“Beautiful Joe,” The Dog Who Taught Us Empathy

For generations of my family, the late 19th century novel “Beautiful Joe” has served as a model for morality

Penn libraries

It’s high summer in Georgian Bay, and I’m with my cousin on the verandah at the cottage. The air smells like history with a dash of vanilla, or maybe that’s from the book I’m holding. The kids — now adults — are down at the smooth granite shore, swimming, diving, laughing, playing stick with the dogs, when Bella takes off again. They shout for her, but the dog doesn’t respond. A black lab with a year under her belt, Bella’s swimming across the bay, trying to catch the bubbles created by her paddling, impervious to the fact that each stroke takes her further from shore. If we let her go off on her own, she’d drown, but that would make us negligent and cruel. One of the kids swims out to rescue her from the danger of her own joy.

Bella shakes off, and the kids go back to what they were doing. The dogs clamber up the humped rock to the verandah, their nails clicking against the striated Canadian Shield stone, and my cousin and I pick up where we left off before Bella’s rescue: talking about books. I’m holding the late 19th century novel Beautiful Joe by Margaret Marshall Saunders; I haven’t read the book since I was a child, and I’m jazzed. What really blows my mind is that the book was written by a woman — I’d always assumed it was written by a man, but the author used her middle name, suitably male, to publish. My cousin Andrew, a hard-working farmer, leans in.

Nearly everyone in my family is a prolific reader; characters in novels may be fiction, but not to us. I first came across Beautiful Joe as a ten-year old — it’s a Canadian classic, and my mother gave me her copy, the same copy her mother, who came from a farm, gave her.

Our watch phrase is “Be kind” — Joe’s motto. We focused on the core tenets espoused by Joe: beauty, love, goodness, evil. The evil was the hardest.

Narrated from the point of view of an abused dog, the novel recounts the atrocities of animal cruelty. A mongrel living in a milkman’s stable in the 1890s, Beautiful Joe watched his owner brutalize his mother, and kill his brothers and sisters by bashing their brains out or stabbing them with a pitchfork. Joe is spared, only to have his owner cut off his ears and dock his tail. By the end of the book, Joe’s been rescued and has lived a full and happy life with Miss Laura, one of those tender-hearted heroines who loves “dumb animals” and weeps at the mention of animal cruelty. She insists on justice for Beautiful Joe: “The coward who has maimed [Beautiful Joe] for life should be punished.”

Pretty vintage social activism for a ten-year old, but Joe’s story rooted in me. I gave the book to my kids, and they, like me, like my mother and grandmother before us, took Joe into their hearts. Our watch phrase is “Be kind” — Joe’s motto. We focused on the core tenets espoused by Joe: beauty, love, goodness, evil. The evil was the hardest.

Which brings me back to family and Andrew and the cottage. And dogs. Along with our bibliophilia, we’ve an unspoken reverence for animals, a moral obligation toward them. Our dogbaby list is long: Inky, Suzy, Quiggly, Brandi, Heidi, Annie, Bella, Rags, Jennifer, Gemini, Casper, Blackie, and Natasha. Andrew and I are the third generation to have met and loved Beautiful Joe, and we’ve passed his motto on to the next and fourth generation, our kids, sweet dog by sweet dog. Andrew nods at his grandson, asleep nearby. “Make that five generations.” We smile goofy smiles.

But rereading Beautiful Joe is a shocking experience, and I’m unloading. I didn’t get what a forward-thinking undercurrent ran in this 19th century novel: the independent spirit of the women, the farm-women who saved their egg money to purchase subscriptions to magazines dedicated to safe and healthy farm practices, advocacy for an agrarian life. I simply loved the dog, Beautiful Joe, and I hated the characters who were cruel to animals. I became an insufferable snot (Andrew would tell you I still am), pointing out all the nasty things people did to their pets. When I saw a man boot his dog, I screamed bloody hell. When I caught a neighbor boy lighting a stray cat’s fur on fire, I beat him up, and my grandmother and mother couldn’t find it in their hearts to punish me for fighting. My reread of Beautiful Joe confirms my assumption that if my mother or grandmother were still on this earth, they’d advocate for animals and women.

For my kids, being true to Beautiful Joe meant adopting dogs from shelters. Blackie came to us from a greyhound rescue farm — he’d been abused at a racetrack. A leggy, stalwart fellow who protected the boys as they protected him, Blackie’s gentle spirit defined us. Two years into our time together, a waving towel triggered Blackie’s abuse (how could we have known?), and he brutally attacked one of the boys. The doctors insisted we put Blackie down.

Blackie was not aggressive; he was trying to protect himself. Armed with this understanding, we spirited him back to the rescue farm. Nightmares about abuse and death followed as the boys worried the dark hours away. They began to watch and report on dogs in the neighborhood, and often interceded on a pet’s behalf. They didn’t win any popularity contests with the neighbors who failed to walk their dogs regularly, and the man who tied his dog to a tree during the day while he was at work still won’t talk to me. But he walks his dog.

Brandi was one of them, a sibling with fur, their own Beautiful Joe. They’re tender, these kids, maybe too tender. Despite Beautiful Joe’s place in our life, it’s only this year that my oldest son confessed he couldn’t finish the book. “Too awful,” he said, “too painful.”

Sadly, the suffering of animals never goes away. Brandi, one of Andrew’s beloved dogs, ate poisoned meat and died a cruel death. The kids still talk about it, indignant, angry, and sad, and they remember how Brandi watched over them at the cottage, swimming circles around them. Tired swimmers would hang on to her tail as she towed them back in. Brandi was one of them, a sibling with fur, their own Beautiful Joe. They’re tender, these kids, maybe too tender. Despite Beautiful Joe’s place in our life, it’s only this year that my oldest son confessed he couldn’t finish the book. “Too awful,” he said, “too painful.”

Statue of Beautiful Joe in Meaford, Ontario, Canada. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Still, Beautiful Joe is about so much more than a dog’s life. Steeped in the problem of changing economies — another fact I’d wiped out — the book digs into solutions to the animal cruelty problem riddling the country and cities: crowded chicken coops, dry cow pastures, filthy cattle yards, blinkered horses pulling carriages, inhumane animal transportation and slaughter. (“If you could see what I have seen, you’d never eat another bit of meat in all the days of your life.”) No surprise there; the solution is legislation and education, a fact that’s gently repeated throughout the book: “Legislation for the old and hardened, and education for the young and tender.” To reinforce the message, Joe witnesses and reports on the doings in his surroundings, relaying news about the Bands of Mercy (the precursor to the SPCA); treatment of farm and domestic animals: chickens, cows, pigs, horses, and get this, moose and deer; and the practice of vegetarianism. Mind you, as my grandmother would say, the book was published in 1894.

What’s changed since that time? That’s not the question. How is it that a woman in the late 1800s wrote about critical issues (animal cruelty, economic independence, vegetarianism, education and legislation), and we’re still getting it wrong? Who’s the “dumb” animal here?

Being kind isn’t a matter of nostalgia or faith. It’s a matter of empathy. Go ahead. Be a dog. Be Bella paddling for joy.

Be Beautiful Joe.

Be their friend.

Communications consultant

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