I didn't want a dog, so this year we got a greyhound. There's a story behind that and my three older kids tell it differently, but I repudiate the charge that I always cave in to the fourth child.
In any case, I found myself at the greyhound adoption center in northeast Philadelphia, submitting to an interview (by a formidable woman aptly surnamed Gunner) to ascertain my worthiness for this commitment that I was sternly assured would claim 12 years of my life. I was ready for her, having endured a like abasement for the privilege of our cat, the protégé of a militant feline rescuer whose handwritten road sign we responded to four years ago. She first disabused me of the idea that one just "gets a pet."
Was I aware that my dog would require a biannual sonic teeth cleaning ($120), and between visits a good brushing with a DentiVent Fingerbrush and toothpaste? That on specific dates I was to administer the "Heartguard" and start the Doxycycline (for tick-borne diseases)? The correct proportion for meals is 2/3 dry food and 1/3 canned, plus two tablespoons water to moisten. I am to watch for self-esteem and separation anxiety (leave her an hour every day to obviate the latter). Would I mark on my calendar the two-week and six-week progress reports? My dog has been microchipped; send in $12.50 with registration fee to AKC Companion Animal Recovery.
All the world's a stage, and I played my part well in the kennel office, I thought, stifling the impulse to exclaim, on seeing the medal-bejeweled collar, "Cool, this is the first dog I've ever had with tags!" I looked convincingly horrified when Gunner snarled, "Would you believe we had one client who kept the crate all the way on the other side of the house in the laundry area, away from the family room!" I didn't flinch when she lapsed into using dog-training language in addressing me-as when I proudly announced that I had driven a spike in the backyard to tether my greyhound for fresh air, and she said, "No!" "Bad!"
It was hairy on the home front too. Aimée wanted to name the dog "Artemis" and I drew the line there, citing conscience objections and Acts 19. Aimée thought that ridiculous, but I told her I will not open the front door every day and call out the name of an ancient Ephesian goddess in the hearing of my neighbors for whom I'm praying knowledge of the true God. I won this one; the dog's name is Spider.
Every love has a dark side. Mothering can become smothering. Eros can become exclusive of the rest of the world. Friendship can degenerate into a snobby mutual admiration society. Sometimes it's easier for a foreigner to see our imbalances, as when my brother-in-law (fresh from Seoul where they eat dogs) dropped his jaw the day he spied a postcard on my table from a local veterinarian and addressed with treacly sentimentality to my beagle, Cookie. Giving in to a perverse urge to unsettle him further, I told him about dog psychiatrists in New York.
That's all fun and games, but Dr. Jekyll becomes Mr. Hyde if unchecked by the restraining power of a higher affection. The FBI's deputy assistant director for counterterrorism, John Lewis, told a Senate committee in May that animal- and environmental-rights activists are this country's top domestic threat of "violent crimes and terrorist actions."
Do we love our dogs too much? I am inclined to extrapolate an answer from C.S. Lewis' musing in The Four Loves on whether we may love people too much: "It is probably impossible to love any human being simply 'too much.' We may love him too much in proportion to our love for God; but it is the smallness of our love for God, not the greatness of our love for the man, that constitutes the inordinacy."
"Whoever is righteous has regard for the life of his beast" (Proverbs 12:10). In the next 12 years (if Gunner is right), the Seus will be working out the bugs of learning to love God, man, and beast in their proper order and proportion.