Excerpt: 'Thinking Animals' by Kari Weil


From The Little Dog of Fo by Rosemary Harris, 1976. Illustration by Errol Le Cain

From A Proper Death: Dying Like a Dog

“A dog should die like a dog,” writes Richard Klein, “not cruelly, but with a respectful matter-of-factness, unaccompanied by the rituals of human mourning.” Writing against what he sees as a dangerous tendency in postindustrial society to humanize pets in such a way that we may be encouraged alternately to animalize humans, Klein would approve of the death of Woolf’s Flush, which is striking in its simplicity, its matter-of-factness. Flush, apparently with knowledge of his impending death, suddenly rushes home “as if he were seeking refuge” and leaps onto the couch where his mistress is seated. Turning his eyes toward her face, they share one last exchange of looks before Elizabeth Barrett-Browning continues her reading. “Then she looked at Flush again. But he did not look at her. An extraordinary change had come over him. ‘Flush’ she cried. But he was silent. He had been alive; he was now dead. That was all. The drawing-room table, strangely, stood perfectly still.”

The stillness of the table, signaling the absence of those communicating spirits that populated Barrett’s drawing room to make table legs move and give signs of life after death, signals also the finality of the dog’s death. Is Woolf reminding her readers that dogs have no soul, or does the finality of Flush’s death call attention to the shared mortality of all animals—human and nonhuman alike, in spite of the way such drawing-room practices’ might seek to hide it?

The end of Leo Tolstoy’s short story “Strider: The Story of a Horse,” written between 1883 and 1886, presents a similar contrast between human and animal death and the ceremonies surrounding each. Strider is the title character of the story and also its occasional first-person equine narrator—he tells the story of his life to the other barn horses while the humans are sleeping. Much like Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty, Strider’s story is that of a “noble” horse (despite being mocked as a piebald) who is overworked, exchanged from master to master, and abused in the name of property. After his death, Strider’s body is left in a field, where, the other narrator tells us, it feeds a family of wolves—the mother wolf bites off and chews pieces of flesh that she then regurgitates for each of her five cubs. Months later a peasant finds the few remaining bones of Strider’s body and puts them to use as well. Juxtaposed to this death that is both a return to nature and a recycling is the death of Strider’s first master, Serpukhovskoy:

Just as for the last twenty years his body that had walked the earth had been a great burden to everybody, so the putting away of that body was again an additional trouble to people. He had not been wanted by anybody for a long time and had only been a burden, yet the dead who bury their dead found it necessary to clothe that swollen body, which at once began to decompose, in a good uniform and good boots and put it into an expensive coffin with tassels at its four corners, and then to place that coffin in another coffin of lead, to take it to Moscow and there dig up some long buried human bones, and to hide in that particular spot this decomposing maggoty body in its new uniform and polished boots and cover it all up with earth.

Humans, of course, are not the only animals who bury their dead. We know that elephants, for example, have elaborate grieving practices that include a form of burial and visits to gravesites. But, for Tolstoy, humans are the “dead who bury their dead.” In death, as in life, we embalm our bodies with useless ornaments and so preserve them from serving others, from offering a gift of life in death. According to Heidegger, humans are nevertheless said to be the only animals who “properly” die because only humans know of death “as such”—only humans live life with the knowledge of their finitude. “Mortals are they who can experience death as death. Animals cannot do this.” But such knowledge of death has little to do with funereal rituals that defy finitude in the attempt to hold onto life’s property, if not life itself, even into death. The elaborate, jeweled casings over Serpukhovskoy’s body suggest that even it must be preserved in its proper form, along with the property he accumulated while living. In contrast to his horse, Serpukhovskoy illustrates what French feminist Hélène Cixous describes as the masculine “realm of the proper” “set into play by man’s classic fear of seeing himself expropriated . . . deprived.” History itself, she writes, is a response to this fear: “Everything must return to the masculine.” For Tolstoy, it is not the feminine, but the animal who resists this economy of return to the masculine by giving without return. The very propriety, if not property, of mortals, he intimates, is what stands in the way of a life and death that can serve others, of what we might call an ethical death even if an improper one. Perhaps, then, for Tolstoy, a human should die like a dog or a horse, unaccompanied by rituals of mourning.

