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Finnegan Horowitz Shea, a charismatic and sniffy mixed breed dog featured in several books on dog cognition and perception, died in New York City on Jan. 21. He was 14½ years old.
Finnegan was scrutable, his desires visible and his affections solid. He was enthusiastic about both humans and dogs, always keen to closely sniff either, to engage in play or to get a rub. Finn was agreeable and friendly, and professionally he was frequently the exemplar of “dog.”
His first book appearance was in “Inside of a Dog,” as a puppy curled in the author’s lap; sketches of him, showing a budding mischievous side, are dotted throughout. He featured as an olfactory “expert” in “On Looking,” leading the author on a tour of the odorous wonders of a city block, and as a kind of participatory journalist (with help from a ghostwriter) while he trained in nose work for “Being a Dog.”
Finnegan, also known as Finn, Kiddo, Mouse, Sweetie or Mr. Nose, was thought to have been born in the spring of 2007 in Tennessee, according to the shelter that found him as a stray and took him to North Shore Animal League in Port Washington, N.Y. His parentage is unknown. He was afflicted with parvovirus, from which he recovered.
He lived on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, frequenting both Riverside and Central Parks, where he was admired for his running and twirling speed, his winsome look formed by a panting face and wagging tail, and stealing other dogs’ squeaky ball toys and refusing to give them back.
This obituary isn’t running in the Obituaries section of The New York Times. The Times’s Obit section does not run pieces about nonhuman animals — this despite the fact that obituaries are posthumous commemorations of someone’s life and animals are someones and have lives. “Obituaries, really, are summations of lives — of people,” William McDonald, the Obituaries editor, was quoted as saying in an article about why animals do not appear in Obits. It would be “incongruous,” he suggested, to have the story of an animal next to that of “men and women who lived exemplary lives, accomplished things.” An obituarist for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution told the anthropologist Jane Desmond, “Obits are for people. Pets are animals. Period.”
If the explanation for restricting obituaries to humans is that obituaries are “summations of lives,” certainly all living things qualify: We share the biological capacity to create life, to live and to die with all other animals. If it is that people are the proper subject of any story about a life, innumerable stories of animal lives in books and other media belie that. If it is exemplariness or accomplishment that qualifies one for an obit, it is clear that any species that is well enough observed will reveal extraordinary feats among its members — from elephants, whose behavior indicates that they grieve dead relatives, to a laboratory rat who elects to free a trapped fellow rat rather than eat a treat to dogs, whose daily presence elevates the lives of the people whose company they keep.
At the beginning of its use in the 18th century, the word “obituary” was applied to any report of a death. Nineteenth-century newspapers reveal plenty of mention of obituaries of dogs, including a poem written to a Spitz dog; a half-column on the death of “Old Jack” by poisoned meat; a pug dog, celebrated as a “canine of canines”; and a dog called Tom who saved three children from drowning and was “very fond of beer.”
And this newspaper has long published news stories of the deaths of animals, from the 1876 death of Hambletonian, a trotting horse (he was not terrific at trotting but fantastic at mating, siring around 1,500 foals) to the 1923 death of Prince Ski, a “famous motion picture dog” (his specialty was “strolling through gardens with richly gowned women”). In more recent decades, these pieces have metamorphosed to closely resemble the archetypal obituary: detailing the deceased’s celebrity or newsworthiness, age (“most likely just over a year old, based on her feather color,” of Barry, a barred owl in Manhattan) and cause of death. Some testament from others is often given (of the Central Park Zoo’s polar bear Gus: “Polar bears are among the most beloved animals, but Gus was something else”; of Laika, the first dog sent into space by the Russians: a “phlegmatic dog who never quarreled with other dogs”), as is a biography and details of parentage.
The final sentences may include details on next of kin (of the first gorilla born in New York City: “Pattycake is survived by 10 offspring currently living in other zoos across the United States”) or a telling quote about the deceased (of Secretariat: “‘We’ll miss him something terrible,’ Mr. Hancock said yesterday, ‘and no one will ever forget him.’”) But despite their obituariness, the newspaper does not call them obituaries.
A more emotionally miserly motive, less often stated, might explain animals’ exclusion from Obituary pages. It is the feeling of the need to emphasize the importance of human life over those of other animals — sometimes expressed by ridiculing the very idea of an obituary for something like an animal kept as a pet. “Grotesque,” one columnist wrote in Mediaweek about the “horrifying” possibility of including animal obituaries in newspapers, sure that any story could only be “mawkish.” On occasion, a paid death notice of a pet published alongside that of a human has outraged readers, as though the very proximity to an animal demeans a human. This is especially odd, given that so many humans have intentionally chosen to be proximate to animals — especially pet animals, letting them into their homes, living rooms and even beds. And we are ever more aware of how intertwined nonhuman and human lives are — even if it is our thinking more conscientiously about animals we eat or about transmission of viruses across species lines.
Obituaries index the values of our culture — and in this culture we have increasingly learned the value of nonhuman life. It is high time that news sources consider the possibility of acknowledging the reality of animal lives alongside our own. Obituaries, which follow something of a template, seem the perfect space to consider an animal’s life story. For the obituary is notable — and distinguishable from other news reports — for its lack of direct access to its subjects, given the fact of their death. Their story has to be told by others, biographically, by describing their journeys, their behavior and their interactions. Obituaries inevitably include others’ voices describing what the deceased did or the impact they had.
But this is precisely the information we have about animals — especially those well enough known by humans to have tellers of their story. Not only can I speak of the life course of a pet dog. I, like anyone who lives with dogs, know of his friends, his habits; I know his preferences and his quirks. I have stories of his effect on me, and others have told me stories of his effect on them. As a scientist, I am interested in Finnegan’s own perception of his world, of his phenomenal experience, but as an obituary writer, I know it is moot.
As the dog of a dog-cognition-book writer, Finnegan gamely served as the representative of the species in interviews and tapings, appearing on several television shows, including “CBS Sunday Morning” and “Nova,” and in innumerable photo shoots for magazines and newspapers internationally. On several occasions he was recognized on the street from book jacket author photos.
Finnegan was a handsome dog, his coat a shimmery blue-black, his ears soft and his gaze responsive and deep. His nose, renowned for its skill at sniffing out lost cats and that little crumb of cheese that might still be in your pocket from last week’s sandwich, was shiny and bright. His tail, long and slightly curved, was perpetually up in pleasure and anticipation and often wagging heartily, until a progressive paralysis crept in and stole its wag.
Even when, in his last year, he lost the use of both rear legs, he adjusted with fierce determination and steadiness, learning to make specific requests of his needs to his people with voice and gesture and overcoming uncertainty about a wheelchair to soon run with it down the sidewalks of New York in pursuit of a good smell or a person who might lean over and tickle his chin.
As a model for dog behavior, Finnegan helped to reveal to hundreds of thousands of people how dogs perceive the world through their noses and to appreciate their own dogs’ parallel universe. His greatest impact, though, was surely felt by the family that survives him, including two Canis familiaris, one Felis catus and the three people lucky to know him personally.
By being a dog, Finnegan showed me the richness of the world that I had overlooked, and I am forever changed. In life, animals are rarely treated with the respect due these fellow travelers on earth; when they die, we have one last chance to do so.
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