Culture: Stories & Lit
There’s a trail along the river near my house where I often jog with my Flat-Coated Retriever mix, Sylvia. I let her run off-leash until I see someone fishing along the bank. Then I lunge for her collar.
Sylvia is usually good about staying close. She’s a classic Retriever that way — laid back, happy-go-lucky, eager to please. But if she hears the thrash of a hooked fish or the whir of a reel, forget it. She’s headfirst in the water, greeting the fish as it’s reeled ashore. Or worse, startling the fish so it breaks the line and swims free.
This wouldn’t be a problem if other anglers felt the way my husband, Scott, and I do. We go fly-fishing about 50 days a year, and Sylvia joins us every time. Unfortunately, ask most fishermen about bringing a dog along and you’ll get this pithy advice: Don’t. A dog, they’ll tell you, will blunder into a promising hole, scattering wary trout. A dog will get tangled in your line. A dog will prevent you from catching as many fish as you would alone.
They’re right, of course.
But the dogless fishermen are, I think, missing the point. I don’t choose a fishing companion — human or canine — because he or she will help me land more fish. I choose to go fishing with someone who makes it fun. By that definition, I can’t imagine a better fishing buddy than Sylvia.
Then again, Sylvia isn’t your typical fishing dog. She doesn’t get bored and wander off. She won’t chase ducks or squirrels. When we’re fishing, Sylvia channels all of her energy into fishing, too. She watches every cast, her eyes glued to my fly as it floats downstream. She knows at what point in the drift a fish is most likely to bite, so she positions herself for a good view of the action. Her entire body quivers with anticipation.
Occasionally, I snag a submerged stick. If I were alone, I’d be disappointed to reel in a piece of wood instead of a fish. But with Sylvia there, it’s not a bad consolation prize. I unhook my fly, then place the branch in Sylvia’s open mouth and watch as she cavorts around in a sort of victory lap.
Once, Scott and his father stood on the bank of a wide river and debated their strategy for fishing it. They saw bugs all over the surface of the water, but no fish were swimming up to eat them. Suddenly, Sylvia splashed into the river, plowing a wake as she paddled to the other side. Scott and his dad squinted. Sure enough, in the shade along the far shore, fish were rising. The humans weren’t paying enough attention to notice, but Sylvia was.
Like any weathered angler, Sylvia has endured fishing-related mishaps. She got her foot caught in a beaver trap. She bit down on a fly and the hook pierced her tongue. She once came home from a day on the river — too early in the season, we thought, to warrant topical pest treatments — with dozens of ticks caught in her coat. Nothing has dulled her enthusiasm.
One winter, Scott went steelhead fishing several weekends in a row. To have a chance at catching these huge, sea-run trout, he had to be on the river by sunrise. His early awakenings set Sylvia’s internal alarm clock, and when the season ended, we couldn’t turn it off. Every morning at exactly 4:30 am, she crept up to Scott’s side of the bed and nudged him awake.
We once spent a Memorial Day weekend flogging three renowned trout streams from sunrise to sunset. But constant rainstorms had swollen and muddied the water, so we never felt a bite. By the end of the third day, casting my line was an exercise in meditation more than function. No matter what fly I tied on, I wasn’t going to catch anything. Why even bother?
Then I’d look down at Sylvia, her brown eyes still focused on my line. Her rain-soaked hair stood in otterlike spikes. Her pink tongue darted from her lips to her nose. Her muscles were tense with unwavering optimism. She was, I realized, more than a good fishing buddy. She was the perfect angler. She embodied the fascination that pulls every fisherman to the river, the singular thought that keeps us drawing back our rods, again and again.
This next cast, she seemed to be thinking, this could be the one.
Culture: Stories & Lit
Getting the Dog You Need
Those of us with exuberant dogs (herding dogs, hunting dogs, tracking dogs … well, just about any dog, really) truly appreciate their exuberance. We even appreciate their excessive need for entertainment and exercise; it helps get us up and moving, after all. But admit it, my fellow exuberant-dog caretakers: don’t you sometimes just want to sit down and relax? Especially during the lazy days of summer?
Before we get to the answer, I must preface this with a description of life with my first dog, Wallace (the subject of Bark’s “Rex and the City” columns). He was a Spaniel/ Setter mix, as hyper as they come, so I never got to sit down and relax in any season. To get him even remotely tired, he needed to be taken outside — where he could gallop, chase squirrels, swim after ducks, leap fences — for at least four hours a day (12 was even better). Accomplishing this was quite a challenge, given that my then-husband, Ed, and I lived in a 300-square-foot apartment New York City. But, because our lives revolved around our beloved dog’s needs, we took Wallace hiking as often as we could. I am grateful for this. Wallace’s exuberance led us to discover some truly amazing parks, hiking trails and beaches within driving distance of NYC. There was the beach at Jacob Riis Park in Rockaway, Palisades Park in New Jersey, and the “remote” Fort Tryon Park at the tip of Manhattan (90 blocks is “remote” to a New Yorker).
My favorite hiking trail became Breakneck Ridge in Cold Spring: an easy and scenic onehour drive up the eastern side of the Hudson River. It’s not an easy trail, and some of the climbs to the ridge are rocky and — to me — a bit treacherous, but the views made it so worth the effort. You could see for miles: the Catskill Mountains … the bluffs at Bear Ridge … and the great and majestic Hudson River, which threaded its way mightily all the way down to New York City. The water, from our vantage point, looked pure and silver. I loved to watch sunlight dance across the river’s surface, as if in celebration. From the ridge, the world seemed beautiful and vibrant and manageable. We would hike down feeling renewed and ready to take on life in the city again (which could be challenging, to say the least).
After our hike, Wallace, dear Wallace, would be tired, so tired that he could barely keep his eyes open as he sat upright in the back seat of the car, resting his head against the window trying to take in the last bit of scenery as we drove south. A tired dog is a wonderful sight.
It was also wonderful to see him run for three hours straight on those trails. As soon as we unhooked his leash, he would gallop off, chasing squirrels, following scent trails and basically just seizing the day. We could hear him barking wildly in the distance — a bray of chase and joy — and when he returned, panting, he’d be covered in burrs and leaves, his eyes so bright we thought he had had a glimpse of the Great Beyond.
Yes, I will always be grateful for my exuberant dog. He brought us nature and hiking and Breakneck Ridge. In the non-hiking hours, however, I must admit that he could be rather a pest. Whenever I sat down to write, he would nudge me and poke me with his snout, running back and forth from my desk to the apartment door. Whenever Ed was stretched out on the sofa watching TV, Wallace would nudge him, too, wedging his head underneath Ed’s hand — the hand that held the remote. If I tried to meditate, he’d crawl on my lap and splay out for a belly scratch. If I tried to do yoga on the living room floor, he’d come and lick my face and then lie underneath me on the mat as I moved into downward-facing dog.
After Wallace died, I adopted another Spaniel mix, Chloe. I was divorced by then, and some of my friends and family questioned my decision to adopt yet another exuberant hunting dog. Especially given that I was living alone in New York City. But we often fall in love with certain breed types, and even certain mixes.
Those of you who are familiar with this column know I adopted Chloe sight unseen, and that I adopted her because I fell in love with her picture on Petfinder.com, and because she was listed as a Spaniel/Setter mix, just like Wallace. I was prepared for a dog who would want and need to gallop four hours a day. When I met Chloe, I began to suspect that she was also part Border Collie and/or part Lab as well. Did this mean she would need 12 hours per day — four for each breed characteristic?
For a few weeks, I was a bit terrified: a Border Collie in New York City? I kind of prayed that she was mostly Spaniel. Her markings (white with patches of brown) could be either Border Collie or Spaniel. She has those intense Border Collie eyes, however — those “I will stare at you until you do what I say” eyes. Would I ever be able to sit down and relax again?
I also have to admit that, by the time I adopted Chloe, I had become lazier about exercise in general and hiking in particular. Truth be told, it was my former husband who was the hard-core outdoorsman. Once we split, there were no more arduous six-hour treks up steep, rocky ridges for me. But I was willing to resume that old habit to keep my new dog and myself in tip-top shape.
Fortunately, by then, I also lived part-time in Woodstock, which is situated just at the edge of the Catskill Mountains. There are plenty of parks and trails through which an exuberant dog can gallop and play. My favorite trail is right in the heart of the village. I like it because it is easy and flat and relatively short — it takes about 45 minutes to walk the loop. I especially like it because of its simple beauty: the trail threads through meadows and forests and then meanders along the banks of a robust stream — one that, in spring and summer, teems with waterfowl and frogs and fish.
