Tuesday, November 01, 2005

On the Nobility of Dogs

This is a guest post by my friend Patrick Porter of Massachusetts, botanist, flower grower, pigon fancier, hunter, and dog man. And did I say writer?

It was an answer to a controversy but I think it stands alone:

My credentials for this discussion are spotty. I am a botanist, not an animal behaviorist, but I remember what I've seen. Some of the memories are painful. You are abstract, unknown individuals that enter my virtual workstation. Therefore, I'll unload on you as a friend would.

I ran away from home at age thirteen. My parents had created an unworkable family life based on their mutual hatred for each other and their adulterous relationships. Screaming and physical violence were their tools. My father left us one day and the next week my little pigeon coop was bulldozed by mother's "boyfriend". My birds were still in the coop. They were crushed alive. It was the one hobby I shared with my dad, and she was venomous about the pigeons. Months later, I came home and my Old English Sheepdog (Mary Alice) was missing. She had been driven off into the countryside sometime in May and dumped. I searched on my bicycle for weeks, begging my mother for the approximate location. Mary Alice had severe hip dysplasia and couldn't walk very well. I am still looking for her, thirty five years later.

I left home on July 1st, my birthday. I drove my bike to Acushnet, Mass. without my younger brothers and sister. There was a family there I had visited before, and they lived in a trailer along the power lines that supply New Bedford with electricity. I pedalled to their door and stayed for six years. The woman of the house was a social worker and the husband was a laid-off engineer for Digital. Times were tough then (early 70's) and they had decided to homestead. After the initial unpleasantness of my relocation (heated pitched fights and drunk parents showing up in tears), the lady in the trailer exerted her power from the state and claimed me. It was a done deal and my folks regretted it for their whole lives (they divorced).

We kept livestock and practiced French intensive gardening. All our vegetable crops were eaten fresh and the surplus was canned. I fell in love with the life and eventually their daughter. That's another story, however. Regardless, I still have dreams about all the beans, potatoes, corn, beets, carrots, Swiss chard, turnips and onions that we preserved. Never hungry again. The full Mason jars were lined up on every perpendicular surface inside the trailer. To this day, that sort of providence still comforts me. Our Vermont Castings woodstove sucked air like a freight train as the evening's stew simmered on the stove. We watched "Crockett's Victory Garden" more than the daily news.

I took over the animal husbandry. This generous family had acquired goats (Toggenburgs and French Alpines), chickens (Buff Orpingtons and Rhode Island Reds), pigs (Durocs and Yorkshires), and assorted geese and turkeys. There were two Leopard Appaloosas in the pole barn. The horses had saddles but mainly skidded logs out of the woods. First they pulled the firewood and then they hauled pines for the log house we finally built. We did all the work ourselves.

My job was to feed the animals and clean their living quarters. I experimented with free ranging all of them. The pigs were fairly tame but unpredictable. They honestly lived for food. I grained them in their corral but hand fed them corn cobs and old vegetables. Dead poultry and entrails from other species were a treat. They sucked it all up. Never ever did I trust them. They would consume your fallen body in a moment, and I know that a "tusker" would sever a femoral artery and dispatch a hunter or child if it felt provoked, even if that very child had hand fed it that morning. We killed our pigs with a .22 and a butcher knife used in unison. The carcass was gutted and lowered into an oil drum of scalding water. We scraped off the loosened, heated hair with coffee can lids and old fashioned razors. In truth, their split, hanging bodies rival anything shot in the woods. Pigs are a magnificent trophy roped to a tree. I forgot about their personalities when the first fresh (uncured) ham was put on a plate. Best meat I've ever eaten.

Chickens are easy. I enjoyed ours so much that I showed the roosters at the Topsfield Fair. They are manageable, gentle souls that produce eggs fairly well for two years and then have to be replaced. Even the roosters. I was in charge of collecting eggs and ordering new chicks if warranted. I tried Austrolorps, Buff Orpingtons, Barred Rocks and Rhode Island Reds. The breeds are dependable dual purpose types. In the mail, I'd receive "straight run" sexing, so out of every 50 I had ordered, 25 or so could be butchered after fattening. Older hens wound up in stews, as everyone knows. Our flock numbered about seventy five birds. They were out in the power lines during the day and driven into their coop at night. I studied them quite a bit. They are predatory animals. Anything smaller than a baseballl would be hunted down (singly or in a posse). We lost chicks, goslings, baby rabbits and poults to our egg flock. I've taken whole mice out of their crops. Besides their food potential, they keep compost piles aerated and break up the excrement from other animals. I view them as humus producers. They go hand in hand with good gardening practices. Unfortunately, I could never stake my life on their limited, omnivorous attributes. Old chickens are just that. Perhaps a pet for a child, but nothing more.

