BOOK REVIEW / Absolutely mad about barking: 'The Hidden Life of Dogs' Elizabeth Marshall Thomas: Weidenfeld, 12.50 pounds

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
DOGS are the quislings of the animal world: willing slaves, distorted by domesticity and beloved of the enemy. As a result of the man's-best-friend syndrome and our sentimental attachments, dogs have been anthropomorphised out of their own separate existence - an existence whose reality has been given back to them by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas in this odd and inviting book.

Of all the literature I've read about dogs (and occasionally cats), only four items have been memorable: one is Lord Byron's epitaph on his dog Boatswain - 'beauty without vanity, strength without insolence, courage without ferocity, and all the virtues of man without his vices'; another, Maurice Maeterlinck's observation that 'in this incommunicable world where exist among created things no other relations than those of executioners and victims, eaters and eaten, one animal alone has succeeded in breaking through the prophetic circle, in escaping from itself to come bounding towards us'.

It is a fearful verdict, though - 'in escaping from itself' - and it is to this urge towards otherness that Elizabeth Marshall Thompson addresses herself. She has done the reverse of most observers, and it is in the de-cicuration of her beloved dogs that she has found her material. By giving them back their nature, by leaping back through the prophetic circle, she has happened on a wonderful story, told with a delicate dry tact that doesn't conceal the passionate dog-lover underneath.

But her love is for dog as dog, not for dog as pet, and in arriving at this relationship she has defined something both so spectacular yet so ordinary that it is hard to believe that it has not quite been done like this before. She has simply observed dogs. Not as a scientist might observe them, from a detached and lofty viewpoint, nor as a dog lover bent on exploring their particular and peculiar, yet familiar and endearing psyches, but as an observer of their ferae naturae.

She emerges from her odd chronicle as a warm, wise, unwitty woman, who like all great eccentrics sees nothing strange in her behaviour, her diurnal and indeed nocturnal activities. Her road to dog Damascus came one day when she fell to wondering about Misha, a dog who rambled out every evening on his own secret errands. What were these errands? Where did he go? How did he navigate the city of Cambridge, Massachussetts, evading traffic, dog officers, dog nappers (who at the time supplied the flourishing laboratories of Cambridge with experimental animals)? He never touched poisonous bait, he was never mauled by other dogs, he returned unscathed every time. How did he do it? It was while she was pondering this that she came on her revelation and her quest. Her question, the one never before asked, was: how do dogs conduct themselves if left uncoaxed and undisturbed in normal circumstances?

This of course begs the question: what are normal circumstances? Certainly, her apprehension of dogs is a touch different to most people's. For a start, her dogs are not pets. And she is mostly dealing with large dogs - German Shepherds, huskies. She recorded the lives of 11 dogs, five males and six females; 22 pups were born. Perhaps one of the most revelatory statements in the book is that she made no effort to train them, even for housebreaking. The young dogs copied the old dogs. Her dogs left home sometimes for days, travelling more than 20 miles, returning with deer hair in their stools. She logged more than 100,000 hours in observing her dogs, often following them for miles on a bicycle. She argues that 'the general assumption that other creatures lack consciousness is astonishing' - but this, one of the central tenets of her book, is something I would question. Is there a general assumption that dogs lack emotions, the ability to think, to reason? I don't think so. Animal books and anecdotes are full of instances of the sagacity and reasoning capacities of dogs.

One of the remarkable things about this woman who is a shadow behind her own prose is the amount of time she puts at her own disposal. Her busy days are unhurried, and her writing has the same quality of amplitude: she spent weeks lying on her elbows with her dogs in the enclosure they made for themselves when left to their own devices. 'I've been to many places on the earth, to the Arctic, to the African savannah, yet wherever I went, I always travelled in my own bubble of primate energy, primate experience, and so never before or since have I felt as far removed from what seemed familiar as I felt with these dogs, by their den. Primates feel pure, flat immobility as boredom, but dogs feel it as peace.'

On a mountain near the author's home, thousands of booted hikers had used a trail across a granite slab for over a century, without noticeably marking it. How long, she wondered, before the booted hikers would wear a groove? One day on Baffin Island she spied a tiny trail made by five or six wolves, used only a few times a week in summer each year, their feet touching the rock only when the trail and the lake were free of ice and snow. Yet the wolves had made a groove in the narrow ledge of rock. As she looks at the unimaginably ancient trail it dawns on her that she is looking at one of the most important sights that she would ever see: 'One doesn't often see very old things made by animals. I realised that I was looking at one of them.' The book is full of such moments as these, marvellous epiphanies that make you realise what an extraordinary pair of eyes we are dealing with here.

She lets slip nuggets about her own behaviour which suggest she herself is an anthropological curiosity worthy of study. On Baffin Island in high summer she watched a wolf for 18 hours straight. He slept motionless for nine hours, raised his head, sighed, opened and shut his mouth to settle his tongue, and went back to sleep for nine more hours. She never took her eyes off him. She creates an epic out of such atoms, and there is not an instant of boredom in her book.

Wholly unsentimental and as you might say unimaginative, she has in fact conceived an elegant and salient feat of the imagination: we read it as Elizabethans might have read of tygers and unicorns. 'Like most people who hunger to know more about the lives of the animals,' she writes, 'I have always wanted to enter into the consciousness of a non-human creature. I would like to know what the world looks like to a dog, or sounds like or smells like: I would like to visit a dog's mind.' She tracks them into their own world, and in doing so has created a classic on a level with those two other great works: J R Ackerley's My Dog Tulip and Christopher Smart's My Cat Jeoffrey.

(Photograph omitted)

Comments