Sunday, February 9, 2014

Maxine Kumin, 1925 - 2014: “For an hour/we are incorruptible.”

This isn’t the first Sunday morning I’ve gone to my study and begun the day by reading Maxine Kumin – a way to settle into poetry and its capaciousness, to revive my own faith in possibility, to meet a companion able to face and understand – everything. But this is the first Sunday morning without the sure sense of that companion being not only on the page but out there, on the farm in New Hampshire, in a work shirt and jeans, going up to the barn to feed the horses or back in the kitchen cutting bread. Of course she could have been somewhere else, doing something completely different, but the immediacy and intimacy and intelligence of the life on the page always seemed paired with a real woman thinking and feeling and moving in the world. Eighty seven? Eighty eight? To the granite of New Hampshire, what are years?

The first book I take off my shelf today is the first one I bought, The Nightmare Factory, black and blood-red. Later works would have a little less of the nightmares, lovers, and turbulence, with an enrichment of the rest, all here in 1970: horses, pastures, family, history, pain, friendship, place, humor, love; a physicality of form masterly in the service of its subject, passion and coolness at once.
I had known about the special phone line the best friends, Anne Sexton and Maxine Kumin, had had installed, but it took yesterday’s New York Times obituary for me to learn that they kept the connection open while writing, each in her own house, until one would whistle that a poem was ready to read aloud. What must it have been like to lose that open line, that ear; that whistle, that voice? Kumin took a long time to tell us, honoring her friend by not writing soon or easily. And still, even with the poems and the memories, the friendship seemed to stay private and personal,  theirs.
When Elizabeth Stone and I put together our course inveterinary medicine and literature, it was thrilling to remember the Amanda poems, and it was thrilling to “teach” them. Teach? They taught themselves. They taught us. On the day we introduced them, the 3 or 4 “horse” people in the class who had tolerated the domestic house animals we began with suddenly sat up and leaned forward, as if a window had been opened. And it had – the fresh smell of hay, the pungency of boots and saddles, as present in the room as our seminar table and notebooks. They were hearing what they knew, but probably did not know could be said in words:
We sit together.
In this time and place
we are heart and bone.
For an hour,
we are incorruptible.

“Amanda Dreams She Has Died and Gone to the Elysian Fields”

In veterinary school, horses are in the “large animals” group. In the Amanda poems, the largeness is fully there, in all its grace, mystery, and weight. If we did nothing else for our students, we gave them an introduction to Maxine Kumin and poems they can turn to for solace and renewal throughout their lives.
Turning to Selected Poems, I realize that any animals-and-literature course could make its entire syllabus out of Kumin. Poems, essays, someone as alive to horses, cows, moose, swan, bears, as to Paris and martinis, war and playing Monopoly with a grandson. Kumin explains it in “Sleeping with Animals”:
“loving my animals too much
letting them run like a perfectly detached
statement by Mozart through all the other lines
of my life…”

Why not? The whole of life.
The New York Times obituary ends with the last lines of the last poem in Selected Poems: 1960-1990, “A Game of Monopoly in Chavannes”, and they are a knockout:
His lower lip trembles, this luxury of a child
who burst naked into our lives, like luck.
Our sole inheritor, he has taken us over 
with his oceanic wants, his several passports.
I will deed him the Reading Railroad, the Water Works,
the Electric Company, my hotel on Park Place. 
All that I have is his, under separate cover
and we are the mortgaged nub of all that he has.
Soon enough he will learn, buying long, selling short  
his ultimate task is to stay to usher us out. 

But I’d prefer to end my Sunday morning with the last verse of a different poem, “Itinerary of an Obsession” (epigraph “Just remember that everything east of you has already happened. – Advice on a time-zone chart”), and a glimpse of where she might be, and what she might be doing, now, as she wrote to her friend:
Years pass, as they say in storybooks.
It is true that I dream of you less.
Still, when the phone rings in my sleep
and I answer, a dream-cigarette in my hand,
it is always the same. We are back at our posts,
hanging around like boxers in
our old flannel bathrobes. You haven’t changed.
I, on the other hand, am forced to grow older.
Now I am almost your mother’s age.
Imagine it! Did you think you could escape?
Eventually I’ll arrive in her
abhorrent maribou negligee
trailing her scarves like broken promises
crying yoo-hoo! Anybody home?