Wallace would have gone into a birddog frenzy at the sight of the fowl, and I figured Chloe’s Inner Spaniel would be activated as well. But the first time we hiked that trail, Chloe ran straight past the waterfowl and plunged into the water.
It turns out my bird dog is a water dog, more interested in what lies beneath the water than what paddles along on its surface.
I’d never seen anything like it. She ran into the water, tail held high, and immediately began trolling for fish. She gazed intently in the shallows (with those Border Collie eyes) until she detected even the slightest movement beneath the water. Once she spotted one of those tiny minnows, she pounced.
I stood and watched her race up and down the shore for a few minutes, splashing happily through the shallows. Part of me was eager to keep walking, to maintain our fat-burning, aerobic pace. I figured Chloe would tire of fish-trolling once she figured out that fish were not easily caught. But I quickly realized that the fun, for her, was in the pursuit. She continued to track, flush and chase these fleeting creatures for the next hour. Sometimes she swam into deeper water to flush out trout; other times, she stuck her snout into the water to try to catch one with her teeth. Her tail wagged non-stop the entire time.
After a while, I sat on a large, flat rock and watched, enjoying her enjoyment. I personally did not get much exercise that day, but Chloe did. And once we dog lovers discover something our dogs love, we tend to go out of our way to provide more of it for them.
Thus it was that I discovered that the Catskills have all sorts of hidden streams, creeks, ponds and swimming holes. Chloe loved every one of them, for each contained different types of fish, which swam at different speeds. She quickly developed new skills to adjust to each variety.
As for me, I had to adjust to the fact that I wouldn’t get much exercise with a water dog unless I swam or fished myself. Which I didn’t, (a) because mountain-stream water is way too cold, and (b) because I don’t kill fish or any living creature. (I also had to adjust to the fact that a constantly wet dog means a constantly wet and mud-splattered car, and an extra hour each day spent wiping down the wet dog and washing the dirty towels, but let’s stay on topic.)
Then I remembered something my friend Melissa often says: “We get the dogs we need.”
Since my divorce, I had become pretty serious about my spiritual practice, sometimes doing up to four hours a day of yoga, mediation, chanting, chi gung and so forth. Though this can be time-consuming, I find that doing these practices ends up creating more time — quality time — and I can get more done in the day. But still, I am human, and we humans do love to multitask. New Yorkers seem particularly creative with their multitasking, especially when it comes to their dogs, so you’ll often see city dogs “doing errands” with their guardians: walking four blocks to the dry cleaners, helping to carry home groceries with their little doggie backpacks, scoring cubes of cheese at the Friday-night wine tastings, among other things (in NYC, wine tasting at the local wine shop is an “errand”).
I quickly realized that having a water dog was perfect for my new lifestyle. Each day, we drive to our favorite park and walk 20 minutes along a forest trail until we reach our favorite stream. There, Chloe trolls for fish while I do, first, my standing practice (chi gung, yoga) and then my sitting practices (meditation, mantra). I love these mornings especially in summer. I love the bubbly sound of the water (the stream always seems to be singing). I love the sound of Chloe splashing; the sight of the sunlight dappling through the trees; and the smell of so many elements: water and wood and stone and air. At that stream, it smells like Mother Earth herself. It smells like home.
Sometimes I find myself missing those hard-core hikes at Breakneck Ridge, and seeing those grand vistas with all their promises of greatness and grandeur. Sometimes I miss standing atop a mountain, above the teeming masses, so close to the sky and clouds. But at this stage in my life, I really value the stillness of sitting quietly by a stream. I am grateful for the opportunity to touch the earth, and rest, and go within.
Yes, we get the dog we need. When I was married, we needed a dog who would get us out of the cramped apartment and into nature — my husband and I would have killed each other otherwise. When I got divorced, I needed to slow down, look inside and center myself again.
And how cool is it that I get to do this and tire out an exuberant hunting/herding/fishing dog at the same time? It’s a perfect arrangement. We are both refreshed and content. Each day, Chloe has an opportunity to cultivate her Inner Water Dog and I get to cultivate my inner self.
After 90 minutes or so, it is time for us to go home. Chloe is often reluctant to get out of the water — she’ll look at me with a confused, almost betrayed, expression. But eventually, she’ll conclude that I am indeed serious about leaving the park, especially when I turn and walk away. Then she’ll bound out of the water happily — on to the next great adventure: sleep.
Culture: Stories & Lit
Sometimes, what you get is better than what you wished for
I didn’t want a border collie. in fact, i wasn’t convinced that I wanted a dog of any kind. I’d had two wonderful Australian Shepherds who filled my days with all the joys of walking, working and playing with them. Not to mention with the worries and frustrations of their injuries and misbehaviors. Once they were gone, I was ready to try a dog-free life.
Or so I thought.
Instead, every morning I woke up with a profound sense of loss. I didn’t know how to take a walk without a four-legged companion. My hands kept reaching for an absent furry head and damp nose. My husband said I seemed lost. But I resisted. Because I didn’t want just another dog; I wanted a certain kind of dog: one with all the benefits of a herder (intelligence, connection, focus, trainability) and none of the drawbacks (intensity, hyperactivity, aggression).
I fostered a few candidates. This one was too dim, that one, too unpredictable. Then I saw an adorable Border Collie mix on a rescue site and wondered if she might be the one. I wrote a candid letter saying that I honestly didn’t think the dog I wanted existed. The woman at the rescue group said the dog pictured didn’t fit my ideal, but sometimes — rarely — the type I described did appear. She said I would have to be patient.
But, as it turned out, not for very long. Soon enough, she called and asked me to come see and, she hoped, foster a dog who had been found living under the porch of an abandoned hunting camp; the dog was floundering in rescue, overwhelmed by the general Border Collie insanity that surrounded her.
It was a fairy-tale meeting. She threw herself directly into my husband’s lap. Though she was gimpy from what we later discovered was a broken leg that had healed without being set, half-blind and full of birdshot, she was also sweet, self-contained, thoughtful, calm, smart. It took 48 hours for fostering to turn into adopting. We named her Ainsley, Scottish for a hermitage in the woods.
She had perfect off-leash manners, was obedient but not obsequious, enjoyed learning new things and was deferential to our cat and other dogs we met on walks. She learned the great pleasures of rawhides, bones and toys, and that getting toweled off was perfect compensation for a walk in the rain. When unleashed, she returned to our front doorstep like a homing pigeon.
Well, at least for the first couple of years. Then she started the “Sorry I disappeared into the woods while you cried and called for me, but the chipmunks needed organizing” stuff. Along with “Other dogs are evil and must be chased away” and “Cars, trains, joggers, bikers and any other moving object must be pursued.” At first, I was kind of, sort of, pleased with her newfound confidence, thinking that this behavior was the result of delayed-onset adolescence and would soon fade away. But as her self-assertiveness turned into explosive moving object/dog aggression, I became confused, embarrassed, flummoxed and overwhelmed. Where had my Border Collie Lite gone? And who was this snarling, barking creature lunging at the end of my leash?
Even more important, what was I to do?
I spent hours reading articles and books and watching videos on aggression. I worked with trainers and behaviorists who prescribed everything from hard corrections with prong collars or tying her to a post and walking away to operantand counterconditioning combined with a head collar and clicker training. I contacted the rescue group and begged for insight and advice. I took her to the vet for a blood workup and complete physical. I changed my walk schedule and locations to avoid other living or moving things. In my darkest hours, I even considered returning her to rescue, as though she were a piece of merchandise that had not performed as advertised. I lost my temper, I cried, I wrung my hands. I looked into my dog’s eyes and asked what was wrong.
Eventually, I realized the truth: nothing was wrong. Ainsley was just being a whole lot more of Ainsley. As one trainer explained, after months or even years, some rescue dogs come out of depression or repression and “blossom.” As my husband more succinctly said, “She’s just being a dog.” And Ainsley’s behavior told me, “I’m having a blast.” She was still sweet and soft, affectionate and trainable — she was just a whole lot of other things as well.
I knew that ignoring or accepting her aggression would be irresponsible and dangerous. But even armed with all this new knowledge, I still balked. As I hoped for improvement rather than helped her improve, it became clear that I was the biggest barrier to progress. The truth is, I was reluctant to confront Ainsley’s behavior because I was reluctant to admit that she was something other than my dream dog come true. So I swallowed hard and gave up my fantasy of an off-leash dog. She chases everything that moves and therefore risks injuring herself as well as other critters, so now she never goes out without a leash, six feet long in town and 30 or 50 feet long when we’re in the woods.
Then I gave up my fantasy of a dog-friendly dog. I would like to walk around my town with a calm, tail-wagging canine who puts all the other ill-behaved dogs to shame. Instead, I have a dog who is perfectly behaved as long as no squirrels, other dogs or trucks are in close proximity. In which case I have a Cujo. (Fortunately, more frequently these days, I have a dog who is trying very hard to sit still and look at me for treats, even though she really wants to be a Cujo.)
