Jack and Charlie lived at Wild Heart Ranch in Oklahoma in the care of Annette Tucker who has fostered 16,000 animals since she got her permit. Jack was a 16 year-old goat when the story began and Charlie, a horse blind in one eye.
I learned their story on an episode of the program Nature on PBS featuring unusual relationships between animals. I don’t usually watch Nature because, although I can watch any amount of mayhem involving people, I can’t stand watching animals suffer. But this one was full of good news. A retriever and a cheetah raced each other and had play fights, having been paired as puppy and cub, as did a lion and coyote. A gorilla hugged its dog friend. An owl and a pussycat played games. A female deer adopted a blind dog and groomed his hair into spikes every morning. But it was Jack and Charlie that blew me away.
At first, Jack walked on the side of Charlie’s good eye when he guided him to a favourite patch of grass in the woods. Then when Charlie lost his sight in the remaining eye, Jack walked ahead of him and, according to Annette Tucker, Charlie followed the sound of Jack’s footsteps, which he could distinguish from other horses’ or people’s.
Once in tornado weather, Jack came running home screaming. As soon as he got a response, he set off running back into the woods where Annette found Charlie trapped in a circle of downed trees, a real Lassie moment -“Timmy’s in the well. Timmy’s in the well.”
To see Jack plodding along, as he did for 16 years, you cannot explain this dedication. Jack doesn’t seem to get any reward for his efforts nor does he seem especially happy to be doing it. He just goes on doing what needs to be done year after year. He never dawdles along the path, snacking now and again, as he did before Charlie went blind. He walks slowly and steadily about 10 or 15 feet ahead, waiting when Charlie gets confused.
When Charlie dies in his favourite pasture, Jack rests his head on the fallen horse briefly. Then he gets up, walks the path alone and lies down in his usual spot to sleep, apparently unmoved. Does he understand his friend is dead? Evidently, for from that point on, Jack declines. We see a much weaker animal making his way to the woods to graze. In the end, he is buried there beside his friend.
Remarkably, two members of my family, who never watch Nature either, saw the same episode and so I had a little discussion forum. One of them hypothesized that these were highly evolved souls. The other said it was just a case of companionship and that was Jack’s reward.
Scientific studies have found that people who help others are healthier and live longer. It kept Jack going for a great number of goat-years. Giving others what they need can be a satisfying experience. We feel connected when we do and this good feeling translates into well-being.
Jack gave me insight into the nature of compassion. It isn’t a sentiment or even an emotion; it is an action. Jack registered a need and responded to it. He provided a model for me.