I am an animal lover. I don’t mean I enjoy animals or find them cute. What I mean is that animals — especially mammals — enchant me. I feel as strong a connection to them as I do to members of my own species. Over the years, I’ve discovered that whether animals can love, grieve or hope is far less important than that they elicit these emotions in us.
My husband, on the other hand, believes an animal’s worth is roughly equivalent to its edibility. If you can carve, slice or boil the beast, then it is generally welcome in our home. If not, then, in my husband’s mind, the being is an evolutionary glitch that serves no purpose except to clutter our planet.
I met my husband, Benjamin, before I met my dogs. Ben’s peaceful ways gave me no reason to think he viewed animals as inferior to humans; he is a kind man, elfin and full of endearing quirks. We married on December 21, 1997, on the winter solstice, the trees jeweled with icicles. Soon after that, I announced that we should get a pet. “What kind?” he asked.
“A monkey,” I said, stirring my coffee, thinking of the rhesus, how it sat hunched on human shoulders.
“An iguana,” he said to me.
“Cold-blooded,” I said. “Who wants cold blood?”
“Monkeys bite,” he said. “They’re not necessarily nice.”
“We could get a dog,” I said.
“Foul hounds,” he said. “Dogs have no dignity.”
“And people?” I said.
“The only animals I want in my home are those that can fit in a soup pot,” my husband said. “A beast must be fit to eat.” He smiled then and took a bite of his cinnamon toast.
I knew he was half joking, but I could also see something wicked in Benjamin’s smile. I could suddenly see that he had a second smile, different from his first, gentle one. This second smile, new to me, had a curve to it like the warning signs you see on mountain roads, when the slope gets suddenly steep.
Later in bed he said, “Let me offer you a few facts,” and from his tone, I could feel that we’d slipped into a new space; without warning, there it was. “Dogs bite millions of people a year, mostly children. They kill a few dozen every year, too. They deposit more than 300 tons of feces on our sidewalks and carry more E. coli on their tongues than an unflushed toilet bowl.” He paused, and the reddish hairs on his arms seemed to glow like iron filings strewn along his skin.
“Dogs are supposed to be protectors,” he continued, “but they’re more likely to bark at the mailman and sleep through a murder; they’re domesticated into dumbness.” (So he despised domestication. Where exactly did that leave us?) “They are,” he said, “a significant biological burden on humankind.”
“What’s up with you?” I said, and I heard a wrong tone creep into my voice. “Were you traumatized by a poodle or what?”
“Yes,” he said. “By a poodle.” Then he smiled at me, the old Benjamin again but not quite.
More than just puppy love
I have always known that my love of animals is extreme, but whether extremely good or extremely bad I can’t tell. And because love tends to override analysis, I didn’t much think about it when, a few days after this conversation, my husband away on a business trip, I brought home not one but two Shiba Inu puppies, a breed known to be smart, agile and slightly aloof, qualities that reminded me of my husband.
“What?” he wanted to know.
“Guess,” I said.
“You got a dog,” he said, without even pausing to think.
“Jesus,” I said. “Musashi and Lila.”
“You named it Musashianlila? Cool,” he said. “Original.”
“Musashi and Lila,” I said.
“Two foul hounds? I knew you’d do something like that.”
“Are you mad?” I asked.
“I am,” he said, “a little.”
“All right. Aside from giving them back, what can I do to make this up to you?”
“You can stop at the next store,” he said.
“Why?” I asked.
“As soon as I buy two soup pots, everything will fall into place.” Then he smiled, and I figured we’d be fine.
‘You’re not their mother’
When we got home, the two precious pooches were at the door, their tiny tails jiggling so hard they looked like they might detach. “Benjamin, meet Musashi,” I said, picking up the larger male and giving Ben his penny-sized paw. Benjamin, good sport that he is (sometimes), shook it and doffed an imaginary hat. “Nice to meet you, sir,” he said. We repeated the ritual with Lila, who, unlike her high-strung brother, is tough and flamboyant, a rock star of the dog world. Lila gave Ben a wet canine kiss that left a glistening trail on his face.
