Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Instinct, aggression, and the dharma of Murphy.

This picture is Murphy (left) as a pup. He’s shown sitting next to the late Max (right), a Yorkie terrier who was hit by a swerving car not a year ago.

He now weighs near or around 180 lbs. If he were a boxer, he would be placed squarely (or roundly, if you want to make a fat joke about it) in the light heavyweight category. And that sounds about right, if he’s being measured as a person. But Murphy, bless his big, coagulated heart, is now a five-year-old English Mastiff, and by the time you read this, he will probably be dead.

Murphy became a Sherwin after my folks moved into their house on the hill. It’s about as rural as suburbs get; the nearest house is probably 500 feet away, and while that’s not a huge differential, and although the most crime Alpine sees is people parking on the street during city government-forbidden winter months, my dad travels a lot, and he and my mom thought that a big dog would be a good supplement to a top-notch security system.

Like most dogs, Murphy is almost completely oblivious as to his size. While the aforementioned, aforepictured, full-grown Max was evenly physically matched with Murphy for only about three months, Max maintained his position as (groan) top dog, with Murphy unable or unwilling to acknowledge his own hulking mass in the face of Max’s yippee snips and pointy little teeth.

But it didn’t take long for problems to start. Even at the breeder where they picked him out, Baby Murphy chased after and nipped the heels of my then-six-year-old niece. My folks laughed, telling her that the three-week-old pup had “picked” her. But the foreboding frame of Murphy’s father, treading the edges of the corral that he alone inhabited, growling at any approaching anything, was a sign of things to come, and it wasn’t long before my dog’s paternally inherited instincts began to get the better of his warmth.

What it comes down to is that he’s too aggressive. We’ve attempted professional training more than once, but the big puppy eyes and the slobbery affection he bestows upon me and the others in his favor is doled out selectively and rarely. He growls at men, women, children, deer, snowflakes, Republicans, modern art, any mention of Rebecca Black, and episodes of Outsourced (he’s more a Community guy).

But it’s gotten to be too much. A few months back, a visiting friend opened the door into the garage, unaware of Murphy’s presence within, and Murphy leapt to his feet and, if not for the swift reaction time and door-slamming ability of the friend…well, I don’t want to think about that.

That’s my problem. I can’t even begin to imagine that he’d be capable of hurting someone like that. I think of Murphy and echoes of his trademark noise (“Hrrrrmph.”) are what I hear. He eats marshmallows and can only run for about five minutes before collapsing in exhaustion. He takes up half of the bed and spoons better than just about any girlfriend I’ve ever had (I hate admitting that). He buries his head between my legs as a greeting and his favorite toy is a stuffed rabbit that he adores like a child.

But the garaged lunging was too much. It wasn’t the first time, either. My parents took him to a specialist vet who said that he was very, very dangerous, and suggested euthanasia as a preventative measure. As much as I love my Murphy, him being a risk to children, especially CHiP, Boobie, and their soon-to-arrive younger sister, draws a line in the sand. Adding that to the professional opinion of a man trained to know these animals like they were people makes it more certain than I wish it could be. And Murphy will soon, in what I believe to perhaps be the ultimate act of mercy, be finishing that race well run.

But isn’t he just following his instincts? Isn’t this how centuries of biology and microevolution have trained him to be? Why, then, could we punish him for succumbing to those primal urges that’re so deeply entrenched in his tiny little brain and his gigantic heart?

It’s like that old Hindu story, I think from the Bhagavad Gita, which I’ll paraphrase:

A wise man walks along the same path every morning. Along his way, he sees a scorpion turned on its back in a river, drowning, struggling to get upright. The scorpion notices the wise man.

“Help me,” the scorpion says, “for I will drown if you do not."

“I will,” the wise man says, reaching out his hand to overturn the scorpion. After setting him on his legs, the scorpion’s tail flings at the wise man’s wrist, stinging him. The wise man recoils, sighs, and continues his walk. Another man walking down the path stops the wise man.

“Why did you help the scorpion?” the man asks. “You knew that he would sting you.”

“Yes,” the wise man says, “it is in the scorpion’s nature to sting.”

“Then, knowing that, why did you reach out your hand?”

“The scorpion’s nature is to sting.” The wise man dabs his wound against his robe, leaving a small red blood spot bright against the white cloth. “It is in my nature to help.”

After the worst night of my life, I packed a bag and went home for a few days to regroup and reconvene. I was greeted by a pleasantly surprised Murphy, who gratefully licked tear-stained eyes and a runny nose, put his paw on my knee in solidarity, and eventually rested his gigantic head upon my weary shoulder. I fell asleep on the floor in front of the living room fireplace, and Murphy draped his foreleg over me as I broke down to an old episode of Cheers.

So that’s how I’ll always remember him:

cuddling his sobbing mass of an owner during as dark a night as he’d ever seen, ignoring the laugh track to a two-decades-old sitcom.

And that’s how I’ll always remember you:

hearing your stuffed nose struggle to pass air against the nape of my neck, squeezing tight when I’d shake at every holiday firework going off outside.

I just wish the two of you had better instincts.

We could’ve all been so happy together.


Meg said...

My love is with you and Murphy. Sorry for your loss, and his.

Diana said...

I'm so sorry Andy. We had a similar situation with Merlin a couple months back. Luckily he was only aggressive towards other dogs. Unluckily he was so strong he broke his leash and seriously injured another dog (and my parents pocketbook). He almost got put down but Kevin couldn't bear to have that done since Merlin was Kevin's "cancer" dog. Now he's living with Kevin in L.A. And has to be muzzled in public.

Long story short I know the pain of loving an animal that is wonderful and too dangerous.

France is said...

im really sorry andy, that is very sad. Dash is sstill a puppy but he is quite aggressive- he'll knock over anybody, even babies- stepping all over them. and i'm really worried for when our girl gets here. the tough part is he's just being playful and he doesn't understand. he's only 8 months old. my nieces and nephews are terrified of him and he has to stay in the side yard crying when they come over. what kind of life is that for a dog? i dont know.

Jennif said...

oh, Andy. I can't even begin to imagine how difficult it must be to lose your dog to circumstance. xoxo

emilyf said...

Beauty and sadness always go together. Nature thought beauty too rich to go forth Upon the earth without a meet alloy. George MacDonald

you just write so powerfully when you're sad