The next fantasy to go was that of having the perfect dog and therefore being seen as the perfect dog owner. Instead, I throw myself into situations that ensure bad behavior on her part and embarrassment on mine so I can do all those strange and counterintuitive training things that will help her work through that bad behavior.
I also gave up my fantasy of having an ideal walking companion, and accepted that her behavior could be managed, but perhaps not changed; could be improved, but probably not eradicated; that working through it and around it would continue on each and every walk we shared, for the rest of her life. And I embraced the notion that our walks, and the training itself, could be, should be, lots and lots of fun.
Here’s what I found helps: A head halter to humanely control her physical behavior, along with months of patient and regular counterconditioning sessions that incrementally reset her trigger threshold. Carefully observing her to determine whether she wants to move away from or toward the trigger, and using that movement as part of the reward. Working with sympathetic friends, trainers and dog kennels with the other dogs on-leash or behind fences so we can practice the abovementioned counterconditioning/proximity-controlling sessions. Having the jogger, biker, person wearing a large hat and/or driver of the big white truck who share our walking trail stop and give her treats instead of racing by at full speed. Acting like a complete goofball when a trigger comes by in order to distract her and defuse us both. Swallowing my annoyance and embracing her with joy and snacks when she suddenly reappears dragging all 50 feet of yellow nylon lead with the handle that broke when she bolted and chased deer for an hour and a half through the snow-filled woods.
But what helps most? Realizing that in fact I have something infinitely better, more interesting, complex, nuanced, challenging, rewarding, entertaining, enjoyable and authentic than a dream dog. I have a real dog.
Culture: Stories & Lit
Searching for mountain lions.
Jadzia’s barks wake us in the dead of night.
Not happy ones or play ones, but her all-business barks. I leap from bed thinking a bear must be prowling outside. The trailer’s screens can’t keep out mosquitoes, much less a grizzly. But Jadzia is not looking out a window. Instead, I find her in the middle of the gear room, barking at the closet door.
“What’s your problem?”
She ignores me. Hey, you in there! Come out and fight!
I sigh and open the door.“There’s nothing in there, ya moron.” Jadzia lunges for the top shelf. Then I see it—a radio collar that, until yesterday, was worn by a mountain lion. It’s wrapped in three layers of plastic bags. Jadzia paws at it. “You weren’t so brave when we found it,” I tell her.
It is Labor Day. My wedding anniversary. Three times a week since May, my wife Misty and I have taken turns squeezing into the passenger seat of a Cessna 185 to fly over the southern Selkirk Mountains, tracking radio-collared lions for my graduate research. Our trailer is next to the grass runway on the end of Sullivan Lake in northeastern Washington. Although a dozen other small planes landed here over the holiday weekend, Jadzia’s tail hadn’t begun wagging this morning until she heard the faint drone of the one Misty was on. Jadzia ran for the airstrip, then whined and pranced while the plane circled the lake, floated down over the water to the end of the runway, then bounced and rolled to a stop. She ran to the plane and greeted Misty and the pilot, Dave, with enthusiastic kisses. Misty reported that they’d detected a radio collar that hadn’t moved in two days. A dead lion or a slipped collar.Anniversary or not, we had to investigate.
To get to the ridge the radio collar was on, across the border in British Columbia, we had to walk through a pasture. Perhaps the cows were bored, or maybe they thought we had something better than Canadian grass to eat, but we soon had a Pied Piper thing going. Jadzia, the third member of our field crew, immediately started dishing smack to the cows. She’s part Rhodesian Ridgeback, so the fur from her shoulders to her rump rose in a canine Mohawk. She thinks it’s tough, but it really looks ridiculous. The cows were unimpressed, too.
“Leave it!” I told her.
Jadzia snorted. Just doing my job.
“Leave it anyway.”
She moped after us into the forest at the base of the ridge, where we broke out our radio gear to track the collar. It was spooky work. Somewhere above us was either a dead lion, which might have attracted another predator like a grizzly bear, or a live, uncollared one. An hour later we found the radio collar in the thick brush.We didn’t find the lion—it had slipped its collar and could be miles away. Or, only feet. “Let’s get out of here,” I said. Misty was ready to go, but Jadzia—chuffing and pacing around a pile of leaves and branches—wasn’t. I shifted some vegetation and saw a deer carcass cached beneath it, leftovers from the lion’s last meal. A recent one, judging by the kill’s bloody condition.Misty and I must have walked by it a dozen times while searching for the collar. Usually Jadzia cannot resist picking up bones or rubbing her ruff in decaying goo, but she wanted no part of this dead animal. She sat off to one side, tail tucked between her legs, the antithesis of her normal dominant behavior. Ironically, Rhodesians were bred to hunt African lions. We were a long way from Africa, though, and Misty and I were the only pack-mates around to watch Jadzia’s back if a big cat wanted to mix it up. Jadzia sniffed the air.
“Uh-oh,” I said, “vertical fur factor.” Jadzia’s back hairs were standing straight up again. She looked part Stegosaurus.Misty rolled her eyes. Did I mention this was our anniversary? “Good find,” I said, and patted Jadzia, trying to smooth down her fur, as though that would eliminate the cause of her unease. Locating lion kills was an important part of my predation study, but hanging around a half-eaten meal with an uncollared lion nearby was a really bad idea.
We flagged the site and headed down the ridge. As each step added to the distance between us and the lion’s kill, Jadzia’s tail and usual cockiness re-emerged. By the time we reached the pasture, she was ready to take on the Canadian cows again.
Investigating predation sites is not as glamorous as it sounds. There are thick woods to thrash through and steep slopes to slip on.Usually the kills are weeks old, with little left but a scatter of bones.Helping us locate these bones is one of Jadzia’s jobs.After finding the collar dropped by the mountain lion, I decided we should work a nearby site, where the same lion had killed a mule deer a month ago. Bouncing down dusty logging roads to get to a specific area was time-consuming, so it seemed logical to me to do this now rather than return another day, even though it was our anniversary.
After only a few minutes at the site, Jadzia emerged grinning from the shrubs. I expected to see a bone in her mouth, but instead, the whipping tail of a field mouse protruded from her lips.
“Drop it!” Misty said.
Jadzia’s brow furrowed and her big brown eyes grew sad. Are you KIDDING, Mom? Don’t you know how hard this thing was to catch?
Jadzia opened her mouth and the soggy mouse plopped to the ground. It looked around wildly, then scurried away.
Part of my predation study involved measuring vegetation to determine differences between sites where lions made kills and sites where they did not. As I walked out laying a transect sample line, I slipped and fell, but didn’t hit the ground, hanging instead in the thick shrubs like a fly in a spider’s web. I heard the brush rattle. It was not a spider, but Jadzia. What are you doing, Dad? A few face-licks and she moved on. Dad’s okay—he’s just a little weird.
Watching Jadzia leap over logs and thread through dense thickets with ease and grace, I could picture a mountain lion working the same terrain, using its stealth and agility to stalk an unsuspecting deer. Like me, Jadzia is part couch potato.Yet in the forest, her wild ancestors seemed less distant than mine, providing me with another, non-human perspective into the natural world. Away from their heated homes and kibble dinners, few companion animals are wild enough to survive on their own, yet most are more connected to the natural world than are their human friends.
Another one of Jadzia’s roles on the crew was beast of burden. When I regained my feet and reached the end of my transect line, I realized I didn’t have the clinometer—a device for measuring tree heights. “Where’s the clinometer?” I shouted to Misty.
“Don’t you have it?” she shouted back.
A few moments later, Jadzia appeared next to me, clinometer tucked under her collar. She was laughing dog-style, tongue lolling from her gaping mouth, eyes bright with glee. Forgot something AGAIN, didn’t you?
“Who asked you?” I replied. “Let’s not forget who makes your dinner.”
Jadzia snorted.We both knew who’s really in charge here. She turned and raced back toward Misty. A moment later, I heard my wife cry out. I sprang to my feet and thrashed back through the morass of shrubs, fearing lions and carnage. I found Misty at the bottom of a small rise, kneeling, her back to me. Between her shoulder blades was a muddy paw print—a dog’s.
“She just jumped over me!”Misty said.
By the time we finished our work, Jadzia had covered 10 times as much ground as the two of us combined.When we got back to the trailer, she collapsed in the yard. We had to wake her up for her Popsicle, then hold it while she raised her head and licked the cold treat.