Sunday, October 13, 2013

"Jazz & Poetry/Poetry & Jazz": An Appreciation

This post continues the theme of pleasure in the unexpected, in this case with music and poetry, though no animals.

The best events, in my memory, are the small and unexpected gems: “Once on This Island” and “Driving Miss Daisy” in their debuts in the tiny, rickety, up-a-steep-and-winding staircase of the first Playwrights Horizons space; “A Chorus Line” at the Public Theater before the buzz and Broadway; Susannah McCorkle at the Spencertown Academy, with Mabel Mercer in the audience!; and, on October 5th of  this year, “Jazz & Poetry/Poetry & Jazz” at the Sandisfield Arts Center, a converted church and synagogue in a little town in western Massachusetts.

Thanks to a small number of passionate and highly capable local arts lovers and citizens, the Arts Center has been evolving for over a decade, and it’s really arrived as an amazingly first-class venue for music and theater. I hadn’t been since the recent improvements – a bright, welcoming vestibule when you enter, then in the upstairs sanctuary/theater space, new, handsome and comfortable chairs replacing hard pews, and a new floor shining. The place looks like a million dollars, and even includes a handicap lift, but I’m told they did these recent renovations for $86,000, thanks to a few grants and many generous donations. Quite a feat for a town of some 900 year-round residents (up to 2500 with second-home owners. )

So the surroundings raised my expectations a little -- I’m a poet myself, and a jazz fan, but I never expect much out of “Jazz and Poetry” type events, fearing someone snapping their fingers while reading Ferlinghetti, backed by a saxophonist wandering off into an unintelligible solo. But the lighting was just right, warm and glowing, and on the stage were simply a piano, a bass, and a drum set, plus the two readers, a woman and a man, seated, looking intelligent and prepared, books in their laps.

Skimming the program raised my expectations even more – some of my favorite jazz tunes mixed in with some of my favorite poems, and others I didn’t know but that had promising titles or authors (the song “Je Ne T’Aime Pas” by Kurt Weill; poems “Some Days the Sea” by Richard Blanco (the young poet from Obama’s second inauguration) and “The Wind One Brilliant Day” by Antonio Machado), the poems spanning centuries and cultures (Rumi, Neruda, Kabir, Hafiz, along with our own Roethke, Collins, Bishop). Clearly an interesting, knowledgeable, eclectic mind was at work here.

From the first notes, the program didn’t disappoint. The piano was perfectly in tune and rich beyond its baby grand size; the bass and drums came through perfectly, whether as part of the trio or in solos. The acoustics were so good that all the sung and spoken words were crisp and the music enveloping without being harsh – a full dynamic range from soft parts soft but clearly audible to rousing climaxes that didn’t tax the eardrums. The musicians, The Sir William Trio consisting of William Stillinger, bass, James Argiro, piano, Gregory Caputo, drums, along with vocalist Stacey Grimaldi, were first-rate, more than living up to their impressive bios. Ben Luxon and Anni Crofut, the intelligent-looking readers, indeed were intelligent in their reading, doing justice to a wide and not undemanding range of poems, subjects, and styles, projecting them in the best tradition of the spoken word without being theatrical or, even worse, sing-song poet-y.  (Yes, Ben Luxon is that Benjamin Luxon, the internationally known singer, now a Sandisfield resident.)

So thanks to them, and also to the organizers, Alice Boyd, Director of the Arts Center, and Sandy and Flora Parisky, the Program Coordinators, who first heard the program in Connecticut and brought it here – people who believe that small and first-class can go together, that a little town can do big things, that art matters.
And especially thanks to William Stillinger, who I later found out was the interesting, knowledgeable, and eclectic mind that put the program together. A lovely range, a musical intelligence in the harmony and flow and counterpoint of the arrangement.

