13 June 2010

Good dog

When I look back on that time, I wonder how, and why, did we of all people have a dog? I was six and we had just moved into a communal household in Boulder. A couple of months earlier my sister had died. We were figuring out how to get along in this new town, so different from the northern California commune we'd just come from. Our eventful three years in California had all but wiped clean any memories I had of living in Denver three years before that. My father, mother, and I now lived in a three-bedroom, 1,000-square-foot house that already had three college students living in it. There was a hanging wicker swinging chair in the living room that I liked to sit in when I listened to my favorite records, by the Beatles and The Band.

Our dog's name was Pig. Pig was a barky, scruffy mutt, and a joy to be with. Pig was also a compulsive gnawer who left no shoe unchewed, which made our family unpopular with our housemates sometimes. In a black-and-white photograph from that time, I am playing in the backyard with the dog. My hair is in loose braids and I am wearing my brown dress trimmed with white rick-rack and the fringe on my Billy the Kid leather jacket is flying. I remember my dog and me smiling and free.

But I also remember how my father would find Pig in his way and kick her so hard she yelped with pain and surprise. She skulked after him, trying to win him over the way she had me, but he never liked her. He didn't see the sweet innocence that shone through her eyes. To him she was just a victim, a dog who was already as low as it could go and thus invited kicking, as in that awful saying about kicking a dog when it's down.

Which of course made me love Pig even more than I already did. But this made me scared to love her, too.

People we lived with learned about my father. They found out that he could kick a dog in front of a child, that he could and would yell at, threaten, or hit a woman. Soon we lived by ourselves, in a tiny, freestanding cottage we rented next to the owners' house. They were a family of seven: two Catholic parents and five kids, one my age, with a big color TV right in the living room and a cupboard full of sweet, crunchy cereals. You can imagine where I liked to pretend I lived when I didn't feel like going home. Some nights, the mom would knock on our door and threaten to call the police when she heard my father yelling, my mother screaming, or glass breaking. Usually my father would talk her down, but a couple of times the police did come to our door. Today, animal control and social services would be called in. Back then, my father just got warnings.

By the time we lived in the tiny house by ourselves, with only a rotating cast of cats for my father to kick around, we didn't have Pig anymore. I like to think one of our college-student roommates adopted our silly, sweet dog, someone like Spritz, who ferried me on his motorcycle (with my parents' blessing) to his family's house in St. Louis, dropping me into the midst of his siblings and parents, perhaps the sweetest, most wholesome family I'd ever met, for two blissful weeks of eating midwestern meals like hot dogs and macaroni and jello salads, riding bikes to the city pool, and watching horror movies all gathered around that big color TV in their family room -- their house was so big they had a family room! But I digress. Somewhere along the way Pig disappeared, and I still hold out a hope it was someone like Spritz who saw what was happening and rescued her from a worse fate.

Recently my mother brought up the subject of our dog Pig, inspired by my recent project of disinterring some of the storied bones of my past. She said I always had a strong code of ethics. She said: “Your father would kick the dog, or the cats, but you never did.” And it was true. I was their friend. I would let them sleep on my bed. I wanted to comfort my pets when my father had been cruel to them, and often felt paralyzed with the fear of what would happen if I were kind to them when he was angry.

Today I read an article in the New York Times Magazine about violence toward animals. The author, Charles Siebert, cited a veterinary forensics expert who asserted that animal abuse can represent “the tip of the iceberg” in a household, an indicator of an individual who doesn't respect spouses' or children's boundaries, either. I felt so sad reading that, for us and all the abuse we saw, and for all the pets I thought just wandered off or had been “taken to the pound” to be adopted out again by some other family who could take care of a pet because, somehow my father always turned it all back against us, the women and girls, and insisted we were the ones who had failed our pets and now had to suffer their loss. Now I wonder what really happened to them. As I unpacked more gnarly boxes of memories, I asked about our pets, and my mother confirmed that my father had “disappeared” some of them. I can't be sure what happened to them but I remember sweet Martha the calico kitty, who had her babies and vanished soon after that, and the burly gray beauty Billy Kitty, who “must have wandered off and gotten lost.” My mother told me a horrific story about a capuchin monkey he had brought home as a pet when I was very young and my sister was even younger.

A couple of years ago, on a vacation to the Mayan Riviera in Mexico with my family, I arranged for us to visit a little place in the jungle between Akumal and Tulum where they rescue monkeys that have been adopted as pets and abused or abandoned. They allowed us to go in a cage with the monkeys. They are amazing creatures, full of energy and childlike curiosity. When I first snorkeled, I feared I'd feel I did not belong in the undersea world, which instead was what I experienced with the monkeys. They couldn't just accept me and keep going about their day. They had to test me and mess with me and one of them leaped into the arms of my husband and launched into sweet talk for the next five or six minutes. Another soon had to be dissuaded from chewing on my toes and ankles. My daughter refused to go in the cage with them. I didn't blame her at all, but I was a lot bigger than the monkeys so was only a bit nervous, but not frightened. Later, we were walking under one monkey who felt slighted when I didn't give him, the alpha dude, the attention I had showed to his roommate; he grabbed onto my hair when I got near and would not let go. Ouch! My scalp stung for hours after, and the episode badly frightened my daughter. Suddenly I understood firsthand why the rescue people said they segregate the new monkeys for a long time before they allow them to mix with the established monkey population.

So I was taught some kind of lesson, got my monkey smackdown. But even after that painful experience, I wouldn't have dreamed of hurting one of them. (Nor would I be deluded enough to want to adopt one, thank you very much.)

On my last visit to my mother's, I watched episodes of The Dog Whisperer, which, like Law & Order, seems to be on most hours of the day. I immediately saw why she loves the show. Cesar Millan, the dog behavior specialist who is the show's star, understands the dog's mentality: he understands the need for order within the pack. So Millan goes around and rehabilitates dogs, and trains people, as his motto goes. Always, he seeks one thing from dogs: a calm and submissive state. The thing about Cesar is that he will outwait and outwit a dog to achieve that state. He will do anything it takes, and with some dogs it takes a lot. A few even get through his skin and unsettle him and he has to step back and start all over with that dog when his energy is back. As soon as I read that book by the real horse whisperer, about how you can turn away and let a horse know you trust it, to win the horse's trust, I knew it was true, and I've seen it since many times over since I read it. And while that piece of advice made horses more comprehensible for me, I admit to being nipped by the 12-year-old appaloosa mare my daughter was riding a couple of summers ago for not paying proper attention to her one day. To my credit, that horse's owner was also impressed when I noticed Shoshoni flinch when I touched one of her flanks when brushing her; it turned out she'd been bitten there by another horse a couple of days earlier.

With every passing moment I feel I learn a little more about true compassion from being with my cats, being around friends' dogs, and seeing my child adore animals – although sometimes her love is so smothery that I feel I have to protect the poor pets from her overbearing attentions. Whether the satisfying symbiosis of my relationship with pets is due to the increased flow of the “trust hormone” oxytocin, or a parasite some say cats infect us with that will ultimately compel us to let our cats eat our brains, either way, we seem to be stuck with one another. I find one of the best things about living without abuse is being able to love my people and animals as much as I want to, which turns out to be constantly, tenderly, freely, and deeply.

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