The dog rescuer: Author ruminates on the human habits of his furry friends

Every day, come rain or shine, along the piñyon-dotted trails on his New Mexico spread, Steven Kotler walks his dogs. All 31 of them.

Rancho de Chihuahua is the farm Kotler and his wife, Joy Nicholson, have owned since 2007. Their farm, a nonprofit, boasts no crops, no livestock, no fungible commodities. Just dogs. Sick or old dogs, mostly, and when they come to Rancho de Chihuahua, they usually come to stay.

Steven Kotler photo/gabriella marks

Life at the couple’s dog rescue facility in Chimayo, N.M., and the journey Kotler took to get there, are the subjects of his new book, “A Small Furry Prayer: Dog Rescue and the Meaning of Life.”

The author will be back in his former Bay Area stomping grounds to sign books, with appearances at various local bookstores from Friday, Oct. 1, through Tuesday, Oct. 5.

The book is nominally about dogs, but Kotler couldn’t help slipping in his Jewish influences. The very first page refers to shiva (part of the Jewish way of mourning) and throughout, he plants references to everything from Martin Buber to mitzvahs, all the while sustaining a talmudic disquisition on life’s purpose.

Kotler, 43, is the first to admit he never thought he’d end up nursing sick dogs (mostly Chihuahuas) as a vocation. A journalist and novelist by trade, he had been accustomed to urban life, writing for GQ, Wired and Discover, while living mostly in Los Angeles and San Francisco.

But then he found Joy, who had been a longtime animal rescue activist.

Steven Kotler reads the newspaper on his ranch in New Mexico, surrounded by rescued dogs.

“When you marry into animal rescue, it’s a very different world,” he says. “I’ve been a journalist for many years, and seen a lot of passions, but nothing like animal rescue.”

Days on his remote dog farm tend to be routine, but like  Thoreau at Walden, Kotler perceives a whole universe in the pack.

“After living with a pack of dogs, you see all these behaviors and you realize the line between us and them in a natural environment is really thin,” Kotler says. “Most of the vaunted categories of what we can do and they can’t keep falling.”

Kotler describes gay dogs, dogs that like to dress up, dogs who exhibit altruism, all of which he views as normal dog behaviors. People rarely see them because dogs living with humans are not in a natural pack environment.

It makes sense that such details would catch his eye. Growing up in a traditional Jewish home in Ohio, Kotler was a curious kid. In his teens, he approached his rabbi to inquire about Kabbalah, but was told he wasn’t old enough. Stung by the rebuff, Kotler went on a long spiritual journey that led him to ashrams, monasteries and, ultimately, to science.

But he retained a deep interest in spirituality (his first novel, ”The Angle Quickest for Flight,” explored Kabbalah). These days, he runs his spiritual and scientific interests through a new filter: one that barks.

“Every religion is built on a period when humans and animals speak the same language,” he says. “So does Judaism — it starts with a talking snake. The whole dominion over the beasts is troubling. If the book is fighting against anything, it is in opposition to that idea, believing we are better than and separate from animals.”

From his observations, Kotler concluded that dogs have spiritual experiences, grieve for their dead, seek altered states of consciousness and have souls.

This wouldn’t sound strange to those subscribing to the theory that dogs and humans evolved together, profoundly influencing each other.

According to the theory, outlined in his book, humans outsourced to domesticated wolves some essential survival needs, such as protection. Humans in turn selected for breeding those wolves that bonded with them.

Thus, he says, we need dogs as much as they need us.

“Petting a dog lowers cortisol, the stress hormone in body,” he says. “Prozac takes a month to work and doesn’t always work. Animals work on everybody, and in four minutes.”

Even more than lowering blood pressure, contact with dogs could help humans avert eco-catastrophe by putting them more in touch with the natural world, Kotler says.

But until the ice caps melt, Kotler will be out on the farm, scooping poop and cuddling up with the pack. “I never get bored,” he says. “My love for the dogs has only continued to grow. It is deeply more soul satisfying than anything else.”

And as for the meaning of life alluded to in his book’s subtitle, Kotler says, “For me, you can’t separate the meaning of life from how you live your life, which is very talmudic by the way. How we spend our days is how we spend our lives.”

“A Small Furry Prayer: Dog Rescue and the Meaning of Life,”
by Steven Kotler (320 pages, Bloomsbury USA, $24)

Steven Kotler will appear 7 p.m. Oct. 1 at Borders in Union Square, S.F.;  2 p.m Oct. 2 at Book Passage in Corte Madera;

3 p.m. Oct. 3 at Diesel A in Oakland; and 7 p.m. Oct. 5 at Kepler’s Books in Menlo Park.


Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.