JANUARY 26, 2016
The following is a feature article from the LARB Quarterly Journal: Winter 2016 edition. To pick up your copy of the Journal, become a member of the Los Angeles Review of Books.
THIS MORNING I killed the family dog. Precious had become incontinent, her days spent on a damp doggie bed emitting horrible, keening noises unthinkable in a healthy golden retriever. The vet thought she might have a few good months left, and recommended a canine neurologist who, I found out, would have charged $1,500 for an initial consult and tests. The neurologist’s office was an hour away by freeway (two in rush hour), and with no appointment I’d wait, meaning nobody to pick up the kids from school. Weighing the options, I discovered (actually, I’d known for weeks) that a mobile euthanasia service, Down Dog (not their real name), would drive to my house and kill Precious on the spot. I disclose this so you can know the worst of me now. For the record, the pet in question was not a retriever, and what kind of idiot names a dog Precious?
Admitting I killed the family dog will cause problems that even layers of manufactured anonymity might not avert. Two of my oldest friends will certainly drop me without question. “Franny” owns rescues — one three-legged; two of them blind — and volunteers every weekend at an animal shelter in Philly. There, she bathes and walks the most vicious pit bulls and Rottweilers, animals living on the equivalent of Doggie Death Row. (Her name isn’t actually Franny, and she lives in a completely different city, maybe not even on the East Coast. She has way more than three dogs, but it’s true that most of them are maimed, making Franny a saint for dogs, but sort of a trial where people are concerned.) My other dog-loving friend, “Jen,” lives in upstate New York with only two, a Jack Russell terrier and a labradoodle, but sends me regular emails from each of them, like “Dizzy sends kisses!” or “Thelonius hearts you!” Dizzy and Thelonius have their own Facebook pages where they post clever comments beneath photos of themselves napping. Since neither of them can type or use a camera, they’ve pimped my friend “Jen” — an otherwise brilliant writer — into someone who pens first-person inanities about the joys of licking her privates.
I love dogs, but like Shakespeare wrote, “according to their station / nor more nor less.” Meaning, they are not my children, my substitute best friends, or my social crusade. I grew up in rural farm country where dogs were traditionally accorded an independent, outdoor life, less domestic “pets” than free-ranging members of the local fauna. I loved all of them, but never viewed them as members of the family. However, in this day and age, being unsentimental about dogs is not something you admit to publicly without repercussions. The prevailing wisdom says, if you can’t love a dog unconditionally there’s something really wrong with you.
About Precious: we raised her from babyhood — she and my youngest were born two weeks apart. They were toddlers together. According to dog-year math, Precious entered adolescence while my daughter was just mastering small motor skills, but “Terrible Two” is not so different from “Terrible Teen,” and they continued to mirror each other in ways that accentuated their affinities over their differences. Though a dog is not a child. Precious was an exceptionally fine dog. Good-natured, funny, and, toward the end, stoic in her suffering. If she never had a Facebook page, that fault is mine alone.
I recently asked an acquaintance who conducts test screenings for Hollywood movie studios whether there was a single villain “archetype” universally despised by audiences, a character considered completely unredeemable. The answer I expected was the pedophile, the soulless corporate raider, or the ISIL terrorist with a suitcase dirty bomb and a hard-on for America. But she said that audiences are willing to show glimmers of sympathy and understanding for almost anyone onscreen except a character who is mean to animals. One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. Sexual attraction to children? Maybe the perpetrator was abused himself. But kick a dog, and be cinematically damned. And the poor actor required to kick (okay, mime kicking) a dog on-screen will statistically have limited luck getting cast afterward in “good guy” parts. I’d list some of these luckless big-screen dog-kickers, but you wouldn’t recognize their names. Unlike people who have sex with underage children (remember Roman Polanski?), committing animal cruelty on-screen is a career-killer.
“Kick the dog” as a character trope was first institutionalized in the early Hollywood westerns. Three bad guys ride into town. The first guns down the sheriff, the second kills his deputy, the third kicks a dog. Guess which one the hero shoots first? The cinematic corollary to “Kick the dog” is “Pat the dog,” an action deployed to make audiences warm to characters of dubious moral fiber. (“Pat the kitty,” by the way, sends the opposite message — think Mike Myers’s Dr. Evil or James Bond’s Blofeld — kitty-patters are straight-up freaks.) The idea being, a bad guy who pauses in his villainy to pat a dog can’t be all bad. “Pat the dog” signals his potential for redemption. And though he’s seldom redeemed, the hint of dog-loving adds depth and nuance to his character, and ensures our regret when he dies.
