Thanksgiving, 2012: Another Animal Story

On one of my bookshelves sits a small wooden box the size of two cupped hands, stained an unobtrusive medium brown, its top carved intricately with a three-branched trunk splashed with six-petaled flowers. It is one of my most precious possessions, but I almost never look at it. Mortise-and-tenon joinery frames the top – smooth, though I almost never touch it – and underneath is a flimsy slab of plywood marked with an ordinary mailing label. On the label, which I almost never read, is the name of my first cat. Inside the box, which I have opened only once, are her ashes. I do not want to see what I cannot possibly touch.

The box takes me back to the last time I held her on my lap, already sedated, and watched the veterinarian gently find a vein on her inner thigh with the needle. I looked down at the curl of IV tube and watched it fill with blood. “Are you sure?” I asked.

“Yes, I’m sure,” the veterinarian said. “Are you sure?”

I nodded. Calypso’s chin rested on my wrist the way it always had, her eyes closed, her fur still sleek where I stroked her, her skin loose and rubbery in a way it had never been before two days ago. Her ears were still and not listening, and her body draped over my knees like an empty backpack. The veterinarian lifted a stethoscope and then whispered, “Her heart has stopped.”

There is never a right time for this.

I had known we were near the end a few days before, when her purr vibrated lightly on my wrist as we sat on the couch and watched Obama make his election night victory speech after he won his first term. I smoothed her blue-black fur, circling my fingers around her ears and admiring her perfect, tiny feet, avoiding the jutting bones of her spine and hips. “I’m so glad you’re with me,” I said to her, not knowing that after five presidential elections together, we had only a few days left. The sounds of celebration rose from the streets to my windows. For months, I’d been giving her subcutaneous fluids at home, sticking giant needles into the loose skin of her shoulders while she watched me with huge, trusting eyes.

I remembered tucking her into a crate and carrying her with my younger cat, Tiki, then twelve years old, into Sea-Tac Airport for the redeye flight to Washington, DC where I’d moved for a new job. For the first time in five moves, she seemed afraid – and shaky, nauseated, and disoriented. I unpacked a skillet and saucepan, a wooden spoon, unrolled the air mattress that would be my only furniture for a couple of weeks, till the rest of my possessions arrived from Seattle, and, for the first time, let her slip under the covers to sleep.

I remembered the many times I’d looked into her aqua eyes as she posed on the arm of the sofa, the tip of her tail curled toward her belly to acknowledge my gaze. For my entire adulthood, through the emotional storms of my twenties and thirties, her eyes had been the calm, still center of my universe, always calling me back from wherever I had drifted. In those early years she learned to worry; in later years I tried somehow to let her know that she no longer needed to.

There is a picture of her on the bookshelves next to the ashes. In the photograph she perches on a pillow, with an older set of bookshelves behind her, a sunny window making her glossy coat shine like glass. The books are mostly from the library at the University of Washington, where I was in my second year of graduate school. The window belonged to the most wretched, sagging house on our block, truly an eyesore, where I rented the smallest room and chafed at the lack of privacy after years of having my own apartment. The first night in the house, Tiki, then a year and a half old, vanished. I cried hysterically, calling for him all over the neighborhood, while Calypso positioned herself on the bed and looked serene. In the middle of the night I woke and sobbed silently, not wanting my new housemates to hear me crying. I whispered to Calypso, furiously, You can smell him. You know where he is. How can you just sit there? Finally she tired of my misery and quietly left the room to retrieve Tee from his hiding place, probably in the basement, probably where he’d been all along.

Her gesture was particularly noble because she’d loathed Tiki as soon as I brought him home. At the time I was living in a studio apartment, and I locked him in the bathroom so Calypso could have the run of the main room and kitchen. Instead, she leapt onto the kitchen counters, screamed as though I were cutting her ear off, and attacked me every time I walked through the doorway, which because of the tiny size of the kitchen was well within reach of her claws. Finally I called the emergency vet, saying, “It’s not an emergency…but my cat has gone crazy!” The receptionist, wisely, told me to “ignore her until she was out of her snit” (advice I’ve applied in a variety of unrelated situations).

