"I'm going to speak my mind because I have nothing to lose."--S.I. Hayakawa

Monday, August 18, 2008

Mule Headed

Included in today’s batch of e-mails was one with the subject “I need your help.” I opened that one first, always ready to jump to the aid of a friend. It turned out to be a joke, but it led me in strange directions.

Over the attached picture was the same heading, “I need your help.” The photo was of a woman posing in front of a mirror, a woman who looked much like the way I perceive myself on my very worst days —alarmingly lumpy in all the wrong places. The reflected image, however, was of a svelte and stunning beauty. The punch line read, “I’m trying to find out which store sells this mirror!”

That got me thinking about the way we perceive things, for the better and for the worse. Inevitably, due to things I encountered recently, it made me think of the things we see and hear and don’t know what to make of, those things that are mysterious and bizarre and so very inexplicable. Those things that go far beyond reason and logic, and lead us to imagine another kind of world right here on earth. This is a story about dogs and mules and two women to explain why my thoughts took a road less traveled.


My step-daughter Diane is a horse/mule/dog trainer extraordinaire. Now in her fifties, she has been practicing this avocation since early childhood. She can be a no-nonsense woman with her head planted squarely on her shoulders, but she also has the perception of an artist, that ability to look within a subject to see what’s inside so that her drawings reflect the personalities and traits of the animals she draws. That ability has other benefits—it has given her the gift of bonding strongly with many of her animals, of reading their moods, and of communicating with them. She stops short of anthropomorphism— the ascribing of human traits to animals— but even she has been given to wonder.
A couple years ago Diane took her 14 year old dog Princess to a veterinarian to be euthanized. The blue heeler-Australian shepherd cross was blind, senile, and incontinent. The vet checked over the little blue merle dog, offered some sage advice, and Diane left with her Princess still alive. “She still had joy in her life,” Diane explained.

“She would get into the chicken pen, probably to suck eggs, and then forget her mission. I watched her standing confused, like she was trying to remember why she was there—chickens, chickens, something about chickens. The chickens all ran about in a flurry of feathers. Then Princess remembered. Chickens. Of course! Chase the chickens. She’d come strutting out of the pen and I could see her thinking, ‘I’ve still got it. I’ve still got it.”

In the meantime a very private woman I’ll call Lena contacted Diane about boarding and training her mule Matilda. Lena knew of Diane’s training reputation, and thought she would be the best person to work with an animal that hadn’t been ridden in several years.

“Do you talk to your animals?” asked Lena.

“Oh, of course,” replied Diane. “I’m always chattering to them.” Then she looked closer at Lena. “But, maybe not in the way you mean,” she added, “although with that red mule Ruby I swear I can almost hear her asking, ‘Me. Take me. I want to go. I’ll be good.’”

Even a teenaged girl who works as a stable hand for Diane has “heard” Ruby asking to go riding, says Diane. “This girl is functionally autistic, makes no eye contact with anyone. She is very, very intelligent, but is withdrawn from other people, yet she seems to have an almost spiritual connection with the horses and mules.”

So the short, wide mule named Matilda joined the other stock at Diane’s. As was her custom, she gave the mule lots of attention the first two weeks, brushing, petting, and teaching her the manners she needed to be around people. Diane told Lena that she would like first right of refusal if she ever decided to sell the animal.

One day Diane and her husband were camping with horses, mules and multiple dogs in the cooler elevations of Arizona. Diane watched as Princess wandered off a distance from camp, then appeared to be lost. She retrieved her several times, but could tell that the little dog was failing. On the trip out, they stopped the truck to get the dogs out of the pickup bed and put them in the air-conditioned cab for the drive through the desert to home. Princess was missing. It became apparent the dog had tumbled out of the truck and had perished under the wheels of the horse trailer.

Diane got into the truck and cried for her favorite dog. At home she continued to mourn, withdrawing from the other animals, paying them no attention except for their basic care.

“I pull away when I’m hurting,” she said. “I feel like they’re all plucking at me, wanting little bits of me. I can’t do it.

“It hurt too much to loose one,” she says. “I couldn’t bear the thought of it happening with another. Her violent death was too much.” Eventually she noticed that Bonehead, a large, rambunctious yellow Lab, had taken refuge under a travel trailer and refused to come out except to eat. He spent day and night under the trailer. Diane thought he was mourning the loss of his little companion also.

Bonehead was not known for his intelligence, but for his lack thereof. He swallowed his tongue one day while rolling on his back, and almost choked to death before Diane administered a canine version of the Heimlich maneuver. Another time he came close to suffocating himself when he stuck his head into a potato chip bag. Only the timely arrival of Diane’s husband prevented that. Mostly Bone was known for being excitable, and only the foolhardy spoke to or petted the Lab, which then exploded into a frenzy of barking and drooling and uncoiling energy.

Lena arrived one day at the stables to visit. She gave Diane a greeting card. Inside the card was a message from Princess, said Lena. The words told Diane that when “you sit under the tree in the shade, and put your hand down at your side, that’s me you feel in your hand.”

“There is no way,” says Diane, “that Lena knew of that habit of mine, to sit under the tree and pet Princess’ head. No way.”

