My nephew learned the Pledge of Allegiance when he was 4. A dutiful aunt, I listened to him recite it and then heard, “one nation, under dog, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
“Can you repeat that, please?” I asked.
“One nation, under dog, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
I imagined a bronzed dog the size of the Statue of Liberty on the lawn of the U.S. Capitol.
Of course, I told everyone about it, shared a video of him on Facebook and made him recite it every time I saw him.
His new take on an old pledge faded from memory as he said other funny things, but his words came back to me the day before New Year’s Eve, when a friend from Helena lost his dog in downtown Billings.
Steve does not have a Facebook account so I offered to post a picture of Daisy, his old, deaf, Chesapeake Bay retriever, on the Lost/Found Pets of Billings Facebook page. Within two hours, it was shared hundreds of times and a woman posted a picture of a tired Daisy standing in the Yellowstone Valley Animal Shelter. This happened hours before the shelter opened for the day.
I was surprised. I had never seen such an immediate response to a request for help on social media. Still, even though sharing something on Facebook isn’t a lot of work, I’m pretty sure that if Daisy hadn’t been found so quickly, I could have marshaled a “Find Daisy” search party of 50 people within 30 minutes. Even requests to help families with food during the holiday get an inevitable, “people shouldn’t get handouts” comment.
Maybe it is just my mind, warped by years of organizing, but I spend a lot of time thinking about people and what makes them help others and participate in our government. When I saw the reaction to Steve’s lost dog, I thought about all the times I’ve connected with people over swapping dog stories; people with completely different political views, different backgrounds and different lives.
Understandably, we self-segregate into like-minded groups both on social media and increasingly in our day-to-day unmediated lives with others. Our current politics seems incompatible with expressing or practicing the most important human quality that we have: empathy. We judge, call people names, put each other into categories and devolve into us vs. them thinking.
Would they treat each other better because they have connected over their shared love of our four-legged friends? Would we become more human to each other if, before we engaged in a political conversation, we talked about our dogs first?
Although we had many dogs in my family when I was growing up, Maggie was my first dog, a German wirehaired pointer. Her beard was magnificent and gray and she ran like the wind. When Maggie wanted something from me, she would get a drink, come back with her beard full of water and promptly put her head on my lap.
My partner Mike and I were in graduate school at the University of Denver. It was near Christmas and I was back in Montana for the break. Mike found her at the Colorado Springs Humane Society and traffic from Denver was bumper to bumper. He barely made it before the shelter closed for the night. It was a good thing he did because Maggie was scheduled to be put down the next day.
She had been in three different homes and was returned for biting other dogs and tearing up furniture, and all complained that she had too much energy. The shelter staff weren’t allowed to tell Mike of her fate if he didn’t take her. She was skinny, dirty and cranky and snapped at our beagle Duke when they were introduced. He knew I would love her to death.
Mike couldn’t keep her a secret from me. I drove all the way back to Denver to pick Maggie up and bring her home.
When Maggie died last April she was 15 years old. She spent most of her life living the dream; on a farm, hunting pheasants and slowly slipping into old age with the help of a hot stove in the winter.
My dad and I took her on her last hunt on our farm. Age was not kind to her hips. We carried her over rough patches. She couldn’t get into the cattails but her little tail never stopped wagging. My dad would hold all the other dogs back so she could retrieve the bird. She lay next to my bed with me day and night after my dad died, only getting up occasionally to go outside.
When the vet came to the farm to put her down, we sat with her on a blanket in the sun in the backyard. Her head was on my lap and she slept. She didn’t open her eyes when the vet slipped the needle in. We buried her down by the river next to the old threshing machine and I planted sunflowers and pumpkins on her grave to make sure the pheasants visited her. Duke, her old man, joined her there 6 months later.
We may be a nation deeply divided over politics but what I realized is that my nephew might be on to something.
We are one nation, under dog, indivisible, with liberty and …
Well, we are one nation under dog.
I’ll just leave it at that.
Alexis Bonogofsky 1s a fourth-generation Montanan, goat rancher and hunter who lives and works along the Yellowstone River near Billings. She also manages the Tribal Lands Partnership Program for the National Wildlife Federation. A slightly different version of this piece first appeared on her blog, East of Billings.