Thursday, March 6, 2008

The Dogs of Bedlam Farm, by Jon Katz

The reviewer comments on the back cover of this book say “An inspiring portrait of the human-animal bond...”. “Funny, touching, and insightful...”. “Rewarding memoir...”. I might have said as much about other books on humans and animals, but not this one.

Jon Katz tells us straight out that his goal in taking on the care of three border collies, a herd of sheep, and two donkeys is to better himself, to “become a better human being”. It's an admirable goal – but at what sacrifice? When does it seem a good idea to experiment on animals for your own so-called personal growth? What kind of growth is that really?

Obviously I am in a different camp from Katz. Long ago I concluded that there is no animal on this earth who is safe from humans. I also concluded that human destruction of much of the natural world means that some animals, including cats and dogs, no longer have a natural habitat, that in fact their natural habitat now is with us, in our homes. A corollary: it is our responsibility to care for homeless dogs and cats humanely (which does not mean killing them); we created this situation and we are responsible for them. I offer this paragraph as a disclosure that explains part of the reason I take issue with the way Katz approaches the animals he takes on.

Katz sells his mountain hideaway (the subject of previous books) and purchases a run-down farm in upper New York state. He brings his three dogs there and accepts delivery of 16 sheep and the first donkey. Later he travels to the farm of a self-described “donkey lady” and purchases another, younger donkey as companion for the first. He works with his dogs, trying to train them to herd the sheep, and he spends much of each day cleaning, repairing, doing the chores associated with this life. He also spends part of his day writing about it and appears to spend nearly 100% of his waking hours trying to figure it all out. By which I mean he sorts through his relationship with the different animals and comes to conclusions about himself, those animals, and other people and their animals. Forcing himself to be responsible for all of these animals is supposed to make him a better person.

What others have characterized as “introspection” I see as justification. Katz spends endless paragraphs justifying actions that he suspects others may see as wrong somehow. He tells us honestly what trainers have told him (that, for example, he needs to stop yelling at his dogs) and that he bemoans his failures as a human being, and then he obstinately reverts to pattern (keeps yelling at his dogs). It is as if he wants to become a better person but retain all of his prejudices and habits in the process.

Again and again he describes occasions when he has gone against the advice of people he trusts, only to find out that their advice was good. A trusted trainer said don't bring another puppy into the mix until you have resolved the issues with Homer. Katz wants a new puppy so he gets it anyway, only to find out after much work with all of the dogs that perhaps that wasn't such a swell idea. I can't help but conclude that he is going after what Jon wants rather than what the dogs want or need.

When Katz wants a new dog he heads for the breeder. He chooses a breed and a specific puppy for its characteristics. He wants a border collie to herd sheep. He wants a labrador for companionship. He snipes at those who frown on obtaining dogs from breeders with this argument: some people adopt babies but most of us want one of our own. Is that a fair comparison, though? The comparison fails on more than one level:

* When Katz goes to a breeder it's like he's going to an adoption agency, not “having his own”. He also deludes himself by assuming he can specify exactly the dog he wants. Even when you choose a puppy of a breed that tends to have certain characteristics, there is no guarantee that the puppy will grow up to be the dog you expect. Katz's own experiences with different border collies are testament to this variability in dogs. All dogs. (not to mention all people)

*Even the best breeders produce dogs that are “not acceptable”: dogs they can't sell. These dogs are a result of the breeding process. Even the champion dogs tend to have physical or mental issues that are genetic, a result of the breeding process. The best breeders will claim that they find homes for all of their dogs, whether or not they are “perfect”. But every time a breeder's dog goes out the door the people who take that dog do not instead take another dog that needs a home. Thus breeders contribute to pet overpopulation and contribute as well to the population of genetic misfits.

* Approximately 40% of the dogs in shelters are purebred dogs. Many breeder dogs do not come to good ends.

* Katz ignores statistics because he wants his own chosen dogs, not some “rescue”, even though he has rescued dogs in the past, from inappropriate homes. Therefore he justifies his decision.

When Katz takes out his rifle and shoots a feral cat it is at the end of many paragraphs explaining he never thought he'd ever shoot anything and his dogs were being attacked and he did not have a choice. Actually, he did have a choice, but it would have taken more work of the kind he chooses not to do. It would also have labeled him some kind of bleeding heart there in the country, and we can't have that. He desperately wants (maybe needs) approval from the old-time “real” farmers and ranchers. Katz is no lazy person. He simply makes his choices for his own comfort and supposed better-personhood rather than for animals.

Katz does come to the conclusion that he cannot provide the kind of home needed by his sweet Homer. After agonizing and justifying this decision – a justification not needed, believe me – he places Homer with a family that can give him what he needs. In this Katz has done the right thing. He wears the hair shirt, however, over and over expressing distress that it was his own bad training practices that complicated life for Homer and made it necessary for him to go to another home. Enough already. He protests too much.

I have come to the odd conclusion that perhaps Katz is not the dog person he says he is.

He would say he's not a “Dog Person” too, but his definition of “Dog Person” is not what I mean. He describes his sister and others he has met as dog persons, and what he means is people who actively rescue “unadoptable” dogs, who care for them with every last scrap of their incomes, who let them overrun their lives in every respect, shutting out people – except other “Dog People” who meet the same definition. This type dog person is a small subset of the whole, the dog people I know personally.

Katz is not afraid to reveal what he sees are the problems in his own personality: a lack of patience, a tendency toward anger, especially quick anger. He refers frequently to a childhood of chaos where he learned these ways of keeping other people at bay. He obviously truly wants to find and keep a genuine long-lasting closeness to those who matter to him, and does not want to continue to alienate friends and family with his bursts of anger or silence.

He finds his salvation in the animals. Through them he learns patience especially. Through them he harnesses his will toward the care of others. Through them he finds a connection to his sister that had been lost. Clearly this is the message of the book. Animal people will all tell you that animals change you, make you better than you were. I have no argument with that. What concerned me throughout this book was the total me-ness of it. It was always about Katz and what he wanted and needed from the animals. Even though he went on various trips to find out what the animals needed, the need of the donkey to find her “inner donkeyness”, for example, ultimately he did these things because they would make him a better person. There is something backwards about this approach that simply bothered me the whole time I read this book.

At the end of the book Katz is laying in supplies and readying the farm for another winter. We are expected to believe that he has found his place at last. I for one doubt it. It was good enough for one book but the adventure will not be enough for many more.

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