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Monday, May 12, 2014

Of Dogs and Frogs -- Or Toads

This morning, I went outside to mow the lawn in the backyard. Bow watched me from the pens. The grass had grown considerably since the last mowing, and the skies were cloudy. It looked as if it might rain, and the air had a kind of greenish sheen, as in tropical weather.

I started to mow, but I spotted a little creature under the trampoline. It was a frog. No, actually not a frog. A Bufo Americanus or American toad, my friend Sena later told me. At first the dogs did not notice it, but as soon as they did, Brownie was eager to catch it. I had to tell him "No!"

Brownie is a chocolate lab and the sweetest, kindest dog you could possibly know. Some people, when they first see him, are taken aback, and say things like: "That's a very big dog. Does he bite?" Well, he certainly wanted to bite that toad. But when I told him "No", he backed off. You could see on his face how very much he wanted it, but he also accepted my authority, and he deferred to me.

Of the two, Leo, the smaller and younger, is currently more dangerous, because he is more rambunctious and less obedient. Not dangerous to us, but to frogs, certainly.

In yesterday's discussion of violence and dogs, I neglected to mention this fact: up until recently, dogs were entrusted with guarding the home. They were expected to show utter loyalty to the family they grew up with, while total ferocity toward intruders. They were never intended to be docile -- just loyal and obedient.

I transported the toad to the front porch, where I knew the dogs would leave it alone. I can trust our dogs with many things, but not eating  a toad  when I am not there to supervise them is not one of them. Everybody has limits. There are some temptations that are insurmountable. Understanding those limitations is part of managing the situation.

A toad is too big a temptation for a dog. A stranger crossing your property line is something a chimpanzee is very alert to. Not all creatures or all people enjoy the same privileges and protections.

On one level, all flesh is kin. We can look at  a frog and see what we all have in common. We can feel empathy. But from a different perspective, anyone who is not a member of your family is a stranger. To conflate all violence into one handy category of undesirable activity is to fail to do justice to heroes like Jean Laffite and to consider the Karankawa cannibals, just because they ate some of their enemies. We should judge a man, a dog or a chimpanzee not merely on how kind they are to their friends, but also on how well they can neutralize their enemies. In today's culture, we forget that kindness without courage is impotent. Or that all life feeds on other life, but we should take care not to feed on our friends.

The difference between the in-group and the out-group is what distinguishes murder from hunting, terrorism from patriotism and lunch from manslaughter. Not understanding the limits of empathy is like thinking that you can live outside the inexorable laws of nature.

To make it up to Brownie for not letting him eat the toad, I played a couple of rounds of fetch-the-rock with him, before I went back to mowing the grass. This seemed to satisfy him.

And what did Bow think about all this? He understood. He knew exactly how Brownie felt about the frog, but he was happy when I came back into the pens to spend more time with him. He knows what I think about all this, because he has read parts of my new book, Theodosia and the Pirates: the War Against Spain. Or at least he has heard me read them aloud.

Bow helping to proof my latest manuscript


  1. Dogs cannot eat toads, as they emit an irritating liquid that makes the dogs quickly drop them to get rid of the bad taste. One time many years ago, my parents had a "toad farm" one spring, as the gutters were full of toad eggs, which turned into tadpoles, and then into tiny toads. There were so many toads you couldn't walk without accidentally stepping on some, literally thousands of toadlings.

    1. Hi, Pam, I did not know that! I could have sworn that Brownie wanted to get that toad! But maybe it's because he hadn't tasted it yet.

      How did your parents deal with having so may toads and toadlings about?