As I noted in my previous column, it is unfathomable to me that any person who has ever lived with, observed, interacted with, or read stories about the lives and actions of animals could ever doubt that they—just like us—possess a rich inner-life of emotions and thoughts; and do, indeed, have “feelings.” As I also mentioned, an encounter I had with an angry, nameless woman and her pup—a woman who doesn’t believe this to be true—is what prompted me to write on this subject. It made me wonder: If a pet owner can’t “get it,” how many others out there who are not especially drawn to the singular beauty, purity, and goodness of the animal kingdom view them as thoughtless, emotionless creatures put on Earth for no reason other than to satisfy our appetites, penchant to dominate, and provide us amusement, trinkets, and moving targets? Such self-deluding thoughts can work to excuse acts of cruelty, neglect, and abuse and soothe the conscience of many who mistreat and exploit animals— both domestic and wild.
Real-life stories of animals that exhibit the best of “human” qualities: unconditional love, devotion, courage, heroism, loyalty, selflessness, and generosity of spirit abound. They are illustrated in books, movies, news clips, on the internet and experienced, daily, by millions upon millions of people.
In the August/September 2011 edition of Pet Tails, I recounted the story of a Japanese Akita dog, Hashiko, that was the subject of the American film, “Hachi,” starring Richard Gere. Utterly devoted to his master, Hachi made his way to a busy Tokyo train station every day where he eagerly awaited his best friend’s return in order to accompany him on his walk home. One day his owner did not return, having died, suddenly, from a heart attack. Nothing could be done to console or contain Hachi. He could not accept anyone else as a substitute for the human companion he adored, and chose to live the rest of his life alone and apart. Every day, for the next nine years, he made his way to the train station and waited on the exact spot he had last said “good-by” to his master. Eventually, he breathed his last breath on that spot. Commuters who had witnessed and were touched by this extraordinary demonstration of love and devotion made sure he had something to eat every day and erected a statue in tribute to his memory upon his death.
A picture truly is “worth a thousand words.” And the photo of “Hawkeye,” the devoted and beloved dog belonging to Navy SEAL Jon Tumilson—one of 22 soldiers killed when their Chinook helicopter was shot down over Afghanistan in 2011—went viral after first being shown on ABC News: A poignant, heart-wrenching portrait of loyalty and grief, Hawkeye lay silently at the foot of his master’s casket throughout his entire funeral service. Family and friends said they never heard Jon refer to Hawkeye as a dog or a pet. To Jon, Hawkeye was his “son.”
For those who require “hard evidence” of an animal’s ability to act upon feelings of love and devotion, examples exist in every corner of the globe, through every period of history. One of the more ancient of these is “Delta,” a remarkable dog I first heard about when visiting Pompeii, in Italy. After Mt. Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD, Delta’s ashen remains were discovered lying across the body of a young child whom she appeared to be protecting. She was wearing a silver collar upon which were engraved her name, the name of her owner, “Severinus,” and a tribute to several pervious acts of heroism, including protecting her master from a wolf attack near the town of Herculaneum.
“Greyfriars Bobby” illustrates another account of love and loyalty. When John Gray died on February 8, 1858 in Edinburgh, Scotland he left little behind—except his Skye terrier, “Bobby.” The two had been inseparable in life and, the day after his burial, the curator noticed the pup lying atop his master’s fresh grave. No amount of chasing-away worked to deter this little dog from watching over his best friend, which he continued to do for fourteen long years, leaving Gray’s grave site only once a day to eat a meal prepared by cemetery staff and relieve himself. When he finally died, himself, he could not be buried along side his owner because that ground was consecrated. So, the staff of Greyfriar’s Kirkyard buried him just inside the gate and erected a headstone in his memory. It reads: “Greyfriar’s Bobby. Died 14th January 1872. Aged 16 years. Let his loyalty and devotion be a lesson to all.”
So very many stories of active love, devotion, heroism and healing exist: Like that of another “Bobbie”—Bobbie Brazier. This story was told to me by my father, who remembered hearing of it when he was a child. His elementary school teacher allowed her students to practice their printing and letter-writing skills by penning congratulatory notes to this remarkable dog. He became lost during a family vacation and somehow traveled 2,800 miles—from Indiana to Oregon— to find his way back to the family he loved. This happened in 1923 and landed Bobbie an entry in Ripley’s Believe It or Not!
Do you remember hearing the more recent news stories of “Heidi” and “Buddy?” In 2001, Heidi, a Jack Russell terrier, made her way down a 500 foot drop to remain with her owner, Graham Snell, who fell to his death when hiking. She stayed with him until a rescue team finally located them a couple of days later. Buddy’s story is similar, but a bit more dramatic. This black lab and his owner, Bill Hitchcock, lived in remote Knight Island, Alaska. One day in 2002, while chopping firewood, Bill was struck by a piece of timber and died. For at least two weeks this faithful dog paced between the shoreline and his friend’s body, during frigid temperatures averaging MINUS 23 degrees, before being able to alert and lead a search team to Hitchcock’s body. I especially remember this story because of its tragic ending. Though just four years old, Buddy was euthanized less than one month after this incident because he could not adjust to a new owner.
Countless military and police dogs, as well as service animals of varied species, exhibit a quality of single-minded loyalty, devotion, and unconditional love that is rare in human experience. If you didn’t catch the short stories of therapy pig, Buttercup; lifesaving cat, Pudding; Angel, the miniature seeing-eye horse; and four other remarkable animals in the “Hero Pets” feature of November’s Reader’s Digest, I’m sure it isn’t too late to locate a copy and treat yourself to seven uplifting profiles.
In “Feelings: Part III,” I will present additional examples of documented “human-like” qualities and emotions in animals of various species—domesticated and wild. And, finally, we will take a look at scientific studies which prove that we are not the only creatures in possession of intelligence, emotions, and volition. I’ll bet you knew that already. But maybe you know at least one skeptic who could use some convincing…