From the Mouths of Dogs: What Our Pets Teach Us about Life, Death, and Being Human

From the Mouths of Dogs: What Our Pets Teach Us about Life, Death, and Being Human

by B.J. Hollars


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780803277298
Publisher: UNP - Nebraska
Publication date: 11/01/2015
Pages: 224
Sales rank: 587,635
Product dimensions: 8.60(w) x 5.60(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

B.J. Hollars is an assistant professor of English at the University of Wisconsin–Eau Claire. He is the author of Opening the Doors: The Desegregation of the University of Alabamaand the Fight for Civil Rights in Tuscaloosa (winner of the Society of Midland Authors Award and the Blei/Derleth Nonfiction Award) and Thirteen Loops: Race, Violence, and the Last Lynching in America, among others.  

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From the Mouths of Dogs

What Our Pets Teach Us about Life, Death, and Being Human

By B.J. Hollars


Copyright © 2015 Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8032-8491-3


Sniffing for Trouble

The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated. — Mahatma Gandhi

One early Saturday morning in the fall of 2009, I received a phone call from a neighbor friend in need of assistance. She'd been biking Alabama's rural roads when she stumbled upon a puppy hobbling in the tall grass.

"You found a puppy?" I asked. "What kind?"

"The tiny kind."

Laying her bike to the edge of the road, she kept that puppy company until my blue Ford Focus pulled alongside them half an hour later.

After I stepped from the car and examined the puppy, it became clear she wasn't joking about its size. The puppy was tiny — tinier than tiny — and more closely resembled a poorly fed pig or squirrel than any dog I'd ever seen.

She recounted how she'd found it there, wandering helplessly along the road, and figured maybe I could give it a lift back to the neighborhood.

"Where'd she come from?" I asked, staring out at the endless stretch of fields.

My friend shrugged, said my guess was as good as hers.

I cupped the puppy in my palm and drove her to the cul-de-sac of duplexes that my friend and I called home. I'd hardly stepped from the car when I was greeted by a few of our fellow graduate school writer friends, all of whom wanted to hear the story of the fur ball pressed tight to my chest.

I told them of our friend's rescue mission, how I'd merely served as chauffeur.

The pup's baleful eyes and helpless state tugged at our heartstrings, and though we were just humble graduate students (and thus broke) we still managed to pool together enough money to arrange for a vet visit.

"She's so cute," one friend remarked. "So terribly, terribly cute."

That terribly cute puppy peered up at us adoringly and then proceeded to hack up a pile of writhing worms.

Remarkably, the puppy survived that day, and the day after, and even the day after that. Though in our inexpert opinion she appeared to be just a little over a week old, we were surprised to learn that she was actually well over a month, though so malnourished her true age was masked by her maladies. The vet made the direness of her situation quite clear to us, though she offered a silver lining as well — with the proper treatment, and a good home, our pup could indeed survive.

Within days she began to stage her comeback, finding a home with a pair of neighbors who'd played an active role in her recovery. To this day, Pirl (a name that gives credit to both her pig and squirrel features) continues to be my former neighbors' loyal and faithful dog. Though technically she was a pit bull, when our landlord was present we were always careful to identify her by her formal breed name — American Staffordshire terrier — which was less a lie than a half-truth and imperative to protect Pirl from the breed bias working against her.

Though I've since moved from Alabama, every time I return to that land and reunite with that brown-and-white, barrel-chested dog, I can't help but be reminded how close she came to falling victim to the perils of a country road. And I am reminded also of the callousness of the human that left her there to die — which she would have, had my friend ridden a different route that day.

Why would someone leave her there? I wondered. What had afforded her that fate?

Had she been too small, too weak, or simply one of too many in the litter? Or worse, had she just been in the wrong place with the wrong person in the midst of somebody else's bad day?

It's hard to imagine a rationale in which her abandonment made logical sense. Any way I sliced it, leaving a puppy to fend for herself on a kudzu-lined country road seemed an act of cruelty — a trait I once naïvely believed pet owners could not possess.

These days, I know better.

I wish I didn't.

* * *

It's not difficult to find a love-struck pet owner; take a doggie biscuit, fling it into the nearest dog park, and you're bound to hit a dozen or two. Far more rare, I hope, is to find a pet owner with hate in his heart. Yet hate alone is not what spurs humans' abuses against animals. Rather, it's often something harder to peg — ambivalence, perhaps, or ignorance.

As I begin my search for lessons that animals might teach us, I decide to put a pin in the animal lovers (I already know them) and focus first on those who may feel otherwise, those who've been known to rule by cruelty or neglect or both.

In my home of Eau Claire, Wisconsin, no one knows these people better than Bekah Weitz.

Though just twenty-eight years old (and having been on the job, officially, for less than a year), Bekah — Eau Claire County's one and only humane officer — already has a keen sense of the people she's dealing with.

"Sometimes I see some terrible things," she warns me in our initial phone conversation, "but if you really want to ride along, well, just know it's not always going to be pretty."

