I cleared my throat and adopted my most paternal voice. “Lenore,” I said, “This isn’t going to work.
“You’re so young. You know nothing of love or the ways of older men. He is far more experienced, a father several times over. You’ll both be ostracized. It’s a mistake.
“He has different habits and needs. You come from your own tradition, with its own expectations. I’m not sure you’re compatible. He’s not just unlike you: He’s a completely different species.”
Lenore, my black Labrador puppy, looked at me so balefully that I already knew it was hopeless. I have instincts; I have feelings, her dark eyes seemed to reply. I can’t just turn them off.
As Woody Allen once said in a different context, “The heart wants what it wants.”
Though I’ve lived for some years with sheep, cows, steers, goats, barn cats, chickens—and dogs—on a farm in upstate New York, I’d never encountered a situation where animals of different species have fallen in love, or even had much of a friendship.
But here it is: Lenore, a highly affectionate creature, is utterly smitten with Brutus, one of my three wethers (or neutered rams).
When it’s warm out, I take my flock of sheep to graze in the grassy meadow at the top of the hill twice a day, assisted by my workaholic, extremely businesslike border collie Rose. Rose does not love sheep and pushes them around rather contemptuously but efficiently.
A month ago, I began bringing Lenore along. She’s not a herder, but she’s good company; my farm is a happier place since she joined our little band nine months ago. She lights up every space she inhabits.
Then, one morning, I looked up from my book in the pasture and couldn’t see the puppy. I glanced around and was surprised to see her in a corner of the field, nose-to-nose with the grazing, affable Brutus.
I ran over, alarmed; at 175 pounds, he weighs more than twice as much as she does. But the two of them seemed quite at ease together, oblivious to me.
Rose came loping over warily to investigate and clearly disapproved. She looked agitated, almost revolted; she’d never seen anything like it. A dog hanging out with a sheep? She tried to hustle Brutus back into the flock. He wouldn’t leave Lenore. Rose seemed flustered by this disobedience. It had never happened before. I called her back.
Each day, the pair seems more companionable. Lenore looks for Brutus, and when she finds him, she sometimes challenges him to romp, occasionally rolling over and flirtatiously showing her belly. She isn’t above giving his nose or ear a lick. Some days, they just graze side by side, Lenore also chomping down the grass.
I feared that Rose, unaccustomed to such insubordination, might have a nervous breakdown. I imagined her leaving me a letter announcing that she was resigning and going to work for a real farmer, then striding off with her briefcase. Rose does not, apparently, believe in interspecies love; it offends her ideas of order.
Like Rose, I’d never seen anything resembling this relationship between a joyous, loving dog and a steady but undemonstrative ram. I couldn’t fathom Lenore’s attraction: She’d been spayed a few months earlier. And Brutus’ behavior was even more incomprehensible. Sheep are flocking animals, which is why dogs can move them in and out of a pasture or a pen. They don’t go off on their own and form relationships with other species; they barely seem to differentiate among their fellow sheep. (Although now that I think about it, Brutus was close to his mother.) It is downright unsheeplike to leave the flock and stand nose-to-nose with a dog for long periods. In fact, sheep are so incurious that you hardly ever see them do much but sleep and eat.
I can understand where Brutus is coming from, though. I’m wild about Lenore, ridiculously cute as a puppy, beautiful as a young female, with a heart as big as her appetite. I call her the Hound of Love. In the pasture, I sing to her, songs by Emmy Lou Harris, “Amazing Grace” the way Aretha Franklin sings it (well, kind of), Eva Cassidy’s wrenching version of “Love Hurts.” Lenore even sleeps with me, for heaven’s sake.
Now she seems to prefer Brutus. The two of them are always together. She cleans his ear, he noses her or butts her gently. It’s something to see.
I called an animal behaviorist I knew at the Cornell veterinary school and told him the story. He just laughed and said he had to get to a meeting. “Wait,” I insisted. “What’s going on between my dog and my ram?”
“Can’t imagine,” he chuckled, before hanging up.
At moments like this, I’m glad I’m a photographer, because people might not believe this stuff. But I have pictures. I get a lot of e-mail on my Web site, but I’ve rarely gotten as much as when I posted photographic evidence of Lenore’s love affair with Brutus.
People sent me poems and song lyrics, gushy awwws, and cautions about sex.
“Please, please don’t separate them,” Heather e-mailed from London when I joked that I was considering imposing a strict curfew. “They belong together. Give them a chance to work it out.”
“Obviously, Brutus is unhappy and lonely,” wrote a farmer from Nebraska. “Make sure to give them support. Nothing wrong with it.”
Other people fretted about Rose. Could she handle this? Would she be damaged in some way?
I was a bit worried about Rose myself. The world had turned upside down for her and no longer worked in comprehensible ways. She glowered at the couple.
So, I took Lenore aside, issued heartfelt cautions. “Theother sheep will turn on Brutus,” I warned. “Rose doesn’t approve. Life is hard enough. It has to end badly.”
But animals are nothing if not adaptable. After a week or two, Rose simply seemed to stop noticing the odd couple and concentrated on moving the rest of the flock around. Lenore and Brutus became invisible to her.
This is the new normal. This morning, the sheep trotted into the meadow to graze, and Brutus chomped for a few minutes, then sauntered right past Rose and over to where Lenore and I were sitting. He lowered his head to the ground.
Lenore whined, wagged her tail, rolled over on her back, then righted herself and licked the big guy right on his fuzzy nose.
This relationship can’t go anywhere, for obvious reasons. Love does hurt. But sometimes, it’s nice while it lasts.