A Small Furry Prayer: Dog Rescue and the Meaning of Lifeby Steven Kotler
Steven Kotler, author of the surfing classic West of Jesus,
peers through the lenses of science and spirituality to examine the
world of dog rescue, and what dogs can teach us about how to live and
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Steven Kotler, author of the surfing classic West of Jesus,
peers through the lenses of science and spirituality to examine the
world of dog rescue, and what dogs can teach us about how to live and
A journalist and lifelong dog lover attests to the joy and the emotional fallout behind animal-rescue work.
In the poignant preface, Kotler (West of Jesus: Surfing, Science and the Origins of Belief, 2006, etc.) movingly describes his psychologically exhaustion after the death of seven dogs in as many weeks at his New Mexico canine sanctuary, Rancho de Chihuahua. The altruistic author, who has battled Lyme disease, recounts his many years of selflessly caring for special-needs dogs ("the very old, the very sick, the really retarded") with his wife, Joy, a fiercely devoted dog lover who spearheaded the effort. Kotler backtracks to early 2007 when he and Joy (then his girlfriend)—both writers, both broke—were unceremoniously booted out of their tiny Los Angeles home and immediately drove to Chimayo, N.M. Tucked in a dusty valley north of Santa Fe, Chimayo has a 60 percent poverty rate and is a regular target for federal drug raids. The region is also "the black tar heroin overdose capital" of America, a religious hotbed of miracle healings and supreme outlaw territory for "bikers and bandits and beatniks." Amid isolation, uncertainty and overcrowding, it became home for Kotler, his wife and their amassed pack of rescues. Kotler lovingly describes pups like Gidget, rescued at barely two pounds; Ahab, formerly abused and harboring separation anxiety; Squirt, an obese "dachshund-pug hybrid"; and Salty, a "shell-shocked" three-pound Chihuahua with heartworm. Then there was Leo, a mangy pit bull who became the author's first rescue in New Mexico, was euthanized before he could become adopted. In the strongest scenes, the book drives home the agony of pet loss. Kotler offers a touching account of Chihuahua adventures alongside interesting blurbs on the history of pet ownership, canine ethology, the semantics of the dog-adoption process, homosexuality in nature and the intricate science behind canine domestication.
A heartfelt example of humanitarianism at work.
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A SMALL FURRY PRAYERDOG RESCUE AND THE MEANING OF LIFE
By STEVEN KOTLER
BLOOMSBURY USACopyright © 2010 Steven Kotler
All right reserved.
Chapter OneNot too long ago, I took all the money I had in the world and bought a postage stamp of a farm in Chimayo, New Mexico. It was an impulse buy. I didn't know much about country living, had never entertained secret pastoral fantasies. One moment I was a money-grubbing bastard, the next a guy negotiating for a donkey. Sure, there was the recent conclusion that nothing in common remained between the life I had imagined and the one I was leading—but did farm animals solve this particular problem?
It wasn't much of a problem. Just another existential crisis in the early spring of 2007, and they were in fashion that year. It was the season of nowhere to hide. The economy was lousy, the ice caps melting. There were water wars on the horizon and oil wars under way, and those bees kept dying. Global pandemic came back on the menu. We were freakishly short of food. And this, the experts said, was just the warm-up round. The term scientists have coined for our current planetary die-off is the "Sixth Great Extinction." I couldn't remember ever not feeling tired. All that seemed clear was that at some point we had butchered the job and begun to call up down and right left, and just about everybody I knew could no longer find their way home.
Like others, I had learned the necessary stagecraft. During my waking hours I was a competent enough act as far as such things were concerned: a journalist by trade; a taker of notes, meetings, and an acceptable level of nonprescription pharmaceuticals; a waterer of house plants; fully capable of handling most cutlery; able to recall Spencer Tracy's advice on thesping—"remember your lines and don't walk into the furniture"—during those times of need. As I turned forty that year, there had been plenty of times of need.
