Understanding Squirrels

I spent the last couple days with Olivia—a small brown and white dog. Her humans are out of town for the holiday so she’s visiting Brooklyn. She is a good dog in the sense that her habits agree with mine. She eats twice a day, she communicates clearly about her needs and she is always happy to see me when I return. Aside from a daily episode in which she eviscerates a toy, she mostly sleeps, which is good because I prefer to spend my time reading and drinking coffee. I enjoy her company even when she’s sleeping, and when it gets too cold at night I put her on my bed, up against my back.

This morning Olivia woke up first, put her paws on my face and licked my cheek until I agreed to take her for a walk. We picked up a coffee at Café Grumpy and went down to McGolrick Park. I have noticed since Livvy has been visiting that she likes some of our walking routes better than others.

She quite enjoys the walk up Greenpoint Ave to Transmitter Park where we are likely to meet the same dogs and owners every day. It is the closest grass to my apartment and she prefers to poop on the grass, so she’ll often hold it until we enter the park. The other perk to this route is that we pass through the rat hunting grounds. On Greenpoint Ave between Franklin and West, in the trash outside Brouwerij Lane, Karcher, In God We Trust, Coco 66 and Paulie Gee’s and in the construction site from there to the corner, there is always a rat.

Sometimes late at night the rat is out in the sidewalk. Sometimes Livvy must persue it under a parked car and sometimes she points a trash can waiting several minutes until the rat emerges. I lived across the street from the corner where this block begins for three years and never noticed the rats until I walked it with Livvy. I also frequent the restaurants whose trash sustains said rats. I have allowed Livvy to sniff trash on all the other blocks in Greenpoint and none is as ripe as this.

I am certain Livvy begins thinking about rat hunting as soon as she turns right out the door from my apartment. One might think it is the cat food my neighbor Alice keeps under her front step that draws Livvy always to turn right, but she gives it only a cursory sniff before pulling me up the block.

She has a destination in mind. She pulls me all the way to Manhattan Ave. She can barely wait for the traffic to pass and the light to turn to ‘walk.’ As soon as we cross she begins hunting. Her muscles stiffen, her body straigtens and she becomes hypervigilant. She stalks down the block pointing every piece of trash, listening intently to the footsteps of the passersby, every ounce of her longing for the kill. By the time we reach Franklin, across the street from the hunting ground my muscles must tighten as well, to restrain her from darting across the street.

When we reach the hunting ground, there is a rat. She chases it to the corner of two brick walls where there is a hole it can disappear into. If the next rat runs into the street or under a car, I pull the trigger on the retractable leash and she near hangs herself—her butt swings out in the direction of the rat as her neck is stopped cold. I used to get nervous I would cause injury by pulling the trigger so fast, but her attack is hard to predict and the alternatives are either she gets hit by a car or she actually catches the rat in which case she, and probably I, get syphillis and we die a slow painful death. So I try to remain vigilant as well, that I might stay one step ahead of her and save her a hanging.

These are the rules: we take a hard right out of the apartment, sniff Alice’s cat food, race to Manhattan Ave, cross the street, engage hypervigilant dog mode, stalk to the bottom of the hill, play tug-of-war at Franklin St, then enter the great rat hunting ground. The hunt goes right up to the brink of murder, but at the last minute I enter deus ex machina and save the rat’s life. Then we rush into Transmitter Park—she poops immediately either because the end of hypervigilant hunter mode has allowed a muscular release or as I mentioned, this is the closest grass to my apartment. I then drag Olivia to the end of the pier where I like to look at the Manhattan skyline. She has absolutely no interest in this, which she makes clear by pulling in the opposite direction from where I’m facing. We agree to have a leisurely walk home on the opposite side of the street from the hunting ground.

Obviously the lesser walk is the one where I am tired from work or its raining outside and we are limited to a one block radius—Greenpoint to Leonard to Calyer to Eckford—and Livvy realizes at the last minute the masquerade is over and reluctanly pees in the square of dirt at the base of the tree outside my apartment.

The best walk and the one we can only do when there is ample time is the one we took this morning: to McGolrick Park. For one, it’s a longer walk, which makes it better excersise for both man and dog. Two, Café Grumpy is on the way. Three, rather than rats McGolrick Park is infested with squirrels. When we walk through McGolrick, Livvy still tigtens her muscles, drops into stalking stance and creeps very deliberately along the fence, but her energy is different. She appears much more of an explorer than a hunter. She is intent on understanding the squirrel, but doesn’t have the same anxiety to kill the squirrel.

