Tag Archives: dogs

For the Love of Dogs

Wolfgang in March of 2004.  Behind those sweet, glassy eyes lay eons of canine evolution and aggression.

Wolfgang in March of 2004. Behind those sweet, glassy eyes lay eons of canine evolution and aggression.

I quietly strode towards the bedroom of my roommate, Tom*, merely expecting to find him asleep.  He had just experienced a heart-wrenching loss: putting his 11-year-old miniature schnauzer, Zane*, to sleep.  Surely, Tom was exhausted after a long road trip to and from the Northeast Texas town where he was born and raised; the same place where he’d raised Zane.

Zane and I bonded quickly when Tom and me agreed to pool our resources in May of 2002 and share a two-bedroom apartment.  I was working temporary gigs, and he had a courier job that left him feeling tired and uneasy.  After a car wreck and a major health scare in the fall of 2001, he had managed to put himself back together, while recuperating at his mother’s home back in that Northeast Texas town.  Zane’s presence, he told me, comforted him better than the medications he’d been prescribed and the alcohol he’d consume as an additive.

But, during the first week of August 2002, Tom had to return to his mother’s home to tend to a family crisis.  When he came back, I informed him that Zane was extremely ill.  I didn’t know what was wrong, but the shy little dog had shriveled up to the point where his ribs were visible.  Tom spent the next day in bed; holding Zane tightly.  He finally headed back to that Northeast Texas hamlet where Zane’s old veterinarian was also located.

Upon arriving at the veterinarian’s office, however, Zane suffered a catastrophic stroke…and never recovered.  “My little boy is gone,” Tom cried over the phone that evening from his mother’s house.

I cried with him.  So, while I was surprised to find Tom back at the apartment earlier than expected, I was even more surprised to see a tiny ball of silver and white fur crawling around on his bare chest.

On his way back to Dallas, Tom had stopped off in a town east of the city to visit a cousin.  In a purely spontaneous decision, he grabbed a newspaper and searched for a miniature schnauzer breeder.  He found one and purchased one of the eight-week-old puppies.  He named him Docker.  Where he came up with that I never knew.  But I renamed him Wolfgang a few months later.  That’s because he became my dog when Tom and I decided to go our separate ways in January 2003.

It’s one of the best decisions I’ve ever made; albeit an almost equally spontaneous move on my part.  In an uncertain time for me (I’d just started a new full-time job that felt insecure and I wanted desperately to move out of a complex that was going to hell), as well as for the nation (we were about to invade Iraq under false pretenses, and the economy remained fragile), taking custody of that dog stood out as a bright moment.  Tom left owing me some $700.  But I ended up with the dog.  I was ill-prepared to have a pet, yet I still felt I came out with the better bargain.

All of that came back to me Wednesday morning, as I carried Wolfgang’s quivering form into the veterinarian’s office.  He had gone into some kind of cardiac arrest episode…and never recovered.

Basic evolutionary tree of canines.

Basic evolutionary tree of canines.

Wolfgang’s veterinarian had diagnosed him with a heart murmur a couple of years ago, which explained his occasional coughing / hacking fits.  Earlier this year, though, he began experiencing seizure-like episodes.  One in early May terrified me: he literally fell over onto one side; a cartoonish action that was anything but funny.  An X-ray proved his heart had enlarged and was clamping down on his airway.  The seizures, the doctor explained, were actually moments where Wolfgang couldn’t breathe.  He put him on two heart medications that would be a daily ritual for the rest of the dog’s life.  That life ended sooner than I’d expected – or even wanted.

“I just lost my father,” I whispered to him last Monday night, the 24th.  “You can’t leave me also; not now.”

His behavior was actually quite normal this last weekend and into Monday, the 24th.  Yet, by Monday evening, I could tell he had trouble breathing and began to suspect the worst.  Then it seemed the air around me had thickened, and I sense my father was nearby.

I tried giving Wolfgang the two medicines the doctor had prescribed back in May.  I literally had to shove them into his mouth; a little mouth lined with razor-sharp projectiles, backed up by eons of canid ambivalence.  I always tried to retract my hand as quickly as possible, but each time he managed to scrape my fingers.  Then, on Monday, he did something he’d never done before: he actually impaled one of his dental daggers into my right forefinger.  Blood oozed immediately from the gash, as I hurtled the tiny white pills into his food dish and marched into the bathroom.  My entire right hand throbbed.  It still aches.  But I don’t care.  He was just a dog.  More importantly, he continually spit out those pills.  I’ve found bits of them around the den area.  It was his last act of wolf-infused defiance and stubbornness.  Perhaps he sensed they were of no use at the moment.  He was done and wanted to move on from here.  Are dogs really that sentient?  Do they possess the same level of emotional capacity as their human counterparts?

A variety of studies over the past two decades suggest yes; dogs truly are more emotionally and psychologically complex than we ever realized.

I still find it amazing how we humans become so attached to certain animals.  For me, it’s always been dogs.  As far back as I can remember, I’ve held a special fascination with the canines among us.  Cats and horses are undoubtedly beautiful.  But I’m allergic to felines (as a 2004 allergy test proved), and horses are too big and expensive.  I’m an all-around animal lover, but dogs secured a tight grip on my mind and in my heart.

I often joked that Wolfgang wasn’t really a miniature schnauzer; he was a previously unclassified species of canine – a miniature wolf.  The big mocha brown eyes, soft fur and floppy ears (especially the right one, which rarely stood up, lest he tilt his head back at a certain angle) were just aesthetic ruses.  The mere mention of his name incurred occasional chuckles.

“The name fits,” I told people.

Artist depiction of Eucyon davisi, considered the direct ancestor of modern dogs.

Artist depiction of Eucyon davisi, considered the direct ancestor of modern dogs.

Miniature schnauzers are among the 148 breeds of domesticated dog recognized by the American Kennel Club.  In addition, there are more than 150 other breeds of domesticated dog not officially acknowledged by the AKC, such as the Russo-European Laika, the Peruvian Inca Orchard, and the Prazsky Krysarik from Czechoslovakia, the world’s smallest dog.  Zoologists have also identified more than 100 species of wild canine, such as the South American bush dog, the Australian dingo, and the African basenji, the only dog that doesn’t bark.  It produces something of a yodeling sound.  Altogether, an estimated 10 billion dogs exist on planet Earth today.