Before the dogs, we’d been a happy couple in a relatively uncomplicated way. It was therefore inevitable that something divisive would enter our lives, because marriage — like physics, literature and dance — is almost always synonymous with complexity. The dogs arrived the winter of our first married year, during a New England freeze so deep the snow was solid enough to stomp on. House-training the puppies required that I rise every three hours and head outside into the pitch-black coldness, parka wrapped around my nightgown, feet shoved sockless into big rubber boots. Midnight, 3 A.M., no one around but me and my pups, their urine steaming small holes through the snow, good boy, good girl. There were visits to the vet, the building of a fence and a miniature dog door. Musashi, we discovered, had an inexplicable fondness for my antidepressants; he cracked the bottles open with his teeth and chomped on pills he seemed to find strangely tasty. It was hard not to think he was purposefully self-medicating, or worse, trying to die. “My dog made his second suicide attempt last night,” I’d say to friends, as a way of explaining my exhaustion. Because there I was rushing Musashi to the hospital at all hours, the trips always accompanied by embarrassing explanations to the vet.
“Of course they’re in a drawer,” I said. “This dog can open drawers,” which was true, but the vet clearly thought I was delusional. I finally solved the problem by hiding my drugs on a shelf so high I now need a ladder to medicate myself.
And in the center of this new world was a little hole, like the ones the dogs left when they peed in the snow, a cold, steamy, smelly little hole in my heart because Benjamin participated in none of this. Once, in a fit of blind maternity, I said to the pups, “Mama’s here,” and my husband looked at me with scorn and horror. “You’re not their mother,” he said.
“I am,” I said. “They’re part of our family, aren’t they?”
“No,” he said. “These dogs are our roommates.”
Spayed and betrayed
In every marriage there are betrayals; the question is how soon they happen, how many and what shape they take. I remember quite clearly the first time I betrayed Benjamin. The puppies were growing, their fluff becoming fur, then, at four months or so, Lila’s urine came out tinged with blood. An infection? No — our vet told me it was time; Lila needed to be spayed. Musashi, who had testicles so tiny one couldn’t really see them, needed to be neutered.
Of course it sounds terrible — spayed — a sharp hoe,shredded earth, and neutered, not as violent sounding but shameful nonetheless. Still, the reason for the procedures far outweighs the recoiling they naturally give rise to. I told Ben. He was eating oatmeal and set down his spoon. Clink. “You’re going to remove Musashi’s testicles?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said.
I could tell by his tone we were in for trouble. “You can’t remove a man’s testicles,” he said.
“Musashi’s not a man,” I said. “He’s a dog.”
“You can’t do that,” Ben said, his eyes alarmed. I could not believe that my husband, for all his professed distance from our dogs, was confusing his testicles with theirs, and I said so.
“I am not confused,” Ben said.
“Seems to me you are,” I said. “You can’t be a responsible pet owner and not neuter your dogs.”
“Remove an animal’s testicles and you cripple it,” he retorted.
“I thought you didn’t care about animals,” I said.
“I don’t,” he said. “I object on theory. You can’t take testicles from a male. I won’t have a neutered male in this house.”
“I see,” I said, my voice icy. “You won’t have a neutered male, but a neutered female is fine. And you say you’re a feminist?”
“I object to the procedure in Lila as well,” he said, clearly backpedaling. More talk followed until at last Benjamin said, “Don’t neuter Musashi. I am asking you not to do it.”
I knew, then, that I was dealing with an irrational man, and worse, it was an irrationality I could never quite forgive him for. What bothered me most was the ease with which my husband accepted Lila’s fate, despite the fact that fixing a female is far more dangerous than fixing a male. But I said I would not fix Musashi. The next day, Lila had surgery, came home in a cage and didn’t move for days. “Lila, Lila,” Benjamin said. He sat by her crate, brought her water in a saucer and pumped her medication into her mouth on a precise schedule, smiling when she took her first timid steps. It is the inconsistencies that make human love so snarled.
For better and for worse
When Lila was well, Benjamin came with me to the woods near our house and gently tied small twigs to the dogs’ heads, turning them into temporary reindeer. We watched as they cantered along, made magic by his hands; these, my husband’s hands. For better and for worse.
And the betrayal? I had Musashi neutered behind Ben’s back, planning my strategy with barely a twinge of guilt. I would wait four months, long enough so that our conversation would be all but forgotten but not so long that the puppy would have developed an observable scrotum. I’d bring the dog to a different vet, one we would never see again. I’d explain to Ben that Musashi had stitches between his legs because he’d gotten a deep scrape at the park. And when Musashi was mature and had no testicles, I decided I would feign concern, claim to take him to the doctor, then announce that he’d been diagnosed with undescended testicles. It all seemed so simple. And, in fact, it was.