The difference in Olivia’s energy may simply be a reflection of the respective energy of squirrels and rats. Rats are dirty little beasts digging through the trash, scurrying off with some dead thing, which they will either hoard or destroy. They seem malevolent. They spread disease. And they run away from Olivia, me, or anyone, which suggests they should be chased.

Squirrels are different. They are fluffy vegetarians with lofty goals like climbing trees and dashing through nature. Their collections aren’t so vile as those of rats—they collect acorns and berries and save them for winter when they are hard to find and a high protein vegan option is most in demand.

It could also be the setting: the squirrels are found in a lush park, the rats in the garbage on a city street. Or familiarity: when Livvy is not visiting Brooklyn she lives in the suburbs where squirrels are abundant and rats less so.

In any case, Olivia’s energy is different around squirrels. When she sees one, she does not immediately attack, but follows it back to its tree and watches intently as it climbs to a branch and looks back at her. Maybe she is in awe. Maybe she aspires to squirrel life: the speed, the agility, the self-sufficiency, the undeniably great lookout from which all other squirrels—and dogs, and humans, and the whole park for that matter—can be viewed.

As I watch Olivia watch the squirrel, I also begin to be in awe at the life of a squirrel. The squirrel seems to have a rhythm to its existence, an ultimate freedom. A peace.

The other notable feature of McGolrick park is the off-leash dog run that occupies the south end along Driggs. The dog run is a fenced in area where dog owners can sit in a plastic chair and fiddle with their iPhones while their dogs frollick with other dogs from the neighborhood. Inside the dog run there is a muddy area, a grassy area and six or seven tennis balls so dogs and their owners can play fetch. The run is engineered with a double gated entrance so dogs can be corralled and releashed prior to exit.

Being human and identifying the dog run as something special for dogs, I brought Livvy inside this morning thinking I was giving her a special treat. I misjudged. When I let her off the leash, she did a few laps around and sniffed the other dogs in the park. There was an attractive woman about my age at the other end on one of the plastic chairs checking her email while one of her dogs ran free and the other blankly stared at her from a yard off. I thought of saying, “Hello,” but then I thought better of it thinking she was leaning so far into her phone she’ll probably be a hunchback by the time she’s forty.

The free dog started chasing Livvy and barking at her in a high pitched yelp, even occasionaly baring his teeth. Livvy ran in circles trying to lose the little fucker but couldn’t. He was a brown dog, smaller than she was, with a pointy snout. I stood to defend her, then realized though irritating the little brown dog was harmless and sat back down. By then Livvy was over the whole situation, came to me, hid under my legs and nudged the leash into my hand. Then, she looked up at me clearly indicating she wanted to leave. If I were her I might’ve put it simply, “This guy is making me crazy with his incessant talking; can we get out of here?” But Livvy was saying more precisely, “Don’t ghettoize me to the dog place: I aspire to the life of a squirrel.”

Outside the dog run we took one more loop around the real park, carefully taking note of every squirrel in the bushes and trees, then made our way home.

I made buscuits and gravy with sausage and two fried eggs and put a little gravy over Livvy’s kibbles, which she appreciated and consumed rapidly. Then while I was eating my breakfast she went to the living room, retreived her toy squirrel, presented it to me, then as if in performace, eviscerated it on the kitchen floor. She held the toy between her front paws and knawed at its belly until it split, then tore out every last bit of white cottony stuffing, removed the squeaky toy and chewed it until it squeaked no more. Then she left the bits of plastic and cotton and the lifeless shell of squirrel toy in a pile, returned to the living room and went to sleep.

Yesterday when Livvy eviscerated the toy—that time it was an owl—I did not think much of it, but since then everything is different. I have preceived her intelligence, her ability to intend. It began with her intention to turn right out the door last night to go to the rat hunting ground, then there was the difference in attitude towards the rats and squirrels, and her disinterest in the dog run. She makes observations and judgements, perceives a heirarchy of things, of which I am a part, and has desires and intentions within the boundaries of what she knows.

If Olivia has the ability to perceive a repitition i.e. when we turn right out the front door, then left up Greenpoint Ave we are going to the rat hunting ground—something she desires, longs for, intends to repeat, she must also perceive the repitition of my ultimately restraining her just before she captures the rat. That is a far simpler thing to remember than the directions through my neighborhood. If she recognizes this pattern, she must in some way recognize the futility of the excersise. No matter how vigilant she is, no matter how intently she stalks, she never catches the rat.

