Strolling with my dog recently, I spied a hawk soaring above with the limp corpse of a squirrel dangling from its talons. Instinctually, I pulled on my dog’s leash, as if yanking my pup from the world of nature into my own, cultural realm. The dead animal body flopping in the breeze made me recoil into my own world where meat is eaten several steps removed from the site of its demise. More than my repulsion at the dead squirrel, however, my automatic pull of the dog’s leash gave me pause. As a non-human animal, isn’t she more attuned to the world of the hawk and squirrel, than to my own?
The nature that contains such predator-prey relationships is decidedly not the same nature we associate with our pets. As I yanked on my dog’s leash, I realized the irony of my instinct. There I was, a human, pulling an animal away from its own kind. But that is the question, really. Is a pet dog more like wildlife or human life? Both are forms of animal life and, I suppose, in a species-ranking scenario, as a small furry mammal, my dog would fall closest to a squirrel. Perhaps it was that association with the fallen prey that released my immediate tug.
When ecologist Aldo Leopold paused to reflect on killing a wild wolf, he suggested that nature had its own ideas about itself—ideas that were not in alignment with those of humans. “We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes,” he explained, after putting a shot through the creature. “I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes – something known only to her and to the mountain.” Leopold confessed that, as a young man, he was trigger-happy, but also explained that it was at the time commonplace to shoot wolves. “I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters’ paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.”
Leopold expressed an issue we struggle with to this day. Does the wolf have a view? Humans have long lauded over the natural world, but have now begun to ask if that world has its own agenda, desires, and consciousness? Moreover, if the wolf has a view, does my pet dog?
I recently had a discussion with a table of academics during which I discovered that there are animal rights activists so extreme as to assert that owning a pet is a form of enslavement. While I saw the crux of the argument (that humans should not hold such a heavy hand over nature), I wondered what would happen to all the pet dogs if they were set “free.” Many would likely seek the comforts of human homes, as that is where they had previously found safety, be rejected, and starve. Others might enjoy wide-open, natural spaces and, like Jack London’s Buck, succumb to the “call of the wild.” (Imagine the sight of mongrel packs of golden retrievers, cocker spaniels, and pugs roaming the fields off the New Jersey Turnpike!)
It is the outlandishness of that image that calls for some clarification when talking about nature. Some animals we call wild. Others we call pets. While humans maintain a relationship of distance from wild animals, they develop close relationships with their pets. Though some suppose that pets bring them closer to nature, that idea gives me pause. In my encounter with the hawk, I felt the opposite. My tug of the leash was a declaration that my dog was not that nature. But the exact outlines of that divide are increasingly difficult to map.