Thursday, October 11, 2007

#112 - Missed


10/11/07 (#112)

"Dogs' lives are too short. Their only fault, really." -- Agnes Sligh Turnbull

I don't understand people who don't have pets. I do understand people who enjoy animals but whose household is ill-suited for pets---small apartments, erratic and/or busy schedules, allergies, whatever---but folks who have the time/space/finances to have animals and don't, that mindset is a complete mystery to me.

I once discussed this concept with a friend whose house resembles a start-up zoo (two dogs, three cats, five birds, and a turtle---and that was just the welcoming committee) who had observed over the years that people who don't have pets tend to be selfish in most areas of their lives because they are the center of their own universe. I don't know how accurate that is as a blanket statement, but it struck a chord with me: Pets require our attention and our care, and indeed, some people seem to reserve their attention and their care for self-indulgent expenditure.

That type of attitude simply doesn't work if you're a pet owner, or at least a conscientious pet owner. Stephanie and I once had a cat with diabetes, a condition that required us to administer insulin shots twice a day, 12 hours apart, at the same time every day. The cat's medical condition had a profound impact on our lives: Someone had to be there for the medication, so if we went to dinner, we had to be back by 8:00; If we went out of town for a night, we had to have someone handle the shot in our absence; if Steph wanted to see the early evening movie, I would stay home to tend to the cat. (I always enjoyed attending events with a mix of friends and strangers and announcing at 7:30, "Sorry, we need to run---time to shoot the cat." The look of concern on the faces of those unaware of Djama's condition was thoroughly enjoyable.) These days, my friend Nick has the same restraints on his schedule as a result of his dog having diabetes; I know that if I want to make plans for us, they have to work around punctual injections. No problem---his wonderful dog is worthy of our accommodations, just as the value of our cat made our adjustments irrelevant.

Many pet-free people use stories like these as validation for their anthropocentric lifestyles, reveling in the fact that they don't have to vacuum up dog hair, don't have to yank the stove away from the wall every month to sweep up the errant kibble, don't have to plan their lives around some creature who offers slobbery kisses with a tongue that drinks from the toilet bowl.

And that is exactly what I don't understand about them, because these were always minor inconveniences when it came to Boo Radley, the Chow/Golden Retriever who, until recently, brought eight years of joy into our house. (Fortunately, we learned early on that Boo would drink from the toilet bowl if he had the chance, so we quickly converted to a strictly enforced close-the-cover ritual.) Sure, he had accumulated an invoice file at the vet that grew to the thickness of a 19th-century Russian novel; sure, he broke more than the average number of car windows with his territorial exuberance*; sure, his joy of digging left our front lawn looking like the aftermath of the famous climax of Caddyshack. But I would gladly endure all of the above many times over if I could have him back for one more long walk through the neighborhood.

We lost Boo to cancer, with an alarmingly short time between his exhibiting of symptoms and the obvious need to ease his grief. Since this happened, I have heard many stories from friends who had similar canine cancer experiences: The dogs resist and persevere for as long as they can (thus hiding their symptoms) until it overwhelms them and it's too late to help. Among the many disappointments that I felt was the frustration that he was only 10 years old. When the vet referred to him as "geriatric", I wondered if she had misread his chart: Boo didn't have a gray hair on his face; up to a week before he was still playing like a puppy. Geriatric?

My confusion was derived from Winnie, the Labrador/Weimaraner mix with whom I grew up**. Winnie came to my parent's home when I was an infant, and lived to be 16 years old. While I remain grateful that she lived such a long and happy life, the combination of her longevity and her being the only dog I had ever known from proverbial start-to-finish left me with a mistaken notion: Dogs live to be 16 years old. In the 24 years between Winnie's death and now, I had never received any information to contradict this non-scientific data, as I regularly saw dogs who were 12 and 14 years old tugging their owners through the park.

Turns out my understanding of lifespan was terribly wrong, and I should have been paying more attention to the one-human-year equals seven-dog-years equation: I never imagined that the point of that math was to make clear that a 10-year old dog was a senior citizen.

Boo was a fabulous dog, a poster child for successful adoption from the Humane Society, and a testament to enduring bonds that can develop between people and pets. While I tend to remember Boo as he was in his last years (mellow, loving, peaceful), reminiscing with friends has reminded me that when we got him, Boo was a wild-man, a 70-pound bundle of muscle, enthusiasm, and intermittent brain activity. (We referred to the latter as "the switch": He was an extremely bright dog when he wanted to be, but let him see a squirrel from 30 yards and he left logic and obedience behind. Fortunately for the squirrels, his hunting prowess resembled that of Elmer Fudd.) As a younger man, he snapped at least three retractable leashes in his efforts to tussle with other dogs (the bigger, the better), he refused to sleep on any soft surface (if we could coax him onto the couch, he humored us, then hopped right off), and once the switch turned off, our only concern was limiting the mayhem. (As an older man, he overcame his aversion to couches---in fact, he often positioned himself so that he could prop his head on a pillow. "You've gotten soft, Boo", we'd chide, and he wouldn't even raise his head to protest.)

