I Was A 'Monster' To Animals — But My Dog Made Me Stop
When we got our first two pigs, Monk (half pit bull, half lab) at three years old, was a late teen: full of life, energy, an incredible sense of smell, hearing, and sight, the memory of an elephant, the wit of a small child, the power and strength of a freight train, the speed and agility of a rabbit (although, he never actually caught a rabbit), the stamina of a dingo, the utter abandon of the truly fearless, and the devotion, commitment, and love of the bestest of best friends, willing to trot along behind the tractor, up and down hills, across dales, through tall grass and short, through bramble and brush all day long to do chores.
Unegotistically displaying his prowess, I watched him once chase three deer flat out for five hundred yards, gaining on them with every ground devouring stride before giving it up (the deer had a fifty yard head start, as they had been down the field a bit when we passed through a hedgerow). It was a sight to behold, absolute majesty. I can still hear the loud thump of his feet pounding the ground as he launched into a sprint, then trailing off behind him as he moved ever further away from me. He trotted back to me, tail high, wagging, breathing perfectly normal. I got the sense that he could have kept up that gallop for miles before tiring. Clearly, he was indeed "a force of nature," as his vet likes to call him.
About five years in, when the pig farm was taking off, but was not yet mechanized, there was an incredible amount of exhausting hand labor, and I would stumble in for lunch after six hours of work and collapse at the kitchen table to eat and rest. Monk would lay at my feet, waiting patiently while I ate, and then, quite often, fell asleep for ten or fifteen minutes with my head resting on the kitchen table. When it was time to get back to work, he would leap up and beat me to the door, eager to hear, smell, see, taste whatever the world had in store for him as if every encounter were his first.
In the above picture of Monk - who happens to be the most handsome dog in the world, I say with all the objectivity I can muster - sitting in the woods, you can see from his posture how he has aged, how his approach to life has changed. His front legs are not square. He is sitting heavily, his weight unbalanced between his notably weakened haunches and his front legs. The only thing he is ready to launch into is bed, for a nap, if he can make it up into the bed, that is. Sometimes his "launches" only get him halfway there, and he ends up stuck with his front paws resting on the bed and his hind feet on the ground.
Monk is thirteen-years old, a true geriatric, and if you think old dogs can't learn new tricks, you are mistaken. The first two nights he failed to successfully launch himself all the way up onto the bed he had continued to make an effort to "climb" up the side of the bed with his hind feet as my wife made her way over to him and then gave him a boost by lifting his hind legs up. By the second night, he had come to understand that all he needed to do was stand there patiently with his front paws on the bed and either my wife or I would help him the rest of the way. His deep black muzzle has gone completely gray. He is deaf as a stone. His eyes are clouding up. His old bones ache. His joints creak. He walks with a bow-legged jaunt. When we come up on deer fifty yards down a field, Monk doesn't launch into a sprint. He sits back on his haunches and just intently watches them, perhaps nostalgically, perhaps not.
Monk is at that age where it is impossible to know: he might have six months, he might have three years. Whatever he has, he is going to make the most of it. Ten years as a farm dog has him fit as a fiddle, and while he has slowed and grown more deliberate (and deliberative) in where, when, and how he expends his energy (rabbits, once a true and irresistible challenge get hardly a glance), and while he can now happily sleep for twenty three hours a day if that's what his body needs, he hasn't lost his incredible, truly ineffable spark, which is, much more than his physical prowess, what makes him a force of nature.
As my nearly constant companion on the farm, Monk became my natural co-star in "The Last Pig,"* the documentary being made about my decision to quit pig farming for ethical reasons, become a vegan, and transition the farm to a veganic vegetable farm. To call him my shadow would be to belittle his own interests and motivations for being around me, and would erase the degree to which he has been a powerful, positive, moving, healing force in my life.
Monk is a true partner on the farm, and for many years in the beginning, he was my moral compass. There was a time, in the beginning, when I had very little control over my anger - mostly out of a sort of chronic frustration at not being able to shake my depression - and, when things didn't go my way with the pigs, I would get violent with them. I would occasionally kick them. I would hit them. I would scream at them with throat tearing fury. These outbursts never lasted long - often because of Monk - and I was almost never acting out of a desire to be cruel. Nevertheless, I can recall a few occasions when I flew so far off of the handle that I was what one would rightly call sadistic with the pigs - mostly running them around until they were utterly exhausted; once or twice so exhausted they just collapsed on the ground panting, trembling, eyes wide, utterly terrified by my relentless assault - simply because they wouldn't do something that I wanted them to do, which they wouldn't do not out of obstinacy, but generally out of fear or discomfort over some aspect of what I was asking them to do.
