By Brenda Peterson
During my five years in the human wilds of New York City, I found the great dog love of my life. Kasaluk. If I couldn’t have a wolf or live in the forests of my birth, then the closest I could come to restoring the wild in my tiny Manhattan apartment was a Siberian husky. The moment my eyes met the blazing ice-blue gaze of this runt of a pup, I felt truly seen.
“She’s a watcher,” the breeder added as I held out my hand to the rigorous sniffing and scrutiny of this perfect miniature sled dog.
With her elegant black mask around eyes so newly opened and bright, the pup studied me intensely and then plopped back on her tiny haunches with the certainty of decision. Her posture seemed to say that she would never move again until I reckoned with her. This pup’s stare demanded that I forget the heaving mass of her littermates, all in a milky stupor rolling atop their mother’s belly. I am here, her regal expression said.
“Is she the oldest pup?” I asked the breeder, certain that I recognized in her a keen awareness and sense of lifelong responsibility that I had also felt as the oldest sibling.
“Oh, yes,” he said. “And don’t you forget it. She’s the first and the most curious. Nothing gets past her.”
I was not looking for a watchdog; I wanted a playmate who still had the memory of wilderness in her genes. I well knew that Siberian huskies were known more for their independent natures than for their loyalty. Siberian huskies were the last canine breed to be domesticated. The black thatch on their tails shows just how close they still are to their wolf cousins.
I identified with Siberians, believing myself barely domesticated, certainly more at home in the woods or by the sea than in this stone city. As if to prove her alpha animal status and mark her territory, the first thing Kasaluk did when she dashed into my apartment was pounce onto my futon bed, sink her sharp baby teeth into the worn, woolly fur of my stuffed Smokey Bear, and rip him apart. Triumphant amid the swirling cotton stuffing, Kasaluk raised her small snout and let out a surprisingly haunting howl that called all the dogs in the apartment house to community. Mournful basset bounds upstairs and yipping poodles down the hall, operatic Airedales and anxious terriers, all joined in my husky pup’s howling. Her prey vanquished, her place in the den of home assured, Kasaluk promptly raced across the tundra of my scuffed hardwood floors then stopped in her tracks. With a satisfied yawn, she toppled sideways and within seconds slept the sound, legs-splayed rest that belongs only to puppies.
I lived at the tip of Manhattan island, near the 500 acres of Inwood Park. Kasaluk and I found solace from the stress of city life by bounding through these lush hardwoods. I tried to keep up with her as we loped through the domesticated forest to the Hudson River. Here, ice floes cracked with the great, groaning sounds of glaciers calving. At night we walked under safe streetlights in this old, brick, Puerto Rican, Jewish, and Irish enclave. The Spuyten Duyvil Bridge between Manhattan and the Bronx curved over cold waters; its lights shone like a human constellation, since we couldn’t see stars.
The quality of canine attention I observed daily in this little pup made most people seem like sleepwalkers. Kasaluk was a born observer. She could patiently watch an anthill, as if each tiny insect were unique and compelling, as if the drama of drones and scuttling worker ants was the most fascinating event in the entire universe. Rarely did Kasaluk pounce by way of exploring; she always scrutinized and listened first. If she did engage, it was with a certain detachment.
Though doting dog owners and the camaraderie of sniffing canines mobbed her on the city streets, Kasaluk rarely paused in her steady, sled-pulling prance. I was the sled and she the lead dog. To this day, my arms seem just a little longer because of her headlong instinct to pull weight. It was her keen and wary wolf senses that saved my life one night.
Our Inwood neighborhood seemed safe. Even the elderly Irish McHallfey sisters down the hall or Mr. Edelstein, the Jewish widower downstairs, often strolled late to walk their dogs. There was courtliness and the old-fashioned manners of a small village in our block of 1920s red-brick apartments all bordering the park and the water. We’d all nod pleasantly to one another, let our dogs do their business, and sometimes linger a little to visit — news of the day, weather, the pleasurable drawl of our shared dog stories.
One winter night when the windchill off the river felt like an arctic blast, I walked bundled in an ankle-length down coat and hood. Visibility was nil. Snowflakes lashed us sideways as I trusted my now-juvenile pup to steadily pull me along as if we were navigating the Iditarod in a blizzard. Under the dimmed streetlights, I was mesmerized as a mantle of snow shimmered on Kasaluk’s back, flocking her proudly raised husky tail.
In the privacy and embrace of this blizzard, my imagination soared, as if this city had been returned by weather to wilderness. Suddenly a whizzing sound, then a blinding blow to my temple. I bent double, clutching my head. Blood, warm and sticky, matted my mitten.
Wild hoots and fierce barking as Kasaluk ran straight into a pack of young men circling us. Through a blurred eye I saw a man in a red coat pick up another rock, scoop up soft snow to make another missile and prepare to hurl it at me. Egged on by the shouts of his fellow gang, the young man grinned and reared back to throw. Stumbling and woozy, I struggled not to faint.
As I dropped to my knees, I saw what happened next in slow motion. Illumined in the soft spotlight of streetlamps, a small, six-month-old Siberian pup leapt as gracefully and high as an antelope. Her fangs bared, glinting. Her growl belonged to some ancient canine lupus ancestor as she clamped down on the man’s upraised arm. His surprised howl and her own wolf cry almost harmonized as Kasaluk let him go and then attacked his vulnerable ankle. Howl and lunge, howl and bite, Kasaluk attacked the man with the ferocity of an entire wolf pack bringing down prey.
The gang was shocked that such a small pup could be so fierce and ferociously smart in her feints and bites. They scattered. Someone launched one last snowball-rock. I had enough consciousness to duck. It landed with a menace meant for me in a nearby snow bank. I must have fainted, because I awoke to Kasaluk’s warm tongue lapping my face. Mr.Edelstein, who was himself quite frail, struggled to lift me to my feet.
First the pain in my head, then the loud sound of what seemed like hundreds of dogs howling. Kasaluk had summoned them all with her wolf howls — an entire neighborhood awakened and alert, dogs and people.
“Who wouldn’t recognize her howling?” Mr. Edelstein said as he helped me back to our apartment house. “Who else thinks all our nice little apartment dogs are still wild?”
“Oh dearie, do come in for some hot chocolate,” the Irish sisters with their basset hounds pulled us all into their large apartment. “We’ll spike it with Peppermint Schnapps. Then we’ll bandage you up and call the police.”
“What can they do?” Mr. Edelstein asked as he lavished attention on Kasaluk. My pup sat next to me like a sentry. “Give me a dog over a cop any day.”
Since Kasaluk, I’ve continued my love affair with huskies, having imprinted on the breed so deeply that much of my life’s work has been studying and championing the return of wild wolves—a devotion that first began when a wild pup saved my life.
Excerpted with permission from her memoir, Build Me an Ark: A Life with Animals (W.W. Norton) by Brenda Peterson.
Bio: Brenda Peterson is the author of over 20 books, including Duck and Cover, a New York Times “Notable Book of the Year,” the memoir I Want to Be Left Behind, selected as a “Great Read” and Indie Next by independent booksellers, and Wolf Nation: The Life, Death, and Return of America’s Wild Wolves,” chosen by Forbes as a “Ten Best Environment, Climate, Science, and Conservation Book” of the year. Her kids’ books are LOBOS: A Wolf Family Returns to the Wild, Catastrophe by the Sea and Wild Orca. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Christian Science Monitor, Tikkun, Oprah, and on NPR. www.BrendaPetersonBooks.com