We have a tendency to romanticize nature writers. We think of Thoreau or Edward Abbey as sages on the land, revealing profound truths about the nature that was their true muse.
I just finished a book, a dog book that I’ve been meaning to read for several years. It is called Moobli by Mike Tomkies. Tomkies was famous for his first hand studies of Scottish wildcats, red deer, and golden eagles on the vast Highland wilderness on which he roamed. He set himself up in an ancient crofter’s cottage on the shore of Loch Sheil and spent years chronicling its wild creatures. For nearly 9 years, his main assistant in his wildlife studies was an “Alsatian” named Moobli.
Tomkies became a wildlife writer after leaving the Coldstream Guards and spending years wandering around North America. North America, of course, is a place with much more wilderness than the island of Great Britain. He became an expert tracker of grizzly bears and cougars, and when he returned to set up his mission in Scotland, he used these skills to find wildcats and badger setts.
When one reads Tomkies’s prose about wild creatures, a profound sensitivity and tenderness is revealed. His passion for them oozes through every description, and I thought we would get an even more intimate sensibility when the subject switches to a beloved dog.
I was strangely jarred by his inability to understand dogs. If you believe in positive only dog training, this book is very difficult to read. Moobli is hit often, and in many cases, Tomkies’s description of the why he gave the punishment would lead to me think that Moobli would have had no way to understand the correction. For example, Moobli gets hit for defecating in the cottage, even if the offense happened some time before the correction,
Knowing this breed as I do, my guess is that poor Moobli spent much of his life in constant terror of offending his beloved human, who seemed to offer very little attempts to communicate with him. These dogs are not stubborn or recalcitrant. I’ve never known dogs that worry so much at trying make sure they are doing your bidding. It distresses them to know you’re cross with them far more than it does with even golden retrievers.
And yes, they do have an edge to them, and they must understand rules and boundaries. They just must be communicated to the dog in a way that dog understands them, and for someone with such a deep sensitivity towards animals as Tomkies, it can be distressing to read how he is utterly tone-deaf in dealing with this dog.
From my reading of Tomkies’s biography, he owned only two dogs in his lifetime. The first was a free-roaming German shepherd-Labrador cross that he owned in Canada. This dog later accompanied him to Hollywood and made an appearance in a movie as an extra, and this dog was obedient and sagacious. Though he loved this animal very much, he left the dog in Canada on his return to the UK, but his partial German shepherd heritage inspired Tomkies to get one of his own for his Scottish missions.
Tomkies didn’t know dogs. He tried to, but as I read the book, I kept wondering if he would ever understand what Moobli actually was. I laughed quite hard at his description of “Alsatians” as independent dogs, for I will tell you in all honestly that “independent” is one word I would not ascribe to this breed. I can only image what would have happened had Tomkies taken in a Siberian husky or some form of scenthound.
However, despite my reservations with Tomkies’s understanding of dogs, his honesty in the prose is almost refreshing. He confesses to hitting Moobli, even after he decides it is immoral, and he also is open about his abuse of alcohol and how lonely he becomes as the one man sage of this wilderness.
Moobli, though, is such a compelling figure. Moobli has loads of tending and warding off instinct. He finds many injured red deer and sheep on their long hikes into the wild. He also becomes a proficient tracking dog, tracing foxes to their earths and badgers to their setts. That Moobli is able to figure out what Tomkies wants, even though Tomkies obviously had no clue how to train a dog, is a testament towards his German shepherd biddability and intelligence.
Moobli is also a contradiction. Though he is gentle with most sheep and red deer hinds and calves, he could be quite aggressive towards rams and stags that came to raid Tomkies’s sprout and cabbage patch. Tomkies describes the great battle between Moobli and a garden raiding stage, which stands to fight the barking dog.
Further, Tomkies caught Moobli chasing a brown hare while on a visit to Southern England, and although he was able to call Moobli off, his predatory instincts are stimulated. On the returning to Scotland, Moobli gets after a roebuck, which he pursues into the water and kills in a most lupine way.
So the same dog that would tend a starving lamb or an abandoned red deer calf could also kill a roe deer on the run.
Tomkies is more angry at Moobli for the attack. He does not take the time to marvel in this profound contradiction that exists in dogs and humans and in all species that are social hunters. We can be gentle and tender, even loving, but we can also be so savage at times.
