Enough with the “Rescues”

Before I begin, let me say that posting to a blog I’ve neglected for 5 years is intimidating. Nevertheless, here goes…

“Is she a rescue?”

It’s the first thing everyone at the dog park wants to know. When I was a dog-crazy kid, I asked everyone their dog’s name, age and breed, but today it seems the most important piece of information about my dog, and consequently about me, is whether or not my dog is a rescue.

The answer, in a word, is “No.” She’s a dog, specifically an Alaskan Husky. She’s generally well adjusted, spends most of her time outdoors, loves running, has treed a bear but is afraid of the cat, and hates vegetables. But she’s not a rescue.

As I see it, dogs taken in by a loving family are no more “rescues” than adopted children are. Imagine if adoptive parents were similarly compelled to include their child’s hard luck story in their introductions: portraying themselves as heroes, unnamed strangers as villains and the adoptees as hapless victims, all based on second hand stories of questionable veracity. Imagine if our first question to every adoptive parent was, “Did you save her from a horrible life?” How disrespectful and needlessly pessimistic!

No, Mitz is not a rescue. She’s a dog, who by her very nature lives happily in the moment, a trait most humans can only hope to emulate. She doesn’t care about her yesterdays, stormy or otherwise and at my best, neither do I. Yes, there are moments when some dogs require a little more patience… but shouldn’t that really be on offer to everyone, whether we know their story or not?

Maybe that’s how dogs win their way into our hearts so easily: by offering consistent and unconditional love, with no need for a backstory. If only we could offer them the same dignity.

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Ever heard of Steve Fonyo?

Ever heard of Steve Fonyo? What about Terry Fox?

If you’re like most Canadians, the first name drew either foggy familiarity or a complete blank, while the second drew clear recognition and deep admiration. Actually, both men are arguably Canadian heroes. Let me explain.

Terry Fox was the young man who challenged all Canadians to stand up against cancer with his “Marathon of Hope”. In April of 1980, only three years after losing his right leg to cancer, 21-year-old Terry began his run across Canada to raise money for cancer research by dipping his artificial leg in the Atlantic Ocean. His goal was to garner a dollar from every Canadian, 24.17 million of us at the time. Just outside Thunder Bay, Ontario, 143 days and 5 373 km later, cancer in both lungs forced Terry to stop his run. Amidst continuing fund-raising efforts, Terry was awarded the Order of Canada. By February of 1981 Terry’s $24.17 million goal was surpassed. Less than five months later, Terry died a hero, just short of his 23rd birthday. His slogan throughout his effort was

“Somewhere the hurting must stop…”

In March of 1984, a young man who lost his left leg to cancer dipped his artificial leg in the Atlantic Ocean to mark the beginning of his “Journey for Lives” to raise funds for cancer research. Steve Fonyo, 18 years of age when he began, ran very much in Terry Fox’s shadow. Amidst criticism for being a copy-cat, Steve persevered across the country and through all four seasons, completing his run of 7 924 km on May 29, 1985 by dipping his leg in the Pacific Ocean. He didn’t stop there, but ran across the UK as well, raising a total of $14 million for cancer research. In 1985 Steve’s efforts were officially recognized when he was awarded the Order of Canada, the youngest ever to receive it at that time. Steve grieved the loss of his father to lung cancer that same year.

What brought these courageous young Canadians to mind was a news article that was forwarded to me this week. It seems that Steve’s Order of Canada has been revoked. Unlike Terry, the infinitely charming hero who always managed a smile and an optimistic word for both the public and the press, Steve could be cantankerous. Even during his run, news stories appeared of thoughtless words and gruff behaviour. In the years that followed, he battled demons both internal and external, resulting not only in diagnoses of mental health issues, but also criminal convictions… many of them.

In my humble opinion, something’s gone awry here. Steve Fonyo’s “Journey for Lives” did and still does fall within the Order of Canada’s goal to be assigned to those who display the “highest degree of merit, an outstanding level of talent and service, or an exceptional contribution to Canada and humanity”. Should the Order of Canada really be issued with the demand that the recipient live a spotless life thereafter?

