by oldgrowthforest, a senior citizen living near Wasilla, Alaska. She lives with a tiny standard poodle named River, and a devastatingly handsome but troublesome mutt named Arlo.
I lost a great love recently. It was sudden. The eldest of my three aging dogs collapsed and died soon after. Her symptoms confused me for a number of hours. She took daily medication for her hips, which had given her increasing discomfort and weakness over the past year. She was having difficulty walking and I first assumed it was due to the usual reasons. She seemed to respond well to the medication, but her distress increased again later that night. I realized I needed help to take her in to see a doctor. I sat with her, rubbing her, giving her anything I had to ease her pain, whether it was her prescription or mine. She was able to sleep a little.
It was a day I had long feared, the day when she would be injured or ill or just too old, and I would not be able to move her to help her. Knowing it was coming wasn’t the same as being in it, however. Being in it was a lot worse.
When I saw a neighbor’s light come on early the next morning, I put on my boots and walked to his house to ask for help. Her love was so great that even as she lay dying and could barely move, she gave everything she had left to try to protect us, rising up and barking with more strength than I expected when he came to the door. I began crying early that morning, long before he arrived. Once I spoke with the emergency veterinary clinic and had to put to words what I knew, that whatever was going on was serious, that I feared she was dying, I could not stop crying. My neighbor and I carried her in a quilt and placed her in my car.
My Babe was a shepherd-Malamute-wolf mix. She was magnificent. Wolf love is the best love I’ve ever had. Only the most devoted and protective dogs, those who willingly die to defend their families, can compare to the loyalty of a wolf or wolf-dog. As is often said of many breeds, they’re not for everyone. In fact, most people say they’re not for anyone, and that may be true. It’s also true that Babe was right for me and I was right for her.
People have lived with and depended upon dogs for so long that the story of human adaptation and survival is also the story of humans and dogs. My favorite book of recent years is Jon Franklin’s The Wolf in the Parlor, an examination of archaeological evidence of ancient humans, wolves, dogs, and dog domestication. One of Franklin’s many revelations about dogs is that their presence is so ubiquitous, as is the widespread human assumption that we know everything about Fido we need to know, that dogs have remained nearly invisible in science. For decades archaeologists and anthropologists tossed dog bones aside while gleaning through sites, sites that continued to go farther and farther back in time, assuming the presence of dogs in antiquity was irrelevant to our understanding of people. Dogs were a consequence of human beings, a reflection of our control over nature for our own benefit. And dogs just weren’t the most interesting thing about us.
Franklin suggests several humbling revisions to the general wisdom concerning dogs, including the possibility that humans did not domesticate dogs at all, but instead, at least initially, they domesticated themselves.
Another of Franklin’s contentions is that without dogs there never would have been civilization. Of course, when he says “civilization” he thinks it’s a good thing. That aside, before there was agriculture there was herding of meat and fiber animals, an activity going back twelve or more thousand years that would have been impossible without livestock guardian dogs. And before humans had domesticated sheep or goats, there was organized hunting, something people and their dogs had done for perhaps 30,000 or more years, far longer than previously thought.
Everything humans have done has been assisted along the way by this inter-species relationship that is unique among animals. Some scholars believe that dogs are what allowed Cro-Magnon to survive the climactic changes, shifting food sources, and physical dangers that led to the disappearance of the Neanderthal in Europe; Neanderthals did not have dogs.
Babe came to us on the winter solstice eleven years ago, a fat, sweet fur-ball with dark eyes and telling charcoal tipped fur of fully blended colors of cream and brown and black. My son-in-law, Sean, was in his mid-thirties when he took a puppy from a cardboard box in front of the grocery store (there was only one) in Big Lake, Alaska. Sean had never had a dog. He had grown up in suburban Seattle in a home without pets. Sean didn’t know a Chihuahua from a Catahoula. He was also quite new to Alaska and he had no idea what the possibilities were, especially in a place like Big Lake.
When he returned home that dark night and my daughter saw the puppy in his arms, she immediately shrieked, “You brought home a hybrid?!! Take it back now!”