I say that I was acting sadistically on these few occasions because I no longer cared whether the pigs did what I wanted them to do. I had become so enraptured by my rage that I lost complete control over myself, I had lost all connection to my emotions, especially empathy, compassion, and care. I actually wanted to terrorize the pigs, and while it was going on, I took pleasure in it.** Monk, however, had the power to snap me out of it, to force me to come face to face with who, or perhaps what, I had become in those moments, and whenever he did force me to do so, I was appalled, aghast, and immediately overcome with an overwhelming sense of shame and remorse.
Monk - as are most canines - is hyper-sensitive to emotional states. Frustration makes him nervous. Anger scares him. Fury terrifies him. This hyper-sensitivity, which is really a form of hyper-empathy (not in this case, however, in the sense of identifying with the emotional state of another, but rather feeling the full brunt of it, taking in, and often being overwhelmed by the energy of the emotion, even though it was not directed towards him), made Monk the ideal moral compass because he would become so emotionally distraught when I entered these altered states (I really don't know what else to call them) that his response was to tuck his tail between his legs and slowly and trepidatiously trot off towards home in order to get away from me.
As he moved away from me, in an obvious posture of frightened submissiveness, he would keep looking back at me every few steps, gauging me, evaluating me; he was totally cued into me: he registered every facial twitch, every change in complexion, every flex of every muscle, the tone and pitch of my voice, the overall tension of my body, how I was holding myself, and as long as he picked up barely restrained savage rage - which was a throwback, by the way, to my early years of depression in my teens when my depression manifested in rage, which is not unusual in young boys - he continued to move slowly away from me.
If I happened to look up and see Monk in this posture slinking away from me, heading for home, the profound energy of his fear, of his need to get as far away from me - his closest and most dear companion - as possible would immediately shock me, as if I had been hit with a defibrillator. What I could not see or feel in the pigs because I was numb to their emotional state and blind to their body language because they were the object of my sadistic rage, I felt in every fiber of my being emanating from Monk, and it immediately struck me that I was being a sick, twisted, sadistic monster. In Monk's posture, in his desire to get away from me, he was mirroring the emotions and desires of the pigs.
Upon seeing Monk, I would suddenly see the pigs as they really were - distraught, terrified, desperate for my assault to end - not as my rage had me believe they were - obstinate provocateurs who were getting what they deserved - and that rage would immediately collapse. I would stop, stumble my way out of the paddock away from the pigs, and breathlessly call out to Monk, who, sensing there had been a shift in me, would pause and then turn around and make his way cautiously back to me. When we were together again, I would kneel down and bury my face in Monk's neck, holding him, stroking him, beginning to feel weak and trembly as the adrenaline and whatever other hormones were coursing through me subsided; I sometimes sobbed uncontrollably. Gaining confidence that I had really returned, Monk would pull his head back, look me in the eye for a beat before breaking eye contact and then lick my face once or twice before stepping forward and burying his head in my chest, eager to cement, through intense, intimate physical contact our reconciliation.
I said before that Monk was at the time my moral compass, which he was. But, he was, and is much more than that. He is my root, my ground. He is the gravity that keeps me from spinning off into the dark void of my own self destruction.
Monk has enriched the lives of every single person he has ever encountered, especially mine - he saved me, more than once. While I know that there will be a morning, a first morning, when I walk out the door alone, I do not dwell on it, nor do I dread its coming. Monk is here now, and I carry the emotional wisdom he has shared with me, and will do so for as long as I live.
Look at him there, sitting still in the woods, attentive to the world, attentive to being, radiating a universe of love.
** I have no interest in excusing my behavior during these times - it was utterly horrific - but this piece is about what profound beings non-human animals are; how deeply we are able to connect with them; the incredible power that they have to get us to see ourselves as we really are; and their seemingly boundless ability to bring us back from the brink and heal us, so I would ask that readers not zero in on the fact that I behaved sadistically with the pigs. I did it. It was ghastly. I wish I had never done it. Instead of focusing on the villain, I hope we can focus on the hero of this piece, Monk.