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It's Nelly's World


alec vanderboom

Last night I read myself to sleep with Jon Katz. Or at least that was the intention, until I had to sit up straight to relieve the lurching in my stomach, and I was riffling through the pages to get past the disturbing image of a large man throwing a fit of anger and ignorance at a border collie, perhaps the most sensitive dog ever created by man.

I had resisted reading Katz for a long time--writers like me are the most sensitive people ever created by man--both because of this insecurity (What if he writes about dogs better than I can ever hope to?) and because everybody said I just had to. That is the surest way to get a person like me to never do something. Remember this.

If A Dog Year had been a movie, I would have been crying out, "No! Don't do that!" and "You blooming idiot!" to the screen. I might have turned it off or hidden my face in my hands. I can no longer witness suffering. And the bar on what constitutes suffering keeps getting lower. What has happened to me in my old age? My gut has gotten more and more tender, so that nothing more potent than the worldly equivalent of yogurt can be digested by it. I wonder how I will be able to re-visit Greece, the land of my ancestors where I had a rollicking junior year abroad lo these many years ago. Now, I fear, I would wander the rocky landscape with face averted, unable to watch anything but my own sandals, lest I see the overloaded donkey flogged, the mange-filled stray with his ribs showing and eyes pleading, the silver sharks with torn flesh, gasping to death on the deck of a boat. A beautiful country, reduced by me to the misery of its animals. There are other places in the world I daren't even think for one second about visiting.

All my life I have been labeled "too sensitive," but now it's beginning to get me in trouble. Everywhere I turn, my eyes fall on the dog who is being jerked by the neck, and who in an unseen second says, with his eyes, with his body lowered, "Why" or "That hurt" or "Please don't," and the message goes unheard. The human who is supposed to be caring for him does not even understand that something has been said--that something has been felt. Of course, I used to be one of those people too. One who operated from the inchoate assumption that dogs' necks are different
from ours.

That is what makes this state of affairs worse: who now could have assigned me the role of judge? How have I come to feel as if I'm drowning in a sea of ignorance and pain created thereby?

My other label is "impatient." Perhaps the two things, sensitivity and impatience, go together. Because empathy with the pained is so unpleasant, I am impatient to have it end. I want people to look down at their dog and smile, because they have just noticed the good thing the dog has done, and then pay the dog for it. It's so simple, but it's a huge paradigm shift [a cliche, but the only thing that fits] for people who live in a punishment-ridden society, with parents who punished, and friends who punish, and a government that punishes. It's amazing to see how hard it is for people to do--even people who are in the midst of a dog-training session they paid for (as I was at yesterday), hearing a good trainer telling them that they have always have a choice to reinforce the good (she said, "Listen to what your dog is telling you, because he's telling you things all the time. But a dog who is continually ignored will stop speaking, and will start making decisions on his own") or to wait for something bad to happen--we only have eyes for this!--and then demand the short-cut to stopping it. The people all stood around while this was being told to them, jerking their dogs periodically, and nodding.