In four de cades I'd managed to accumulate some hard facts, but little true wisdom. I can say for certain that the Fifth Great Extinction was the one that killed off the dinosaurs, but didn't think to ask anyone a question about Chimayo before moving there. I was unaware that my new home sits in the heart of the Española Valley and that the Rio Grande Sun is the newspaper that serves that valley. I did not know that the Sun's weekly police blotter had lately become something of a national amusement. Jay Leno liked the woman who smuggled heroin inside a burrito to her boyfriend in jail. National Public Radio liked the man "in a white Dodge chasing people around with a sword" and the guy wearing "a blue sweater and blue pants talking to the robotic horse in front of the grocery store," and the one who "challenged his entire family to a fight and was presently hitting his mother."
It had also escaped notice that Chimayo has one of the highest rates of drug addiction in the country and that a significant portion of the local population was arrested in September 1999 when Operation Tar Pit swept through town. Nor did I hear the August 18, 2005, NPR broadcast that included the commentary of local clean-living activist Dr. Fernando Bayardo, who pointed out that such abuse has been entrenched in this area for over fifty years. "You have a grandmother shooting up with a grandchild. You have family members shooting up together. It's not something the teenage son hides from other family members. How are you going to change those unhealthy lifestyles and habits and develop new norms?"
I had no idea how to develop new norms. All that was certain was that my girlfriend and I had been thrown out of our house in Los Angeles with no other options beyond the just plain dumb. In our case, the just plain dumb was deciding to bet everything on a bunch of dogs and a pie-in-the-sky list of homesteading desires. The dogs we'll get to in a moment. The desires were organized into a wish list of sorts, written the night after we'd learned we were being booted, in a state of not so quiet desperation. A number of the items on that list were critical. My girlfriend had lupus. I had Lyme. Together we were two tenors with multiple sclerosis shy of an autoimmune quartet. We needed long days of brilliant sunshine because we needed to walk. Few zoning restrictions and lots of space were also important because we had a bunch of animals and plans for more. Unfortunately, what we didn't have was all that much money.
The only location in America that fit all our desires was Santa Fe, New Mexico, but Santa Fe was nearly as expensive as Los Angeles. Maybe an outlying community that had escaped the housing boom was the pipe dream. Oprah Winfrey had a ten-million-dollar mansion in the only outlying community we'd heard about, so maybe this was the crack-pipe dream. There were forty items on our wish list. We had the bud get for ten. The thing about Chimayo—we got thirty-nine. I should have known there was a pretty good reason for this, but by the time that puzzle was solved, talking to a robotic horse in front of the grocery store made as much sense as anything else I could think up.
Chapter TwoAbout six weeks before I bought the farm, I decided that life weighed too much. So I gave away three thousand books, six garbage bags of clothing, four bookcases, three chairs, three backpacks, two tables, two pairs of skis, two surfboards, two computers, an old skateboard, a torn tent, a packed filing cabinet, a small comic book collection, some entomological gear left over from the bug-collecting phase, a bit of pornography—two-thirds of everything by the end. I had decided to move in with my girlfriend. She lived in a very small house.
My girlfriend's name is Joy. Her small house sat just south of the Santa Monica Mountains, just north of Hollywood, in the township of Los Feliz—two words that translate from Spanish to English as "the happy." Nearby is the Griffith Park Observatory, the Greek Theater, and the three thousand other acres that collectively make up Griffith Park. The park was bequeathed to the city of Los Angeles in December 1896, a sort of Christmas present from the appropriately named Griffith J. Griffith. His gift came with only one condition: "It must be made a place of recreation and rest for the masses, a resort for the rank and file, for the plain people." We were the plain people and—for a short while—we lived in the happy.
Our house was rented, cheap, possibly haunted, and measured out to exactly 666 square feet. It perched atop a steep cliff, surrounded by a dense thicket of tall trees. Inside, a small living room gave way to a smaller bedroom and on into a kitchen the size of a ship's galley. Everywhere, the paint peeled and pipes broke. There were cracks in the walls, holes in the floor, and doors that wouldn't quite shut. Even the stairs leading up that cliff were not much more than a makeshift ladder of rotting wood, but life at the top was quiet and calm and the living room was a wall of windows. We had fallen in love looking out those windows, looking at our view of the happy.
