2012-01-26 Service

31 01 2012
Small Dog in the World
by Joan Ixito

“The lower animals are our brethren. I include among them the lion and the tiger. We do not know how to live with these carnivorous beasts and poisonous reptiles because of our ignorance. When man learns better, he will learn to befriend even these. Today he does not even know how to befriend a man of a different religion or from a different country.”

– Mahatma Gandhi

In 2003, I was living on my own for the first time. I had just been divorced, and was trying to cope with the new normal. Everything was different. I had to re-establish the little daily rituals that make up the rhythm of our lives.

In addition to the problems related to this change, I was also very lonely. When I’m lonely, I look to animals for companionship. I just find them trustworthy.

One of the reasons for the divorce was my husband’s abuse of animals.  He’d mistreat them as a surrogate for me. This lead to the death of a cherished cockatiel, and I suspect one of our cats died at his hands as well.

Anyway, with this history I thought it would be fitting that I should adopt a special needs dog, an animal which had even greater need of protection than the normal sort. This would be the first dog I had ever chosen for myself and I wanted that choice to reflect my ethics.

After searching on the Internet I found a small Lhasapoo dog at my local SPCA. The listing said that he had mobility problems. The caretakers there told me his story; he was found in a town near where I live now. A woman had found him in the road. He’d been hit by a car and couldn’t walk, so she called animal control. Animal Control drove him to a nearby vet, where he received an operation and was allowed to recuperate. When he was well enough he was taken to the animal shelter and put up for adoption.

As the result of the car accident (and other health issues that wouldn’t yet become evident), he wasn’t able to walk. His back legs were utterly useless, and he could only get around by dragging himself forward.

When I saw him for the first time, he was laying in a 9” x 13” baking pan lined with towels. He couldn’t get up or move away. All he could do was lie in the pan and shiver in fear at being in such a strange place, surrounded by unseen barking dogs and unable to do anything about it.

He was a tiny thing, no more than 10-lbs, with filthy white (ish) curly fur within which he hosted a thriving metropolis of fleas and ticks. The long hair that would have hung over his eyes was held up with a little girl’s pink plastic barrette.

I asked to be allowed inside the cage with him.  Once inside, I sat down on the cold cement and picked him up. His body went rigid and he raised his eyes up, not to look at me but to look at the ceiling. He refused to look at me and was doing his level best to ignore me. He was shivering even more than before. He was terrified!

I spoke to him, telling him he had no need to be afraid of me. I told him I would also be afraid if I were in his situation. After a few moments, his body relaxed and he lowered his gaze, turning to look at my face and give me a big slurpy kiss. That was it! I decided to adopt him and put in my paperwork.

I also asked a friend at work who is a veterinarian about caring for such an animal. It could be daunting if he was a big dog, but he was a pocket pooch. That made it easier.

I contacted a woman on the web who designed and sold carts for disabled pets. She gave me a lot of information and offered to donate one if I needed it.

No one else was crazy enough to adopt a paraplegic dog so the adoption process was very quick. As soon as he was handed over to me, he changed from being a terrified waif to being ebullient and happy. His legs might be disabled, but his tail was certainly healthy enough! I took him to the car, expecting him to sit quietly in the front passenger’s seat, but he had other ideas. Although his back legs were useless, he managed to pull himself along on his front two legs and worked his way into my lap as I drove.

At home, he followed me everywhere! Eventually, he began to wear away the fur from his back legs so I bought him a pair of booties.I carried him absolutely everywhere and he enjoyed sitting bolt upright in my arms, like a small child. We’d go to flea markets and yard sales, or the rare store that would allow me to carry him inside.He’d sit that way in my arms, relishing the vantage point and looking at everyone. This little show really impressed people, some of whom asked to buy him from me.

After a few months of this, he tried to walk on all four legs: he would fall down and then try again. In time though, he was actually able to walk, even to run, though he was never as strong as other dogs. Once he was strong enough, my younger son taught him to use the stairs.  I swear, each time he successfully navigates them, he beams with self-satisfaction.

The thing is, he never really cared if he could walk or not. Of course he preferred to walk, but this didn’t determine his mood. He was happy when he was paralyzed and he was happy when he could walk.  What else could I name him, but Happy!

As long as he was loved he didn’t mind if he spent his whole life wearing little boots and being carried around (as long as it isn’t to the bathtub). I often channel his imaginary voice, a habit that used to enchant but now embarrasses my sons. In Happy’s voice, he is, “a small dog in the woi-ld today”. Small, but bursting with the kind of traits we humans admire most (loyalty, acceptance, playfulness, patience, love), and able to teach important lessons to more “intelligent” creatures.

