Author Ted Kerasote wisely subtitled his 2007 book Merle’s Door, “Lessons from a Freethinking Dog”, a warning to the reader that this isn’t just another warm and fuzzy doggy story. “Merle”, a mixed-breed retriever in his early youth who appeared out of nowhere in the dark of a Utah desert night to become a part of Kerasote’s life is no ordinary dog, anymore than Kerasote - an outdoor writer and confirmed wanderer of wild places who lives alone in a Wyoming cabin - is an ordinary weaver of pet stories. In fact, it dawns on the reader somewhere along the way, that this is just as much a story about a dog’s experience with a human, as it is an account of the canine world as seen by a person.
Where animal love affairs are concerned, it is difficult not to fall into the anthropomorphic trap of viewing animal behavior in human terms, and Ted Karasote – writing with the discipline of a scientific mind – tries hard not to do so. As a reader, however, one can be forgiven for giving in, just a little.
To say that Merle is one independent dog is sheer understatement. Probably born on reservation lands into an unfriendly environment, this overgrown puppy is not given to leashes, lectures or confinement, and is unwilling to submit to what some dog experts are fond of calling “pack leadership”. Even though a retriever by heritage, he sees no reason to jump into the water to bring back anything, let alone flush game birds for anybody. Not that he doesn’t understand the concept of “rewards”. On the other hand he loves to chase squirrels and Bison (the latter an unwise practice he learns the hard way). He is traumatized at the very sight of a shotgun, but yips with joy when the rifle with which he and his master hunt elk comes into view. Merle we see is capable of making highly-nuanced distinctions.
Living life within the shadow of Wyoming’s Tetons, Kerasote enjoys hiking and downhill skiing, and regularly replenishes his wild meat food supply from the nearby elk herds. Merle develops a love for the same trails and slopes, delighting in his ability to ski in his own way. His social life is active and ecumenical, and he becomes so widely known around town (which he covers with a walking tour each morning), that he gains the title of “mayor”. He loves parties and social gatherings and is partial to certain kinds of music to which he learns to sing along with great enthusiasm. His favorite is Christmas music, especially the Hallelujah chorus to Handel’s Messiah which he yodels with laughable gusto. Animal experts usually take issue with any claim that dogs can understand human language, but even if they are right, it doesn’t mean the two can’t communicate, and Ted and Merle prove this page after page. Probably because there is no other full-time “family” in Ted’s life, this interchange is an important element in their partnership. And just to make sure Merle’s education is broad-based, Ted often speaks to him in French as well as English.
Early in the “settling-down” phase of Merle’s domestication, it becomes obvious that being home-bound does not fit in with Merle’s outlook on life – even with the person he loves, and especially during Ted’s frequent even if brief absences. The answer to this conundrum comes in the shape of the “doggy door”, which not only solves the immediate problem, but becomes emblematic in understanding the importance of freedom in the life and well-being of this animal-of-the-wild (and his human partner). “Merle’s Door” not only becomes the title of the book which would follow a dozen years later, but an unmistakable metaphor for something much more far-reaching.
While this book would be a good read even if it was about no more than the talents and foibles of an unusual dog, its greater attraction arises from the author’s obvious compulsion to chronicle their daily life together in detail over a thirteen year period, all the while doing intensive scientific research in an effort to place his ongoing observations in perspective. The two not only educate one another as they and their partnership mature, but each undergoes a profound change in ways that can only be described as spiritual. The connection which develops between them is itself a true “Love Story”, and their final days together testify to this claim in ways you will have to read the book to understand.