Culture: Stories & Lit
A vacation in Mexico opens doors, and hearts, to a stray dog.
My friends knew that kayaking the Sea of Cortez was a big entry on my bucket list, so when I turned 50, we planned a February trip to Baja California to do just that. Over the years, this group of women and I had hiked and kayaked in some adventurous places, but little did I know that this trip would change my life and the life of a street dog in ways I never imagined.
When we got off the plane in Loreto, Mexico, a wave of excitement went through me as I looked at the small airport terminal with its thatched roof and felt the warm sun on my face. We were picked up by a van sent by our hotel, a small eco-tourist establishment catering to kayakers. When we reached the hotel, I noticed an emaciated dog next to the entrance.
The dog sat quietly, almost as though she knew that if she were too eager, we might be put off and ignore her. I reached into my pack and pulled out crackers I had saved from the flight and held one out to her. She took it ever so gently. Most starving dogs would have lunged, but not this one. She sat there quietly and looked at me with beautiful brown eyes. I gave her another cracker and again, she gently took it from my hand. By this time, everyone was out of the van and the innkeeper was calling us to check in. The dog didn’t move; she sat there and watched me as I entered the courtyard and hotel office.
It had been a long day and we went to bed almost immediately. The next morning, after a light breakfast, we headed into town to explore before meeting our guides. As we left the hotel, I turned to see the dog trailing our group, close to me as I brought up the rear. She was very friendly and let me pet her; in fact, she rolled onto her back so that I could rub her belly. I assumed that with the tourists, this submissive posture won her friends easily. She was very dusty and I noticed that she had recently nursed puppies.
As we got to the eastern end of town, we came upon the Sea of Cortez. It was beautiful, and I was happy that we would be out on the water soon. As we took pictures along the sea wall, the dog stayed near, always keeping us in sight.
That night, we walked into town to a small café, again with our four-legged friend behind us. During dinner, she sat outside. It was clear to me that this was one smart dog. Partway through the meal, Rose handed me her napkin filled with chicken bits and tilted her head toward the dog. I smiled as I put the napkin in my pocket. Following dinner, we gave her the chicken bits and she once again took the food with a gentle mouth. On the way back to the hotel, we stopped at a small grocery and bought a package of bologna, which we shared with the dog before we turned in for the night.
We left the hotel early the next morning on our way 10 miles south to our starting point. As we loaded our bags into the van, I noticed the dog sitting in her usual spot at the hotel entrance. I stroked her head and said good-bye. It is hard to describe the sweetness in her face. She had the most expressive eyes, eyes that looked through to my soul. I have never seen a dog with such a gentle way about her. It drew me in.
As the van left the curb, Sally noticed that the dog was trotting behind us, following the van as we left town. As our speed increased, the dog began running. She ran for two miles before giving up. I sat silent in the front seat, tears streaming down my cheeks, touched deeply by this dog who was chasing me out of town. It would be hard to forget.
It was a wonderful week of kayaking. We explored islands and slept in tents on scenic sand beaches. Our guides spoiled us with delicious meals and serenaded us with flute music each night. One moonlit night after dinner, we paddled out and were mesmerized by the luminescent plankton excited by the movement in the water—the sea seemed to catch fire. Every day we explored new areas, snorkeling through blue water with fish and coral in colors hard to describe. However, the street dog was never far from my mind. Her look had penetrated my heart and soul.
As only someone who’s in sync can do, Annie knew what I was thinking without me saying a thing. Our last night out on the islands, as we watched the sun set over the Baja, Annie said, “I know you’re thinking about that dog.” I sat there in silence. She asked what it was about that dog. I said I could certainly leave Mexico without the dog … sure, I would think about her for a long time, but would eventually forget. We had two dogs at home whom I loved dearly, so I wasn’t dog-deprived. “But,” I then said, “when I looked in the dog’s eyes, I saw God.” Her response was, “You had to bring God into it, right?” At that point, she shook her head and said, “You have my support whatever you need to do.” Now, there is a true partnership.
