Skip to main content
Original Issue

The Death of a Hunting Dog

When Annie passed away, the author was stirred to explore why it is that he hunts

When it was finished, I sat in the truck for some while, staring at the veterinary clinic. "After great pain," wrote a great New Englander, "a formal feeling comes." I have discussed these lines by Emily Dickinson with innumerable college students, but I always forget their plain accuracy till circumstances remind me.

Though Annie, my pointing dog, had shown remarkable valor in her pain, at length I needed to shut the suffering down. There hadn't been one cloudless patch on the final lung X-ray. She could no longer climb the stairs to my writing studio. She couldn't hold her bowels. Once so tireless in the field, she could, finally, barely hobble down our drive. And then, rather than walk with me 50 yards to the edge of the woods below our house, she would turn from me and hobble back.

How had she, in her condition, so much as breathed, let alone performed so brilliantly on grouse just a few months past? Now she was gone. Another cycle: They get tighter with time; they set as if in stone.

After a last trusting glance, Annie took the injection, then sighed and went loose in my arms. I hadn't been able to contain myself then; yet sitting behind the wheel a few minutes later, I wouldn't have described myself as shaken. The formal feeling. I feel it now and then after the break in a fever, when with a curious lucidity I think, I'm still here. In such instants, the world outside the windows seems splendidly composed, if disarming in its silence. Dawn will go down to day, day to starlight. Life will go down to death. But not for me quite yet.

This formal feeling also reminded me of other finales, particularly the close of some special hunt or some special season, when I've been wondrously taken by a joy in the purely and factually given: These are my friends, Terry Lawson and Joey Olsen. This is my truck, a six-cylinder stepside Chevy. This is my shotgun, a Fox Sterlingworth 16 skeet-and-skeet. This is my hunting vest, Tin Cloth Filson.

This was my pointing dog.

A south-to-north procession of crows, fighting the wind behind the veterinarians' place, looked purposive. Things always take their course. I once chose a puppy. The puppy became my mature and canny partridge dog. The dog grew feeble and died. I could call that death untimely. Yet what would timely be?

After years of Annie's blessed, instinctive company, my philosophical mood all but shamed me. I suddenly wanted an agitation back, something as strong as that unboundable sadness of moments before.

For good or ill, I got my strange wish soon enough. As I was headed through the village, I came up behind a BMW with a sticker on its rear bumper. At first I couldn't quite read the words through February grime and highway salt. But when traffic slowed, I made them out: ANIMALS ARE LITTLE PEOPLE IN FUR COATS.

God in heaven.

Slayer of game that I am, I know full well what judgments that driver would make on my character. I risk confirming them here, as I admit how tempted I was simply to drop into four-wheel drive and plow that fancy rig against the nearest pole. I began to talk out loud: "Anyone who believes animals are people knows nothing about either." The usual drift. "Hell, Hitler hated blood sports. Where does that leave us?"

Did the driver ahead of me have pets? If so, I pitied them. But it was fury, not pity, that ruined the composed, the formal feeling. By God, my Annie had never been little people! I felt affected by this slogan as by someone's smirk at a passing funeral cortege. It was the lack of respect that so enraged me.

Respect has forever been more important than affection in my attachment to my pointers and retrievers. It's not that I don't love a nonworking pet. One of our dogs always stays in the house, to be indulged with scraps, invited onto sofas, dragooned into kids' games. I suppose it's not so bad a life, but the pet doesn't earn the respect that the working dog does.

As I drove south toward home, passing old duck haunts and bird covers, ghostly in the mizzling late-winter rain, something occurred to me: My respectful feeling for the gun dogs is fundamentally the same as the regard I have for the game we pursue together. One admires in a grouse or black duck the fact that it has lost no instinct. Likewise the furbearers. In the face of pressure from civilization, wild game has been genetically self-selected by its qualities of alertness and evasion.

