Monday, December 10, 2012

It's a Dog's Life...and a Wolf's, too. Why does it matter?

This post includes two stories of death and one of's a long post, but I hope you'll bear with me. Geotripper is usually about geology and the sciences, but today is a bit of politics, and a story about my animal companion for the last 13 years. It's about a social compact we made with a member of the animal world tens of thousands of years ago.
I was talking in the last post about the evolution of the dogs from the wolves, a process that began within the last 40,000 years when groups of wolves cast their lots with the human species and began developing a social compact with us. That unspoken agreement was that in return for food and care, the wolves/dogs would serve us as guards, herders, and companions (and of course at some times and in some cultures, food). Humans became the pack in which the dogs traveled, and although they would never rise to lead the packs, many dogs at least found life a bit less perilous for the most part.

In the wilds, life is still harsh. Wolves were extirpated from most of their historical range in the lower 48 states many decades ago as ranchers sought to protect their sheep and cattle from predation. They have been reintroduced to the wilderness of Wyoming, Idaho and Montana, and not without controversy. Still, the presence of the wolves has led to a more balanced situation in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem; increased predation of elk has led to a rejuvenation of riparian habitats (less overgrazing), which in turn has led to increased populations of beavers and moose and many other creatures. Even grizzly bears have changed behaviors, increasingly scavenging elk kills.

I read with great sadness that one of the most popular of Yellowstone's wolves was shot outside the park boundary for the sole reason that she stepped over a legal line. She had not killed any livestock. No, she was legally shot so some trophy hunter could have another ghastly animal skeleton in his dead animal display. I hope the man is proud of his manliness, because he is truly a manly man now that he shot an animal from a great distance with a high powered rifle that proved what a man he was. I bet his rifle was really long. Nothing like a fair fight, I guess.

There isn't much else to say, except for the moments of awe that I experienced two summers ago when I finally saw a wild wolf for the first time in my life. It was a privilege to witness such a grand animal in the wilderness. I understand, and can even accept that ranchers have an argument for being able to shoot animals known to be preying on livestock. I cannot condone or even come close to understanding the desire to kill an animal that has done nothing to deserve such a fate. And to the state legislature of Wyoming, which sanctioned these hunts that have killed at least eight Yellowstone wolves, I wonder: What the hell gives you the right?

And that brings me to the other story of death, but it is also a story of salvation...

I said good-bye to Angel, my beautiful Labrador Retriever this week after 13 wonderful years of her being my family's companion. At the beginning of her life she was the victim of an unspeakable crime. When she was a puppy, she was continually chained to a tree. The chain was too small for a full-grown dog, and no one ever loosened it. It literally grew into her neck, covered entirely by skin in places. It was plain that she had been beaten as well.
There is something horribly inhuman about people who would do this sort of thing. This is as bad as child abuse, and I have no doubt that Angels "owner" probably treated his children the same way. In any case, she was removed from this situation, and we were asked to consider taking care of her. I had my doubts (for 10 seconds or so), and we took the family to meet the dog in my friend's garage (Angel was too scared to be with my friend or with the other dogs). Would she be as vicious as those who abused and tortured her? Or could she overcome the terrible circumstances of the beginning of her life?

It took a lot of patience. She cowered from the big bearded guy (me), but eventually came forward and interacted with my two children and with my wife. It was weeks before she started to trust me at all. We loved her from the first, and were heartbroken when she panicked during a thunderstorm and disappeared into the darkness. She had only been with us for two weeks. We drove block after block and couldn't find her anywhere. After two days, she reappeared at our front door, exhausted, muddy, and famished, but she had come home. She cast her lot with us. She turned out to be one of the gentlest animals I've ever known.

I hope we lived up to her trust. I think she had a good life, and she gave us as much love as we gave her. As the years went on, she slowed down, and spent more time curled up in front of the fireplace, often with the cat practically curled in her lap.
A year ago she developed a cancerous tumor the size of a deflated football on her abdomen. We had decisions to make. It's different with humans, isn't it? We can make directives about our end-of-life care and decisions, but all we can do for our animals is think on their behalf. We need to interpret what they are capable of, and what their desires are. Even with the tumor, Angel wanted her walks; she jumped up to greet me at the end of the workday. She still wanted to live. The vet was pretty sure he could get most of the tumor, but he warned us that he was pretty much just buying us all more time to say goodbye, maybe a year at most. It wasn't a hard decision. She had the surgery, and we helped her recover. And she did. For quite a few months, she not only was healed, but she was more active and enthusiastic about things.

The last few months were harder. She went deaf. The walks became shorter, and she had trouble negotiating the steps to the house. We knew her days were approaching an end, but we couldn't see the way it would transpire. In the end, she told us. She simply couldn't get up anymore. I spent a very sad night cradling her head, and we took her to the vet in the morning. There was another big tumor.

I know there is the logic of science, but have to acknowledge the unknown things too, like looking into the eyes of an animal that you have known for thirteen years, and trying to understand what she needs at that moment. I sat with Angel, and realized she was already halfway into the other world. She had trouble seeing me, her head bowed, her breathing labored. She seemed ready to pass on to what was next.

She was laying down, her head in my lap as the vet administered the drug. The pain left her face, and she went to sleep for the last time. I closed her eyes, and she seemed at peace as her life ended. I can only hope so.

I know I am not the only person who has ever lost a dog. There are around 80 million dogs in the United States, and thousands must be saying good-bye every day. But there was a story to tell about Angel's life, and I hope it can lead to other dogs being saved.

Support an organization like LABMED. They gave our friends enough money to pay for the surgery that removed the chain embedded in Angel's neck (Angel's story can be seen here). And if you are looking for a dog, consider a shelter or a stray. There are plenty of dogs who need a loving home, and it is our obligation to an animal that is totally dependent on us. We don't need to support puppy mills and the abusive people who run them in order to have a dog built to our odd specifications. According to the Humane Society, only a fifth of dogs are adopted from shelters. So many dogs (and cats) are needlessly killed every year, while people wait for their specialty puppies. This isn't a just ending for the animals that are our companions, the ones who have given us so much for so many thousands of years.


Unknown said...

A beautiful story, thank you!

Gaelyn said...

It is sad when we loose one of our pets and I'm sorry for your loss. Yet am happy that you could give Angel such a good and loving home for so long. I will never understand why people abuse any animal.

Oki said...

Thank you for this story. You are quite right to remind us of the promise. And it seems, you lived up to it.

lorna falkenstein said...

You are a caring, loving person and thank you for sharing so beautiful a story. We share a common love and promotion of kindness to our four footed friends who we owe so much to. Again, thanks for this very touching and loving story.

Chris Clarke said...

A beautiful story and a beautiful pup. So sorry for your loss, but honestly I'm happy for her gain right now too.

Hank Fox said...

I've lost two of them. I won't try to make this easier for you -- my feeling is that losing a dog should WRECK you; nothing less can properly honor their passing. But there does come a time when the memories are all good ones, and you only smile when you think of her.

Mary said...

Thank you so much for sharing Angel with us. I am so sorry for your loss, and so happy for the life she had with you.

I'm angry about the wolves, too. Trophy hunting is horrible, and these are wolves we've made a promise to, as well.

Unknown said...

So sorry for your loss. Thank you for sharing her with us.