For people who were there and want to revisit the evening’s pleasures, here are links to some of the poems that are available on the web:

Some Days the Sea, Richard Blanco
Hatred, Gwendolyn Bennett (listed as Brooks in the program, but a web search indicates Bennett is a different person)
One Art, Elizabeth Bishop (one of the best villanelles ever)
The Perfect Life, John Koethe
If You Forget Me, Pablo Neruda (in my web search I actually found a YouTube video of the poem read by Madonna, which may be wonderful, but I’m just linking to the PoemHunter print version)
In a Dark Time, Theodore Roethke
I Know a Man, Robert Creeley

(Credits to the Poetry Foundation, PoemHunter, PoetSeers, Floating Wolf Quarterly, and other websites for making these poems accessible on the web, I trust with proper respect for copyright.)

Maybe the best way I can sum up my appreciation is to say -- I’ve been a Geraldine Dodge poet off and on since 1986, attending many Geraldine Dodge Festivals, and I could easily imagine this program under the big tent, with an audience of over a thousand, on the opening or closing night of Dodge. But it was even more fun to find it under the roof of our own Arts Center, in the company of neighbors!

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Accidental Discoveries, Animal Encounters, and an Unexpected Poet

What do you think of when you think of D.H. Lawrence? Probably not this: 

You know what it is to be born alone,
Baby tortoise!

The first day to heave your feet little by little from the shell,
Not yet awake,
And remain lapsed on earth,
Not quite alive.

A tiny, fragile, half-animate bean.
            From “Baby Tortoise”

A bean! It gets better from there, watching as Lawrence enters into the little tortoise’s bean/being with one tender, perfectly observed detail after another. We see the baby tortoise eating its “first solitary bite,” and making its first way:

You draw your head forward, slowly, from your little wimple
And set forward, slow-dragging, on your four-pinned toes,
Rowing slowly forward.

Through the poem’s 80 lines, Lawrence follows the tortoise emerging into life, a life both ancient and new:

The touch of sun excites you,
And the long ages, and the lingering chill
Make you pause to yawn,
Opening your impervious mouth,
Suddenly beak-shaped, and very wide, like some suddenly gaping pincers;
Soft red tongue, and thin hard gums,
Then close the wedge of your little mountain front,
Your face, baby tortoise.

…and asks the questions we continue to ask in our animal studies classes, our political debates, but most importantly in our own solitary, wondering contemplation by creekside:

Do you wonder at the world, as slowly you turn your head in its wimple
And look with laconic, black eyes?

…Are you able to wonder?

Neither Lawrence nor the tortoise answers – from here the poem turns to the “vast inanimate” that this “little Ulysses, fore-runner/No bigger than my thumb-nail” must “row against,” and although Lawrence never romanticizes the tortoise, he does perhaps inflate its task – but even then, we still see the tortoise inside the mythology: 

How vivid your traveling seems now, in the troubled sunshine,
Stoic, Ulyssean atom;
Suddenly hasty, reckless, on high toes.  

(Yes! On high toes!)

In the anthology I picked out of the bookcase this morning, looking for Thomas Hardy but finding Lawrence, “Baby Tortoise” is followed by “Tortoise-Shell” and its close reading of the animal’s back, the opening lines beginning with religion (“The Cross, the Cross”) and then going on to what Pythagoras saw, making Lawrence almost tipsy: 

The first little mathematical gentleman
Stepping, wee mite, in his loose trousers
Under all the eternal dome of mathematical law…

All the volte face of decimals,
The whirligig of dozens and the pinnacle of seven. 

Turns out there’s a veritable tortoise series*. Next comes “Tortoise Gallantry,” which does seem like more familiar Lawrence territory, as you can tell from the ending: 

We ought to look the other way.

Save that, having come with you so far,
We will go on to the end. 

The anthology also includes an encounter with a less appealing creature, “Snake,” seen at first as the eternal, repellent “other”, but then as something more. Lawrence sums up a dilemma that continues to animate our animal discussions: 

The voice of my education said to me
He must be killed…
But must I confess how I liked him…? 
The last Lawrentian animal encounter in the anthology is “Humming-Bird”, shorter than the others and almost entirely an imaginative flight: 

I can imagine…
Before anything had a soul,
While life was a heave of Matter, half inanimate,
This little bit chipped off in brilliance,
And went whizzing through the slow, vast, succulent stems. 

“This little bit chipped off in brilliance” – a hummingbird exactly. But Lawrence goes further, on to the utter unknowable, what else may beat in this common little bird at our window: 

In the world where the humming-bird flashed ahead of creation…
Probably he was big…
Probably he was a jabbing, terrifying monster.