It's with this understanding that I roll to a halt in the Eau Claire County Humane Association's (ECCHA) parking lot a few days later, anxious about — and dreading — the possibility of observing the cruelties that occur in my own backyard.

I step inside the ECCHA building — a no-frills structure just off Interstate 94 — and knock on Bekah's closed office door.

From outside, I hear the squeak of her rolling chair, followed by the groan of the door being pulled wide.

"Hey, you must be B.J.," Bekah says, turning her attention from her computer screen. I nod, shake her hand, and thank her for allowing me to ride along for the day.

"No problem," she agrees, returning her attention to the screen. "I'm just trying to figure out our route."

I watch as she types various addresses into Google Maps, creating a gash-like purple line that carves a circle through the county, or at least a small part of it. With a population teetering at just over one hundred thousand, western Wisconsin's Eau Claire County consists of 645 square miles under Bekah's jurisdiction — an impossibly large area for a single humane officer to patrol. Yet Bekah does that to the best of her ability, entering a final address into Google Maps before excusing herself to retrieve the printed copy of our route.

I take a moment to peer around her office, which she shares with another ECCHA employee. It's small, spartan, though homey thanks to the photographs of family and dogs that line Bekah's half of the walls. Beneath the photos are several three-ring binders, each of them filled with the haunting details of the animal-related crimes that have recently occurred in this region.

"Oh, hey, Amber," Bekah calls, returning to her office to greet the twenty-five-year-old blonde woman who has just caught me gawking around the room. "Amber's a veterinary student down in Madison," Bekah explains as she snaps the printed map to her clipboard. "She'll be helping me out today, too."

I smile at Bekah's phrasing, which implies that I, "too," will be of some help to her, though I know better than to believe it. As an animal lover with a weak stomach — I can barely get through Walt Disney's Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey without choking up — I believe myself ill-equipped for the challenges that lie ahead of us. My hope is that I can simply endure the day by serving as the ever-present fly on the wall, listening quietly, intently, and learning as we go.

Waving good-bye to her coworkers, Bekah leads us past a few cats in the front lobby, then directs us to the red pickup with the "I [love] Dogs" magnet stuck to the tailgate.

Amber settles into the passenger seat while I slip into the back.

"I like driving my pickup," Bekah explains as she fastens the driver-side seat belt, "because when you're driving around rural parts of Wisconsin, you're a lot more inconspicuous this way."

"Do people try to hide from you?" I ask.

"Sometimes," she agrees, slipping on sunglasses, "but the bigger problem is that when they see the shelter van it gives them time to react, especially if they're doing something they're not supposed to be doing. 'Oh, gee, I better hide my puppy mill,'" Bekah says, her voice raising an octave as she tries her best puppy mill breeder impression. "This way," she says, pulling out of the lot, "I can be a little more under the radar."

"A little more covert ops," I agree.

"Exactly," she laughs, "a little more covert ops."

As she fits the GPS to the dash, she assures me she doesn't need the device for navigational purposes but, rather, to assist the police in tracking her location on the off chance she doesn't come back.

"It's always a worry for me," Bekah admits, turning right out of the humane society parking lot and speeding down Old Town Hall Road. "I've been shooting guns since I was five years old, but because I'm a Wisconsin humane officer, I can't carry a gun on duty. So oftentimes I go onto a property blind. And people forget that every type of person owns pets."

"What do you mean?" I ask.

"Pet ownership isn't exclusively for nice people," she explains, confirming what I'd learned after finding Pirl on that rural Alabama road so many years before. "Serial killers own pets, and rapists own pets, and child molesters own pets. Sometimes when I drive up a long driveway out in the country I think, 'Bekah, out here no one could hear you scream.'"

I gulp.

"So anyway," Bekah shrugs, adjusting the small black box as the road materializes onto the screen, "that's why I use a GPS. So if I disappear, they can find my body for my family."

I gulp again.

Bekah Weitz didn't always dream of pursuing the hardened life of a humane officer. Initially, she aspired to be a veterinarian, and if it weren't for the math requirements, she likely would have achieved her goal. Instead, she completed college with a history degree and, soon after, accepted a job at a local chiropractic office. There she whittled away the hours, collected a paycheck, but ultimately found little fulfillment in a job that didn't offer her opportunities to interact with animals.

"It was a good job," Bekah admits. "I had an office and a window and a salary — all the things you're supposed to want. But every day when I was at work I was constantly checking the classifieds. One day I saw that the Eau Claire County Humane Association was hiring. I applied, I got the job, and I immediately learned what it was like to wake up and want to go to work. I was just a kennel attendant back then," she laughs. "I literally just cleaned kennels. But I loved it."

She worked her way up from kennel attendant to adoption coordinator and, finally, to her current position as humane officer. Since 2008 she's worked in her current capacity, though she wasn't officially appointed until 2012, when the job opened up full time.

"I'm always going to conferences and seminars on animal welfare," Bekah says, "but I would say that in this job, nothing trumps experience."

Indeed, she's gained plenty of it — sometimes more than she'd like. Yet despite her years on the job, her task never becomes easier. Emotionally, it has actually become harder — each animal cruelty case serving to further wear away her optimism about humankind.

