Dog Years

Echo in Bed, 2018, photo: Harriet Festing.

Four Score and Seven

Our beloved dog Echo died last week. She was almost 15 years-old, or about 87 in human years. In addition to grief and fond remembrance, her death prompts thoughts about the many historical changes that happened in her lifetime.  So many in fact, that it seems like she really was born Lincoln’s “four score and seven years ago.”  Has historical change become so accelerated it must be counted in dog years? Is the average length of dog’s life now the best yardstick to measure the unfolding crisis of capitalism?

Life and Times

2007-2012

The circumstances of Echo’s birth and first months are unknown. But before she was taken in by the kind folks at Orphans of the Storm Animal Shelter in Highland Park, Illinois in Spring 2008, she was living on the streets. Here’s my best guess why.

By February 2008, national employment levels began their steady, nationwide decline following the crash of the housing market and drop in consumer spending. Though official employment figures suggested that Illinois was still doing ok, its “shadow unemployment rate” (including people who dropped out of the workforce), was rising fast.  The northern industrial suburbs of Chicago, including Des Plaines, Waukegan and North Chicago, were particularly hard hit. They are feeders for Orphans of the Storm, so it’s likely Echo was abandoned by someone who lost his manufacturing job as well as patience for a lively and demanding puppy. It’s also possible she ran away due to neglect or cruelty. The surest indicator of a rising animal shelter population is a falling economy.  But whatever the cause of her homelessness, Echo got lucky. She was adopted on July 8, 2008 and moved into my house in Highland Park.

The succeeding months were frightening for many but stirred in others long-suppressed hopes and dreams. If capitalist democracy was failing, would something better – let’s call it democratic socialism – rise-up to take its place? Did Echo, a refugee from capitalism, notice my glee when on September 17, a run on the money-market exchange caused short-term lending across the country nearly to freeze? Arguing for a quick bailout, Treasury Secretary Bernanke the next day said: “If we don’t do this, we may not have an economy on Monday.” And did Echo understand any of my joyful explanation to her of Lenin’s phrase, “the commanding heights of industry” when the government a few weeks later nationalized Fanny Mae, Fanny Mac and the multinational financial group AIG?  “Gradually, then suddenly,” as Hemingway said about bankruptcy, the capitalist economy seemed to collapse. Though the value of my retirement account was falling fast, and my heavily mortgaged house lost a third of its value, I was electric.  Echo must have noticed the energy, those Fall days, with which I threw her the frisbee or tennis ball.

In response to the economic crisis, a shaken nation fought off the grip of racism and elected its first Black president. On election night, Echo was with me and some friends in a hotel room at the Hilton overlooking Grant Park in Chicago. Because she hated crowds, we had to be content to watch the president-elect’s victory speech from our window and on TV. She barked and yipped when we cheered and looked perplexed when we cried. I had twice met Obama, and though I was clear-eyed enough to see he was no socialist, the election of a Black man and Democrat felt like the end of a long, national nightmare. (It’s hard today, post-Trump, to remember how truly evil George W. Bush was.)  I remembered talking with Obama, four years earlier, at my wealthy neighbor’s house and introducing him to my daughter, Sarah, then aged 13. He looked down at her (he’s 6’2”) and said: “You look like my daughter, Malia.” Sarah gazed up at him silently, overcome with early-teen lust.

During the next four somnolent years, Echo, like most Americans, eschewed political engagement and pursued self-betterment. The point may appear axiomatic but isn’t. Some animals really are political animals, as I have argued elsewhere, and undertake  conscious acts of struggle and resistance.  Echo’s politics, however, were narrowly circumscribed: protection of me and my family, and occasional displays of solidarity with other dogs who were abused by their human masters.

At the Occupy rallies I attended in 2011, she recoiled at the noise and crowds. At smaller, strategy meetings, she barked at people performing “twinkles,” raising both hands and wiggling fingers to signal approbation. The hand gestures may have recalled to her some threat or abuse she experienced during her period of homelessness. When the Occupy movement collapsed, she couldn’t have been more pleased. It meant I’d spend more time at home.