Before Tiki, we had Ocarina, whom I carried from a house a two-mile walk away. She was the most energetic and affectionate of a huge litter of tabbies that seemed oddly listless, scattered over a worn rug with fleas hopping out of it like popcorn. The momcat appeared, looking even more threadbare than the rug. “She looks emancipated,” her owner said, and I giggled, thinking she was referring to the cat’s release from motherhood. When I saw the woman’s shocked look, I realize she’d meant emaciated and turned away, shamefaced. Calypso, then nine months old and still malleable, hissed for a few days until a dreamy look passed across her face and suddenly they were friends. I called them The Paisleys, because the two of them were always wrapped around each other. She had a meow that sounded like “Me? Me?” and a love of cuddling, something Calypso did not permit until she was much older. When Ocarina was just a year and a half old, I discovered she had advanced feline leukemia – legacy of her sickly mother and siblings – and, with Calypso waiting at home I had her put to sleep, holding her in my arms as the weight of her body fell into my hands.

Before Ocarina, though, there was Calypso. She was born in a warehouse a few blocks from my first lousy lowest-rung insurance company job, and I carried her back to the office in a copy box a few days before Christmas my first dreadful year in Seattle. She kept nosing out of the box as I dodged the holiday pedestrian traffic on the sidewalks, but a coworker had offered to drive me to pick up supplies and then drop me at home. The next day was the office Christmas potluck. I plopped down on the futon, cradling my new kitten, who climbed onto my chest and went to sleep. When she woke, she followed me into the cavernous kitchen in my attic apartment, watching me as I cooked for the next day. Finally she curled herself into a tennis-ball sized mound of black fluff on my right foot, and as she quietly breathed and purred, I fell in love with the kitten who would be my guardian angel for seventeen years.

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving. Coincidentally, it is also the four-year anniversary of adopting my current pair of cats, Ziggy and Stardust, just a week after Calypso died. I did not feel ready to see her go, and I did not feel ready for new kittens, but now that they are so much a part of my life, my initial unreadiness doesn’t matter much. Just as there is no good time to let a pet go, there is also no good time to let a new one into our home. If I am thankful for anything, it’s that despite everything, we still do, and that the days with a pet are doubly precious because I am so aware that they are so transient.

It has been four years since I said goodbye to Calypso, three since Tiki dropped dead without warning on Halloween, almost twenty since Ocarina died. With pets, love is always bookended by loss; the lightness of a kitten, now, reminds me of the heaviness of the lifeless bodies I’ve held at the end. And yet it’s the nature of loving animals that we love and love and love again, knowing how the story will end, but unable to stop beginning.

You Can Stop Whispering Now

Since the first time I saw The Dog Whisperer, I have had a slight crush on Cesar Millan. I don’t watch cable and so have only seen a few episodes of his show – in one of them, he subdued a dog with an unfortunate habit of attacking his owners; and in another, he schooled owners in becoming “pack leaders” after their dog became aggressive after their other dog died.

Malcolm Gladwell, in his 2006 New Yorker article, “What the Dog Saw,” speaks of Millan’s body language in adoring terms. The accompanying photo, in which Millan stands in a superhero pose, tennis ball in fist, surrounded by dogs leaping through what looks like a muddy stream, solidified my crush. By the time I got my cockapoo, Kerfuffle, on August 1, it was no longer necessary to watch Millan’s show to know all about his training methods: Like Seinfeld and Survivor, The Dog Whisperer had so thoroughly infiltrated popular culture that the average non-viewer could love Millan without knowing him.

Some of what I learned from the couple of episodes I watched made a lot of sense. For one thing, Millan reinforced the idea that dogs are fundamentally different from humans in that they don’t want to dominate; rather, they feel more secure when their humans are in charge so that they know what to expect. Like Americans, nearly all of whom (even these days) have bosses and paychecks, dogs want to have a purpose, fulfill it, and be recognized for their efforts. Dogs – carefully bred and raised alongside humans for centuries – would rather develop a strong character than be spoiled for being cute. And, finally and most revelatory for me, I learned that because dogs look to their owners for guidance, many behavior problems can be traced to failures of human leadership.

Unfortunately, however, the show also taught me that “alpha rolling” dogs onto their backs was a good way to establish “pack leadership.” The day after I brought Kerfuffle home, he snapped at the vet when she tried to examine his ears; after muzzling him to complete the exam (both ears were infected), she emphasized the importance of obedience training to discourage further aggression. Later, I discovered that he growled at me, the cats, and a friend when his toys or food were approached, even though otherwise he seemed hesitant, subdued, and shy. I watched a few videos on Millan’s website, carefully rolled Fuff onto his back, and tried to pry toys out of his jaws.