Dogs boast an extensive and impressive lineage.  Canines have a longer and more diverse history than any other predatory carnivore, which allowed them to spread across the globe faster than fellow mammals.  They belong to the family of mammals called canidae and to the order of carnivora.  Zoologists believe all mammals descend from Creodonts, a group of small, meat-eating creatures that first appeared about 100 million years ago.  About 55 million years ago, during the Eocene Epoch, a more refined (but not much larger) carnivore, Miacis, arose in North America.  Miacis then evolved into Hesperocyon, or Hesperocyoninae – traditionally regarded as the direct ancestor of dogs – between 38 and 26 million years ago.  Hesperocyoninae generated 28 sub-species.   They were followed by Borophaginae, which produced 66 sub-species, and Caninae with 42.  One member of this latter group, a fox-sized animal called Eucyon, played the most critical role in canine evolution.

Arising in North America about 9 million years ago, Eucyon was omnivorous; a unique attribute that allowed it to survive longer than any of its predecessors and outlive even its contemporaries.  But Eucyon also had longer leg bones, especially the forelimbs, which increased its running efficiency and therefore, its ability to capture prey.  It had a shorter neck than most felines, another top predatory carnivore, which otherwise would have inhibited its ability to tear at flesh.  But Eucyon necks compensated for it with the nuchal ligament; a feature that permitted greater rotation of the entire neck column.

Adding to this was the extraordinary development of canine dentition (teeth) and the power of its jaw bones.  Together this allowed for actual bone-cracking of its prey.  The reason is obvious: inside animal bones is marrow, a rich source of protein.  Among all canine species the power of bone-cracking is no more evident than in the family of hyenas.  These wild African canines have been known to leave little evidence of a kill; they literally consume an entire animal.  Getting inside those bones with its mighty jaw strength helped canines retain their spot as top predators no matter where they migrated.

An artist’s rendition of the extinct Borophagus secundus canine from the late Miocene Epoch in North America displays the animal’s large dentition and low-angled skull that allowed it to engage in bone-crushing of its prey.  Courtesy Mauricio Antón.

An artist’s rendition of the extinct Borophagus secundus canine from the late Miocene Epoch in North America displays the animal’s large dentition and low-angled skull that allowed it to engage in bone-crushing of its prey. Courtesy Mauricio Antón.

Between 6 and 4 million years ago, Eucyon began migrating across what is now the Bering Strait into Asia.  There it developed into Canis lupus, the gray wolf.  Canis lupus then spread further throughout Asia, eventually making its way into Europe, Africa, and India.  It also evolved into both variations of itself and canines such as dholes and jackals.  About 800,000 years ago canis lupus began tracing its ancestors’ migratory paths back into North America where it continued evolving; again into other wolf species, but also into such animals as the arctic fox and the coyote.

Throughout the next several millennia, wolves continually metamorphosed into various breeds of dogs.  At some unknown point, they formed an alliance with humans.  How, when and why this occurred are among the top questions for zoologists.  It’s quite likely that a human somewhere along the way found an abandoned wolf puppy and, feeling empathy for the animal, kept it and managed to raise it.  It’s also likely that canines began following humans, realizing the two-legged beings had a knack for capturing and killing large prey.  When the humans moved on, the canines would descend upon the remains of whatever animal was left behind.  This, of course, would make dogs scavengers, instead of hunters.  But, in a brutal world of survival, that’s what was necessary.

It’s more probable, however, that all of these incidents took place a number of times, all over the world and over a number of years.  As with other animals, such as horses and bovines, canine evolution eventually fell in line with human evolution; that is, their domestication coincided with the development of more complex and wide-spread human societies.

Skull, cervical vertebrae and muscle structure of the extant Canis lupus (gray wolf).  The nuchal ligament allowed for greater movement of the head and neck.

Skull, cervical vertebrae and muscle structure of the extant Canis lupus (gray wolf). The nuchal ligament allowed for greater movement of the head and neck.

The close relationship humans generated with dogs means people began subjecting these animals to selective breeding, in which they were propagated for specific purposes.  Initially, dogs served two primary roles in their union with humans: hunting game and herding livestock.  Later, they were bred to be protectorates, guides, and, of course, companions.  Consequently, we now have a plethora of dog breeds.  No other animal displays such an extraordinary level of diversity in size, color and shape as canines.

Dogs’ sensibilities are extremely acute.  While their visual resolving powers are less efficient than humans, their eyes are more sensitive to light and movement.  Dogs can hear sounds four times farther away than humans and are able to locate the source of that sound in six-hundredths of a second.  Dogs’ olfactory capabilities are their most extraordinary attribute.  The average dog has over 200 million scent receptors in its nasal folds, compared to a human’s five million.

Dogs are certainly among the most intelligent of mammals; perhaps the smartest among non-primates.  Like humans, dogs appear to be sensitive to vocal inflections and emotional queues.  A study at the University of Lincoln, United Kingdom, that dogs “form abstract mental representations of positive and negative emotional states, and are not simply displaying learned behaviours when responding to the expressions of people and other dogs.”

The researchers presented 17 domesticated dogs with pairings of images and sounds conveying different combinations of positive and negative emotional expressions in both humans and dogs. The sources of sensory input – photos of facial expressions and audio clips of vocalizations (voices or barks) from unfamiliar subjects – were played simultaneously to the dogs, without any prior training.  Researcher noted the dogs spent more time looking at the facial expressions which matched the emotional state of the vocalization.

Another study in Hungary went further by conducting MRIs on 13 dogs – six border collies, five golden retrievers, a German shepherd and a Chinese crested.  The animals were trained to lie motionless during the procedures, although they were awake and unrestrained.  Researchers found that dogs processed words with the left hemisphere and processed pitch with the right hemisphere – just like humans.

