-------------------------------- My dog Chloe is one of the sweetest-looking dogs I have ever seen. She has the brown and white markings of a spaniel and the golden, almond-shaped eyes of a lab. When she greets you, she looks you straight in the eye with an expression that says: I see right through to the heart of you, and I see that you are good. All this, combined with her cute pink mouth and big dog-smile, prompt people to call her a "lover" when they first meet her.
Upon hearing the word "lover," Chloe will wag her tail and wiggle with joy and then start lowering herself to the floor, moving in a sort of spiral, until she is on her back, waving her legs into the air. This gesture, in a way, always reminds me of the slow-motion blossoming of a flower. Pure love. Pure sweetness.
So imagine my surprise--and horror--when I witnessed my loving dog killing a squirrel. I'm sure many of you have experienced this shocking moment when we first realize our sweetie-pies are actually natural born killers.
I myself am not a killer. On the contrary, I'm one of those militant animal lovers who practices vegetarianism, who refuses to wear leather or fur, who will not buy any product that has been tested on animals, and who will even carry humanely-trapped mice out of the house, drive them two miles away in the mini-van, and set them free near a small stream, with a few sunflowers seeds to help them start their new lives (far, far away from my house).
As an aside: please note that I'm not trying to preach here, or cast myself as some kind of saint. Refraining from killing is simply the lifestyle that I choose for myself. I try not to judge the lifestyle of others. But having said that, I did find myself judging Chloe--just for one second--after I witnessed her first kill. I mean, obviously I'd been taught that all predators are wired to hunt and kill, but I didn't want to believe that my dog had such instincts. I wanted to, you know, believe that her DNA was on par with that of a cute stuffed animal. But then I thought of the way Chloe treated her own stuffed animals: seizing them in her jaws, shaking them, whipping them around, and finally eviscerating them with vim and vigor. Apparently all this time she had been practicing for the real thing. I did not know my dog as well as I thought.
Some would say my reaction to that squirrel's death was extreme. I cried. I shouted. My hands shook. I wanted to run away; flee the scene of the crime, as it were. I just hate to see any living being suffer, period. I hate to hear any innocent creature cry out in pain or sorrow or fear. I felt guilty that my own dog had played part in this pain, and then I felt confused about the very state of earthly existence. Why were some creatures are born as prey animals and some as prey? What is the point of a world in which it is necessary to kill in order to survive? Meanwhile, Chloe looked at me with confusion. In her mind (yes, I always speak as if I can read her mind), she hadn't done anything worth crying about. In fact, she had passed through a canine Rite of Passage. She was a hunting dog who had just accomplished her first official hunt--why was I acting as if she had committed a crime? "Because you just murdered something," I told her. She just cocked her head in that cute way she has. So of course I forgave her.
My dog-loving friends understood my reaction--even the irrational, existential crisis part. Most of them had been through this, and through the years we have been able to form a sort of support group, sharing our experiences, offering comfort, and trying to find ways to justify or rationalize dogs' behaviors.
First of all, there are the facts of life: that dogs are predators, and predators track and feed on prey. And while this fact is hard for those of us with domesticated animals to accept, we obviously cannot control the genetic makeup of our fellow mammals -- no matter how cute and cuddly they appear to be. Secondly, there's the fact that -- at least among my friends -- it's not as though we're encouraging our dogs to kill; or, heaven forbid, train them to kill. Again, I try not to judge people who use their dogs to hunt, but I can't say that it doesn't make me cringe. I even have to turn off the volume on "Downton Abbey" each time the smartly-dressed Grantham party goes off on a hunt.
Then there's the "humans are worse than dogs" theory which my friend -- also a vegetarian and an animal rights activist -- puts forth. "Dogs eat meat, period," she says. "And the dogs which are being fed commercial dog food are, in most cases, consuming the flesh of factory farm animals that have been tortured by men.
"So when my dog manages to kill and eats a squirrel," my friend continues, "it helps to remind myself that at least the squirrel got to live a relatively painless life, unlike those poor cows."
