We define ourselves by how we live and how we lose. Human grief rituals-—memorial services, funerals, burials-—give a time and date to loss, allow a communal outpouring of feeling. But Chelsea Biondolillo’s “Necrology: The Dogs” addresses the jarring feeling of incompleteness that follows when loss can only be surmised.
Recent studies show that the family dog may be as smart as, even smarter than, that same family’s toddler. How does a child feel when another small, dependent creature in her family disappears? What does that mean for the unit as a whole?
Chelsea Biondolillo is currently an Olive B. O’Connor Fellow at Colgate University. She holds a dual MFA in creative writing and environmental studies from the University of Wyoming. In 2012, she was a Think Write Publish communications fellow, and her nonfiction has been awarded Shenandoah‘s Carter Prize for the Essay. Her prose has appeared or is forthcoming in Brevity, Passages North, Shenandoah, River Teeth, Hayden’s Ferry Review and others. Her journalism has appeared in Venuszine, Science, and on state and national public radio. She is currently working on a book about vultures that combines travel, memoir, ecology, and natural history.
Why do you think people connect so strongly with animals?
I think that through animals, people can isolate particular components of our own humanity and more safely analyze the impact those components have. For example, we say cats are aloof and dogs are loyal. Through these ubiquitous pets, people can more safely define the parameters of “aloof” without having to out ourselves or our loved ones as aloof people. We can also use “natural behaviors” as benchmarks of our own: are we exhibiting the fidelity of the albatross, the maternal care of a mother elephant, or are we a raging bull, cocksure, vulturine? We use the same words to define people and animals, with the latter setting standards by which the former are judged: wild, tame, domestic, feral.
For the record, I think that the way we do this does little service to us or to animals. It short-changes the animals, by requiring that we discard or downplay any behavior that can’t easily be anthropomorphized, and it short-changes us by asserting “natural” (e.g. normative) parameters for our own behavior. But it seems to be a fundamental part of our relationship to the natural world.
How do animals figure into your current life?
Sadly, sorrowfully, lamentably they are research subjects only. I’ve been moving too often these last few years—six different spaces in three years!—to accommodate pets. I want a dog so bad. Right now, my lemon, fig, and coffee trees are functioning as very low maintenance pets.
How do you see your pieces addressing “the humanesque”?
This piece is part of a larger collection of “necrologies” that chart out my life by what has been lost along the way, in this case birds, insects, pets, and other animals. The human experience is singular and internal—my sorrow isn’t yours, nor is my elation—but it’s also communal. We grieve and grow past grieving within social structures. Through these various tiny deaths (or, in the case of the dogs, invisible deaths), I’m working against the authoritarian definition of loss, and the prescribed/expected responses to it.
Give us your best advice.
I’m the last person you want advice from on anything, ever. I’m a mess. But just this: keep at it, whatever it is that you want. Even the thickest rock has seams; they may be so small you need an electron microscope to see them, but seams they are. If you keep pushing or chipping, they’ll crack.
Is there anything else you’d like our readers to know? (Do you have any upcoming projects, publications? Any life events you’re looking forward to?)
I’d love to gather all of these necrologies up into a collection at some point, but in the meantime, I’m chipping (and shoving and kicking) away at a book about vultures.