We look at him through the wrong end of the telescope of Time,
Luckily for us.

Probably. And those last two lines are as good as any I know to capture the pathos and paradox of the human position – a position that poems like these transcend.

On a cold, spring-resisting April morning, when nothing seemed to be stirring in the still frozen ground outside, I stumbled on these poems, D.H. Lawrence observing animals, when what I was looking for was Thomas Hardy going on about mortality. For this I thank the phenomenon of Accidental Discovery, recently written about by Ursula Le Guin (65. Accidental Discovery).

Is there as much sheer delight and essential knowledge in the Lawrence poems as I see, coming on them unexpectedly, with the extra pleasure of finding this (to me) unexpected side to Lawrence? Judging from the margin notes in Chief Modern Poets of England and America, ed. by Sanders, Nelson, and Rosenthal (my friend Margaret’s anthology from her long ago class with M.L. himself), Rosenthal didn’t think so: They weren’t assigned, and didn’t merit a jot. Whereas the more Lawrentian “Hymn to Priapus” gets the margin note “priapic principle directs men to fulfill male role,” (indeed!) and “Gloire de Dijon” (Lawrence’s contemplation here of a more expected sort: “She stoops to the sponge, and the swung breasts/Sway like full-blown yellow/Gloire de Dijon roses”) gets Rosenthal’s own words: “’it was a misfortune of Lawrence’s ear that he was attracted to bad rhymes w/ roses’” (that’s a fun accidental discovery – thank you, Margaret and the joys of marginalia**). FYI: The rhyme a few lines up was “glows as”.

So it seems that the scholars forty years ago had nothing to say about these animal encounters. But in this morning’s happy accident, it is the good fortune of my eye and hand to fall on pages 224-I and ff, and enter into a new fellow feeling with a tortoise, a snake, and a poet.

*Accidental discoveries can be partial and lack context. Following up with an Internet search, I learn that Lawrence wrote not three but six poems about the tortoise, known as the “Tortoise Poems”…Perhaps already a standard part of some animal studies classes?

**Some of the commenters on Ursula Le Guin’s blog post (about accidental discoveries) cite the e-book’s ability to crowd-source margin notes as a point in its favor (vs the handwritten notes of only one or two individuals in an old book). But for me the pleasure – and it is a deep one – is the encounter with an individual sensibility, a style not just of mind but of pen; and if it is a loved one in the act of discovery, the page to touch.


Thursday, December 13, 2012

Lost Dog

Author's note: This begins an occasional series on works by some of the authors in our book (Animal Companions, Animal Doctors, Animal People) – a wonderful, amazingly diverse and interesting crowd (read about them here).

Lost. Shetland sheepdog (female).
Disappeared Thursday from Linville
Creek Rd.
No animal lover sees a flyer like that on a neighborhood telephone pole without a pang. Every animal owner, I suspect, has an abiding dread that someday the picture and name on the sign might be your pet’s own. In her chapbook, Looking for Ceilidh, Kathryn Kirkpatrick takes us on a – I’ll use the word I normally dislike because it fits here – journey that none of us wants to take. But in Kirkpatrick’s fourteen page poem, although Ceilidh is lost, much is found.
First, if you’re like me, you won’t want to read the poem, or even read about it, if the ending is in doubt. It’s not – the wandering Ceilidh (pronounced KAY-LEE, as Kirkpatrick puts on the sign, so neighbors calling the name will get it right) will, in time, be found.
At the start, we find Kirkpatrick as lost as her dog, more than distraught: stunned at the intensity of her own reaction, “this wild wheeling/toward the porchlit door/as if each scrape and rustle/might save a life.”
The disappearance had begun with a bark from a neighbor’s dog, with Ceilidh drawn not so much by the handsome yellow lab as by “the call itself” – and there Kirkpatrick reminds us of one of the root paradoxes of every dog-human relationship, a wild call we humans both fear, and revere.
As Kirkpatrick goes from house to house, knocking on doors she’s never entered, seeing the faces of neighbors she’s never noticed, she now sees each one, almost with a note of surprise, as a distinct person, with a name, a life, and, in most cases, the instinct to help.
   …Carol works part-time
   at the elementary school.
   Sara turns porcelain pots
   on her wheel. Have you tried
   the field across Linville Creek?
   Faith asks if I’ve eaten.
   What about the ridge?
But there’s also “something besides love and grace”. Found too, in the hellbent course, is the menace in the near and familiar – Anne’s spaniel who “came home with a bullet in its leg”; the warning from a hard-bitten neighbor of what can befall “a fancy dog” in these dirt-poor Appalachian hollers.
Throughout these pages, our breath is held along with Kirkpatrick’s, and so it is also released on the next to last page, where she finds Ceilidh,
   with a lab, black this time,
   a female her own size,
   a friend.
               And having found
   the things she needs, food and company,
   she greets me like a dog who’s not done

