The tenderness of wolves

Posted: November 1, 2013 in Blogs
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First published in 2006, Stef Penney captivated readers with her Costa Award-winning Book of the Year, ‘The Tenderness of Wolves’, her debut novel set in Canada in the 1860s. Essentially a murder mystery, there are endless reviews to tempt or dissuade the average book chooser. I loved the book, it’s all in the title for me – ‘wolves’. I love wolves and if the closest I can get is with a pack of huskies and an Indian tracker by means of literary escape, then I’d jump at the chance to indulge. If those wolves are more likely to envelop me in safety, compassion and unconditional love than they are to hunt me down like a deer (no that’s being far too kind, more like an elk!) and eat me for dinner, then all the better.

Of course, dogs are the result of the domestication of the Grey Wolf. I love dogs too. There are many dog fanatics – the world and his dog loves dogs. History tells us that dogs have been exploited for human need – guarding, herding and hunting – but what about good old fashioned Man’s best friend? What is that we all love so much about dogs? And I’ll extend that to animals generally.

I read an interesting article on the Psychology Today website; its heading was, ‘In the presence of animals, we find true acceptance’. This really struck a chord. Coming from a cat-obsessed family, I was, to my complete disdain, deprived a dog when I was young. We tried, but the top cat in residence was not going to tolerate any such nonsense, and as I vividly remember my mum saying, ‘The cat was here first’. As an angst-ridden teenager, I regularly sobbed uncontrollably into the long hair of my half-Persian cat (not the top cat – she did have long hair but more notably she was Egyptian and very noisy). Dizzy was likened to a grey tiger or perhaps, more honestly, a squirrel on steroids. I told him all my problems, I talked to him as if he were human, and when he was hit and killed by a car at a young age, I mourned his loss like a family member.

In the company of other creatures, human beings feel freed from self-consciousness and self-deprecation; we don’t have to explain ourselves. We don’t make any assumptions about their silence or their response. More than that though, we fall for their individual characters, we bond with them, and share so many aspects of our lives. Not that long ago I took in my friend’s cat that she had to rehome due to a change in her own circumstances. At the time I lived alone and I used to come home to that cat every day – I looked for him, called out to him (my language skills regressed to those of a ten year old girl) and fell about laughing at him trying to catch flies or curl up to sleep in places that simply weren’t big enough for him. When it came to be my turn to give him up, as my circumstances had changed, I was a total emotional wreck. I poked my fingers through the grate of his carrier one last time as a final goodbye and he loyally padded his paw back at me. I felt like this was more pain than I could ever possibly bear as I said out loud, but through increasingly more tears, ‘I don’t feel very strong.’ These are the type of connections that I form with animals, and I am sure they are not uncommon.

As mentioned earlier, I never had a dog when I was young. I did, however, have the pleasure of forming a special bond with a less than faithful, incredibly un-loyal, but very loving hound when I was a bit older. Josh was my mum’s last chance saloon at coaxing me out of a very limiting period of darkness – a ‘before you are 21’ life crisis. I had dropped out of university, was depressed, anxious and utterly miserable. I cried most of the day, had no contact with anyone, and if I left the house, paranoia followed me. My mum would leave me to go to work, worrying that I looked like I had nothing left to live for. And that is how it felt. Josh was a Collie / Terrier cross, black and white, a small dog with long legs – a rescue dog. I’m not sure who was rescuing who more. He was my reason to get up every day, my reason to go outside and my reason for living. Through him I started talking to people again – albeit most of the time apologising for his total lack of dog etiquette. At that time in my life I couldn’t even sleep on my own and I slept on a mattress on the floor in my mum’s bedroom. I’d be in bed early and Josh would sneak in with me. My mum would come in and insist on his residing in the kitchen – in the dog bed. She just pointed and said sternly ‘Bed!’ and Josh would try to make himself small and unnoticeable before eventually giving in and slinking out. Mum was definitely alpha dog!

Little ‘Joshy-woo’, that I affectionately referred to him as, had his own set of problems and needed a great amount of training. There were times he reduced me to tears, simultaneously crumbling in a heap to the ground. But anyone could see that those tears were healthier than those falling from the sheer misery that had occupied my thoughts and mind for far too long. Trying to prevent him from herding horses, fishing him out of canals, running after him for two miles to retrieve him from other people he attached himself to and searching for him in woods for hours when I lost him; by doing all these things, I started to live again.

There are plenty of stories around like mine, highlighting the special bond between people and their dogs – military and police dogs, assistance dogs, guide dogs, search and rescue dogs. They are quite literally lifelines to many people in need, in more ways than one. I feel privileged that I now work for an animal charity, in the dog section. I help hundreds of dogs in need find their new, forever homes. Aside from enjoying it immensely, I like to think that I am giving something back, because if it wasn’t for Josh coming into my life, I really don’t know what would have happened to me.

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