Until one summer evening, the dogs lapping their water, Ben knelt to give the unusual but occasional scratch to Musashi’s rump. The dog rolled over, pedaling his paws in the air, a pose Benjamin found especially undignified and from which he usually recoiled. This time, he didn’t. “Hey,” he said.
“Hey what?” I said, although I knew what was coming.
“This dog has no balls,” he said.
“No balls?” I said. “C’mon.”
“Seriously,” he said. “Look here.”
“I see some balls,” I said, pointing to a place where there was a tiny bulge, a quirk the dog had had since infancy.
“You think those are balls?” Ben said. “Are you serious?”
“Well, couldn’t he have, um, high balls?” I gave a laugh.
Ben didn’t say anything, and now there was a ball in my throat; swallowing was suddenly difficult.
“What’s wrong with Musashi?” Ben said. “Could they have neutered him before you bought him?”
“I doubt it,” I said. “I’ll take him to the vet to see.”
Which I didn’t. But three nights later I said, “So I took him to the vet,” and told my story.
“Undescended?” Benjamin said to me.
“Yeah,” I said.
“Musashi,” Ben said. He gave one of his magnificent whistles and the dogs came bounding into the kitchen.
“Hey, friend,” Benjamin said to Musashi, turning the animal over on his back and studying him hard.
“Undescended,” Ben said again, not a question but a statement. He looked from the dog to me and back. Time passed. At last he went, stood by the window. “Hey,” I said, but he either didn’t hear or wouldn’t listen. Then he left the room.
From puppies to parenthood
If it sounds as if our marriage was bad, it wasn’t. Benjamin called me “Pie,” short for sweetie pie. I loved to hear him talk in his sleep, monologues about dolphins and computer code. Two years in, we set about the task of conceiving and soon discovered we were having a girl, which made the prospect of motherhood only marginally more appealing to me. In truth, the baby was largely Ben’s idea. “Look how you care for the dogs,” my friend Elizabeth reassured me. “If you love them so much, you’re obviously capable of deep attachment. You won’t have a problem.”
But I did. It was easy enough to give voice to my ambivalence about having a child; maternal ambivalence is très chic these days. What I didn’t express was my worry that I wouldn’t love the baby as much as I loved my dogs, or that I’d love the baby and the dogs equally. Imagine admitting that!
Yet there are places and times when people loved animals as much as their own children. In the 1800s, Sir Francis Galton wrote of aboriginal Australian women who “habitually feed puppies from their own breasts, and show an affection for them equal to, if not exceeding, that (shown) to their own infants.” In the 1960s, an anthropologist studying the Semang Negrito people of Malaysia wrote of seeing a woman running down the street, a baby at one breast, a monkey at the other.
My own breasts grew large in pregnancy, the nipples swelled and sensitized, huge and indecent. Around month six I had my amnio. All was well, except the baby on the screen did not look human, nor animal nor plant. She came from a category not yet created by Linnaeus, all static and blips.
New member of the pack
I had the baby and, my cesarean section still healing, we brought her home. We arrived to two dogs howling with joy — hello, hello — kisses and slurps all around, ears pressed back in pleasure. The books I’d read emphasized the importance of letting the dogs thoroughly sniff the new family member. I lowered the bundle of baby down. The summer breeze blew in, and the dogs caught a whiff of the strange smell and froze. Their eyes turned canine, carnivore, the little dots of yellow in their irises taking on a wolfish gleam.
“Stop,” said Ben, who claimed he heard a low growl emanating from Lila’s throat. Had I heard it, I would have stopped, of course. I, however, had heard nothing.
“Musashi, Lila,” I sang. Something was amiss, but what? “This is Clara,” I said, and then she was down, this baby so bundled that only the disk of her face was visible, the mini-nose, the eyelids scrawled with whisper-thin capillaries.
Lila stepped forward. Her snout was wet, her black lips seamed shut, but it was her eyes that gave me pause. Slowly, slowly, she lifted one foot and pawed at the bunting, almost batted it — playful? Aggressive? Curious? Musashi followed, and then, before I could stop them their noses were in the wrappings, the huff of their hungry breath, the child screamed, the dogs shot back, Ben grabbed the baby, his own face full of rage. “How could you?” he spit. “They’ve bitten her.”