While I was helping him heal, he was helping me heal. We were both wounded in different ways, but his courage showed me how to overcome my own problems. It just makes me wonder what other things one can learn from animals. Surely, young children can learn responsibility from caring for another animal, but this is a lesson taught by parents or by the guilt that arises when the child realizes that the pet has died because it was never given food or water. My question pertains, rather, to what the animal may teach us.

This evening, in this sacred space, we will embrace animals, or at least the thought of and our experiences with them.

Our 7th UU Principle – Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part – comes alive when we encounter another creature, especially one that has an eye that might catch ours.

Loren Eiseley challenges us by suggesting that “One does not meet oneself until one catches the reflection from an eye other than human.”

Are the eyes of animals also “mirrors to their souls,” as it is said of human eyes? I don’t know if animals have souls – I don’t even know if humans have souls – but I do know that relationships between species can be transformative.

I call us to worship with awareness that our planet teems with life other than human; it is a big part of the beauty and energy of our world.

With each passing year, the continuation of certain human habits does not bode well for wild creatures, especially the larger ones. The natural balance is shifting as the animal world is changed by the sheer magnitude of our human presence, let alone our destructive behaviors.

So I, for one, try to think and care about and respect wild creatures, even if I don’t encounter them very often.

The natural, interconnected world of nature and animals can teach respect in a variety of ways, ranging from transformative personal encounter to deep realization how certain human actions can lead to unexpected results, often not for the best.

The interdependent web can be relentlessly honest, as unfortunate consequences often tell us over and over again. But do we ever learn anything? That’s the question before us.

A powerful testimonial about our interconnectedness with animals and the natural world comes from one of the early pioneers of the ecological awareness movement, Aldo Leopold, as found in his book, “A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There.”

He is generally credited with the first use of a phrase that has become something of a mantra for ecologists, which is also the title of this short statement, reflecting on a formative experience of his in the American Southwest.

Here, then, is… Thinking Like a Mountain, by Aldo Leopold [edited slightly]

A deep chesty bawl echoes from rimrock to rimrock, rolls down the mountain, and fades into the far blackness of the night. It is an outburst of wild defiant sorrow, and of contempt for all the adversities of the world. Every living thing (and perhaps many a dead one as well) pays heed to that call.

To the deer it is a reminder of the way of all flesh, to the pine a forecast of midnight scuffles and of blood upon the snow, to the coyote a promise of gleanings to come, to the [rancher] a threat of red ink at the bank, to the hunter a challenge of fang against bullet.

Yet behind these obvious and immediate hopes and fears there lies a deeper meaning, known only to the mountain itself. Only the mountain has lived long enough to listen objectively to the howl of a wolf…

My own conviction on this score dates from the day I saw a wolf die. We were eating lunch on a high rimrock, at the foot of which a turbulent river elbowed its way. We saw what we thought was a doe fording the torrent, her breast awash in white water.

When she climbed the bank toward us and shook out her tail, we realized our error: it was a wolf. A half-dozen others, evidently grown pups, sprang from the willows and all joined in a welcoming melee of wagging tails and playful maulings.

What was literally a pile of wolves writhed and tumbled in the center of an open flat at the foot of our rimrock.

In those days we had never heard of passing up a chance to kill a wolf. In a second we were pumping lead into the pack, but with more excitement than accuracy: how to aim a steep downhill shot is always confusing.

When our rifles were empty, the old wolf was down, and a pup was dragging a leg into impassable slide-rocks.

We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes.
I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes—something known only to her and to the mountain. I was young then, and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters’ paradise.

But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.

Since then I have lived to see state after state [eliminate] its wolves. I have watched the face of many a newly wolfless mountain, and seen the south-facing slopes wrinkle with a maze of new deer trails.

I have seen every edible bush and seedling browsed, first to anemic [disuse], and then to death. I have seen every edible tree defoliated to the height of a saddlehorn… I now suspect that just as a deer herd lives in mortal fear of its wolves, so does a mountain live in mortal fear of its deer.

And perhaps with better cause, for while a buck pulled down by wolves can be replaced in two or three years, a range pulled down by too many deer may fail of replacement in as many decades.

So also with cows. The [rancher] who cleans his range of wolves does not realize that he is taking over the wolf’s job of trimming the herd to fit the range. He has not learned to think like a mountain. Hence we have dustbowls, and rivers washing the future into the sea.

We all strive for safety, prosperity, comfort, long life, and dullness. The deer strives with his supple legs, the [rancher] with trap and poison, the statesman with pen, the most of us with machines, votes, and dollars, but it all comes to the same thing: peace in our time.