It was immediately clear that Cesar’s methods (even gently applied) were horribly frightening to my dog, who looked up at me with tragic eyes and began to roll over whenever I approached. Fuff seemed to like to go on walks, though, so I took him on a long one while I thought things over. Unlike the off-leash, insouciant dogs I’d grown up with in the age of choke chains and nose-in-the-accident housetraining, my dog withered at the slightest signs of disapproval. When Fuff barked, several people told me to poke him in the ribs and hiss, Tssst! like Cesar does on his show. I wasn’t sure what to do, but I was certain that physical punishment or harsh words weren’t a good idea for my dog. “That’s too much force for my dog,” I said to the neighbors.

Fortunately the Washington Animal Rescue League, where I adopted Fuff, has trainers available to answer questions from new pet owners, and it was there I learned about positive reinforcement training – and thank goodness I did, because it turns out that although Fuff is sweet-natured and quick to learn, his sensitivity and tendency to be fearful make him more challenging than other dogs I’ve known. Consequently, I’ve read and learned more about dog psychology, training, and body language than I thought I would ever need to know, and I’ve handed out so many treats that I feel like a human kibble Pez dispenser with a very sore lower back.

The hardest thing I’ve had to learn, though, is to listen to my dog rather than ill-informed human know-it-alls. Since he is small, I have had to figure out what his body language looks like from overhead, feel it from his movements on the leash, or infer it from the reactions of other dogs we encounter on our walks. I’ve put a yellow ribbon on Fuff’s leash, but most people don’t recognize it as a “Keep Away” sign, so I have had to experiment with pithy ways to ask people to let us keep our distance and come up with quick exit strategies when they ignore my requests. Owners have told me everything is okey dokey because both dogs’ tails are wagging, or that I should push my dog’s chest because his ears are forward and it means he’s aggressive, or that it’s fine for a dog to run off leash on a city sidewalk as long as he’s good with other dogs.

Most obnoxious, though, is when they tell me to do what Cesar says. All the Dog Whisperer videos were checked out from the library, so I borrowed one of his books, Cesar’s Rules: Your Way to Train a Well-Behaved Dog. While I’m sure the book was ghostwritten beyond belief, its tone suggests a more contemplative Millan than what’s evident from his show, and several sections seem very self-conscious about the criticism his methods have received. Organized around meetings with a variety of trainers explaining and demonstrating their techniques, the book serves as a fairly balanced introduction to competing theories about dog training, with Millan taking care to point out where his own methods diverge, but praising the strengths of each approach.

The book gave me an eclectic mix of ideas to try with Fuff, from figuring out what your dog likes to do and using it as a reward to teaching each command’s opposite (for instance teaching “stand” with “sit”). It clearly explained different types of conditioning and how to use them on their dog, and since by then I had started Basic Manners at a positive training school, the book encouraged me to experiment with different reward-based methods to see what worked best for my own dog.

Tomorrow, Kerfuffle and I finish Basic Manners, and the tentative dog I brought home has become a waggy, playful, cuddly, laundry-stealing goofball who only rolls over when he snuggles and who now knows how to watch, target, sit, come, lie down, wait, stay, drop a toy, walk on a loose leash, and dance on his hind legs. He also tends to be anxious in new situations and is going through a phase of reactivity to other dogs, but the combination of classes, practice, Pez dispensing and careful attention are making a huge difference in his comfort level and behavior.

Not long ago, Your Dog’s Friend (where I’ve been taking Kerfuffle for classes) offered a free workshop on dog body language. At the end of the workshop, the trainer showed a few video clips from The Dog Whisperer. I don’t know if the videos were representative of every session with Cesar, but the dogs all showed the obvious signs of fear and confusion I’d seen in Kerfuffle during my (luckily) abortive attempts at dog whispering. By the most recent time a sidewalk blowhard instructed me to hail Cesar, I knew enough to say confidently, “That’s not the model of training I’m following.”

Even so, I think Millan is absolutely correct that owners must also be pack leaders – but in the past couple of months I’ve learned that means being able to ignore the gusts of hot air coming from everyone with vocal cords and a television.

As for that crush? Let’s just say it has gone the way of shock collars and choke chains.

