Animals are animals, not people

Recently the tragic death of SeaWorld’s killer whale trainer Dawn Brancheau flooded the news outlets. Many people commented that Tilikum, the whale, should be euthanised.

It’s very sad that Brancheau died while working with Tilikum, but what we all need to keep in mind is that no matter how well-trained he is, Tilikum is still a wild creature. He is a KILLER WHALE, and that’s what he does–or that’s what he would do, if he weren’t artificially confined in a space less than 1/25th the size of comfortable stomping grounds in the ocean.

I think Brancheau knew this, and accepted those risks as part of her career as a trainer.
From comments in the media about her dedication to her job, it seemed she loved working with the orcas to show spectators the majesty and capability of these creatures.

But no matter how many tricks Tilikum knows, no matter how much affection he seems to display to his human keepers, he remains a predatory creature with different motivations, language and desires from humans. Even though the trainers know this, and work together very closely to avoid mishaps, the potential still exists for tragic accidents.

This doesn’t apply just to killer whales or lions or elephants.  We need to be mindful that our own domesticated animals are still animals, too. They’re not little furry people running around on four legs with poor language skills–they’re ANIMALS, no matter how radically humans have changed their behavior from their cousins still living in the wild.

I got a vivid reminder of that this weekend.

Early Sunday morning, right around 4 a.m., I was getting ready to join the Wonderful Pumpkin in our cozy bed, so I let Gigi and Riley out to potty one last time.  Skipper was NOT going outside because it was a bit chilly, and Belle had been sleeping for hours and hours and wouldn’t wake up to go out for quite a while.

Riley went down and pottied, and came back up promptly.  I let him in and gave Gee a couple more minutes, but when she didn’t come in a short while later, I tried calling her.

You must understand that our children are essentially four sporting dogs.  Belle is a Labrador mix, Riley is an English springer spaniel fieldy, and Skipper and Gigi are American cocker spaniels. Even though they’re supposed to have specialities specific to their breeds, they don’t all exhibit the same zest for the hunt, and neither Rick nor I mind that.  We’re not hunters and we don’t expect our dogs to ‘earn their keep’ with a specific skill.

Belle likes to chase birds and rabbits, and she and her long-departed cocker sister Kacey Marie managed to bring down a baby possum in the backyard of our Highland Township home in Michigan. She’s quick, and true to the nature of most dogs, anything ‘moving’ in her yard offends her, and she will give fervent chase, but I don’t think she’s as dedicated to it as some dogs would be.

Riley is our handsome, darling boy, but for all his beauty he’s a little brainless when it comes to prey and how to deal with it. This is probably the reason he was deserted by a fishing hole up near Lawrenceburg, KY–handsome dog with promising bone structure and beautiful markings has no natural instinct regarding birds, i.e. “dog won’t hunt” and so “dog is history.”

Skipper-Dee-Doo-Dah (or “Poos” for short) is so completely a momma’s boy that he can’t stand to be outside for the time it would take to hunt something down and kill it and eat it. Now if Momma came out to help, that might be a different story.

And then there’s Lady Godiva, aka Gigi, aka ‘The Baby Lady.” Gigi, a chocolate cocker, is my darling. She’s my unabashed favorite grrl, endearing herself to me with her extreme shyness and timidity when she first came to us as a heartworm-positive foster back in September of 2008. (There–I SAID it. I have a ‘favorite’ dog. I feel like a parent confessing to favoring one child over the rest.) As she got to know and trust us more at home, she’s grown to become a funny, happy grrl who’s earned the nickname “Waterbug” because when she’s really excited she’ll jump around in full 360’s.

Gigi went from being so shy that she would just freeze when you reached down to pet her, to wrestling with Riley and jumping up to stand on your chest and smile down at you while you’re sitting on the sofa. And even though she’s no longer terrified and helpless around us, I still feel particularly protective and affectionate toward her.

And ironically, even though we see Gigi as our darling cuddly baby grrl who’s cuter than any danged button in the world, she’s our sportswoman.  She is fast and smart, an unapologetic hunter who doesn’t mind rain and cold and sparks the rest of the dogs into giving chase and really acting like dogs.

