I wrote this last night while watching the hours count down and wishing they’d stop.
My girl is leaving us today.
I knew when I left Germany to live in the U.S., it would probably be the last time I’d ever see her… but now I wish I could fly back over just to say a real goodbye and stroke her velvet ears one last time and tell her she’s a good dog.
I can’t be there for her final moments, so instead I’ll write a little story about her life with us, and say goodbye that way.
I’ve owned dogs before and adored them, but that was in New Zealand and back when it seemed normal for them to live outside in kennels or to be chained up and walked only for exercise. I didn’t know any better until I moved to Germany and saw how much happier the dogs were. They lived inside with their people and were allowed nearly everywhere — trains, buses, most stores. At bars and restaurants they get served bowls of water before your orders are taken, and people stop in the street to greet them. The dogs are socialized and integrated into society rather than treated as animals who must be separated and restrained. They’re generally considered as friendly sentient creatures who live in society alongside us, in the best way they know how.
In 2007, my ex Tim and I were living in Munich when our friend Mike posted a picture of his little hunting dog who needed a home. We took one look at her expression and fell in love.
Straight away, there was something different about her. It was almost eerie at first how she would watch your every move… always looking up into your face as if trying to decipher your thoughts. At first I thought I was just anthropomorphizing, but in reality I just hadn’t lived in close quarters with a dog with this level of intelligence before. Later on I started researching more about dogs, and learned that they truly are sensitive to social cues and can read human expressions as least as well as toddlers, and that they learn by observing as well as through conditioning.
From the very first day, we understood each other, and she became our best friend and a huge part of our lives. She was weirdly sensitive and tuned in, and paid close attention to everything we said, her ears pricking up whenever she recognized a word. It didn’t take long before we discovered she was listening to our conversations and learning new words. She originally responded to German but quickly learned English, including words we didn’t intend to teach her. She was super obedient and never begged for food, and only tore up the trash bag and threw it all around the apartment once in a while, if we were rude enough to leave her at home. She adapted to us, and we adapted to her.
The first two photos below are from our first meeting and our first walk with her… She idolized Tim, and from this moment on he and Birka were almost never apart again. She would be his shadow for the next ten years.
We never treated our dog like a child or pretended she was one… I’ve never understood the need for that. We treated her like what she is: an intelligent and feeling being of another species, slightly alien but also evolutionarily twined into our human past and DNA, and deeply in tune with us. She was a dependent member of the family who we had to learn to communicate with and who tried to communicate with us, and who deserved to be loved and included in all the fun adventures.
Over the years, the three of us went everywhere together. In Munich she came to work with me at The Arc expat bar and made friends with all the regulars. Some of the staff became her devoted friends, and she could recognize her favorite Paul from the distance of a block away just by his gait alone. When we moved to Berlin, she went to work with Tim and became the company mascot, and made a whole new set of friends who would queue up to dog-sit her. She has hundreds of friends all around the world now.
We took her to beer-halls, bars, open-air movies, parks, rivers, restaurants, beaches, castles, kayaking adventures, and camping trips. She took trains with us and hid under the seats to avoid the dog-fare (though even when she was spotted, the ticket-checkers took one look in her eyes and usually didn’t charge her). She came with us to little German villages to eat slow-cooked meat, crept through abandoned hospitals and amusement parks with us, attended our best friends’ weddings, and protected our bags when we went fossil-hunting in Bavaria. We got her a dog passport, and she joined us on adventures across Europe in our little VW van, sleeping at the side of crystal blue rivers in Slovenia, roaming cobbled streets of old towns in Croatia, and playing on the alpine slopes in Austria.
She was a loyal best friend, a soft pillow to nap on, a jester, an adventurer, a lover of mud, a chaser of squirrels, and a sensitive being who could tell when you needed comforting. She loved us, protected us, and gave us all her attention and affection. I’ve never met a soul as sweet as hers.
As an atheist, there’s no comfort in her death for me or hope for me that we’ll ever meet again in other worlds, but there is a comfort in her beautiful life and having known her. I love the idea that after all the billions of years of evolution our shared ancestors went through to bring our two species to this point, humans and dogs found each other, and realized how much we dig each other’s company — and that some of us team up in little groups to share our dens and make each others lives better.
My other comfort is to think about how rare it is to meet a friend like this, especially of another species, and to be grateful that we did what all good atheists do for the ones they love: make our short time here as full of curiosities, wonders, happiness and love as possible, because this is our one shot.
I don’t believe we’re destined to meet any other particular people or creatures, but I do believe we can get dealt a lucky hand, and that we can make our own luck by spreading happiness and love. This dog was all love. I know that when she goes, her mind will be imprinted with a thousand good memories and more beautiful landscapes than even some people get to see, and the memories of untold thousands of warm hugs and kind human words.
Over the years, whenever a secular friend has lost their beloved dog, I’ve always posted them this beautiful and honest song by George Hrab, about the Small Comfort atheists have saying goodbye to their dog-friends. I always dreaded thinking that one day I’d be listening to this same song and thinking of my girl. Now that day is here.
While I wrote this, the hours passed after all. I got to see her one last time over skype, wiggling her little fur eyebrows, and then we disconnected the call… and now Tim has taken her to do the hardest thing a dog owner ever has to do.
I’m devastated to know she’ll be gone forever, and that I can’t be there for her in this huge moment of her life… but mostly grateful to have met this strange little creature and that we found a way to communicate and connect, and to live together in harmony. We had an amazing time together, and I wish everyone would get to experience the awesome and meaningful experience of befriending a good dog.
I love you, Birka. Have peace in the long sleep, and I hope you enjoyed being with us as much as we enjoyed being with you. I’ll never see a deep mud puddle again without imagining you in it, rolling around like a monster and so full of joy.