My bigger question, however, takes me back to the beginning of this rant. Why was Steve Fonyo so easily forgotten in the first place? To say that his lack of people skills and failure to woo the press did him in is to say that these are the skills that made Terry Fox memorable, a philosophy to which I vehemently object. Worse still would be to say that Terry’s death made him memorable as a martyr for his cause. In a society that bestows celebrity on movie stars and the children of billionaires, I fear that this is just one more example of a man’s image being more relevant than his efforts and accomplishments.

Am I the only one who sees that as a problem?

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Love and Light

There’s a magic to summer nights in the woods, and I think it has a lot to do with light. Whether it be the multitudes of stars that appear so far from the light pollution of the city or the dancing flames of a roaring campfire, it’s light that carries our romances from spring to fall.

It was an oddity of light that caught my eye one summer night at the cabin. As I gazed outside, something was amiss. Somewhere about waist height in the indefinable blackness, a pinprick of light was alternating green and red. Obviously man’s influence was at work here, but the source was unclear; Higher up it would be a plane, but this combination was decidedly odd. My curiosity piqued, I went out to investigate.

As soon as I opened the door, I walked out into another icon of romantic summer light. I was suddenly engulfed in nature’s silent tribute to fireworks as, all around me, tiny green flickers told of fireflies calling for mates. I’ve always been charmed by these creatures, the beetles who move inconspicuously through the wilderness by day yet entertain us all so dramatically by night. There’s a magic all its own in that.

And there was also an answer to my evening’s mystery. Smiling at the rather tragic humour of it, I walked to the car to find a single firefly sitting on the windshield. Eternally trapped on the other side of the glass was the object of its affection, the flashing red LED of my car’s alarm system.

When the course of my own romantic life runs less smoothly than I’d hope, I take solace in this memory. No matter the depth my own daily drama, I trust the obstacles will never be as insurmountable as they were for that firefly and his star-crossed love that night.

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The Outdoor Dog

Mitz, my adolescent Alaskan Husky, lives her life outdoors. By day she runs loose on a hundred acres; by night or when home alone, she’s tied by her doghouse on an 8′ chain. I’ve no concern over her being outdoors in all weather: She’s a Northern breed with shelter and bedding, and as many forget, outside is actually a natural state for a dog. “Alone”, on the other hand , is completely unnatural, something she’d never have to endure in a perfect world. For the most part she seems to be a happy dog. Even so, when I see the shock register on some city folks’ faces as I tell them she’s tied up back home, I can’t help but feel a pang of guilt, wondering whether I really am doing right by my dog.

Recently, Mitz and I spent a week at my parents’ place while they were out of town. Together we lived an idyllic city life, complete with running water, central heat, television and high-speed Internet. Mitz had company 24/7, including a couple good walks daily and spent her indoor time either sprawled at my feet or watching the traffic out our second storey apartment windows. She took to it as a well adjusted dog takes to everything new, contentedly accepting what life threw her way. No longer the spring-loaded athlete I knew at home, she geared down to this lazier lifestyle without complaint. The only sign of her former self was revealed when I let her off leash at the park, where she ran circles around the other dogs.

Outdoor Dog Indoors

Outdoor Dog Indoors

At week’s end we made the 4-hour drive back to the woods. Parked on the road in our familiar wilderness, I opened her kennel door and said, “Go home!”My spring-loaded dog was back. She launched herself out of the car, bounding up and down snowbanks at full speed. For the next hour, while I shovelled a week’s worth of snow in search of a parking spot, she ran laps of the 200m driveway, obviously thrilled to be back.

We trudged up to the cabin together in darkness, I laughing as Mitz pranced around me in deep snow. Atop the hill, she circled the cabin, eagerly sniffing for clues as to what had transpired in our absence, and then jumped to stand on her house, literally vibrating with glee, as she waited for me to tie her up for the night.

As I clipped the chain to her collar and Mitz nuzzled my neck, she reminded me of what I had already known. Other dogs may be content to live city lives, spending twenty or more hours indoors each day, but Mitz is delighted to be an outdoor dog. I hope that this knowledge, combined with the memory of her joy to be back home, will be enough to counter any future guilt I might take on from the eyes of those accustomed to house pets.