The simplest way to understand this is stupidity. I recall a cartoon depicting a dog on a leash tied to a tree, longing for a hot dog just out of reach, endlessly hopeful despite never achieving his goal. That dog is stupid. He clearly lacks understanding of the full situation. It is possible Livvy is longing all the time for the moment when—out on the hunting ground, where she has deliberately led me—I slip up just at the right moment and she actually catches the rat, which she then eviscerates. In that case the chirade with the toy is simply an expression of her murderous fantasy. The rat is just another hot dog.

But a human drew that cartoon and it’s humans who condescendingly declare dogs simpler creatures governed by primal animal instincts. Livvy, unlike the dog in the cartoon, is aware of the bigger picture, the futility of the hunt and even my role as protector. It was clear the moment in the dog run, when she nudged the leash into my hand. She was much bigger than the little brown dog barking at her and if she was in fact governed by her primal animal instincts she could easily have used force to get him to desist. We all saw what she did to the toy squirrel. She could have torn out his throat and knawed at his belly until his guts were spilled and he was a lifeless carcus lying in the muddy end of the dog run. His owner was certainly too self-absorbed to protect him. But instead Livvy showed herself more evolved than that. She would rather take her place in the hierarchy of creatures with me as her protector than fight it out for sovreignty of the ghetto. She would rather spy into the secret world of squirrels from safety at the end of a leash than play fetch or run around in circles with other dogs.

I am more like Livvy than I realized when I met her. I too long for freedom. I fantacize about returning to my primal instinct and capability and yet I maintain my fantasy from safety.

Last year I went to Nepal. It was my intention to hike the Himalayas, to taste freedom and to test my capacity as a man to overcome nature. The Annapurna Sanctuary where I hiked contains three of the highest mountains on Earth and standing below them, my primal instict is to climb, to conquer, to assert myself over the mountains. And yet when I actually got to Nepal I walked to the 4000 meter high Annapurna Base Camp then stopped. I got high enough into the mountains that it was snowing and cold and my head hurt from the decrease in oxygen, but I stopped at the last place with shelter, stayed warm, drank ginger tea and played cards with the other hikers. A short walk above the base camp there was a place where the path continuted another 4000 meters up into the snowcap of Annapurna South. The trailhead was marked by the gravestone of three Koreans who had died trying to reach the summit. From that spot I looked across a great valley to Fishtail, an even higher peak and could hear the avalanches falling at the frequency of every two to three minutes. It was there I realized a limit to my fantasy. I do not want to go any higher. I want to spy into the world of the most extreme freedom and the world where survival is a constant battle, but I don’t want to risk my life for it.

Maybe this is why I live in Greenpoint. I want a taste of what its like to live in the city, to scrounge for survival, the sense I’m part of it all, but I’m neither in the rat race of Manhattan or the struggle of East New York. I’m here with my tree, my café and a park with a dog run. Maybe for all my hunting, I too hide in the protection of the leash.

Livvy must have come to these conclusions before I did. She is after all the one barking at me to put on the leash and take her out for a walk and I am the one putting gravy on her kibbles, not she on mine. She likes her place in the hierarchy of things and is adamant I maintain it for her. There are rats who are the most base and she doesn’t have to kill like they do. There are squirrels who are truly free, but they must survive the winter on the acorns they collected in the fall. Livvy on the other hand lives inside, eating kibbles with gravy and takes two walks every day.

Why then, if Livvy is totally confident of her place in the world, if she enjoys the security of the leash, the privelege, the protected status of having an owner, why are her walks the best part of her day? Why then the ritual evisceration of the toy squirrel?

I already mentioned her enthusiasm when I get home. It is one of the things I enjoy most about having her around, and yet I don’t delude myself into thinking it’s because she likes me that she’s excited. No way. When I get home it’s walk time. She jumps around like a lunitic until I put down my bag, stuff my pockets with poopy bags and put on the leash. She is not excited because I am a genuine, loving human being or because I have an interesting perspective on American politics. No. She is excited because I am her means to a walk. I am the one who will protect her while she stalks to the brink of murder and syphillis and as she dreams her way up to the highest branch on the tree, where no dog has ever been before. The walk is her base camp from which she can look out across the valley at the avalanche. It is hunting rats and understanding squirrels that reminds Livvy she is alive. Far more than eating or sleeping or fucking, it is dreaming that connects her to her primal being, the essential dog at the bottom of her soul that once fought for survival but no longer has to. For that for that she will always turn right out the front door.

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