Nine weeks ago, a frigid, low-pressure system deposited some six inches of snow on central Belgium. On a Tuesday evening my girlfriend returned from work to her parents’ house outside Brussels and attempted the construction of a snowman in the garden. The process was unsuccessful; it was very cold and the snow was dry powder, with none of the cohesive properties required for the manufacture of what the Flemish call a sneeuwman. Abandoning the original project, my girlfriend sat down on the submerged lawn. As her body reached this thrillingly accessible position her dog attempted to mount her, over and over again. He would not desist. Exasperated, my girlfriend made a decision she had long toyed with. She condemned his balls.
I adore my girlfriend’s dog. My love for him is whole and pure, the platonic philia of the classical Greeks. Jaimy is a Samoyed, an extraordinarily beautiful polar breed with a thick double coat of brilliant white fur and dark eyes set like two coals in the snow. When the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen—a man who once quipped that “adventure is just bad planning”—reached the South Pole 102 years ago, his lead sledge dog was a bitch Samoyed named Etah. It is true too that my love for my girlfriend’s dog is an occasional source of contention in my relationship with my girlfriend. She believes I behave like a feckless absentee father who occasionally appears laden with gifts—earning his children’s adulation—but is never there for the crushing grind of day-to-day care. There is aptness to this analogy; Jaimy’s magnificent coat requires significant work with brush and comb to keep it in condition.
Because I love him, the impending removal of Jaimy’s testes shook me to the core. He is the property of my girlfriend, and in a way I am too, and she wished to castrate one of us. The looming excision of Jaimy’s balls therefore set me thinking about Western-world masculinity and what it means in this still newish century.
To suitably unpack this issue we have to go a little way back in the life histories of both my girlfriend’s dog and me. Jaimy the Samoyed is now three years old. His arrival predated mine in his owner’s life by about seven months. If that order were reversed he certainly would not be called Jaimy. I would have lobbied for Kpukumu, Bellerophon, or some other more mellifluous handle. If we really had to adhere to the breeder’s stricture that all the pups from that litter needed J-prefixed names we could still have gone for Jumo, Jupiter, Janus, or Julian. Jaimy, spelt thus with a y, is I think generally considered a woman’s name. As a moniker for a man dog it is clearly the work of nonnative speakers of English.
In my time with my girlfriend I have corrected her third language from American English to British English and sought to instill in her the basic raft of prejudices about social class and accent required to function in British society. I have thought too that I should aim to correct the name of her dog. But I have come to terms with Jaimy’s name, because I love him for who he is. To take task with his name now would be akin in shallowness to spurning him for the fact that his nose is marginally the wrong shade of black for pedigree exhibition.
I never knew Jaimy as a puppy. I met my girlfriend when we were both working in West Africa, whose climate is frankly unsuitable for a Samoyed. However, I know that, from early days, Jaimy was a troublesome youth. He attended a puppy training class, where a doughty Flemish woman insisted that if his mistresses merely showed sufficient excitement he would respond and eventually heed them. Dutifully, my girlfriend and her younger sister jumped up and down and made exclamations in their implausible native tongue. Dutifully too, Jaimy ignored them. The preferred euphemism now is that he “graduated prematurely” from the class. Later, he was expelled from the village dog-walking club, a select, German-speaking outfit who manoeuvre their charges, which include a Rhodesian ridgeback and two sleek Weimaraners, through the Belgian woods on Sunday mornings. Jaimy attended once, but when unleashed he made a desperate bid for freedom and tried to get into the car of a newfound female friend. On a subsequent occasion when I was present, Jaimy attended a reunion held by his breeders for their recent litters. He, like his other siblings, had to be kept leashed to prohibit attempted coitus with his own nuclear family.