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Ride with a Millionaire

It’s odd to recognize a stranger from a story in the paper, but I was sure I did. Thanks to a set of convoluted circumstances, he was giving me a lift to work. Somewhere along the 55km trip, I knew I had to find the courage to ask.

He was ruggedly handsome, an outdoorsy family man who couldn’t have been older than 45. He was just telling me how disappointed he was to discover that it would be cheaper in the long run to bring in electricity from the power company, rather than continue to develop his own system off the grid. “You live the same way, you know what I mean. There’s a certain pride to living off the grid!”

I nodded in agreement. The time had come to confirm my suspicions. “So, were you one of the big winners?” I asked. As I remembered, 25 had shared in the recent lottery jackpot. That would have made each one just over $900, 000 richer overnight.

His smile was easy in reply. “Yep. That’s where the money’s coming from.”

As we continued down the highway, we talked of travels and dreams. He shared a story about a friend, a young helicopter pilot and technician with a touch of envy. “He doesn’t even apply for jobs, really… just sends his resume and starts packing. Everyone wants him all over the arctic. What a life!”

What a life, indeed! I’ve wanted to get my pilot’s license as far back as I can remember. As my companion described his friend’s world, I imagined myself in his shoes, tasted the freedom. If only…

“Is that what you want to do, too?” I asked.

That’s when he painted me a picture of his own dream. He wanted to be a wilderness guide at some fly-in lodge in Yukon or Alaska. He’d obviously given it a great deal of thought, had it all figured out. His wife is a chef who shares his vision, so they’d both have work. I listened with interest as he described every detail. They could pack up the kids, take them to a new life…

“So what’s stopping you?”

“Oh, I’m too old now. That’s something you do when you’re young,” he shrugged, “But it’s nice to dream.”

I was amazed. This apparently active, robust man within a decade of my age had a dream and a family that shared it. Now he also had the fabled million dollars, but he was too old to follow through.

As I arrived at work and thanked him for the ride, my mind was scrambling to answer a new question:

If the wall between you and your dreams suddenly vanished, would you race forward, or would you find a new excuse?

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Wisdom of a Seven-Year-Old Guru

It was starting to look like a bad day.

I’d arrived unannounced on a friend’s doorstep on Saturday morning to ask a favour. The original plan had been to stop in at the office to send the e-mail I’d killed the laptop battery composing, then leave my knapsack full of electronics at the office while the bike and I went camping for the weekend. Standing outside the locked building 55 km from home and running late, I realized I’d forgotten the keys. The e-mail would have to wait, but I needed a safe place to leave my pack. I looked at my friend with pleading eyes. “Would you mind?”

She came through like a hero, not only promising to babysit my toys, but offering the use of her computer to send out the message so clearly occupying my mind.

Sitting at her computer, trying to remember e-mail addresses and string together the message anew, I was initially annoyed by the distracting presence of her seven-year-old son, firmly in the grips of the “why?” stage. Still, as he peppered me with questions my irritation depleated… there’s something deeply flattering about the adoration of a child. I tried to answer his queries honestly, giving them the attention they deserved.

“Whatcha doin’?” he asked, looking over my shoulder with wide-eyed curiosity.

“Writing an apology,” I replied.

“Why?” came his inevitable response.

I stopped typing to consider my explanation. “Ever do something that seemed like an OK idea at the time, only to have it blow up in your face later?”

He giggled and nodded knowingly, blond hair falling in his eyes.

“Well, that’s what I did,” I returned my attention to the screen, “So now I need to apologize.”

Ever inquisitive, he wasn’t quite satisfied. “What’ll happen if you don’t?” he asked.

Again, I stopped to think. “I guess I’d lose friends.”

His brow furrowed as he gave my predicament serious thought. “But you have other friends, don’t you?”

I smiled at his naïvety. “Yes, but some friends are irreplaceable.”

The little guy didn’t miss a beat this time, offering up a slice of childhood wisdom to ease the complexities of a grown-up world:

“Wouldn’t those friends know you just made a mistake?”

As his words settled upon me, I found I had no argument. I fired off my apology with a lighter heart and ran off to enjoy a weekend of camping.

Having spent the better part of the morning and the previous night seeking peace in forgiveness, who would have imagined that peace would arrive instead wrapped in the questions of a seven-year-old?