Moobli’s relationship with the various wildcats that Tomkies raised is also worth noting. Tomkies lived with wildcats in much the same way that Jim and Jamie Dutcher lived with wolves in Idaho. He really got to understand what a European wildcat truly was in its essence, and Moobli was an expert in tracking down the cats once Tomkies gave them liberty to roam in the wild. He also was the gentle caretaker of any kittens that Tomkies raised in the house.
Moobli is a good dog. He is active and fit, and because of his great tracking prowess, he is the ultimate naturalist’s dog. He can get on the track of the different species on command, tearing off after wildcats and ignoring badger and fox spoor and then tracking those beasts when his master gives the appropriate command.
He is also a superb retriever. Fetching many objects just based upon their name, and when one reads Tomkies’s description of teaching the dog to do a retrieve, it is obvious that he never heard of any kind of formal retriever training. He just points at the object and gives it a name, and Moobli deduces the object by his master’s “Nahs” and haranguing.
That this dog performed so well with such inexpert handling is truly remarkable. At one point, the dog figures out how to push Tomkies’s small boat to shore when the engine gives out. After trying to look for objects to retrieve, he begins to push boat with his paws as he swam strongly in the water.
This dog is on the move. He swims several miles a day in the loch during the warmer months, and he also spends hours traveling over the mountains with Tomkies. The photos of Moobli in the book reveal a faded out black and tan. The dog is a sort of homely creature. His ears don’t really stand properly, even though they were posted. Judging from the photos, he is a hair fat, even though he does get this exercise, and I wonder how much venison and sausage that Tomkies was feeding him every day.
Despite his physical defect, Moobli’s temperament and proclivities are so typical of what the best of this breed has to offer. If only he had experienced a more careful hand to mold him, Moobli would have become an even more special dog than what he became.
I suppose that my difference with Tomkies is that I am a nature writer whose dogs have always been my conduit for exploring the natural world. Tomkies is a nature writer who happens to like the odd dog that he finds useful. Tomkies does not take much time to understand the canine condition. It is always projected through his own very human nature.
The hardest part of the book is what comes at the end. In animal biographies, we know what happens. The animal dies.
And Moobli died of degenerative myelopathy. When he was going through the disease in the early 80s, we had poor understanding of the disorder. Tomkies describes one veterinarian who calls it “the Alsatian disease,” even though other breeds get it, and in those parts of the book, he conflates it a bit with an unrelated arthritis issue that Moobli also developed.
We now know the disorder is conferred by a recessive allele. The spine degenerates when the dog is in late middle age, and in our popular understanding of the disorder, we often see a conflation between this disease and hip dysplasia. Not all dogs that are homozygous for the recessive allele get the disorder, but it is a big problem in the breed.
Tomkies had a hard time letting Moobli go. Swimming was superb exercise for the dog, and after several months dragging his rear, the dog winds up with massive shoulders.
Tomkies writes veterinarians all over the UK, hoping that one might have a the cure. The offer only new treatments. There was no cure then. There is no cure now.
He hits Moobli for defecating in the house when the disorder hits. That was the hardest part of the book to read, but Tomkies realizes that this lack of bladder control is a symptom of the disease. He then rearranges the cottage for ease of cleaning.
For nearly a year, Tomkies keeps Moobli alive. It is only when the dog’s dragging tail becomes infected with bottlefly maggots that he decides to alleviate his suffering through euthanasia.
In the end, Tomkies realizes what a profoundly good dog he had, and in the epilogue, he admits that he has not purchased another dog. He says that he is too full of sorrow to get another, and if he did, it would have to be a very different sort of dog. I detect a bit of remorse about how he treated the dog at times, which is why Tomkies included such horrible images in his prose.
It is just as well, for wild creatures are Tomkies’s true muse. He had a great dog, but he lacked the expertise to understand this creature and its true potential.
The end of the book is Tomkies describing his loneliness. His father has just passed in Spain. Various commercial interests are pressing hard on invading his wilderness. The townspeople are no longer amused by his wilderness activism. No publisher will buy his manuscript, and he is stuck living in the converted sheep shed on Loch Shiel. Moobli’s grave lies just below the cottage, and he is forced to remember what once was and never will be.
This is the true tragedy of the nature writer. He is alone. There is mystery and romance about such an ascetic existence, but it is not all the beauty and the glory of the wildness. It is recognizing that one can put one’s self in exiled existence that is hard to rectify.
And then not even have a dog to care for you.