A measure of success in this is all well enough, and perhaps is a requisite to objective thinking, but too much safety seems to yield only danger in the long run.

Perhaps this is behind Thoreau’s dictum: In wildness is the salvation of the world. Perhaps this is the hidden meaning in the howl of the wolf, long known among mountains, but seldom perceived among [people].

Animal howls and animal eyes can pierce our superficial human exterior and reach powerfully within, dredging up shards of a deeper identity, intimations of a common planetary path. So much of our living is insulated from truly wild creatures, other than, say, birds and rodents and insects, that I suspect some of us may go years without having an face-to-face encounter with another life form in the earthy wild.

But even domesticated animals can provide a glimpse into this realm. I’ve had curious eyeball encounters with dogs and cats, zoo residents, cattle. Do you realize how big a cow’s eye is? Check it out sometime.

Loren Eiseley, in his quote, does not specify that it must be a wild eye in which we might catch our reflection; merely a non-human one.

A few years ago I was visiting a relative who had quite a menagerie of creatures, including a few working llamas. I was invited into their pen and it wasn’t long before I felt a large presence just behind me.

I turned around to find myself smack nose-to-nose, eyeball-to-eyeball with a llama whose head was at my level, barely inches away. I’m not accustomed to standing next to animals that are as tall as I am. And this one was right in my face, perfectly still, just silently staring at me. I was rather frozen, unsure if I was in any danger. Then, from nearby, my relative casually told me to “Exhale on him,” which was rather easy because I was certainly holding my breath. After I exhaled, he was satisfied, I guess, and wandered away. Evidently that’s just how llamas check you out, by your breath.

I wish I could say I was studying this big fellow’s eyes for clues to our connectedness, but alas, I was merely stunned and hoping to escape in one piece. Nevertheless, it was a moment I won’t forget, to be sure.

Did I see my true self reflected in his intense llama eyes? Well, I did see a bit of my life flash before me (before I exhaled).

What does Eiseley mean, to meet oneself by catching one’s reflection in an eye other than human, especially if it’s a wild eye? I think it’s about expanding our personal, ego-laden identity—beyond this bag of bones that we might believe is all we are.

By intentionally looking for a personal reflection in the eye of another creature, our sense of self is expanded, and maybe we more fully comprehend—maybe we feel, even—how we are interconnected with other life forms, other critters, even the wild ones who seem so set apart from us, so separate.

The challenge before us is to know that such separation is an illusion. Our planetary oneness may not be obvious to our untrained eye, but I believe it’s possible to know something of oneness if we bring the intention to do so with us into encounters.

But this is a difficult task, not something we are taught. I was unprepared when the llama came nose-to-nose with me.

I hope I’m increasingly less unprepared, at least. For me, this is a spiritual quest; to gain greater awareness of the mutuality I share with, say, animals—but to do so without anthropomorphizing them.

Most of us grow up on cartoons that incessantly give human characteristics to animals, even FISH. So it’s no wonder that our default position is to install human personalities and motives in the creatures we encounter.

A recent novel that articulates and demonstrates a depth understanding of animals without sentimentalism, is Life of Pi, early in which the author, Yann Martel, expresses a balanced attitude with this observation, from an encounter he had on a study expedition in South America: The three-toed sloth lives a peaceful, vegetarian life in perfect harmony with its environment. “A good-natured smile is forever on its lips,” reported [one researcher]. I have seen that smile with my own eyes.

I am not one given to projecting human traits and emotions onto animals, but many a time during that month in Brazil, looking up at sloths in repose, I felt I was in the presence of upside-down yogis deep in meditation or hermits deep in prayer, wise beings whose intense imaginative lives were beyond the reach of my scientific probing.

Later, and mostly, Life of Pi is about a fantastic voyage across the Pacific by two shipwrecked creatures on a lifeboat/raft together: a teenage boy and a Bengal tiger from his father’s zoo. Such a curious shared journey comes about because the cargo ship carrying the boy’s family and many of the zoo residents from India to North America sinks and only the teen and tiger survive…together…alone…on the ocean…for seven months.

The bulk of the book is a compelling, if still fictional, account of this way-more-intimate-than-usual relationship between boy and Bengal, and it generally avoids the pitfalls of anthropomorphizing the tiger. For instance, shortly after they find themselves marooned together, the 450-pound feline sets his sights on the boy, who describes it this way:…when [the tiger’s] amber eyes met mine, the stare was intense, cold and unflinching…and spoke of self-possession on the point of exploding with rage. His ears twitched and then swiveled right around. One of his lips began to rise and fall. The yellow canine [tooth] thus coyly revealed was as long as my longest finger. Every hair on me was standing up, shrieking with fear.

