Animals pulling heartstrings

If seeing animals in distress upsets and ruffles you, you may want to skip the new documentary about primatologist and famed chimpanzee doyenne Jane Goodall, simply titled “Jane” (in theaters). While most of this fascinating film is a frank, intimate portrait of Goodall and an enthralling overview of her groundbreaking studies with the wild chimps of Tanzania’s Gombe, there’s enough heartache to plunge you into an unrelenting funk. A sickening wave of sadness rushes over me whenever I think back on it.

(Spoilers follow.)

Maybe it’s me, but watching an old chimp we’ve come to know and adore contract polio, becoming so crippled that he has to drag himself across the ground, no longer able to climb or feed himself, and so ill that his human observers at last shoot him, is unbearable.

There’s the momma chimp that falls sick and dies slowly under the crestfallen eyes of her grown but dependent son, rendering him an inconsolable heap that stops eating and dies two weeks later. If you’re not shattered by now don’t miss the full-blown chimpanzee war between rival groups that leaves the jungle floor strewn with furry corpses. (And then there’s the obligatory scene of a poor lone zebra getting taken down and torn apart by a pride of lions.)

It’s powerful material that makes for a powerful film, one that I fully recommend despite that fact that I carried my heart in various pockets on the way out.

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I’m a softie. Animals make me sad even in the best of circumstances. I worry about them. I wonder if they are comfortable and happy. From the wildest fauna to the most domesticated mongrel, I ponder if creatures get nuzzles and belly rubs, eat tasty and plentiful food, play and frolic, read good books and dance occasionally.

Street Dogs in IndiaStreet mutts, of course, rip me asunder. I’ve seen them all over the world and so many are suffering in some capacity, be it malnourishment or crippling traffic injuries. Almost masochistically I’ve volunteered at animal shelters. Next to the glee of successful adoptions are haunting images of broken, damaged, hopeless animals confined to veal-sized pens. And service dogs for the blind and handicapped — let’s not start. That’s a double-whammy, when I feel terrible for both animal and human.

I enjoy seeing healthy dogs with healthy owners on walks, out and about. But weirdly that wasn’t the case on my recent trip to St. Petersburg, Russia. Bounding dogs on leashes ambled the city sidewalks and parks. Happy and hale, they were the picture of doggie luminosity. Yet at some point I hoped I wouldn’t see any more dogs on my trip. They were bringing me down, making me blue. I unaccountably felt bad for them, even though they were clearly fine.

This is pathos at its worst. It’s feeling so much that the emotion becomes misplaced. I recommend a strong prescription medication.

Goodall’s puckish chimps buckle me, but it’s a contained anguish. Animals, from the suburbs to the Serengeti, will always disquiet me, reasonably or not. Yet of course they also furnish joy and wonder, comfort and companionship, which can’t be underplayed. Like people, they are prickly conundrums, fascinating if so terribly fragile.

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Stray, dogged thoughts about the world’s street mutts

The coolest friend I met on back-to-back trips to Istanbul was a dog.

I met the stray during a May visit and then, staying in the same area of Sultanahmet, met up with her again in October. She recognized me immediately and we enjoyed a fast, happy reunion. She jumped on me and her tail swept like a furious broom.

Stray dogs are plentiful in Istanbul and are protected by the city. Each dog is registered, one of their ears pierced with an official tag. My pal wore a red tag on her floppy left ear, leading me, with a poverty of imagination, to call her Red Tag.

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Medium-sized, camel-colored and sweet as a peach, Red Tag wasn’t always around and she didn’t follow me through the city. She had a life of her own. I would see her by my boutique hotel in the morning and in the evening, and she would sit near me at my nearby watering hole at night. One night she hung out with a group of people as we caroused by the Hagia Sophia, staying up till dawn, a trooper.

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Red Tag at dawn after staying out all night with human revelers.

I didn’t spoil Red Tag, though I did occasionally buy her a can of tuna to nosh on as a treat. Street dogs unavoidably crack my heart, and my first instinct is to feed them. Near Gallipoli, Turkey, I bought a stray puppy a can of tuna that she gobbled up gratefully.

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Tuna for a puppy in Turkey.

It’s not always so. In India I bought some peanuts, the only nearby food, for a crazy puppy that ignored the offering. Another Indian dog rebuffed the samosa I tried to give it. Rice wasn’t appreciated by mongrels in Vietnam. For some reason I assumed these derelict doggies would eat anything.

These memories bubbled up while reading a recent story about street dogs in The New York Times titled “Stray Dogs Started Turning Blue. Then the Street Mobilized.” It’s a great, heartening article about how well strays in India are treated and protected. Even though I’ve been to India, it’s an eye-opener:

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India pup, with cow hoof.

“India has some of the most pro-dog laws on the planet. It is illegal here to kill healthy strays, and the result is millions of them — perhaps as many as 30 million across the country. Packs of dogs trot through the parks, hang around restaurants for scraps (which they usually get), and sprawl on their bellies inside railway stations as rushing commuters leap over them.”

This is a far cry from, say, China, where dogs are rounded up as people food or killed outright as pests. Sickening.

