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Monday, January 26, 2009

Black Sheep

"Must Love Dogs" part 1: Black Sheep

I read a quote not too long ago, that said something like “one of the greatest joys in life is to find out who you are and what you are meant to do” or something like that. (I wasn’t able to find the original quote to refer to). I think it was well said, and I totally agree. But I think that there is something even more exciting than that...finding out who you are, and then finding people who are just like you. No matter what a persons interests are, there are always people out there who share them. Sure, it may be hard to find someone who enjoys collecting antique paperclips as much as you do, but sure enough, there are people that do. However, waiting to find those people who share your passion for various things in life can be one of the loneliest waits you may ever experience. Not having anyone to talk to about your love for something; having no one to share joys, losses, and sacrifices with; not having anyone who cares enough to laugh with you through the good times, cry with you through the bad, and to pick you up after things get tough. It’s beyond just your regular friends or family. If you don’t have people in your life who share the same passion that you do, life can be a very lonely and solitary road to walk. And it’s not your regular family/friends faults...its just that their passions and loves just happen to be something different. However, issues arise when those "regular" (and I don’t mean to insult anyone...maybe regular isn’t the right word? I just mean, familiar: friends and family who you know and love, and they know and love you back) friends and family members start not respecting you, or even mocking or ridiculing you because of your interests. Sure, it may start out as a bit of teasing (some of us who are passionate about some things can take it to the extreme; myself included!) but then turns into something more personal. The attacks become less funny, and more savage. It seems very akin to having your race, religion, or personality attacked. They’re attacking something that makes you, you. They are attacking your very core, the fiber of your being. It can turn very old, loving relationships into those hardly recognizable; relationships that become severed because of hurtful words or actions that can never be taken back. You’re hurt because these are the people who supposedly know you the best, love you the most. And yet they say and do hurtful things because they don’t think that you are "the norm". Usually, they are blissfully unaware that the things that have been said or done have hurt you that bad. They don’t know that you have been mortally wounded; that a sick feeling has crept into your stomach and tears have formed in your eyes. These situations are tough...tough to forgive, and tougher to forget. BUT, if you are lucky enough to be at the stage of your journey where you have found that magical group of people who share your dreams and passions, then the hurtful things that are said by others outside of that special group don’t hurt as bad. You know that even though you have been cut, your wounds heal that much more quickly when you have good medicine in the form of kind words and encouragement given by the people who understand you best.I think that if you find yourself if the category of "animal lover", as I do, you have challenges that make those listed above unique. Although I cant say for sure, as I’ve never walked this path, I think it is akin to being gay in today’s society: sure, people are tolerant (a lot more than they used to be) but you still encounter naive people who often misunderstand you because of their own fears. A lot of people just don’t understand...a lot of people think it’s a choice, or a "lifestyle", and do not realize that this is how you were born; how God made you. And again, these people may be in your own circle of friends and family. One of the good things, however, about being an animal lover is that you can find people who share the same passion a little easier, as there are so many of us out there. And what has sprung from our vast numbers is a very large and wide array of books celebrating the love and special bond between pets and their people. I don’t think that anyone has put what we animal lovers feel in today’s society better than Carolyn Knapp in her book (which is one of my all-time favorites, perhaps for obvious reasons) "Pack of Two":
...“Fall in love with a dog, and among non-dog people, you will see eyebrows raise, expressions grow wary. You’ll reach into your wallet to brandish a photograph of a new puppy, and a friend will say, ‘Oh no-not pictures.’...Attitudes like this can make dog lovers feel like members of a secret society, as though we’re inhabiting a strange and somehow improper universe....and at one point I said quite candidly, ‘I’m not sure I would have been able to face the loss if I hadn’t had he dog.’ This seemed like a perfectly reasonable statement to me-I tend to take my attachment to her (Knapp’s dog “Lucille”) for granted these days, as a simple and central fact of life-but Lisa’s eyes widened a little when I said it. She said ‘Wait a minute. You’re scaring me.’Scaring her? I looked at Lisa, aware of a sudden sense of dissonance, as though I’d just exposed too much. It was an uh-oh feeling: Uh-oh, she doesn’t live in that world, she probably thinks I’m a wacko. So I took a deep breath and tried to explain. This is a complicated task, trying to describe how a relationship with a dog can be healthy and sustaining and rich. It’s hard even trying to explain that the attachment does, in fact, qualify as a relationship, a genuine union between two beings who communicate with, respect, and give to one another. Unless you fall back on the one or two pat explanations we routinely trot out in order to explain the canine place in the human heart-dogs give us unconditional love, dogs are ‘good companions’-it’s hard to talk about loving a dog deeply without inviting skepticism. A lot of people, quite frankly, think intense attachments to animals are weird and suspect, the domain of people who can’t quite handle attachments to humans.…But I didn’t go into all that with Lisa. Instead, I used safe descriptions, clinical terms.…Lisa seemed to respond positively enough to this line of thought-‘right,’ she said at one point, ‘they are good companions;-but I was aware as I talked of a gnawing frustration, a sense of my own compulsion to hold back when I talk about my dog and to offer up what’s in effect a watered-down and fairly stereotypical view of attachment: dog as man’s best friend, dog as loyal and faithful servant. There are elements of truth to that view-dogs can be wonderful friends, they can be enormously loyal and faithful creatures-but those factors represent only one part of the picture, a limited and really rather arrogant fragment that concerns only the way dogs serve us, not the way we serve them or the ways we serve each other. Finally, I shook my head and said to Lisa, ‘You know, it’s been really important to me to learn not to pathologize my relationship with Lucille. People have very powerful relationships with their dogs, and that doesn’t mean they’re crazy, or that they’re substituting dogs for humans, or that they’re somehow incapable of forming intimate attachments with people. It’s a different kind of relationship, but it’s no less authentic.’Alas..... Lisa looked across the table and said, ‘You’re still scaring me.’”....