Understand, I was doped up on painkillers, the whole world wavy, and I’d done what the books instructed. “No,” I said. “No.” We peeled back the wrappings. Our baby was unmarked, unbitten. In an instant she plunged into slumber again.
A mother's love — for babies and dogs
I have never brought up until now the idea that I might love my animals as much as I love my daughter, and, when he arrived a few years later, my son. As a mother, I wanted to feel clearly driven only to my offspring, the people who grew within me for the first nine months of their lives. It didn’t happen that way. In the early years of my daughter’s life, and then my son’s, I’d sometimes feel a longing for my dogs that overrode every other affection. I wanted to touch another kind of being, snout and paw, the oblong ears. Perhaps this is what I love: how animals confirm for us the rapturous fact that we are part of a chain stretching back to everything breathing on earth.
After my babies were asleep, I’d often sit in the kitchen and groom my dogs, fur flying, piling up, until it was very late and Benjamin came down, the 2 A.M. feeding over. “Making love to the pups?” he’d ask, and I said the only thing I could: Yes.
The realization that my love could go either way — children or dogs — occurred to me one day in a local park, when I lost track of both my dog and daughter. For a split second before I caught sight of them, I could not quite figure out who to search for first. Did this then mean that if I was forced to choose between my children and my dogs, I would have to stop, to consider? I have not been forced to make this choice, thank God, but if I was, I’d choose my children, my babies, my darlings, but not because I love them more. I would choose them because their humanity comes prepackaged with a particular prize: the future, and all it holds. We know it’s out there while animals don’t, and so we suffer more at the thought of all that possibility, that sense of hope, being taken away.
The children arrived into a marriage already divided by the dogs; our babies sharpened the wedge, drove it deeper. We were two parents with full-time jobs and a moderate income determined to give our kids the best we could — skating lessons, day camp. The expectations quadrupled along with the bills, while time tucked its tail between its legs and went away.
When Clara was 5, we received a reminder card from our vet: time for the vaccines, the teeth cleaning. “We spend,” Ben said, “well over a thousand dollars a year on these animals.”
I was spooning mash into our son Lucas’s mouth. “They’re worth it,” I said.
“To me,” I added.
“But to us?” he said.
“These dogs have taught our children a lot,” I said.
“Yes,” said Benjamin. “They have taught our children a lot. I agree.” He didn’t say anything after that.
Pain strikes close to home
It was around that time that Ben developed a mysterious ailment in his arms, one that defied diagnosis. Thoracic outlet syndrome, carpal tunnel, whatever it was, it resulted from the computer, which he used most moments of his 70-hour workweek. There were visits to pain clinics, each one hushed and cold, tiled and white. There were visits to pharmacologists, psychologists, neurologists, chiropractors. Unresponsive to any type of treatment except morphine, the pain drained the blood from Benjamin’s face; his arms and hands grew limp and spastic. Simple tasks — twisting the top off a jar — became impossible. The man with the elfin humor went away and someone distant took his place. I remember the night he stood in the living room holding our son. I was in the kitchen, fixing dinner. I heard a crash and came running. Benjamin was standing, arms held out in front of him as though they were dripping poison. On the floor, Lucas screamed himself blue. “I dropped our baby,” Benjamin whispered, tears — the first I’d seen from him — flowing copiously from his eyes.
My husband stopped working, time passed, and we both turned 40. Benjamin took out a calendar. “Do you realize,” he said, after punching some numbers, “that we have about 12,000 days left?” The next day, when we had only 11,999, Benjamin gave his great whistle, and the dogs, who once would have bounded over at the sound, stretched creakily and came cautiously trotting. “Lila girl,” he said, cupping her bony chin. She turned her brown eyes up to him. “Look,” he said. “She’s got some gray on her muzzle.” Like us, they live and die.
Blindsided by illness
I came downstairs one morning, our children now in school, and found Lila hunched in the hall, shivering. I called to her and she swung her head in my direction, tried to walk to me, but her solid legs buckled, her body coming down hard. “Lila, Lila … what is it?” I held her head in my hands, and when I offered her favorite food, a bowl of strawberry ice cream, she turned away. I raced to the vet thinking, fever, flu, rabies; thinking, old, old, old, and they whisked her away.