The next morning, we paddled back to the mainland and loaded our gear, trailered the boats and piled into the waiting vans. As we approached our hotel, I scanned the front entrance, but there was no sign of the dog anywhere. I thought she might appear as we unloaded our gear, but still, she was nowhere to be seen. We checked into our rooms; unpacked our dry bags; and took long, hot showers. After a late lunch, we walked into town.
I was trailing the group, likely going a bit slower in the hope that I would see the dog, when I heard Annie call my name from up the street. As I looked in her direction, I saw a dog jump up and begin running toward us. “Our” dog had been sleeping in the town square, and the sound of Annie’s voice roused her. I was never so happy to see a dog in my life, and her jumping and licking made it clear that she was happy to see us, too.
She stayed with our group for the afternoon and sat outside the restaurant during our farewell dinner, where we toasted our great friendship and another wonderful adventure. On the way back to the hotel, I stopped at a grocery store and got a can of dog food, feeding her small portions one at a time. She was still so very skinny, and I didn’t want her to get sick from eating too much, too fast. And I realized that— despite what I’d told Annie about being able to leave the dog behind—I’d made up my mind: I was going to bring the dog home.
The following morning, our group was scheduled to go to the coast to see the migrating whales. I stayed behind, knowing that getting the dog home to Massachusetts was going to take some work, including having her checked by a vet, purchasing a kennel and making flight reservations.
I asked our hotel receptionist if she thought I was a crazy gringa to try to bring a street dog back to the U.S. She quickly replied, “Oh, no! The police in our town poison the street dogs regularly because tourists do not like to see so many sick dogs,” which confirmed that my decision to bring the dog home was a good one. It was not going to be easy, and I was not quite sure what obstacles we would face, but I knew it was the right thing to do.
In hindsight, I have to say that we were blessed in our journey to get the dog home. The first blessing was that there was a feed store and veterinarian right across the street from our Loreto hotel. When it opened at 8 am, I went to check it out and the dog followed me. We waited while the lone proprietor sold feed to a few customers, and then I asked about getting the dog an examinación. I spoke very little Spanish and the vet spoke even less English, so we were left to muddle through using my informal Spanish phrases.
The vet was kind and gentle and knew what was needed. But before he started the exam, he asked for her name. I said I didn’t know, as I had not named her, although I had been calling her “honey” as a term of endearment. He smiled and said, “Miel” (Honey) and that was that. She has been Honey ever since.
The vet gave Honey her first rabies shot and noted that she was in “good health” on her medical record. Before we left, I purchased a leash, kennel, food and dog bowl for our journey home. As I was leaving, the maintenance man from our hotel was waiting outside to help me carry everything across the street. He also brought us some old shirts from the laundry to line the kennel so that Honey had a soft place to lie down. Another blessing: the kindness of strangers.
My next task was to make reservations for Honey on our flights home. We were scheduled on Aero Mexico from Mexico to Phoenix, and America West from Phoenix to Hartford, Conn. They took my credit card number and everything was good. Now, my only worry was what would be required of us when we landed in the U.S. Would the paperwork I had from the vet be enough? Would Honey be quarantined? I could not imagine what I would do if I had to leave her in Phoenix.
Our last night in Loreto, Honey shared our secondfloor room. I put towels on the floor for her, but in true street-dog fashion, she slept directly on the quarry-tile floor. We woke very early and I took her for a walk in the neighborhood, all the while worrying that someone would come by and say that she was their dog—which was crazy, since clearly, no one had been feeding or caring for her. At 6 am, we were in front of the hotel with her kennel, waiting to board our van for the airport.
The two-stage flight on an old prop plane from Loreto to Hermosillo and on to Phoenix was uneventful. When we walked off our first flight onto the tarmac to change planes, Honey was sitting in her kennel on a baggage cart, calmly tracking me as I came down the plane’s stairs. It was amazing to see how much she trusted me. I felt that we truly communicated, that she knew I would take care of her.
We landed in Phoenix and entered the airport via international arrivals. When I finally got to the customs officer, he looked at my passport and paperwork, then at me and said, “What’s this about a live animal?” I told him I was bringing a dog back from Mexico and gave him her papers. After giving them a quick glance, he pointed behind him to the area where the oversize luggage arrived and said, “You’ll find your dog over there,” then stepped aside to let us go through.
