The economy is horrible and seems to be getting worse — again. Our nation’s leaders are irreparably divided, and it’s becoming impossible to believe that our government has the country’s best interests at heart. In Europe, economies are falling like dominoes and people are rioting in the streets. So let’s talk about dogs.
Babies and dogs are topics that I generally think are impossible to write about in any way that is not trite and sentimental. And then I read this fascinating article in the New Yorker about the history of dogs and their entanglement with humans. (Sorry, you have to pay to read the full article.) Yes, I also read the story about bin Laden’s capture that was in the same issue. And yes, I chose to write about the dogs — because it was one of those rare articles that deepened my understanding of my own life.
It touched on so many of the questions that have crossed my mind since our family adopted a funny looking mutt in February. How could all these myriad dogs in the world, from dachshunds to poodles to dalmatians, have descended from wolves? How did we get from those feral beasts to these creatures lounging on our couches and angling for belly rubs? Why do dogs, unlike any other animals, crave the company and praise of humans? Is the human relationship with dogs, based on the assumption of dominance and submission, humane? Have we given them a life of comfort or of captivity? Do dogs, and all living creatures, have an inherent right to freedom? And is it truly appropriate, as the Dog Whisperer insists, to treat your dog like a wolf? Does that Yorkie really retain the instincts of the wolf ancestors it left behind tens of thousands of years ago?
The story shares many theories, but doesn’t provide the answers to these questions —because they are largely unanswerable. And the author, Adam Gopnik, does not make any sort of PETA-style argument for animal rights. Nor do I. My dog still sleeps locked in her crate. But it’s soothing to know I am not the only one who contemplates these issues as I yank on the leash and yell “Heel!” at my puppy, who is happily sniffing at god-knows-what. For her, sniffing things is one of the sublime pleasures of existence. Is her life worth living if, every time she emerges into the outside world, she must walk dutifully by my side without stopping to smell every leaf, dirt patch and disgusting piece of discarded food in her path? But is my life worth living if, four times a day, I have to wait for her to smell every leaf, dirt patch and disgusting piece of discarded food in her path?
It’s toward the end of the article, though, that the author offers true wisdom. He writes that dogs are really the only creatures who bridge the divide between humans and other animals. They have two feet in our civilized world and two feet in the wild, as anyone who has ever watched their dog get a glint in its eyes and run for the hills can attest. Our love for them teaches us to look outside ourselves, our own families, even our own species — and to see our kinship with every living thing. They teach us compassion, which I believe is what we are put on this earth to learn.
“We are born trapped in our own selfish skins, and we open our eyes to the rings of existence around us. The ring right around us, of lovers and spouses and then kids, is easy to encircle … We open our eyes to see the wider circles only when new creatures come in, when we realize that we really sit at the center of a Saturn’s worth of circles, stretching out from our little campfire to the wolves who wait outside, and ever outward to the unknowable—toward, I don’t know, deep sea fish that live on lava and then beyond toward all existence, where each parrot and every mosquito is, if we could only see it, an individual.”
So that’s why I needed a dog. To learn my connection with even the creatures (and people) I never imagined I had anything in common with. Maybe our Congressmen need to spend a bit more time with their dogs.