When I was about ten years old, my father surprised me by taking me to a veterinarian’s office to pick up a dog. It was a “mutt,” a mixed breed, part collie and part something else. The visit was one of my “wow” moments growing up. I named the dog Shep, and we became fast friends. He would sleep at the foot of my bed, chew at the bedpost, and wake me up every morning with a happy look. My father taught the dog to go the newsstand a block away and to bring home the paper in its mouth. I thought that was really cool. When my day did not go well, Shep was always there to cheer me up. He was my dependable friend. But, like many kids, I was not diligent about walking the dog and taking care of all the stuff that goes with caring for a pet. Eventually my mother gave the dog away, and I spent that fateful day crying over my lost Shep.
The whole experience, in retrospect, gave me an appreciation for the value of pets in people’s lives. The presence of a pet, in a sense, is therapeutic for the owner. He is a reliable friend, never critical of you, lacking artifice, and always anxious to please.
These human qualities of animals form the subtext for Buck, an arresting documentary about Buck Brannaman, a horse whisperer with an uncanny ability to understand and train, not “break,” wild horses. As we watch him work with horses, he reveals how close his work is to child-rearing. The same principles are operative. Be gentle, be kind, be a good listener, show tough love when you have to, and don’t scare them. Interestingly, he describes the act of placing a saddle on a horse as a potentially frightening experience for the horse, which may see it as a lion attack. Therefore, the issue of trust between horse and rider is critical for training progress to be made. The same holds true in parenting children. The more trust between parent and child, the more communication and the more effective is the parental guidance.
It is noteworthy that the most prestigious Biblical figures who serve as role models for posterity began their careers as shepherds, people who care for animals. Their job of caring for sheep made them more adept at caring for human beings. Moses, Abraham, Jacob, King David—all had shepherd on their resumes. Similarly, Rebecca, one of the matriarchs of the Jewish people was selected as a wife for Isaac because of her kindness to animals. When Abraham’s servant asked for water, Rebecca brought water not only for him but for his camels as well. This was the litmus test of her character and Rebecca passed with flying colors.
In the Bible, God tells the Jewish people not to muzzle the ox when it is doing work in the field. Moreover, if we see an animal laboring under a heavy load, we are required to relieve the animal of its burden; and when we finish our day’s work, we should first feed our animal before we sit down to eat. Furthermore, if we come across a mother bird and want to take its eggs, we must first chase away the mother bird so that it does not suffer any psychological distress. All these sensitivities apply to the human realm as well. We permit workers to eat from the crops they are harvesting. We assist people who are struggling to support a heavy load, and we avoid causing psychological pain.
Buck reminds us of the many life lessons we can learn by being attuned to the needs of animals. Understanding their needs and their fears can make us more sensitive human beings.