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It's Nelly's World


alec vanderboom

If dogs didn't have emotions, they wouldn't do what they do when they lose someone. Dare I use the word "mourn"? Oh, I do, I do. Only a fool, or someone with a big agenda and a small mind when it comes to evolution, would say that animals who live in complex social units wouldn't have also developed the complex emotions that support living with others.

Ethologists have reported enough on the subject of animals who mourn; the amount of observational evidence is enough to squash the idiotic notion that loss followed by depressive behavior is just a wild coincidence. One that keeps recurring. Elephants bury their dead. Cows who lose their calfs call out for them (with a sound that's been called "mournful.") The insult of "anthropomorphism" charged to people who witness such behavior and then call it by its true name is actually a projection. It is they who see everything in human terms. Emotion is mammalian. It is living.

I have twice seen animals in mourning. The second is Nelly, this month. For a period of weeks, her mood matched my own: confusion, sadness, loss, at the inexplicable disappearance of the other packmate from her home den--the one who sometimes used to feed her, take her for walks, provide a warm lap every evening on the La-Z-Boy. If you don't think dogs are sensitive to consistency, you've never seen one five minutes before mealtime.

Nelly's eyes looked duller. She slept more. She didn't bounce up and down like a Superball to get me to throw a toy from the basket outside the door so she could show me what a good imitation of a Ferrari at LeMans she could do. But like all sadness, it eventually passed, though it has no doubt left its faint mark somewhere on her soul. Reality for her has come to stand next to desire, and the two may now stay together for some time. I hope.

The first dog I saw sink into depression was Mercy. I alluded a while ago to having had another dog. I couldn't face then saying anything then, because the pain of his loss was mixed with the sticky guilt of having been the cause of that loss: we killed him. Roscoe, the good-hearted. Roscoe, the childlike innocent, the black, shaggy-coated stray from the park who did not know what he wanted, except to be safe. And though his strategy may not have succeeded, or maybe only temporarily, like a cigarette, a nip of cognac, a self-told story that in repeating the past we are really doing something altogether new, he used it again and again. He bit. He bit a friend the first night we had him. He bit someone who tripped over him in the dark. He bit a neighbor, the lawn guy, a girlfriend, a child, a stranger. And then he tried to bite my baby. You are now in possession of the total timeline of our life with Roscoe.

I brought him home as a friend to Mercy. I hated to leave her alone (and only now do I realize how much it was that I did not want to be without her, as much as it was about her going without her). This assuaged my guilt. They became husband and wife. They would roll on the bed together, paws around each other's shoulders, mouths open, teeth clacking. Roscoe never bit Mercy.

Slowly, after weeks of acclimating at our house, Roscoe learned to be happy again. He opened like a flower in the morning sun. I would say, "Better get going, Roscoe!" and he would get what dog people know as the zoomies, hindquarters tucked for propulsion, describing big fast circles and circles, a great smile spread across his face. Yes, dogs smile.

We took him to three different trainers. All they could offer was--well, nothing. "Control," one said, and had us make our own slip collar from nylon with which to startle him. Roscoe came into our house ten years too early: where was there to go? No Patricia McConnell, no Carolyn Wilki, no Pat Miller. Nobody to teach us how to teach him. Nobody to help us save him.

One day before Christmas, with my baby strapped to my chest, we took Roscoe for a walk alone, down the streets of Brooklyn. Mercy did not want to be left alone, without us, without her best friend in the world. But Roscoe was so happy: as long as he was with me, whom he never bit, he smiled. He danced down Seventh Avenue, almost as if he were proud. This is not an emotion, perhaps, that dogs have; but Roscoe was Roscoe, and maybe pride was his alone. We entered the vet's office.

I sobbed then as I sob now, deep, helpless. No one can make me feel better. It is something that has gone down there to live, and I can call it back by imagining his trusting face, his eyes on mine. Mercy was not herself for many months. There was no way to tell her what we'd done. My girl. I mourn them all.