Nov 21, 2008

A True Story

In the summer of 1980 when I turned 17, I spent some time in Arizona with my uncle Richard. At that time he lived in Christopher Creek in a smallish ranch-style home that you reached at the end of a seven mile long driveway. Yes, you did indeed read that correctly. And it was more than 25 miles to the nearest town, so heaven help you if you forgot something on a grocery shopping trip. Remember the TV show Grizzly Adams and its subsequent TV movies starring Dan Haggerty? Well, they were filmed on my uncle's land up there in the mountains and occasionally the bear who also starred on the show would get loose and be found a bit closer to the house than was comfortable, but that didn't happen while I was there (though it might have made for a bit more fast-paced fun than was normal for a mountain home in the middle of nowhere). No, my uncle's animals were more than capable of endlessly entertaining a bored houseguest all on their own.

There was a small pack of dogs, hounds mostly, though my uncle now swears he never had hounds. This is odd because he had a Borzoi (also known as the Russian Wolfhound) and a beagle or two (also hounds) and a hodge podge group of mixed hound breeds as well, most of them rescues from a local shelter, but hounds nonetheless. The Borzoi was named Crystal and she would smile on request. If you said, "Give us a smile, Crystal" she would slowly curl her long lips back from her endless teeth and grin maniacally at you until you told her she was a good girl. She'd do it all day long if that's what you wanted to see. It was amusing at first, but even as slow and uneventful as an Arizona summer's afternoon in the wilderness can be, and as desperate as an East Coast teenage girl could get for anything to see or do to pass the monotonous time, even Crystal smiling at me lost its cute factor pretty quickly.

My uncle also had a horse named Buck. He'll swear to you that Buck was a normal horse, who behaved like a horse normally would, but that just isn't true. I'm not sure if my uncle's memory is failing as he ages (see above regarding his dogs) or perhaps he's now embarrassed by his past odd animals as my uncle fears anything perceived to be unusual, but Buck was a horse who was anything but normal. He preferred to be indoors with the family.

As I had arrived late in the evening on my first day there, I didn't actually meet Buck until the next morning when I awoke to hot breath and a soft whinnying sound just inches from my face. Ever wake up with a horse bent down low over you watching you while you've slept? It isn't so much the being watched while sleeping that is unnerving; it's the waking up to a large horse head poking you in the nose that'll get your heart to hammering. It's equally startling for quite a few mornings and then just as suddenly you find yourself entirely used to it and wake with a gentle pat offered to that warm nose and a "Good morning, Buck" on your tongue as if you've been waking up with a horse standing over your bed every morning of your life and this is perfectly sane.

I would then get up and shower and head to the kitchen for breakfast only to find Buck, who was a very large horse even when not indoors, in the middle of what was a fairly small room, standing calmly between the table and the only countertop. To get from the refrigerator, stove and counter to the table required ducking down low, breakfast and coffee in hand, and climbing under the horse on one side and out on the other to sit and eat. And then when I was through eating, climbing back under the horse to return my dishes to the sink, with Buck all the while blissfully unaware of just how much space he was taking up in the middle of that little kitchen. And when breakfast was over and I would go outdoors to enjoy nature at possibly its most beautiful and most primitive, I would be followed by the pack of dogs and Buck, who saw absolutely no reason why he shouldn't join the pack as I ambled about the land.

More meals meant more Buck in the kitchen and then come evening, when we'd all go and sit in the living room and watch some TV to unwind, and there would be Buck, standing next to my chair or my uncle's "watching" TV too until we turned out the lights and retired for the night. Come morning it would start all over again with Buck poking me in the face to wake me up.

Buck was a charming horse with a personality that I have never again met in another horse since. He was a rare and gentle spirit who loved his people and wanted to be with them all the time, just as the dogs were allowed. No one ever refused him entry into the house, though there were times when Buck was asked to step outside for a bit, and he'd obediently go, only to return a short while later. Yes, the house had a perpetually barn-like odor to it and no, Buck didn't ever poop in the house. And I know I'm remembering all this correctly, not only because thus far my brain is still functioning fairly normally (knock wood), but also because other family members have corroborated my stories about Buck. So I'm sorry Uncle Richard, I hate to break it to you but this is all true. Every word.