The real problem with Jaimy, though, was his war face. A Samoyed is like a camel in that the intrinsic topography of its visage appears to convey a perpetual, anthropomorphic expression. (NB: in no other way is a Samoyed like a camel). In the dromedary’s case this intrinsic expression, caused by the fall of the lip flesh over those chunky teeth, is one of oriental inscrutability. For the Samoyed, by contrast, the intrinsic expression is a grin. The genetic configuration of these dogs makes the edges of their mouth rise, so it seems they are smiling. (Samoyed owners online, who do not appear to be true metaphysicians of language, banally call this phenomenon “the Sammy Smile.” My preferred alliterative term is the mien of the magnificent mutt). But the point remains; Jaimy, like all Samoyeds, usually looks like he is smiling. That is why the deployment of his war face is such a shocking thing.
The fangs come out. Now his teeth are brilliant white; they were cleaned during the same period of anesthetization when his balls were removed, an operative pairing that we will discuss in due course. Beforehand, when he was still a whole man, and despite the best efforts of my girlfriend and some liver-flavored canine toothpaste, his teeth were a little discolored. But still, even with their enamel tarnished, Jaimy’s fangs were formidable. When he deployed his war face his countenance was immediately transformed from inherent smile to steely-eyed dealer of death by dog. The effect was extraordinary. The war face was usually accompanied by a fearsome growling, so different than the usual high-pitched and, frankly, quite effete squeaking that makes up his quotidian vocabulary. The war face would come out when Jaimy encountered other dogs. If unleashed he would rush after them, and try to kill or mate with them, or sometimes both. He therefore could not be taken off the lead in public. Even on the leash, in my girlfriend’s words, “He acted like an imbecile.” Moreover, there was an element of vile racial prejudice to his aggression. Jaimy, with utter vehemence, loathed black dogs.
It must be noted here that Jaimy’s aggression was only ever directed to his own species. He would try to have sex with people, but never to attack them. Indeed, his usual response to was to lick them, running his raspy long tongue over any section of exposed flesh (feet most favored). Jaimy therefore was never a dangerous dog. But he could not be walked unleashed. On the lead too, his mushing heritage came to the fore. He pulled ferociously. He became too strong and aggressive for my girlfriend’s mother to walk comfortably.
Now to mesh Jaimy’s history with a little of my own. I am a zoologist’s son, and animals have always played a role in my life. However, when I was small my parents were busy professional people and we did not have time or space for the dog that my father craved. My brother and I therefore had a range of exotic smaller pets. There were the skinks, lizards of the family Scincidae that subsisted on surplus locusts from my father’s laboratory and whose status as companionship creatures was severely compromised by the propensity for their tails to drop off every time they were handled. There was also a Russian hamster that with admirable juvenile cultural sensitivity I christened Vanya, only to have to rebrand her as Tanya when it transpired she had been incorrectly sexed. Finally there was a rat named Andre (I continued the Slavic nomenclature even when the species had changed) who never quite achieved the objective I outlined in my diary prepurchase: that he would eventually be trained to sit on my desk quietly observing my penmanship while I wrote in that very volume.
Perhaps in compensation for these childhood deprivations, the three most significant romantic relationships of my adult life have all been with dog owners. First was the deep Southerner by way of Princeton. One Christmas I went to her family home, where I donned a camouflaged onesie and at dawn went with her father on quad bikes to go duck shooting in a swamp. I could only assume this was the northern Louisiana manifestation of the casket test for potential suitors from The Merchant of Venice. Back at the family home, two small dogs were confined to the compound with radio-activated electroshock collars. Their emasculation was completed by the way my then girlfriend insisted on addressing them as “puppies,” despite my suspicion that their pitiful dimensions were in fact their maximum lifetime size. A later girlfriend, a North London Jewess, also had a barely-more-than-ankle-height brute. This small dog was formally called Archibald but was inevitably referred to, for reasons that were never explained, as “Bottim.” Bottim was not a creature that could contemplate independent existence in the wild.