I cannot even begin to express how surprised and happy I was at that moment. We were back in the U.S. and Honey was with us. Could it be this easy? (But wait, the story isn’t over.)
As I went to the oversize-baggage area, my friends grabbed our bags and immediately rechecked them for Hartford. We had a three-hour layover and I wanted to walk Honey, so we put her kennel on a luggage cart and took her to the “pet walk” area just outside the terminal. Then we went to the America West ticket counter to check in for our flight to Hartford.
When I got to the counter and gave my name, the agent noted that a dog was included on my ticket. He asked me where the dog was, and I pointed to the kennel behind me. He looked alarmed and said, “I’m sorry, but your dog has to fit under the seat in front of you. We don’t transport dogs in the baggage compartment.” Obviously, Honey wasn’t going to fit under a seat and would not be accommodated on the flight.
My first thought as I walked away from the ticket counter was that I could rent a car and drive from Arizona to Massachusetts. That was a problem, as I was scheduled to be back at work the following day, and after being away for 10 days, could not afford more time off. My next move was to find an airline that would fly dogs in the baggage compartment from Phoenix to Hartford. Eventually, I learned that while either American or Northwest could fly us to Hartford via Chicago or Detroit later that day, a major winter storm and cold front on the route meant that neither would take the dog; airlines will not allow dogs in baggage if the temperature is below 40 degrees in the arrival city. I totally understood this from a safety perspective, but was worried as my options continued to dwindle.
While on the phone with a very patient American ticket agent, I told him my problem and asked him to get us as far east and north as possible. After trying numerous cities, the agent finally said, “I can fly you to Raleigh-Durham, N.C., via Dallas if you want.” We would not arrive until 1:09 the following morning, but there was room on the flight and I could get tickets for both myself and Honey (and Annie, who decided to join us).
The next challenge was to set up a one-way car rental in Raleigh-Durham, which I was finally able to do through Avis. Although the office closed before our flight arrived, the agent succumbed to my pleading and agreed to stay a “few minutes” so we could pick up our car and hit the road for home. He said that if it were more than a few minutes, we’d have to get the car during regular business hours.
After another trip to the airport dog park, we all checked in for the flight to Dallas, where we landed about 8 pm. We had an hour layover and wanted to be sure Honey was transferred, so I stayed to watch her be unloaded and Annie went ahead to our departure gate. To my alarm, I watched the baggage cart with Honey’s kennel head in what I was sure was the wrong direction. Panicking about Honey missing our next flight, I sprinted down to our departure gate to check in with Annie, who gave me a thumbs-up as a dog kennel was loaded onto our flight.
The main cabin door had closed and the plane was backing away from the gate when the flight attendant came down the aisle and spoke to the women directly behind me, saying, “Don’t worry, Mrs. Smith, your dog is on the flight.” When I asked him how many dogs were on the flight and he said one, I shouted, “I have to get off this plane and get my dog!”
The attendant told me to be quiet and settle down, then went to the front of the plane and got on the phone to the pilot. The plane stopped backing up. People were looking at me as though I were crazy, but I didn’t care. There was no way I could leave a Mexican street dog stuck in a kennel at the Dallas airport. She trusted me and I needed to make sure she was with us.
I looked up and saw the pilot coming down the aisle to my seat. He asked me what was wrong and I told him I was bringing a street dog home from Mexico and she had not been loaded on the flight. So, I needed to get her on the flight or get off the plane. He looked at me for a long moment, and then said, “Give me a few minutes.” Going back into the cockpit, he moved the plane forward and docked it. He then got off the plane.
I asked Annie to look out the window to see if she could see what was happening. Within about 10 minutes, a baggage cart with Honey’s kennel pulled up and a few minutes later, the smiling pilot came down the aisle and said, “Don’t worry, Ms. Priest, Honey’s on the plane.” I was so happy that I started crying. We had a dog-loving pilot on our flight that night, another blessing for our journey.