Although a vital member of the field crew, Jadzia is not a working dog. She’s a pet. The state ofWashington had a policy against dogs riding in state trucks, and we compromised by strapping Jadzia’s crate in the bed. I thought Jadzia would balk at riding back there, but every morning she would be in the crate before I came out with my coffee. Come on, Dad! Let’s go!!
I turn the triple-bagged radio collar over in my hands.“What was she barking at?”Misty calls from the bedroom.
Unlike jadzia, who was the crew’s dog-of-all trades, specially trained hounds were used to catch the lions. I remember standing knee-deep in powder snow above Stony Creek, in the rugged region called the Forgotten Corner of northeastern Washington.
Up there, the cold air was silent except for the baying of the Black and Tan Coon Hounds— Boomer, Sooner and Maggie—in the valley bottom far below.
“Must have a cat treed,” said the houndsman, Tom.He meant a mountain lion.He was a short man of few words.His favorite story was the time my lunch sack came open on the back of my snowmobile, leaving a trail of food for him to follow. There was a bit of hound in him.
Washington voters banned hound hunting in 1996, yet it remained a contentious issue, with as many opinions as there were people in the state. The dogs’ hard-wagging tails and eager barks when setting out on a fresh trail left no doubt as to what they thought about the subject. The lions, if the dogs managed to tree them, disdained opinions, simply watching both humans and dogs below. If they had a middle finger, no question about what direction it would be pointing. But we were not out there to shoot a lion.We were hoping to radio collar one. Since the ban, Tom and his hounds had continued to work by helping state game wardens remove lions who ventured too close to someone’s back yard and assisting research projects like mine. The population of caribou in the southern Selkirk Mountains, which stretch north from Washington and Idaho to Kootenay Lake in British Columbia, had been in rapid decline for decades. Lion predation was the suspected cause. My job was to find out if that was true. The Black and Tans were the specialists of my field crew, trained by Tom from pups to do a single, dangerous job—tree big cats.
We unloaded all the gear needed to safely anesthetize and lower a 200-pound animal from 20 feet up a pine tree. But before we could strap on our snowshoes to head down the steep slope, the hounds’ baying changed from quick, constant barks to sporadic, frustrated howls. “Cat’s bailed,” Tom said. “He’s on the run again.”With all our gear, we had no hope of keeping up with the animals. Tom headed down alone with just a radio, a knife and a Snickers bar.He also had a pistol for protection, but I’d never seen him take it out of the truck.My job was to wait for his call and try to keep from freezing. The lion, hounds, and houndsman zigzagged across the valley all day without the dogs getting close enough to run the cat up another tree.As night closed in, Tom called the hounds off the trail.We packed up our gear and headed home. It took two weeks—dozens of hours snowmobiling backcountry roads looking for lion tracks—before we treed the cat again and collared it.
Jadzia won’t stop barking at the bagged collar. Finally, I take it outside and put it in the cab of the truck.When I come back in, she follows me into the bedroom, climbs up on the bed and snuggles down between us. She sighs and tucks herself into a furry ball. Soon her feet start twitching as she dreams—perhaps of chasing rabbits. If it’s a good dream, she’ll catch one.
Culture: Stories & Lit
Their bedraggled faces peered at me from the adoption website Petfinder.com. Lucky Dog, a 3-year-old Bichon Frise, and French Fry, a 2-yearold Bichon/Poodle mix, had been rescued from a puppy mill that kept dogs under appalling conditions and bred them until they died. Lucky looked like a tough guy and the protector of Frenchy, his pitiful sidekick. Together, they called to mind woeful street orphans from a hundredyear- old daguerreotype. They came as a duo — no separate adoptions allowed. I wasn’t a prospective adopter; I was just looking. And looking. I kept going back to the site and staring at those two hurt creatures.
Lucky looked just like Goody, my son’s 12-year-old Bichon, who had died the night before I had surgery to remove a three-and-a-half-pound cancerous tumor from my colon. The tumor weighed exactly what my son, Jesse, had weighed at birth. He had died two years earlier, suddenly, in his sleep at age 17. After the surgery, I was the semi-walking wounded, recovering on my daybed, watching reality shows to see if they bore any relation to my current reality, which seemed more like a particularly disturbing episode of The Twilight Zone.
Goody had been a prince among dogs. He had arrived on my son’s bed Christmas morning, after a spoken request to Santa Claus. The request had carried weight: Jesse was quadriplegic, nonverbal and, at the time, seven years old. Little-boy longing had pushed the word “dog” out of his mouth, and there was no question that heartfelt wish would be granted.
I showed Lucky and Frenchy’s picture to my husband. Chris was noncommittal, but there was no mistaking that softening around his eyes. We became prospective adopters. Three recommendations and a home visit were required. We passed, even though we were convinced nerves made us seem shifty. After signing impressive-looking contracts (how would they enforce them?) and promising to never kennel them, we drove to Connecticut for the pick-up. It was a June day, four months after Goody had died, four months after the surgery, 30 months since our son had died.
On the first day, I took stock: They weren’t housebroken; they didn’t know their names; they shrank from us, so no leash was possible. To interest them in following me to our unfenced yard, I had to summon my inner canine. What if they bolted? I pictured the formidable interview lady checking up on us, only to find we had allowed Lucky and Frenchy to be crushed by a school bus on their first day of freedom.
They ran behind me, tottering like elderly little men on walkers, their legs stiff from a life encaged. I blinked back tears and herded them into our enclosed pool area. Their true dog selves emerged; they began cavorting and chasing each other. Lucky careened around a corner and fell into the pool. Chris heard me scream and stood on the deck above the pool, highly amused, as he watched me haul myself out of the water, hampered by clothes that now weighed a ton. Lucky pranced off, ungrateful for my lifesaving heroics. Chris brought me a towel, still laughing. A lot. Our laughter was creaky from disuse, like Lucky and Frenchy’s legs.
It’s a year later. They’ve commandeered the comfy chair. They’re housebroken, they know their names and they walk on leash (Lucky bites his). Frenchy nudges my leg, asking for caresses. Lucky still runs away if I even glance at him, and he sleeps with one wary eye open. He’s my favorite, because he’s both dauntless and terrified, and he reminds me of me. In bursts of bravery, he’ll stretch himself forward, quickly lick my hand, then bolt. I stalk and capture him to put him in my lap and pet him.
“You heal me, and I’ll heal you,” I whisper.
Culture: Stories & Lit
Looking for love—and a meal.
He lay in the shelter of the cantilevered deck of a large house perched on top of a dune and watched the pelting rain pockmark the sand. With a practiced paw, he scratched at the fleas who had made his shabby coat their home this past week —the week that found him alone and hungry. The beach was deserted, as were most of the houses along this strip of golden coast. He remembered a time when he had all the food he could eat and a bed next to a fireplace whose dying embers gave him warmth. Someone had always combed his fur, which made him ripple with pleasure. A strange-smelling collar, gently fitted around his neck with love, seemed to him both protection and a sign that he belonged.
He rose stiffly and tried to shake the unwanted tenants from his yellow coat as he yawned mightily. A gnawing in the pit of his stomach drove him to seek sustenance. Two houses away, the tiny woman sometimes gave him leftovers if he moaned piteously by the back door; it was worth a try, but today that tactic failed. The place had been sealed for the winter. His sometime-benefactor was gone.
He trekked the long empty road to town and searched for alleys with overflowing trash cans in which he could forage for something to eat. That was a last resort, for, as he had found, other dogs had laid claim to the garbage and he had learned not to mess with them. They traveled in packs, slinking around corners in the darkened streets and showing him their sharp teeth when they found him in their territory. One of them, the leader, Whippet-thin and short-haired, as they all were, had chased him from his domain, snapping at his tail as he ran. At a safe distance, he turned his head and saw them in a tight cluster—sentinels of scraps, who made sure he had gotten the message before they turned their attention to the remnants of gourmet meals on which they subsisted.
When the rain let up, he trotted to the narrow blacktop road, stopping at a pothole to slake his thirst in a rainwater puddle. His eyes then moved to the distant highway where he watched the occasional car speed by. Wearily, he moved ahead, head hanging low.
A squat, boxy station wagon pulled into a nearby driveway. He crept along the tall, untrimmed hedge, lay down, and watched as four people emerged and pulled boxes and suitcases from the back of the vehicle. The faint smell of food drifted from the boxes they carried to the house and made him salivate.
A small boy spotted him hiding near the hedge and bent down, regarding him solemnly. Shaking his coat once again, he stood and wagged his tail to show he was friendly. The boy reached out a tentative hand and he licked the fingers ever so gently. The child’s face crinkled with delight. He ran to the man and tugged at his sleeve. The dog watched the man turn, frown at him and shake his head. The child pleaded and was soon joined by the little girl, who clapped her hands and made cooing noises. Both ran to the woman, who smiled at the dog and touched the man’s arm. She nodded, and he snapped his fingers. Obediently, the dog trotted forward, sat and waited.
