The Puppy Is Not A Metaphor

Photo: AP

Perhaps, as you slid slack-jawed into the gaping maw of your feeds the other day, you encountered the deformed puppy: 10 weeks old, Dachshund-adjacent, soft and still teething and sporting an improbably well-proportioned tail between its eyes. The dog, who was rescued by Mac’s Mission in Missouri, was immediately named “Narwhal,” and is now being referred to as the “Unicorn Puppy,” because people are not generally inclined to treat animals with enough respect to name them after anything other than their most obvious attributes. (He was rescued alongside another much bigger and less viral dog, which sort of lends itself to a cinematic reading of the puppy’s short journey through life.)

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To get the glaring issues out of the way here: No, the tail doesn’t wag, and no, it doesn’t appear to be causing the dog any pain. USA Today actually published the X-rays to prove it. But looking at pictures of the puppy—which first appeared on Instagram and are now predictably inspiring some hastily assigned news stories—does inspire a collection of legitimately bizarre feelings, most of them refined specifically on and through the Internet.

He’s at once so cute you want to take a fucking pick-axe to him, and sort of spiritually repellant in the way that unexpected natural oddities, especially on baby animals, often are: A puppy dog as imagined by the same YouTube algorithms that produce children’s programs like “Wrong Heads Disney Wrong Ears Wrong Legswithout human intervention. So, barring some disclosure that the puppy actually ate his even cuter and more defenseless twin in the womb, or that he’s escaped from the lab where they make designer pets for the screaming progeny of the superrich, there’s nothing wrong with gawking a little. He’s very cute, and the tail in the forehead situation is kind of weird, and it’s reminiscent of some mythical creature—but one that’s also a puppy!—in a time when absolutely everything online is horrifying and monotonous and we’re catapulting towards a despot’s forceful wresting of power.

I’d argue, though, that in the quest to highlight Narwhal’s unique features, some are beginning to stretch a bit far in their quest for meaning. “I think this puppy has the opportunity to show people that being unusual is OK,” Rochelle Steffen, the founder of Mac Mission, told USA Today. “He can go into schools and hospitals and show people it’s OK to be different.” She continued:

“Just because he’s different doesn’t mean we have to remove the difference,” Steffen said. “You need to embrace that fact that he’s special. He was made this way for a reason. We don’t know what the reason is, but he’s amazing just the way he is.”

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Narwhal the Magic Furry Unicorn Puppy wasn’t made that way for a reason—the congenital defect, as the same story notes, was likely the result of man-made toxins either in the environment or ingested by Narwhal the Unicorn Puppy’s mother. And if that tail were, say, on his haunches or behind his ear they would just have named the dog Goldie and the damn thing would be impossible to adopt. Dogs aren’t metaphors about what it feels like to be a person in the world. They’re dogs.

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About the author

Molly Osberg

Molly Osberg is a Senior Reporter with G/O Media.