Mahatma Gandhi once said, "There is more to life than increasing its speed," and while I agree completely, two weeks after Joy and I moved in together, we moved out together. There was no other choice. Our landlord had bought too many properties back when the getting was good. In person, he'd told us ours was the last he'd planned on developing. "Two years at least—and a six-month warning before I give you the boot," was what he'd said. We had been going on faith here, as none of this was in writing. In writing was an already expired lease followed by a month-to-month contract. That contract gave us thirty days to vacate and no recourse. When we mentioned lawyers, he mentioned the ASPCA. That, as they say, was the end of that.
Our problems were more than a few. The first was simple economics. We were broke. Certainly I had the money to buy that house in New Mexico, but that was the entirety of my savings account, and we'd been living off that savings account for much of the past year. We were both writers. The magazine industry was in the tank, and the publishing industry wasn't far behind. It was a silly time to try to make a living out of words, but it was a silly time in general. Anyway, our real problem was the dogs.
The reason we lived in a broken-down house atop a steep cliff was that that house came with an exceptionally large yard and exceptionally few neighbors and we needed both because there are seven animal shelters in Los Angeles and dozens more in surrounding communities. At capacity the bigger ones hold about two hundred animals, and they're almost always at capacity. There's only one way to make more space. Canines may be man's best friend, but most of these shelters still have ninety percent kill rates. They euthanize more than a thousand dogs a month in the City of Angels, and Joy spent much of her time trying to even those odds.
Dog rescue involves plucking a dog off death row in the hopes of eventually finding the animal a home. Most of these animals arrive in pretty poor shape. Rehab takes months of hard work. It often takes thousands of dollars in medical care—much of which comes out of the rescuer's pocket. Occasionally, after all that, some of these dogs end up too sick or too difficult to be adoptable. Dog rescuers call these "lifers." In my late twenties, an old girlfriend awoke one morning to end our relationship. "I want eight kids, you don't want any," was her reasoning. While I couldn't fault her logic, she'd long known of my antipathy toward children. It had taken her over a year to realize there was no changing my mind. Not much later, for advertising purposes, I printed up a T-shirt reading Dogs Not Kids. I still feel that way—but lifers add a whole other dimension to the equation.
Years back, Joy had started out rescuing English bull terriers. For those unfamiliar, these are squat white beasts created by some eighteenth-century madman intent on crossing a bulldog, a pit bull, and a Dalmatian. They were bred for bull baiting, a process that involved leaping at the underbelly of a bull, clamping jaws to testicles, and applying something like sixteen hundred pounds per square inch of pressure to said testicles. Eventually the bull fell down. Then the dogs released the balls and tore out the throat. Until it was outlawed in 1835, this is what passed for fun in Britain.
Afterward, bull terriers became fighting dogs, meaning they were still bred for aggression. Their albino coats are highly prized, but the inbreeding required for such coloration leaves them with compromised immune systems and limited social skills. They also have an extremely short intestinal tract, which leads to bad digestion and worse gas. The results are an aggressive, easily agitated, stubborn, single-minded fireplug of a fart machine so damn macho that the only other dogs Joy's bull terrier wouldn't attack on sight were Chihuahuas—thus she had five of them.
And there was also some kind of dachshund-beagle hybrid, and then my half-husky, half-Rottweiler got added into the mix. We totaled out at eight—and they were all lifers. This was a little tricky since Los Angeles's canines-per-household law specifies three as the legal limit. Trying to find a landlord willing to bend this rule under the best of circumstances was difficult. Then the real estate market stalled and the rental market soared. The city's occupancy rate stood at 96 percent. Under such conditions, finding an affordable apartment that took eight dogs was right up there with world peace and ample leg room in coach class on the list of things that weren't going to happen anytime soon.