If Jaimy when still in possession of his balls had ever met Bottim, in a canine manifestation of those meetings between former lovers that in the novels of Nicholas Sparks are occasions for touching bonding and in reality Götterdämmerung-like exhibitions of fury, I suspect Jaimy would have killed him. Jaimy, with his glorious coat and doe-like eyes, not to mention his greater, twenty-four-kilogram heft, was clearly an upgrade from my previous girlfriends’ dogs. That may be why I became so attached to him, why he would soon throw back his head and howl at my advent in the family home, why my girlfriend’s mother announced that I had become his “great friend,” and why, if I blew gently on his not-quite-pedigree-standard nose, he would give me a thrilling demonstration of his war face without actually trying to menace me.
Yet I think perhaps the real reason that I became so attached to Jaimy was that I could feel his pain. As we became better acquainted, and I took him for long walks alone through the Flanders Fields, I began to see that, under his double coat, he was a fundamentally conflicted beast. This conflict was, it seemed to me, a consequence of the formidable eugenic procedures that had produced his extraordinary physical attributes. On the one hand, the Samoyed is drawn from spitz stock, one of the oldest of all dog types, the polar ur-ancestor that gave birth to many sledge dogs. However, crucially, and unlike other spitz breeds like the malamute or the husky, my no doubt imperfect understanding is that the Samoyed was not bred exclusively for herding or mushing. The Samoyedic people of Siberia also selected for companionship, for dogs that could enter the primeval camp and keep the children warm with their spectacular coats. With Jaimy I saw the two parts of his life were in continual tussle.
On the one hand, for Jaimy, the repeated demonstration of his wolfish masculinity was crucial. This trait is best explained by his extraordinary and unquenchable enthusiasm for chasing birds. Sighting an avian intruder in the garden he would immediately position himself by the kitchen door, demanding egress. Once released he bounded in the direction of the perimeter shrubbery. He was wholly undeterred by the fact that, in the entire, presumably centuries-long history of Samoyed-bird interaction, I am willing to wager that the Samoyed party has never, ever prevailed. And yet, in parallel to this behavior, Jaimy really wanted to be cuddled. He would pad around the house following me. He wished to spoon, to join my girlfriend and me in bed, to have his soft belly coat rubbed. He loved to be with people, and we were his people. I felt that these two conflicting strains in his personality, rather than the simple fact of his balls, might be the stress that lay behind his intolerable behaviour. Watching Jaimy chase birds in obvious futility produced in me an uneasy sense that his behavior was analogous to certain aspects of male human behavior—not least, to use a British slang term for women, the futile pursuit of birds.
My perceived understanding of Jaimy’s inner pain, however, only redoubled my love for him. I lavished him with gifts (the root of the feckless absentee father complaint). A year or so ago I descended on Harrods, London’s ritziest department store and haunt of the international superrich to whom Britain’s capital is now wholly prostituted. I ascended to the Pet Spa, on the fourth floor. There, high-maintenance women were putting their dogs through high maintenance. I was dispirited to see that no one has yet brought to market (at least not under such a name) the fuck-you-chew, the ultimate dog treat that I hoped to buy for my beloved Jaimy. I settled instead for green food and water bowls emblazoned with the Harrods crest, confident that indigenous products that may seem distasteful within the geographical confines of Great Britain tend to become objects of enormous aspiration once they cross our borders in an outward direction (the royal family is the best example of this phenomenon). As I thought, the dog bowls were well received in the Low Countries, though the Harrods dog bandanna I had picked up was effectively lost without trace in the sheer volume of Jaimy’s mane. Later, following a Jaimy-accompanied visit to the Ardennes battlefields of south Belgium, I spent hours concocting a Facebook album (title: North West Europe, 1944-5) in which Jaimy played all the key personages of the last chapter of World War II, from Eisenhower to General Hasso-Ecard Freiherr von Manteuffel.
