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  • As She Kissed the Cow
  • Deborah Thompson (bio)

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[End Page 138]

Houdini, my cocker spaniel with a massive eating disorder, was fated to a death by gorging. [End Page 139] Or so I’d thought. As a puppy, he chewed books and tampons and tissues and paper clips and pencils. Later he devoured whole newspapers, with their rubber bands and plastic sheaths still intact. Beyond bulimic, he gobbled up his own vomit. He’d earned his name for his ability to get into anything, including closed drawers and latched cabinet doors and, of course, garbage cans of every design. It turned out, though, that he couldn’t get out of things as easily as he got into them.

Although my little garbivore could find food anywhere, it soon became obvious that he was as mentally challenged as he was gluttonous. With hair poufing out over his eyes and ears like a 1970s rocker, he had more beauty than brains. He was as sweet as Lady or any other cartoon cocker—unless you messed with his tail stump, which sent him into hissy fits. I regularly extracted streams of inedibles that had gone halfway down his esophagus, which set that little tail stump wagging.

But I failed to notice the fiberglass pillow stuffing Houdini ate while I was on painkillers for a torn hip tendon. Two days later I hobbled on crutches into the closest animal ER, at Colorado State University’s veterinary teaching hospital, one of the top two in the nation. I hesitated for maybe two seconds when the vet gave me the four-figure estimate for the necessary surgery to remove Houdini’s intestinal blockage. No, I couldn’t let that little dog go yet. He was only four years old at that point. Of course I would pay.

At the time of the intestinal surgery, the doctors identified a heart murmur and referred Houdi to a veterinary cardiologist. I hadn’t even known there was such a specialty. Dr. Bright said the murmur was currently asymptomatic, but we would need to keep a watch on it. Otherwise, Houdini quickly recovered, straining to reach the garbage can while still wearing his Elizabethan collar.

Most of my friends, fellow dog lovers, supported the $3,000 surgery, but my best friend, who’d grown up on a farm in a third-world country, thought I was nuts. “He’s just going to die soon anyway,” Kelley said. “Are you going to keep paying for dog surgeries?”

“No,” I assured Kelley. “This is it. There are limits.”

Are there limits, though? If so, could someone tell me what they are? Is it justifiable to spend vast amounts of money to give our pets a few more years of life, money that could be spent on equally needy humans? To most human beings, it’s self-evident that our own species should take [End Page 140] priority over others and that interspecies devotion should respect certain boundaries. But not everyone would agree.

My culture—perhaps all of modern Western culture—seems as befuddled as I am concerning the proper boundaries for human-dog relations. Debates abound on the very origins of dogs: Were they bred by humans from wolves, or did they emerge as a subspecies before human intervention? The prevailing theory today is that dogs evolved as scavengers of human refuse about ten thousand years ago, when nomadic lifestyles gave way to stationary civilizations with dump sites. (This theory makes the trash-trolling Houdini an exemplum of his species.) Those canines who were mellowest, best at reading human behaviors and most able to thrive on the margins of human populations were likeliest to survive and reproduce. Over generations, pup-like features (floppy ears, big eyes, face-licking submissiveness) extended into adulthood as the wolf became the dog. Only then did humans begin to selectively breed these animals for hunting and guarding skills and, later, for herding abilities and perhaps much later for companionship. We augmented some of dogs’ highly specialized predatory skills while neglecting or even eliminating others. The cocker spaniel, for example, was bred to flush woodcocks out of the underbrush for human...


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