We made good time in the air, landing in Raleigh- Durham at 1:05 am, a few minutes early. Annie went to get the rental car (and give the agent a nice cash tip) and I went to baggage claim to get Honey. It’s hard to explain how relieved I was when the baggage handler brought her kennel to me. I let her out and we moved outside to the arrival area, where Annie picked us up. Honey immediately fell asleep in the back seat as we headed north. We drove for about three hours, then took a break for an hour nap in a rest stop. About 8 am, we stopped at a grocery store, where we bought dog food and water for Honey. She ate, drank and fell asleep again. We drove on, fortifying ourselves with lots of hot coffee. The farther north we got, the colder it was, and we realized that all we had were the clothes on our backs, since our luggage had gone on ahead with our friends to Hartford. Both of us were wearing sandals; short-sleeved shirts; and lightweight, quick-dry pants: perfect for kayaking in Mexico, not so great for February in the Northeast.
We crossed from Maryland into Delaware about 11 in the morning and drove into a light snowfall, the edge of the storm that had prevented us from flying through Chicago or Detroit. The snow picked up as we hit the New Jersey Turnpike, and it was soon blizzard conditions. At our next stop—a turnpike rest area—the ground was covered with two to three inches of snow. I woke Honey and opened the car door. She stepped out and immediately retreated. I put the leash on her and encouraged her to try again. When she got out of the car this time, she lifted her paws high with each step, no doubt wondering what she had gotten herself into.
It was slow going. A trip that should have taken us four hours took 10, and at times, we were in complete gridlock. The storm was affecting much of the Northeast, and we started to worry that the roads would be closed and we’d be stuck. But we persevered (slowly) and finally, finally arrived home just after midnight. There was two feet of snow in our driveway, which we were able to plow through enough to get the car out of the road.
We could not have been happier to be home. The garden walkway was covered in at least three feet of drifted snow, so I picked up Honey and carried her into the house.
Our dog sitter had already left, and our two Lab mixes, Rosie and Seal, were happy to see us. But wait, who’s this other dog? They smelled her and looked at her, and then at us. Who is this?
Our first order of business was to bathe Honey. The second was to get us all to bed. I carried her upstairs and put into our large bathtub, then soaped her up and rinsed her off. We toweled her dry and she lay down on a blanket by the bedroom woodstove, the Labs on either side of her like bookends. From the first, they accepted Honey, and there was never an issue among them. Honey was finally home.
Honey, who was about two when I found her, has been with us for 12 years. As I write this, our “street dog” is nearing the end of her wonderful, beautiful life. Everyone who knows her story says that she was one lucky dog, but I tell you the honest truth: through it all, I was the lucky one.
Culture: Stories & Lit
Amazing activists who are fighting to save Greyhounds worldwide.
Set against Ireland’s green and rocky beauty and its harsh economic realities, The Dogs of Avalon is the story of a determined group of women who fight for the well being of ex-racing Greyhounds. Marion Fitzgibbon helped to found the County Galway sanctuary she named Avalon, is a model of compassion in action, and author Laura Schenone journeyed to Ireland to learn more about her work and what motivates her to do it.
The next day, Marion picked me up in the rain. On the way out of town, as we sat at a traffic light, I saw a monstrosity by the side of the road, an ugly conglomeration of cement and steel which was evidently a huge construction project abandoned before it was even halfway built. I asked Marion about it.
“Isn’t it terrible? It was going to be a shopping mall, but they ran out of money.”
It felt unnerving to look in and see the unfinished floors and concrete walls, steel beams reaching up to nowhere, as though the workers had dropped their tools and fled due to some catastrophe. In fact, this is exactly what happened, though instead of the volcanic ash of Pompeii or the huge waves of a typhoon, it was an economic disaster. This was just one of many incomplete real estate projects left behind from the boom years of the Celtic Tiger. With hundreds of years of poverty behind them, the Irish had been rich oh so briefly—and now they were poor again.
It receded behind us as Marion continued north. In Ireland, it never takes long to get from city to countryside, and soon we were surrounded by green, leafy trees on a road that ran alongside the Shannon, the longest river in Ireland.
