Sungawuni

Adventures of a Crazy Dog Lady


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Fantastical Wolfdog

How to Keep a Human, my first and still most loved book, landed back on my desk with a thump this week. Inside, a handwritten note from the reader who wasn’t. She had tried but found it impossible to focus on what seemed a fantasy, and expressed a dislike for people’s speaking for animals.

Lord Tyee and I share some quality book time.

She might be surprised to know that every one of the five related stories in that book really happened. Notes in the book’s last pages even ask anyone who might have pictures of the high-noon human-and-dogfight in Dawson City to get in touch with me. I assure you that Amaruq and I also really suffered a rodent invasion, spent an October Yukon night outside together, occupied two seats in university classes for a full year (where Amaruq trained a professor or two), and took an anthro course in teepees in the foothills of the Rockies. (Well, okay, I’ll admit to altering that last story a bit: the bear and the elk didn’t actually mix it up with us students, and our real professor was a wonderful, farsighted woman who would never be guilty of cultural misappropriation—but that dogfight, that porcupine hunt, and that attempt to buy Amaruq from me—all were the genuine article.)

I can’t get excited over pure fantasy, either. What inevitably starts a story for me is an event—something that actually happened somewhere on this planet. Once the narrative is rooted in reality, the questions start: what would it be like for this or that participant in the event? It’s just as interesting to imagine what the event would be like for other species as it is to imagine the human elements. It opens the mind and soul to speculate that a wolf might be as lupocentric as we humans are anthropocentric.

My mother read How to Keep a Human and remarked, “You are the best dog I’ve ever read.” Of course, she had known all my wolf dogs over the years in person, including Amaruq—she’d even cooked him Christmas dinner every year—and what she read accorded with what she knew of my “prefurred” companions and shed new light on their inner lives. She meant that the book had made a sincere attempt to get inside the lupo-canine skin and had avoided that heinous sin, anthropomorphism.

Anthropomorphism is usually defined as the attribution of human motivation, characteristics, or behavior to inanimate objects, animals, or natural phenomena. Why is it a sin (especially since it’s so much fun and besides, everybody does it)? Look no further than the Judaeo-Christian roots of our “Western” culture: the only creatures on the planet believed to have souls are…humans! (And not even all of them, history admonishes us—but I digress.) When you attribute human traits to mere animals, are you not implying that the thing might also have a soul? Shame! Only “Man” was created in God’s image.

It’s so nice to be living in a time when we can all agree that this was bunkum, right? Including the Man part. Nowadays we have scientists reporting that mere monkeys display a sense of justice, elephants hold funerals, gorillas tell jokes in sign language, and wolf packs regulate their birth rate in correlation with how hard the next winter will be. It might just be that the only critter on the planet which “doesn’t have the sense God gave a goose” is…Mankind. Heck, we’re still naming our own species with the word for under half of us!

Chris Knight explored the state of the dreadful sin of anthropomorphism recently in a National Post article (April 17, 2017) entitled “A slate of new films are [sic] exploring our paradoxical relationship to animals — particularly donkeys”.

“At the core of humanity’s relationship with the other inhabitants of Earth is a paradox that will never be fully understood. We need animals. They keep the planet alive. They nourish our souls. They sometimes nourish our bodies too. We love them. We abuse them….

“As a species, we drive creatures to extinction and at the same time rush to save them. We strive to turn them into us (think of the animated film Zootopia), and yet we will never bridge the gulf that separates us. Pereira [one of the donkey-film makers] notes philosophically that we may never know what passes through [the donkey] Gorrión’s mind, but we know that when it rains, it rains for the donkey as well as the man.

“But what, precisely, divides humans from animals? Researchers have found that tool use, language, kindness, cruelty, self-awareness, creativity and even a theory of mind all exist in species beyond our own. The Last Animals [film] has one terrifying suggestion, when the meaning behind the title is revealed. Did you think it referred to the dwindling numbers of wild animals? No. If we cannot save the rest of them, the last animals will be us [sic].”

There’s a rash of new books and films channeled from other species lately, and that, I think is hardly an accident as our species moves the planet closer to disaster. Stories have always been the chief human tool for transmitting culture, and it is high time we added fresh perspectives. If anything can move us to exert ourselves to save our pale blue dot, it may just be the stories told through another species’ senses, told as honestly as writers can.

My un-reader won’t like my next book, Hot Dogs, either, in spite of the fact that my current feral friend, Lord Tyee, who is three quarters’ wolf, is proving to be a formidable mystery writer. Like his predecessors, however, he doesn’t type worth a damn. Good thing his Pack Leader is a ten-fingered human.

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How Short It Is!

Lord Tyee curled up in the library.

Two years ago, as I lay, virtually helpless, day after day, in the bed in the library, I would apologize every morning to Lord Tyee. He would come to me for the morning nuzzle and I would wonder if I would ever again be able to climb the stairs to our spacious, comfortable bedroom under the eaves. Too weak even to pull his ears or return his affection except through my voice and eyes, I would pray to survive for at least the rest of his lifetime—because…who the heck would take on a huge, bereaved wolf?

Two years later, my C-Reactive Protein has sunk from 104 to about 6, the red blood counts are all back to normal, the threat of bone or blood cancer has retreated—I’m working on the remaining problems—and Lord Tyee and I are back in our private aerie every night.

He’s not one of those canines who curl up at one’s feet, much less force one to fight for space in the bed. He has a papa-san cushion to himself—sort of a circular mattress five feet in diameter—a little crocheted blanket made for him by an admirer who gravely underestimated his size, and an assortment of beloved stuffies, one of which may spend the night between his paws. From our respective beds, we spend some time looking at each other, sending thoughts and emotions across the small space between us. I try to make my mind as sweet and clean as his.

He loves his bed; not infrequently I catch him splayed out on his back, paws up, or running and growling happily in his REM sleep. Is he in the Dog Park or chasing the kitties and deer I won’t let him chase in our pedestrian days? It’s too endearing for words, when you consider his wild heritage. But then, wolves are all about family and love and play. As Temple Grandin says in her book Animals in Translation, dogs don’t grow up; wolves do. It’s rather sad that this noble being has just one old lady ape in his pack.

My publisher, who is much younger than I, has let me know in no uncertain terms that another Lord Tyee Mystery is wanted, a.s.a.p. And then another one, please. My publisher has a point: large canines don’t last much more than a decade. You wouldn’t know it to see Tyee cavort in the Dog Park, but he turns eight years of age this month. In the nest of his left armpit is lodged an egg-sized lipoma, the kind of thing vets pronounce benign but tell you to keep an eye on.

Life is short. Just when you get to the part where you know how to breathe and really love being alive, things get iffy. There’s no knowing how it all turns out.

One of us will have to do the grieving. Meanwhile, I’ll put on boots, he’ll put on his collar and we’ll go out into the rain to sniff out another secret or two of the wide, wide world.