Well, of course. She was only being a dog, our Ceilidh…

   …who led me
   to these opened doors of my own neighborhood,
   who stands here now as if at the end
   of a friendly social visit,
   ready to go home.

I don’t want to overstate what’s done in this fourteen page poem, but it did follow the line, in miniature, of a classic search myth. It brought back bedtime stories that you read for the pleasure of being scared while knowing that at the end you’ll wind up home (sorry, Kathryn; you didn’t know that when you lived it), and Irish poems (although “Ceilidh” is Scotch, for shindig) where Crazy Jane, or Aengus, wanders the hills, and creatures turn into fairy forms, and back to themselves.
But mostly, it reminded me of my own lost lost dog stories, the ones I never thought to write, too fraught with panic even years later, even though they all had happy endings. Like Archie (“oh? the little black and white dog is yours? He’s been at our party all day!”), besotted with beer, staggering out of the woods, having eaten and drunk for hours (9-1/2), played and panted, and had the time of his life. And the time we found him up on his haunches, all 22 terrier inches of him barking at the two Great Danes behind the neighbor’s glass front door…
I hope your lost dog stories have had happy endings, but I know that many don’t, and for those I am sorry. As painful as any final parting with a beloved animal is, how much more so the separation that comes out of the blue, and leaves us endlessly looking.

Kathryn Kirkpatrick is the author of the poem “Creature” in our anthology, Animal Companions, Animal Doctors, Animal People. She teaches poetry, Irish studies, and environmental literature at Appalachian State University.  Her class, Representing Animals, explores the uses humans make of animals as cultural symbols and the various consequences for animals, both positive and negative, of anthropomorphizing them. She is the author of five poetry collections, The Body’s Horizon (1996), Beyond Reason (2004), Out of the Garden (2007), Unaccountable Weather (2011), and Our Held Animal Breath (forthcoming 2012).  Her website is
Send order inquiries for Looking for Ceilidh to Kathryn's email.


Saturday, November 10, 2012

Bella, the Prayer Dog Lends Gravitas to Pet Blessing and Book Signing

Bella, author Rev Talitha Arnold, & St Francis
If you’ve read Talitha Arnold’s story, “Prayer Dog” (in Animal Companions, Animal Doctors, Animal People) you know Bella and the story of what she has done for Rev Arnold’s congregation – and they for her. (If you haven’t read the story, there's an excerpt below.)

Bella continued her tradition of participating in important church events, formal and informal, on October 6 at the United Church of Santa Fe’s annual St. Francis and St. Clare Pet Blessing. The event, open to the public (animals and their loving guardians), is held in honor of St. Francis of Assisi’s affinity for all creatures and marks the celebration of the Feast Day of St. Francis,

The blessing at the United Church of Santa Fe was followed by a book signing of Animal Companions, Animals Doctors and Animal People, a collection of stories and poems about animals by people who love and care for them. Senior Minister Rev. Talitha Arnold was on hand with her dog, Bella, to sign books. Proceeds from the book sales benefitted the Santa Fe Pastoral Counseling Center and a well-known Santa Fean awaiting a kidney transplant.
Paw signing
More pictures of Bella and the blessing at