The turkeys and geese would wait for me at the base of our driveway. I'd come home from school to their cheering. Of all the poultry, geese are the most loyal and protective. They live long lives and love their human parents. I killed one and saw the emptiness of it's mate, then never touched another. Of course, they are so protective they would think nothing of attacking a dog or human, so I'd have to restrain them behind fences if a guest showed up. The Embdens had blue eyes and the Toulouse were judgmental. How's that for anthropomorphism? Turkeys were far smarter than the literature prescribes. After a few hairy weeks of keeping the poults alive, once the pinfeathers erupted they were like kids at summer camp. No more drownings. They travelled as a wild flock would, into the scrub and pesticide laden power lines, foraging and establishing heirarchies. If a coyote took one, they flew into trees and wouldn't come down for days. In fact, domestic turkeys revert to the wild faster than any animal I've kept, despite their human-selected coloration. They slept on the highest perches in the chicken coop when they decided to come home for the night. Upon slaughter, I'd have to hold the headless body until the wings stopped or the entire carcass would bruise. They died powerfully and I had to be careful for the sake of the meat. I missed them after butchering.

We had goats, as I've mentioned. They were animated and fun, using their collective intellect to breach the limitations placed upon them. Electric fences worked poorly. Unfettered and escaped, they would strip the cambium from our newly cut logs. The garden was fortified against them, but ocassionally they'd find a way in. Long sticks and a can of grain were used to herd them back into their yard. The does were used for milk and we learned to make cheese (an art unto itself). Youngsters were sold off and two or three immature bucks were slaughtered. It was a difficult business because they are so childlike. Once in the crock pot they were simmered with vegetables and made for excellent fare, but the guilt was palpable. I could eat them more easily if I hadn't done the killing. It doesn't surprise me to see them used as pack animals but I can't imagine training them for any sort of disciplined "mission".

During my stay with these people I regained my dignity and found the peace often associated with hard work and responsibility. I also started my lifelong passion for hunting. My first setter, as I've written previously, was a cast off from Connecticut. He was also crippled from a car strike. His left rear foot had been nearly severed and I used all my savings to keep the leg, which never worked properly. It would open up and bleed years after I got him. No matter. He took to instruction and home life with enthusiasm. His loyalty is remembered by others twenty years after his death. Other dogs followed Henry into my life and will continue to do so.

I apologize for the lengthy account, but I have a point to make. Although I loved most of the domesticated farm animals and interacted with them greatly, I never witnessed nobility. My perceptions may be inadequate but they are not prejudiced. I could have dropped dead one day and none of the livestock would have noticed, save for the geese (imprinted). The herd or flock would have eyed my replacement with suspicion, but only until the feed can was rattled. They would not mourn the absence of their caretaker. A dog would. They thrive in the social patterns we humans exhibit. They understand and practice dominance or equality depending on the mood of their master. Sheep, pigeons and chickens may have joined our ancestors when they cultivated their dung heaps for the first time, but dogs had already made a home at the fire. They were our hunting companions long before the first cow was milked. Our journey from hunter-gatherer to early farmer was not alone.

No doubt, dogs were eaten as a matter of survival. Probably puppies first. They were our enemies and rivals once. Something happened 14,000 years ago, namely the ability of both species to coexist and become mutually dependent. Dogs were a tool, just as productive and important as a spear or chiseled rock. They joined the hunt (probably teaching early man a method or two), guarded the encampment and began hauling sleds. While our species marched to world domination, dogs ceased being beasts and became eyes for the blind, ears for the deaf, retrievers, protectors, lookouts, rescuers, specialized hunters and, ultimately, family. Curiously, it wasn't hard to do. They are genetically pliable and intuitive. They also have a sense of pride. I've never seen a goat or chicken dance around after a successful task. Dogs will.

If my neighbor called my dog he would not go. If my dog and I were starving and the neighbor put out a bowl of food, he would not go without me. A fire, a flood, a battle could all be raging, and the dog would accompany me towards it. That is nobility. If you knocked on my door he would bark. If you kicked it in he would attack. That is intelligence. For nothing more than the price of friendship. No pig has ever offered that much.

Sometimes I worry about the state of our country and planet. If doom and anarchy become more prevalent, I may have to take to the hills. I'll have my family in one hand and a leash in the other. The pigeon crate will have to stay behind.


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