Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

Act Naturally: Lessons on Reality from a German Shepherd

EVD's picture

Normal 0 false false false EN-US X-NONE X-NONE              Our Non-Fictional Prose class began the semester by reading “Reality Hunger” by David Shields in which Shields explores the muddled line between fiction and non-fiction. Maintaining that all attempts at non-fiction are not a “chronicle of experience” but rather “the story of consciousness contending with experience,” Shields searches for “the secrets that connect human beings.” (Shields, 27, 38). Though he feels that even human thinking is still subject to “the lies and illusions of the world,” Shields argues that the closer one “stick[s] to the character of thought” while writing, the closer that rendition of reality will be to the ultimate truth (Shields, 39). But what if language ceases to be a barrier between everyday experiences and life’s reality? Dr. Nick Trout’s account of life as a veterinarian, “Tell Me Where it Hurts,” offers a solution for Shields: the only remaining truths belong to those creatures without the power of language but from them humans may learn how to recognize their own truths.


            Trout’s “Tell Me Where it Hurts” does not pretend to be completely factual but rather serves as a compilation of Trout’s encounters as a veterinarian as best as he can remember them. Trout attempts to recall his stories while preserving the “essence of their messages” but realizes, just as Shields would contend, that even his remembered truths may really only be half-truths (Trout, Author’s Note). Trout’s patients, however, own the definitive truths of his stories because they are not driven by the “emotional self-interest” that Shields claims removes humans from reality (Trout, 164). While Shields contends that non-human creatures are the greatest deceivers, in actuality they also are the most authentic because in a sense they cannot lie to themselves; while animals deceive others as a method of survival, they maintain accuracy in their self-perception. Not only can animals not tell a lie to others but more importantly they cannot tell a lie to themselves (Shields, 67).


            Dr. Trout attempts to recount the narrative of his patient Sage, a ten-year old German shepherd who is rushed to his office with life-threatening gastric dilatation and volvulus. Between his own memories, references to medical records and interjections by Sage’s owner, Trout attemps to recreate Sage’s experience, realizing that she has a story to tell of her own:

“Her darting chocolate eyes scream in fear of her strange situation and the changes taking place in her body, but as I enter the room and approach, her broad and bushy tail offers me a couple of friendly beats…Suddenly everything has changed. This animal has a name and a personality” (Trout, 5).

Though Trout is biased in his interpretation of Sage’s experiences (for example, he grew up with a German shepherd), his attempt to recreate an experience from the animal’s point of view invites the reader to think about a separate narrative: the fascinating and unequivocally truthful narrative of a dog whose life is in jeopardy but whose survival depends on an imperfect veterinary staff and an owner who might rather see his pet suffer than give up his best friend. Though Sage may not have the capacity to recognize these layers of her own story, the narrative still belongs to her and therefore she has the right to determine their truth. But what is it exactly about Sage’s narrative that makes it unequivocally true?


            The disparity between Sage’s truth and her veterinarian’s attempt at recreating his own is the use of language. Language is what occurs between a human’s experience and the attempt to recount it that skews the whole truth into a constructed one. Whether that language is the voice inside one’s head recounting the experience or a memoir written about an experience, this conversion to language defines the point at which a human loses his or her ability to be entirely honest. David Shields argues that “anything processed by memory is fiction,” but he fails to acknowledge that when remembering is separated from language’s constructing, selecting, and imagining which usually accompanies it, a memory can very well be truthful (Shields, 57). After all, Sage’s fleeting memories are comprised of nothing but the truth. Animals preserve truthful memories because between remembering an experience and generating feelings in reaction to it, they do not first convert their truth into chosen words; they therefore bypass the process by which humans skew the truth—and what remains is an authentic reaction to exactly what was experienced. If our evolutionary ancestors have access to the truth then perhaps it is possible for humans to achieve Shields’s “reality” by distinguishing truth apart from the mind’s fabrication.