As I read this, I imagined that merely exhaling on the tiger was not going to do the trick, and sure enough, the boy has to use almost every skill he remembered from his experience growing up around a zoo to establish a degree of dominance over the tiger that saved his life, in more ways than one.

It’s a long story, but what may be most pertinent is, again, how important the eyes are. He explains the diligent training necessary to keep the tiger at bay, much of which had to do with providing water and food, just as in the zoo.

But an essential step was also to make loud noises while never breaking eye contact. He calls this “badgering with my eyes (for, of course, with all animals, including us, to stare is an aggressive act)…it was “psychological bullying. And it worked. [After a while, the tiger] never stared back; his gaze always floated in mid-air, neither on me nor off me. It was something I could feel…: mastery in the making.”

This may well not be our goal with wild or semi-wild creatures we meet, unless our survival is at stake, but the book provides a sometimes brutally honest depiction of an extended encounter between human and non-human.

Life of Pi makes for an unusual and illuminating story that carries more than a few bones of believability.

It may feel unusual because anthropomorphizing is so common among us when we think of and behold animals.

That attitude, familiar and tempting and even entertaining as it may be, is about merely projecting ourselves onto another being—not what Eiseley is suggesting, which is to catch one’s own reflection in “an eye other than human.”

I imagine that in such an encounter, the non-human eye doesn’t necessarily change, doesn’t become like us; but it shines back at us a vision of ourselves that is qualitatively different and intriguing.

Such a vision expands who we are, and in the blink of an eye we meet that larger being anew.
Let me tell you two more quick stories of moments that come close to this for me. Both episodes happened on the same trip into the Puget Sound and the San Juan Islands of Washington State during my very first visit up there, in 1982.

I was attending a short summer course called “Whale School” on a post-graduate fellowship.
A small group of us went to classes on marine mammology every morning and every afternoon we sailed on trimarans, looking for and photographing various pods of killer whales—orcas—that populate that gorgeous zone.

Occasionally they would stop and come around our boat, looking at us. I met an orcan eye once and remember my heart almost stopping, this time without any fear at all, just stunned by the encounter.

I did not have language for “the interdependent web of all existence” then, but I certainly felt the interconnection. And from my studies, I knew there was an exceptionally large brain behind that eye. What was going on in there?

I also remember questioning my motives. Was this sentimentalism? Projection? Wishful thinking? No, simply an encounter with a creature that was very different in some ways, not so different in other ways.

In all ways, I was moved to offer respect. I also observed that it was I who had ventured out onto their turf, so to speak, floating in their habitat.

Which brings me to my second story, same expedition. We were camping overnight on one of the San Juan Islands, in the yard of a small, now-mechanized lighthouse. It had been a long day, the sun was almost down, and it was my job to go find some firewood.

So I trucked right off into the nearby woods behind the lighthouse. I was picking up suitable branches in an enclosed clearing when WHOOSH! A giant bird took flight not 20 feet from me.
It was a bald eagle that flew directly over me in the twilight. I cowered as I noticed both the huge wingspan and how loud those avian arms were. I did not get a bird’s eye view, so to speak, but it was nonetheless a stunning visual and aural experience.

Such proximity!—of which I was reminded when I took in another movie this past week, called Winged Migration, a European masterpiece that somehow films birds flying—but at close range from above and next to them. Very amazing and powerful images!

But back to the lighthouse in the San Juans, I returned to the group with some firewood, yes, but mostly very excited, stuttering, and humbled.

What did I really know about the lay of the land and its denizens? Not much. Yet I make assumptions all the time: about my right to wander anywhere, my authority, my safety.
I also realized that I usually don’t have to worry much about encountering wild animals because there are fewer and fewer of them around anymore.

The wild ones who do remain have either retreated farther and farther from human communities or the opposite—they hang around the edges of civilization, usually when desperate for food. But ever since that eagle encounter, I’ve tried to enter wild places a bit more sensitively, more alertly, more respectfully and yes, more eager for further meetings with my greater, expanded self in the form of my fellow earthlings, non-human but related to me, profoundly.

May they find ways to flourish, despite all we do to prevent it. May our consciousness grow to include them as partners on this earthly journey. And may our deepening awareness of the bonds we share with each other and with all life help us to appreciate and protect the forms of life that are indeed very different yet nonetheless inseparable from us.

For the “salvation of the world” may depend on each of us remembering, or locating and understanding the wild parts of our own expanded selves, so that we may better identify with fellow creatures of the earth and then move to give life the shape of justice for all life.