It’s awesome to watch them all charge out into the yard late at night (or early in the morning) with Gigi leading the vocally-silent assault on the unfortunate critter who happens into our yard. A rabbit chase is punctuated by the sounds of the dogs’ feet first thundering down the steps to the deck, and then back and forth in the yard below.  Most of the time, the chase ends with the rattle of the chain link fence signaling the just-in-time departure of the critter.

Occasionally it doesn’t end so well for the critter.  I can tell you that rabbits scream when they’re captured, a heartrending exclamation of horror that seizes my heart. Most often, it’s Gigi who’s quick and dexterous enough to have caught the prey, but I didn’t think she knew what to do with it.  Rick says he’s seen her staring at a bunny she’s pinned to the ground with her front paws, as if she’s amazed she caught it, while the other dogs milled around behind her.

Apparently she finally figured out what to do with the bunny once she caught it.

After Rye came in I gave Gigi a few more minutes, and then I went out on the deck and called her to come in.  She ignored me, which means she was hunting something.  I got the flashlight and tried to find her in the yard. Usually she circles the small utility shed toward the back of the yard, under which many small critters have tried to make their homes. No circles, and I couldn’t see her at all, but I did hear an odd ripping sound and suspected that she was tearing at the plywood that Rick used to barricade the underside of the shed.

If Geej is after something under the shed, she will NOT come in on her own–If I don’t want to wait for an hour or so, I’ll have to go out there and get her. Slipped on my shoes and grabbed the flashlight, and when I was down in the yard on my way out to the shed, I finally saw her–by the fence.  She was concentrating on something at her feet, and as I got closer, the flashlight illuminated the body of a young rabbit, which Gee had caught and partially eaten.

Aw, jeez.

It could have been lots worse–last summer, we were babysitting Karen’s five kids, and her golden retriever, Gretta, actually caught a baby rabbit in the backyard.  I was at work, so Rick had to deal with a mangled baby bunny who was tragically still alive.  He was on his way to the University of Tennessee with the baby when it died in the truck with him.  Heartbreaking.

Bear in mind that Rick and I are not only dog lovers. We love all animals, including rabbits and other wild and domesticated fuzzies, so it’s heartbreaking for us to see an animal become prey.

Most of the time, our kids enjoy the thrill of the hunt without ever ‘finishing’ it. But we have to remember that they are animals, and even though we feed them nutritionally-balanced meals on a regular basis, that there’s still a gene-level memory in them of when they had to feed themselves.

I couldn’t be angry with Gigi.  She’s doing what she was genetically programmed to do, which is to hunt and feed herself. I felt so sad for the rabbit, but I think it died quickly. Well, I hope that’s what happened, anyway. I picked Gigi up to carry her inside, because she really wasn’t ready to leave her prize yet.

Came back out and picked up the dead bunny with a couple of plastic grocery bags and put it in the trash can out front. Its eyes were just beginning to cloud over, but its body was still very warm. Went back inside and checked my darling little grrl for wounds and blood, and discovered that her ears and paws were very bloody and took her into the bathroom for a quick front-end bath. Mud and blood ran down the tub’s drain, and I kept up a very calm and loving patter while I soaped Geej’s ears and front paws and muzzle.  Ew, but this is what happens when a dog (even a darling, fuzzy dog!) kills another animal and commences to eat it.

Kept an eye on her on Sunday to make sure she didn’t suffer any ill effects from her hunt, but frankly I think the rabbit and I got the worst end of that deal. Obviously the rabbit is the overall loser in this story, but again, I can’t blame Gigi or scold her for this.

We need to remember this about all our companion animals, too, not just dogs. Many people who have sporting dogs like beagles and bird dogs have discovered that the prey instinct is very strong in their beloved pets, so strong that it’s not safe for the household to have a bird or rodent as another pet.

And as much as we love our companion animals and train them to live under our roofs with us, they’re still animals and are capable of acting out against us and expressing their fear, frustration or anger in animalistic ways. Your Mr. Poofy Pants Kitty might be pretty tolerant, but he’s still got sharp teeth and may hiss, growl, or even try to bite you if you’re doing something he doesn’t like. My Baby Lady might be adorably fuzzy and shy and funny, but she’s still capable of killing a small animal to feed. Let’s just keep that in mind.

Here's the Baby Lady. Doesn't look like a bloodthirsty killer, do she?

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