Sean said he liked the puppy and they should give her a chance. It was so decreed.
Babe and I had a bond from the beginning. I remember when I first saw her and how the first thing out of my mouth was, “That dog’s got wolf in it.” My grandson at the time was two years and eight months old. People have heard the heartbreaking stories about pet wolves and wolf-dogs and their dangers. My daughter and I had more than heard stories. We had encountered many pet wolves and wolf-mixes in Alaska, as well as observed wolves in the wild several times. One of those nightmare stories had occurred only two doors from us, resulting in the death of an infant. There were pet wolves and high-content wolf-dogs aplenty in Alaska in those days. No doubt that’s why they were made illegal.
In my early years in Alaska I encountered one black and silver beauty while I was out looking at property. He was a year old, a pure wolf, and his owners kept him on a long chain when he was outside. He was sitting on their porch several feet away. I asked the man if the wolf was friendly before I approached too closely. I was listening to his answer when suddenly I felt the wolf’s tongue cover the entire length of my face from chin to forehead. I was stunned. I could not believe how fast he was. I never saw it coming. He was friendly, the man was saying.
There was also Wolf Country, a controversial roadside attraction outside of Palmer on the highway to Tok. It was a collection of tame and semi-tame wolves available for viewing by tourists. Despite the controversy, my daughter and I went to Wolf Country twice over the years and we loved the wolves. Most tame wolves and wolf-dogs are aloof to strangers in the extreme, but not all. Some are very friendly and affectionate toward all people. Wolf Country had three such animals, all females, and people from all over the world fell in love with those wolves.
I sat on the floor next to Sean’s new puppy and pulled her onto my lap. She was the calmest puppy I ever saw, sitting quietly and casually observing everything as if she was a fully mature animal and not a baby. Sean said that was why he chose her, because she was calm compared to her litter mates. She settled along the length of my thighs and I rubbed her gently with my fingertips. She was eight weeks old, huge, and as cute as a puppy can be, which is about as cute as cute gets, but her coat was scary.
Wolf puppies have a distinct look to them that no breed of dog has, not even the Malamutes, a breed that can sometimes resemble a wolf. For the first several weeks of life, however, there are differences, the most obvious being that Malamutes are born with their masks and markings and wolves are not. Wolves are all born darker than they will be later in life unless they will grow into a black wolf. Even Arctic wolves are born with the telltale “blended” coat, varying shades of brown, black and silver with dark tips that is characteristic of all baby wolves. Sean’s puppy had the large stocky body, big bones, and rounded look of a Malamute. She also had the unmistakable coat of a wolf.
It wasn’t all tragedy and blood and national headlines with wolf-dogs. I had seen a number of successes in Alaska, as well. I knew people who felt that every bit of effort required to keep one and keep it safe was more than worth it. After several minutes of sitting with the puppy, I told my daughter, “I think she’ll be okay. I think she’s a good one.” And she was.
She was everything they say about wolves and wolf-dogs. She quickly grew into a tremendously destructive and predatory beast that weighed a hundred pounds by the time she was only a year old, and over a hundred and thirty at maturity. It was often surreal just walking beside her where I felt out of place and time, as though I needed a spear and a fur bikini to better fit the primal world around me.
By the time Babe was seven months old she was exploring her own wide territory and everything beyond. She brought home whole moose legs, stinky dead bunnies, and very recently deceased chickens. She stole expensive waders out of people’s yards, which she shredded and my daughter then buried to hide the evidence. She took pieces of lumber and heavy tools, curious and attracted to items that made no sense to us. Those items were returned if they were will still usable.
Eventually a crazy neighbor shot her with a .22, thankfully only grazing her skin. After that the children came up with some money and Babe was confined to her own acre with an electric fence. Her short weeks of youthful freedom were over, and she had to be content killing whatever came into the yard, which she did. She could still jump straight up and catch low-flying songbirds in mid-air. That was upsetting.
