After reading Adam Gopnik’s masterful examination of the American prison system in a recent issue of the New Yorker, in which he examines our fetishistic compulsion to warehouse millions of errant citizens in prisons, it’s easy to conclude that our conception of “cruel and unusual punishment” needs reconsideration. Gopnik burrows through the rotten veneer of propriety that allows us to convince ourselves that for-profit “correctional facilities” are a good idea. He argues persuasively that incarcerating drug offenders is a horrible idea. And he explains why our obsession with procedural correctness is often antithetical to our goal of universal justice.

He also makes us understand what it must be like to be confined to a cage. Not nice.

Compared to solitary confinement and the torturous sensory deprivations that usually accompany a term in the brig, the death penalty seems vastly preferable, if not . . . → Read More: Cages

Brooding on Death


The remains of my dear friend Ella the dog arrived from the crematorium in a nice fabric-covered box. The ashes themselves were in a plastic freezer bag, which was probably a good thing, since in addition to a fine grey powder there were many pinky-nail-size bone fragments and flakes from the few teeth Ella retained at age 109. (I hypothesized that her acute arthritis might have had something to do with the surfeit of calcite clusters.) How strange and puzzling to be confronted with a couple of double-handfuls of carbon dust and realize it is a version of your great pal, reduced to her essentials. Or inessentials.

We spread Ella’s ashes in Runyon Canyon, the nature preserve and dog park where I found Ella as a 3-month old, and where she spent many happy hours bounding and hiking and sniffing interesting aromas. I don’t know if . . . → Read More: Brooding on Death

Ella Konik: 1993-2008


Ella Guinevere Konik died peacefully last night at home in her bed, surrounded by family. She was close to 15 1/2.

Frank Sinatra once told an interviewer, “They say you only live once. But if you have a life like mine, once is enough.” Ella’s time on Earth was like that. A white-lab and greyhound mutt, she was adopted at 3 months and spent much of her adult years spreading joy. Ella was a licensed therapy dog and the subject of my book “Ella in Europe” and the Animal Planet TV show “Ella & Me.”

She was friends with everyone, a beautiful soul encased in white fur.

We miss her.

The Ella Update

ella in eur

Ella Guinevere Konik, the lab-greyhound mutt who inspired the best-selling book “Ella in Europe” and the subsequent Animal Planet TV show “Ella & Me” is getting old. Not just “older,” but old. Depending on which set of medical records you believe, she’s either 14 or 15. Iin human years that’s around 100. She’s dealing with many of the normal maladies associated with geriatrics: Ella is losing her sight and hearing, and she’s got an acute case of arthritis. Despite the food supplements and drugs she’s given (hidden in peantut butter, as “cookie” treats), she needs help negotiating stairs and, in her worst moments, rising from her bed.

She’s on a steep decline.

Although Ella is cancer free and still eats like a wolf that’s just taken down a caribou, she’s losing muscle tone and sometimes her balance. Her radiant spirit, the joyful canine . . . → Read More: The Ella Update

Dog Fighting

vick dog fight

My sweet old mutt, Ella, is napping in her corner bed, dreaming, I reckon, of squirrels that are slower than she and big plates of rare prime rib (bone in) that someone mistakenly, providentially, left on the floor for her to bolt. When she was much younger, thinking she was providing essential security for her pack, Ella sometimes growled at other dogs whom got too close to her dad. When the incursion got serious, she even curled he upper lip and flashed an incisor. She was ready to defend — or at least pretend she was.

I don’t know really what Ella’s envisioning as she sleeps. But even her most outlandish dreams, Ella probably can’t imagine that human beings, the people who feed her and give her love, would encourage two of her kind to actually do more than growl at each other.

She . . . → Read More: Dog Fighting


barbaro in heaven

Being a dog owner, I understand completely the impulse to anthropomorphize our pets, imbuing them with human traits that canines and felines — and goldfish and hamsters and salamanders — don’t really have. Our furry (or scaly) friends seem so much more than mere animals. They’re companions and confessors, students and teachers, and they magically take us out of our egocentric obsession with self, allowing us to focus love, care and attention on someone — something — that may or may not understand such abstract concepts.

No matter our profound affection, though, they are animals, not sentient human beings.

Recently, a horse named Barbaro, who won the Kentucky Derby and, according to experts, had a legitimate chance to win the Triple Crown, died from complications suffered after he broke a leg shortly after leaving the starting gate. His odds of recovering were slim . . . → Read More: Anthropomorphism

Philippines Notes, Part Two: Using Dogs

Dogs ready to eat

Some people in the Philippines eat dogs. (A recent documentary about the country, made by a native, was entitled “Dog Eaters.” Some expatriate Pinoys didn’t appreciate the label, but the verity of canine consumption wasn’t ever in question.) Occasionally, pet-owners here suffer the heartbreak of having their furry friend kidnapped — dognapped? — and transformed from a companion into a meal. Some people raise dogs expressly to slaughter them for meat, like cows or rabbits. Others hunt strays.

American dog owners, particularly those who love their hound like family and write sentimental books about traveling through Europe with them, initially recoil in horror at the prospect of dining on Fido. But it’s easy to stand in judgment when you’re belly is full. As a Chinese friend explained to me, when you live in a nation where millions of people have starved to death . . . → Read More: Philippines Notes, Part Two: Using Dogs

The Ella Update

Ella in Europe Cover

A reader of this space wrote to say that she was in the middle of “Ella in Europe,” my book about traveling abroad with my American dog. She was afraid to ask — but she wanted to know if Ella was still with us. She also suggested that I post an update every now and then for devoted readers and dog-lovers.

So here goes: Ella is still with us. She’s 11 now — she’ll be 12 in April. She sleeps more than ever, and she gets up slowly (unless there’s human food involved). She has some arthritis and a couple of small benign cysts on her back. Despite the usual indignities of being an old(er) dog, she seems quite healthy and happy. She’s still white as snow, still preternaturally expressive with her ears and tails and eyebrows, like Gromit, only with a mouth.

Ella enjoys harassing the . . . → Read More: The Ella Update

Poem: Doggerel

Puppy in Holiday Spirit

May your days be hairy, and bright.

And may all your puppy dogs be white.

I’m dreaming of a white puppy

Just like the ones I used to pet

Where the Labs are wagging

And the hounds are dragging

Their ears, blithely to the vet.

I’m dreaming of a white puppy

With every furry friend I see

May your dogs be givers of glee

And may all your puppy dogs lack fleas.

How Good is Ella the Dog?

Ella in Paris

We ask that rhetorically, of course. But, really: how good can one dog possibly be?

Yesterday, she started a gantlet of being subjected to her master’s needs by submitting to a photo shoot for Reader’s Digest at Runyon Canyon, the local dog park. While the photographer snapped away, calling her name for attention — “Ella! Ella!” — dozens of local hounds scampered beside the klieg lights, sniffing and peeing at liberty. Ella, we know, would have preferred to be playing with them. Instead, she stayed in her spot (beside her dad), pretending to care about looking glamorous and sympathetic.

Then, when the shoot was over, we piled into the car, which she’s been stashed in lately with depressing frequency. (She doesn’t hate the car, but she doesn’t love it, either. Her yard, filled with birds and squirrels and receptive grass, is a much happier . . . → Read More: How Good is Ella the Dog?