“A Small Furry Prayer:Dog Rescue and the Meaning of Life”

By Steven Kotler. Bloomsbury. $25.


Somehow living in tiny Chimayo, N.M ., an outpost 40 miles north of Taos, seems incongruous with dog rescue and interpreting the spirituality, religion and psyche of man’s historic relationship with the species.


Kotler, a forty something Los Angeles journalist, meets and marries Joy, who is totally committed to dog rescue, and the pair moves to Chimayo, known for a crucifix and its black-tar heroin trade, to run a sanctuary for special-needs dogs you could best classify as underdogs for adoption.


“There is a difference,” Kotler acknowledges, “between how long a dog is supposed to live and how long that dog does live, and in a great many cases that difference is my wife.”

Purchasing a “postage stamp of a farm” is an impulse buy for Kotler, who is in the midst of an existential crisis. Santa Fe was the couple’s original target destination, but they quickly discover residential sticker shock.


Kotler’s colorful narrative of true grit characterizes special dogs in the couple’s lives, from Squirt, a dachshund-pug mix that resembled “three bowling balls stuffed inside a tube sock,” to Bucket, a pitbull-dachshund hybrid with a body like an anvil and a face that is unmistakably Calvin Coolidge. Eventually, the bulk of the rescues are Chihuahua mixes, hence the facility’s name, Rancho de Chihuahua dog sanctuary.


Throughout, the author continually quotes philosophers, scientists and psychologists about man’s relationship with the dog as he creates a landscape that’s a natural metaphor for the struggles between economic stability and the welfare of the rescues.


A dog rescue, Kotler quickly discovers, requires a commitment to rehabilitation, adding “There’s not much margin for error . . . Oversights compound quickly.”


Each four-legged project has a name and usually a problem, but the reader is left with the earthy feel this rescue ranch is all about family. The book’s tone is not tear jerking, rather a mix of tough realism and colorful characters, both two-and four-legged.


But the psychological turbulence of dog rescue in the raw takes its toll on the author. He recognizes, “Move to New Mexico to save dogs had been the plan – who was going to save me became the problem. . . . Too many dogs had died and they’d taken too much of me with them.”


While dog rescuers tend to abhor violence, Kotler points out the majority ironically believe they are “fighting a revolution.”


But with time, the couple’s uphill bid to cultivate friendships and rehome rescues begins to show promise.


Throughout this treatise, Kotler, in the midst of a colorful anecdote, segues to a noted authority’s scientific or philosophical behavioral explanation of a dog’s action, concluding, “I don’t know what happens if we begin to treat dogs as our partners. I only know what the scorecard says – that every other time we’ve tried equality the results have been spectacular.” 


With nuggets of wisdom and insight, “A Small Furry Prayer” moves seamlessly across a challenging psychological and physiological landscape with passion and persistence, leaving the reader both enthused and exhausted.