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Another Passion…

While I await inspiration for another post, perhaps this will serve to entertain…

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How To Train A Rabbit

By luck of timing, I currently have a couple of friends raising puppies for the first time. As a former dogsledder capping out at over fifty dogs in my yard at one time (yeah, another story), this means I’m getting a lot of training and behaviour questions lately.

Training any animal is a simple combination of positive reinforcement and repetition. Surprisingly, the more challenging part of the equation is repetition, since the animal kingdom is designed to spot patterns -any patterns- and learn from them. Unfortunately, some of our most persisting patterns are the ones we’ve stopped noticing. The first step in training is to take a look at ourselves and begin to notice the things we do without thinking, for those are the clearest messages we’re sending to out pets, the training we’re doing by accident.

Years ago, while on vacation in Calgary, Alberta, we took a lovely road-trip into the mountains. On the way we stopped at an incredible waterfall right by the road. Fresh mountain air and hiking make a person hungry, so the restaurant across the highway was well placed, and appropriately busy. Lunch was great, served on the patio where we could still see and hear that waterfall. After dessert we were eager to continue our journey and headed back to the parking lot.

As we approached the car, we spotted a dozen or more plump rabbits on a grassy knoll. Ever seeking the perfect shot, I grabbed my camera and moved in closer, capturing several shots before my partner grew impatient and moved back toward the car. As she did so, several rabbits stopped posing for me and chased after her down the hill. This is highly peculiar behaviour for rabbits. Wild ones run from people and tame ones seem to ignore them. Seeing them run like a herd in pursuit was fascinating. Stranger still was when she opened the car door and they all gathered underneath it.

I looked around for obvious predators and, seeing none, ducked down to take a look. There they sat, half-a-dozen rabbits, just hanging out under my car. Neither beckoning nor chasing seemed to affect them, so I decided that starting the engine would likely do the trick. No such luck. Instead, the sound of the starter brought another four or five of their friends running down the hill so that most of the rabbits were now immovably parked beneath the car.

We were both laughing in amazement and wonder as my partner dropped to the ground and watched the rabbits and I moved the car slowly backward, creeping out of the parking spot. Still, no one budged. Rabbits are cute and fuzzy creatures I really have no desire to squish… even if they are clearly insane, so we kept looking for a solution. Finally my partner offered to run inside to get some scraps from the restaurant to coax the flock out. That’s when it hit me.

Training is a simple combination of positive reinforcement and repetition. It must have started by accident, but now tourist after tourist had repeated this pattern and the rabbits had learned, changing their behaviour accordingly. Flocking under departing cars brought food, probably even good food. It was unconscious training at its best. Stubbornly refusing to contribute to their delinquency, we found a long stick instead of food and inched the car out while poking the critters out of the way. Obviously the people using this method are and ever shall be the minority, so I realize we made no impact on the overall training process. Still, as a trainer, I just couldn’t be part of it. It took longer, but eventually we drove out, accelerating away from the rabbits, likely perplexed that they’d missed their treat.

Unconscious training happens all the time, and is usually the answer to our most perplexing behaviour questions. Every time I find myself wondering “what would make a dog do this?”, I take a step back and remember the rabbits under my car.

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The Idiot Coat

I have this awesome Australian Drover coat… you know, the full length trench coats made of oiled canvas? I bought it years ago, in lieu of rain gear for my motorcycle. I figured for a little more money I could have a coat I would wear in my life off the bike, instead of the standard ugly, utilitarian gear every other rider wore. Back then I had a mean black cruiser style bike and that coat completed the “iron horse” look. Would you believe I regularly had people crank down their windows in the rain just to compliment that coat? It was my ultimate in cool, a bona fide fashion statement!

Attached to the coat was a label that I still keep in the pocket. It reads:

This coat will keep you dry in a hurricane for four hours,
Should you choose to stand in a hurricane for four hours.

The moment I saw that label, the coat had a name. I call it my Idiot Coat. I mean really, who else would stand in a hurricane for four hours?

There’s a deeper meaning to the story of that coat, though. If I look back at my life I realize I have all too often been that idiot, leaning hard into the wind with fierce determination in my eye, long after buildings have tumbled and everyone else has fled. At the time I’m sure I thought I was demonstrating my willpower and courage but in the end it turns out I was just being the stubborn idiot that coat was made for.