"The hardest things to see aren't always cases of neglect. Those are hard, they suck, but so does abject cruelty."

"Abject cruelty?" I ask, peeking my head past the truck's center console toward Bekah and Amber.

"You know," Bekah says as we veer onto Clairemont Avenue, "just the shit people do to be awful human beings."

As she says this, I'm reminded of a trick I learned on the first day of screenwriting class, an old chestnut said to have been used widely throughout the industry: in order to reveal the antagonist to your audience, simply show that person kicking a dog.

The implication is unmistakable, even to the most dimwitted moviegoer. Characters can be complex — and we can often forgive them their trespasses — but no one forgives a dog kicker.

Yet even in the world beyond the silver screen, plenty of people are hurting animals, and more often than not, they're hurting dogs. According to a 2011 report from the Humane Society of the United States, of the 1,880 animal cruelty cases reported in the media in 2007, 64.5 percent involved dogs, 18 percent involved cats, and 25 percent involved all other animals combined (some cases involved multiple species).

Why, I wonder, does man's so-called best friend bear the greatest burden of our abuses?

There's no easy answer, primarily because people who treat animals cruelly rarely conform to a single profile. As Bekah knows all too well, instances of animal abuse and neglect occur in both rural and urban settings, at the hands of both rich and poor, black and white, and across other geographic, socioeconomic, and racial barriers. In short, anyone with a temper and a bone to pick might very well choose to pick that bone with an animal.

What we do understand — thanks to a study by Stephen Kellert and Alan Felthous — is that those who abuse animals generally fit into one of nine typologies. To offer but a few: perpetrators' actions are said to be motivated by a desire to control an animal, retaliate (against either an animal or another person), express anger, or redirect anger from a person to an animal, among others. However, perhaps the most troubling typology describes perpetrators who abuse animals for no reason other than to experience sadism firsthand.

This last typology confirms what Bekah had mentioned to me just moments prior: that some people abuse animals just to be awful. It also confirms another of her claims: that pet ownership isn't exclusively for nice people.

For proof, you need only look to some of America's most notorious serial killers. Jeffrey Dahmer, Ted Bundy, and David Berkowitz, among others, all displayed a fascination with performing depraved acts against animals, leading criminal psychologists to believe that these animal abuses foreshadowed their later crimes against humans. As FBI supervisory agent Allen Brantley remarked in an interview, animal cruelty isn't merely a "harmless venting of emotion in a healthy individual" but "a warning sign."

These warning signs extend beyond the world of serial killers to include perpetrators of domestic abuse as well. According to a 1997 joint study between Northeastern University and the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, animal abusers are "five times more likely to commit violent crimes against people" than nonabusers are. That same year, a study by Frank Ascione and others further confirmed the connection, reporting that 71 percent of female domestic abuse victims surveyed "indicated that their boyfriend or husband had either threatened harm to their animals or had engaged in actual maltreatment and/or killing of an animal." Though other studies put the percentage slightly lower, the connection between animal abuse and domestic abuse is undeniable. More often than not, people who hurt animals hurt people too.

Fully aware of this connection, Bekah regularly finds herself making phone calls to child protective services as well as other domestic abuse agencies when she uncovers signs of animal abuse.

"Chances are, if someone's of the mind-set that they think they can treat an animal poorly, these people probably aren't going to win parent of the year," she explains. "These things kind of go hand in hand."

Yet on occasion, Bekah explains, the misguided pet owner acts out in an attempt to "protect" the family and, whether the perpetrator realizes it or not, exhibits several of Kellert and Felthous's typologies in the process.

"Probably the worst case I ever had involved this one guy," she begins. "His dog, his family dog — this twelve-year-old golden retriever — apparently bit his kid. From what I could tell, it was a total accident. The dog was lying on the ground, fast asleep, and the kid just fell on it. So the dog woke up, turned its head, and kind of bit at the child. It wasn't an evil dog. It was a good dog," Bekah says, glancing in the rearview while switching lanes. "Anyway, as a result of the bite, the man beat his dog to death with a shovel."

My heart sinks, and though I can't imagine the story getting any worse, it does.

"The thing that was really sad wasn't just that he killed his dog, but that when I went out there to investigate it, the dog didn't have any sort of indication on her body that she'd tried to get away. He had tied her up and beat her to death with a shovel, so normally you'd see ligature marks around the collar when she tried to run. But there were none, which means she just stood there. That was the sad part," Bekah says, her eyes hidden behind her shades. "Not that he killed her, but that she let him."


Excerpted from From the Mouths of Dogs by B.J. Hollars. Copyright © 2015 Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Author's Note

Introduction: Going to the Dogs

Part 1. Lessons Learned

1. Sniffing for Trouble

2. Old Dogs, New Schticks

3. Cruisin’ for a Bruiser

4. Follow the Leader

5. I Left My Heart in Hartsdale

Part 2. Lessons Lived

 6. Apollo’s Deed

 7. Bingo Was Her Name

 8. The Bionic Dog

 9. Letting Luna Lead

10. Travels with Sandy



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