We’ll never know when the bond between humans and dogs was established.  Whether they save our lives, protect our property, or provide simple companionship, dogs are an indelible part of the human existence.  For dog lovers such as myself, that relationship is indescribable.

Basic evolutionary tree of modern dogs from their wolf ancestors.

Basic evolutionary tree of modern dogs from their wolf ancestors.

* Name changed.

ASPCA

 

References:

Dogs: Their Fossil Relatives and Evolutionary History.”  Richard H. Tedford & Xiaoming Wang. Columbia University Press, 2008.

New Encyclopedia of the Dog.” Bruce Fogle, DVM. Dorling Kindersley, 2000.

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Still Here

Who’s there? Wolfgang peering into my parents’ bedroom on August 1, 2016.

Who’s there? Wolfgang peering into my parents’ bedroom on August 1, 2016.

My gaze remained fixed on my computer – as it always does, when I become engrossed in either a news article or my own writing, leading to that vicious brand of dry eye syndrome – and not paying much attention to anything around me.  But, out of the sandy corner of my right eye, I noticed Wolfgang lift up his head.  It wasn’t a gradual rise, like he’d heard the refrigerator door open and hoped someone was reaching for a snack.  Rather, it was more of a sudden jolt, as if a wayward noise had startled him.  Often, I don’t hear those same noises.  As a dog, millennia of canid sensory attributes finely-tuned and ground deep into his mind and body, he can hear a bug crawling in the next room, on carpet, with a rainstorm battering the house around us; he could see that same bug – minuscule as it may be – ambling across the carpet.

But this was different.  No refrigerator door; no bugs; just…something.  It was enough to make me stop; giving my eyes a much-needed break.  Then I saw a shadow; a nanosecond of movement.  Wolfgang whipped his head around, and so did I.

A couple of years ago I wondered, in an essay, what it would be like to be deceased.  I’m in no hurry to find out, but as both a spiritual person and a writer fascinated with the gothic (even the macabre), I’ve thought about it for most of my life.  It’s become an especially important matter to me in the three months since my father’s death.  Raised Roman Catholic, I was taught to believe in angels and saints.  But, when I heard an elderly nun once say “there’s no such things as ghosts,” I couldn’t reconcile the two.  Angels exist; ghosts don’t.  What’s the difference?  My first views of angels came from the stained glass windows of the church where I became an altar boy in the mid-1970s.  I acquired a more salacious vision from John Phillip Law’s “Pygar” in “Barbarella.”  (I actually prefer the latter.)

Having divorced myself from the Catholic Church years ago, I seek emotional fulfillment in the simplest of things: reading, writing, exercise, music, vodka, and, of course, Wolfgang.  I still believe in a Supreme Being, but I don’t subscribe to any religious ideology.  It’s too confining.  Yet the concept of an afterlife has remained a constant fixture in my mind.

Over the past three months Wolfgang’s behavior has become more curious.  His attention is being constantly diverted.  He lifts his head and stares at something – or someone – in the distance.  He’ll just hold that gaze – not for a few seconds, but several minutes.  One night, as I worked on my computer, and my mother sat in the den reading, Wolfgang perched himself just outside my parents’ bedroom…and stared straight ahead.  He didn’t move for what seemed like an hour.  Finally he stood and entered the room.  Turning to his left, in the direction of a nightstand, he sat after a few minutes.  And remained there for the longest time.  I didn’t want to disturb him, so I left him alone.  After a while, he ambled back to a spot near me and plopped down…still looking ahead into my parents’ bedroom.

“What’s that?” I asked him.  I knew the answer.

His eyes, bright pools of dark chocolate, bored into my face.  Those eyes – and his animated expressions – always conveyed more than the average person.

Of course, I’m biased – not just because he’s my dog.  More so, because I love dogs – and most animals for that matter – than I do people.  Animals don’t gossip; call you names; cut in front of you while driving; throw a self-righteous attitude in your face; or believe the world revolves around them, and science just needs to prove it.  In other words, animals don’t piss me off just for the hell of it.

I’d have no problems pulling out a gun and firing into the windshield of a car whose driver almost ran me off the road because they were engrossed in their cell phone.  But I’d think twice about putting down a dog that bit me out of its own fear.

México won’t execute drug kingpins because they don’t have the death penalty.  Yet, they retain the brutal tradition of bullfighting and conduct rodeos where horses routinely break their necks.  Tell me I’m not the only one who thinks that’s twisted.

I created a controversy on Facebook about five years ago, when I stated that I’d rather see a thousand drug addicts and / or sexually-irresponsible people died of AIDS than see one animal suffer because of human neglect and abuse.  Just about everyone missed the “drug addict” and “sexually-irresponsible” part.  How dare I think someone who fucks around like a rabbit on Viagra shouldn’t cry too loudly when they come down with something a tad bit more severe than gingivitis.  If political incorrectness was a course, I’d fail miserably.

“What’s that?” I asked again.  He just looked at me, and I gathered he was telling me exactly what was going on.  Domesticated animals comprehend a bevy of our words.  How many of their vocalizations do we humans understand?  I just had to figure out what those expressions meant.

And I finally figured it out.  He knows things; meaning, he sees and hears things that are there; others who are there.

And I know that who’s often there isn’t visible to the eyes of the contemporary human; our brains having become too cluttered with practicality and technology.  Yet, even before now, I had proof.  Nothing that can be verified independently, but proof to me nonetheless.

One weekday in the spring of 2011, as I crouched before my computer – making a concerted effort to launch my freelance writing career, while trying to ward off the dreaded office-chair butt affliction – I sensed someone move behind me.  At the same nanosecond, Wolfgang bolted into the hall from his spot near my chair; a modest growl spilling from his snout.  Both him and that ubiquitous figure unnerved me; giving my eyes that much-needed break.

But I kept my focus on Wolfgang.  He stood in the hall, looking towards the den.  His head cocked to one side slightly and – apparently satisfied no danger lurked – returned to his place near my chair.  He circled around that few square inches of carpet, before plopping down.  He sensed my confusion and tossed me a comforting gaze.  “Don’t worry,” his eyes reassured me.  “I got it settled.”