The Teacher’s Pet

After about twenty years of thinking about it and ten years of talking about it, I finally adopted a dog from Washington Animal Rescue League, which looks and acts like a different species than a typical animal shelter. Because I’ve had cats for my entire adulthood, people’s reactions have ranged from outrage (“But I thought you were a cat person!”) to misty idealism (“Having a dog will completely change your life”) to tears (mine, anyway).

As I said many times before I ever adopted a dog, I am an animal person who (up until now) has had a cat lifestyle. Every creature with four legs and fur has been at risk of adoption since the day I was born. My life has definitely changed, but not in the unconditional-love-at-last sense, since the five different cats I’ve had in my lifetime have all done their solicitous best to defy every myth of feline independence.

For some reason, people also feel compelled to give commentary on my dog’s name, Kerfuffle. About a third of the people who hear it think it’s the best name ever, a third have no idea what “Kerfuffle” means and say something along the lines of, “That’s a mouthful!” and the rest suggest that the name has too many syllables. “Cockapoo” also has three syllables, so I’m not sure what the problem is. Secretly, I call him Kerfuffle Cappuccino, Kerfuffle Puffle, Kerfuffleupagus, or often, just “Fuff.”

People also feel compelled to opine on Kerfuffle or me, either directly or obliquely. One elderly walker of two chubby Shih Tzu mixes told him sternly and insistently, “Your tail should be wagging!” When I tried to quiet Kerfuffle when we were at the dog park with dogs five times his size, another owner said, “Oh, let him bark!” I’ve noticed, though, that nothing breaks up a conversation like a barking dog. Some of the advice, like other owners’ informal reviews of dogwalkers and doggie daycares and groomers, is welcome and useful. Most of the owners are responsible and loving towards their dogs. One of my favorite dogs in the neighborhood, though, scared Kerfuffle with a rough invitation to play, and other large dog owners seem mystified that Kerfuffle might feel a little hesitant around the gigantic Cerberuses strutting through the streets.

It’s not at all that I don’t need advice, since my transition to dog owner – while far from tempestuous – has not been entirely smooth. Kerfuffle arrived with an ear infection, a cold that needed antibiotics a few days after he came home, separation anxiety, and a predilection for stealing cat toys and eating paper products. One of the first things he ate was a rough draft of a story, and it occurred to me that being an English professor and writer with a paper-eating dog might eventually pose some problems. Next, he started what I learned was “resource guarding” (a common issue in which dogs defend their food and toys), snapped at the vet when she tried to look inside his ears, began barking at new people in the building hallways, chased my cats, refereed their tumbling play with more barking, and developed a habit of barking at a certain corner in the neighborhood where dogs and owners tend to congregate. At times I feel like I have a misbehaving toddler at the end of the leash!

You would think that someone who can teach students to write 10-page essays or love Hamlet would be able to train a 17-pound cockapoo. I grew up around family dogs, rode and helped out with horses, and managed to teach my cats some house rules. Kerfuffle, for his part, seems sweet-natured and eager to please, and I’m fairly sure that someone put a lot of effort into training him, based on his generally excellent leash manners and apparent prior knowledge of “Stay.” A couple of years ago, I read David Wroblewski’s novel, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, and was absolutely captivated (among other things) by the information on dog training and psychology embedded in the book. I was determined to have a happy, well-behaved dog, I felt able to be clear and consistent, and I understood that most dogs feel most secure when their owners provide them with a sense of purpose.

Yeah, right. Can you hear Anubis snorting at me from where you’re sitting? There is something uniquely humbling about having the best of intentions and yet still managing to confuse a generally willing, intelligent dog. So far, Kerfuffle has learned (or maybe relearned) to sit, sit-stay, stop at street corners instead of rushing out into traffic, not jump on me or the furniture (I would love to have him up there, but aboveground is cat country), not chase the cats, release his toys, quit begging for human food, and start walking on the leash when I say “Let’s go.” From Kerfuffle and the many people I have consulted about Kerfuffle, I have learned that I am not quick or gushy enough with praise, that forgetting to pick up a dog dish when you have cats is just asking for trouble, that raw honey is a good treatment for itchy skin (I haven’t tried that one yet), that walking a couple of hours a day is good for both dogs and humans, that I’m not as consistent as I think I am, that to teach a dog to stop barking you should first teach him “Speak,” and that training with positive reinforcement requires my constant, focused attention.

