Tuesday, January 5th, 2016
Henry has started dancing lately. This is nothing new at the farm; most of our animals dance. Jean-Claude the llama has always done his crazy neck-swinging legs-akimbo gumby-man dance (impossible to capture on video, it seems). I’ve seen 220 pound Madison the sheep jump up and down on all four legs as he races up or down a hill, shaking his head at some secret joke. Dee Dee donkey doesn’t necessarily do the two-step, but she can do an awesome karate back kick, and when there is food involved, a great line dance of all kinds of creatures forms in the pastures.
The thing is, Henry has been such a serious and understated guy up till now. Something bad, or more likely, quite a few bad somethings, have probably happened to Henry in his life.
“Not socialized” is what the animal shelter said about him. Certainly, Henry has the look of a shy guy about him, bows to the domineering ways of his friend Nicole, drifts into the background whenever possible, and makes self-deprecating remarks. He doesn’t rush to the dinner table, and, always “ladies first”, is quite the gentleman with Nicole, who is much more comfortable being with people. He probably hasn’t been used to being touched, because he is so vastly in need of a shampoo and blowdry. But there is much more to Henry than all that and what I am learning comes out only in bits and pieces.
The first time I saw his fear was when I fixed his “patio” door with a chain. The chain fell against the metal frame, and he started, and went on instant alert, body tensed for a possible runner. “OK,”, I said to myself, “chains no good. No more chains”, and softly finished the job.
The next time was far more dramatic: a neighbor was using a nail gun with an air compressor and the regular ‘bam bam bam’ sounded just like a gun going off. I found Henry wildly trying to dig himself a deep hole in the compost pile and when he could not do that, he raced frantically along the fenceline, seeking a way over or under. He was out of his mind, panting, wild-eyed and desperate to escape. I caught up to him when he was about halfway dug under the back gate, and I draped my body over his and held him as he trembled deep to the bone. While normally I could not touch him at all, he was so terrified that he allowed me to hold him and calm him until the noise stopped. The event was repeated about a week later, when some Einstein farther away started shooting a gun after dark, but this time I found Henry wisely hiding in the barn and again I held him until the noise and his shaking stopped.
Henry is a powerful dog. He’s a livestock guardian dog, probably a cross between a Maremma and a Great Pyrenees – these are courageous, athletic dogs that have been bred for thousands of years to protect prey animals such as sheep and goats, chickens and ducks, and even alpacas. They run fast, jump high and are truly ferocious when a predator threatens their flock. When there are no predators around, they tend to sleep and watch a lot of bad TV. They are not pets, and yet they have an unusual and deep bond with the humans they work with. To see fear in such a grand animal saddens me profoundly.
Past trauma or not, though, Henry and Nicole knew their job immediately upon arrival at the farm. They sleep side by side with the alpacas and give no pause to our most sensitive sheep. They simply fit in. But getting them to trust me and some of the volunteers on the farm has been a slow process. The encouraging thing after the gunfire incidents was that I had made a positive physical contact with this beautiful, kindly, unkempt dog. As we humans so often do, I over-interpreted my success. So one morning he came up to me slowly, sideways as he always does, and I reached out my hand for him to sniff and lick. Then I reached up to pet him and before I even made contact, he yelped as though he had been struck, ducked, and ran.
I wondered, how long to undo the harm done to him? I will be the first to admit that I’m somewhat unimaginative when it comes to rehabilitating a ‘damaged’ animal: happy talk, treats, and a waggly butt (mine) are my normal recipe. I gauge my success on the speed of the wagging tail. But it seems to be working, slowly, slowly, every day.
Henry has started smiling at me. The left half of his upper gum gets sort of stuck on his teeth, and he looks like he might talk like Carey Grant. When he is REALLY feeling good, all of his upper gums go up, all fangs bared and sometimes he growls a bit – he is just engaging in a full-out dog grin and chuckle. Well, the other night, I was doing the treat routine with Henry and he started to waggle his butt a bit, then he turned his head coyly, then his whole body went around in a twirl, and happiness puffed off of him like dust off of Pig Pen.
I happened to tune in to Zorba the Greek on the TV a few weeks ago right at the scene where Zorba is working himself up into a dancing frenzy. The sound of that bouzouki is something to make anyone, Greek or not, want to jump up and twirl around. And I thought, I don’t dance enough. None of us do.
So put down your phones and tablets, stand up from your desks, lift up your arms, step broadly, and turn faster and faster with your feet firmly planted on this glorious earth we inhabit. When a being like Henry can dance, we all can!
Till next time,
“All those who actually live the mysteries of life haven’t the time to write, and all those who have the time don’t live them! D’you see?”
—Nikos Kazantzakis, Zorba the Greek