The original version of this article was my first published work and appeared in Dog & Kennel Magazine in June 2003.
Real Mean Do Cry
I was raised on a small ranch and spent most of my teen years working on larger ranches around the region. Between that and hunting I was very familiar with death, where the slaughter of livestock was common, and pets were tools to help with chores such as herding cattle, rather than family members to be loved. Crying over the loss of animals was not welcome and often garnered the ridicule of one’s father or older brothers. Because of this I learned to keep my emotions in check as a “young man” was supposed to do. Yet, I realized quickly that feelings existed and, though repressed, they came out on occasion, regardless of how “strong” the man was.
On many occasions I watched my dad deal with horses who had to be put down for a variety of reasons. I was never allowed to be there when the vet showed up and they, subsequently, walked the horse to a quiet place in the trees. When my dad returned, he showed no signs of emotion, acting as if nothing had happened. It was only in my teenage years that I saw how much a man can care for an animal and grieve for it when it died. One of our horses broke its leg while on a back country ride. Getting a vet there to euthenize the animal was not an option given the time it would take. The horse was in great pain and, sadly, my dad made the decision to shoot the horse. It was the first and last time I have ever witnessed such an event. I had grown up hunting, so shooting an animal for food was part of my life and didn’t bother me. Yet to see a valued horse, a creature that I had spent countless hours with in the mountains, shot, was traumatic to say the least.
What influenced me more was seeing how my dad reacted. As a big, proud man, emotion was not something he showed often. He was a doctor, rancher and hunter, so he saw death constantly and handled it as he was required to, calm and restrained, never letting others see him cry. Yet that day I saw this man, my dad, cry for hours over the loss of this horse. That moment in my life demonstrated to me that my emotions were normal, even for a man.
Some say that women and men handle emotions differently. Women tending to be more open and forthcoming with their feelings, a blessing really. Men on the other hand, be it a result of society or genetic code, tend to keep their emotions to themselves and often show them only to those within their circle of trust. I learned that these emotions are very intense and need to be released, and, most importantly, that to do so was not an indication of weakness.
It was this acceptance of emotions that allowed me to become involved with Rottweiler Rescue and to start Big Sky Rottweiler Rescue. It was while doing rescue and working with the local shelter that I saw how the loss of pets affected those that loved them. Seeing people come to the local shelter with their family pets who had died had great influence on me. Since the shelter had the only crematorium for animals in the county the number of such visits was high. Usually it is the veterinarians or their assistants who brought the animals to be cremated after they have been euthanized. The owners are often too distraught to come with them. Still, on occasion, the owners themselves would bring their pet on their final ride. You can see it the moment they walk in; the look of loss on their faces, the tear stains on their cheeks. Often the shelter staff helps them carry the pet back to the crematorium when the grief and heartache are too strong for the owner to do it alone. It was one of these moments that confirmed my belief that real men do cry, and that there is no shame in doing so.
It was winter, and I had just finished working with the Rottweilers at the shelter. I was walking out of the lobby when I saw the man come in. He was easily over six feet tall and two hundred pounds in weight. Though it was barely ten degrees outside, he wore only jeans and a thick flannel shirt. His clothing was work-worn, and his rough hands and weathered skin told me his occupation was a hard one. He seemed a strong man, both physically and emotionally, yet his face was solemn and fixed and you could see the pain clearly in his eyes. His words to the staff member at the front desk were typical of a man, particularly one from Montana.
“My dog died.” No quiver in his voice, and his face hardened with the three words exiting his mouth.
The staff member handed him the paper work as I ventured outside to head back to work. I shivered against the cold as I zipped up my jacket, not thinking much about the man who had come in. Walking to my vehicle I saw the truck that the man had driven up in. I could see into the back but saw no dog. I wondered if he had driven there with the dog up front. I started my truck, and as I sat there letting it warm up I saw the man come out, a shelter employee walking behind him.
I watched as they spoke and I knew what was being said. The employee pointed towards the back of the building where the man would need to drive his truck in order to unload the dog. The man shook his head and opened the passenger door. I caught a glimpse of the shape of a medium-sized dog on the seat. The employee moved to help retrieve the dog but the man stopped her. It was his task to do. She nodded and waited for the man to pull the dog out. The limp body hung in the big man’s arms. The dog weighed perhaps fifty pounds, but the man showed no strain as he straightened up. Slowly, the stone features of his face began to weaken. The employee walked along the outside of the shelter toward the back door at the crematorium. The man followed.
I found myself fixated on this event playing out before me. The man’s steps were slow and deliberate. Each time his foot broke through the six inches of snow his face grew more pained. This man could have easily let the employee carry the dog, as so many people do, thus avoiding the heartache he was enduring. Instead, out of honor and love, he chose the task. If I had seen this man on the street I would have never imagined him having such devotion and love for a dog. Yet here he was, doing perhaps the most painful thing he had ever done. The reason was evident. This dog was his companion, his friend, and his actions were a final act of loyalty.
The man and his dog disappeared inside the crematorium. I thought of leaving, but instead waited to see him return. In a minute the employee and the man came out of the door. The man’s face was hard again, but he was cordial to the employee as they spoke. I saw him nod his head and walk back to his truck. It was after he climbed in the truck that I saw him wipe a tear from his cheek. He drove away and I left soon afterwards; however, the scene was etched into my mind and soul.
While I never knew if the man wept more than I had seen, it didn’t matter. The grief and devotion I saw that day spoke more of what a real man is than perhaps anything else. Since that day I have had to take that same walk eight times after being with my dogs in that final moment. It was the least I can do for them, given the unlimited love and devotion they have given me. And on that last walk, I, a man, unapologetically cried. It is, after all, the manly thing to do.
If you love the bond and devotion between dogs and humans, check out my novels.