Sunday, March 11, 2012

The Dog Owner's Dilemma

There are certain challenges inherent to sharing one’s life with a dog when one has chosen not to eat animals.

The other day,  I was shopping for a chew toy for Cleo, something that would keep her entertained during meetings when she needed to lie down and not interact with people.  Plastics are out: They either completely fail to interest her or they’re so soft she burns through them in a half hour and risks choking to death on the oversized chunks she gnaws off of them.  Rawhide is out: I’ve heard too many horror stories about pieces getting lodged in dogs’ intestines, slimy strips slipping down dogs’ throats and strangling them, or contaminated samples that cause sickness and death.  Bully sticks are out: I might be able to deal with the fact that they’re made from bull penises, but I can’t deal with the rank smell that wafts from Cleo’s mouth after she’s been slobbering on them.  Bones, of course, are out: I don’t know of any vet who thinks they’re a good idea, though few pet supply stores fail to carry them.  She loves Booda Bones, but they’re short-term entertainment, not enough for those three hour meetings.  She also loves her rope chew toys (the doggie version of dental floss), but only when one end is being held by a human; in her mind, they’re not for solo play. 

Now clearly, given the obvious fact that I must have provided bully sticks (though not rawhide or bones) to Cleo in the past in order to know what her breath smells like after she’s been chewing them, the problem is not that I’m completely averse to providing animal products to my dog.  I am under no misapprehension about dogs; they are meat eaters and must be meat eaters to get the full nutrition they require.  Human beings, the remarkable survivors that we are, may be omnivores who, barring certain medical conditions, can get all the protein and other nutrients we need without ingesting a single animal.  Dogs just aren’t built that way.  Cleo’s food—both canned and kibble—is made of meat: turkey, duck, chicken, venison, salmon, beef and even lamb.  I would be lying if I said it doesn’t bother me.  I feel guilty, even pained, every time I restock the puppy larder.  But as deeply as I feel about not eating animals, my love for Cleo runs far deeper.  And so, the best I can do is mitigate our impact on the animal population. 

My personal choice to stop eating animals sprang from three main concerns.  The planet cannot sustain the number of food animals necessary to feed a world of meat eaters, from the vast amount of water necessary to produce one pound of meat to the noxious fecal pools that neighbor every factory farm, spewing methane into the air and drastically increasing global warming.  My second concern has to do with the way factory farmed animals suffer their miserable existences.  While I can seek out farms and ranches that prove that their animals didn’t suffer during their lives, that only takes me to my third concern.  Other than a handful of privately run, family owned facilities, slaughterhouses are nightmares of atrocities, for the animals brought there to die and for the humans who work there.  So the answer for me personally was to stop eating animals.

And yet, Cleo needs animal protein in order to survive and thrive.  Anybody know of dog food that guarantees that it is made from animals that lived and died humanely?  I read labels.  I haven’t found any yet.  I suppose the answer is to make my own dog food from guaranteed happy meat.  Is kibble baked?

So anyway, there I am prowling the treat aisles at our local Pet Food Express, picking up and putting back one long-lasting chew treat after another.  This one Cleo wouldn’t like, that one is too dangerous, a third makes me feel too guilty.  Finally, I am holding two packages.  One is some kind of remarkable sirloin jerky that I think Cleo would love.  The other is dried bison Achilles tendons.  I stand debating for several minutes.  Finally, I choose the bison bits.  I know how cattle are slaughtered and I can’t bring myself to buy the sirloin.  I hope that the bison lived happy lives roaming what’s left of some Wyoming plain, then, because they are different and exotic, had to be slaughtered by someone who really knew what he was doing and made it quick and painless.  I admit, it’s a pretty slim hope.

When I got home, I plucked a tendon from the bag and presented it to Cleo thinking that it would be a good opportunity to test how long the chew fest might last.  She sniffed it, looked at me, sniffed it again, then very gingerly took it in her mouth and backed up.  She stared at me for another moment.  Then she trotted into one of the back bedrooms.  “Aha,” I thought, “she’s off to start a good gnaw.”  Within minutes, she was back, empty handed—well, empty jawed.  She strolled into the living room, curled up and went to sleep. 

For the next several days, each evening after we got home from work, she would move her treasure from one hiding place to another.  When she is being sneaky, when she’s stolen a pair of socks from the laundry hamper, for example, she tiptoes past us, making a distinctive tick, tick, tick, tick with her claws on the hardwood floors.  As she moves her bison bit, she uses the same gait, casting sidelong glances at us as she sneaks by.  A few times, it has turned up tucked into the space between the refrigerator and the sliding glass door that leads to the side yard.  Once I discovered her standing on our bed, trying to hide the thing underneath my pillow.  For a couple days it disappeared altogether, only to resurface (literally) clenched in the mud-covered maw of a triumphant Cleo.  The worst time was the rainy day last weekend when I came home from a conference in Seattle ready to curl up on the chaise with a book and the little girl I had keenly missed.  Without stopping to wonder why the blanket was so oddly smushed against the back of the chaise, I yanked it up and sent the gnarly animal part, spinning end over end, into my lap.  I’m not too proud to admit that I squealed like a twelve-year-old girl, although I did manage to remove it from my lap with nothing stronger than an “oh, yuck!”  All this time, though, she had not left a single tooth mark on it.  Clearly it is a prized possession, but I had given up any hope that it would ever be put to the purpose for which I bought it.

At some point this afternoon, I realized that Cleo had been outside for an uncharacteristically long time.  I peeked out the glass door.  There she was, sprawled on the Dichondra in the dappled sun.  Her front paws clutched one end of the tendon as she gnawed happily away at the other.  As I watched, her rear end went up into the air, her elbows still on the ground as she maneuvered for better leverage, bringing her back teeth to the job of pulverizing that bison tendon.  Cleo, the happy meat eater.  I don’t know how long it kept her busy.  When I checked on her a bit later, she’d either polished it off or buried it again.  I’m not sure that it fills the bill as entertainment during a meeting, but I do know she has enjoyed the thrill of possessing such a frontier treasure.

I guess all I can do is say, “Thank you, Bison, for your sacrifice.  You have brought great joy to this wolf in lamb’s clothing.”

Cleo and her frontier treasure

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