I admire the people we call flighty, the ones who smell the winds of change early and move on. Seemingly by instinct, they know when the party, the job, the relationship is over. They bid the folks that matter a fond farewell and drift away with grace and style on a gentle breeze. Far at the other end of the spectrum is me, hours later, crawling out from the rubble of an event gone wrong, bruised, angry and raw from the massive destruction. Good thing I have my trusty Idiot Coat!

After all these years, however, the Idiot Coat is worn and frayed from hard use and, frankly, so am I. My mission now is to watch the breeze and learn to walk away when the time is right. Granted, I may never be the leader of the pack, that eloquent forbearer of things to come, but with a little practise I hope I will be among those who walk away, damp and shaken perhaps, but still on two feet.

I’m also pricing out another Idiot Coat, just in case.

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The Surreal Tree of Harmony

Just to state more of the obvious, it does also rain in the Caribbean. When it does, the storm is strong and harsh, often disappearing as suddenly as it arrives. It was during one such downpour, just over a year ago, that I experienced one of my most surreal moments since joining ships.

In St. Maarten, as is the case in so many cruise ship ports, discovering a world the tourists miss is as simple as turning right where most turn left. On this day I moved away from the crowds, favouring the road less travelled by. I wandered aimlessly through the residential streets, winding up in an area that appeared to have the population density of an urban centre combined with the odd farm animal in someone’s yard. The buildings were in various states of disarray and the wary glances of their inhabitants reminded me that the rest of the tourists had gone the other way.

I found a great view of cliffs and ocean from atop a pile of rubble I assume had once been a house. I spent the next hour intermittently reading in the Caribbean sun and photographing the waves as they crashed on the rocks. I was looking through the lens, impressed with the height the waves were gaining, when I realized that the sky had suddenly gone quite dark. I shot only a couple more frames before packing away the camera, but it was too late. The dark clouds were rolling in rapidly and I could already see the rain across the bay.

Storm’s Coming

The only shelter in sight was a tree… a rather stunted and bare one at that. I made my way toward it in a gentle hurry, hoping to beat the storm but still meaning to look confident to the eyes I could feel watching me. I really don’t mind being drenched by tropical rain, in fact I usually enjoy it, but the camera is somewhat less of a water-baby.

By the time the clouds broke, I had made it to my tree. As the rain increased in both force and volume, my shelter seemed to provide very little shelter at all. Ever concerned for the camera, I dropped to a crouch with the bag between my feet and wondered what my observers thought of me now.

If you’re thinking that waiting out a torrential downpour by crouching under a bald tree is an odd way to spend an afternoon in St Maarten, we think alike. I remember considering the absurdity of the moment and wondering, as I often do, how I would write about it someday. Still, I thought, the scene held nothing truly uncommon. Then I saw the chicken.

Running toward me and my tree was a loose chicken, occasionally flapping its wings as though momentarily forgetting it couldn’t fly. I turned to look around, trying to figure out where it might be headed. With no apparent change in course I realized we were destined to share the tree. It settled in comfortably beside me, the two of us gazing out from under our damp shelter.

Then came the dog. Hungry and damp, he marched under our tree with neither introduction nor apology, shoving the chicken a little closer to me as he took his seat. I glanced over, strangely obliged to be sure he was as well covered as any of us. He cocked his head at me for a moment before staring blankly back out at the rain with the chicken.

And finally came the goat. He trotted toward us, skipping over the rivers that had formed on the road, then took up his position on my other side.

The four of us huddled under that small tree for perhaps twenty minutes before the rain died down. I was struck by the peace, the silent understanding that we were in the same predicament with a single solution that would work only as long as we all got along. The spell was broken by the end of the storm when, as if on cue, the animals stood to go their separate ways. The dog even nipped at the chicken for a few paces as if to remind it that the rules of the food chain were back in place now.

I pulled out of my uncomfortable crouch, but I stayed under the tree a few moments longer considering my odd shelter-mates. I wished then that I had risked the camera to take a picture. I mean, come on… who in their right mind would believe my story without seeing photos?

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