As to the dogs: To keep pace with this grand natural quarry, developers of working dogs have bred in order to distill—and not to transform or repress—ancient traits. Look at a hunting dog move. Then watch your neighbor's pet. Both have been manipulated to be what they are. Although the hunting dog is sociable, even doting, there's a drive in that animal that will not allow it to be utterly and pathetically housebound. To speak of training such a dog is almost a contradiction in terms. One's motive should be less to manage its instincts than to provide them the fullest opportunity to prevail.

I respect and love these instinctual animals. The animal rights activists profess to love them, too, indeed all their animal brethren, up to the wildest and down to the pets. The very name of one of these troops, Friends of Animals, bewilders me. The implication is that this group is friend to all animals. That's remarkable. How do the Friends love a silvertip grizzly? Have they considered a silvertip grizzly?

In my experience, friendship requires a particularized regard. And what is true of friendship is even truer of love, which demands not only recognition but also affirmation of what the beloved, in all honesty, is. It demands, in a word, respect.

When I say I love the wild animals in a given ecosystem, I begin by acknowledging the plain fact that each of these animals must stand in relation to the others as either predator or prey. The latter is not automatically less glorious than the former. I am surely as thrilled by the springbok as by the African wild dog that brings it to earth. Nearer home, I am as impressed by the wary Canada goose as by the gunner, however canny a scout and caller he may be, who tumbles it.

Nor is the prey automatically pitiable. None is necessarily defenseless. That descriptive might apply to what I'm calling degenerate animals—those pets, those furry-coated people—but I've yet to hear anyone use it who hunts truly wild game. Even the vole evades the great raptor more often than not.

Still, how do I rightly speak of love for the creatures I so frequently kill? Here I must again emphasize that feeling of respect. I have respect precisely for the animal's nonhumanity. To deny the animal its nonhumanity is to patronize. Animals are not people, little or big. (The bumper sticker's very stress on the diminutive shows the patronizing touch; is a bull elk a little anything, for God's sake?)

It's the otherness of wild animals—both the hunters and the hunted—that introduces wonder into my psychic life. This wonder is a stimulating unpredictability in a world grown flatter by the hour. The traffic light goes green and changes back. The job begins at nine and ends at five. April 15 is tax day; the Tuesday after the first Monday in November, election day.... But why was that grouse in the open woods, through which I had been hiking to the real cover? The bird had its motives. But what were they? And once I reached that real cover, how did Annie know to quarter on the next bird so as to keep it from flushing through the protective hedge of fir there at the border? I had never trained her in such savvy. It was, simply, the crossing of her otherness with the prey's. What was still wild in Annie intersected with a wildness in her quarry.

Before Annie was three, I saw she had it all. She had already taught herself to discriminate immediately between a running and a holding grouse and—depending on the circumstance—to lock up or to rapidly trail, head high, eyes bright, till she had the bird pinned. The rest was up to me. I admit, without blushing, that my offense was too rarely up to the game's defense, because I'm confident that the best partridge gunners on earth have been in my shoes. Surely, we think, that bird will go there. But then it goes elsewhere, too quickly for us to catch up.

There were many Octobers when I shot like that, poorly. In another autumn, the game was scarce or the weather repellent. Yet all those falls come back as good now, largely because they always included a dog, a dog to lead my life a small way closer to fusion with the life of the woods.

As the trees have unleafed near many a season's end, the land gone stark, the sky taken on a hue that looks and almost smells like coin, I've had my pointers with me. Though I can recall a distinguishing virtue (or, yes, vice) in each dog, sometimes they merge in my mind. Toward dusk, with December waiting in the wings, an Annie freezes on point at the top of a knoll. Backlighted by a low, tinny sun, she becomes her predecessors, and even her successors. Her silhouette seems to grow larger and larger till it has the monumental quality of a classic sculpture. No, it's even cleaner than that. It's a statue's armature. Or, no, since we're talking of wildness here, it's the granite slabs I so often encounter in the backcountry, honed and grooved by climate, and by the passage over and between them of lively, untamable beings.



Sydney Lea is the author of five volumes of poetry and the novel "A Place in Mind."