Last summer I lobbied for Jaimy to accompany us on a long-planned holiday to northern France. Ironically, this trip, my greatest gesture of love for him, became the most obvious indicator of his state of personal crisis. One day in July we visited Mont-Saint-Michel, the improbable tidal mount off the mouth of the Cousesnon River in Normandy. As we traipsed back inland on the causeway at the end of the day we fell into step with a bitch whose state of estrus was broadcast by a gilet emblazoned with the text “Hot Lady.” Jaimy, who throughout the holiday had attempted to mount numerous animate and inanimate objects, was now faced with a genuine, ovulating female dog. He displayed regal disinterest. Without positing myself as a canine heteronormative, here was clearly one Mont-Saint-troubled hound.
All this while, long before the fateful day of the aborted sneeuwman, my girlfriend mused on the possibility of castration. Her father and I were obviously horrified, but in her female-dominated house (her father, a pilot, is often away, I am only a visitor, there is a sister) our votes carried limited weight.
Increasingly desperate about the survival chances for Jaimy’s manhood, I proposed a radical alternative. On our Norman holiday Jaimy was two and a half years old. Using the crude and no doubt obsolete conversion factor of seven, that made him seventeen in human years. I can remember being a seventeen-year-old male. Those memories made me sympathetic when, for example, I opened the rear door of my girlfriend’s car to see Jaimy sitting up, panting hard, ears pricked, and his very pink penis erect and chipolata-like against the magnificent white of his belly fur. All the while the only potential mate material in sight, bar myself, was a herd of sheep in a neighboring field (though it must be said, those ovine beasts do bear a closer resemblance to Jaimy than some members of his own species).
My final castration-deferral stratagem was the theory that, along with his evidently conflicted personality, Jaimy’s behavioral problems might be more rooted in his intact virginity rather than his now-endangered balls. I believed that if he were deflowered much of his tension could simply evaporate. I proposed the organization of a one-off, spectacular debauch in which he would achieve congress with a range of willing bitches. Afterwards, I suggested he would achieve a Zen-like state of calm. My girlfriend vetoed this plan, claiming in her experience one taste of sex did not bring many men to a subsequent contemplative existence purged of all aggression.
And so the balls went. I was not in Belgium for that calamitous juncture, and I am still panged by guilt that I was not there to accompany Jaimy in his time of barest need. I returned a week later. Jaimy was equipped with a great plastic cone he had to wear at night around his neck to prohibit oral fixations that might endanger his stitching. My girlfriend had earlier reported that, postsurgery, Jaimy was “still getting erections.” A nugget of veterinary advice soothed her: the castration takes two weeks to take effect on aggression. This news horrified me. As I fondled Jaimy’s one-week postoperative ears I knew that the very essence of his manhood was working its way out of his system, never to return. I was physically pained by this notion of ongoing, irreversible seepage. My anger was further stoked by the absurd rhetoric of relativism that accompanied the procedure within the gynecocracy of his home; worst was the aforementioned equivalence in seriousness drawn between the anesthetised cleansing of his teeth and the removal of his balls. Second to that was the suggestion that women would understand male anxiety on this subject because some have their breasts cut off or ovaries or uteruses removed. I disagreed. Mastectomy can make you only an Amazon, not a man. Meanwhile, crassly, my girlfriend occasionally suggested Jaimy could not have feelings either way, using the frankly absurd argument that “he’s a dog.”
And yet, and yet. Several weeks on, with the last of his manly essence drained from his system, Jaimy is better. I have walked him. There is a spring in his step, but most importantly he is no longer aggressive to other dogs. I do not think I have seen the war face since the operation, even when other beasts present their own, inevitably less impressive versions of that expression towards him. As we approach press time, the latest dispatch from Belgium indicates that Jaimy encountered a male German shepherd, that most vexing of breeds, in a vet’s waiting room. He was not filled with his former murderous rage. He remained calm. I still bristled when my girlfriend referred to Jaimy as “our eunuch,” but there is an awful truth here. Some men are indeed easier to live with without their balls.
Simon Akam is a British writer. His work has appeared in publications including the New York Times Book Review, the Times Literary Supplement, The Economist, and The New Republic. His website is www.simonakam.com and he tweets @simonakam.