Thursday, July 20, 2006

More Summertime Greatest Hits (I am a Gentle, Beautiful Man)

Friday, July 23, 2004

The Dog with Half a Face

I saw a dog with a disfigured face at the Ace Hardware the other day. I had two small packages of nails, a bulb for a floodlight, a small can of green spay paint and a tiny plastic prong that you can screw to the face plate to prevent you from turning a light switch either on or off (if it’s already off or on), all of which I had come for. But before checking out, I was looking at the barbecue paraphernalia, which is good recreation if you are a Weber guy.

The dog was standing in the aisle the way dogs do, staring into the middle distance, tongue quivering, tail wagging lazily in anticipation of something pleasant, such as a pat on the ribs just behind the shoulder. That was what I provided. The dog was pleased but not in a vulgar way.

It was a big yellow dog. It did not have a nose. About halfway between the eyes and the tip of its snout, the upper jaw had been cut away, so that its face looked like a caricature of a wild boar. The jaw was underslung with two strong canines pointing up, and the tissue where the jaw had been cut away was pink and corrugated with two slits, which were its nasal passages.

I told it that it was a very nice dog. It was a very nice dog. I was not sure whether the owner – a bulky women in a blue smock – was pleased by my interest in the dog. Had it been a child with Down’s Syndrome or an infant with a congenital deformity, there would have been mutual tension around issues of condescension or morbid curiosity. But in this case there was only pleasure on my part around the fact this was a happy dog, sleek and well-fed, who seemed to lack for nothing necessary to a dog’s happiness.

The owner said the dog had had cancer.

I said that we had a white cat who had cancer on both ears, which were amputated to stop its spread.

She said that white cats with cancer on their ears and noses were common, but that cancer of the kind her dog had was very rare. She said she took it to Davis – and every Bay Area pet owner knows that is a reference to the UC-Davis veterinary school where innovation abounds. We took our cat Popcorn there to see if we could avoid amputation of her ears.

I asked how old the dog was, and the woman in the blue smock said he was 9. I said we owed that to our pets, which was a bit of a non sequitur but I meant even a dog in late middle age is not disposable. Of course, the surgery could have occurred years ago.

She walked on, followed by her dog, whose tail had not stopped wagging. I supposed this was an endless conversation for her, and she did not need the approval or reassurance of strangers.

I think the woman and her dog were exactly how things should be. I understand the arguments on the other side, and I will argue it with you if you choose, but it is not one of those arguments that make me anxious. Having come to a certain conclusion, I have acted on that conclusion, and my action makes me more comfortable with my conclusion, not less. We had a cat once that needed subcutaneous transfusions, which we did at home, even when its skin became so porous that the fluid leaked out almost as fast as we dripped it in.

I believe simply that the contract we have with animals means that those animals we butcher and eat – those we have concluded are disposable -- should be butchered with as much gentleness as the process allows. I believe the same thing is true of lab animals, and that means certain experiments are unacceptable. I believe that the animals we keep as companions should never be treated as if they are disposable. Meat animals offer us nourishment and lab animals offer us health and longevity, but companion animals offer us love. That’s certainly a word I am comfortable using in relation to cats and dogs. They seek our presence, count on us for things that they cannot provide for themselves and find pleasure in our touch and in the warmth of our bodies.

There is usually loyalty on their part to some degree, even between cats and their owners. If human beings, when they speak of love between them and other human beings, are describing such dependence and such tactile pleasure, they are describing something worth having. But often when human beings use the word they seem to be referring to cruelties and indignities that reduce the word to nothing.

Money and time spent on the illnesses of our companion animals make a perfect symmetry. If those of us who have resources decline to spend them we are the parasites, not they. When our efforts fail and their suffering is great, then we kill them. My wife and I take our cats to the vet when it becomes necessary, hold them in our arms and watch the vet kill them. Too bad society does not make the same accommodation for human beings – and, of course, it would have to be an accommodation managed carefully.

I hope that when I describe the yellow dog’s radically altered face, you do not think of it as grotesque. The dog certainly did not think so. I did not think so. Its face was an emblem of equilibrium between owner and animal, of a balance of duty and affection.

We are too cognitively evolved, of course, to handle our own deformities so calmly. I am not so arrogant or blithely cruel to suggest that we are. But perhaps we shall continue to evolve and come out wise and gentle on the other side.

Update July 2006: In case you wonder what happened to Popcorn, the earless cat: In Remembrance.

1 comment:

B. Wieder said...

Hear hear. Yeah, I would say that qualifies as a Greatest Hit. But then I am currently on my fourth yellow Lab. And I mean that in the most non-vulgar way. I am surprised that you haven't gotten any other comments. Pet euthanasia is right up there with parental notification as response magnets go. But then, I don't think Gloria has seen this yet.