Beyond the Veil

Hanno the Navigator

Anna Akana did a very good Vlog on euthanasia, a topic the vet brought up to me not too long ago.

I have been through this many times but never have gone the route of euthanasia with my dogs, cats or ferrets although I have done it with livestock on rare occasions. Basically, if there is any chance of recovery and the animal says they wants to try, then I support them. This may not always be the right choice but it is a question that is so hard to know and everyone struggles with it when the time comes.

My dogs are actually wolves, a pack which I have lived with for over 30 years. Their founders came to me and said they wanted to farm. Here. I know that sounds weird, in two ways: Wolves farming and talking.

Wolves are natural ranchers0. Research has shown how they improve the wildlife, their livestock, and the landscape, their pastures, by culling the weak (selective breeding), suppressing (killing, intimidating) other predators who would prey on the young of the animals they raise, by rotational grazing (dispersing) their herds so they don’t overgraze the land and fencing (voice, scent, tracks) their ranch borders (territories) against neighbors. All of these are the same things we human ranchers do in much the same way and for the same reasons. It should not be too surprising that they ranch and knew what to do, guarding and herding without any training from me. Perhaps their ancestors taught our ancestors to domesticate animals long ago since the time of human-wolf domestication (which way did it go?) predates all livestock domestications by many tens of thousands of years.

Pack on Snow

I’ll admit that I did not like their idea at first and said “Go away!” They persisted and quickly demonstrated their skills, attention to detail and hard work – running off a night visitor within three days. (I saw the tracks so I know they didn’t just stage it for my benefit…) In time we became an extended many generational pack here on Sugar Mountain, cooperation between two species as has happened thousands of times around the world over the last 130,0001 years.

Realize that they are not your typical pound mutt. In fact, despite the politically correct ideal of rescuing dogs from the pound that really doesn’t work in farming – wrong instincts, rearing and training. Livestock guardian and herding dogs, which wolves are despite a some what unsavory reputation in some venues, have lore and tradition passed down the generations and a higher level of intelligence as well as their shear size and other physical adaptations to our north country.

And yes, they have full blown language. While I get the inkling that between them they have well over 1,000 words, we only have about 300 words of common language2,3 that we share in a mix of English, Canine and ASL4,5. Nothing deep or philosophical but we do communicate about what matters. Mostly we talk about practical issues on the farm, predators, strangers, neighbors, wants and gossip… Wolves are big on gossip and they’re also tattle tailes.

Last year I took Hanno, the top male, to the vet as he was feeling poorly, not being able to keep food down or even water. The vet wanted to euthanize him on the spot. I asked Hanno and he said “No. You. Open-door. Out. Cottage.” He was quite clear about it. Interesting since he has no real negative experience with vets. He had been there before both alone and with other pack members. They’re always curious about the place – so many interesting smells. Going to the vet was not an anxiety issue for him and he enjoyed the car ride. Getting vaccines is not a big deal, dogs get them SQ which is easy and I give them shots at home so they’re used to it. Up until that moment Hanno had been lying quietly on the floor between the vet and me. But he clearly understood precisely what was being proposed – he immediately and emphatically declined the offer. Realize that Hanno, like his father Kavi, was not one given to long speeches so for him to string five words together in rapid fire was a full on sermon from the mount.

In the last three decades over the course of 36 individuals who stayed here on the farm until death they’ve never asked to die. They’re not one to give up the ghost lightly. They have said that things hurt that they don’t like. But they are clear that they want to be better, to live, to run, to do. They even made up a specific sign-language word for “Quills-Out6 which is their primary source of macho-induced pain. They are very well aware of the concepts of pain, life and death. Livestock are for protecting and deadstock are for bringing to my attention and then possibly eating. Predators are to be killed on sight and then often eaten. All of them have seen pack members die – they mourn those deaths7 including re-mourning about the time of the anniversary of the member’s death the following year. Death is something we have talked about although they’ve never shared with me any great insights into the here-after.

When we got home I gave Hanno supporting therapy including a SQ drip. In about two weeks he pulled through and appeared to have fully recovered. I adjusted his diet to help with the mild renal failure the vet had diagnosed and then Hanno was good for about another five months of high quality life. Those were a very good five months and I’m glad we had them to share together. It was the right decision that time.

Hanno’s Christmas Reprieve

In mid-winter Death called again… Knocking on our door, rattling the windows, howling with the wind to be let in for a rematch. Hanno began having daily seizures. I kept him with me so he could safely recover each time. After a few weeks of that Hanno went downhill quickly over a period of three days. I could smell him dying. This time Death was back and not taking No for an answer.