His coat was now raked with little fingers, which brought back memories of other scratchings, warm beds and food. Suddenly, the man once again shook his head. The dog heard the people talking,words he could not understand, but he had a bad feeling about this. The children started to cry and the woman whispered something to the man; he shrugged, picked up a box and walked toward the house. The dog waited. The woman squatted, looked into the dog’s eyes and ran a cool hand over his rough golden coat. She clicked her fingers and he followed her to the back door, where she pointed to a fiber doormat, upon which he lay down.
The woman entered the house and returned moments later with a bowl of water that she placed by his head. She said something in a pleasing tone and re-entered the house.
All afternoon, the children played with the dog. They led him to the beach and he showed them his prowess in retrieving a thrown stick, wading far out into the surf to return with the object clamped in his mouth.He deposited it at the foot of one child, then the other, giving each equal time. Barking with delight, he did this over and over until the children grew tired of the game. He ignored the rumbling in his stomach; surely food would be his payment for all his hard work.
Finally, when the sky grew darker, the family gathered at the house, and the dog followed. He sat on his mat and waited. The man lit a barbeque on the deck and the woman brought great platters of meat and vegetables. As the aroma of charred beef rose in the air, the dog fought to control himself. In a little while, a plate was placed next to him and, although he was so hungry he could easily have eaten a shoe, he showed great restraint by gently nibbling at the food while the woman watched. She smiled and moved away. Before she had returned to the table, the dog’s reserve had disappeared, as had the meat. He licked the dish so vigorously, it moved from the side of the mat some three feet on the grass.When nothing else could be gleaned from the empty plate, he lapped at his water and stretched out on his mat. A nap was called for on this wondrous day.
Exhausted, the dog closed his eyes but remained wary. It felt good to be with people again, to belong. Sleep was out of the question, for if he dozed off, the people might not be here when he woke up.
Culture: Stories & Lit
Part V: Springer Has Sprung
Like many people with rescued dogs, i do not know the exact age or birth date of my French Spaniel mix, Chloe. When I adopted her in the fall of 2004, I was told she was between six months and one year old — which is a wide margin, considering how much a dog grows in that first year. And while part of me wanted to believe she was at least a year old (because she weighed 55 pounds at the time and I doubted that I could physically handle anything beyond that), I decided to give Chloe a March birthday.
Why was this important? Because I wanted to throw Chloe a birthday party, of course. We always welcome a reason to celebrate our new shelter dogs, and what better day to celebrate than March 20 — the first day of spring.
Spring in New York City is particularly glorious, in part because we New Yorkers have to endure such harsh and miserable winters. One could argue that New York dog people are exposed to more than our fair share of the harshness in winter, because we have to take our dogs outside at least four times a day. This is not to say that having to walk our dogs is anything to complain about at any time of year, because we love, love, love our dogs. But, to be perfectly honest, walking a dog through ankle-deep slush in the freezing rain (rain that somehow manages to rain sideways) is not fun. I can’t say I unequivocally enjoy it. Just don’t tell my dog I said that. (But sometimes, not even she enjoys walking in the sideways-sleet. So there.)
Anyway, winter is behind us now, and signs of spring in New York City are everywhere. On the sidewalks, you’ll pass dozens of mini-gardens planted in the city’s tree beds and protected by low iron fences. Because volunteers or townhouse owners or neighborhood associations take charge of these mini-gardens, each one is different and beautiful in its own unique way. Beneath one tree you might see clusters of purple hyacinth mixed with white dwarf daffodils; the next flower bed will contain clusters of colorful primroses arranged within tight tangles of ivy; next: a riot of eye-popping tulips in pink, orange and red. It’s wonderful to see so much color after so many months of gray. We start walking our dogs almost 10 times a day because we just want to be outside, soaking up all that beauty.
Often you’ll see little signs posted at the base of these tree beds, with the message: Please do not let your dog urinate on the flowers, and we dog people always respect that request, because spring in New York City is a time of happiness and renewed hope. Every New Yorker is in love with the world in spring, so we are kinder to one another, and more considerate. We smile and make eye contact. We take time along the way to smell the flowers, as they say. Thus, no one messes with the flowers. Plus, as I always tell the dog, there are plenty of other places to pee in New York.
But getting back to Chloe’s birthday. Many people scoff at the idea of throwing a dog a birthday party, but those people are usually not dog people. They might not understand our belief that each of our dogs deserves his or her own “special day” just as we all deserve one. Or two or three or three hundred and sixty-five. One could argue that with shelter dogs, the desire to create a special day is even stronger, because these dogs may have suffered cruelty or neglect. These dogs may have spent months in cages, without being treated as “special” at all.
So bring on the marching band because we’re having a party.
Now, New Yorkers are known for going over the top when it comes to parties. I know people who have spent hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars for doggie birthday parties and doggie weddings. There are bakeries that make chicken-andoatmeal birthday cakes frosted with chocolate-brown liver pâté. There are doggie daycare centers that rent out party rooms for more money than you’d pay for your own wedding reception. There’s even a boutique that sells tiny rhinestone “Happy Birthday” tiaras for lap dogs to wear to parties on the Upper East Side. I am not judging any of this. I celebrate any occasion at which a bunch of dogs get to play and have fun.
But, being a writer, I was on a limited budget; therefore, Chloe was not going to have artisanal foie gras “pupcakes” at her party; nor was I going to rent a 3,000-square-foot space and hire an agility instructor to teach all the dog guests to leap over hurdles and shimmy through plastic tunnels and hoops (bummer). Also, I don’t cook, which meant there wasn’t anyone in my household who was going to spend four days constructing shepherd’s pie cupcakes from organic buffalo meat, vegetable terrine and mashed fingerling potatoes. No, I was going to keep this party simple.
Plus, I reasoned, dog people — when you get down to it — are easy to please. Know what I mean? We’re more down to earth, in a way, because our dogs constantly ground us and teach us to focus on the simple pleasures of life: nature, exercise, food, play, sleep. So who needs fripperies when the guest of honor is perfectly content with a dirty old tug-arope, a couple of dog pals to steal it from, a gingersnap and some praise?
I decided to hold the party at our local dog run, which happened to be one of Chloe’s favorite places in the world. The invitations consisted of a handwritten notice posted on the community board inside the run and a quick announcement on NYCDog’s Manhattan Dog Chat site. I requested “No presents, please” and encouraged well-wishers to make a small donation to Animal Haven instead.
March 20 happened to be on a Friday that year, which was great, because on Friday evenings, we held our weekly Yappy Hour at the run. We’d bring wine and music (and our dogs, of course) and spend a few extra hours socializing while the dogs tore around. Technically, we were not supposed to bring any food to the dog run because the presence of food can instigate food fights (among the dogs), so our rule for Yappy Hour was that you could bring snacks that would have no appeal to a canine: tapenade, tofu (raw, not fried), garlic pickles, seaweed salad, hot green salsa and so forth. None of these things paired very well with red or white wine, but that was part of the fun. Sometimes someone would sneak in a baguette or a bag of chips to accommodate the tapenade and the salsa, and that person had to stand on top of the picnic table, doling out slices of bread or some chips to the humans, one at a time. The things we do for our dogs ...
On the morning of Chloe’s assigned “birthday,” I fed her a special breakfast of lamb chunks (which she loved) and presented her with a pretty new collar. This collar was quite chintzy — a pink faux-velour band with fake pink crystals and rhinestones and embroidered flowers. But that is why I liked it. It looked like spring — something a six-year-old girl would wear as a belt to an Easter parade. And no, I did not spend hundreds of dollars on this collar: it came from Target and cost 12 bucks.
Chloe looked very pretty with her new collar, and I also had her groomed for the occasion, so her white-and-brown coat was sparkly and fluffy. At the party that evening, friends noticed the coat and new collar, and everyone went out of their way to praise Chloe and scratch her belly and tell her happy birthday. Chloe seemed to enjoy all the extra attention she was getting. It’s always nice to be told one is pretty. It’s always nice to be told one is a “good dog” and a “special girl.” Her tail wagged nonstop for hours.
People brought the usual assortment of sour, bitter and pickled foods to the party, plus a few bottles of wine — all of them from dog-themed wineries such as Mutt Lynch and Faithful Hound. Many of my dog-run friends cheated on the no-presents rule and brought presents for Chloe — toys and small packages of treats — and one friend actually made a little birthday cake (peanut-butter-flavored, with yogurt icing). I asked this dear woman to hide the cake until the party was over. Chloe, it must be said, had been the instigator of many a food fight, and I just didn’t trust her anymore. Not even on her own special day.