I read that passage and realized that I could not have expressed how I feel in better words than those. They have stuck with me since I first picked up the book over a year ago. This is exactly how most of us in the animal/pet-loving world feel...although we are often times not confident enough in our relationships with "normal" people to express it. And, as you can see with Carolyn’s discussion with her friend Lisa, even if we do get brave, frustrated or annoyed enough that we DO speak our mind, nothing that we say really sinks in.I think it is important to mention too, that just like with anything in life, there are variations of "animal lover". Just because you "own" an animal, doesn’t mean that you are immediately inducted into the "animal lover" club. I have seen my fair share of people come into training classes, dog shows, pet stores and vet clinics that share their home with animals, but really don’t see them anything except furniture that can move. They do what is necessary (sometimes, sometimes not) but really don’t care that much for them. Then again, you have people at the total opposite end of the spectrum who think that we shouldn’t even have animals as pets. I know some people who support PETA who think that the very idea that we "own" animals akin them to slaves and by keeping them in our homes we are robbing them of their natural rights and tendencies. There are also people who believe that every animal needs saving. Where do I fall? Where do most "animal lovers" in fact fall? Probably somewhere in between, though I of course can really only speak for myself. I do not see my dogs as objects or property that I own. And although I compete with them, I do not see them as ribbon-winning machines either. They are co-habitants of my home, and mostly like children. And although I will openly admit that yes, I see them as my kids, they are not treated like "human" kids are. They are loved like human kids, and respected as equals, but they are not babied or coddled. The first trainer that I ever worked for said that there are in fact appropriate ways to spoil a dog, without them turning into little monsters who think that they are in charge of your home and life. The key is to remember that they are a separate species, and as such, they have different rules and instinct that guide them through life. It’s important to know these rules and instincts so that everyone can co-habitate peacefully; it is not fair to have expectations of our dogs that are unrealistic. It is unfair to think that they will behave like civilized members of society without careful socialization, training and guidance. If you forget that your dogs are dogs, and treat them like small humans in fur coats, then you are asking to be constantly frustrated and upset with these confused beings who just want to share your home and your heart.However, there are many ways that we can treat our pets like we treat the other most loved members of our families that wont hurt them...in fact, there are some things we can do that can improve their lives in many ways. So much of the pet industry now is dedicated to making "human" products for our furry friends, though so much of those products really aren’t applicable or useful to them at all. I mean, what dog do you know needs a high fashion bikini before going in to take a swim? Or what dog really cares if his bed happens to sit on a four-poster cherry bed-frame? But some products that have been carried over have made their lives happier and more comfortable. I, for example, spent quite a bit of money (more than I care to admit here...) for memory foam beds for the living room for both my girls. They also wear booties when they go out for hikes in the snow to protect their delicate pads from the cold, ice, and toxic chemicals found in salt. Some advances in other areas, in nutrition for example, have made our friends much healthier and happier. I certainly know that having my dogs on a much higher grade kibble made a difference, and an even bigger one was made when I switched them to raw. I also know that they will probably by healthier with less vaccines being given to them as well. THIS is what separates the real "animal lovers" from the "animal owners." Animal lovers treat their dogs with the same respect and courtesy that we would treat any human. And we are constantly improving their lives from what we learn every day. Not too long ago, it was thought that animals felt no pain. They were not given pain meds through routine surgery such as a spay. But now it is common practice. We realize that our pets are so similar to us, in so many ways, that it would be pure ignorance and would do them a great disservice to not treat them in the same ways. And real animal lovers WANT to learn; we are constantly educating ourselves to make sure we are giving our pets the best lives possible. But to reiterate, this is what separates us into animal lovers, animal owners, and everyone else. People who don’t give animals the same respect and courtesy as people, see us as people who cant lead normal lives, and therefore must turn our attention and love onto some being that really cant reciprocate. They are often the ones heard saying "It’s just a DOG" (see my "Just a dog" blog.) So, what do we as animal lovers do when society tells us that we are the "black sheep"? We do what we have always done. Smile. Ignore it. Go on with our lives. And we can do that for so many reasons...because we have found our niche' in life, and are happy and content. We have found those other happy and content people who share our passion for the furry beings who walk the path of life with us. And we know that at the end of the day, when all is said and done (no matter what was said, and what was done) we have those furry beings waiting for us at home to greet us and shower us with unconditional love. And finally, because we know how intelligent and sweet sheep can really be, and take being called one a compliment.(For the record, as many times as I have experienced the hurt feelings and loneliness mentioned in the first half of this blog, I have also experienced just as many compliments and "warm fuzzies" from friends and family too. My mom happens to be not only my hero, but my biggest fan. She has ALWAYS encouraged and helped along my love for animals; even when it has cost her more money and gray hair than she would care to admit! I even received a phone call from an Aunt just a few weeks ago, where she told me that she was so proud of my love for my girls, and how lucky they must be to have me. Now, I don’t know about that, but it really brought a lump to my throat and tears to my eyes. And that’s the thing about friends and family, although they may think your crazy, and completely obsessed, you can always tell who really loves you...and as the Beatles so wisely said, "love is all you need".)

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