Animals in my life: dogs (11), cats (7), fish (9), boa constrictor (1), mice (dozens, but they were for the boa constrictor), turtles (2), cockatoo (1), and hamsters (2). I’ve probably had more, but since forgetting things is a new hobby of mine, I can’t be sure.
But I’ve made my point: Since I was little and protected by the fierce devotion of Mugsy, our boxer, I’ve had animals of one kind or another around me. Most of them have passed from this world to the next, which, for the snakes, mice, cats, turtles, and birds, I see as one of blue skies, open fields, and unlimited treats. But a master’s love of his dog is so strong that the dog carries it with him to the afterlife, missing his master and mistress forever, sitting at the window, wondering when they’re coming home. That’s sad, I know, but I can’t accept a diminishment in the love my dogs have for me, even in the afterlife. Can’t do it.
I don’t understand people who don’t like animals, especially dogs. It’s not that I distrust them — some of my best friends don’t like animals (allergies) — but I am suspicious. What’s their angle? Not liking a dog — not every dog, but one, just one — is, to me, akin to not liking the Carolina blue sky or the dirty-white sand at Nag’s Head, the gently rolling mountains of Asheville. Something’s wrong with that picture. They’re missing out on some first-class joy.
But great joy means great heartache. Out of more than 30 animals that I’ve loved (or fed to my boa constrictor), all but two of them are gone: two dogs. The sudden absence of a dog is like the sea suddenly disappearing beneath a boat; it creates a visible absence in your home. You knew this would happen when they came to you. You knew it and tried to forget it, just as we try to forget the impermanence of everything in the world, otherwise we would be frozen in despair. I worked at a vet’s office one summer in high school and brought an old German shepherd home with me: He’d been abandoned. I kept him overnight, just long enough for him to destroy our basement, the wooden door that led to the backyard, and every Allman Brothers record I owned — but not long enough to name him. Still I think of him, and wonder, with a pretend naivety, what became of him.
Domesticity. That’s what it’s all about. It’s that dogs, more than any other animal, understand and enjoy the same things we do: warmth, love, a treat now and then. They like to be with us, at home.
How did this happen? A lot of theories exist, but no one knows for sure. We know it happened about 10,000 years ago, when some lone wolf took that big, evolutionary step. This wolf-dog waited outside the camp where the savages lived, watching them, hiding behind a stand of trees. Every night, she came closer, but she’d never been this close before. The savages built a fire, and all of them — there must have been a dozen — gathered around it, warming their hands, cooking some prehistoric rabbit. She took another step and broke a twig; and one of them, a boy, heard it, turned, and saw her.
It took this dog a long time to become a dog, and her wolfish family left her here, alone. The boy — thin as a stick — walked toward her. And then she stepped out of the forest. There was a moment when both of them stopped, knowing that what came next could change their lives forever. And while the rest of the savages watched, the boy held out his hand — something no one in the history of the world had ever done before — and the dog licked it. From that moment on, she was his and he was hers. The boy turned to his family, strong and tall and happy. He had changed. Everyone could tell he had changed.
The first dog made the first man.
Daniel Wallace is a novelist and the director of the creative writing program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Follow him on Twitter, @DHWallace, or visit danielwallace.org for more drawing, writing, and news.