Most of us animal people anthropomorphize our animals. That humanization is perfectly natural to ownership and some of it even makes sense. We give them names, toys and other things that are probably more to our tastes than theirs–whether those things are blue blankets or food in a flavor we like, too. (Does the dog really prefer the rib eye-flavored mush to the filet mignon-flavored mush?)
On the other hand, perceiving personalities in our animals is less our doing than theirs. Some of our animals are genuinely affectionate. Others are perpetually grumpy. Beyond that, our animals truly appear to be affected by other animals, by us and by circumstance. They experience mood shifts just like we do. With preferences and expectations–and we know our animals have those–come satisfaction, disappointment and the subsequent behavior.
The lines between projected preferences and our animals’ true traits, however, can be blurred. This is especially common when basic animal behavior causes unfortunate results. We can’t help but search for a logical explanation, but sometimes it’s just an animal accident.
Kimberly and I began our Saturday by feeding all the cats, dogs and horses. We then enjoyed a lazy weekend breakfast with French toast, bacon, scrambled cheese-eggs, juice and coffee. We even took our vitamins. Later we grabbed a handful of carrots and headed out to the pasture where Skip and Vander were grazing on what was left of the late summer Bermuda grass.
It was a crisp and sunny fall day. We stood with the horses while they crunched their carrots. The dogs and cats even walked with us–albeit cautiously–into the pasture. Our entire zoo was hanging out together. In that respect, it was like most other weekend mornings of the past few years. I had just handed Vander the last bit of carrot when he spun around and charged our 14-year-old Border Collie/Afghan mix, Kit. Kimberly and I ran after him, yelling. Kit was oblivious to the commotion, standing beside the fence sniffing the breeze.
Vander had charged her once before about two years ago, but Kit had just skittered under the fence, admonishing him from a safe distance with plenty of barking. This time, however, Kit simply cowered. Vander ran into her, knocking her over. Kimberly shrieked. Now beside him we both smacked Vander and pushed him away from Kit, who managed to crawl under the fence and run toward the house. Vander simply snorted and began casually chewing a convenient patch of green grass.
Kimberly and I ran back to the house. We found Kit standing on the porch snorting and coughing as blood ran from her left eye and nose. We rushed her to the emergency vet clinic and paced around the waiting room while they sedated her and took X-rays. What began as a relaxing weekend morning had left Kit with a bruised and swollen head, a minor concussion, a fractured cheekbone and a ruptured eyeball. The doctor said the eye might heal, but would probably never work again. Additionally, seizures were a distinct possibility during the next two days.
We were told Kit would remain in the clinic until Monday morning, when we could transport her to our family vet. Kit was droopy-eyed from all the medication, but she nearly barked herself hoarse as we left her, unsteady and shaking in one of the clinic’s less-than-cozy, stainless steel kennels. It was the best option, but leaving her there like that absolutely broke my heart. It was all I could do to keep my composure with Kimberly beside me in the car, crying as we drove home.
The house was quiet, except for a meowing cat. I wanted to believe that Macy was meowing because she missed Kit, too. I suspect, however, that she was simply calling our attention to her empty food bowl. I poured her some kibble. She purred as I looked out the window at Skip and Vander in the pasture.
Kimberly bought Vander about eight years ago. When she was finalizing the arrangements with Vander’s then-owner, she had Kit on a leash beside her, and the owner stood nearby with Vander on a leadline. Kit walked behind Vander, who sniffed, snorted and then kicked out with a hind leg enough times to ensnare his own ankle in the thin, retractable leash. He was quickly released, but not before his entire life flashed before his wide, equine eyes. It was the only clash between the two. Nonetheless, Vander may have been sufficiently panicked to form a solid, long-lasting grudge that laid the foundation for today’s events.
Kimberly and I replayed Kit getting injured over and over in our heads. We felt guilty for her getting hurt. We also felt stupid for being angry at Vander. I felt even stupider when I realized what I wanted most was to give Vander the cold shoulder and have him notice. Maybe I thought he’d be prompted to ask, “What’s wrong, Jeremy?” Then I could tell him he really hurt Kit, and I was very disappointed in his choice of actions. Then perhaps I’d also inform him he was grounded for a few weeks with no TV or Internet privileges.
I couldn’t step back from the Vander in my head to see the Vander in front of me. I was having trouble stripping away all the unrealistic attributes and thoughts I’d ascribed to our horse. Honestly, I think when Vander charged, he expected Kit to get scared and flee. Vander seemed somewhat surprised when he ran into her. He definitely had the opportunity to deliver a kick–a kick that could have easily killed Kit. Things could have been much worse.
I remembered another event from just a few years back when Kimberly went over Vander’s head while landing a jump during a show. She flipped over his head and landed directly in his path. In mid-step, he spread his front legs to avoid stepping on her and stopped immediately. The dust cleared, and Vander was staring down at Kimberly, who lay winded underneath him. I honestly thought he looked concerned. I also thought Vander looked relieved moments later when the trainer and I helped Kimberly up. He held his unnatural landing pose until we were all out of the way.
As I thought about it, the less he seemed like a bully and the more he seemed like a normal–and occasionally compassionate–horse.
Kit came home a few days ago after a brief stay with our vet. She was lucky enough to keep the eye, and she got plenty of pain pills. Of course, Kit is not so excited about spending a few weeks wearing a gigantic, plastic Elizabethan collar around her neck. The vision in her left eye is gone, but the collar does a good job of keeping her from bumping her head or scratching her eye.
Last night Kit ate her favorite rib eye-flavored mush and played a little with her green teddy bear. I thought she seemed preoccupied, so I pulled her aside briefly for a little father-daughter talk. I promised her that when she’s emotionally ready, she and Vander can meet to discuss rebuilding their relationship. I know Kit’s worried about it. I mean, she tells me she’s been sleeping well, but that’s probably just the pain pills knocking her out. I know this situation will take some extra special care, but it’s worth it. I want our dog to feel at ease about her future.
Jeremy Law and his wife, Kimberly, live on a small farm in North Carolina with their two cats, two dogs and two horses.