Virgil

Virgil is aging. He no longer hears us when we come in to the apartment; we surprise him sleeping in our bedroom, and he struggles to stand up on his back legs when he finally sees us. He can’t go down stairs anymore, at least not confidently, so I keep my hand over his shoulders to steady him as we descend together. He wobbles from side to side a bit when we walk, and sometimes tips over when he loses his balance on a little incline in the park.

It’s getting warmer now in the city, and people are starting to sit outside, on their stoops, and in the parks, and at sidewalk cafes. They greet you with smiles, and make room for you to sit at an adjacent table, or on the same park bench. And people love to pet Virgil. 15,000 years of evolution have wired him to respond perfectly to attention: he wags his tail gently, and sits, and moans a little bit when you stop petting him. He begs for food patiently— he doesn’t jump up to steal food off your low table. (At least, he hasn’t done that in a long time.)

The people in my neighborhood are enjoying themselves, eating hotdogs and kielbasa. They are sipping cappuccinos, snacking on pizza slices, and carrying home grocery bags full of pork chops, chicken breasts, turkey burgers, and bacon-flavored potato chips. How is it that people are able to get over the nearly deranging cognitive dissonance between loving animals and eating meat? The principle is substitution: it is okay that those animals die, we think, because we provide other animals lives of enviable comfort. We love our animals; would that all animals were so lucky.

We don’t think about the animals we condemn to death because it is too horrific. We turn away— toward the generosity and affection we show our pets, and our neighbors’ pets. There is an image I happened to see, sent by an animal rights advocacy group to my email. Don’t worry, I won’t describe it, except to say this: it centers on a wheelbarrow.

Virgil has a lot of gray around his muzzle now, and he has that slight swaying in his bony back that shows his age. I remember taking him to the vet when he was about two, back when we were doing the hike around Maple Lake almost every day. The vet listened to his heart and said, “He has the deep, slow heartbeat of an athlete!” Now, sitting next to Virgil on the couch, I put my hand on his skinny side and feel his heart tick— it is still strong. He looks up when I lay my hand on him, and sees that I am not getting up, just checking in. And then he rests his head on the blanket next to me with a heavy, contented sigh.

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