After she got shot she remained terrified of gunfire and fireworks for the rest of her life. The last night of the year was always the worst night of the year for us, full of noise, sleeplessness, and attempts to crawl as far under the bed as possible. It is a high-sitting captain’s bed, but it was still too low for her girth. One year she got stuck and I had to get up in the middle of the night and lift it off of her.
For the first two years of Babe’s life their yard was pitted with den-sized irregular craters and strewn with debris that she had chewed to tiny pieces, debris that had previously been small tree trunks, lumber, heavy work boots, and a three-foot-long whale vertebrae that came from a beach near Nome. Sean adored her anyway, lavished her with affection, and kept her with him all hours of the day and night.
After our first meeting I didn’t see the new puppy again for two months. When I returned to the house she had grown into a lanky child-dog with a coat of light buff and cream that still showed a black flame on her forehead, the tips of her ears, and in smoky patches along her back. Her eyes had turned to yellow. I spent the day with my family, including the pup, who leaned against my leg much of the time in a floppy, big-puppy way.
I returned the following week for some reason, whether in my capacity as mother, grandmother or landlady, I don’t remember. As I got out of my car I could see Babe at the side of the house, cautiously peeking around the corner. She was about twenty-five feet away, half wild and untouchable by strangers. When she saw it was me she got down on her belly on the ground and crawled the entire way to me, stopping at my feet and rolling over to pointedly bare her throat. Chills ran up my spine and I had goose flesh all over. She was not nervous, she was not excited, there was no dribbling or crying. She was communicating. “I know you,” she said, “and you are mine and I am yours.”
Babe was always meant for me, too, I think. Our bond only grew, and my daughter often remarked on Babe’s unusual devotion to me, second only to her devotion to Sean. Babe’s attachment could have been chalked up to the fact that I was family, something wolves are and dogs can be aware of, and my obvious parental status that was displayed in everything that passed between us, a hierarchy Babe instinctively understood. Except she didn’t respond the same to the other grandparents, not even if they visited for a long period of time and remained in her presence. She was no more fond of them on the seventh day than she had been on the first day, which is to say, not at all.
I, however, was the recipient of her very physical affection, the mouthing, the nips, the huge head plowing into me, rubbing her face against my stomach and lap as if she could take me and hold me in herself. She was always gentle, always loving and joyous with me.
When Babe was five my daughter and Sean made plans to move to Portland, Oregon. It was possible to take her with them, but we didn’t think Babe would like Oregon and we didn’t think Oregon would like her. She was a mature, extremely powerful, and still predatory animal that was not friendly to people and was dangerous to other dogs. It broke Sean’s heart to do it as much as it broke mine to see them leave, but Babe stayed on the property and I moved back in, leaving Anchorage behind after seven years of living in the city.
On two wooded acres in rural Alaska, an area where my neighbors couldn’t hear me scream if I had a live microphone, I depended on my wolf-dog. She was my partner, my family, and my protector. She stayed near me at all times when I was outside, keeping watch over me. We hauled and split wood together, and walked the electric fence to make repairs. We shoveled snow, burned downed branches, listened to the ravens, examined giant piles of bear and moose poop in the yard, and generally took care of each other, the other dogs, and our trees.
She never stopped being scary. She was beyond intimidating to humans and animals alike. She was not aggressive toward people, she never had to be, but she was fully capable of it, something I saw on a couple of occasions. I frequently hired men to work on the property and whenever I did I locked my two friendly dogs in the house and kept Babe with me. When strangers were present she stayed beside me touching me, a defensive position I have seen mother grizzlies take with their cubs, a position she took with my grandson when the two of them were much younger and they explored their world together. It was her job.
Babe watched all visitors with the piercing, cold stare of a big predator. She paid attention to everything about them, including where they looked, their expressions no matter how fleeting, their hands and any objects they held, the smallest shift of their bodies in any direction, and the intensity and tone of voice they used. I saw her watch and listen and smell it all, relentlessly, without breaking her gaze for hours at a time. My hired help was always more respectful after Babe and I moved in together.
