It was bitter cold today, and beautiful. I looked up and saw this winter tableau, the sheep waiting for their hay, Red on station prepared to keep them in their place. He was watching them, they were watching him, and both seemed to understand each other, as happens with border collies who know what they are doing, and sheep.
Red At Work: Afternoon Chores
Orson, The Good Dog: The Dog Who Was Murdered
One of my carriage horse columns was posted somewhere on Facebook the other day, and I was tagged in one of the replies, which challenged my right to speak for the carriage horses and said something like "Jon Katz is a murderer, he executed a healthy dog for no reason." I get called a murderer or worse from time to time, I know they are speaking of Orson, and Mr. Sibler's comment reminded me of Orson, one of the great dogs to enter my life.
There is no talking to people like that, of course, but we share the same universe, they have a right to live too. I do not need to answer them, I have many problems, but I have never needed the approval or acceptance of other people, and that is a fortunate thing.
Curious, but I do not have a photo of Orson. He lived with me before I was a photographer, and I threw away or gave away the other photos other photographers took of him. I remember, but I do not look back. I am grateful for my life now, and choose to live it in the moment. Nostalgia, for me, is just another trap, a road that leads nowhere.
Orson brought me to animal writing, he led me to sheep-herding and to Bedlam Farm, a movie was made about his life with me, and of course, I loved him very much. I wrote two of my favorite of my 27 books about him, "A Dog Year," and "A Good Dog," and I am often asked if I regret my decision to euthanize him after he bit an eight-year-old boy on the neck one summer afternoon.
No, I say, I do not. I think there are people who imagine I will eventually decide it was all a mistake, but it was not a mistake for me, it was one of the better decisions of my life, especially coming at a time when I was making few good ones. It was the most ethical and selfless decision I have ever made, it set me on the road to love and maturity and to understanding the truth about the real lives of real animals. It made me a writer of animals rather than a lover of pets.
It was almost impossible to contain Orson, he was a genius of escape. He went over fences and dug under them, undid latches, chewed through crates and wire mesh screens. He had bitten or nipped a half dozen people, two seriously, and I rationalized each one. They approached him foolishly, it was hot, he was excited or confused. It wasn't his fault.
It wasn't, of course, there are really no good dogs or bad dogs, just animals that behave differently under different circumstances. Our hubris says we can fix them all, the reality of the world says otherwise. We are arrogant.
Then an eight-year-old boy came by on his bicycle one warm day, I remember every detail of that afternoon, even the colors of the flowers in the garden. Orson was lying in the garden, behind the new and tougher and supposedly "escape-proof" fence I had installed. The boy leaned over to pet him and Orson leaped up over a thick bush and bit him deeply on the neck, just below the chin. The boy was stunned, he had this disbelieving look on his face, and I saw the blood spurt from his neck three or four feet into the air, and then begin to spread down his shirt, all the way to his belly.
The boy began to scream.
It is not something I will ever forget when I think of that dog. A volunteer firefighter was driving by in his truck and saw the blood and pulled over and gave the boy a tourniquet and perhaps saved his life. I sat next to Orson and cried, as he shook and put his head on my lap. It was one of the very first and most powerful steps in my work communicating with animals, I think Orson and I realized at the same moment what had to happen, what was going to happen. "This can never happen again," I told him, " I can never again say I didn't know what might happen. I never wish to see another look on a child's face like that."
And he smelled my emotions, looked at me, sensed my feelings, and I very clearly and powerfully heard his message to me, not in words but images and feelings and instincts. "I can't live in this world, " he said. "I have to go, I have led you from your unhappy life to this one. You have to let me go. I don't wish to make you unhappy, I don't wish to hurt any human. I need to go home."
Orson and I had been on a wild journey together, in the past year of his life, I lost perspective, I spent nearly $15,000 over the two years of Orson's decline on behaviorists, tests, neurological exams, veterinary examinations and medications, holistic practitioners, psychics and shamans. There was evidence of neurological damage, a neural disorder. Orson showed me an image of a stream and a field, a sea of blue lights, his true home, I think, a shaman described it to me, I wrote about it in "A Good Dog."
It is good for me to write this and remember him, I do not write it in apology or regret, I have no apologies to make about Orson, I do have sadness. The behaviorists and doctors told me he was broken, and no one knew a way to fix him, there was not enough money for that. He was not a dog who could be confined in small spaces apart from me, that would have been an especially cruel and selfish choice for him and for me. Orson taught me many things, and changed my life, one thing he taught me was the true nature of real animals, they are not all the same, they cannot all be fixed and saved.
We humans are much more selfish than animals, we abuse them in new ways all the time in order to feel good about ourselves ad superior to other people. Animals do not need to do that, they would not keep humans alive beyond all meaning or reason, or force them into crates for years, even if they could. I am grateful I did not have that on my conscience as well.
I could never have sent Orson off to harm another human being, although there are many who tell me they know they could have fixed him, turned him around, saved and rescue him. Maybe so, but the greatest lesson he taught me to was to stand in my truth, affirm my convictions. Ethics are about what we feel, not what others tell us to feel. If you cannot stand in your own truth, you are a hollow man with an empty soul. The only person I have to please is me.
Being called a murderer from time to time – I am always surprised how many people believe they loved him more than I did – is really a small price to pay for the gifts Orson gave me, and every time I called such a name I feel stronger and more clear about what I am and who I want to be. How strange we humans are, Orson showed me how to be strong. And being called names does remind me to think about him, that is a good thing.
Orson was nothing but good for me, and I thank him often, he was a firebomb right down my chimney, his grave marker is in our garden, buried in flowers and now, snow. I came of age with Orson, in more than one way, it is sometimes very good for the heart and soul to stand your own ground, find your own faith. I have never lost that and I do not think I ever will.
Deep Forest: Me And Red
Early this morning, Red and I went for a walk in the forest. Maria and Lenore had other things to do. I hadn't walked alone with Red for some time, Maria and I usually walk together, Lenore usually comes along. Red and I were both different on this walk, it was a silent walk, there was no talking of course.
And Red walks differently than Lenore, he walks quietly a few feet ahead of me, if he gets too far ahead, he turns and waits for me, he does not dart off into the woods or follow his nose, he just stays with me. Maria and I love to walk together, and we are always talking to each other, it was startling – quite spiritual – to hear and feel this silence, so I veered off into the woods with Red and we just soaked up the quiet and peacefulness of the winter woods.
I can forget about Red, he will not go anywhere or do anything that requires my attention, we are soulmates now, spirits that are connected, our communications is mostly beyond words, a connection of consciousness.
I missed Maria, I missed Lenore too, but it was a beautiful experience out there with Red, one of those pure moments with a dog that touch and burnish the soul. The winter woods are a special place with a unique kind of stillness, you can hear yourself and see yourself anew.
Red At The Signing Table
Red and I are at the Battenkill Bookstore signing table most afternoons right now, we sometimes take calls from people buying my books who call the store. Red is a chick magnet of the highest order, he just draws women like flies and flirts with them shamelessly. They gather around my signing table when he is there. He has girlfriends everywhere now and drinks up the attention. Too many people feed him biscuits or get too excited, I have to keep him steady, I don't want him to completely lose his focus and responsiveness. He has sold a lot of books for me, I think.