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We were climbing along the rocks down a strip of the dog park that we seldom explore. My intention was to get some pictures for the ongoing photo contest on the Nihon ken page, so my lens was focused on Bowdu. Through the viewfinder, I noticed from a distance that he had a very strange expression on his face as he cautiously made his way down a pile of rocks and dropped out of sight.

13 December 2012 Bowdu makes a discovery

When he didn’t reappear after a few moments, I became suspicious and clambered over to investigate. As I approached, I was blasted by a face full of flies; obviously he had found something dead. After another couple shots through the viewfinder, I realized that Bowdu was leaning a little more than a foot away from the bloated corpse of a belly-up dog.

Disturbing image (no gore, no blood) behind the cut.

13 December 2012 Bowdu's discovery

The body was intact, not particularly decomposed. Female. Her hideous, elongated claws suggested that she had been deceased for some time. The head was wedged into a corner and obscured from sight. From what little I could see, she looked like a cattle dog. There was no evident trauma, not that I inspected carefully. My hasty guess is that the poor dog had drowned on some not-so-distant shore and recently washed up with the seasonal high tides that we experienced last week.

Whatever the cause of death, I didn’t want Bowdu getting too close, so I quickly got out of there and asked Bowdu to leave it. He lingered, needing a moment longer to scrutinize the corpse. Did he want to touch it, to smell closer, to roll in it as he has done with other dead things? Or did he recognize in a flash, as I did on mere visual inspection, that she was a deadthing of his own species, and therefore deserved a more respectful interaction? Did he want me to do something other than abandon it?

Much to my relief, he must have picked up on the seriousness in my voice, and he heeded my instruction. But he dragged his feet, and he looked over his shoulder several times before finally leaving the site.

Bowpi, who was also in the vicinity, seemed oblivious to it all.

I circled half the park to locate and notify a groundskeeper. He didn’t seem particularly concerned, and said he would get to it “tomorrow.” I didn’t protest. It wouldn’t be a pleasant job, and he was in the middle of repairing a fence with equipment that couldn’t be left unattended.

As we continued walking, my thoughts remained fixated on what Bowdu and I had just seen. Familiarity made the discovery disturbing, because it was a dog, not just another seagull or rat or wild animal washed ashore. Had this been a human fetus or a decapitated and dismembered torso, no doubt the police would be on the scene within minutes. I didn’t expect screeching sirens and a stretcher for this anonymous carcass, but the sheer indifference of the groundskeeper didn’t settle well with me, especially in light of how intensely my own dog had reacted to his discovery.

In When Elephants Weep: The Emotional Lives of Animals, Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson and Susan McCarthy write that we often assume animals to be incapable of grasping the concept of death, behaving like indifferent bystanders when encountering roadkill, for instance. Yet, there are also numerous accounts that document something like the recognition of loss, if not deep grieving. It’s also hard to deny the profound terror that strikes an animal that witnesses the slaughter of its own kind. Now, it would be inaccurate for me to read Bowdu’s response as “sadness” or “grief” for a totally strange dog. But to claim he was unaffected would also be inadequate. Something more complex was going on, I think, and his dogmind probably did expand ever so slightly in his attempt to incorporate the deadness of that dog into his new worldview.

It’s not like Bowdu hasn’t encountered dead animals before. He’s killed at least one mouse, and he had even shared an examination table with a dead maltese for a second as a puppy, probably when he was too young to understand. This, however, was clearly different. This, he would remember.

We were each processing the event in our own capacities as I walked the dogs to the park cafe, where I left a map indicating the location of the body for the employees there. Their job is to mind the customers and groom dogs, not to maintain the park, so they couldn’t offer immediate help, either. My hope was that they could send someone to retrieve the body before the high tides returned to wash it back out to sea… or the ravens descended. Maybe they would think to scan for a microchip, which might provide closure for some heartbroken person somewhere who had lost their pet.

Of course, there’s no way any of this could have been on Bowdu’s mind. Yet he, too, seemed to want some kind of closure. The very next day, he marched down to the same spot. I didn’t need to lead him, nor did I follow, even when he started alarm barking at some large debris floating nearby in the water. Did he think she had been washed into the Bay? Was he merely calling out for me to pay attention — Hey! Don’t you remember? Something WEIRD happened here! I ignored him, because I really didn’t want to see how much the body had decomposed in a day, if it was still there.

After a weekend to forget about it, Bowdu was back out there on Monday. On Tuesday, his curly tail bobbed with urgency as he followed a couple Labs and a human down that tongue of land. The other dogs did not behave as if anything was amiss, and Bowdu couldn’t exactly do a dead dog dance to communicate his discovery on some day that meant nothing to them. Instead, he just checked the rocks on both sides, and was silent about his findings.

18 December 2012 Scene of the crime

By Thursday, his sense of mission had abated and he stopped revisiting the site, though he continued to stare purposefully in that direction. I wonder if he has the capacity to imagine what happened to that body in his absence. Did she get up and go home, where she now lounges around the house and waits to be fed, just like any other day? Did he understand that she needed to be carried out from between those rocks by someone else, because she would never move again on her own?

Something about the way that Bowdu kept returning to that site intrigued me, like an approximation of sympathy for a stranger whom he only knew as a fellow dog. I do believe he grasped that much, though I don’t harbor any romantic notions that he’d extend that recognition to altruistic action. What happened in his mind probably can’t be put to language, but if he could try, the account would be deceptively simple.

One day, Bowdu saw a dog that was like him. Yet it was not full of life, as he is. It was a strange occurrence and the human was powerless to do anything. After a while, the situation changed. Sometimes, the world is different in ways that he’s not sure he likes. When the sun comes back and we go outside, it will be another day for making sense.

13 December 2012 Bowdu among the rocks