On Love, Loss, and Hot Dogs

Last Sunday was fun. I was one of three judges at Go Dog Go, a fundraiser held by Pause Dog Boutique to support dog rescue efforts.

It was fun because I was in the company of Bruce Littlefield, "arbiter of fun" and author of the best-selling book The Bedtime Book for Dogs, and Pia Salk, a psychologist who specializes in the human-animal bond and the spokes person for Adopt-A-Pet. Judging stool samples would have been fun with these two, but when you add the fact that the divisions were "Bad Hair Day," "I Look Like My Mama," and so on, and that dog kisses were available on demand, well, the day was custom made for me.

Go Dog Go would have been my idea of a good time anytime, but last Sunday, it was especially meaningful after a tough week of saying goodbye, not to my dog, but to my beloved Babe, a 17-year-old steer who touched thousands of lives at Catskill Animal Sanctuary . "She loved a steer?" I imagine you're thinking right about now, or more likely, "Wait a minute...where's this essay going?" Yes, indeed, I sure did love that animal.

Babe, all 1,800-ish pounds of him, arrived at CAS in 2003. We were a fledgling organization...and looked it. We had just purchased our property, a forlorn, forgotten farm that needed rescuing every bit as much as the animals who would soon arrive, and were busy hauling away piles of tires, toilets, and rusted vehicles when big Babe barreled down the drive.

Babe's human friend had rescued him at auction, wanting to save one life. She'd bottle fed him, kept him in her back yard until he simply grew too big, then boarded him, rather ironically, at a beef farm. When she divorced, she could no longer afford his board, and the farmer gave her a month to find him a home. Fortunately for Babe, and fortunately for us, his human found Catskill Animal Sanctuary.

I am flooded with memories of the placid being with soft eyes and a tongue that reached out expertly to grab one carrot, then another, then another until a five-pound bag was gobbled up. Among my favorite memories:

I'm not sure why, but for a short while, Babe was a free-ranger. Only he never went anywhere. Free to roam the entire farm, Babe instead stood in the middle of the barn aisle, motionless as Peepers the duck patrolled the barn by waddling frantically back and forth, under Babe's belly. "Quack - quack!!" Peepers said, rushing under the black giant, who stood unfazed, eying the feed room. Surrounded by free-ranging ducks, chickens, goats, sheep, and a growing human fan club, Babe seemed supremely at peace.

A bunch of us were cleaning the cow field. I stood atop the tractor bucket to bellow instructions to volunteers who were spread throughout the large pasture. Babe wandered up to say hello, but got so close that when he turned his head to flick a fly away, he sent me sailing through the air. I landed with a thud, gathered my breath, then laughed hysterically. Babe startled, but then walked over and licked my head.

6:30 a.m. Two police cars pulled down our driveway. "Are you missing somebody?" a young cop asked. I remember the wry smile on his face; somehow I knew that this was code for "Your cows are in town." In the town they were, all right...Babe had led his herd through the woods, down our local rural lane, and onto VERY BUSY Rt. 9W...and then just stood there. The escapade, and our return walk home (I put a bright green draft horse halter on Babe and led him down the road; the others followed) was on the evening news.

Several summers ago, the renowned Omega Institute invited us to provide animals for their animal communication workshop. We took our best ambassadors. Whether or not we learned how to "communicate" with them (I believe all of us are communicating with each other all the time, but am ambivalent about how "animal communication" is often taught), I wanted our animal friends to open the hearts of those whose worlds had only included companion animals.

I didn't expect that Babe would want to join us. Yet when I opened the trailer door, he evidently did, because he stepped right in and cozied up next to Chester the horse. That he had absolute trust was remarkable enough. Is it a stretch to say that on some level he knew we needed him?

Throughout the weekend, the communicator guided us through various relaxation techniques, after which we would open ourselves to the messages our friends wished to share. While I was unimpressed by the workshop, I was blown away by our animals' comfort level and their obvious connection to their CAS people (we'd been given six slots). I learned a great deal from them.

The instructor had decided that Babe would be the final animal with whom we'd practice. And this is exactly what happened:

We had just finished "speaking with" Chester, and in the meadow where we'd gathered, Chester put his head down to graze. "Let's turn our attention now to this big guy," the teacher said, gesturing toward Babe. As she suggested that we form a circle around him, Babe walked right into the middle. Then, as she'd done with each of the animals, she invited us to close our eyes. As she spoke softly, my eyes stayed open, and I watched a huge black head droop.

"Relax," she whispered, and he did. Babe's giant head dropped lower, and lower still, until right before his knees were about to buckle, he folded his legs and lay down.

And that's when I received a clear and plaintive and powerful message. "We don't want to be hamburger," is one part I remember, along with "I hope I'm doing a good job. Thank you for choosing me."

To this day, I'm not sure what to make of that moment.

I don't recall what anyone said about what Babe "communicated" to them. But I do recall many of them weeping, one woman sitting in front of him and cradling his massive head as he licked her face, and another woman (after she saw me do it), draping her body over Babe's back. And I remember the thought that struck me like a lightning bolt: "These people will never eat meat again."

I suppose the organizers of Go Dog Go thought it would be clever to sell "hot dogs" (and nothing more) at a "dog show." But the "hot dogs" were not "hot" (as in cooked) "dogs" (as in the animal) at all. They were cooked cows. I'm fairly certain that my Babe, and every other cow or pig who has ever lived, if given the "Bad Hair Day" or "Become a Hot Dog" choice, would have chosen the former.

I stood in line behind half a dozen animal lovers, all of whom ordered cooked cows.

"I'll have the veggie burrito," I said to the vendor, who had put them on her menu at our request.

"I have a pet pig," she said as we chatted briefly about my special request. "He's really something."

To try a veggie hot dog that's far superior to any Ball Park frank or Oscar Meyer wiener I've ever had, check out Field Roast Frankfurters. Lemme know what you think.