Insulated from death as humanity has become most people in modern society have lost the rhythms and patterns of death. Believe me, when death is not an accident or intentional, it is not subtle but rather sidles up to us, peeling our soul from our failing corporal being and gradually wrapping us into the midnight black folds of it’s cloak. Death making no bones about its intentions, hiding nothing. Death is not the flick of a switch, the snapping off of the light of conscious, but rather a slow process that gradually steals us into the void. This is why the keen noses of pets often know their owners are soon departing and how nursing home cats predict the dying of residents. I could smell Death’s rancid odor as it crept up upon us. I knew it would not be denied this time despite our all out resistance. We’ve fought too many battles before for me to mistake its intentions.

I am not one to easily let go and Hanno still said he wanted to stay. Again I tried the SQ drip of Ringers Lactate Solution to keep him hydrated, boosting his electrolytes and sugars. I made him lightly scrambled eggs with soft rice as he wasn’t being able to hold down meat or water. He slept up on a raised heated bed to keep him warm. But it wasn’t enough. There might not of been anything that would’ve been enough this time. Death had the upper hand and was done playing nice.

Hanno Possessing

When Hanno died I was right there with him, holding him in my arms. We were at home rather than the sterile office of a vet. Hanno looked at me and said my name. He looked at the sky, his pupils dilated fully, he asked “What?” and “Who’s there?” and then collapsed in my arms. He was gone. I’m glad I was there for him in his last moments. I’m glad for all the time we had. But we miss him so much. There was a great howling into that night.

Later I realized that something unique had happened. In dying Hanno had left us with a special gift as he crossed the divide. Humans for thousands of years have tried to peek through the curtain and some have return with stories to tell of their brief glimpse into another realm. We’ve invented entire religions to explain what we can not understand but desperately seek to know. Wars have been fought and hundreds of millions killed over this basic question. Science says Near Death Experiences8 are the spastic failure of the optic nerves gone haywire as our brains go anoxic.

But on this o-so-important topic we’ve never heard the tales of experience from the point of view of any other species. Our explanations for Life and After Life9 are all human-centric, based on our way of seeing the world through our human brains and our ever so young cultures.

Hanno’s parting words leave us with philosophical, possibly religious and scientific questions. He was non-human. He’s not a Animalist, Buddist, Christian, Hindu, Islamic, Jewish, Pagan, Sufi or any other religion, as far as I know. Yet he experienced something in those last moments that resonates with what virtually all returnees from Death’s grasp have been reporting for all of recorded human history.

In that last moment Hanno knew me – he looked at me and said my name. Then he looked upward at the sky which is where nearly all humans consider their ancestors and gods to reside. His pupils dilated yet he was still fully cognizant for he clearly asked two more key questions. What and, perhaps more importantly, whom was he referring to in that last moment as he passed through the veil?

I named him Hanno after the Al Stewart song “Hanno the Navigator” because even as a small puppy he was an explorer who always knew his way home. Maybe he is now mapping the path out through the night we will all someday traverse…

Outdoors: 54°F/46°F Partially Sunny
Tiny Cottage: 64°F/66°F

Daily Spark: Sometimes the circle of life is too small.

About Walter Jeffries

Tinker, Tailor...
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16 Responses to Beyond the Veil

  1. Ankle says:

    May Hanno continue his existence in peace, and you and your family as well.

  2. David Sutton says:

    Sorry your packmate has gone. Best way to go is in the arms or curl about of loved ones. Glad you could give Hanno that.

  3. Karen Pannabecker says:

    Wow, thank you for this post. I’m going to start listening to my livestock guardian dogs more closely. I rarely “hear” them talk to me. Most of it is sign language and expression in their eyes.

  4. Terri says:

    So, when you say Hanno spoke, you mean metaphorically? Or did you teach him words?

    • No, not metaphorically. We have about 300 words we use that they are able to communicate back with. A mix of English, Canine and modified American Sign Language (ASL). See: Dogs Long Senteces. Their English is heavily accented because their vocal tracts are so different than ours. I’m sure I have a strong accent too when I use Canine words.

    • Walter Jeffries says:

      An example of a word they use is I just gave Pika a piece of sausage straight out of the frying pan and I told her it was hot. She said back to me yes “Hot!” Twice. Her pronunciation of that word is a chuffing sound low in her throat like “Hhh” followed by drawing back and up her upper lip on the sides of her mouth clicking her teeth together which is what they do instead of the tongue click we do for “T” which is outside their ability. It comes across quite nicely as “Hot!” There are a few words that they can say in English and that is one that they approximate. The “Yes” was in Canine.

      We tend to mix languages, something you’ll see children do who are brought up multi-linqually. Some words in English are simply too hard for them to say with their mouth, tongue and throat. Similarly there are some words in Canine that when I try to pronounce that it hurts my throat and some I simply can’t do like the fast clicks they do with their teeth for a word that means something like “top boss female” and is a title rather than a name.

