BOOKS: The $60,000 Dog: My Life With Animals
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, January/February 2013:
The $60,000 Dog: My Life With Animals by Lauren Slater Beacon Press (c/o Random House, 1745 Broadway, New York, NY 10019), 2012. 251 pages, hardcover. $24.95.
Usually if an author subtitles a book “My life with animals,” or something similar, the author is known for having had a life with animals, as a veterinarian, sanctuarian, biologist, zookeeper, or trainer. Lauren Slater, though a veterinary technician for a brief time early in her adult life, is not known for anything much involving animals.
She is the author of previous books including Welcome To My Country (1996), Prozac Diary (1998), Lying: A Metaphorical Memoir (2000), and Opening Skinner’s Box: Great Psychology Experiments of the Twentieth Century. As Wikipedia summarizes, and somewhat understates, “Criticism has focused on Slater’s research methods and on the extent to which some of the experiences she describes may have been fictionalized.”
Though Slater is a former Knight Science Journalism Fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, she is a much more accomplished literary stylist than a factually conscientious journalist. She prefaces The $60,000 Dog with an author’s note observing that “There is a significant difference between the truth of experience and the facts of everyday life…I may not have all the facts in perfect order, but I have no doubt about the truth of these stories.”
The most frustrating aspect of Slater’s fictionalizations is that often she could easily verify the facts she gets out of order, without at all interrupting the flow of her stories, if she cared to get the facts right. For example, on page 171 Slater writes, “Six hundred and fifty-four people died last year in the United States from dog bites.” Reality is that this is more than the sum of all documented deaths from dog bites since 1851. The 2012 toll of 38 people killed by dog bites, including 24 killed by pit bulls, broke the previous record––now broken three times in four years.
Normally a title such as The $60,000 Dog would point toward the focal or thematically most significant part of a book. Again Slater confounds expectation. The dog does not appear until page 170 of 251, following chapters involving a found wild bird’s egg that does not hatch; summer camp riding lessons; a predictably ill-fated episode when as a misfit foster child, Slater makes a pet of a wild raccoon; and, as vet tech, a successful rescue and rehabilitation of a young mute swan who lost her bill to a snapping turtle.
“In our animal stories the only animal we learn about is man,” Slater writes of her experience with the swan, “but when you come close to animals you see the true strangeness of the beasts who share our planet.”
Had The $60,000 Dog concluded with the swan story, it might have been brief but brilliant–albeit more about a troubled young woman trying to find her way than about the animals who become her foils. The 50 pages about the dog are by far the weakest parts of the book, resembling many other memoirs by people who once had a dog, and feeling much like padding to finish a manuscript of commercially viable length.
Slater ends with chapters about her phobic relationship with wasps who invade her weekend home and a brief encounter with a bat.
Having evicted wasps several times from old houses in nearby habitat with minimal difficulty and little harm to anyone, I am perplexed that Slater and family had as much trouble as they did. Careful observation, a bit of caulking, and perhaps some weatherboarding or screening should have solved the whole problem within a few hours. I’m also inclined to believe that the much younger Slater, who sought to hatch the egg, befriended the raccoon, and nursed the swan through a surgical bill replacement, would have more calmly studied the situation and found a way to resolve it. ––Merritt Clifton