One of my favorite Boo stories occurred at the pond in Laurelhurst Park, home to several dozen resident mallards. There was a brief stint in Boo's life when his behavior warranted a short experiment with off-leash walking. (You've seen those dogs who walk along with their owners, untethered and well behaved? That I thought Boo could be one of those dogs is a testament to my foolish optimism.) To set the stage, the duck pond is probably an acre in size, with an island in the middle that the ducks call home; the ducks spend most of the day investigating whether any of the humans on the shore are throwing bread into the pond. We were walking the path that circumscribes the pond when Boo saw the ducks: Off went the switch, and off went Boo, leaping from the concrete beach and splashing into the pond in hot pursuit.

Actually, "hot pursuit" is an overstatement. While Boo's bloodline included noble water-dog lineage, his swimming could be described with the same phrase used by my Pee-Wee hockey coach when describing my playing: "He's certainly not the most talented guy out there, but no one plays with more heart." Watching him swim after those ducks was like watching a UPS truck chase after a handful of high-performance motorcycles: It was obvious to spectators, and to the ducks, and to everyone except Boo, that he was not going to be having mallard for lunch. (I doubt he would have known what to do if he had caught one---as I said, his expertise as a hunter was such that catching the prey was a purely theoretical concept.)

As Stephanie and I futilely yelled his name from the bank, Boo swam like a fat man running for a bus that was already pulling away from the curb; his resolve shone in his eyes as he pursued his quarry, his head barely above water as he dog-paddled after a small subset of ducks. The ducks were fully aware of his presence (alerted by the enormous splash of his belly-flop) and casually retreated around the island. I cannot over emphasize their disregard for his threat: If ducks smoked cigarettes, several would have paused to light up before continuing their evasion.

As Boo's efforts led him further from his point of entry, I moved along the bank yelling, "Boo! Boo! Get over here right now!" but whether by insolence or obliviousness, he clearly had no intention of giving up. He chased a cluster of six ducks as they rounded the west end of the island, the sound of his huffing breath so audible across the water that Stephanie and I independently worried from opposing sides of the island that he would frantically dog-paddle himself into heart failure. (I'm sure he'd have deemed that a glorious way to go, like Keith Richards surely will when he eventually (inevitably?) succumbs to a heart attack onstage.)

When one of the ducks broke from the flock and veered toward the shore, Boo gave it a quick glance but kept his focus on the numeric advantage of the remaining five; ditto when another drifted off as he puffed his way around the south side of the island, still ignoring my bellows from shore; soon after another duck split away…and then there were three.

By this time they had almost circled the island, the ducks looking over their shoulders now and then to see if Boo had displayed a shred of intelligence and given up the pursuit: Nope. Boo struggled on, as if at any moment the ducks would simultaneously collapse from exhaustion. As if tired of mocking him, the three remaining ducks suddenly increased their speed and diverged in various directions, leaving the hilarious sight of a 70-pound dog bobbing alone in the middle of the pond while children and parents laughed and pointed from the edges. Admitting defeat, Boo swam back to the bank where Stephanie was waiting.

I know it's wrong to anthropomorphize our pets and assign them human emotions, but when Boo emerged from the water, he bore a smile that unmistakably said, "I know, bad, but did you see that?! I chased those ducks all the way around the island! That was awesome!" In cases like this, it was pointless to punish him because he didn't care about punishment---there was no scolding, no repercussion that could ever be bad enough to negate the joy he felt for what he had done, and it seemed disrespectful to chastise a dog for….well, for doing what dog's do. While Boo sometimes misbehaved, our motto had always been, "We wanted a dog, not a robot", and we knew that his heart was pure, even if his spirit---and his swimming---was weak.

As I write this story, I worry about justly representing Boo, as if he might read this from the great beyond and woofing to the German shepherd next to him, "No way! I was within inches on those ducks!" But I will fail, in the same way that any eulogy fails to capture the eulogized: It's as futile as trying to capture the Grand Canyon in a single photograph---the more we try to include, the more the detail is lost. And Boo's life was nothing if not a series of joyous details, 10,000 vignettes strung together to make a story. It was my privilege to share so many of them, 10,000 bits of happiness that I will remember long after forgetting about hairy floors and food under the stove and any other so-called inconveniences.

Boo, you will always be missed. I hope there is an afterlife for dogs, and in that world, the couches are cushy and the ducks are slow.

©2007 wpreagan

* Boo's window-breaking incident appeared in Torrential #70, A Day in a Dog's Life

** Winnie was featured in Torrential #18, Involuntary Time Travel