Nov 13, 2008

The Komondor and the Goats

Edison and I stayed up late last night to watch the rebroadcast of a dog show from Houston. Both of us have very particular tastes as far as breeds are concerned, with me cheering on my own personal favorites and Edison doing the same in his own way: play bowing and barking loudly at the TV when they show the dogs he is most partial to, all of them, not surprisingly, toy breeds. He never barks at any other group and even then, only a very select few breeds within the toy group.

Unlike him, though, I enjoy a few of the larger breeds and one I especially like (but would never own because I am far too anal to deal with their coat) is the komondor. I adore them, and to a slightly lesser degree, their smaller cousin, the puli. Both are of Hungarian descent, both are herding dogs and both sport a beautiful dreadlocked coat.

But anyways, I digress. The komondor who won its breed group at this particular show is a multiple Best in Show winner and is currently the number one komondor in the country. His owner/breeder/handler was explaining the difficulty in keeping his coat show ring ready and how she has on more than one occasion accidentally left in a scrunchie or two that were used to keep those amazing cords organized and clean, only to find them while the judge was examining her dog. It was then that the reporter covering the show for this network asked if this specific dog has ever herded anything in his life, given the fact that he is, in fact, a dog whose ancestors were bred to herd. The owner laughed and said, "Never!" Her dog is actually a third generation Best in Show winner with an impeccable pedigree, one in a long line of number one komondors both in this country and abroad and other than the occasional romp in her backyard is one very pampered pooch who has never even seen a sheep or goat. Ever.

So they all piled into an SUV: dog, owner, reporter and camera crew and they drove out to a farm just outside of Houston where they put the komondor into an enclosed grassy paddock with a herd of goats. The dog walked back and forth for a moment studying the goats, spent another few moments checking out the paddock and then walked over to the herd and just stood there for yet another few moments watching them. Then in quick fashion, the dog began to systematically move all the goats into one corner of the enclosure and when he had them in a tight group, circled them once, moved to the outside of the herd and turned his back to them. He then laid down on the grass in front of them watching alertly for anything that might attempt to approach the herd.

It was amazing to watch. A dog that had never even seen a farm animal until moments before had in less than five minutes herded and secured every last animal. That's how strong the instinct to perform a task is still ingrained in certain breeds of dog, however far removed from that activity their everyday lives might be. And that's the beauty of careful and highly selective breeding: no matter how far removed from its intended job a dog has traveled, that instinct is always in there, alive and kicking and ready when needed. How awesome is that?

Nov 5, 2008

They Would Thank You Themselves if They Could

The people of Massachusetts have spoken and thank god greyhound racing has now been banned here. Beginning in January 2010 there will be no more dog racing in this state. And this decision didn't come easily. Even after years of attempts to get this question on the ballot, it remained a struggle right up until the end late last night.

There were three questions on our ballot this election. Question number one was to decide whether to keep the state income tax or remove it. Question number two was whether or not to decriminalize the possession of marijuana and question three was whether or not to ban dog racing in the state. The results of the first two questions were nearly unanimous early in the evening, well before the polls had even closed. The majority of the state voted overwhelmingly in favor of keeping the state income tax as it has always been. Given that our schools here have already been skimmed of everything but the bare essentials and with the threat of losing police and fire personnel as well as so many other vital needs, this question was a no-brainer. Question two was a bit more iffy, but even with a great many conservatives here, still managed to pass with a large majority of the people voting to make it no longer criminal to be found with an ounce or less of marijuana on your person. And this vote too, with its resounding majority voice, was called long before the polls closed.

But question three was so close it could not be safely called until hours after the polls closed last night and all the votes were in. It made me realize once again how little the public at large thinks about animal welfare. The question didn't come down to how many animals were being used and abused and how this must be stopped, but how much revenue and how many jobs would be lost should the dog racing industry be closed forever here. And the fact that the vote was so very close just goes to show how many people could care less how animals are treated. Don't get me wrong, I'm thrilled to be able to say that dog racing is soon to be a thing of the past here and I'm very grateful to everyone who voted with their hearts and not their pockets, but it still might have been nice if it had been as big a slam-dunk as the dope issue.