“Shoot the dog,” ironically, is a trope reserved for heroes. “Shoot the dog” happens when a beloved canine (think Old Yeller) contracts a horrific disease, and dog-killing can be framed as human sacrifice of the highest order. However, unlike Old Yeller, my Precious wasn’t conclusively facing an imminent and excruciating death. She hadn’t lost her mind, or reverted to the mouth-foaming savagery that made her a danger to herself and others. She was covered with lesions and had a presumptive tumor on her brain, which might not have killed her for months. Her frequent seizures were somewhat controlled by a massive daily dose of phenobarbital. Basically, she was old, incontinent, smelled bad, whined incessantly, and had become aggravatingly and expensively needy. My killing Precious was a choice.
A callous person does the math. Weighs the difficulty of daily caretaking against years of tail-wagging, front-door greetings; a urine-scented home against the opprobrium of friends; the cumulative cost of expensive drugs and tests against a hypothetical family vacation. Even now I’m justifying, offering excuses for calling Down Dog. Does it count that I deliberated for 24 hours before deciding? Or how untroubled I was about the choice until I contemplated how I’d be judged?
My defining characteristic has always been a tendency to run headlong toward things that scare me. I suspect this is a mis-wiring of my primal fight-or-flight response: if something’s unknown or can hurt me, I move toward it rather than away. Friends choose to perceive this as “fearlessness,” (a flattering notion) but in truth, the way I manage fear is to hurl myself at the scary situation and see if I can survive. This ability to override the most basic of instincts comes down to the completely irrational notion that risk=reward. Go toward the burning building, the sound of gunfire, the thing that might unmake you! What possesses a person to follow such illogic?
A recent brain study at Caltech suggests the culprit is curiosity. Apparently our desire for abstract information stimulates the caudate, a region of the brain directly linked to the dopamine “rewards” pathway. Curiosity begins as a dopaminergic craving, something only satisfied via a neurologic brain trip that mentally chases what we don’t know. We get a “rush” (dopamine release) when curiosity transports us from ignorance to enlightenment.
In some of us, though, this curiosity outweighs caution. Or perhaps we are dopamine junkies. I attribute my counterintuitive flight-toward-fight to an overwhelming need to know, at any cost. Not a charming trait.
For several years I taught writing in a maximum security prison where I got to know a 19-year-old “thrill killer” (let’s call him “Daniel”) who’d murdered a stranger when they were both 15. Four years after the fact, “Daniel” was still bemused by his own actions. He confessed he hadn’t been angry, threatened, or sexually stimulated, he’d simply wanted to know what it felt like to end a life. “Curiosity,” he told me, “that’s why you kill the cat.”
In daily life, women are offered few opportunities to kill. Despite the existence of female combat troops and police officers, our overall biological business has always been to bring forth life. Women sit our share of deathbeds and witness the passing of those we love, but how often do we deliberately end a life? (I should confess I don’t consider abortion to be “killing” because I’ve had one. The procedure took place at a free clinic with protesters massed on the sidewalks. A man wearing a US Marine Corps “Death from Above” sweatshirt spit at me and angry women shouted “Killer!” Running that gauntlet was infinitely more traumatic than the D&C that followed. We can argue endlessly about the point at which cells are sufficiently mature to constitute “life,” but if abortion is killing, let’s call it suicide rather than murder.)
Before Precious, I’d taken a life only once — while snowed in on a remote West Virginia mountaintop with my college boyfriend. We’d survived three days on a few cans of beans found in a cupboard, but on the fourth day, both cranky from hunger, my boyfriend shot a wild turkey in the clearing outside the cabin. Plucked and roasted, it was indescribably delicious, and because we needed food, killing it was justifiable. A day later, with plenty of bird left till the snow should thaw, we shot a deer. I say “we,” but there is only one finger on a trigger, and the shot was mine.
A good deer hunter aims for the heart and never takes a shot he’s unlikely to make. The heart-shot promises a clean and instant kill, the animal dead before its body hits the ground. I’d never hunted before. We’d brought along the rifle purely for protection after seeing bear tracks outside the cabin that morning. I was only carrying it because my boyfriend had knelt to tie a bootlace when the deer appeared between some trees.
He was huge. A white-tailed buck with a six-point rack and haunches freckled with spots the color of the snow. The air was so sharp and cold I saw a tiny puff of smoke exit his nostrils. Spotting us he froze, perhaps equating stillness with invisibility. The moment he exhaled again I fired. It was an unthinking action, born from adrenalin and something less defensible. The bullet winged the buck in the shoulder. He wobbled, pivoted, and made a sprint for the cover of a thicket.
