Author Jon Katz knows a great deal about dogs. His upstate New York Bedlam Farm houses a random number of sheep, goats, chickens, a rooster, a mother cat, a humongous steer, and, of course, at least three dogs. In SOUL OF A DOG, he analyzes the possibility that animals possess souls. Backed by 10 years of close communion with his animals, he doggedly researches the idea. Multiple vignettes explore the personalities, idiosyncrasies and lovable characters of his animal companions.
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 butt 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 on January 23, 2011