She never forgot an insult, and she never forgot or forgave an injury. She certainly never forgave the woman who shot her. Like wolves, who have an innate sense of fairness and will kill an abusive pack leader and replace her, Babe’s loyalty demanded respect and loyalty in return, even from me. I hurt her feelings once when I gave her medicine that made her sick. After she finished throwing up several times, she turned her back and looked over her shoulder at me with a sad, hurt expression that clearly said, “How could you?!!!”
I had to apologize at length, assuring her that I loved her and would never hurt her on purpose, and I was so very sorry. I wrapped my arms around her big body and rubbed her chest and fat belly. Had I not apologized it would have broken her heart and she would have continued to turn her face away from me. I was forgiven, but I had to ask.
Babe was with me for half her life. They were great years for me, and she seemed to think they were for her, too. We had it all on our little acres in Alaska. We had exciting and abundant wildlife everywhere. We had glorious winter nights full of stars and auroras. We had summer days that were heaven on Earth, and they lasted all day long. We had each other.
Fortunately, we also had a Dyson, but even that was not enough to curb dog hair that was on the level of a Biblical plague. When you really love someone, though, things like that don’t matter as much.
Babe died on a dark day just before the winter solstice, the same time of year she first appeared in our lives. I laid her to rest under a stone and log and moss cairn at the edge of the property that I will add to in the spring. I returned her to the Earth in keeping with the old ways, holding on to nothing of her and placing her possessions in her grave. And like the ancestors said of their loved ones, I love her very bones and want them near me.
When I heal, when the grief isn’t so raw, when I qualify for social insecurity in just a few months if it’s still there, I will have another puppy. She will be a protective breed of large size, maybe a livestock guardian dog, maybe someone else who comes along on her own as Babe did, someone I believe will be “a good one.”
Puppies have always brought me more happiness than almost anything else. They are my favorite people and I smile and laugh all the time whenever they are around. If my new baby is not another wolf-dog, which is not nearly as likely these days and I’m certainly not looking for one, maybe I can get a couple of chickens, too.
Lord George Gordon Byron’s Epitaph to a Dog
Near this Spot
are deposited the Remains of one
who possessed Beauty without Vanity,
Strength without Insolence,
Courage without Ferocity,
and all the virtues of Man without his Vices.
This praise, which would be unmeaning Flattery
if inscribed over human Ashes,
is but a just tribute to the Memory of
Boatswain, a Dog
who was born in Newfoundland May 1803
and died at Newstead Nov. 18th, 1808
When some proud Son of Man returns to Earth,
Unknown to Glory, but upheld by Birth,
The sculptor’s art exhausts the pomp of woe,
And storied urns record who rests below.
When all is done, upon the Tomb is seen,
Not what he was, but what he should have been.
But the poor Dog, in life the firmest friend,
The first to welcome, foremost to defend,
Whose honest heart is still his Master’s own,
Who labours, fights, lives, breathes for him alone,
Unhonoured falls, unnoticed all his worth,
Denied in heaven the Soul he held on earth –
While man, vain insect! hopes to be forgiven,
And claims himself a sole exclusive heaven.
Oh man! thou feeble tenant of an hour,
Debased by slavery, or corrupt by power –
Who knows thee well, must quit thee with disgust,
Degraded mass of animated dust!
Thy love is lust, thy friendship all a cheat,
Thy tongue hypocrisy, thy heart deceit!
By nature vile, ennobled but by name,
Each kindred brute might bid thee blush for shame.
Ye, who behold perchance this simple urn,
Pass on – it honours none you wish to mourn.
To mark a friend’s remains these stones arise;
I never knew but one — and here he lies.
Lord Byron’s Landseer Newfoundland, Boatswain, died of rabies. Byron himself nursed Boatswain during the illness until the dog died, disregarding all concerns that he might contract the disease.
The clip embedded below was extracted from an interview with Michael Welch at Global Research and created by Ivey Cone at Fuki Cafe. It dates to 12 December 2014.
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