Settled what?  He sighed, exasperated.  I’m certain he was thinking what a naïve dumbass I must be.  In retrospect, I’d agree with him.  But I stepped into the hall and peered towards the den.  That figure – that someone – I thought, was an old woman.  I returned to my chair.

Wolfgang gave up trying to explain it to me and resumed napping.

Then my mother came out of her bedroom.  Hugging the doorframe, unsteady from a midday slumber, she gave me a confounded look and asked, “Where’s grandmother?”

I squinted at her.  “Who?”

“Where’s grandmother?” she repeated.

I hesitated, equally confused.  I knew who she was talking about, but I didn’t know why.  “Why are you asking me that question?”  It really startled (upset) me.

She woke up and rubbed her eyes.

I turned briefly to Wolfgang.  I was trying to tell you, his eyes said.

Aside from my mother’s three siblings and their father, I only met a handful of her relatives – all from her father’s side of the family in Michigan.  I got to know the Mexican side through antiquitous photographs and stories; ghost stories, in a way, stuck in my mother’s memory.

My maternal grandmother died in México City on Christmas Day 1940 from some miscellaneous stomach ailment.  Her own mother, a widow by then, had returned from living in Washington, D.C., where she worked as a nanny for the daughters of a U.S. Navy admiral.  Along with being a good cook and natural-born caregiver, she was self-educated, which included teaching herself English, and an opera aficionado.  She stepped in to help her son-in-law (my grandfather) raise his four children.

She had led a life mixed with hardship and religiosity (the latter supposed to hinder the former).  But then again, what woman born in 19th century México – or anywhere outside of royalty and the industrial elite – didn’t?  At the age of 14, a handsome, 21-year-old young man with steely blue eyes spotted her in the yard of school she attended, introduced himself and decided to make her his bride.  A few months later her mother dropped her into a wedding dress.  He gave her five children, two illegitimate children, a bout of syphilis and an early widowhood.  By the time my German-American grandfather, Clarence, arrived in México City with an uncle selling farm equipment in the mid-1920s, my great-grandmother’s husband was already gone.  When my grandfather met the brown-eyed beauty named Esperanza who would become his wife, he apparently was smitten.  He actually courted her, and it was a little while before they got married.  My great-grandmother didn’t want to impose her marital tribulations upon her own daughters.  Clarence and Esperanza married in 1927.

Esperanza’s mother was a curiosity, my mother recalled.  Not even five feet tall, her internal organs were switched; her heart, for example, rested on the right side of her torso and was too big for her body.  They could see the veins on the sides of her neck pulsate, a feature that made her wear high-necked clothing.  Her eyes were more golden in color; “ojos de un perro,” is how she described them – “eyes of a dog.”  But, more intriguingly, she also bore enough personal faith to build a bridge between her heart and the spiritual netherworld.

Supposedly women possess that unique ability more than men.  I believe women are just more willing to admit it.  Acknowledgement of contact with “The Other Side” is conceding, in a way, a dependence on the inanimate – the emotional.  And men aren’t permitted such comforts.  In México, in the U.S., or anywhere they want to call home and be considered valuable.  But I feel that having no spirit is akin to having no soul.

Shortly before the death of someone my great-grandmother knew – a relative, a friend – she would encounter a mysterious figure; a woman cloaked in black with a veil-like accoutrement almost completely covering her face.  She’d mutter the name of the individual – whoever was about to die – and then vanish.

My mother and her older sister, Margo, never really believed her, she told me.  Their grandmother was just an old woman with a strange little mind carved up by Roman Catholicism and too many health problems.  Until one afternoon shortly before Christmas 1940.

Esperanza had fallen ill, and no one could figure out why.  My mother and Margo accompanied their grandmother to a local open-air market; the type that were so common back then and now quaintly occupy a spot on travel shows.  A woman, clad in black, suddenly stood before them.  All Margo and my mother remember was hearing their own mother’s name – Esperanza.  It seeped through the woman’s lace veil and into their ears; a sound that abruptly instilled an overwhelming sense of dread in the two girls.  Hearing them both recount the incident some four decades later made my skin tighten.  Less than two weeks later, Esperanza was gone.

My grandfather was headed back to Michigan in the summer of 1942, when the train he rode stopped in Dallas.  A job ad in a local newspaper caught his attention.  It offered something like $20 per day as a machinist, a fortune in those days.  He applied for and got it.  He moved into a nearby boarding house and, within a year, had managed to save enough money to buy a house in the Oak Cliff section of Dallas.  In September of 1943, his four children arrived with his mother-in-law, after a three-day trek by train from México City.  He felt he had to move.  As an American in México during a global war, he didn’t just feel out of place – he was out of place.  By then my great-grandmother had secured her role as de facto matriarch.

She died in Dallas in August of 1963; less than three months before I was born.  At the funeral, my mother almost passed out, as much from the emotional loss as from the intense heat.  Standing outside in Texas during August is not a pleasant experience.  My great-grandmother had blessed my mother’s stomach just days earlier; holding a tiny wrinkled hand above my restless unborn self, her other hand clutching an aged crucifix.

My father’s older sister, Amparo, was at the same funeral.  She knew how close my mother had been to her grandmother and (knowing those damned Texas summers) had brought a large jar of cold water.  After my father helped my mother back to the car and had her drink some of that water, my mother looked up.  And, as she recalled years later, she spotted a small figure dressed in black some distance away – a woman with a black veil covering her face.  “Go away,” my mother said into the hot air, and the woman left.

That crucifix, now over a century old, hangs unimposingly above my bed – just as it did throughout my childhood and through the three apartments I lived in before returning to my parents’ home a few years ago.  And, thinking back now, on that spring afternoon in 2011, I realize Wolfgang must have seen my great-grandmother.  Her presence most certainly startled him at first; he’d never seen her before.  But she assured him she meant no harm; she’s one of us.

