Fred doesn't know that he's the first animal I've loved, that because of him I have a new respect for animals. He certainly has no idea he's the reason I stopped eating meat.
I'm one of the last people I'd have picked to become a vegetarian. I grew up without pets. For most of my life, my relationship with animals was reserved for childhood teddy bears and characters in "Winnie-the-Pooh." I used to resent non-meat eaters for limiting the options when I had them over for dinner or making me feel guilty for ordering a hamburger. I was cynical toward animal-rights advocates--I let one friendship peter out because I couldn't imagine having enough in common with someone who refused to wear leather.
When I was 4, my sister was bitten by a dog, and I rushed to the doctor with her and my mother. I don't remember seeing the accident or the wound. I recall little more than leaving the doctor's office, my sister holding her bandaged arm in front of her. Even so, for years I had to remind myself that I hadn't been attacked, and I've always regarded that day as the seed of my fear of dogs.
I did have more direct experiences with dogs. A St. Bernard roamed unleashed at the end of our street. If he was out front when I passed by, I'd leap onto my brother's shoulders like a circus performer. Once, when I was in our front yard, a small dog appeared, sprang onto my back, and started licking me. I flailed as if attacked by a swarm of bees. For years, whenever I came upon a dog, I'd run or clumsily back away, the animal yelping after me.
I was in my 20s before I realized that not all dogs bark, few bite, and their approach is generally benign. In my 30s, I started noticing men with dogs. I was drawn to something boy-like in their companionship. My attraction was, I think, a desire to capture a sweetness I'd missed.
Then I met Scott; his 8-year-old basset-beagle, Fred, was simply part of the deal. When I let Scott into my life, I had no choice but to let Fred in.
Fred was quiet, sleepy, non-demanding--the perfect starter dog. The first time I was alone with him was a weekend when Scott was away. Ordinarily, when Fred was the third party in bed, I'd endure the cramped arrangement but wake up grumpy. When it was just the two of us, though, there was plenty of room, and I took unlimited pleasure in his sighing, lip smacking, settling in on his own terms with no regard for my comfort, yet facilitating it all the same.
About a year later, I got into an argument with a friend about capital punishment. While I opposed it, he made exceptions, offering the challenge: What if someone had killed a loved one? My stance was the same: Murder is murder.
"What about eating meat? Or using animals for research?"
We'd had this argument before. We both ate meat, and as for lab animals, I thought we agreed that as long as the conditions were as humane as possible, finding cures for human ailments was justification. He wanted me to verbalize the contradiction, so I fell back on my usual assertion: Humans are more important than animals.
That summer, I came across a magazine essay in which the author evokes a skeptic challenging an "animal person": Does she really believe that animals have souls?
"Yes, I do. I do believe that," she imagines the advocate responding. "Their natures are their souls."
Nothing could have expressed more straightforwardly the fumbling sense inside me. If Fred was capable of love, fear, loneliness--all of which I'd witnessed in his posture, his gaze, his step--who could say that other animals, wild or captive, didn't? If the human soul was both our defining essence and the eternal shared by us all, couldn't the equivalent be said for animals?
For most of my life, anytime I saw photos of monkeys strapped into chairs, electrodes stuck to their skin, or pictures of overcrowded chicken coops, I'd feel manipulated: Sure, this stuff happens, but what does it have to do with me?
Now it had to do with me. With strange and immediate clarity, I acknowledged something as unadorned as Fred's nature, and it felt impossible to separate it from that of any other animal. From that moment, buying and cooking meat felt hypocritical.
I know having a pet doesn't logically lead to swearing off meat. But my shift in awareness jarred me so profoundly that I had to respect it. The mind, that slow learner, is often one step behind the heart.
Not long after I stopped eating meat, Scott did, too. I've been giving Fred the credit, but it was also because of Scott that my detachment from animals ended. In his joyous voice greeting Fred in the morning ("Hello, little boy!"), in his patience with me as I've come to walk in step with a creature who takes the world in slowly but whole, I've learned what I may be capable of. I'm glad I could return the favor by starting my feet on a road that Scott followed.
We live together now. Fred is 13 and has had several operations. He can't climb the stairs, so sharing the bed with him isn't an issue. He curls up on his bed at night, a crescent moon--shining dimly but shining all the same. As I say good night, I take his light in, nourishment I'd never have imagined would fill me up.