Back to school, indeed.

Pass on the Robo-Pet…and Hold the Animals

In a gorgeous scene early in Marilynne Robinson’s novel, Gilead, children bring a litter of kittens to a river and baptize some of them before an adult stops them. The kittens all find homes, but nobody remembers which were baptized. The narrator, a minister, always wonders whether there is any theological difference between the baptized and non-baptized kittens. I don’t find this dilemma troubling at all, since I have never for a moment doubted that animals have souls.

My fifth-grade teacher, who was also a former minister (and, as far as I’m concerned, a saint as well), tried unsuccessfully to convince me otherwise. He’d filled his classroom with assorted fauna – rats, tarantulas, gopher snakes, chicks, lizards, crawfish – and allowed us to hold them during lessons. I was nonchalant about snakes, couldn’t bring myself to hold a tarantula, and fell in love with the rats, especially after reading Robert C. O’Brien’s classic, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH.

Trying to turn me into a good scientist, he showed me several science books that presented as fact that one of the factors that distinguishes humans from animals is the capacity to feel emotion. He taught me a word that felt clunky and collegiate on my tongue: anthropomorphize, the tendency of humans to attribute human qualities to animals and other things that are not human.

His contention that the rats had no personalities and no emotions was the one thing he ever told me that I didn’t believe. Research since then has suggested that I was right that the divide scientists then drew between humans and animals was artificial and anthropocentric. One of the experts on animal emotion, Jaak Panksepp, a professor and researcher at Washington State University, says “people don’t have a monopoly on emotion; rather, despair, joy and love are ancient, elemental responses that have helped all sorts of creatures survive and thrive in the natural world.”

The human tendency to anthropomorphize inanimate objects, however, is also well documented. In a famous 1960s experiment I studied in college, students confided in a computer program, ELIZA, that spat out responses based on Rogerian therapy. Many participants mistook ELIZA for a human and grew emotionally attached to “her.” More recently, a New York Times editorial by branding consultant Martin Lindstrom – contended (controversially and possibly falsely) that brain scans revealed that “the subjects’ brains responded to the sound of their phones as they would respond to the presence or proximity of a girlfriend, boyfriend or family member…they loved their iPhones.

The implication here is something like, “Humans anthropomorphize both objects and animals; objects don’t have emotions; therefore it is likely that animals don’t have emotions either.”

For those of us who spend time around them, though, it seems glaringly obvious that animals have an emotional life. Pets clearly show jealousy, anger, affection, and joy; and when their owners feel strong emotions, they rarely fail to appear with a cold nose, a warm tongue, or a snuggle. Our pets declare their personalities and desires as plainly as any child, and they share the child’s impulse to touch and give comfort in the face of human emotions they don’t understand. Researchers point out that only humans have the ability to think about their own emotions…at least as far as they know.

And then there’s Amy Hempel’s story, “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried,” about a woman’s failure to acknowledge her best friend’s terminal illness, which ends with this devastating passage about a real-life chimpanzee who has been taught sign language:

I think of the chimp, the one with the talking hands.

In the course of the experiment, that chimp had a baby. Imagine how her trainers must have thrilled when the mother, without prompting, began to sign to her newborn.

Baby, drink milk.

Baby, play ball.

And when the baby died, the mother stood over the body, her wrinkled hands moving with animal grace, forming again and again the words: Baby, come hug, Baby, come hug, fluent now in the language of grief.

I have never been able to read this story – or, I have just discovered, write about it – without crying.

So, when I read Clay Risen’s brief article in the New York Times Magazine, citing “Robo-Petting” as an innovation we can anticipate in the next four years or so, I couldn’t help thinking that the idea was not just disgusting but a poor approximation of the love of a good animal:

Petting a living animal has long been known to lower blood pressure and release a flood of mood-lifting endorphins. But for various reasons — you’re at work, or you’re in a hospital, or your spouse is allergic to dogs — you can’t always have a pet around to improve your mental health. So researchers at the University of British Columbia have created something called “smart fur.” It’s weird-looking (essentially just a few inches of faux fur) but its sensors allow it to mimic the reaction of a live animal whether you give it a nervous scratch or a slow, calm rub. Creepy? Yes. But effective.

Right. I prefer my “smart fur” on a live animal, thank you very much…and I would be willing to bet that animals do, too.