Dog Meets Bear

How an accidental encounter reminded me of my dog’s basic strangeness — and my own

One afternoon last summer, my dog Bonnie, who tends to hover as close to me as a thought bubble, disappeared from sight.

Some friends, my wife and I were drinking beer and eating sweaty cheese in the backyard of a house we’d rented for the weekend in Woodstock. Bonnie — a brown Boxer-ish mutt, most of whose life takes place between apartment and sidewalk — had been conducting errands in our vicinity. She’d sniff hard at something in the grass, as if trying to inhale it; conduct a brief stalking of a chipmunk; wander back over to us, to see whether we’d reconsidered the question of her and gouda. Now, though, I hadn’t seen her in a while. And then from over on the far side of the house I heard her growling in a way that was new to me — throaty, steady, almost melodic.

I stood up to see what she’d gotten into, and just as I approached her — she was standing back a few feet from what appeared to be nothing, with the hair between her shoulder-blades raised — a bear dropped out of a tree. This isn’t something I ever thought I’d see, or write: a bear dropped out of a tree. It’s not clear to me now, and it wasn’t then, if it fell out of its tree by accident or if, like Spiderman, it alit on the ground in readiness for action. Either way, it landed on its feet, and for a second it loomed upright, facing us, seeming to consider its next move.

Empirical judgments are worthless in moments like this, but I had the impression that the bear was huge, a linebacker in shaggy brown foot-pajamas. I was standing about ten feet away from it. Bonnie was closer, directly between me and the bear, now transported to a state beyond even growling. I know I shouted “Bear!”, and “Bonnie!”, and “Fuck!”, because I heard my friends clattering to their feet, preparing to be stampeded.

My wife, in a moment of divine inspiration, ran not for her life but to our car in the driveway on the other side of the house. She opened the car door — knowing that going for a ride is the only Earthly activity Bonnie prefers even to harassing wild animals — and sure enough: in utter joy, seeming to have entirely forgotten the scene around her, Bonnie sprinted toward the car and leapt in, trembling with readiness to be driven somewhere (presumably somewhere she might encounter something interesting). The bear, with what I took to be a parting harumph, turned, lowered itself to four feet, and took off running into the woods.

That, with an allowance for adrenaline-influenced distortions, is what happened choreographically. What happened inwardly — how the bear, Bonnie, and I, united by geography and happenstance, divided by species, experienced those seven seconds — is, I’ve come to realize, a good deal more obscure.

Like most dog owners, I flatter myself by imagining that I can see into my dog’s inner life about as easily as one can look into an aquarium. I know, or think I know, when she’s happy or anxious, and what she’s happy or anxious about. I know which dogs in the neighborhood she likes and dislikes, and most of the time I have theories about why.

When we’re in the city, it’s tempting to think of Bonnie less as an animal than as a spirit animal, a kind of magical emanation of our personalities and desires. She hops up on the couch with us when we watch a movie, she mills around our feet when we cook dinner. The extent of her independence from us is the length of her leash, and it becomes easy to imagine that the extent of her difference from us is about that size too — maybe she prefers Animal Planet to PBS; maybe she likes sleeping with her head fully under the blanket rather than poking out — but she is, fundamentally, known.

In that standoff with the bear, though, Bonnie’s interests could not have been more opaque to me. Did she hate the bear? Fear the bear? Want to chase him? Protect us from him? Play with him? From the moment she first started growling at the tree until the moment that my wife, with the aid of the car, snapped Bonnie back into her familiar, human-centric contours, she was elsewhere. She had switched over to some obdurate core of wildness, an animal boldness and a set of instincts, that lay much deeper than the flimsy set of control panels we’d overlaid on her: the ones that tell her to raise a paw for a dollop of peanut-butter or to drag us into the pet store in our neighborhood in the hopes of a free sample.

It was as if the bear — who, in his sudden materialization and disappearance, represented some pure distillation of wildness — had decanted a bit of his nature into Bonnie, making her more of a stranger to us than she’d been ten minutes before.

And the decanting didn’t stop with her: what, really, had taken over in me in the blank terrifying seconds before the bear took off? In that moment, I was both glad and troubled to realize afterwards, I’d been concerned only with protecting Bonnie: making sure that I wasn’t eaten by the bear hadn’t entered my mind at all. Which is to say that the rational bits of me, the ones that soberly weigh the health claims on a box of waffles in the grocery store, had been left behind. I was, until my familiar self came flooding back in afterward, hardly less of a stranger to myself than Bonnie was.

This germ of strangeness has, at a background level, stayed in my relationship with Bonnie this past year, even as we’ve resumed our normal nap-on-the-couch, cower-from-fireworks patterns. Even the most mundane interactions now seem shot through with minor mystery: the savagery with which she crunches a chicken bone she finds on the street; the dreams that keep her feet pedaling and nose twitching in the middle of the afternoon.

There’s a conversation my wife and I have periodically that has taken on different significance since our run-in with the bear.

“Isn’t it weird,” my wife will say sometimes, looking over at Bonnie, “that we live with an animal?”

“But we’re animals,” I usually say, and what I once meant by this was something like: Why shouldn’t we live with an animal? We aren’t really so different: now get her up here and let’s cuddle with her.

Now I’ve come to think of that lack of difference, well, differently. We are, of course, animals, like she is, but this doesn’t only suggest commonality — it also suggests a deep and unbridgeable strangeness, both from each other and from ourselves. She, I’m convinced, loves us deeply, but she could also, without much trouble, commit an act — tearing a living being limb from limb; plunging herself, for some unfathomable reason, into the jaws of a bear who would tear her limb from limb — that would horrify and bewilder us. And we carry on going to the gym and arranging our Netflix queue and reading books about decision-making but we, in the space of a second, can be transformed into creatures who might as well have lived millions of years ago, hunched and half-naked, with words only for FIRE and RUN.

We do, in other words, live with an animal — a fundamentally unknown creature, made from flesh and bone, guided by impulses arising from depths we can’t reach — even when we’re entirely alone.