Soul of a Dog: Reflections on the Spirits of the Animals of Bedlam Farm Paperback – May 4 2010
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“A lyrical yet unsentimental memoir about the bond between people and animals.”
About the Author
Jon Katz has written eighteen books–six novels and twelve works of nonfiction–including Izzy & Lenore, Dog Days, A Good Dog, A Dog Year, The Dogs of Bedlam Farm, The New Work of Dogs, and Katz on Dogs. A two-time finalist for the National Magazine Award, he writes columns about dogs and rural life for the online magazine Slate, and has written for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Rolling Stone, GQ, and the AKC Gazette. Katz is also a photographer, a member of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers, and co-host of the radio show Dog Talk on Northeast Public Radio. He lives on Bedlam Farm in upstate New York with his dogs, sheep, steers and cow, donkeys, barn cat, irritable rooster Winston, and three hens.
From the Hardcover edition.
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Rose is the quick and smart border collie. Through hard work and tireless energy, she has maintained order amid the chaos of so many critters. Elvis the Snickers-eating steer saved himself from the slaughterhouse. Lenore the black lab pursued a unique friendship. Meet the sweet yet stubborn donkeys, Mother the affectionate natural born killer cat, a Greek chorus of goats, and Henrietta the exceptional hen. Katz also includes the stories of two extraordinary dogs Fly and Magnus, who left their imprints as brief visitors to the farm. Even the spirit of Orson, a troubled yet much-loved border collie, materializes.
Throughout this pleasant outing Katz draws on the beliefs of great philosophers, poets, authors, and an incorrigible preacher to illuminate a variety of spiritual perspectives. As though peering through a camera lens into the animal world Katz examines the meaning of life with a focus upon memorable relationships between animals and humans.
Anyone who has ever loved a dog, or any critter, will devour "Soul of a Dog" in one sitting and contemplate its meaning forever. Those who have never bonded with an animal will discover what is missing from their lives. Katz explores the question of whether animals have souls with the humor and drama of a masterful storyteller. Readers will leave Bedlam Farm with a keen awareness of the key to unlock their own souls.
If you're interested in reading a book in which the author presents increasingly dogmatic rationalizations about why dogs don't have souls, don't need souls, "don't think about their souls or afterlives," and won't be accompanying you through the Pearly Gates, then by all means read this book.
Katz may be going through some trials and tribulations in his private life. I'm not sure; but certainly his perspective seems to have shifted (though not widened or, to my mind, deepened).
I take issue with so many things Katz has written, throughout this book, that I cannot address them all. In one chapter he writes,
"Everyone I ask who loves a dog tell me their dog has a soul, and they haven't much doubt about it. I think they are really telling me something about their own souls."
Everything in this man's universe must relate to him and, by extension, his own species: Thus, an animal's idea of his existence depends upon our human perception of that existence; hence, the animal's existence depends on our perception of him. An amazingly humanocentric perspective!
He goes on:
"The dogs are never participating. They don't really need to talk about souls, and neither to the donkeys, cows, or sheep."
My question: Does the fact that they don't need to TALK about souls, preclude the possibility that they HAVE souls?
He writes, "My animals, especially the dogs, live in the now. Their lives are elemental. They worry about food, and the life and smells around them. They worry about me [contradicting his earlier assertion], and I think perhaps they worry about each other. I do not believe they worry about their spirits or afterlives."
Need I repeat my question? The fact that animals (apparently) do not "worry" about their spirits or afterlives, indicates nothing about the existence of same. There is no actual logic in his mental equation.
He writes of his collies: "I need Rose to be Rose...
I have come to see that Rose does not need to have soul, or need to think about one. I need for her to have one...
Izzy has the soul I want him to have, give him the opportunity to have. He enriches me."
The dog has the soul Katz WANTS him to have -- gives him the opportunity to have? ... This is not only the most humanocentric, but the most self-centered, self-serving piece of writing I have ever encountered, from a supposed animal lover.
In a later chapter, he passively listens to his Christian pastor friend lecture him on why our dogs cannot accompany us through the Pearly Gates. This is the chapter that caused me to close this book.
Katz isn't even very consistent in his views: In one chapter he assumes his dogs can't worry about him, as he worries about them; but toward the end of the book, he reports that the border collie Rose will not leave his side when he is ill.
I have enjoyed some of this author's past books. I am concerned about him now; I hope he is not ill, or facing difficult issues of mortality. If he is, I wish him well.