From "The Prayer Dog" by Talitha Arnold

 “I love this church,” the little girl told my dog as she sat and petted her in my office one afternoon. “This church has a children’s choir and a dog.” Bella, my dog, rolled over so Ana, the little girl, could rub her belly.
Ana was a regular visitor to my office every Wednesday while she waited for her mother to pick her up after children’s choir. She passed the time sitting with Bella, petting her and telling her about school and anything else on her mind. Bella soaked up the attention. She also soaked up the little girl’s cares and concerns – her father’s death when she was three, her mother’s pending remarriage, her trouble with her teachers, her worries about her sister.
“This is the best church,” Ana continued that afternoon. “I don’t know of any church that has a children’s choir and a dog.” Working at my desk, trying not to eavesdrop, I didn’t know whether to chuckle or cry. I think I did both.
Part Border Collie, part Australian Shepherd, Bella has been a part of the congregation I serve for almost a decade. I actually prefer cats to dogs, mainly because cats are fairly low maintenance. They can take care of themselves, which is good since I spend a lot of my time taking care of other people.
But when I needed to get back into shape after an accident, friends urged me to get a dog. After numerous trips to the animal shelter, I finally came home with one. My advisors particularly approved of her collie-shepherd lineage. Every Pastor, aka Shepherd, needs a sheep dog.
Despite her DNA, Bella never has herded the congregation much. I do far more nipping at their heels than she does. Nor does she embody a dog’s stereotypical faithfulness, sometimes used as a metaphor for God’s steadfast love...

Read the rest of the story in Animal Companions, Animal Doctors, Animal People available on,, or from your independent bookstore. Visit on Facebook.

About Talitha Arnold

Talitha Arnold is the Senior Minister of the United Church of Santa Fe in Santa Fe, New Mexico. A graduate of Yale Divinity School and a native of Arizona, she writes frequently on faith and environmental issues, as well as other topics. She is currently working on a book, Desert Faith in a Time of Global Warming. As a child, she liked to give her cats names like Catapult, Catastrophe, and Catamaran. Currently, along with her dog Bella, she has a cat named Hey-Zeus. 

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Report from the Veterinary Medicine and Literature Conference

We are pleased to share this reaction to our May 2010 Veterinary Medicine and Literature conference from conference participant Dorris Heffron, author of City Wolves. More reports to follow...!

For more than a decade now, I've been researching and imagining the life of a fictional first female veterinarian who graduates from vet college in the 1890s. Meg Wilkinson I named her in my novel, City Wolves. She becomes the notorious 'dog doctor' of Halifax and eventually the lone vet in Dawson City during the Klondike gold rush. I haven't stopped seeing things from Meg's point of view. So, 'what astounding progress has been made', I kept thinking as I stood before the illustrious gathering of predominantly female veteran veterinarians at this year's OVC Symposium on Veterinary Medicine and Literature. The symposium itself led by the first female dean at OVC, Dean Elizabeth Stone and she partnering in this project with Hilde Weisert who is also a poet. Astounding!

As a writer of realistic fiction and one who doesn't like to mess with history, I was anxious in my presentation to assure this veteran pack that I was diligent in my research. The rest of the time I could relax and wolf down a two day feast of info on the topic.

I came away from the symposium with an unforgettable, strong and clear impression of how veterinarians are highly influenced by literature and are also talented producers of it. All that added to my own experience of how inspiring the lives and work of veterinarians are to writers.

I have since read presenter Dr. Sid Gustafson's novel Horses They Rode. A stunningly original stylist with a strong, vivid narrative, telling an important story of connected-ness in nature, animals and people through the lives of ranchers and indigenous people with horses, cattle and grizzly bears. Uniquely American, yet profoundly universal.

And I'm now part way through another presenter, Dr. Helen Douglas's memoir, William's Gift, having to exert great discipline to set it aside while I do my day's work. It is so engrossing! Another talented writer. It's exciting to read the first book of memoirs by a Canadian veterinarian who is a woman. And how refreshing to find that it is real and honest recording, therefore truly informative. There are a lot of 'memoirs' these days that are in fact creative writing, glorifying or re-writing lives to make them more entertaining or virtuous. Douglas tells the truth and is it ever interesting!

Dorris Heffron

Sunday, April 4, 2010

The Dog by the Cradle, The Serpent Beneath: Some Paradoxes of Human-Animal Relationships

Erika Ritter will be a keynote speaker at the Veterinary Medicine and Literature Conference, May 9 through May 11, Ontario Veterinary College, Guelph, Canada.