On another nondescript afternoon, I was trying to help my mother find a pair of small scissors.  She always kept them in her nightstand, but she couldn’t even find the scissors there.  I looked through it, too, albeit with a greater sense of frustration.  I was enmeshed in one of those “Moods.”  How did I end up like this?  Unmarried, childless, 40-something, scarcely employed with a bad back, helping my mother search for a pair of miniature scissors.

I turned to see Wolfgang.  “Really?” his eyes bemoaned with a frustrated sigh.  “This is bothering you?”  His gaze slithered around me and towards the nightstand; he then scampered away.  “You’re getting on my last nerve!” he grunted.

I almost followed him, but something made me stop.  Look again, I heard in my subconscious.  I opened the bottom drawer of the nightstand and filtered through a menagerie of items.  My fingertips grasped a small envelope, which held a black-and-white photograph…my mother’s maternal grandmother.  It was her passport photo, probably taken in 1943 in preparation for her move to the U.S.

My father had said frequently he hoped he’d go before Wolfgang.  He’d grown so attached to him that the dog’s death would be too much to handle.  I told both my parents a while back, though, I believed he’d go before them.  I also told them that we needed to prepare ourselves for his inevitable demise.  In 1985, when we had to put down our beloved German shepherd, Josh, we had never considered the impact such a death would have on us.

Now my father is gone, having passed away in this house – just as he wanted – and Wolfgang keeps tossing his gaze around.

So I look at the various photos of my father and know for certain – he’s still here.

My father at his 60th birthday party in 1993.

My father at his 60th birthday party in 1993.

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Why My Dog Is a Tax Deductible Expense

“Come a little closer.  I dare you.”

“Come a little closer. I dare you.”

I decided at the start of this year to use the costs associated with the care of Wolfgang as a tax deduction.  A little background is necessary.  I adopted Wolfgang from a dilapidated former roommate thirteen years ago.  Tom* had gotten him in August 2002 to replace a much-loved dog of the same breed he had to put to sleep.  By the end of that year, however, Tom realized he could no longer care for the new puppy, and I realized I no longer could stop plotting to get rid of Tom by making it look like a game of pool and tequila shots gone wrong.  He’d have to give him up.  I couldn’t bear the thought of it.  I’d already grown too attached to the little furball and feared he’d end up in a home with someone more irresponsible.  Tom left in January, and the puppy stayed.  I renamed him Wolfgang.

He’s supposedly a miniature schnauzer, but I realized almost immediately that he’s an undiscovered species of canid: a miniature wolf.  Neither the Smithsonian nor the National Geographic Society has responded to my requests for a detailed analysis.  At first glance, he looks like any other small dog – cute and adorable.  But that’s part of the inborn ruse.  A closer examination, however, reveals the monster lurking behind the pools of dark chocolate known as his eyes and the fluffy silver and white hairs coating his face.  A serial rabbit killer, Wolfgang has terrorized more squirrels than the German shepherd I had decades ago.  A deep, loud voice resides within his little throat; another coy, inborn trick to make the unsuspecting believe they’re standing just feet from a coyote.  He is 22 pounds of raw, canine angst.

But he has become my savior in so many ways.  As I struggled with my freelance and creative writing careers, I realized the value Wolfgang adds to my professional life.  He is my therapist, focus group and lifestyle consultant.  He is the only one who truly understands why I say and do what I say and do, and therefore, is the only one who reserves the right to criticize me for it all.  He truly comprehends the reasoning behind my deliriously twisted stories.  He sees the genius of my mind; whereas others would see a psychiatric trauma case, a recovering Catholic or a porn star reject.  And, since we’re all bearing our souls here, I fit each of the above descriptions in the worst way.

Wolfgang at 3 months.

Wolfgang at 3 months.

Despite my occasional rapid-fire mood swings, bouts of euphoria mixed in with valleys of despair, Wolfgang has proven to be a constant source of inspiration and reality.  Most dogs are like that anyway.  And, as with most dogs, Wolfgang has his own unique personality.  He doesn’t have an attitude – a nasty trait exhibited by those bipedal cretins known as humans.  Just touching him puts me in a better mood, even if I’m already feeling good.  But it’s his visual responses to my stories that tell me if what I’ve written makes general sense.  In one tale, for example, I wondered if a rather mundane character should have a greater role.  Wolfgang’s empathetic gaze told me yes.  So I expanded the character, and the story benefited.  In another, I thought that a rather cantankerous individual was nevertheless crucial to the moral arc I was trying to convey.  Wolfgang’s snarl told me the bitch had to die.  Again, the story turned out better, after the character accidentally stumbled onto a paper shredder.

Aside from keeping his shots up to date, I had Wolfgang neutered years ago, which prolongs a domesticated animal’s life.  (Many people should have the same thing done, but not because their lives are worth prolonging.)  I bathe him every Sunday night and clean his teeth regularly by spreading a dab of canine toothpaste on a small hand towel.  (Actually trying to brush them turns into a physical battle, with my hands on the losing end.)  When his fur gets long, I brush it the day after his bath.  In this case, “brush” is a subjective term, because he often spirals into an alligator-death-roll maneuver.

I’ve had his health care covered through Veterinary Pet Insurance (VPI), which is now NationWide.  Because he’s almost 14, the premiums have increased.  But again, he’s worth the cost.  The money I’ve spent on that insurance, along with other veterinary bills and food, could have just as easily bought me a high-powered computer, an I-Phone, the complete Photoshop Suite to create art for my stories, and / or a week at a leather bondage festival.  I suppose I could have churned out some really good stories with all of that.  (Yes, even a bondage festival can be enlightening.  I have the handcuffs and thong underwear to prove it.)  But, without Wolfgang’s presence, I just can’t see any good stories popping out of my head.  What good are all sorts of luxuries if you’re not mentally fit?  I mean, look at the Kardashian girls!  Well… they’re mentally ill; they’re just dumbasses.  Regardless, medical expenses are often genuinely tax-deductible.

My followers surely know by now that I’m a devout animal lover.  I’d rather see a thousand drug addicts or sexually-irresponsible people die of AIDS than see one animal suffer due to human neglect.  A close friend shares my sentiments; he likes cats.  Cats are pretty, but I’m allergic to them.  Besides, when have you ever heard of a rescue cat?