      Another example is my name as pronounced by the dogs hurts my throat to mimic. It sounds like they’re gargling rocks. One day I realized their word for me sounded like water running in a stream. How appropriate since my name is “Walter” which phonetically sounds similar to “water” and I’ve even had friends, mostly little kids, who’ve called me that. This realization came because Katya and I were talking about my having just fixed the ever flowing water bowl the dogs drink out of. She looked at the bowl of water and said “mnrmmrn” or how ever you spell it. Then she pointed at me and repeated the word, linking “Walter” and “water” together. An interesting ah-ha moment. This is especially ah-ha because the sign we use for water is very different than my name sign.

  5. Brian Pell says:

    A particularly wonderful story. Hanno was clearly a special dog/wolf. I recently took my dog to UofPa vets because he was in a lot of pain from pneumonia. Treatment was $8,000 and there was only 10% likelihood that it would be effective. I chose to euthanize. I wonder what she was trying to say.

  6. Matthew says:

    Wow! Thanks for sharing.

  7. And this made me cry like a baby. I wish I had that kind of communication with my dog.

  8. Nance says:

    Sorry for your loss, Walter.
    A very touching tale.
    Thank you for

  9. RedHeart says:

    Most precious and lovely. Thank you~

  10. Jay Hekau says:

    Thanks for sharing Walter. Awesome writeup and a very interesting read for me. How cool it is that you and your pack communicate.

  11. Cindy Reid says:

    Interesting that Napoleon doesn’t talk. At all. He will nudge me to get my attention and then lead me to whatever needs taking care of. He *might* whine once if he really needs to go out. If he barks, something he’s only done a handful of times, it’s bad and you’d best get out there. I had thought that having a very talkative younger dog might encourage him, but no. I’m pretty sure I’ve seen Leon roll his eyes when my little one gets going.😆

    • Napoleon was here prior to when we made the big breakthrough in communications. It was Katya who made the leap in language and then the other dogs quickly followed. The key was establishing “Yes” and “No” both ways and them knowing that we would listen and pay attention. That led to 20-Questions as the fallback when they couldn’t express themselves and gradually to the vocabulary of over 300 words bidirectionally. Developing that vocabulary took several years.

      They clearly have words in their language for the things that they eventually learned to say in English and ASL. The words we use are a combination of English, Canine and ASL adapted for their bodies. Interestingly, they used all three languages between each others, sometimes using English even though they had a Canine word for the same thing. There were some novel words that they made up such as “Piglet” which they say as “Little Nose in the Ground” in sign. Part of developing language between us was also me learning their Canine. It goes both ways.

      Interestingly, the Canine they use I find is also the same used by some other dogs I have met since the breakthrough in language. This raises the question of how much language is inherited and how much is cultural. I know some of many different human languages and I notice parallels across cultures and languages. I’ve also noticed that a small amount of that goes across to other animal species. This suggests to me that there may be a certain amount of “Universal Language” that crosses species boundaries.

      Some dogs are definitely more talkative than others. Katya was extremely talkative – she was physically disabled and that may of led her to develop in other ways, possibly in part because she spent more time with me. Remus quite talkative too. Kavi knew how to talk when he wanted but tended to be the “strong silent” type. Hanno was more talkative than Kavi but less than Remus. Hanno’s twin brother Sirus was about the same as Hanno. Lili tended to only talk to me and Kavi or when she had something bossy to say to the others – she was Alpha female for a long time.

      They do roll their eyes and it means the same things in humans. This might be one of these deep universal expressions. :)

      • Cindy Reid says:

        That’s really interesting. I wondered how you developed the understanding. I can generally figure out what the Cardigan is trying to say, but I haven’t tried working out yes and no. I’ll have to give it a go.

        • We had language between us for decades but it was primarily in one direction. Then Katya, who was disabled, made the break through with me. Yes, No, Meat as sign language and then combining signs “Not Meat” to refer to, obviously, things that were to eat but were not meat. From there it exploded and her vocabulary rabidly shot over 100 words. Remus picked this up and then the other dogs. Even Kavi who is the “strong silent type” knew and used the words on occasion when he felt like it thus proving he had picked the language up from observing. It was really primarily Katya and I who worked on it directly and then the others just picked it up from seeing her and I communicating. I think one of the most important things was them understanding that we were going to listen rather than just tell them what to do. It opened up things for discussion. Within a few years we had hundreds of words that we used together. I once tried to tally the words they used and got up to over 300 before tiring of the exercise. Sort of a Dogin Dictionary. Interestingly, they also use these words between themselves. They have many other words in their own Canine language that I sense passing by that I don’t know.

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