Blind Fair Ellen by Albert Payson Terhune-taken from Baltimore Sun Magazine 1933
Sunnybank Fair Ellen was a strange little golden collie, a dog that never saw a glimmer of light. She was born blind – as are all dogs – and she remained blind throughout more than a decade of such gay happiness as falls to the lot of few collies or humans. When the other pups of the litter opened their eyes, Fair Ellen’s lids remained tight shut. A week of so later they opened. But expert vets found there were dead optic nerves behind. There seemed to be but one merciful thing to do. I loaded my pistol to put her out of her misery. It was my wife who intervened, reminding me that Fair Ellen had no “misery” to be put out of – that she was the gladdest and liveliest member of the litter.
When the six-week-old family of pups were turned loose in the huge “puppy yard,” they began at once to explore this immense territory of theirs. At almost every fifth step Fair Ellen’s hobbyhorse gallop would bring her into sharp contact with the food dish, the fence wires or some other obstacle which her four brothers avoided with ease. Always she would pick herself up after such a collision with tail wagging and fat golden body wriggling as if at some rare joke. Not once did she whimper or fail to greet each mishap merrily.
Then I noticed that never did she collide with the same obstacle a second time. Coming close to food dish or the like, she would make a careful detour. In less than a week she had learned the location of every obstacle, big or small, in the yard. She could traverse the whole space at a gallop – without once colliding with anything. It was not a spectacular stunt, perhaps. But to me it seemed – and still seems – a minor miracle.
It was the same, presently, when I took her out of the puppy yard for a walk with me. Into tree trunks and into building corners and posts and benches and shrubbery clumps the poor little dog bungled, but never into one a second time. Bit by bit I enlarged our daily rambles. I was teaching her the lay of the whole forty-acre place. And never did a pupil learn faster. Within a few weeks Ellen could gallop all over the lawns and the orchard and the oak groves and could even canter along close to the many-angled kennel yards and stable buildings without a single collision. She had some nameless sense. I don’t know what it was; but by reason of it I often saw her stop dead, short not six inches from a wall or a solid fence toward which she had been galloping at express-train speed.
It was on one of these educational rambles of ours that her fast-running feet carried her into the lake up to her neck. With a gay bark she began to swim. Most dogs, on their first immersion in lake or river, swim high and awkwardly, buy Ellen took to water with perfect ease, as to a familiar element. She swam out for perhaps a hundred feet. Then she hesitated. I called her by name. She turned and swam back to shore, to my feet, steering her sightless course wholly by memory of my single call. Thereafter her daily swim was one of Ellen’s chief joys.
I noted something else in my hours of unobserved watching. That yard full of collie pups was one of the roughest and most bumptious of all the hundreds of litters I have bred and raised; play was strenuous almost to the point of mayhem. Yet when Fair Ellen joined in the romps, as always she did when she was in the yard with them, they were absurdly gentle, awkwardly gentle; very evidently they were seeking not to hurt her.
Ellen invented queer little games which she played, for the most part, all alone. One of these was to listen to the winnowing of the homecoming pigeons’ wings. The birds might be flying so high as to make this winnowing inaudible to human ears, but Ellen would hear. Always she would set off in pursuit, running at full speed directly under the pigeons, swerving and circling when they swerved and circled, guided wholly by that miraculous hearing of hers – the same sense of ear which told her from exactly what direction a thunderstorm was coming, long before we could hear thunder.
A veterinarian told me there was no reason to think Fair Ellen’s blindness would be carried on to any puppies she might have. He was right. She had several litters of pups during her twelve years, and every pup had perfect sight and perfect health in every way. I sat up with her all night when her first puppies were born. There were nine of them. She did not seem to have the remotest idea what or whose they were. The night was bitterly cold. Ellen for once in her life was jumpy, with taut nerves. For many hours I had a man-sized job keeping her quiet and keeping the nine babies from dying of chill. At last, long after sunrise, Ellen began groping about her with her nose, snuggling the puppies close to her furry, warm underbody and making soft, crooning noises at them. Then I knew that my task had ended; that her abnormally keen ears had caught Mother Nature’s all-instructive whisper. Thereafter she was an ideal little mother.
As the years crawled on, Ellen’s jollity and utter joy with life did not abate. Gradually her muzzle began to whiten; gradually the sharp teeth dulled from long contact with gnawed bones. Her daily gallops grew shorter, but the spirit of puppy-like fun continued to flare.
One afternoon Ellen and I went for one of our daily rambles – the length of which was cut down nowadays by reason of her increasing age. She was in dashing high spirits and danced all around me. We had a jolly hour loafing about the lawns together. Then, comfortably tired, she trotted into her yard and lay down for her usual late afternoon nap. When I passed by her yard an hour later she was still lying stretched out there in the shade. But for the first time in twelve years the sound of my step failed to bring her eagerly to her feet to greet me. This was so unusual that I went into the yard and bent down to see what was amiss.
Quietly, without pain, still happy, she had died in her sleep
You can read more about her in SUNNYBANK HOME OF LAD and in THE WAY OF A DOG by Albert Payson Terhune, two great books!
Now, the first big selling book was Lad, a dog. Here is a link to a photographic copy you can read online. To read go here;
I hope this is helpful. These books are from a different era. But, I love them immensely. Perhaps it is because I am a collie lover, perhaps it is because many of the collies he writes about were ancestors of the wild, crazy bunch I live with now. Whatever it is, I love these books and I hope you may find enjoyment from them also or that perhaps someone you know who loves animals will like them too….