I suppose my friend is speaking to the quality of a prey animal's life as opposed to the quality of its death. Either way, this is always a difficult topic for me. I honestly have a hard time feeding Chloe meat. It's not that I would ever put her on a vegetarian diet, but I'm completely grossed out by the raw chicken and ground beef I have to handle. Often, when I'm unwrapping those packages of meat, I'm met with images of those tortured farm animals and feel wracked with guilt. The only thing I can do is say a silent prayer to the animal whose life was taken for the sake of my dog. And then leave the room so that I don't have to hear Chloe crunching away on the chicken legs.
After that first squirrel incident, Chloe managed to kill a few more creatures -- not enough to set any world records, but enough to send me into brief fits of sobbing, followed by a few hours of existential crisis. Over the years, she killed one toad (which caused her mouth to foam up and which sent me into a tizzy); a snake (which prompted me to call her Morfin Gaunt for a while --something only the Harry Potter fans will get) and a good number of insects, which she liked to swat around the way a cat would. I always tried to save these creatures, but hopping, slithering things are particularly hard to catch. Unless you're a dog, I guess.
My previous dog Wallace (also known as Rex) was much worse in the murder department. A hunting-dog to the bone, he killed with an expertise and a blood-lust I found alarming. I won't go into the gory details of the number of small animals he manage to capture and kill. It's just sufficient to say he was the type of dog who would probably have taken on a gazelle or a wild boar if given the chance.
Many will point out that the simple solution would be to keep our dogs on-leash. And this, of course, is a loaded topic: the off-leash issue, which seems to crop up every day in the dog world. So let's just say I have made the choice to allow my dog to exercise off leash. And sometimes my choice has unwanted consequences.
Recently, Chloe found a living creature and brought it to me. We were outside on the property: I was watering the flowers and Chloe was romping around in the fields, snuffling her way through the tall grasses. Suddenly I saw her trotting toward me, carrying something in her mouth. Her white plumed tail was held high, and she moved with a jaunty step which indicated she was feeling particularly proud of herself. I assumed that the object in her mouth was a long-lost toy (our woods were littered with decaying Beanie Babies and Teddy bears), but then Chloe placed the object at my feet. It was a baby bird, which I suspect it had fallen out of its nest. And it was still alive.
I started to go into panic mode. What to do? What to do? Pulling on my gardening gloves, I gently picked up the bird and carried it into the house. Chloe followed along, seeming to sense that we were on the verge of doing something important. She always liked to pretend she was in charge of such things.
Inside the house, I found a small cardboard box, lined it with tissues and towels, and carefully placed the bird inside the make-shift nest. The bird was breathing, but not moving too much. Already, I was crying. I absolutely love birds; bird-song, to me, is one of the most beautiful sounds on this planet. But I know absolutely nothing about how to care for birds. Thank goodness we have the internet, so I rushed to my computer and Googled "care" "injured" "birds." Most instructions said to keep the bird warm and comfortable, and offer tiny bits of water if the bird seemed dehydrated. I called the local Fish and Wildlife hotline hoping for more information, but when I described the situation and the bird, I was told that it was actually illegal to help the bird. I was told that there was nothing I could do but "let it die."
These are hard words for a militant, animal-loving vegan to hear. I wanted to do something. I wanted to save the bird. Some people, I suppose, would have put the bird "out of its misery," but there was no way I could do that. Never ever, ever. What then could I do?
At a loss, I placed the box and the bird on my shrine. I should point out here that I live in Woodstock, New York, which is the kind of place where many of us keep shrine rooms in our houses. Mine is filled with crystals and meditation and prayer books and the scent of sandalwood incense. The altar is lined with statues of Buddha and Shiva and Lakshmi and Quan Yin and -- of course -- St. Francis, my favorite patron saint of animals. It was here I placed the bird -- still breathing, but not doing much else. I placed a lamp near the box to keep the bird warm -- one of those Tibetan crystal-salt lamps that are said to absorb negative energy. And then I prayed. Don't worry -- this is not a dogmatic or religious essay. I know that the word "prayer" means different things to many different people. For me, it's "prayer" consists mainly of chanting Buddhist mantras. One in particular -- Om Mani Peme Hung -- cultivates compassion and well-being, and is said to be good for animals on the verge of death.
