Going by the sulky Chihuahua on its cover, one might expect to find Steven Kotler’s book "A Small Furry Prayer" on a shelf beside the likes of John Grogan’s "Marley and Me," but this is no lighthearted tale about a dog with a heart of gold. Thankfully, and despite a subtitle that reads "Dog Rescue and the Meaning of Life," it’s not about a guy with a heart of gold, either. 

Reading Kotler is like having a drink (or three, or five) with an old friend — only this friend is particularly interesting, more than willing to admit his faults and failures, has a sharp eye and an even sharper tongue, and has done loads of research on topics ranging from neuroscience to shamanism.

The story begins when Kotler and his girlfriend, fellow writer and dedicated dog rescuer Joy Nicholson, are given less than a month to vacate the small Los Angeles home they’d been living in with eight rescued dogs. With very little money and a serious need for space, Kotler spontaneously decides to buy a tiny farm in Chimayo, N.M. — a home “chosen because of its distance from, not proximity to, civilization,” and which turns out to boast a 60 percent poverty rate and a serious black tar heroin problem.

The idea is to start “a real rescue,” as Nicholson, who becomes Kotler’s wife along the way, puts it. Their adventures and mishaps begin on the drive out, when Kotler’s bull terrier, Otis, decides that 75 mph is the perfect speed at which to dive under his master’s feet. Upon arriving at their new home in Chimayo, Kotler and Nicholson are met with an extremely distraught donkey, a May snowfall and a drug bust. 

The couple call their fledgling rescue Rancho de Chihuahua, and soon it’s time to start pulling dogs from the local shelter, but while Nicholson begins visiting and volunteering there immediately, Kotler falters: “I wanted nothing to do with the place. Or anyplace like it. Shelters scared me. In hindsight, I think it was fear of empathy, of feeling too much, of the level of commitment that might come from feeling too much, keeping me away.”

It’s this terrifying feeling of empathy — which Kotler eventually walks headlong into and, for better or for worse, fully embraces — that drives his earnest inquiries into a host of subjects ranging from spirituality and philosophy to neuroscience and deep ecology, all with the goal of understanding the ancient, complex and essential relationship between humans and other animals — especially dogs. 

As Kotler thoughtfully explores the canine-human relationship across thousands of years and through various lenses, we meet a host of colorful characters. Some of them are human, like Doc, who for the past 25 years has run the Cottonwood Veterinary Clinic and the New Mexico Wildlife Center, both with the goal of “helping any injured animal that comes in the door.” Really, though, the characters in this story are the dogs.

There’s Igor, the bull terrier with epilepsy, described as “a lot like a steam shovel on PCP,” and Gidget, a 2-pound dancing Chihuahua with demodectic mange.

“Her coat was destroyed, her eyes bulging out, her brain not quite right. Maybe it was the mange, maybe she was a few spoons shy of a place setting, maybe she just felt the funk — whatever the reason — the dog had to dance.”

There’s Stilts, “standing about two feet high, with the torso of an armadillo, the legs of a giraffe,” which gave him the appearance of “a stilt-walking hobbit with an eating disorder.” And Bucket, who is “maybe part pit bull and maybe part hellhound and shaped like a blacksmith’s anvil, with a face that’s unmistakable Calvin Coolidge.”

Before long, Rancho de Chihuahua is home to upwards of fifty dogs, and Kotler finds himself looking for creative ways to both care for and understand them. 

“Each archaic religion in history was built around animals — but why were they sure animals were sacred? And why do so many of us still consider animals sacred?”

Each question he asks and each discovery he makes spring from his own personal experiences living with, loving and rehabilitating these dogs. Kotler’s stories are infused with the wisdom found in the writings of mystics, philosophers and animal scientists such as St. Francis, René Descartes, Claude Levi-Strauss and Elizabeth Hess, and what he learns along the way is amazing to the point of being paradigm-shifting. 

There’s no sap here, but Kotler’s honest, heartfelt stories will have you laughing through your tears. This book is a must-read.

Thumbnail photo: ZUMA Press