Steve’s friend Ted Kerasote, winner of the National Outdoor Book Award, has a new one at B&N I could not resist. Merle’s Door, Lessons from a Freethinking Dog, is parts memoir, polemic and canine biography. It is also an unapologetic love story and, I admit, a tear-jerker there toward the end.
Merle is a mostly-lab mixed breed who sniffs Ted out on a camping trip and makes a remarkable connection with this man, who, against twinges of better judgment, adopts him on the spot. As Merle says, in translation by Ted,” You need a dog, and I’m it.”
This translation business is a hallmark of the book. Blurbs on the back alluded to the feature, calling it the best human/dog translation in print. I’m not an expert here, but I can attest that as a tool for character development, Kerasote’s dog dialog is dead on. I feel I know Merle now pretty well.
Merle’s many opinions as expressed by his companion person help to develop the book’s central argument, which is that dogs given the freedom to roam and make choices become complex thinking beings, in fact tantamount to people. It’s clear from early in the story that Kerasote views this dog as possessing the full range of emotion, cognition and willingness to comment he would give any human person.
Indeed, he extends this view liberally along the way, granting the same by analogy to wolves, coyotes, cats, crows and of course, other dogs.
I am sympathetic to this view. Like Kerasote, I’ve been blessed with the company of dogs from birth to death and never doubted what goes on behind their eyes. Likewise, I grant my hawks tremendous powers of memory, forethought and opinion—assumptions I feel are necessary to successfully training and hunting with them.
So why am I on edge?
I think it was the guilt trip, layered on pretty thick by Kerasote, against those of us who do not live in a small village in the middle of a National Forest, and thus cannot set our captive dogs to roaming. It is arguable, and Kerasote concedes this, that even in his and Merle’s idyllic setting, the dangers of open range to domestic dogs are considerable. The author notes neighbors’ dogs being shot, run over and eaten, and recounts many close calls with Merle.
Yet Kerasote’s conscience with regard to his freethinking dog is unassailable: Merle is a person, therefore Merle must be free. To his credit, Kerasote seems the most doting of dog companions, and spares nothing (save confinement) to see that Merle is safe. In point of fact, Merle lives a very long time and has, by this accounting, a rich and wonderful life.
My small annoyance with Kerasote’s disapproval of “normal” suburban life for dogs did not prevent me from enjoying this book. I read it fast and cried real tears at the end.
But I have to wonder if personhood for dogs—and this book accepts nothing less—is the best thing we can give them? How many of us are ready to release our dogs unto their own recognizance? How many of our dogs are ready for that?