However, if he meant this book to be somehow inspiring to his animal-loving readers -- it isn't. If you picked it up hoping it would be -- put it down.
This rambling account presents nothing more than a rehash of the ages-old Judeo-Christian perspective, and it seems to have narrowed this author's viewpoint. After the years he's spent with animals he's loved & cared for, I can't understand why he seemed to find comfort in the idea of being stripped of such friends in any afterlife.
There may be Christians out there reading this, who wish to argue the point with me. Don't bother: I'm Buddhist, not Christian. But my favorite Bible verse is this one: Job 12:10. If you are in need of comfort or inspiration, the translation below is the one I prefer.
Darby Translation (DARBY)
"In whose hand is the soul of every living thing, and the spirit of all flesh of man."
The soul of EVERY living thing.
Each chapter of SOUL OF A DOG begins with a quote from a philosopher, theologian, writer, or Biblical passage. Especially fitting is his prologue quote, from Ambrose Bierce in THE DEVIL'S DICTIONARY: "Dog, n. a subsidiary Deity designed to catch the overflow and surplus of the world's worship." This chapter opens with a tale of Katz's border collie, Rose, working to corral a feisty goose, an African Grey weighing nearly 40 pounds. Obnoxious, the goose flaps, squawks and flutters, keeping Rose at bay. Having given up, he is shocked to see Rose finally lugging the goose out of a swamp, through the woods and into submission. Rose lives for work, is heroic, determined and gives her life in service to her master. She embodies the spirit of an animal who, in companionship, gives the closest asset she possesses. Katz believes her worthy of consideration when it comes to having a soul.
Throughout the book, Katz refers to the great thinker Aristotle, who believed that humans are distinct from all other forms of life in that they have a moral and ethical capacity. They can reason between right and wrong behavior. Animals cannot, thus leaving them behind in the possession of soul. But Katz strives to find, in his animal relationships, a glimmer of hope that they can be humanlike. In 12 chapters, SOUL OF A DOG explores the personalities of numerous farm animals.
Elvis, the 2,000-pound Brown Swiss steer, escapes the slaughterhouse when his former owner sells him to Katz. The giant bumbling steer has connived to win Katz's affection, becoming a sociable pal to earn Snickers candy bars, his favorite treat. Katz wonders if Elvis's wants may tangle with his needs. Was Katz catering to him out of self-gratification?
Headed by a quote from Jean Houston, the chapter about Brutus and Lenore is both heartwarming and puzzling. One day, while herding the sheep with Rose, Lenore follows along. She's an 11-month-old Labrador retriever who shows affections to all others, both man and beast. Today, she coddles a large ram named Brutus, who has no inclination to befriend a dog. He lowers his head as if to [...] her, but Lenore drops into a submissive position. When his head draws near her, she licks his nose. That slobbery lick is the beginning of a continuing interspecies relationship, albeit a strange one. Lenore's slurping act seems to bother Rose, the no-nonsense working dog. The order in the pasture that she maintained has been compromised. Observing them, Katz notes that Lenore seeks reward for her loving nature, but Rose has no need for such. He writes, "Each dog responds to what's innate in them, and also to what I ask of them. Rose works for me and Lenore loves me. That's where our souls converge."
In Chapter 10, titled "LuLu Goes to Hell," Katz tackles the verse in Genesis declaring that God made man in his image, with dominion over the lesser beings. His friend, clergyman Henry Whitfield, arrives at Bedlam Farm and listens to Katz's concerns about the spirituality of his animals. Joking when a loving Izzy snuggles for a pat, Katz asks, "He's going to heaven, isn't he?" When the clergyman nods an emphatic "no," the discussion is on. Whitfield contends that because animals cannot accept Jesus, they are not like humans. Thus, they cannot enter heaven, despite what loving owners would wish to believe. Further talk delves into the parable of the lost sheep in the Bible. It seems that people are the flock of reference in the passage. In this enlightening chapter, Katz quotes other philosophers and resolves that animals deserve mercy and will give evidence against their humans at the last judgment. Interesting thoughts.
SOUL OF A DOG is filled with warm anecdotes of adventure, industry, service and unconditional love. The reader's task will be to sift through the evidence Katz presents about the possibilities of soulful animals. Definitions of such theories are subjective but can be influenced by objectivity. Katz invites us to experience life with animals on a deeply personal level. This is a delightful read.
--- Reviewed by Judy Gigstad
If you are an animal lover, Hospice Volunteer, or pet therapy volunteer, you may want to avoid this book if you are hoping it will gain you some insight into the soul of any animal.
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