by Marco M. Pardi
"It should not be believed that all beings exist for the sake of man. On the contrary, all the other beings too have been intended for their own sakes and not for the sake of something else." Moses Maimonides (CE 1135 - 1204) The Guide for the Perplexed. CE 1190.
All comments welcome.
Some months ago my wife and I were exiting a restaurant by crossing the outdoor patio. We encountered a couple of women who had two Great Pyrenees on long leashes, rescue dogs being fostered for adoption. One was clearly an older dog. As my wife spoke to the women on her way out I knelt down on the patio and spoke quietly to the dogs. The younger one briefly checked me out and the older one stood there as I continued speaking and getting closer, moving my hand to rub his chest. (Note: Please do not make the common mistake of trying to pat a dog on top of his head, especially a strange dog) My voice dropped to a near whisper as I spoke, he appeared to listen and consider while I rubbed his chest, our faces side by side, eyes only inches apart. I don't know how long we spent like that, but sensing it was "time to go" I quietly wished him safety and happiness in his new life, got up and began to walk away. He quickly turned and, with his side against my leg, seemed to signal he was going with me. The woman holding his leash said to my wife, "Looks like he's got a friend." My wife said, "Oh, he's a dog whisperer."
I think of that dog often, the deep eye contact we had, the immediate bond we seemed to form despite the human on the other end of that leash, and all the other people on the patio. I hope he's happy. And, I hope he remembers me, though that is tempered by concern that he may have felt yet another rejection or lost bond when I left. Too often life is what you have to just settle for.
I know that feeling, and I know that I am perhaps overly quick to ascribe that feeling to others, particularly my non-human animal family. In my immediate family my earliest self realizations grew from the familial tradition that children were the inconvenient, and in my case unwanted outcome of failure to take due precautions. At best, they were what was socially expected.
My first years in the U.S. were spent in a large apartment in downtown Cleveland. My days included long stretches of looking out the windows. There below me, in the concrete canyon, I saw my first horse. On occasion a police horse and rider would pause for a while on the broad sidewalk, the cars, trams, and pedestrians swirling past. I never saw the officer interact with the horse, beyond sitting on him. It was the same as sitting on a motorcycle, only higher. Though neither the horse (I think) nor I had the vocabulary at the time, I think I formed a concept in our minds of, "WTF am I doing here?" I did get to meet and pet the horse once. No other children my age ever being around, perhaps he wondered how this human got so small.
My brother, four years senior and someone I barely knew, came home on summer break from the military school I would also soon attend and, because he was going, I got to also attend summer camp. Not too much under six years old, I learned to ride horses. The counselors saw I did so well they put me with "Boom", a large retired Army horse with a neck brand of that name. Of course I enjoyed riding, but was far happier just holding and talking with Boom. I wondered if that brand had hurt him.
Years later, on returning from Italy, my (then deceased) grandfather's secretary came to the house we had bought and a black Cocker Spaniel puppy wriggled out of her coat. Although intended for my grandmother, he quickly became my mother's dog and a major focus in her life. Cleveland winters can be brutal, so one of our four bathrooms became his when the snow was too high to go out. He was also locked in that bathroom when my mother didn't want to bother with him. With school and other activities I never had a chance to really bond with that dog, though when he was aging and sick my mother turned to me to take care of him. Beyond having a few dogs follow me home, I've no idea what I projected as some kind of "animal person."
Years later I escaped into the Air Force, volunteering for Security Forces. In Libya I then volunteered for K-9 Security, handling an Attack dog, working only at night and usually on solo distant assignments. These are manifestly not the police K-9s that ride around in police cars and perhaps get to retire with the handler's family. These dogs are raised and trained to seek out and attack, fatally if not stopped, any human other than their handler - in any and every circumstance. Retirement was a shallow grave in front of the kennels.
One handler was too hung over to get himself into clean fatigues so he borrowed a previously worn set from his roommate. He entered his dog's kennel, the dog got the roommate's scent first, and, after dozens of stitches to close the rips and gashes in his groin he was out of the hospital and transferred to a safer job.
