"A dog is just a dog until you are facing him. Then he is Mr. Dog." - Haitian saying.
One winter, as my studio in L.A. was being earthquake-proofed, my two dogs Peggy and Crystal and I were invited to live in a small trailer at the 29 Palms Inn in the high California desert. We were nestled in between some palm trees next to an oasis with a spectacular view of the desert hills. The owners of the Inn owned an old hound, Rex, who had run of the property but slept outdoors. The desert winters are cold and hounds are short coated so I went to the thrift store and bought an old sleeping bag. Every night as the sun went down, Rex would show up and I would bundle him up outside my trailer door and he would go to sleep. In the middle of the night when he ran off to bark at something, I would open the door to the clear winter air and star-filled skies and wait for him to rush back so I could bundle him up again.
One night my dog Crystal was anxious for me to let her sit outside with Rex so I made room for her next to him, leashed her, covered them both up and went inside the trailer. Later that evening I opened the door to check on things and saw a simple image that opened my heart and mind to a truth about animals. As they lay next to each other, facing the desert, Crystal had put her paw over Rex's while they gazed out into the dark desert landscape. Two friends, touching for comfort, listening for danger and I like to think, peacefully enjoying the view.
I realized that in the moments we witness animals acting in ways we have identified as "human" -- reaching out for an affectionate touch, trusting, mistrusting, expressing jealousy, being playful, happy to see us arrive, sad to see us go and many other similar emotional behaviours -- we are witnessing emotions that belong to the animal kingdom.
There are 15,000 identified species of mammals which include us, the human species. Chimpanzees share 95 per cent of our genetic material. While we have tried to separate ourselves from our animal brothers and sisters believing we have dominion over them, in truth we share many qualities -- a capacity for affectionate attachment being one of them. Recognition of this is what has fuelled the animal rights movement.
One of the best things about the internet has been the explosion of evidence of friendships and altruism in the animal kingdom often between animals of different species.
In Chile a dog pulls an injured dog on the highway out of harms way.
A dog rescues kittens abandoned by a road.
A tortoise adopts a baby hippo orphaned by the tsunami.
Two men rescued a lion cub from a department store sale, raised him until he was a year old and then introduced him to the wild. A year later they back to the spot they left him at and called out. The lion, fully grown, came out of the jungle and leaped into their arms with joy and then introduced his wild female companion.
An elephant whisperer is credited with saving the lives of a herd of wild elephants intent on breaking down fencing designed to keep them away from the villages. Through bonding and communicating he convinces them to stop. When he dies, two herds he previously bonded with, travel 12 miles through the jungle, both arriving at his home within two days of each other.
"A good man died suddenly," says Rabbi Leila Gal Berner, Ph.D., "and from miles and miles away, two herds of elephants, sensing that they had lost a beloved human friend, moved in a solemn, almost 'funereal' procession to make a call on the bereaved family at the deceased man's home."
If you are an animal lover and heading into your senior years chances are you have said goodbye to more than a few pet companions. One dog died in my arms from cancer, another from old age, one was killed by another dog and one died while I was on vacation. My grief for each one was no less than the grief I've felt for the passing of a beloved human. I have heard people say they grieved more for their pet than any human.
Mammals form bonds. A more pragmatic person might say this is simply because there is safety in numbers. But our animal companions connect us with something that lies in the heart of the natural world; innocence, authenticity, freely given affection and unadulterated expressions of joy, qualities that have been grossly undervalued in our over civilized world and allowed only in our relationship with children...and pets. I believe that along with the personality of our animal companion, it is the sudden loss of these qualities when our pet dies that we grieve and why, despite the pain of the loss, we eventually become willing to bring another into our lives.
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