What, indeed, is a proper death for a dog or a human, and what, if anything, determines what are “proper” rituals of grief and mourning? I pursue these questions by examining a range of representations (and experiences) of animal death, beginning with the questions raised by Woolf and Tolstoy regarding the differences between human and animal death or between the deaths of pets and other animals and the kinds of mourning or grief that each may or may not allow for. These questions have become especially pronounced in the face of a current theoretical and aesthetic fascination with animal “becomings” or “becoming animal”—to use the term from Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari that, in my mind, leaves the question of death behind. As I argue, the fascination with becomings functions as a kind of melancholia that resists or even subverts practices of mourning, while categorizing “the animal” as the living dead.

In his Second Discourse, Rousseau writes of the “knowledge of death and of its terrors” that humans acquired in their move away from the animal condition, “for an animal will never know what it is to die.” Nevertheless, the experience of loss is not foreign to animals. On the contrary, writing of “the mournful lowing of cattle entering a slaughter-house,” he claims that animals deeply feel sentiments such as pity for the dead. Indeed, he argues, identification with “the suffering animal” was much stronger in the “state of nature,” and humans lost their capacity for pity and empathy as they moved out of that state. Rousseau’s emphasis on how we respond to the death of another rather than to the idea of death or to our own death (if that were possible) offers a different perspective about what it might mean to “die properly.” Indeed, if his mention of the slaughterhouse seems less than arbitrary, so, too, the endings of Flush and “Strider” ask us to consider, on a first level, what constitutes a “proper” death and whether it is determined by the ontic cause or by the ontological relation to death. Few animals die of old age, as Flush did while gazing into the eyes of a beloved. Strider’s killing by a “knacker” comes closer to the manner in which most domestic animals die, even as their deaths may be regarded as “easing” the “burden” of their miserable lives.8 Strider lives to an old age (something few “farm animals” today are allowed to do), which may be as much blessing as additional curse. Evidence of grief or identificatory suffering is strangely absent from both Flush and “Strider,” where, moreover, the absence of ritual surrounding the horse’s death is what allows for his body to offer life to others. Are we to understand this becoming meat for another as a form of ethical ecology rather than another instance of animal sacrifice, though for whom or in whose name it is not clear?

The question was brought home to me at the death of my “own” horse, the horse whose guardian I had been for close to fifteen years. Guardian, as I explained earlier, has become the preferred term for those who have and care for pets, but because horses are considered livestock rather than pets, it is really ownership (and money) that can make a difference in terms of how they die and what happens after their death. Cacahuète or Peanut—the nickname she earned from her rich, peanut butter color—stopped eating in her old age and was sickened from what appeared to be a lymphoma. After discussions with the vet, I decided that euthanasia was the best response, though not an easy one. It was made more difficult by the fact that at the moment I made my decision, I also had to make arrangements for her “remains.” If I did nothing, the renderer would come to pick up the body in the morning. Such an idea struck me as indecent. Cacahuète , I thought, deserved a better afterlife; she would not be turned into glue or, even the more likely, dog food—even if that might mean her life fed others. There was an alternative. The vet gave me the name of a woman who had recently begun a cremation service for horses (there are very few in the country); her mother had also opened the first equine cemetery in the area. When I called her, her first questions were about my horse—what she had been like, what she looked like, what I most missed about her. She seemed to know that I wanted this for my horse. In hindsight, I could be cynical about it—wondering if getting me to cry was a business ploy. But in hindsight I also realize that mourning means attesting to a life. We are not only autobiographical animals; we are biographical animals who seek to acknowledge  those whose lives have been entangled with ours, whose lives have changed ours. Ownership may be the legal term with which we describe such relations, but on an emotional level the term does not describe our mutual dependence. I wanted such a testament to my horse’s life, and I believed that such a testament depended on “proper” treatment of the body—one that did not grind it up to be sold on the market. What I wasn’t prepared for was the cost of cremation or the realization that the high cost was due to the amount of time and energy it took to burn a horse’s body. A dog’s body can be cremated in a matter of minutes—a horse can take a day. I thought of the ecological effects, the toll on the environment. Is such a ritual of mourning selfish? I wondered. Is it worth it? For whose sake am I doing this? I thought, remembering Coetzee’s character David Lurie in Disgrace, who asks the same question as he makes sure each euthanized dog in the clinic has a proper burial.

Excerpted from Thinking Animals by Kari Weil. Copyright © 2012 Columbia University Press. Used by arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved.

Read Chapter 3: Is a Pet an Animal? at the Animal History Museum’s online library