Attrition from various causes had thinned the K-9 handler ranks. On my first day the kennel master gave me my choice of several dogs, all in their individual chain link and concrete enclosures. I reviewed them all and knew immediately who my dog was. "You won't get in that dog's kennel in under 30 days, so bring a book and sit outside reading to him", said the kennel master. I went in on the 3rd day. Okay, a trip to the hospital and a couple of stitches later I came back and went in again. This time it was a bond.
We spent our nights together, six on and three off. The kennel food was minimal ("hungry dogs are mean dogs") so I smuggled food to him and gave him Kaopectate whenever the kennel food gave him diarrhea - which was almost all the time. The base was under frequent hit and run attack from various factions for various reasons. The operating policy was that the handler should release the dog when he alerts and then follow him into the fray. I thought that a stupid way to get a dog hurt or killed so I released him, ordered him to Stay and Watch, and terminated the problems myself. Other dogs were hurt, or killed, but he never got a scratch with me. Okay, I was threatened with court-martial several times, but my dog won the Best Dog/Handler award (I still have the large trophy) and no one pressed the issue.
After thirteen months, a lot of interaction, and a lot of learning from him I got one of my off-book assignments which meant flying to Germany with him as my ostensible reason: to attend the Hundeschule, or dog school in Germany. A flight by C-130, during which I had to tell the Load Master just once not to approach his kennel, and a truck ride to the air station a few hours from the base where we landed, and I brought him into his kennel. I had been given three weeks to complete my assignment, during which he would stay at the kennel.
Unlike the concrete box with chain link enclosure he had lived in for six years, this kennel was wood, with a real wooden doghouse and a large fenced enclosure. The moment I walked us in, locked the gate behind us, and released him he exploded into the most joyous frenzy I had ever seen in a dog. He bounced off everything, repeatedly coming to me and licking my face, and vocalizing like a puppy. I was overjoyed........and heartbroken at the same time. In all that time I had no idea he could feel such joy. But I knew it was to be short lived; three weeks at most. The German kennel master wrote me up for "not controlling my dog". b***** off.
I completed my task in 10 days and had to quickly leave for Africa. Again, the feelings were indescribable as I brought him back to his concrete and chain link enclosure. He once again became the serious, but resigned fellow prisoner in the all encompassing enclosure we call Life. Making matters worse, dependents and non-essential personnel were evacuated and my tour was cut by six months. Near my departure date I was given permission to take him into the cleared out kennel yard and say my good-byes. I thanked him for all he had taught me on those long nights. I cried without shame. I think he knew exactly what was happening. My next years were without my dog physically present, but always in my heart. So many times I've wanted to go back and visit his grave. In the 1970's I was invited to do so by the Libyan diplomats I met at an official function. (Yes, assignments have long been a part of life.) But I knew I must keep my imaginary image of it rather than face the stark reality that, after the base was surrendered, all that was plowed under for different purposes. Yes, I can still cry.
In the following years, once I had settled into a reasonably stable life I had dogs, horses, and a cat I had saved as a kitten. Each of them has had a deep emotional meaning for me. I've walked and talked with horses whose days were growing shorter. I've always found the smell of horses evokes in me a deep sense of peace and companionship. And, there are stories I don't care to express in which I've had to make decisions which break my heart to this day. Who among us can say we've lived a life in which there are no moments we wish we could do over, do differently?
Being a Stranger in a Strange Land, I "connect" with non-human animals who have been born or captured into a context simply not their own. I don't see them as species; they are fellows. And when I whisper to a dog on a patio, or to a cat clearly aching from overwhelming disease, or a horse stepping uncertainly as its system shuts down I try to see and feel their context, their lives, not just the category we've put them in and the uses they've been to us. I feel a mutual love in ways that are all too rare with humans. And I cannot describe how it feels to have that love returned.
Going through college and graduate school my K-9 was always "with" me. (Two large pictures of him are on the wall by my pc now) Yes, I set the curve in various biology and related classes, but I never saw a species as just a closed category in someone's taxonomy. I saw non-human animals, even plants, in their full context, with their feelings - where credibly possible. Sure, there are people who would sneer at my attitude, just as there were K-9 handlers who sneered when I hugged my dog. I've gotten largely past the point where I would debate these people, but it makes one day leaving the human species that much easier.