In Highland Park, Echo’s life was gilded in a manner common among dogs of the suburban, liberal bourgeoisie. She had lots of walks in local nature reserves, swimming in Lake Michigan, plus her favorite: frisbee games and fetch. At a full gallop, Echo could launch herself seven feet in the air to catch a disk and land softly on her feet. No matter how far I’d chuck a tennis ball out into Lake Michigan, she’d swim out and retrieve it, even among a throng of lunging and frothing dogs. Echo also made friends with other, pampered pets in the neighborhood, particularly a big galoot of a Labrador named Moose, with whom she regularly wrestled and played tag.

In addition to being an athlete, Echo had an excellent sense of humor. When we went for a run, she’d sometimes start fast and then quickly stop to watch me pass her before taking off again to leave me in the dust. To her, I was comically slow. When she made a particularly dramatic frisbee catch, she’d often do a somersault when she landed, just to see me laugh. And she deployed verbal humor too – barking at precisely the times I didn’t want her too, for example when I was most focused on work, in the shower, or when the phone or doorbell rang.

2012-2016

By the time of Obama’s second inauguration in January, 2013, Echo was five, the equivalent of about 36 in human years. She was at the peak of her physical and intellectual abilities, and master of the house. On one occasion that summer, she thwarted a burglary. Two people – still un-apprehended perps — broke in through a glass side-door while Harriet and I were briefly away.  They rifled through some drawers in a downstairs bureau, but never made it upstairs, instead exiting in apparent haste via the front door. The only plausible explanation is that Echo chased them out or even bit them. We had never seen her so proud as that afternoon: Upright on her haunches, ears vertical, and tongue dangling like the Alsatian in Otto Dix’s painting of Hugo Erfurth and Dog.  Harriet, who is British, said Echo was “chuffed.” A few months later, Echo performed another mitzvah: She served as the witness (and only guest) at our wedding, held at home. She had the good manners not to bark at the rabbi.

By late 2014, housing prices had almost reached their pre-recessionary levels, which meant that Harriet and I could finally sell the house and move to the city, without losing our shirts. We bought a surprisingly inexpensive, 3-bedroom 12th floor co-op in an historic building, the Aquitania, on Marine Drive and Argyle Street, in the Uptown neighborhood of Chicago. We weren’t quite urban pioneers, but when we moved in, Argyle was crime ridden as well as a hub of Asian culture and cuisine. There were about two dozen Chinese, Thai, and Indian restaurants and grocers on the block, but there was also a daily drug smorgasbord. Deals were done in broad daylight and addicts sometimes collapsed on street corners.  Most nights, police sirens could be heard, responding to calls about robberies or violence. Gradually, crime tapered off as the number of police patrols increased, and more importantly, previously abandoned buildings and shopfronts came to life with new tenants. The economic recovery had finally arrived, however delayed and vitiated by Obama and congressional Democrats’ timorous stimulus program and constant concession to Republicans and their own, so-called centrists.  Capital was largely made whole, Americans not so much, and income and wealth inequality reached historic levels. (They would be surpassed in 2020, amidst the Covid pandemic.)

Echo was unhappy with urban life. She didn’t like the noise or crowding of the streets or lakefront and was terrified of garbage trucks which seemed magically to appear anytime we went for walks. Our apartment had 19 windows and expansive lake views, but Echo couldn’t enjoy them. First of all, she was too short. We built her a small platform, but all she could see from  it was sky and a few birds, when what she wanted was to discover squirrels to bark at. Her unhappiness in Chicago reached a nadir in 2016 when she hurt her leg after a hard landing while catching a frisbee in Lincoln Park. The vet told us her frisbee career was over. That’s when we turned to water sports, but Chicago summers are short – even with climate change – and a frozen lake is no good for fetch. But national and global developments events soon intervened, cutting short our residency in Chicago.