There is a famous line from the movie Casablanca, in which one of the male characters is described as “like any other man, only more so.” I guess we could say that, to a dog, a birthday is “like any other day, only more so” as well. At her party, Chloe played with her usual pack of friends: Greyhound mixes and Jack Russells and Lab mixes and Pit Bulls. They chased one another around the perimeter of the one-acre run, rolled in the dirt (or rather, mud, given that this was spring) and played tug-of-war and keep away. Their joy was a celebration of play itself.
After a few bottles of wine, we humans sang a rousing and slightly off-key rendition of “Happy Birthday” to Chloe, trying to coax some of the hounds to join in. Barley the Bassett obliged, adding a singular high note to the finale. Then we brought out birthday hats — those little cone hats with those elastic strings that wraps under the chin. We managed to get the hats on several dogs, including Chloe, and we watched as they each tried to shake them off. Some might have considered this game mean (why torture the poor dogs?), but we laughed at their cute, comic struggles. After about 10 seconds, the hats became play things as one by one, the dogs got them off, took them in their mouths, tossed them in the air and/or ran off. Soon, the run was littered with mushy piles of chewed-up cardboard and string.
Chloe’s pretty new collar was also ruined within seconds, because her dog friends kept tackling her and biting her on the neck. And whose idea was it to groom a white dog two hours before taking her to a muddy dog run? Consider it a birthday splurge — much less costly than hiring a marching band. At the end of the day, I found bits of rhinestone and pink thread all over the run. “Made in China,” one of my gay friends said, with a smile and a shrug. “You get what you pay for.”
Eventually the wine ran out and the dogs got tired. Chloe returned to my side, panting, with bright eyes and a smile on her face as if to say, This is fun! I put one last birthday hat on her head and watched her run away and try to shake it off. She did so with a grunt and then stepped on the hat, looking up proudly, like a conqueror. This seemed to signal the end of the party, and we all gathered up our bags and leashes and dogs and said goodbye.
Once Chloe and I passed through the exit gate, my friend handed Chloe’s birthday cake over the fence, making sure that the other dogs did not see. It was packaged in a little pastry box tied with string, and as I carried it to the car, Chloe kept leaping up and twisting in the air — because somehow she knew this was her birthday cake. For me! her leaps seemed to be saying. Cake for me!
I always enjoy watching her leap like this — with such joy — because she spent much of her early life in a shelter. As she continued to bark and spin, I thought of all those shelter dogs, still waiting for homes. I hope that each one will have the chance to celebrate — and be celebrated — in such a way: with fun and sun and glorious weather, with trips to the dog runs to play with friends, with long walks in the park amidst the spring flowers, then lamb chops for dinner and a wellearned nap. A life like any other, only more so.
When we got home, Chloe wanted to snarf down the entire cake in one gulp, of course, but it was big enough for three meals, so we split it into thirds. As I put the two extra slices into the refrigerator, she looked at me rather forlornly, as if she had been betrayed somehow. She seemed to know (being a smart dog) that it was still her birthday and would remain so until 11:59. “Oh, all right,” I said, and gave her another spoonful. And then two more. The rest, I decided, we’d give to a neighbor — an elderly woman who was constantly bringing home abandoned Pit Bulls from the streets. “Is that okay?” I asked Chloe. “Do you approve?” She thumped her tail a few times, which seemed like a yes. Those poor Pit Bulls deserved a special treat to celebrate their new lives too.
The postscript to this story is that my 55-pound dog soon blossomed into an 80-pound dog. This had nothing to do with birthday cake. My French Spaniel mix now had the long and wide-ribbed body of a Labrador Retriever. This also meant that Chloe probably was born around March after all. She was a spring baby, as welcome as a new flower. Which is always a cause to celebrate.
Culture: Stories & Lit
Spirit Dog Leads to Hope in Costa Rica.
In the year 2000, I lived in Costa Rica for six months and fell in love with the dogs. There were many visitors to the farm during my stay there, and everyone knew about me and my love for Duque, who, like most dogs in Central America, didn’t really belong to anyone.
Dogs don’t last long in Costa Rica, particularly in the countryside, where, even if they are owned, they are allowed to run free, down the unpaved winding rock roads and into the villages, where they hang out on corners waiting for food. In Ciudad Colón, at the one restaurant in town, they would wander in and sit in groups around each table, or, if I was there, climb directly into my lap.Duque lived at the top of the hill, on the farm where I stayed in a small apartment, and he joined me every day for an afternoon nap and then returned each evening to guard my door. Sometimes we would play tug of war with a sock and then race one another up the damp, mossy, tiled road to the very top of the mountain.When it was time to leave, I made plans to take Duque with me, but the airline refused to transport animals, so I left him behind with a group of villagers who had made it clear that they thought he belonged with them.
I knew he wouldn’t be there when I returned, and that probably had something to do with the length of time it took me to go back.
When I finally did return six years later, I promised myself that I wouldn’t expect to see him running up the tiled drive, or burying dog biscuits beneath the bamboo outside my door. And I knew not to ask after him with any of the locals who might still remember me—I knew not to ask, because I didn’t want to know and because I didn’t want to reveal to them that I was still thinking about a dog that I had only known for a few months, six years ago. A lifetime, in dog years.
Within a few hours of my return, the truth was revealed: He had been shot and killed. I had rehearsed for this moment often enough and managed to just nod, as though I had already known. I didn’t ask when it had happened, but assumed it was sufficiently long ago that the emotion of the events had receded into history for the people who lived there. For me, all of this information was new.
“He bit someone,” one person said. “No, he bit a dog,” another suggested.
Duque was intact and sometimes got into trouble pursuing the female dogs in town. But when I’d known him, he was fed, and people played with him. There was no telling what had happened to him after I was gone.
Grief and guilt are necessary but often useless emotions. That is, unless they can be channeled into something more. I had returned to Costa Rica to relax and to write, but once again, Duque was leading me somewhere unexpected.
Among many other changes, the farm was now wired for Internet access, so I sat in my bed and began googling: “Costa Rica dog shelter,” “Costa Rica animal welfare,” and so forth. I found two listings within my range: an organization called the McKee Foundation, and the story of a woman named Patricia Artimana, who was running an animal shelter just outside of Ciudad Colón, the Asociation Arca de Noé. Earlier in the year, the municipality had intervened when neighbors complained about the barking of the more than 100 dogs who lived on her property.
In the news story, which was now several months old, Patricia said that if she could not find homes for the dogs, she would set them free again before she allowed the government to do anything with them. In my short time back, I had already noticed that there were far fewer dogs roaming the village. Now, I understood why.
I emailed the McKee Project and arranged to meet Carla Ferraro, the project’s program director, at the Multiplaza, one of the biggest shopping centers in Central America. The last time I had been to the Multiplaza, I had watched from the bus as motorists swerved to avoid a bull strolling casually down the middle of the eight lanes.
The locals were used to it—stray livestock on the highway is fairly common. The bull turned and wandered into the parking lot. It was Christmas, and I amused myself by imagining that he was doing some last-minute holiday shopping.
“We don’t believe in sheltering animals,” Carla said as we shared a pastry. There are too many, she said, and too few places for them to find homes. You end up with overcrowded shelters, and the problem of strays continues in the streets. The philosophy is that the cost of longterm care would be better spent neutering the stray populations.
“But I heard that there is a shelter. Somewhere near Ciudad Colón?” I asked. She seemed cautious in answering this query. “Yes, I know the woman you are talking about.” She paged through a copy of Pets y Más, a bilingual animal care magazine that is distributed throughout the country. “Here she is,” she said, pointing to a story.“And here is her phone number. It might be interesting for you to visit. She uses the dog waste to make methane.”
I thought perhaps I was mishearing something, but chose not to question it.
Carla continued explaining the McKee Project’s mission: They had been training vets across the country to perform spayand- neuter surgeries using a tiny incision. The surgery can be done in as little as 10 minutes, allowing one vet to alter dozens of animals in a single day. The animals’ recovery time is quick as well. After providing this free training, the project then encourages the vets to offer the surgery for free in their villages on a designated day each month. The training is made possible through the support of the North Shore Animal League and Spay USA.
“Some vets were reluctant at first,”Carla said. “But then they found that people who had never brought their pets in for treatment before came back again for other services. So it was good for business.”
As I listened, I once again wondered if I was misunderstanding something. If it was possible to spay and neuter animals so quickly, why had I never heard of the process before? When my own Sula was spayed, it required overnight observation and cost an arm and a leg.Why wouldn’t this new procedure be just as valuable in the U.S.? But these were not questions Carla could answer for me.
