Soul of a Dog:Reflections on the Spirits of the Animals of Bedlam Farm

by Jon Katz. Random House, $24.
Soul of a DogIf you’ve read any of the best-selling Katz’s 18 works, you know he’s not your typical author/farmer and you recognize Bedlam Farm, in a remote corner of upstate New York, isn’t your customary farm.

Katz doesn’t see the two- and four-legged inhabitants as meat stock. He views them as spiritual soul mates, each with a distinct personality and a purpose. But there’s no mistaking Rose, a border collie, is his life preserver – and he is quick to credit her.

Throughout this rich tapestry of life on the farm, Katz details one incident after another in his quest to determine if animals have souls, ranging from his workaholic Rose to a colorful cast of characters that includes donkey, chickens, two steers and a cow, sheep, goats and Mother, a barn cat that views everything smaller than it on the ground as prey.

At the outset, Katz establishes: “Rose is my right hand – my entire right arm actually. On my farm the clarion call is: ‘Rosie, let’s go work.’ That’s all it takes for this ferociously energetic and whip-smart border collie to spring into action.”

Rose is ostensibly Katz’s road map for determining the soul of an animal, a subject that even some of the world’s greatest thinkers – Aristotle, Plato, Thomas Aquinas and others – have grappled with for centuries. Fortunately, for the reader, Katz weaves his matrix of stories through the Bedlam Farm inhabitants rather than via deep philosophical insight from scientists, philosophers and pastors.

“I’m not sure I’ll ever know where the spirit of a dog begins and mine leaves off,” says Katz. “I think the souls of dogs and of humans often interact; they couple, shaping and changing one another at times and in ways that aren’t always visible or perceptible. That can be an extraordinary, and efficacious, encounter.”

Katz’s folksy, yet let laser-like focus, is delivered in a seamless fashion that leaves you with an anxious “bring-it-on” feel for the next megawatt profile. Here’s an example: “It is a cardinal principle of farming not to have animals more intelligent that you are. I’ve already screwed up, because the donkeys are smarter than me. And the goats are smarter than the donkeys, though not nearly as agreeable.

“ ‘Nuts to you, goats!’ I jeer back each morning, ‘You don’t know anything. Bug off. Be quiet.’

“They won’t be quiet; they can’t be. You might as well tell the wind to stop blowing. They don’t care what I think, have no desire to please, and their spirits are brimming over with mischief.”

But Katz waxes philosophical, too. He emphasizes that the bond between people and their animals has lost its simplicity. In fact, for some, it defines our self-worth. Then, he broaches a vexing conundrum: “If our dogs have souls, deciding their fates is not as easy as it used to be. Putting an animal down is one thing. Killing a member of the family is quite another.”

But he is quick to add, “The best part of my life with animals is the humility they teach, the humanity they foster.”

Soul of a Dog” leaves you savoring Katz’s rich, insightful detail and the sobering memories it resurrects of animals past and present in our lives.

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