It was a Sunday when we found out our house was being sold. I came back from running errands to find Joy crying on the couch. She told me the landlord had dropped the hammer, and then told me she had made a decision. She was moving to Mexico, where life was cheap and they didn't care how many dogs one owned. I had no desire to live in Mexico. I had no chance to revive my career in Mexico. This wasn't, it is worth pointing out, her first choice. It was her last chance. She knew I couldn't move to Mexico with her, but it had taken over two years of constant looking to find our small house and we didn't have two years. We had less than a month—and almost no money. She couldn't stand the thought of being a burden. "You want a life in the city, a great career, and you're not going to get that with me and my dogs."
All of which might be true. It was also true that I didn't want those things anymore. What I wanted was to feel like something in this world mattered, even if it had been a long time since that had been the case. What was the case was that I've been downright silly for Joy ever since the day we met. I gave away a lot of stuff to move in with her, and truthfully, it all could have gone. Most days, my gal and her dogs were the only things around worth keeping. So no, none of us were going to Mexico, though all of us were going somewhere—that much for sure.
Chapter Three"I have measured out my life with coffee spoons" are nine words that T. S. Eliot once wrote. During the period of time I'm talking about I would often repeat these words to myself as some kind of talisman, meant to ward off ... well, I was never quite sure. They were often stuck in my head when I was stuck in traffic, among the hundred-foot billboards, the thousand-dollar haircuts, the everybody with their shopping bags, the endless repetition of strip malls and strip clubs and suntans—this whole mad crush that was often Los Angeles. These words were my way of putting into perspective the feeling that had become much of my day. I was forty years old and no longer sure my life meant much of anything.
I had come into adulthood equipped with the essentially romantic delusion that life would get easier. It had not gotten easier, but had gotten something. I began making choices. I gave up cooking for thirty seconds in the micro wave. I wrote books but stopped reading. I missed the days when the drugs did the work. I wasn't unhappy so much as unsure. Just the constant sensation that whatever else might be true, this was definitely not what I'd ordered.
It was a time when I wasn't alone in questioning the way I was living. Joy and I had been having philosophical differences. When being polite, we called these differences "art versus altruism." We were not always polite. I believed in creativity, the act of making something from nothing, the high-minded transfer of inspiration, and other such claptrap. She felt the making of art was inherently selfish, and instead trumpeted the quiet generosity of laying it all on the line for every blessed creature. It doesn't sound like much of a fight—but it was.
What seemed to be at stake was the best way to live in the world; what was really at stake was the best way to live together. Dog rescue is often emotionally exhausting and physically time-swallowing, while freelance writing is more of the same. Love doesn't always hold up under those conditions. Joy's had both ex-boyfriends and ex-husbands grow jealous of her dogs—which helps explain how they became exes—while I hadn't managed a long-term relationship in de cades.
Then there was our financial future. Neither of our causes came with a great paycheck, a downside I combated with the traditional metaphysics: do what you love and the rest will follow. But with both of us doing what we loved, would the rest really follow? And if one of us had to get a real job? Since her higher calling involved living creatures and mine involved putting words together in a straight line, common sense said I should be the one to make the sacrifice. Unfortunately, in my experience, common sense and higher callings are contradictions in terms.
It was into this debate that a dog named Damien arrived. He was not much over ten pounds, flea-bit and back broke. His entire life had been spent tied to a radiator, his home range a two-foot patch of hard-packed dirt, his collar a thin metal chain dug so deep into his flesh it required surgery to remove. There were plenty of available comforts lying around; Damien was past the point of available comforts. For his first three months with us, he stayed beneath the house, living inside an old truck tire, trying to kill anything that came close. And more and more, I was coming around to his perspective.
It was clearly time for a change. Joy's side of the argument hinged on the crucial fact that besides doing animal rescue she was also a writer, with two books to her name and more success than had ever come my way. She had lived the art and preferred the altruism. Until I'd done the same, in her opinion, my opinion remained suspect.
Excerpted from A SMALL FURRY PRAYER by STEVEN KOTLER Copyright © 2010 by Steven Kotler. Excerpted by permission of BLOOMSBURY USA. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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