“So, you spay and neuter and then put them back on the streets?”
“Yes,” she answered, aware that this idea would seem truly foreign to me. Part of the problem is the definition of “stray.” Studies suggest that only 5 percent of the Costa Rican dog population is truly stray; the rest, though they have feeders, owners and places to stay at night, run free throughout the day. Only 25 percent are sterilized, all of which was accomplished in just the past six years. As Carla noted, “If we can get to 70 percent of the population, then we will have the overpopulation under control.” Previously, the government’s solution was to poison animals in the street. McKee has worked to make that practice illegal.
Carla’s manner was sharp and efficient. She didn’t let her emotions get in the way, even when I finally told her what it was that had inspired me to contact her—the story of Duque and the way he was killed.
I first met patricia artimana in a small bakery across from the church in Ciudad Colón. It was raining outside, the typical evening deluge of the rainy season, and we were sitting with a typical view of the typical town square. She told me about the municipality intervening earlier in the year,when she had had more than 100 dogs.“I had too many,” she said, and I wondered if she really believed that, or was simply repeating what she had been told.
“How many do you have now?”I asked. She thought for a while and then made a number using the fingers on her hands. Eighteen.
In the morning, a cabbie friend of hers arrived to drive me to her home: a mountain called Piedras Negras. On a map, it seemed to be just outside of town, but maps don’t take into account the steep terrain and the winding roads.More than an hour later, we arrived at her house. I had no idea where we were. And, of course, I had fantasies of finding Duque frolicking among the other dogs when we arrived. I knew that this wouldn’t happen, but I couldn’t expel the image from my mind.
Just a dozen or so dogs appeared immediately at the gate, yet I could see there were more.Patricia eventually joined them and began to awkwardly balance her two tasks: managing the dogs and showing me around. The property was set up using a series of corrals, with different groups of dogs in each area; some were allowed to run completely free.
At the top of the property was a stall with several horses; an ox; a flock of geese; and a small, indigenous tree animal hibernating in his coop who wouldn’t come out to see me. In order to get to the house, I needed to enter the corral, but the dogs weren’t going to let me. At each gate, the dogs would gather, jumping and barking at me, anticipating my visit. Finally she pointed to another entrance.“Would you mind coming through here?” she asked.
It was a dog door, but it appeared to be the only door in which the dogs had no interest. I ducked down and crawled through.
On the kitchen table, three dogs sat, wagging their tails. They were not small dogs—each weighed at least 40 or 50 pounds. On the stove, two large pots of dog food were being slow-cooked over a gas flame. A plastic tube ran from the back of the stove through the wall and across part of the lawn, to a plastic fermentation tent. She was, indeed, turning the dog poop into gas for the stove.
“How many dogs do you have?” I asked. She thought about it again.“Fifty-five.” Patricia wiped down the table and pulled out a chair for me to sit on.Then she went to the stove to make coffee. I scanned the shelves of an open cupboard, lined with various medicines and treatments that I assumed were for the dogs.While the coffee brewed, she introduced me to more dogs. They each had names, but it was more than I could do to keep up with them. A small brown dog made her way through the pack to greet Patricia, then settled at her feet, looking up at her with stubborn longing.
“Oh, Julie,” Patricia said. “Poor Julie.” She turned to me. “This is a special dog. This is a dog that I found myself. I kept an eye on her. Brought her food. Eventually she let me take her home.” Julie climbed into Patricia’s lap, and stayed there as the other dogs voiced their disapproval. Eventually, Patricia put her down again with the rest of the dogs.
Patricia continued to introduce me to the dogs, and my fantasy that Duque would appear there, miraculously alive, continued to dwindle.As we walked onto a patio area, a huge, longhaired, rust-colored dog bounded toward me and rose on his back legs to butt his chest—his brisket—against mine. He came back to me several times during my visit.“He likes you,” Patricia said.“Maybe you can take him home.”
I thought about what Carla had said —that sheltering dogs was a waste of resources, that it simply displaced the problem, while few animals actually found homes.
“Will any of these dogs be adopted?” I asked. Patricia shook her head no.
“They are too old. We have others that are young dogs that can find homes. They don’t stay here.”
A fewdays after my visit to piedras Negras, as I stood waiting for the bus, I spotted a woman sitting on the opposite corner in front of the new aquarium shop, with several dogs in crates on display. Arca de Noé was having an adoption fair.
I crossed the street and bent down to greet an awkward, brindle-striped puppy. He looked just like my Brando had, six years earlier, when I spotted him in the BARC shelter in Brooklyn in the weeks after leaving Duque behind.
“I have one just like this,” I told the woman.
And two days later, I was home.
Culture: Stories & Lit
Lab with a wise old soul helps family navigate loss.
There was little discussion of who would keep Tag, my brother’s young black Labrador Retriever, after John’s death. Tag was a living connection to John, and though a grief greater than my own was unfathomable, I knew my mother needed him most. She had lost her broad-shouldered, broad-grinned son. She needed Tag, if only to curl up with when death’s demons haunted. Tag and my mother mourned together. During their first year, a solid rap on the door would send Tag into the fullbody wagging frenzy he reserved for his master’s return. In the seconds before rationality reigned, Mom, too, hoped my brother was about to bound into the house. She had hung John’s Carhartt jacket and ratty baseball cap on a hook above his cowboy boots in her mudroom. It deluded her into thinking that he would be coming back from Colorado for Christmas vacation, with another semester of veterinary school under his belt, on the days when denial was her only method of survival.
John and I had often booked the same flight from Denver to Chicago to descend on Mom in unison for the holidays. On this winter morning I sat alone, squeezed between strangers. I dreaded Christmas without John.Uncovering the ornament he had made in first grade or his knit stocking, stretched out from our tradition of flooding each other with gag gifts, promised to reignite anguish that would feel new and raw all over again. At least I had Tag to look forward to. I couldn’t wait to see that dog.
I was approaching our prearranged meeting place outside O’Hare when I saw them—the unmistakable combination of my stylish mother behind the wheel and a slobbering, yet regal, Tag, straining out the back-seat window.My mom and I greeted each other cautiously, not out of animosity, but restraint. We instinctively knew that if we held each other’s gaze, the sorrow of another holiday without John would overwhelm our weak levee.
“I’ll sit in back with Tag,” I said in a desperate attempt to throw sandbags between our grief.“How’s my boy?” I asked into his eyes while ruffling his ears and scratching him under the collar, where he liked it best. As we pulled away from the airport, Tag straddled my lap to resume his position at the window.Breathing his freshly shampooed scent, I rested my head on his side and hid my burning eyes from Mom’s glances in the rearview mirror.
Despite the lapses between visits to my mother’s house, Tag and I were inseparable when we were under the same roof. He slept at the foot of my bed, trotted down the stairs after my slippered feet, waited as I fixed my coffee, and even crowded into the bathroom as I showered and blew my hair dry.What made this unusual was that Tag was generally aloof. While my mom adored her dog, she complained that he wasn’t cuddly, that he’d always give her his rump to scratch instead of his muzzle. I couldn’t help remembering that John was the same way.As the only male in our household for many years, John would often put the brakes on touchy-feely stuff. He told my mom he would give her backrubs— he on the couch, she sitting in front of him on the floor—only if she refrained from pleasurable noises. An “ooh, that feels good,” and his hands were in the air.“I’m outta here,” he would say and be off the couch, heading to the kitchen to pour himself a Coke. My practical self attributed Tag’s uncharacteristic affection to my resemblance to John. Like me, John had been fair-skinned with honey-colored hair; perhaps we even had a smell or pheromone in common. But my spiritual self believed it was more than that—that part of John’s soul was with Tag, and when Tag and I were together, John and I were too in some way.
In fact, until this trip home for the holidays, I had sometimes wondered if I should have inherited Tag. Tag’s adjustment would have been less jarring if he had stayed with me in Colorado and had an owner who was closer to John’s age and lifestyle.Yet, I knew my motivations were primarily selfish, and now I was witnessing how beautifully Mom and Tag were piecing their lives together. Mom had resumed her work as a photographer, and Tag now chased waterbirds along the shores of Lake Michigan rather than the chickens John kept on his property near the Rocky Mountains. Tag now heeled alongside Mom, though to her right side, the way my left-handed brother had purposely trained him so that he’d be away from the rifle on their occasional hunting trips. Tag’s stellar behavior evoked a pride in Mom, not only in Tag but also in her son’s fine ability with animals. Mom glimpsed John through Tag the way one sees a deceased loved one in a child who bears her likeness. As Mom and I sipped coffee in front of the Christmas tree on my first morning home, she invited me to witness a petassisted therapy program that she and Tag had become involved with over the last year. She was introduced to the program by a stranger who had remarked how well-trained Tag was.