“While you’re here,” said Diane to Lena, “I would like you to talk with Bone. He spends day and night under the trailer, and I’m worried about him.”

Lena knelt beside the trailer and called Bone out. Then she told Diane to leave so she and Bone could talk. Diane looked at the yellow dog that was now sitting calmly between Lena’s legs as she squatted on the dirt.

“The look on his face—and he was looking me straight in the eyes—was like he was saying, ‘Yeah. We need to talk.’” After a while, Lena called Diane back. The dog continued to sit quietly while Lena scratched the back of his neck, but he stared at Diane, who was astounded at how quiet the dog was being.

“Bone thinks you don’t love them anymore, that you don’t want them any more,” said Lena.

“The look on that dog’s face was like the words were coming directly from him,” said Diane. Feeling somewhat silly, Diane approached Bone and spoke to him. She told him she did love them all, and that her sadness was for the loss of Princess. She reassured Bone of his place in her life. The dog sat unmoving, calm and peaceful, listening, and looking into her eyes.

“That was amazing,” she said. “I’ve never seen him sit so quietly.” Bone never again went under the trailer.

Then Lena told Diane that Matilda the mule said she liked it here, though she didn’t like to be called Matilda, preferring “Tilly” instead. She also said, “Everyone here is so busy, and she wishes you would spend more time brushing her and petting her like you did in the beginning.

“And, Tilly says you whacked her,” said Lena. Diane was astonished, and not until much later did she recall the incident. She had been trying to coax Tilly into a canter instead of the jarring fast trot the animal insisted on. Exasperated, she snatched a branch off a tree they passed, and swatted the mule on the haunches.

Eventually the day came when Lena told Diane she wanted to sell Tilly. Facing the expenses of her daughter’s upcoming wedding, Diane put Ruby up for sale, asking a high amount, and told Lena of her plans to finance Tilly’s purchase.

“Is that the one that talks to you?” asked Lena. When Diane nodded in the affirmative, Lena said, “You can’t do that. You can’t sell that one. Keep Tilly, and pay me when you can.” Thus Tilly became a member of Diane’s herd, and became known as Two Ton Tilly, though whether she has told Lena of this nickname, we aren’t certain.

Upon hearing these tales, I suggested that Diane revise Tilly’s nickname to “Tattletale Tilly.”


Curiosity drew me to Tilly’s stall one day before my return home to Alaska. I stood for several minutes, petting the mule, looking into her large brown eyes and wondering. I thought of Lena, whom I’ve never met, communicating with animals. I thought of dogs I’d owned that understood full sentences of words and reacted appropriately.

“Go give Jeanne a kiss and I’ll give you a caramel,” said my husband one night as he lay beside me in bed eating the candies. He was speaking to a handsome husky, my dog team leader, with whom I felt a bond that approached the mystical. Blue-eyed, white and silver with touches of black, and believed to be a small part wolf, the dog immediately walked around the bed, licked my cheek, and returned to Ken for his caramel. He also begged one for his sister Bashful.

I was reminded of Bobby, the sulphur crested cockatoo I once owned. Though he parroted words he heard often, how did he know to use them in the correct context when he said, “Whatcha doing, Bobby?” as I crossed the room to get something off my desk. Then, with the object in my hand and heading back across the room, he said, “Whatcha got there?”

I thought of our long-haired Weimaraner that shivered and shook so much on trips to the vet that it would be almost impossible to examine him. Then one evening as he lay near me in the living room, he struggled to raise himself on one front leg. I knew something serious was wrong. His silver-beige eyes, the same color as his coat, stared directly at me for a couple hours, conveying a message I did not want to hear.

The next day we took Sterling on his last trip to the vet. Unable to stand, mostly likely from the effects of a stroke, the large dog remained quiet on the stainless steel gurney as I stroked his head and back. He knew it was time, and he accepted it.

I recalled the evening I was working on the computer in my loft. Sterling was downstairs with my husband, whose cognitive abilities were rapidly declining during his final illness. Suddenly the dog came up the stairs, paused at the top and stared at me. It was obvious that he wanted my attention, and when I stood, he turned and started down the steps. He made sure I was following, then led me to my husband who was having difficulty with something. A short time later, the same scenario was repeated.

People speak of dumb animals, and claim they have no powers of reason, that they have no human-like feelings. They claim animals cannot communicate except in the most basic of ways, such as begging for food or dropping sticks they want thrown. I think they are missing something wondrous. At a certain level, I think animals do communicate. I also think that the closer the bond, the more receptive we become to that communication.

Do I believe animals can “talk” to a special few? About that I am ambivalent. I neither believe it whole-heartedly nor dismiss it as rank anthropomorphism or imagination. I am, however, open to the possibility because wouldn’t it be a much more wonder-full world if it were true?


April 9, 2008 Gullible


  1. Diane sent me the link to your blog, so we could read how "famous" she now is, lol. And what an enjoyable read! You are a wonderful writer!
    And live in a place I have always dreamed of visiting :^D


  2. What an amazing story-- you had me captivated, for sure.