Hours later, the vet came out and said, “Your dog has glaucoma. Your dog is completely blind.”
Blind! How could Lila be blind when just yesterday she wasn’t? It can happen, the vet explained. It can happen, I said to myself as I drove home. Lila stayed in the hospital for two days. When I came to get her, I saw that she’d lost more than her eyes. My fat, feisty dog was now huddled in fear. I called to her — Lila, Lila — and she at last turned toward me, her eyes marbled over, her face so empty of expression that I saw in a flash what so many scientists deny: Dogs can scowl, smirk and smile; their faces are mobile maps of reaction, of feeling.
Ben’s reaction was appropriately sympathetic, but, not surprisingly, he seemed more or less unmoved by the event. Until he saw Lila. I carried her into the house and set her down on the floor. We stood silent on the sidelines, watching. Musashi padded up to her, tentatively sniffing his longtime companion, then slowly backed away. Lila, whose happiest moments had been spent rolling in the grass, her whole body a comma of pure pleasure, sat very small, moving her head slowly from side to side, her blank eyes filled with a bluish fluid. “Lila, Lila,” Clara called, and clapped her hands. The dog stumbled toward the sound, crashed into a chair. “Lila!” I called again. Trouper, she forged forward but walked into a wall. Urine puddled beneath her, a rank, strong smell: panic. Lucas began to wail. Ben looked slapped. I carried my dog upstairs. Her rump was soaked and smelly. I didn’t care. I lay with her on the bed. The house was quiet. “Poor Lila,” Ben said later, finally wiping up the puddle. He paused, held his lame hands up in the air. “Our dog,” he said (italics mine), “has gone blind as a bat.”
For two weeks Lila didn’t move, and because I hated to see her suffer, I said to Ben, “Maybe we should put her down.”
His answer surprised me. “Give her some time,” he said.
What dogs can teach us
So I did. And something strange happened. Ben began to watch “our” dog differently. I caught him studying her, his head cocked like a curious canine’s. I caught him holding her chin in his palm, looking into her dead eyes. I remember when she took her first blind steps, how we clapped, how he clapped.
After that, the changes came quick. Lila gained confidence, braving the stairs. Soon she was chasing birds, hunting by smell and sound. Sometimes her abilities were so precise we swore she had some vision, but she didn’t. One evening, Ben threw a ball into the dining room. “Ball!” he shouted, and at the sound Lila bounded toward it, swerving cleanly around the furniture, sidestepping toys and locking onto the ball with her open jaw in seconds. She then trotted back to Benjamin and dropped the ball, head turned up, half-coquettish, half-challenging, as if to say, “See what I can do? Now it’s your turn.”
And it was. Ben would deny my interpretation, but in my memory, Lila’s blindness and resilience coincide with my husband’s return to health. As the dog was relearning to balance on her hind legs, Benjamin told me he’d like to have an orchard. “Fruit trees,” he said, as though the phrase itself were crisp like an apple. He stopped most of his pain medication and began to chop wood to strengthen his arms. “I need physical activity,” said my husband, he who’d sat in a chair for the past few years. I want to resist the neat nature of my conclusions, my desire to fuse Lila’s recovery with Ben’s. But this is what makes me human; I seek my squares of meaning.
I cannot lie and say I came home one night and found my mate transformed. I cannot say Ben put a picture of our pooches in his office, or that we came to share a love of dogs that was anywhere near equal, and thus became closer. But there is a little more between us than before, a strand of connection stretching between two beings who happen to be human.
Recently, I was putting the kids to bed, telling them a story about an archaeologist in Israel. He was digging when he came upon a grave. Inside, remarkably intact, he found the skeleton of a person curled in a fetal position. Lying next to him or her was the skeleton of a puppy, the two buried together for all time. The skeleton’s hand rested upon the skull of the puppy as Lucas’s hand rested on mine. Human and canine, living together, buried together. It has been this way for a long, long while, and so it will be in the future.
When I finished, my children were asleep. I looked up and saw Ben sitting in the doorway, listening — his copper hair, just like the pups’, now mixed with white, like the pups’. He sat on the floor, a dog on each side, in this year, our 44th circle around the sun, bracketed by our animals, he Indian-style, they on folded haunches, all eyes open, each dog alert, their ears pricked forward, Ben’s hands resting lightly on their beautiful heads.