2016-2021

In November of 2016, a major shock was delivered, the fulfillment of H.L. Mencken’s prophesy: “On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.” Only Trump was much more than that – a moron with Hitlerian ambitions. Soon after his racist “American carnage” inaugural address, Harriet and I established our environmental justice non-profit,  Anthropocene Alliance, and I began to plot my early retirement. We at the same time determined to go into exile abroad and take Echo with us. I’d imitate my late 19th Century ancestors who fled pogroms and Cossacks in their flight from east to west, only we’d flee in the opposite direction – and not so far east. We visited remote (read inexpensive) corners of the United Kingdom, and almost bought a wind-swept, sheep occupied, three-acre property near Harlech, Wales on the Irish Sea. The house was a 17th C. stone cottage, and we imagined Echo herding the sheep, and protecting them from wolves. But the fact was the house was run-down, the neighbors unfriendly, the weather dreadful, and Echo’s athletic prowess was diminished by age. We never wanted to keep sheep, and there were no wolves. After a particularly brutal Chicago winter, we decided instead on an entirely different exile. We moved to Micanopy (pop. 600), a small town in rural northern Florida, named after an Indigenous chief active during the second, Seminole War. There, it was warm and sunny, and we’d be near many of our Anthropocene Alliance communities on the Gulf Coast.

We built a contemporary house on a one-acre lot in the middle of town, laid out a native garden and in June 2019, moved in. Echo at first was thrilled by her new digs. There were no elevators, crowds, or garbage trucks except once a week on Thursday, with recycling on Wednesdays, always about 8 a.m. Harriet took her for regular, early morning jogs in nearby Payne’s Prairie State Park, and I walked her many afternoons beneath the Spanish moss draped oaks at Lake Tuscawilla Reserve, named for the original, Native American settlement at that site.

Echo likely expected to pass the remainder of her days in easeful retirement, but life in a Republican state during the 2020 election was stressful for everyone. Though the town itself is a bluish shade of purple, the surrounding countryside is a deep red, with Trump signs and confederate flags everywhere. As the thermometer rose from Spring to Summer, so did the political temperature. On some days, the chatter in the neighborhood and on the local Facebook pages was ominous, even threatening. The pandemic made it all worse, or course, with mask and shut-down fights breaking out all over Alachua and Marion counties. So, in late September, I did what any American would do in the circumstances: I bought a shot-gun. I also trained Echo, now 14 years old, to undertake night-time perimeter patrols: “Sliding patio door number one locked, check,” I’d say. “Bark,” she’d reply.  “Sliding patio door number two locked, check”. “Bark,” etc, until everything was safely buttoned up.

After the election, tensions remained high, of course, but a note of sanity was sounded on January 6 when, following the assault on Congress, my nearest neighbors, Jim and Sarah removed their Trump signs and banners.  Soon, Echo and I became bored with our nightly patrols, though the gun (and alarm system) remains. I also noticed that Echo was getting very old.

Final Days

Dogs live an average of 10-15 years. Large breeds die sooner than small breeds, and pure-breds sooner than mutts. A Great Dane may only live to be 8; a Chihuahua 20. Our Echo was in the middle. She was a mix of German Shepherd and Blue Heeler, the experts told me, and weighed about 55 pounds. So, once she reached 14, we knew death was coming. By the time of her passing on September 13, she had been in frail health for about four months after being stricken with vestibular disease (aka “Old Dog Syndrome”) in May. Though she recovered from that, she was left with a slight head tilt and an unsteady gait. She sometimes tripped stepping off a curb, and was unable to jump up on the bed, except with a lot of coaxing. Because of her listing head, she always looked quizzical.

For a while, Echo seemed to be regaining strength and balance, and even went for a few short jogs with Harriet in Payne’s Prairie. But that was a false dawn. About two weeks ago, she suddenly became quite ill from an unknown cause; she experienced nausea, lack of appetite, and many more symptoms, the details of which I’ll spare you. She slept more and more and ate less and less. In the two days before her death, she sometimes paced the floors and tried to hide in bathrooms or among the tall ferns in the garden. Those are sign of discomfort or pain. Blood tests revealed likely liver and kidney failure. We knew she had to be euthanized.

