Opinion » Bill Cope

Black BEAST

Bad Dogs and Englishmen

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Today I was out about town giving shrubs a haircut. ("Pruning" is what we in the biz call it, but I didn't want to get too technical on ya'.) It's one of the things I do for money, and I like it because 1) I'm alone when I do it, 2) I'm outside when I do it, and 3) it gives me time to think about what I'll write about when I get home.

Like today, I was bent over a knee-high juniper with my back to everything else, shaving off the unruly parts and thinking about another column on wolves. More about the type of people who don't want wolves around, actually. You know the type. The Ron Gillette type. Guys who like to act too tough and rugged to put up with any competition on their guided hunts and subsidized grazing lots.

Trouble is, I couldn't think of anything new to say that hasn't been said before. How many times do we need to hear from wildlife scientists that wolves are doing no significant damage to the elk population, I ask. How many times do we need to hear that other places--Michigan, Wisconsin, Canada--get along just dandy with wolves within their borders, or that wolves and elk and people were like peas in a pod for thousands of years before the Ron Gillette types showed up.

We've heard it all before, yes? Yet the Ron Gillette types are still demanding that every wolf in Idaho be shot. Poisoned. Blown to hell. Hung from a lamp pole. Dragged behind a pickup until it quits twitching. Sent back to British Columbia in sausage casings. They're out there right now, in fact, coming up with another lawsuit that would remove wolves from Idaho by whatever means necessary--but preferably deader than dog doo.

The obvious conclusion is that neither science, reason, compromise, aesthetics, compassion, balance nor anything else that involves the higher functions of the human brain has any effect on these Ron Gillette types. The obvious conclusion is that they are operating strictly on a level that goes back to those days when the few frightened human prototypes were hunkered around a bloated carcass in a cave somewhere, fighting with everything else for a slurp of bone marrow or a strip of flesh on which to gnaw.

Yes! Yes! "That's it!" I realized. "Their itty-bitty collective subconsciousnesses are controlling their behavior in some instinctual, archetypical way, hence they are incapable of rational thought on the matter."

Just then, I pruned off the last of the unruly parts on that shrub and turned around, triumphant, and saw the pit bull coming straight for me.

John Fowles, a highly functioning British brain who wrote a lot of smart books (I'd tell you which books, but that would deprive you of the pleasure of looking it up for yourself) did a smart essay--"Conan Doyle" (1974)--on why Sherlock Holmes' creator picked a savage canine to be the dreaded beast in The Hound of the Baskervilles. You know ... instead of a cat.

It was no accidental monster, there being a long tradition among the English (and everyone else) of being scared silly of dogs that go bump in the night. Fowles tells us, "The dog of death has the most ancient pedigree of any canine species, well recorded at least as far back as Anubis, the sinister undertaker-god of ancient Egypt, who must in turn derive from a much older fear. Northern Europe Mesolithic peoples had begun breeding the hostility out of dogs by 7500 B.C.--dog bones of that age have been found in Yorkshire--but the terror of that ancestry has persisted the world over.

"In Britain this lycophobia has lingered longest in the Black Dog group of legends. In Dorset there is a lonely lane. You walk there one night, and you see a little black dog following you. As it comes closer, it grows larger and larger. However fast you run, it is not fast enough. The little black dog is as big as a bull when it finally slavers over you for the kill."

Fowles explains how canny Conan Doyle was by pitting Holmes against the spectral hound: "The experience draws on ancient memories of hunting and being hunted, of man versus dog ... or, originally, wolf."

"Needless to say," Fowles concludes, "the real black hound is the moor itself--that is, untamed nature, the inhuman hostility at the heart of such landscapes. That is a universal terror ... the Hound is the primeval force behind Moriarty; not just one form that evil takes, but the very soul of the thing."

Of course, the Brits had no choice but to turn to spectral hounds and little black metamorphosing dogs for their mythical chills and thrills, having drove their native wolves to extinction as far back as 1750.

Turned out not to be a killer, that pit bull. He was ugly enough to be one, definitely. Looked like a pissed Mickey Roarke coming at me, if Mickey Roarke were a dog.

But he was just a big goofy pup without a collar and without anywhere else to go. I suspect he was dropped off by some hillbilly who thought it would be cool to own a pit bull (until he found out you have to feed 'em now and then) and I imagine by now, Mickey's doing hard time in the Humane Society clink. Too bad. All he wanted from me was some attention.

But I admit, for a few seconds there, I froze. Like a deer ... No! ... like a Neanderthal who'd left the cave in the night to pee and heard something big in the bushes behind him. That's how I froze. For those few seconds, all I could think about was covering my jugular.

What a silly thing, eh? To still--in this day and age--worry about a beast at our jugular. Us! Mankind! The stewards of Earth and kings of the jungle. We won that war a long time ago, didn't we?

Yes! Yes, we did. There's not another species on land, sea, or air that doesn't owe us their condition. If we want them to stay, they stay. If we want 'em gone, they go. That pit bull (those lions, tigers and bears ... and for damn sure, those wolves), why, we can snap them off like a light switch.

Complete and total, our victory. And as the victors, we can demand that our shrubs be pruned, that our moors hold no monsters, and that our dreaded beasts wear radio collars. There's no reason to be afraid of any other living thing, if we don't want to be. We can kill 'em all, if we want.

Truth is, I suppose the only reason we have left for keeping a dreaded beast around anymore is that bit of our nature that tends to be generous, that bit of our intellect that can transcend our buried fears, and that bit of our soul that understands how bleak living would be without them, here on a world where the only dreaded beasts left are us.