Why do people love their dogs so much? Is a dog’s love unconditional? Do we anthropomorphize our pets? These are some questions that people ask when thinking about their relationships with dogs. Writer and journalist Benoit Denizet-Lewis, like many dog people, has questions like these himself. He and his Labrador-mix Casey have a relationship that leaves him feeling unsatisfied. Perhaps taken in by the cliche that a dog’s love for her owner is unconditional, he feels that somehow he has let his down down. The solution? He decides to travel throughout the United States for four months in a rented RV. The result is this charming book Travels with Casey.
At once a travel narrative and a treatise on people’s interactions with dogs, Travels with Casey is a fantastic read, with a lot of useful and interesting information as well as some fascinating characters that the author meets on his travels (both four-legged and two-legged). Well-researched, Denizet-Lewis looks at the history of domestication of dogs, and how people interact with canines. He visits farmers who employ their dogs to herd their cattle and he visits New Yorkers who treat their dogs as surrogate children. In both disparate cases, the owners prove that however different their dogs’ roles are in their families, there is a common thread of affection and love. In fact, lots of people love dogs in Travels with Casey – in one poignant example, the author lands in East St. Louis and travels with a man who rescues strays; and in another passage, he interviews staff at a kill shelter, undoing the myth that all kill-shelters are run by monsters. Though Travels with Casey often feels light and breezy, there is a serious message at its core: dogs should be treated with respect.
Denizet-Lewis himself learns this first hand when he rescues a reservation dog who was dying from a uterine infection. Though the decision was potentially a disastrous one – after all, Casey’s nine-years-old, and there was no telling how he would bond with his new sibling – it ends up being an important and compelling thread in the book. As the author travels through the states, he learns more about his new dog’s nature, and how it contrasts with Casey – these differences highlight just how individualistic dogs are.
Because this is a personal narrative, there’s quite a bit of Denziet-Lewis in the book – and all of it is interesting. He has a funny, wry sense of humor, and he’s got a journalist’s eye for details – especially when writing about the more distressing or difficult passages, like the aforementioned kill-shelter, which featured a macabre vision of a conveyor belt, shuffling dead dogs away in plain view of caged dogs awaiting a similarly grim fate. He doesn’t maintain complete objectiveness (he found the parade cruel), but he also maintains a healthy fairness to everyone in his book (even a paramour who jumps ship and leaves a Dear John note and his emotionally-distant mother).
Inspired, in part, by John Steinbeck’ Travels with Charley in Search of America, Denizet-Lewis puts together a highly readable and highly enjoyable collection of anecdotes and stories that engender sympathy and empathy from his readers – even though who may not be dog people (I’m a cat person myself, and I found myself unable to put the book down). When writing about the suffering some dogs face, the author comes across as justifiably righteous in his anger; in Travels with Casey, we read about dogs who are starved, shot, abandoned, and mistreated.
But not all of the stories are sad and tragic. In fact, a lot of them are fun – and some are just strange. For example, in New York, Denizet-Lewis visits a dog park, and describes with hilarious deadpan humor the machinations, intrigue and cliquishness that takes place among the humans. The Westminster Dog Show also provides a startling contrast to his description of finding a stray, matted dog abandoned by the side of a gas station. And his interactions with his own dogs provide the reader with some heart-warming and funny reading, as Casey becomes a more dominant character as the book progresses.
Though a light and breezy read, Travels with Casey does impart an important moral: treat your dogs well. It’s couched in an extremely well-written and engaging tome that will please all readers, dog-lovers or not.