We're pleased to report that Erika Ritter's fascinating book, The Dog by the Cradle, The Serpent Beneath: Some Paradoxes of Human-Animal Relationships, has just been issued in paperback (March 25, 2010) in time to coincide with our upcoming conference. This post reprints a short review followed by some words from Erika on the origin of the book.

When The Dog by the Cradle, The Serpent Beneath was originally published last year, Dr. Elizabeth Stone, Dean at Ontario Veterinary College, wrote the following in conjunction with a reading Erika gave at the Bookshelf in Guelph:

In her new book, The Dog by the Cradle, The Serpent Beneath: Some Paradoxes of Human-Animal Relationships, Erika Ritter, a familiar voice to listeners of CBC radio, seeks to “reconcile the seemingly irreconcilable contradictions in our relationship with animals”. The central theme for her book is the age old story of the master who leaves his faithful dog to guard his child in his cradle. Upon returning, the master finds the dog spattered with blood and the cradle overturned. The master assumes the dog has attacked the child and immediately slays the treacherous animal. Only then does the master find the child safely beneath the upturned cradle and the remains of a bloody poisonous snake lying where the faithful dog had killed it. Thus is demonstrated the paradox of even a trusted and favoured dog being condemned and killed without a moment’s hesitation.

Drawing upon extensive research and interviews with experts spanning the globe, the author takes the reader on a wide-ranging trip through the complex world of human-animal relationships. For example, the author questions how Temple Grandin, who designs improved animal handling facilities, can justify the ‘humane slaughter’ of the animals she loves. But she also recognizes that Grandin’s focus is on ‘practical solutions’ rather than abstract concepts. On another journey, Ritter visits a compound for ‘retired’ research chimpanzees where the co-founder points out that “they’re still in prison here. But it’s a better prison”. The author contrasts the lives of these primates with the 150,000 dogs and their owners who converge in Toronto during the annual Wolfstock event. This mass of dogdom is described as ‘big dogs in bandanas panting along the pavement, little dogs sporting peaked caps peering out of backpacks…small comedies of strangers becoming entangled in each other’s leashes.” Again, there is the difficulty of reconciling the attention and money lavished on these dogs with the thousands of dogs that are relinquished to shelters because they no longer have value to their owners.

Throughout her book, Ritter covers many of the animal-related issues of our times such as horse slaughter, horse racing, dog shows, animal ‘whisperers’, and the Ontario pit bull ban. Ultimately, the paradox of human-animal relationships is not so much about the animals, but about us as humans and our use and misuse, attention and rejection, and attraction and repulsion towards the animals themselves.


Erika talks about the writing of her book:

It’s one of the oldest stories in the world. Before leaving the house with his wife, the master sets his faithful dog to guard their only child, slumbering in its cradle. Soon after the parents’ departure, a servant enters the child’s chamber and makes a horrifying discovery: the dog spattered with blood, the cradle overturned, and the infant nowhere to be seen.

When the master and mistress return to confront this gruesome evidence, the man immediately slays the treacherous animal. Only then is the cradle turned upright--to reveal the child, still slumbering peacefully and entirely unharmed. A moment later, the bloodied, tooth-marked body of a venomous snake is found in the corner where, after killing it, the dog had apparently flung it.

The more I have thought about the story, the more its simple specifics have come to embody some of the contradictions I see at the heart of humanity’s relationship with all animals. The fact that we claim to love what we so often end up killing . The guilt that the abuse of their innocence can inspire in us. The impulse to assuage that guilt by making animals seem complicit in their use, abuse and even death. Our need to pamper and celebrate the chosen few as a means to offset our unease about our casual dispatch of the many.

The Dog by the Cradle represents my adult journey into the implications of those and other paradoxes. One branch of the trail takes me to the heart of the story of the dog by the cradle, and a real-life cult of worship that arose literally from his corpse. Another path leads to conversations with animal advocates, philosophers, activists and academics about their personal methods for dealing with the many disparities between humanity and non-humankind. Yet another fork in the road takes me into some of the factual, fictional, and downright mythical ways in which humans seek to resolve the contradictions in the bonds between us and them.

For me, researching and writing this book was the trip of a lifetime. Since publication, it’s been my pleasure to invite readers along for the ride.

-- Erika Ritter