Still, the more I get to know people, the more I love my dog.  I seriously don’t know how the Internal Revenue Service (a.k.a. the “Washington mob”) will respond to this deduction on my 2015 tax return.  And I seriously don’t care.  They can laugh all they want, which I’m sure they’ll do.  I’ve had worse happen to me, such as pretending someone who cuts me off in traffic is just having a bad day and they’re not really an asshole.

For now, though, I have another story to run by Wolfgang.  This one’s kind of mushy, so I have to conjure up a more creative demise than a demonically-possessed paper-shredder.

For real!

For real!

*Name changed.

 

ASPCA.

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Beast Master

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It was a huge rabbit, but she managed to capture it without much effort. She turned to her green-eyed companion who was still holding the duck in her jaws. This will keep them fed through the night. They exchanged glances with their friend. He had been looking around, as always, surveying the jumble of rusted vehicles, glass, concrete and other detritus. He tossed his head forward; back towards the direction of the red-brick building. They didn’t have to worry, trotting ahead of him; they always felt safe in his presence. Their arrangement had worked out fine. As dogs, they wouldn’t normally have to rely on a horse for physical protection. But they’d all learned not to take anything for granted.

Their loved ones – two-legged “mothers” and “fathers” – had disappeared into the bloody chaos of whatever it was that happened. They couldn’t make sense of the rumbling noises or the bright flashes. They only knew all that commotion pained their ears and their eyes.

They’d quickly learned something else: despite their differences, they could live together. They had no real choice. Not now, not at this time.

The trio ambled past the overgrown lawns of the one-story houses. The stench of rotting flesh had long since dissipated into fresher air and heavy rainfall. The scents of grass, flowers and dirt lingered more prominently.

They trotted alongside the blackened remnants of a row of buildings. And, as they moved through a cluster of trees, they smelled them again. More of the two-legged critters. A gaggle of them staggered from a small structure into the open space.

The dogs stopped and let their companion scamper ahead of them. He recognized what they had in their hands – sticks, large wooden sticks. One of them held a chain. That was a new one. He hadn’t seen any of them holding a chain before. They were kind of small, very short. He realized they were children; a fact that startled him more than the sight of the chain. Where did they come from?

He didn’t have much time to contemplate who they were and how they managed to get here. They started moving forward, shouting; their shrill voices scraping against his ears. They weren’t the sounds he had grown accustomed to hearing way back when. But he didn’t care. He couldn’t. He had to make sure the three of them got back to the red-brick building.

He reared up onto his hind legs and screamed at the group in front of him. His massive hooves slammed onto the hardened ground; generating enough of a dusty cloud to make the children hop back even further.

Then the one with the chain lunged forward; bleating out something, again unintelligible. He swung the chain towards the horse – missing him by a considerable distance. His tiny hand could barely hold onto it.

He began to rear up again, but not so much that the kid could yank the chain away. His left hoof came down directly onto the chain.

The kid stumbled backwards and fell. He was still closer to the horse than the others. He scrambled to get up.

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With one swift movement of his left leg, he propelled the chain behind him. It rolled along the ground, like a snake. He jumped forward and reared up again; bellowing into the sunlight. When he came down, both of his front hooves landed on the kid. The little one’s chest exploded. He reached down, wrapped his teeth around the kid’s neck and hurtled him into the air. The kid’s flattened body cartwheeled several dizzying times before it plowed into a bundle of shrubs.

The horse turned to the other kids who had begun retreating. The dogs moved pass the area, each glaring at the children. The kids stepped further away from the horse. Finally, he joined his comrades.

The trio hurried to the red-brick building. They had to feed their people. They knew plenty of rabbits, squirrels and other small creatures populated the region. But none were ever enough to sustain the families.

The three trotted up the concrete ramp into the building and back down towards the garage area. People were screaming – shrieks and groans that echoed throughout the structure.

The other dogs and horses met them with casual, if yet relieved gazes. These trips for rabbits and things were always dangerous. Children with chains and sticks comprised only a small portion of that peril. More people roamed around out there.

Guarded by more dogs, the two canines crept towards the pit. A scrawny woman with reddish-blonde hair moved towards them. Her “brother” – or whoever he was, a short man with blondish-brown hair – stayed further back. The woman turned to him, and he crawled forward.

The dogs hurtled their kills towards the woman and the man. They began devouring them. These two were different; they were more subdued than the other people had been. Most had been considerably more aggressive; hence the need for the whole pack of dogs and horses to remain together and travel in groups, whenever they left the building.

The dogs moved back. Once the duo had finished the rabbits, they’d feast as well – all of them. Dogs and horses; they’d be set for a few days.

Then they’ll open the water faucets and hope more people would find their way to the building.

leaking overflow pipe

© 2016

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I’m Just Not Ready to Let You Go

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“Oh, yes,” my mother moaned, exasperated. “Just take me. Please, just let me go. Take me now.”

She’d consumed several Tylenol Migraine pills to quell yet another relentless headache that prevented her from sleeping, and my father had admonished her.

“You’re going to overdose and die!” he said matter-of-factly, as if he was a cardiologist talking to an obese man who’d just had open-heart surgery and still refused to give up beer and hamburgers.

“That’s fine,” my mother replied, equally blunt. “I’ve had enough.”

My dog, Wolfgang, looked at all of us, as we stood in my parents’ bedroom in the pre-dawn hours of some nondescript weekday. He finally sauntered back into my room and curled up with his towel. He’d always had a fetish for towels.

In the spring of 2005, I’d lived and worked in Oklahoma; laboring on a special project for the engineering company where I worked at the time. Wolfgang had stayed with my parents throughout most of that period, except for the month of May when I decided to bring him with me. Instead of flying into Tulsa and renting a car to drive to the work site, as we’d normally done, I’d rented a vehicle in suburban Dallas and drove up to Northeastern Oklahoma on a Sunday night. I just didn’t want to put him on a plane for a 30-minute flight just to end up in a car for an hour anyway.

