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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Woman’s Best Friend

Air Date: Week of June 25, 2004

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Commentator Sy Montgomery laments the nights when she and her now old and blind dog Tess would play Frisbee for hours, but she says they’ve found a new nighttime sport.

Transcript

CURWOOD: Commentator Sy Montgomery has a border collie named Tess. But Tess hasn’t been a real border collie for some time now because she gave up herding animals in favor of grabbing flying Frisbees. For Tess and Sy, playing Frisbee became something of an obsession. They played all the time, even at night. Well, Tess is pretty old now, and Frisbee is a thing of the past. But Sy says their nights have taken on new meaning.

MONTGOMERY: Tess is a border collie and by the time we adopted her, after two other owners, she was imprinted on Frisbees, not sheep. My favorite time to play with her was on inky black moonless nights when I couldn’t see her or anything else at all. We live in the country, so no streetlights pollute our night skies. Some nights are almost cave dark. With my middle-aged, human eyes, I can see nothing on those nights. But Tess could see perfectly in the dark. Dogs possess a tapedum lucedum, a light-gathering reflector in the eye -- the reason dogs and cats eyes glow in the headlights of a car. So on those moonless nights I would follow her into the blackness, listening for the jingle of her dog tags. Down the gentle slope of the backyard I would follow to where the lawn leveled out at the edge of the field. Then I would whisper to her. "Tess: Go!"

I'd wait some seconds, and then toss the Frisbee into the blackness. Where it went, I had no idea; even in broad daylight, my aim isn't perfect. But a second or two later, I'd hear the beautiful click of her teeth on the plastic and know that she had leapt into the air and caught it. I'd squat down and hold my hands out in the dark. I needed her to put the Frisbee directly in my hands -- otherwise I'd have to waste valuable playtime feeling about for it on the ground.

I knew she couldn't possibly understand my blindness in the dark. How could I not see what was so plain and clear to her? Yet she generously worked around this unfathomable disability. She always patiently brought the toy right to my hands. And when I felt we should go in, I only had to say softly, "Tess, come. " She would run back to my side and lead me by the sound of her jingling tags back to the house. I always felt richer for those nights. For unlike other humans, thanks to Tess, I could voyage, even play, in the pitch blackness. With her I could walk without fear anywhere in the dark. It was our private little miracle.

Tess is 14 now. She has survived a stroke, a heart murmur, and a number of old-age ailments. She is completely deaf and nearly blind. We no longer play Frisbee. But we still go out at night. At first, my invisible black border collie, not used to her new disabilities, wandered off into the night and I couldn’t find her without a flashlight. I would call to her but she wouldn’t come, she couldn’t hear. Coping with a blind dog on a moonless night was heartbreaking, frustrating. But then I realized Tess had not lost that gift she had given me all those years. She had simply brought it back to me, like the Frisbee. Now I would be the one to lead her through the blackness. She probably can’t understand that she’s blind anymore than she understood that I couldn’t see in the dark.

Life is still rich and interesting, redolent with scent, full of tasty treats, and lots of petting. But now, for some reason, the world has gone largely dark and silent. This doesn't seem to worry her. Because she understands that somehow, I can navigate this black and soundless world. These days, I stay very close to Tess outside at night so she can follow my heat and my scent. She can count on me. And I am honored, after all these years, to receive the gift of her graceful, trusting reliance on me, as I once relied on her, to navigate through the dark.

CURWOOD: Sy Montgomery is the author of nine books including; “The Wild Out Your Window: Exploring Nature Near At Hand.”

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