Whose eye is on the sparrow?
by Michael Burge
A Writer argues for his dog’s soul.
I lost my eldest dog at the weekend. Olive was my constant companion for fifteen years.
Without her, our household is a little lost. It’s because we live as a pack, and one of us is missing, buried in the corner of the backyard, a tree where once the old lady made her daily wobbly journeys following the patches of sun across the grass.
Tully, our other dog, has that questioning look. Richard’s home from work early with hay fever that won’t budge. I’m just floating along in denial, glad of any distraction.
On the day Olive died, I was drawn to my bookshelf in search of my old copy of Richard Adams’ Watership Down (1972). I was of the generation who loved not only the book, but also the animated film of this tale of the survival of a warren of rabbits in the English countryside.
Long before I came to understand its Holocaust metaphors, I also suspect this book coloured some of my views of animals, and mortality.
An expatriate farm boy, I became a vegetarian at the age of 15. I knew exactly how animal products were manufactured from a very young age, but I wanted to remove myself from a marketplace which still widely rests on the suffering of animals.
Because I could see plainly that animals are, like us, sentient beings. Our dairy cow would come to our call, but she would flinch at barbed wire. The retired sheepdogs were our companions, but I remember the cries as Gertie gave birth to her pups. Feral kittens in the shearing shed were fun to play with, but their confusion as they were killed-off by ticks still haunts me a little.
Naively, I thought my stand against suffering would be seen as courageous, but coming out as a non-meat-eater in my teens was an eye-opener.
In my religious school environment I endured lectures from adults about how uncivilised humans would be unless we’d eaten meat. Any respect for an animal’s welfare was perceived as weak. They were simply a soulless commodity.
But my history classes suggested civilisation as we know it did not come about until humans ceased wandering and began farming grains in one place. Archaeology showed animals were revered and even worshipped, imbued with souls no less capable of transitioning into an afterlife as humans.
Dogs were an integral part of those early communities, drawn to the fireside by offers of scraps, providing protection from invaders in return.
My resolve was sharpened: I quietly underlined that eating animal flesh, and animal suffering, do not have to go hand-in-hand.
Once we start down a pathway to animal suffering, the next step is inevitably the suffering of humans. The Nazis were inspired to herd people into train carriages for transportation to concentration camps by the same practice being used on livestock. That’s what makes Watership Down so believable, and not merely a story about rabbits for children.
I find little solace in religion. Christianity offers many allusions to animals, often symbolic – the wolf laying down with the lamb, and, from the book of Matthew, references to God’s care of even the smallest sparrow.
I love gospel music, and “His Eye is on the Sparrow” (1905) is a favourite, but buried in the lines is an exhortation to think ourselves more than animals.
So I return to literature. Alice Sebold’s revelatory portrayal of the afterlife in The Lovely Bones (2002) contains a passage in which Susie, the main character, sights the family dog:
“At evensong one night, while Holly played her sax and Mrs. Bethel Utemeyer joined in, I saw him: Holiday, racing past a fluffy white Samoyed. He had lived to a ripe old age on Earth and slept under my father’s feet after my mother left, never wanting to let him out of his sight … I waited for him to sniff me out, anxious to know if here, on the other side, I would still be the little girl he has slept beside. I did not have to wait long: he was so happy to see me, he knocked me down.”
Knowing what was coming as Olive aged, I called her The Lovely Bones, whispering it into her ear as I carried her increasingly skeletal form up the back stairs in the dark after her dinner. She never gave up trying to climb them herself – such was the courage she showed in her desire to sit with us in the evening.
Olive protected us well, in the unseen territory of the heart. I can offer no proof that dogs have evolved after millennia of living with humans, apart from the love they show through their actions.
I remember the very moment she transitioned from puppy to watch-dog; the love she taught a flatmate who needed herding back to the hearth; the solace and constancy she showed me after my partner Jono died, and the courageous way she demanded I snap out of it when my grief saw her and Tully so neglected they both had fleas, ear-mites and knotted coats that needed my attention.
Faced with having to help her in her ultimate transition, my memories of the death of Richard Adam’s lapine protagonist, Hazel, were already in my fibre.
So, I’ll admit it, I called on souls already departed to come, like the Stranger did for Hazel in Watership Down.
“It seemed to Hazel that he would not be needing his body any more, so he left it lying on the edge of the ditch … (the Stranger) reached the top of the bank in a single, powerful leap. Hazel followed, and together they slipped away …”
Having experienced the unconditional love of a dog, I strongly suspect that the songs need rewriting: his eye is not on the sparrow, the sparrow’s eye is on him.
© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.