One evening, as I sat at the desk in the room, scouring over my laptop, I noticed Wolfgang strolling out of the bathroom – a damp, dirty hotel towel in his mouth. I had a small pile of towels beneath the sink. I didn’t allow housekeeping into the room, unless I was there. I didn’t want to take the chance that Wolfgang would dart from the room in a frenzy and somehow make it out of the hotel into highly unfamiliar territory. I’d grown too attached to him by then; only two years after I’d taken custody of him from a troubled ex-roommate.

A few minutes later I looked again at him and was startled to see all of those damp towels stacked in front of the closet. He’d literally hauled every one of them out of the bathroom and then plopped down in front of the stack. I chuckled. Dogs do the funniest things sometimes; things only they fully comprehend and amuse we befuddled humans.

He was almost three back then. Now, he was eleven and just didn’t want to be bothered by the drama we bipedals have the tendency to create. I turned back to my parents. My father merely stared at the lamp on a nightstand, while mother rubbed her forehead; more out of frustration, I suspected, than pain.

I massaged my forehead, too. At their age, they were enduring – sometimes just tolerating – the physical quandaries of a long life. My mother with her headaches; my father with his acid reflux. On nights – mornings – like this, they sometimes openly wished they’d just die. They were tired; they’d had enough. I heard Wolfgang sigh.

There’s a price to pay for living so many years. You get to experience a number of different things. Hopefully, most are good, but for certain, many are bad. Regardless, at some point during that time, you fall in love; you laugh; you dream; you enjoy good food and beverages; you dance; you ogle at sunsets and sunrises; you may have children; you might have a pet; you become sad; you get angry; you work; you get sick; you drive a vehicle; you fall and break something; you meet all sorts of people; and you die. You can’t possibly live as long as my parents have and not go through a few bumps and bruises. You don’t even live to be my age – 50 – and experience some of that.

Last summer Wolfgang fell mysteriously ill. I was recuperating from a freak accident here at the house in which I’d severely damaged my right arm and hand. For some reason, amidst my frustrating recovery and exhaustive job searches, Wolfgang became incredibly lethargic; he’d yelp if he barked. Even the slightest growl seemed to hurt him. Then, he began urinating spontaneously, as if he’d grown so old he couldn’t control his bladder. My priorities shifted – and I thought back eleven years.

In August of 2002, my then-roommate Tom* had to put his miniature schnauzer, Zach, to sleep. In the few days preceding his demise, Zach began throwing up and urinating uncontrollably. His body shrunk so much we could see his ribs. It turned out he had a kidney infection. If Tom had gotten Zach to a vet in time, he probably could have saved him. Shortly after Zach’s death, Tom got a new puppy; the one I’d adopt when we parted ways in January 2003 and would rename Wolfgang. Zach had been 11 when he died, and I wondered last summer if Wolfgang was facing his mortality. His vet diagnosed a mild intestinal infection; an ailment a couple of shots resolved. But, it was a frightening week – for all of us. I caressed Wolfgang’s downy ears one night and whispered, “You can’t leave me now. I’m not ready to let you go.” And, I wasn’t and I’m still not.

My father sat near his computer one evening last fall, after doctors had confirmed that his acid reflux was more critical than anyone had realized. His gastroenterologist had referred him to a colleague who – unbeknownst to her – wasn’t accepting new patients. He referred my father to a younger colleague; a doctor who, although pleasant and affable, looked like he’d just graduated from high school. My father said bluntly on this one particular evening that he was waiting for his parents to come get him.

“No,” I said, “not now. I’m not ready for that.”

My father and I want to write a book about our family history. On his mother’s side, we are descendants of Queen Isabella of Spain, the woman who financed Christopher Columbus’ voyage westward across the Atlantic. On his father’s side, we are descendants of Spanish noblemen who first arrived in what is now South Texas in 1585. My father began doing genealogical research in 1990 as a hobby; a way to spend the free time he’d encountered while working part-time at a printing shop. He’d been a full-time employee since before I was born. Then, in 1989, the company owner laid off him and a few others; only to rehire them as contract employees. The genealogy metamorphosed from a quaint past time to a heartfelt passion. The book I want to write with him would be a true labor of love. I couldn’t do it alone.

“I talk to Margo sometimes,” my mother revealed one day. Her older sister died of cancer in 1989 at the age of 59. “I talk to her when I’m ironing, or doing the dishes, or folding towels.”

That, I realized, provided her with a sense of normalcy. Like my father, my mother has never lived alone. She’s always been with someone. She came from a time when women got married young and had a family. Career women were alien creatures; unmarried women without children were subhuman. When I was born, my father didn’t want her to return to work – ever. But, she did – and retired at the age of 70.

I get so frustrated with everything here – bouncing back and forth between my parents’ all-consuming ailments, my unpaid student loans, recycled resumes – that I want to grab Wolfgang and everything I could pack into my truck and just go. Leave. Run away. Far away. Some place no one knows me. And, start all over.

I can’t. I just can’t. It’s not a question of fortitude or finances. It’s a matter of love and commitment. I can’t forsake the people who brought me into this world.

“I think I’m going to die in this house,” I told a close friend over lunch at a favorite restaurant.

“What’s wrong with that?” he replied, looking at me as if though I dreaded such a day.

“Nothing! I’m just saying I think I’ll die in that house – alone.”

Hopefully, alone – meaning no dogs will be trapped in here with me. I never got married and had children and I’ve never had any long-term relationships. But, I see a future as a secluded writer with dogs rescued from shelters.

Wolfgang will be 12 in a couple of weeks, and my parents bide their time; my mother doing crossword puzzles, and my father digging through ancient church documents. Sometime, I’ll have to let them all go.

But, not just yet.

A “tango lily” from our back yard.

A “tango lily” from our back yard.

*Name changed.

© 2014

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A Special Moment Between Two Very Special Individuals

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Goodbye to Another Cyber Friend

For the second time in less than a year, I’ve pissed off a cyber friend.  This time it was over something rather innocuous – at least in my opinion.  But, you never how people will react to things.  Last year a guy told me to remove his email address from my list.  I complied without a word.  I really didn’t know him, as we’d met online.  Strangely enough, though, he connected with me through Facebook several months ago.  Okay, great, I thought.  Can’t stay mad forever!  What good are cyber friends, if you can’t connect with them anyway?