David says that I'm looking at the world through rose-colored glasses, that the owners of these dog kennels will simply pack up and take their dogs to another state where racing is still legal and as sad as it may be to know this is what will happen, I know he's right. But I also know that I now live in a state that refuses to tolerate the abuse and misuse of such beautiful creatures and I also know that I voted with my heart and my soul and I can sleep well at night knowing that I did the one thing I could do to put a stop where I live to this horrible industry: I cast my vote for the dogs and it was heard.

Nov 1, 2008

My Mother and the Dog Biscuits

The summer before last my mother, Griffin and his then-girlfriend and I spent the afternoon at the MFA checking out a couple of shows that had recently opened. Being the "living on the edge" type of girl that I am, I didn't bother to get gas before we left home in spite of the fact that the tank was on the low side, thus forcing me to find a gas station in the inner city, where there isn't exactly one on every street corner. As such, we ended up in the part of the city that fans out behind Chinatown and bumps up against Back Bay where there are quite a few up-and-coming art galleries, as well as some funky furniture shops specializing in the quirky and the cool.

After we filled the tank, we decided to check out a few of the shops, one of which was a store filled, oddly enough, with both mid-century modern furniture as well as ornate Victorian. It was a hot summer afternoon and like many inner city shops, this one had a big bowl of water outside on the sidewalk to refresh any dogs who were out for a stroll with their owners, as well as a crystal bowl on a little table just inside the door with a little sign with a picture of a dog on it stuck in the dish that said "DOG BISCUITS - HELP YOURSELF." As we walked by the table with the fancy little doggie dish, Griffin said, "Wouldn't it be funny if we could get Grandma to eat a dog biscuit by telling her they're people cookies, compliments of the store?" and while I must confess that in my mind I thought it might be amusing to watch my mom eat a dog biscuit, the mother in me said out loud to my son that it wouldn't be funny at all, especially considering the fact that my mother has a hair trigger gag reflex and I didn't think the shop owner would appreciate having her vomit all over their carpeting when that first bite hit home. After a bit of grumbling from the peanut gallery, we moved on to check out the merchandise with Griffin, his girlfriend and I going in one direction and my mother heading off in another.

Out on the sidewalk afterwards we talked about the usual stuff: what we thought of the store and how hot it was and how ungodly long the walk back to the car seemed in the sweltering heat. And then I noticed my mother snacking on something, which isn't out of the ordinary as she's diabetic and often needs a snack to raise her blood sugar. When Griffin teasingly asked what she was eating and if she had brought enough to share with the rest of the class, my mother said that there was a bowl of little cookies by the door with a sign that they were for the customers to enjoy and if we wanted some we should have gotten our own. We all shouted at her in unison, "Those were dog biscuits!" to which my mother replied that they weren't for dogs, they were clearly regular cookies and that we must have seen a different bowl. Sure enough, upon inspection, they were in fact the same bone-shaped dog biscuits from the crystal dish. My mother stopped chewing and then after a moment's thought shrugged her shoulders, said they tasted good and ate another one. She offered the remaining ones in her hand to anyone who would like to try one, but we all thanked her and politely passed on her offer, so she ate them all herself.

To this day when this story is brought up, she insists that the dog biscuits weren't all bone shaped as that would have been a dead giveaway (I personally would have thought the sign with the picture of the dog and the words "dog biscuits" in the bowl would have been one's first hint as to who the cookies were for) and she also insists that she comes by this honestly as there is a long tradition of family members who have enjoyed eating their pets' food. She mentions my aunt Audrey, her older sister, who as a baby was frequently found on the kitchen floor fighting with the family cat for the poor cat's dinner, right on up to my own son who as a toddler would pick all the fake cheese and colorful bits out of a bowl of 'kibbles n' bits' leaving just the brown less-than-fun stuff for Cordelia to eat. But don't even bother pointing out to her that in each of these tales, the cat or dog food eater in question was still in diapers, had only a rudimentary amount of language skills and hadn't yet developed what could be considered an even remotely discriminating palate because it won't get you anywhere. Trust me. Instead just offer her a dog biscuit, she'll thank you for it later.
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