"I know a dog and his name is Merle, he's the best dog in the whole wide world," wrote American outdoor writer Ted Kerasote, author of Merle's Door: Lessons from a Freethinking Dog (2008).
Man and dog roamed the wilds of the Grand Teton mountain range for 13 wonderful years. Sadly, it came to its natural end, and Merle's ghost haunts the pages of this moving and edifying book.
Five years went by before Kerasote could finally look for a "new Merle" to share his adventures. Before getting a dog again, Kerasote wanted to ensure his new pet would have a long and healthy life.
He takes readers on an extensive tour of university veterinary schools, explores cutting edge alternative-holistic treatments, visits breeders, animal shelters and the facilities where dog foods are manufactured.
Merle was a mixed-breed pup Kerasote fortuitously found wandering alone in the desert lands of the American Southwest. He wanted a dog that matched Merle's demeanor and had a hunting dog's instincts.
Finding a mixed-breed that met his needs was a dodgy proposition, so he searched out breeders to find a purebred Labrador retriever.
This posed a two-pronged moral dilemma for him. It felt wrong to want a purebred dog; he knew that many purebreds are selected to meet specific artificial standards of appearance, not for healthy constitutions or loving companionship. Generations of inbreeding created dogs with genetic anomalies that lead to physical deformities and, often, short unhealthy lives.
To ensure his dog's over-all health, Kerasote met breeders and the prospective canine parents to personally assess their qualities. He insisted the breeder provide him with records of the parents' genetic lineage to show that harmful genetic traits were not being transmitted to the puppy.
Second, millions of homeless healthy dogs are killed annually in animal shelters; Kerasote knew that Merle could have been one of these unfortunate animals.
Yes, it's painless and administered humanely but these are not good deaths. They are unnecessary and caused by well-meaning people who adhere to outdated modes of animal management. He is convinced that no-kill shelters are the answer to saving the majority of these dogs.
A death-row dog from the Los Angeles city animal shelter did catch Kerasote's eye and heart. He adopted it and was going to take it to live with his prospective pup but friends were willing to take "Chance," who is now living happily with his new family.
Dogs' diets have changed over the thousands of years of domestication, and Kerasote wondered if the food your dog eats affects its chances of a long healthy life. Is "kibble" healthy? What about vegetarian diets or BARF (bones, vegetables and raw foods)?
He discovered that there is no scientific proof that dogs that eat processed foods die sooner than dogs that eat designer diets. It is all about personal preference, philosophy and, importantly, disposable income.
He prefers BARF because his dog needs the high energy foods an active mountain dog requires.
North American veterinary practices concern Kerasote. He believes vets over-vaccinate dogs, prescribe too many drugs and needlessly spay and neuter, which affects the animal's immunological system. So, it's herbal medicine and no castration for Kerasote's lucky little puppy.
Eventually, a puppy named Pukka ("first-class," in Hindi) came to live with Kerasote, in Kelly, Wyo. He can be found playing in the alpine meadows and forests with his friends, gnawing on bones and getting his belly scratched.
Hopefully, Pukka and Ted have long and healthy lives together.
Teacher and writer Ian Stewart's pukka dogs, Winnie and Karmie, have a pretty good life in Winnipeg.
Pukka's Promise: The Quest for Longer-Lived Dogs
By Ted Kerasote
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 464 pages, $33