my deer. I never got my bear. Instead, in this luminous moment with Molly, I found this doorway…


Beta Culture: Earthman’s Journey – Part 4 of 8

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For eight years in my 20s and 30s, I was a draft horse teamster at a resort-town ranch, driving a two-up hitch of massive blond Belgians or coal-black Percherons, on a huge hay wagon for mid-summer meadow rides, or on big sleighs that would glide over the high-mountain snow on moonlit winter nights.

Molly was one of the ranch dogs. She was no particular color – a little black, a little brown, a little gray, all mixed up in a dark grizzle. Like most cowdog breeds, she was a sturdy little thing, weighing forty pounds at most and standing about 18 inches high.

She was no great spark in the personality field. Poor Molly was a bit of a slinker – one of those quiet, careful dogs who skirts around the edges of action, waiting to see if it’s safe to be noticed.

And it seemed that “notice,” for Molly, frequently came in the negative form.

Let me say right here that the people who owned the place took very good care of their animals. They were about as good as they could be to their livestock without actually inviting them into the house. Even that rule was suspended for their numerous bobcat-sized Siamese and Manx cats, and a succession of lucky dogs.

But businesses mean employees, and they were not always as enlightened. Molly probably heard “Molly, get out!” and “Molly, get away!” a thousand times. There may even have been a clod of dirt pegged her way at times.

I didn’t have a lot of patience for her myself. She’d seldom come out to meet me in the morning. Never wanted to go along on an adventure. Never wanted to come play, like some of the other dogs. Molly just wasn’t much fun.

But late one day, as I was coming up to the main ranch house from the bunkhouse, Molly somehow connected with me.

She happened to be lying across the trail as I came down it. She nervously thumped her tail on the ground at my approach, but I was in too much of a hurry to bother with her and I said “Look out, dog!” She instantly jumped up and skittered off to the side.

I glanced back at her, though, and saw her trudging slowly away with her whole body a message of dejection. I stopped, suddenly struck by the thought, “What must it be like for her?”

Left out. Never played with. Seldom petted.

Mixed in with all the random moments of your life that pass unremarked and unremembered, there are those sometimes-surprising few that stick with you for a long, long time. Through accident of time and life and human nature, these moments of happiness, or tragedy, or sudden understanding, become the axles around which the rest of your life turns.

Perspectives shift. Things change. Doors open.

Though I had a close friendship with my own canine buddy, Ranger, I was completely unimpressed with Molly. If I had ever cared to think about it, I might have known that there was something missing in her life. I might have said well, from her point of view, if there was such a thing, it would seem that she gets only occasional crumbs of affection. Tiny tag ends of attention, second thoughts, unconscious pats. Half-loves.

But I didn’t care enough to think of that. She was just another… well, dog.

Now, though, slow-motion flashbulbs went off in my head and freeze-framed me where I stood. For the first time ever, I wondered “What would it be like to be Molly?”


Beta Culture: Earthman’s Journey – Part 3 of 8

[ Part 12345678 ]


After seasons of proving myself at many of the other chores of branding, on this day, I’m in charge of castrations. After the calf slides to a stop and both the heel rope and the top man are firmly in place, I step forward and kneel down by the calf’s belly. I stretch out the scrotum and slice across the lower third of it with a sharp knife. The testicles usually pop out on their own, but sometimes you have to fish around, pressing here and there, to get them to come free. Pulled out several inches, they’re still connected by silvery-blue cords that have to be either carefully scraped through with a knife or cut through with a pliers-like tool that simultaneously severs and crushes them. Skill comes into play here to prevent excessive bleeding. The scraping technique causes the arteries to spasm and close down and takes considerable care to do right; on the other hand the cutting-crushing tool, an emasculatome, is more foolproof, sealing the arteries by intense pressure, and can be used in full confidence by just about anyone with a bit of grip strength.

The bags are sometimes tossed into a pile for counting, sometimes simply thrown away. The testicles go into a separate bucket of water. Depending on whether somebody wants to go the trouble, they’ll be cleaned and frozen later – and yep, people really do eat them.

Needless to say, your hands get bloody right off in this kind of work. The blood dries and sticks to your hands, coats your pantlegs. The testicles are sticky, sometimes adhering to your fingers so that you have to sling your hand vigorously to get them to drop into the collection bucket. Keeping the knife sharp is a constant battle, but as about half the calves are heifers, there’s usually time to keep up with it.

Castration and ear marking is skilled work for two reasons. One is that you want to do the work accurately, and get the calf through it with a minimum of blood and stress. Second is that you are holding a naked razor-sharp blade and a lot of people with other matters taking their full attention want someone they can trust.

The hot hours pass. A dozen or so at a time, we work our way through half the calves.

We break for lunch, shutting down the noisy blast of the propane branding iron furnace, and trooping out to sit on a grassy spot next to a loading chute. Roping horses have their girths loosened, and stand hipshot in the shade of a long trailer. Ranch dogs show up and beg for pieces of our sandwiches, or prospect for edible bits out in the branding corral. We talk horses and heifers (the two-legged kind), old friends and old dogs.

Finally we pry ourselves up from our resting places and go back to the corral, where we rope, drag, tussle, stick, slice, burn. The calves match us move for move with panicked determination – they struggle, buck, squirm, kick, quiver and bawl. We respond by overcoming, enduring or ignoring them.

At the end of the day, all of them are turned out to their still-waiting mothers, and the lot of them are herded off to a distant pasture to rest, graze and recuperate. The rest of us mosey up to the ranch house where dinner’s ready.

I sit down with my plate in a low, loose chair, and am so bone-deep tired that when I discover I don’t have a fork, it’s a good five minutes before I manage to muster the energy to heave myself up and get one.

As I break bread with my friends, again the feeling of kinship – of shared work, of difficult tasks done well, of eating and talking and joking together – washes over me. After a childhood of divorce and moving, a series of different schools and strange new faces, and an eternity with the Stepfather from Hell, here I am in the company of the people who took me in, who allowed me to prove myself. These are people who like and respect me, who value me for my contributions and my company, and who put up with my peccadilloes. Surely no Bar Mitzvah, no tribal rite of manhood in New Guinea or Africa or South America, could do any better job of making a boy feel accepted, validated, even loved.

I am exhausted, but it doesn’t matter. I rest in the comfort of knowing that these are my People, and this is where I belong.

Except …

I have wrestled with more than calves today.

Something has nagged at me off and on for many hours. Time after time throughout the waning day, the picture of a little dog named Molly has come into my mind. I’ve drifted back, over and over, to something I learned from her recently, and I’m no longer sure I can justify enjoying the things I’ve done today.

Thanks to Molly, I’m seeing today in a different light. Something has changed in me, some new channel has opened up, and in through it are trickling new thoughts, things I never knew I never knew.