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Callie the Magnifica, our 14-year-old Shepherd/Husky Mix, has been living with us for the past seven years, but lived with another family for her first seven. When we met her, she was called Kali, and led a nomadic-urban life with a poor couple and their two children; the family lived in a small trailer parked at the end of our street. Kali was never tied up and was allowed to roam as she wished. Displaying a keen but gentle watchfulness that spoke volumes about her relationship with her people, she became a neighborhood favorite and even accompanied the mailman on his rounds. She would stop by our house—for a pat or a drink of water or just a quick neighborly social call—and then she would leave. Often she was spotted winding her solitary way through Berkeley with a wolflike head-down, resolute stride—coming from People’s Park (one of her humans’ favorite haunts) back to our neighborhood, a distance of almost three miles. Her people said that they would tell her “home,” and off she would go. Her directional skills were, and still are, remarkable.
A couple of years passed, and we adopted a dog of our own. When we came home with the new pup, Kali was waiting at our front gate to greet us. It was love at first sight for both dogs. Nellie, six months old, found both a new home and a surrogate mother dog. As for Kali, she was as gentle with our pup as she was with her human babies, correcting the younger dog only when she got too rambunctious. Her training skills were impeccable and invaluable.
Then Kali’s family went through a series of downturns and they were forced to leave our neighborhood. But yet she would appear at our door—mostly, we thought, because of her attachment to Nellie. We made an agreement with her people—if they were unable to have Kali with them, such as when they stayed at a homeless shelter, she would always be welcome to stay with us. These spontaneous “stay-overs” lasted anywhere from a few days to months at a time. She became an integral part of our family, coming with us to the dog park or to our offices, and even on vacations with us. But then her people would come to get her, and our Nellie would go into a horrible funk, refusing to eat or play. What was even more heartbreaking was encountering Kali, as we sometimes did, standing beside her family as they panhandled outside of banks or local stores. Breaking her stoic stance and jumping with delight, she would try to follow us, but would be held back. I dropped off food and other provisions for the children and Kali, but I knew this did little good. Drugs and life on the streets were taking their toll on all of them. Finally, the woman made a courageous decision. She found a job, moved away from her husband and took their children, leaving Kali behind with him.
Kali then became one of the many dogs who lived in a large homeless encampment on the other side of the freeway. This seemingly impenetrable barrier didn’t hinder her from finding her way back to us. It still amazes me that she was able to do this! We went through four or five more “retrievals” with her owner during this period. Each time, her resistance to going with him became stronger. Still, I didn’t feel that I had the right to intervene; she was his sole companion and his only link to his family. But the final meeting I had with him altered my attitude. He became verbally abusive, shouting at me and accusing me of stealing his dog. He pushed his way into our house (a first for him) and dragged Kali, cowering and whimpering, out by her collar, Nellie barking loudly in the background. I tried to reason with him, explaining that by running off so many times, his dog was trying to tell him that she had made her choice, if only he could respect it! But he took her away. We feared that was the last time we would see her.
Early the next morning, around 2, we were awakened by Kali’s low-pitched “woof woof” outside our bedroom window—she had come back! Later that morning, I found a letter tucked under the windshield wiper of our car. At first I was afraid to read it, anticipating that he would once again be staking his claim to Kali. But the five-page-long note, written on fine linen stationery in a sure and clear script, didn’t appear to be threatening. In it, the letter-writer told me about Kali’s life—his wife had adopted her from a shelter in Davis—and how times were hard for them; how difficult it was to be an unemployed Vietnam veteran; how they often didn’t have money for food for themselves and their dog, but they had never once abused or harmed Kali; how they trusted her to watch over their babies; how gentle and wise a dog she was; and how much he loved her. But because he loved her, he was giving her to us. He ended his letter with, “Take care of my dog and kiss my big brown girl for me.”
I have never been given a more generous gift. What it must have taken for him to part with her is something that I can only imagine. Dogs give so much to us. This charitable act, coming from a man who had so little and had lost so much, shows that they can also inspire a humane and noble spirit.
Fast-forward to the present: Callie is doing great, pushing 15 but slowing down only a little. We changed her name to Callie and have kept the letter, or “Callie’s papers” as we call it, as a reminder that we were entrusted with the care of a very beloved dog. Every night we do as we were charged and kiss his big brown girl for him.