Saturday, February 12, 2011

Nunc dimmitis

God, he had the softest ears. Like velvet.

He is gone, Napalm the Wonder Dog, done to death on Friday night by the injection of a lethal drug directly into his heart. He was eighteen years old, give or take a month, and his health had been dicey since the beginning of 2009. Left behind are grieving owners, a score of concerned friends, and three thoroughly mystified and troubled canine pals: Ebony and Connie, of Oakland’s fashionable Rockridge district, and housemate Ravi, who watched his chum being trundled away in a plastic container, chief among these.

Napalm had gradually become so frail during his last eighteen months that one strained to remember what an energetic and adventurous creature he was for most of his life. He adopted Lina back when she was a freshly-minted J.D. by the simple expedient of homesteading the porch of her Glendale bungalow. Investigation revealed that he’d earlier been taken up (and then subject to parental veto) by a latino child in the neighborhood who had christened the dog “Negro.” A highly abbreviated field test suggested that there were very real practical obstacles to the use of this name as a means of summoning the dog in any given public space, and so Lina settled upon “Napalm” as sharing with the Spanish name the initial consonant, stress, vowel sound and two-syllable structure. Also, his frisky digging and pissing in her garden brought to mind the effects of American chemical warfare on Vietnamese foliage, and “Napalm” and “Agent Orange” were often associated with that particular salient of America’s ongoing struggle to make Asia safe for its imperial hegemony.

Napalm was about thirty months old when I first made his acquaintance, and had probably passed his third birthday when he and Lina and I formed a household at the unlamented “Locksley Hovel” in April 1996. He was young and frisky. He regarded me at first with polite suspicion, but shortly came to acknowledge me as vice-president of the pack when Lina was present (chopped liver when she was not).

A few things I remember about him: He loved Lina’s games, in particular “Chewy Shoes” and “Monster Dog.” In “Chewy Shoes” Lina would extend her legs and clap her shod feet together, and Napalm would growl dramatically and pretend to bite the shoes—always play bites. “Monster Dog” involved her shouting "You’re a monster dog!” and running at him, whereupon, on the present premises, the two of them would chase one another around the central axis of the house, with the polarities of pursuer and pursued spontaneously and unexpectedly transposing. A splendid and breathless time was had by all.

He had a dog’s love of ritual and routine, and deep dogly suspicion of deviations from routine. In the latter 1990s we took him to the Yuba River, and he did not approve of our splashing around in the swimming hole, no, not even a little bit. At one point he ventured onto a flat but sloping riverside rock to bark his disapproval. The rock was slick with algae, and he fell into the water. There was a moment of sheer evident panic before he realized that...he could swim, whereupon panic morphed instantly into pride: I'm a swimming dog! From that moment forward, and for almost the rest of his life, if there was standing or running water available he would eagerly venture into it. Some years back, when he was still sufficiently vigorous to accompany us on mountain biking trips to Moab and environs—he could still run for miles eight years ago, given sufficient hydration and a rational schedule of rest stops in the shade—we purchased a doggie life vest for him (required by some federal agency or another as a condition of taking him to the river), and he appreciated this augmented buoyancy in later years.

In his prime he loved to run, and would play “body slam” with the other dogs at Point Isabel, the glorious off-leash dog park in nearby Richmond. In late middle age, before the onset of the gradually accumulating infirmities that finally did him in, he left off such rough trade, but was still good for a romp and a growl with his circle of doggie friends. I should mention that two of these, Hector (“Hector the Corrector”) and Quino, predeceased him, Hector a decade ago and Quino unexpectedly just last year.

Lina reminds me that back when he could still tolerate Milk Bones™, we would sometimes leave him one of these as a consolation prize if we had to venture out of the house without him. He would sit in the vestibule holding the treat between his paws, and there he would be two or three hours later upon our return, with the MB still held before him, visibly licked over but otherwise intact, and only then would he gratefully commence gnawing upon it.

One of the first symptoms of Napalm’s decline was a case of "idiopathic canine vestibular disorder,” which is vetspeak for “your elderly dog is very dizzy and we don’t know what causes this, but it will get better soon.” He was pretty good for a year after that, and then a collection of ailments and debilities began to snowball until we finally concluded on Thursday night—he could no longer rise to his feet unassisted, and cried throughout the night as he soiled himself repeatedly—that the dog wasn’t having fun anymore. Nor were we by that time, and we agonized as to whether we were projecting our comfort and convenience onto his fate.

In the event, we summoned Doctor Dogvorkian, who came to the premises last night to usher Napalm out of his pain. N had a last afternoon walk on the grassy premises of the middle school across the street, and savored the unspeakable smells that dogs so enjoy. I fed him a couple of “Happy Hips” chicken jerky strips, a favorite treat times past that his dodgy digestion had not reliably tolerated these latter years, and he seemed delighted at the old vivid taste. Dr. D then administered a sedative via needle to the thigh—Napalm growled softly, but Napalm always growled at shots—and then slowly faded out of doggie consciousness as Lina cradled his head in her lap. After ten minutes Dr. D injected the endgame into Napalm’s heart. N’s breathing, which up until this point had been almost unnoticeable, became audibly labored for one...two...three cycles

and ceased.

I had thought myself prepared for this. I was not. The grief was sharp, overwhelming. Farewell, you poor old creature.

Ravi was not there for the end, but was on hand for the transfer of Napalm’s body from his pillow into a plastic crate for transport off the premises. He appeared subdued this morning.

Top: Napalm in happier days at Navajo Lake, Utah, in 2000. Elevation was 10K feet, and he handled it much better than did his owners. Below that: Napalm near the end of his long life.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Another damn dog post

A change, at least, from mooning over the Lost Girls. Here once again is Ravi, among the five or six of the World’s Best Dogs, at the rather grim “Hardy Dog Park” in Oakland’s fashionable Rockridge district. A passerby snapped him there a couple of Sundays ago, and kindly forwarded the digital image. Canines are on the mind because I have lately read of this appalling slaughter of sled dogs in Canada, which has set me to reflecting on the long partnership between our two great species.

Humanity and Canis lupus familiaris came to an arrangement a long time ago, the terms of which are heavily weighted in favor of the primate party. The more time I spend around dogs, the more impressed I am that they consent to the partnership. If the other animals with whom we share this planet could be raised to a level of abstraction that would permit them to grasp the concept of “evil,” and to assign a form factor thereunto, humans would embody that satanic slot. And yet, dogs, those ever-hopeful collaborators, like us. We would be a much lonelier species without them.