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Flying burros

By JAY AMBROSE
Scripps Howard News Service
04-JUL-06

A new book about the late Cleveland Amory reminds us that one way we define our humanity is how we treat creatures that are not human. But before we get there, let's talk about a black, wavy-coated, brown-eyed Portuguese Water Dog named Queen Isabella.

My wife and I named this pet of ours after Queen Isabella of Portugal, the mother of the queen who financed Christopher Columbus's trips to America. For short, we call her Bella, which is Italian for beautiful. It is, in my biased opinion, a more imaginative name than Splash, which is what Sen. Edward Kennedy calls his Portuguese Water Dog.

Kennedy wrote a children's book narrated by his dog, "My Senator and Me," but when I ask my dog whether she would rather be made famous by a Democratic senator from Massachusetts or be dead, she rolls over on her back and sticks her paws in the air. This is true. I swear it. The only cost to me has been the 20 minutes it took to teach her the variously applicable trick and the dog cookie I have given her every time she has performed it.

Bella is loveable from snoot to tail except when she is chewing up an irreplaceable item you stupidly thought was beyond her extraordinary reach. She makes demands _ Feed me now! Let's go for a walk! _ but often just lies nearby, coming over occasionally for a scratch behind the ears. She really does enrich my life, which brings me back to "Making Burros Fly," Julie Hoffman Marshall's book about Amory, an author, a TV critic, a one-time fixture on NBC's "Today Show," but most importantly of all, an animal lover.

Julie, a friend who lives in Boulder, Colo., is also an animal lover, which is to say, she has the sensibilities to make clear what Amory achieved through his passion, bravery and intelligence on behalf of all those animals without which our lives on this planet would be diminished beyond calculation. Test me and I might not get high grades for my allegiance to every single element of Amory's causes, but I do not doubt for a second that he had a kind of greatness that served both animals and humans.

The man simply would not tolerate cruelty, and when that quality of endless empathy is placed next to his imagination, flair for the dramatic and a conviction that refused to bend, you get stories like the one the book's title refers to.

Old-time gold prospectors had used burros as pack animals in the Grand Canyon, and many wandered off and multiplied over the years, to the point where they were consuming plants that native wildlife needed for survival. The National Park Service figured the answer was to shoot them, but Amory _ who enlisted an honest-to-God cowboy as a partner _ preferred flying as many as possible out of the canyon on helicopters. This involved herding them on difficult terrain in 120-degree temperatures and floating them down the Colorado River on a pontoon boat, among other extreme difficulties. In the end, 575 were saved.

Through comparable efforts, such as saving baby harp seals from slaughter, and his money-raising, and writing, Amory left a legacy of tough-minded followers who are organized to fight the good fight for animals. "I want to put cleats on little old ladies in tennis shoes," he said, and in a manner of speaking, he did.

Julie tells us that he also bridged "that gap between dogs and cats and American bald eagles to show that there is a whole range of animals worth caring about." I love my Bella, but I also love living in a portion of the Rocky Mountains where a 400-pound bear has been seen wandering around in the morning seeking a cheap breakfast. I haven't caught sight of him yet, but I do see deer, elk, foxes, rabbits, coyotes on occasion, all kinds of birds and yes, some months ago _ a neighbor said he saw it, too _ I spotted an eagle.

I've been trying to teach Bella a new trick. I want her to carry my newspaper down the driveway into the house. She looks at me and cocks her head to left and right and does nothing else. Maybe it's a dignity thing with her. I know this. If we humans are careless in our treatment of animals, our own dignity suffers. We become less than we should be.

(Jay Ambrose, formerly Washington director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard newspapers and the editor of dailies in El Paso, Texas, and Denver, is a columnist living in Colorado. He can be reached at SpeaktoJay(at)aol.com.

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