As I chanted, I heard Chloe barking at the shrine room door -- her cue that she wanted to be let in. She always likes to be around when mantras are being chanted -- she seems to know that there's good energy in the room. For a second, I found myself being mad at Chloe again -- for being a killer, for putting me through the pain of having to witness the suffering of a small living being, but then I reminded myself that she may have found the bird as opposed to capturing it. In fact, maybe she brought me the bird out of compassion -- to allow me to save it. Ah, the things we tell ourselves.
"You can't come in," I called out to Chloe. "I don't want to stress the bird." I heard Chloe sigh, then lie down on the floor, placing her nose at the base of the door so that she could sniff through the gap. This made me smile. Everything she did was just so quintessentially dog. I couldn't stay mad.
I chanted for another hour or so, constantly checking on the bird and unable to tell if it was getting better or worse. Next I played some Tibetan singing bowls for the bird and tried a made-up form of Reiki, which I don't know how to do. I realized that, while there are many things I do know how to do, saving lives is not one of them. The little bird stopped breathing. And so, for a few seconds, did I.
I cried, of course, the way we all cry when we try to save something and fail. But what is "failure?"
One thing I've noticed about people who work in animal rescue that we all want to save everyone and everything. We want to live in a world that is free from pain, free from suffering, free from fear and cruelty. The saddest past is that most of our efforts go toward rescuing animals from human cruelty. This always makes me question just what exactly the role of the human race is in the "Natural Order of Things" mentioned above. Weren't we put on this planet in order to care for Mother Earth and all her creatures? If so, why have so many humans strayed so far from that role? These are questions we cannot answer. I'm just so thankful for all the people who continue to try to help. Many of us who work at animal shelters have witnessed --firsthand -- just what sort of suffering our animal friends can endure. We read horrible stories on the Internet; we see graphic pictures on Facebook that we wish we hadn't seen; we feel frantic, we feel guilty, we cry, we wish that those dogs had not lived or died in pain. And yet so many of these horror stories have happy endings. The abused dogs find homes; the pit bulls forced to fight learn once again how to love. That's the thing that always moves me to tears -- that in the midst of all suffering, one bright spark of human love seems capable of purifying and nullifying any pain. Right? Is that failure?
Maybe that was the original role of humans on this planet: to show compassion amidst the ordered chaos that is life on Earth.
So getting back to the little bird who died on my shrine: both the dog and I experienced a shift after this incident. First of all, Chloe hasn't killed a single thing since. And I swear there have been more birds on my property than ever before. I'm sure there's a logical reason, like -- duh --migration season. But I like to think that those birds are trying to tell me that everything is okay. I have heard it said that any being that dies in the presence of mantra or prayer or any kind of spiritual vibration is guaranteed to be reborn into a higher realm. Some call this realm heaven. Some even call this the human realm -- because humans, unlike animals, have the capacity to change or control their instincts.
So each time I hear stories of a dog following his or her canine instincts to hunt and kill prey, I follow my human instincts and, well, pray for the prey. Every time I feed Chloe her raw meat, I chant mantras for the cows and chickens. Ever since I started thinking this way, I have felt more empowered. So we can't prevent death, here in this land of mortality. Nor can we control the genetic makeup of our fellow mammals. What we can control is how we react.
And Chloe, she continues to charm people with her cute looks and goofy antics. "Yes, she's a lover," they say. And my response is always, "She's a rescue." And that always gets a smile.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: Please note that this piece was written several months before my beloved Chloe passed in 2013. In her honor, I have not changed the tense, for in my heart Chloe will always be Present Tense.