Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The Last Free Dog

Lola died today. She was barely a year old. She ran across the street to greet some passing joggers and was hit by a car. It happened so quickly. Like most dogs living in the modern world, Lola didn’t know anything about cars. In a way, that’s a strange reality. Back when we had far fewer cars, dogs knew that they were dangerous and could skillfully avoid them. I’ve known these dogs. In fact, the last one I came to know—the last free dog—was the one who marked the standard for what the natural animal might become.

Chigger Road

There were no leash laws and the open range had been closed only three years prior to me finding myself in a small town in Oklahoma. The dogs I came to know there lived either on ranches and farms or in and around town. In either case, most were free to go where they wished and to do as they pleased. I spent time on working cattle ranches where dogs served in a variety of useful roles. Through their own natural inclinations they invented many of their jobs, like keeping opossums out of the barn and assisting in the herding of beef calves for vaccination and castration. They followed the ranch hands who rode out daily to check on stock and when they weren’t otherwise engaged, they would often explore the vast acreage together. The dogs who lived near me, closer to town, were also explorers. Most were in some way attached to a house or family but few were ever allowed inside. Some were lean and some looked as though they enjoyed some dinner scraps. Most were dirty and heavy with ticks each spring and fall. There were a variety of sizes and only a few resembled any particular breed. They roamed the environs in and around Chigger Road and made use of what they could find to satisfy their interests and stay alive. I offered incentives to encourage introductions, as I had done with the free-roaming suburban dogs of my youth. Word spread fast that I was giving attention and edibles to those who happened by and the shade of my front porch became a popular destination.

Among those who made use of my generosity was a black-and-white, freckled hound-of-a-dog. He was tall and lean, with flopped ears and a long, straight tail. I can’t say that he was handsome; he wasn’t. He would take food and sit next to me but would suffer no touching of any kind. I watched what I could of his activities and noticed him in a variety of places as I drove or rode my horse around the outskirts of town. He was independent and resourceful, wise and confident. No one I asked knew for sure, but a few thought that his name was Sando or Sandy.

The Canine-Created Life

Independent life presents its own pressures and one is the weather. Outdoor dogs often don’t survive the icy cold Oklahoma winters. Some of the Chigger Road dogs managed to stay warm by burrowing under a house or sneaking into a barn. I’d look for Sandy on the coldest nights and invite him inside for warmth and a meal. In the days that followed, he would bring things to my doorstep, well-selected items. Gifts perhaps, a way to thank me for my kindness? I would see him coming down the road with a plastic container, ribbon and other objects from trash tins and burn piles and then open my door to find it. While I was sure he was killing most of what he ate and needed to eat what he killed, he also gifted me with freshly dispatched squirrel and rabbit. Sometimes he would be there in the shade as I opened the door to find my surprise but most often he would be headed off on other business.

Having the ability to pass on his befreckeled, houndy appearance to offspring, Sandy often went journeying. The puppies he sired would surely have inherited his natural nature-intelligence, his cleverness and the ability to survive the extremes of hot and cold, lean and plenty, invitation and expulsion – qualities that helped a dog to be successful in a free life. He would return from his amorous adventures more thin then ever and spend long days in the company of the other canine visitors in the shade of my porch. When he was around, he would follow me often and seemed to know my habits, suddenly appearing in the places I regularly visited. He sat beside me in the failing light as I watched my horses in the pasture across the street. With confidence and grace, he became the patriarch of a family of a dozen or so “sooners”1 who found their way to food and affection at the first house on the left, Chigger Road.

I was constantly amazed at the ways in which Sandy imaginatively created and expressed the canine life. He was an explorer of the moment’s opportunities, intensely aware and incredibly involved in the spontaneous unfolding of life. He seemed to miss nothing in his wide world and by watching him I came to know when skunks were under the tack room floor and when the neighbor’s goat was up in the barn trying to pry the lids off the feed bins. He kept track of the movements of the nocturnal animals, following their scent trails in the dewy grass at dawn. If some had relocated into areas where he didn’t want them, he would expel them immediately.

In all of my observations of him, I would never see Sandy reach any type of physical, mental or emotional extreme. He was a portrait of stability and consistency. His range of actions and reactions arose from the confidence one might expect of a being who knows exactly how he fits into the scheme of reality – giving and taking by divine privilege and in divine service. He was a model of harmony and adaptability. His life seemed sure and suspended in some blessed state of neutrality where all was allowed and all forgiven, where each new moment was free of the weight of the one just past. I would never forget these observations. They would influence my journey through life and affect the living reality of the dogs with whom I would come to share it.

The long and unbroken line of resilient survivors that produced Sandy is gone now. In most places, dogs like him were methodically ushered off the streets; done away with or sterilized. Today’s dogs, like Lola, come from generations of forebears who have lived inside of homes where the most significant danger is an angry human. They have been created to meet little more than standards of appearance. These dogs don’t have knowledge of the world that we have made. They are completely dependant upon us to make all their decisions for them.

1. The term “Sooner” was used to describe a settler who entered the unassigned land located in what is now the state of Oklahoma before it was officially proclaimed to be open. The name derived from the "sooner clause" of the Indian Appropriation Act of 1889 which stated that no one should be allowed to enter and occupy the land prior to its official opening time. It came to be used to describe a dog of uncertain lineage, as in “He might just as soon be this breed as that.”

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