In Hanoi I saw an actual “dog restaurant.” Outside was a silver bowl filled with cooked dog paws and, ironically, a chained German shepherd serving as a guard dog. Eating dog is a kind of virility ritual — it’s a guy thing — and when a table of drunken men spotted me spotting them, they tried to rope me to their table, yelling and gesticulating. Later, in an open-air market, I saw dog carcasses basted like turkeys for sale.

Is this cruelty or culture? A culture of cruelty, I say. But let’s not wade into pitched arguments of moral relativism and abject hypocrisy here and now. Later. Maybe.

Red Tag, terrible as it is to think, has probably passed by now. It’s been a while and she seemed to have some age-related arthritic issues when we hung out. She was kind of a loner, but I saw she had friends that curiously looked a lot like her. She was protected by a big-hearted city that coddles its stray dog population, much as India is demonstrating to its mutts and mongrels. I always feel so bad for street dogs in my travels — mangy, mistreated, malnourished. This delivers a whisper of hope.

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Street hounds of Istanbul. Let sleeping dogs lie.

Feral photos: Travel encounters of the animal kind

A monkey yelled at me in Jaipur. Another snatched a banana from my hand in Cambodia. A gang of them exploded in all directions, thumping on cars, flying onto rooftops, screeching and scaring the holy bejesus out of me in Delhi. Monkeys: the devil’s minions.

I adore animals and I’ve met many on my journeys, mostly skinny street dogs, but also water buffalos, cows, painted elephants, a mammoth tattooed pig, Egyptian camels, those accursed simians and more skinny street dogs. Because I haven’t been to sub-Saharan Africa or deep into tropical jungles, I haven’t encountered anything wildly exotic, say, a panther or platypus. (I did meet a king cobra in Hanoi. And then I ate it. Eleven courses, including its beating heart in rice wine. I am still recovering.)

Never, ever do I visit zoos on my travels. The mere idea is a great depressant. The sad, ramshackle Shinagawa Aquarium in Tokyo helped snuff my appetite for captive-animal displays.

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Cappadocia, Turkey.

Of course I meet milling mutts wherever I go. Dogs are the best, even if they can break your heart. In Kathmandu a young punk randomly kicked a stray dog in the ribs. It let out a terrible yowl. I grabbed the kid and chewed him out and promptly befriended the dog, which seemed alright. We still email.

In Tokyo I hung out with a guy and his shambling black Lab. In Paris I played with a pooch wearing one of those medical cone-collars. I took his picture, but didn’t include it here. For now, I offer these creature features:

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The Three Muske-steers: a trio of bovines in New Delhi, India, just chilling.

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My best pal in Istanbul, a homeless hound I hung out with during two visits to Turkey. I fed her well. We talked politics.

 

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Monkey with child going ape-shit in India. Something I said?

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Kitten with pierced ear (evil-eye earring) at carpet shop, Istanbul.

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Sheep to the slaughter, awaiting the knife at a mosque in Istanbul.

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Stray mama nursing pups in Old Delhi, India.

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Water buffaloes cooling off in the filthy Ganges, Varanasi, India.

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Kids and their kid, New Delhi.

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Stray snoozing, Istanbul.

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Kinder, gentler monkey, Varanasi. 

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A little too late to befriend this guy in Vietnam.

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Festive bovine, Mumbai.

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Sad, sickly stray in Mumbai. I shattered.

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That dog, above, belongs here, Agra, India.

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A clown and his kitty, Istanbul. I need a large polo mallet.

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Bonus shot: Remains of 11-course cobra feast, Vietnam.

Dog day on Aisle 5

I love animals, but more and more I realize that they just make me sad.

I saw a guide dog at the grocery store the other day, one of those creatures that plunges me into an inky funk on the spot. Sorrow all around — for the poor slave dog and, of course, for her disabled charge. (The world is ambient with woe, and sometimes I buckle.)

As guide dogs always do, this sweet baby had sad, downcast eyes. She was under-weight and scrawny, dirty and matted. Worse, she had a plumb-size tumor on a back leg and her spine spiked out like a mountain range.

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The guide dog’s plight.

I looked, sighed, and moved on to the saddest aisle I could find. (Not the half-hearted car accessories, and not the greeting cards, not this time.) My mood curdled by animal grief, I became philosophical, trying to deflect bad thoughts, such as the reality that millions of animals are far worse off around the world (I’ve seen, and petted, lots of them).

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Stray pup I befriended in Mumbai.

Then I saw the pair at the checkout and the gloom rushed back. The dog stared at the ground, sniffed a little, then her visually impaired owner, an overweight man in baggy clothing, let go of the leather handle strapped to the dog and it plunked down hard on her bony spine.

Enough. I moved on.

On my way out, I came upon the two standing at the exit. I decided to stop and meet the dog. I stroked her, asked her name and age. Her name is Romy, short for Romance, the nice guy, Peter, told me. She is 10. And she’s thin looking because of her age — I had a similar lab as a pet, and she too thinned out markedly in her dotage — and because she’s on a diet. She used to be fat and took a spill trying to clamber onto the bus because of her tubbiness. The tumor is benign.

I asked if he played with her and if she was happy, and he assured me heartily that he did and she was. He’s had Romy for eight years, and he pulled out a photo of him and her at her guide-dog graduation. She’s 2 in the picture, beaming proudly.

I said goodbye to Peter and Romy, feeling a lot better. I still choked up a little as I walked away.