Ironically, I met that guy through Gary, the one who told me Sunday night to stop sending him “dog crap.”  He means any information about dogs – funny or serious.  As a canine devotee, it’s almost impossible for me NOT to send out something related to the loveable beasts.  But apparently, Gary hates dogs bad enough that the mere mention of them turns his bulging stomach.  I thought he was just joking, or having one hell of a Maalox moment.  But, he issued me a dire warning: send him anymore “dog crap,” and he’ll spam me.  Oh my God!  Not the dreaded spam folder!  That’s not as bad as being blocked – the “Death Penalty” of the e-world – but it’s still pretty hideous.  When someone blocks your email address, you’ve either called them for bail money once too often, or said they look fat in designer overalls.  The spam folder is your computer’s automatic trash disposal; a dumping ground; slush pile.  If you send them a birthday greeting, they won’t get it.  If you tell them you’re dying of cancer and want to make amends, they won’t see it, and you’ll die without either of you knowing what could have been.  If you find an extra World War II bond and offer it to them with a 48-hour acceptance deadline, or it’ll go to charity, they won’t notice it.

I had met Gary more than a decade ago via a web site he runs.  We struck up a quick and curious electronic friendship.  He gave me pointers on taking digital photographs and setting up this blog.  He’s liked my stories and essays.  We’ve had disagreements before – usually over something much more serious, like race or gender.  But, dogs?  All this drama over an email I sent with the attachment below?  I don’t know what’s wrong with Gary, but it must have struck a raw nerve.  I didn’t think anybody could despise dogs that much.  I’m not a cat person, but I don’t get upset when someone sends me cat stuff.  I’ve never threatened to – SPAM someone over a cat-related email.

Gary had gotten annoyed with me recently about another email I sent out regarding pit bulls being put down, or something, with my comment about there being no bad dogs, just bad people.  Gary replied, ‘Yea, until it attacks your kid sister.’  I don’t have a kid sister, or brother, so I can’t relate.  But, when I sent out this one email, he replied, ‘My sister is still injured, and you’re not helping!’  Whoa, I thought.  Is this for real?  Surely not.  So, I replied again – this is where I guess I made my big mistake – pointing out that he was “the only one bitching about the dogs.”  And, that’s what did it.  That sent him over the edge.

If his sister – or any other relative was attacked by a vicious dog – I can empathize.  That would be a horrible sight.  My mother became terrified of Dobermans at the age of 6 when, she saw one attack a man.  Her family had a golden retriever-type dog at the time.  I have a sepia-toned picture of her at age 2 with it.  But, my mother eventually developed a phobia about all big dogs.  Still, she swallowed her fear, when we moved to suburban Dallas in 1972, and my folks got me a German shepherd.  She fell in love with that dog as much as I did.  Then, some neighbors bought a Doberman puppy; a chocolate one who developed an affection for my mother.  He was the type of dog that, once you touched him, you had to keep touching him, or he’d nudge the crap out of your hand.  But amazingly, my mother would sit there at the neighbor’s house and caress that mocha monstrosity that looked like a small horse.

Gary, however, seems to think animals have the exact same psychology as humans and therefore, should be held accountable for their actions.  It’s kind of sad that we kill animals that show aggression towards humans and can’t be integrated into society.  When people display similar tendencies, we suggest aroma therapy.

The city of Dallas has launched an aggressive campaign to pick up stray animals and either try to socialize them, or euthanize them.  No word yet on how they’ll handle the city’s gallery of drug dealers, prostitutes and criminally insane homeless people.  But, I have the perfect solution!  Save the animals – even those that show aggression towards people – and kill the humans who show aggression towards others: human or animal.  It’ll save a boat load of money and heartache for everyone involved.  Their bodies can be used to train medical students, or feed rescued big cats.  Since these humans can’t be socialized back into society, I suggest at least neutering them to prevent their kind from breeding.  We need more German shepherds and Dobermans – not more homeless crack addicts.

But, Gary feels humans who commit even the most heinous of crimes shouldn’t be put to death; they should be sentenced to prison for life and made to suffer.  Like animals.  At taxpayer expense.  He’d never win political office in Texas.  In some ways, he’s a stereotypical West Coast liberal; the kind who thinks Jeffrey Dahmer was worth saving, but an unfriendly Rottweiler needs to be slaughtered because they’re not sociable.  He became frustrated whenever I made negative comments about Judaism and Islam, although he was just as hateful towards Christianity.  Personally, I’m an equally opportunity offender, since I deplore all three of those religions.  As a recovering Catholic, I feel I’m entitled to such angst.

Animals, of course, don’t possess religious beliefs.  In that regard, they’re much more highly evolved than humans.  But, like humans, animals are products of their environment.  If an animal has lived a life of abuse and neglect, their natural response to a person is hostile.  Who can blame them?  Yet, because of their limited mental capacity (relatively speaking), I feel they should be forgiven.  When people react in such a hateful manner, they’re prescribed Xanax and a wine cooler.  If they’re lucky, they get to talk to Dr. Drew.  If they’re really lucky, porn studios reach out to them.  Look at Casey Anthony.

I’m not upset that Gary threatened to spam me.  I guess I need to be more considerate of other people’s feelings – especially those I met online.  Those relationships can be as fragile as the band width on which their lovingly formed.  I have done something with Gary that I haven’t done with many other cyber friends: I’ve talked to him on the phone.  But, that was a long time ago.  A lot of wine has passed over the tongue in the years since.  I said to hell with it and removed Gary altogether from my email address book.  I really didn’t know him THAT well.  But, even with one less email contact, I’ll still be able to pick up the tattered pieces of my life and move forward.  Besides, I have other things to worry about: my new full-time job, my elderly parents and my dog who’s having trouble getting used to me being gone all day.  But, who knows?  I may meet Gary again in another electronic life – with a bottle of wine in one hand and a big black snarling canine at my side!

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