Reviewed by Ann Skea ([email protected]).
Never judge a book by its cover. Especially this one! When the Australian edition arrived on my doorstep and I saw the title and the cute sleeping puppy on its cover, my heart sank. But Bloomsbury is not a publisher noted for cute and sentimental books and they have not let me down. The sub-title of the book explains it all: Dog Rescue and the Meaning of Life.
There is plenty of love in this book, plenty of heart-warming doggy stories and plenty of funny stories, but Steven Kotler’s experiences running a dog rescue sanctuary in Chimayo, New Mexico, prompt him to consider some very serious questions about our own lives and behaviour.
At the age of 40, suffering from Lyme disease, a growing dissatisfaction with his life, and prompted by a deepening attachment to Joy, who was already committed to dog rescue, he invested all his money and hope in a small farm in New Mexico. There, he hoped, he and Joy might create a sanctuary for dogs away from Council and landlord interference. This was the start of a steep learning curve, and his interaction with the dogs, the neighbours and the local area are often hilarious. Balancing this, his descriptions of dog-pounds, puppy-farms, mindless cruelty and terrified dogs, as well as his own reactions to the inevitable deaths, is shocking and moving.
Kotler has a strong ‘Californian’ voice, a blunt way of saying things, a wonderful sense of irony and a philosophical turn of mind. It is this last which, towards the end of the book, tends to bog the reader down in ethical argument and scientific research as he marshals arguments to support his belief that animals, like us, have rights which deserve to be recognized. His small furry hope is that he can convince us of this, if not by letting us into the fascinating world he shares with his dogs, then by rational argument. Along the way, he covers ethics, altruism, shamanism, homosexuality, bereavement research, how wolves became domesticated dogs, and much more. I was alternately delighted, intrigued and horrified. I laughed a lot, pondered a lot, and learned much about doggy behaviour, mirror neurons, the collective unconscious and flow states.
Running “real dog rescue requires real sacrifice”, says Kotler. And he defines ‘real’ rescue as the sort which aims to take the most abused, most disturbed, most threatened dogs from the pound and to try to rehabilitate them to adoption standards or to make what remains of their lives happy. This is what he and Joy do. And the day-to-day reality is of shit between the toes, sharing a bed with assorted dogs, spending all your money on vet fees and the best dog food, the agony of loss, and the agony of choice, whether of deciding which dog to rescue from the pound or when euthanasia is the best and kindest option. The reality, too, is of the euphoria of hard-won success, the joy of being with the dogs, the wonderful characters and the amazing behaviour of some animals and, as a by-product, the fitness that comes from huge exercise routines undertaken to calm aggression.
I treasure the image of Kotler walking assorted Chihuahuas (one wearing a pink, rhinestone-encrusted, ‘Playboy Special’ coat bought at a going-out-of business sale in LA) past a gang of leather-clad Hells Angels bikies. And of him agreeing to hold the head of a half-anaesthetized Mountain Lion: “The fucking thing is bigger than a bowling ball. Absolutely, I’ll hold its head. And afterwards, to keep the party going, let’s drink some hemlock”. And I can still see him repeatedly following the bull-terrier, Igor, vertically up a canyon wall and precipitously down again: it felt, he says, “like being a skater on a ramp. Or a snowboarder in the half-pipe. It felt like I was eight years old. It was so much fun that I forgot what I was doing and just kept doing it”. Three hundred yards later he looked behind him and saw seven other dogs following them up and down the walls, and he swears they were laughing.
I am not convinced by the conclusion Kotler draws from his potted history of ethics: Plato to Nietzsche in a single paragraph, then on from Darwin to Richard Dawkins in a couple of pages. But his arguments for a better understanding of our own place in the animal kingdom and for greater respect for members of species other than our own are convincing.
This is a funny, sometimes shocking, thought-provoking and most unusual book. Steven Kotler is a dog-besotted philosopher, and whatever you think of his choice of life you have to admire him for his courage, his powers of observation, his capacity for endurance and for his determination to cling to a small furry hope for a better future for dogs.
Copyright © Ann Skea 2011
Website and Ted Hughes pages: http://ann.skea.com/