Shooting is uncomplicated; killing something is not. A trigger-pull is different on a gun range when the target is a paper silhouette. No matter how good that shot, there is no frisson of exhilaration at the realization of having done something existentially wrong. Even if you’re an atheist, the choice to end another life is a fundamental usurpation of powers beyond our purview. I’ve always found it inexplicable that Adam and Eve paid a greater price for eating an apple than Cain did for killing a brother. Is curiosity really a greater crime than murder?
I will tell you this: taking life is a heady thing. Blasphemous and seductive. Only childbirth can compare, but it can’t unmake you in the same way. Life slipping from you is not a choice you make, but a surrender.
We tracked the deer’s blood and prints for what seemed like hours. After repossessing the rifle, my boyfriend stalked ahead in silence. I sensed disapproval, whether for the sloppiness of the shot or the impulsive taking of meat we didn’t need. Eventually we found the buck collapsed in a snowbank, chest heaving, legs scrabbling, neck muscles corded as he tried to lift his antlered head from the ground. My boyfriend shot him in the heart. Together we dragged the carcass back to the cabin, where we trussed and hung it head-down from a tree. What I remember most is the warmth of the body and how death had rendered it boneless. The clean smell of the skin and its softness. The long, feminine eyelashes, its perfect teeth and strangely delicate hooves. No, that’s not true. What I remember most is observing myself very clinically in the wake of killing something and discovering I’d become new in my own eyes.
The protocol among hunters is that the person who kills an animal must also field-dress it. My boyfriend handed me his buck knife and showed where I should slice from anus to sternum. Cutting into a body is both harder and easier than you’d imagine. Easier, because the initial piercing of flesh requires little force until you hit bone. Harder, because it takes a strong downward sawing to open the chest, and then the fluids and entrails spill out. Organs must be carved out individually to prevent the meat from spoiling, requiring your arms be thrust up inside the cavity to the elbows. The deconstruction of a body is time-consuming and bloody.
Fresh blood has an intoxicating smell — of cold metal and geraniums — and a shimmery viscosity. Its color exists in nothing else on the planet, at once vibrantly red and densely black — like garnets melted in lava — with an added sheen of buttery fat.
Statistically, women are less likely than men to faint at the sight of blood. I attribute this to monthly periods and our comfort with the fact we bleed. Blood is not a thing, but a thing we do. A harbinger of procreation rather than death. In this sense, we are perhaps less fascinated by blood than men, who get glimpses mainly when violence summons it forth. Or maybe I’m hiding behind generalities and statistics to avoid telling you how killing feels. Wrong, certainly. Having done something intrinsically forbidden, your entire body thrums with anticipation of the lightning bolt that will surely strike. You’d like to label this an adrenalin rush, but you know how those feel; you’ve slammed on your brakes in traffic and come within seconds of death. This is different. It shares that physical acceleration of heartbeat and respiration and the tingling of nerve endings, but lurking underneath is something else. Not adrenalin but dopamine; a rush of pure pleasure. So this is what it feels like, you think. Curiosity assuaged.
It appears that I’m avoiding the subject of Precious, the family dog, our Rhodesian ridgeback, whose real name might have been — was — Ginger. At this point, there’s no gain in insisting on anonymity, or denying it was I who chose to end her life. Arguably, the quality of that life was nonexistent. She couldn’t move freely, was old, in pain, and only going to get worse. Or maybe she wanted to stay tethered to the world and us for as long as possible; would’ve lingered on contentedly and died in her own time. Who can say? I can only tell you what happened.
The Down Dog van pulled into the driveway. The vet stepped out, wearing a white lab coat and bright green Crocs. He handed me paperwork to sign, along with his card — magnetized — to stick on the fridge. In the kitchen he washed his hands and prepared two syringes, one to sedate and one to euthanize her. He pulled on latex gloves. Ginger and I sat on the floor with her head in my lap. Clumps of reddish fur came away in my hands as I stroked her belly. Always a sucker for the belly rub, her tail thumped the floor as delightedly as it had done since she was a pup. (I offer you this picture despite knowing that, outside cinema, “pat the dog” never makes us pardon those we’ve found wanting.)
The vet injected the sedative and Ginger grew drowsy. I’d originally asked permission to administer the second shot, the one that would kill her. My thinking was, having chosen this course of action, I should also bear direct responsibility for ending her life. But I couldn’t. Maybe it was the sprinkle of white age spots along her flank that recalled my dappled buck. Or a tingle that someone else might have mistaken for nausea. Instead, I lifted her sleep-heavy body off my lap, and, before curiosity could rouse and gorge itself, I left the man in white to “shoot the dog.”