During her last hours, she rallied, and was able to walk proudly – Harriet says trot — into the vet’s office, a place that usually prompted fear. There, we were ushered into a quiet, darkened side room. I quickly realized this was a hospice ward for the terminally ill. She lay on the floor on a soft, floral blanket while Harriet and I sat on a low sofa with a box of tissues on the table beside us. We immediately crouched down and showered Echo with kisses and caresses. After a brief conversation with the vet about the process of euthanasia and our preference for cremation, a vet assistant came in and asked us if we wanted “public or private cremation.” I was confused by the offer but knew I didn’t want any part of this to be public, so quickly said “private, please.” She then offered us various types of containers for Echo’s ashes: one was a dark wooden cask with a metal lid and wire handle; another was a heart shaped box painted with shiny red enamel; and the third was more classical, like an ancient Roman cinerary urn. I was reminded of Jessica Mitford’s The American Way of Death and asked, with a bit of defensiveness: “Couldn’t we just receive her ashes in a paper bag?” The answer was yes, and it would take about two weeks for the ashes to become available. During all this, Echo displayed a singular unconcern about the disposal of her mortal remains.

A few minutes later, the vet came in and administered a tranquilizer, followed about 20 minutes after by the fatal dose. Echo lay quietly and contentedly through the whole process, luxuriating in her last rites. She died peacefully while Harriet and I cried piteously. We both determined that when our time was up, we wanted to spend our last minutes just as Echo did, absent the young woman with the cremation brochure.

The Dog in History

The year Echo was born, the U.S. entered a recession longer and deeper than any since the Great Depression. No part of American politics, culture or society was unaffected by it, including its cats, dogs, and other animal companions. Many animals were made homeless or suffered neglect or abuse in families subjected to tremendous pressure.

In 2008, when Echo was one, the U.S. elected its first Black president, a former University of Chicago Law professor and accomplished author; in 2016, when she was nine, the U.S. elected its first fascist president, a libertine grifter and TV celebrity who promised to “make America great again.”  Four years later, when Echo was 13, Trump was defeated for re-election, but not before being twice impeached, and inciting a riot intended to prevent the peaceful transfer of presidential power.

In the same year, the U.S. suffered a pandemic that has so far killed 668,000 people; it will soon surpass in lethality the 1918-19 flu pandemic. Given the likely origin of the virus in animal agriculture and the wildland-urban interface, there is reason to believe that such pandemics will become regular occurrences. Echo was not directly impacted by Covid. Dogs have a natural mutation in their ACE2 (angiotensin-converting enzyme 2 protein) that protects them.

While the war in Afghanistan began six years before Echo was born, and the Iraq war four years before, the U.S. suffered defeats in both theatres during her lifetime. If we are lucky, American imperialism may never recover from the latest setback, though wounded animals are often the most dangerous.

What’s most remarkable of all, is that none of these events can be disaggregated; they constitute the general crisis of capitalism that has grown more acute in the last 15 years, the span of a middle-sized mutt’s life.

Echo played no obvious role in advancing or retarding these developments. But she was shaped by the crises of her time and reacted to them in ways large and small. She was thus neither an agent of history, nor a passive subject. She was a “species-being,” in Marx’s phrase: A creature who acts with purpose and in community with others. As such, her life and death provide an exemplary perspective on the age. To those who loved her however, she was not a window onto anything. She was a beloved friend, comrade, protector, playmate, and family member, and she is terribly missed.

Stephen F. Eisenman is Professor Emeritus of Art History at Northwestern University and the author of Gauguin’s Skirt (Thames and Hudson, 1997), The Abu Ghraib Effect (Reaktion, 2007), The Cry of Nature: Art and the Making of Animal Rights (Reaktion, 2015) and many other books. He is also co-founder of the environmental justice non-profit,  Anthropocene Alliance. He and the artist Sue Coe and now preparing for publication part two of their series for Rotland Press, American Fascism Now.