            And if humans do harness the ability to find truth in everyday life, what difference will it make? Let us see how the truth affects Sage:

“When I focused on this animal, the way her eyes had locked on mine, the warm greeting from her tail despite the agony, if ever a dog deserved a chance, this dog did…You and I would be ripping the arm off every passing nurse or doctor and screaming for morphine, and yet this selfless creature placed more importance on the simplicity of a human connection than on the unrelenting pain she was more than prepared to endure” (Trout, 274).

Though she may be a “simple” creature, in a sense Sage is still more selfless by nature than even the most virtuous humans. Sage is able to focus on the “simplicity of a human connection” rather than her agony because her thoughts are not cluttered with the words which would tell a human to be angry for being sick or bitter for not having any control over it (Trout, 274). In reaction to his or her doctor coming into the recovery room following surgery, a human might be able to feel the joy of experiencing a “human connection” if he or she had not first translated the sadness of being in pain (which Sage surely experienced) into the constructed tale of an inadequate doctor performing a costly procedure without offering pain medication, etc. The raw emotions before the storyline are joy and sadness- and we may have the ability to let joyfulness overcome the sadness before being tangled up in our own self-centered narratives.


            Though I would not give up my human intellect for a dog’s carefree happiness, I suppose that if an animal’s experience is the whole truth, then by using this “truth” as a model, humans may come closer to finding reality in everyday life. David Shields argues that “what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men” (Shields, 164). Perhaps our species has its own truths apart from the rest of the animal kingdom, but we may still share some of them with other living creatures. Possibly the truths we will have the easiest time discovering are those that only the freethinking minds of animals have accessed. In continuing his quest for reality, Shields may be able to find the reality that he “hungers” for by following the advice of his own borrowed words- “act naturally” (Shields, 47).


Shields, David. Reality Hunger: a Manifesto. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010. Will be cited as (Shields, page number).

Trout, Nick. Tell Me Where It Hurts: a Day of Humor, Healing, and Hope in My Life as an Animal Surgeon. New York: Broadway, 2008. Will be cited as (Trout, page number).



EVD's picture

I'm glad you enjoyed reading

I'm glad you enjoyed reading this! As for the part when I say animals cannot tell a lie to others..that was supposed to be animals cannot tell a lie to others. Somehow the italics got lost but it was supposed to emphasize that they can't tell with words. Shields does bring up that animals can "lie" in his book and talks about how animals are the ultimate liars because they have to lie (camouflage, etc) for survival. So I think maybe he might see where I'm coming from when I talk about the kind of lying that requires language.

Anne Dalke's picture


ah, animals as the ultimate liars...that's a very different kettle of fish than the one i was stirring! hm....

Anne Dalke's picture

"The freethinking minds of animals"

I was pulled in, straight off, by the title of Trout's book: TELL me where it hurts." How does an animal, lacking language, TELL some a person how it feels?

I'm also laughing out loud here (w/ a certain intellectual pleasure) @ the way in which you have enlarged the terms of our class discussion, turning Shields' lament about the difficulties of "consciousness contending with experience" into a study of how to hear the stories of "those creatures without the power of language."  I'm really engaged by the way in which you pursue, first, the claim that "animals bypass the process by which humans skew the truth"; then attempt to answer the question, second, of "what if language ceases to be a barrier between everyday experiences and life’s reality?"

By focusing on the ways in which language "occurs between a human’s experience and the attempt to recount it that skews the whole truth into a constructed one," you are able to call into question Shields' presumption that all stories are lies. You ask us to think about experience, and representation, from animals' points of view: not driven by "emotional self-interest," and unable to lie to themselves. (I'm less sure that they can "not tell a lie to others," as you also claim: what about display--to capture a partner? or camouflage--to escape a predator?).

Claiming that each animal "has a story to tell of her own," and that such a narrative will be "unequivocally truthful," really functions as a direct challenge to some of Shields' key ideas; so: what do you think he might "say back" to you?

If you'd like to pursue this thinking further, you may find Temple Grandin's Thinking in Pictures: My Life with Autism of interest; it's filled with insights into animal behavior and animal welfare, a subject she expands on in Animals in Translation. (If you find yourself drawn out of topic of animal behavior, and wanting to understand more about autism, be sure to check out also veritatemdilexi's essay: Thoughts on practical nomenclature and the inner workings of an Aspergian mind.