“Yes, he is wonderful, but that credit really goes to my son,” Mom had explained. During the brief conversation that followed, the man said he volunteered with a group that helped others through the use of dogs. Then and there, Mom had resolved to sign up.
The next day, however, she’d questioned whether she had the emotional strength to work with people who had disabilities.We were grateful John’s departure from this world had been quick and peaceful. His girlfriend had smiled between sobs as she recounted that she and my brother had been goofing off on the mountain just moments before John, an expert skier, inexplicably collided with a tree, rupturing his aorta. John had, at least, not suffered—unlike those whom my mother would train Tag to assist. Despite her hesitations, Mom summoned the courage to contact the organization. “Chenny Troupe,” a cheerful woman answered. Chenny, Mom later learned, was the name of the pioneer dog of the program.
“My name is Mary Ann Alexander, and I have my son’s dog. Well, he’s my dog now,” she began.
The compassionate voice interrupted. “I know about your son,Mary Ann.My husband works with John’s father. I was at the funeral.My name is Carole Hunt.” This was an almost eerie coincidence in a city the size of Chicago. My mother’s resolve to train Tag in pet-assisted therapy was restored. Tag was hers for a reason. Maybe this was it.
When Mom received the Chenny Troupe brochure in the mail a few days later, she settled on the rug beside Tag to read it. The literature emphasized that, more than providing companionship, these therapy dogs helped with the rehabilitation of patients. The dogs needed to be not only well-trained but also gentle enough to work with children and energetic enough to engage a person with a disability. They must be patient and unbothered by wheelchairs, walkers, back braces or helmets as well as the awkward movements and vocalizations of some of the patients. Few dogs pass the rigorous obedience screening on the first try. The test date was only two weeks away. “You’ll do it, Tag,”Mom said, as she slid onto her side to lock eyes with her best friend. In a rare but increasingly frequent show of affection, Tag covered her face with kisses.
When the time came,Tag obeyed every instruction with an attentiveness that would have made John proud. Tag and my mother were invited into the program. Now, sitting in Mom’s kitchen a year later, I saw no trace of the initial butterflies she’d had, as she saddled Tag with his official work vest in preparation for tonight’s session. I, however, was nervous, even in my limited role as an observer. Then I remembered Mom commenting that Tag’s omniscient look had allayed her fears.When I saw the pure intention in his eyes, I felt my internal compass needle, haywire for over a year, regain its bearings.
Tag looked handsome, even cocky, as he leaped into the back seat to be driven to the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago (RIC). From the front seat I turned to tell him, “You know John wants you to do this, don’t you, smart boy?” Mom’s eyes smiled—the sandbags between us long gone—as we pulled onto Lakeshore Drive. The RIC elevator door opened to a large recreation room milling with patients, therapy dogs and their owners.Mom’s preeminence in the program showed as she was swallowed by the group to answer last-minute questions before the therapy began. Eventually, all the dogs and volunteers, paired with their patients, were spread throughout the room. In one corner, a young man negotiated trading his walker for a leash, while a teenage girl pressed her dormant vocal cords into service to command a dog to sit.
For Mom and Tag, this was the last night of a six-week partnership with a seven-year-old girl named Samantha. In an automobile accident on Christmas Eve, Samantha had lost her little sister and been partially paralyzed on her right side. She was in a wheelchair and had lost much of her speech. An older sister and both parents, who had survived the wreck with minor injuries, were there to cheer Samantha on.
Sam had fallen in love with Tag the first night they worked together. Initially, Sam would pet Tag only with her left hand, until my mother, remembering her training, urged Sam to pet him with her right hand. As Sam fought to communicate with her right side, Tag nudged her hand with his wet nose. Tag’s touch made Sam giggle, evoking a gasp from her mother, who hadn’t heard her laugh since before the accident. Slowly, Sam’s hand obeyed her brain’s signal. She extended her clenched fist enough to knock on Tag’s shoulder. It was a tremendous achievement. Every Tuesday night for six weeks, Tag helped Samantha overcome her paralysis. Sam learned to uncurl her fist to accept a tennis ball and then to throw it to Tag, who retrieved it and begged for more.
Their favorite game involved Sam balancing a dog biscuit on Tag’s nose while he waited for the command to nod his head and catch the biscuit. Now, Sam’s actions with Tag were almost fluid, and she said his name clearly.
Samantha’s mother, Julie, told us that every time they got into the car, the little girl would ask,“Tag?”—hoping they were on their way to the RIC. I listened as my mother shared with Julie her story of losing her son.My mother hadn’t wanted to burden Julie with our loss. Tonight, though, as Julie presented my mother with a bouquet of flowers for all she had done, it seemed appropriate.Upon hearing about John, Julie commented, “Your son was going to be a veterinarian so he could heal animals, but now his animal heals people.”
With Christmas behind me, I boarded my flight back to Denver. As I buckled my seat belt, I noticed Tag’s straight black hairs covering my beige corduroy pants, and smiled. Brushing the hairs from my lap, I thought how Tag was with me in more ways than just his shedding coat. Tag had taught me,my mother and even Samantha’s mom Julie that there is hope after tragedy.
In the days after John’s death, I had fearfully asked Mom,“Will we ever be okay again?” She responded that she did not know how we ever could be. Yet, we are okay—due in large part to a huge-hearted black Lab with a wise old soul.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Even in hard times, pets and people provide for one another
When my husband Greg and I decided to have a child, we figured we would make things work by sharing the responsibilities. What we did not anticipate was Greg shattering his leg in a serious motorcycle accident when our son was five weeks old. Suddenly, I was taking care of an infant, six animals and my husband in a hospital bed while I was still recovering from major abdominal surgery (C-section). With no family nearby to help, all of the responsibilities landed on me.
I was determined to tend to everyone’s needs before my own, but I was stretched thin. On top of the stress of being a brand new mom, I worried about how my animals would adjust to less attention and time. Our four-legged “babies” include two wonderful mutts and four great cats. Clyde, our Malamute/Retriever mix, had been hit by a car and left in the overnight drop box in an overcrowded shelter with a broken hip. Star, our Rottweiler mix, was found stranded near a freeway and rescued by the same organization that saved Clyde. Our four cat companions were all adopted from rescues and shelters, too. After all they had been through before joining our family, and the joy they had brought to our lives since then, I did not want to do them the disservice of putting their needs on the back burner.
Luckily, all of the pets accepted our son wholeheartedly. We took small steps to properly introduce everyone, and the animals and baby received a lot of praise. We made sure to pay attention to the animals’ body language, and gave them breaks when things got too overwhelming.
The one responsibility Greg could handle from his hospital bed was holding the baby while I took the dogs for their walk around the neighborhood. I felt that it was very important to keep their walks consistent. Even if I was tired and had had a difficult day, the walk is what they looked forward to most.
Every day, I made an effort with each of the animals. Even though I was strapped for time with having to care for everyone, as well as commute, work, cook, feed, clean and change the ever-producing dirty diaper machine, my animals were also my family members, and I needed to set aside some time, even if it was a small amount compared to what I had given them in the past. In response, my animals showed me they were thankful to be a part of my family. Star even tried to happily lick my son’s hands and feet at every opportunity (a loving gesture, I am sure, but one that did not exactly thrill me given her frequent investigations of the litter box).
Throughout this ordeal, my animals watched me cry and go through a range of emotions: sadness, exhaustion and frustration. Yet they still loved me unconditionally. They never once asked for more than I could give them. I will always be grateful to my pets because they taught me so many lessons in life: genuine love, patience, understanding and how to be nurturing to all members of my family.
I have worked in the animal welfare field for over 10 years, and have seen thousands of animals surrendered because their owners’ life circumstances changed. I understand how difficult it can be to give your pets the same level of care when your life has been turned upside down, and I sympathize with anyone who is forced to make that choice.
My husband and I were hoping our circumstance would be temporary, but at the time of his accident we were not sure if the doctors were going to be able to save his leg. However, after six surgeries and multiple physical therapy appointments, things were starting to look up for Greg and our family. We were thrilled at the news that he would be able to keep his leg and possibly walk again without crutches or a cane. I was incredibly thankful and relieved, as well as hopeful deep down that he would be able to help out more as he continued to heal.
There is still a long road ahead, with more surgeries to come. However, what I learned from my initial experience is how forgiving and supportive animals can be during difficult times. My pets stuck by me through my crisis, and their non-judgmental love gave me strength. I know it will continue as we face other hardships along the way.
I hope my story inspires other families in tough situations to do the best they can for their animals. If you can make even small adjustments, you may be able to keep your pets in your home and out of the shelter where they may not get a second chance.
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