After more than an hour, we turned west and crossed into County Galway. That’s when the terrain changed, as though we’d entered another dimension. The bright green landscape was gone, and suddenly the car was climbing a rugged small hill that led to an open plain of brown untilled fields on one side and a bog on the other. The sky hung low and grey, and the vista was gloomy yet beautiful, with brown moor grass and rushes dotted with yellow wildflowers and heather.
In the distance, the hills rose up into the Slieve Aughty Mountains. Patches of dark earth lay in small heaps of broken rectangles left behind by local turf cutters. I remarked on the untillable soil and Marion said, “To hell or Connacht,” with an ironic laugh. We were in the rocky, harsh part of Ireland’s west, the place to which Cromwell banished the Catholics after he stole the fertile land in the 1600s and gave it to English Protestants.
“I remember when Beverly and I first came here and found this land,” Marion said, changing the subject. “It really shook my foundations when she left. I thought we’d be saving dogs together until we dropped.”
We turned down a dirt road that led to a large wrought-iron gate flanked by a wall of round, smooth stones, beautifully placed by hand.
A sign hung in front, bearing the word “Avalon” inscribed in Celtic-style letters.
“Whenever I come here, I feel happy because I know Avalon will be here after I am gone. Kilfinane, I cannot be sure. Maybe they’ll turn it all into condos someday after I’m dead. Or maybe they will knock it down. I don’t know. But Avalon will always be here.”
Marion had been one of Avalon’s directors from the start. And though she felt responsible for helping bring Avalon into existence, it was very clear that Avalon was Johanna Wothke’s project. It was part of Pro Animale. Marion didn’t have to tell me what she was thinking: How could it be that she and Johanna had both been doing this for thirty years, and now Johanna had more than thirty sanctuaries while Marion couldn’t even complete one?
We drove up the road, passing through a stand of trees, and then beyond to open meadows and rolling fields for grazing and running. We had arrived at an animal heaven. The long necks of horses came into view, bent over to graze. Sheep stood in distant, misty fields. The most dominant presence was of Greyhounds, dozens of them, barking aggressively. In their paddocks, they came leaping toward us and jumped up, forepaws to the fences, pink bellies and fangs showing, ears up, barking so forcefully that I felt afraid and checked the height of the fence.
The entry road led to the main building, covered in climbing roses and vines. Inside, every wall was hung with art—paintings, woodcuts, and sketches of animals. The floors gleamed with stone tile.
There were a few humans here, mostly Polish men, walking horses between fields. An Irishwoman named Noreen was in charge. She’d studied animal science and spent her life on farms before coming here. She sat us down at the kitchen table and made tea. She and Marion began to talk about Johanna’s high standards, how everything had to be just so.
In 1996, a year after Johanna Wothke, Rosie, and Marion first met about their Greyhound adventure, Wothke invited Marion to Germany to see some of her sanctuaries. Marion and Johanna were similar in age and had started their animal work at around the same time, by bringing dogs into their homes.
On that trip, Marion learned that Johanna had started with no great financial means—she’d been a schoolteacher. Early on, she’d had the idea to write a newsletter—first, for her friends and acquaintances —to let people know about her work, and also to appeal for donations. She continued to write these newsletters a few times a year, and her subscribers and supporters grew. In time, some donors left bequests to Pro Animale, which allowed her to build several sanctuaries in Germany. When the Soviet bloc fell, she bought cheap land in Poland and, later, in Russia, Austria, and Turkey. She kept a notebook for each sanctuary and spoke several languages, which helped. She ran these sanctuaries down to the last Deutschmark. Each one was designed the same way, with art on the walls, gardens and tiled floors. She was not a social being, but a workaholic. From what Marion observed, she slept only four hours a night.
They drove across Austria and down into Italy. Johanna had just acquired about ten acres of prime land in Assisi. At sunset, they reached a secluded valley. There was a broken-down mill and an orchard. A stream ran through the middle of the property, and at the center stood a farmhouse with thick walls and Gothic windows with deep ledges where you could sit and look out at the green valley. To Marion it was all incredible.
Johanna was about to open yet another sanctuary right there in the shadow of St. Francis, on this spectacular piece of land. She had raised her money by writing stories about the suffering of animals. People had responded. Germany was a wealthy country. Marion pushed away any feelings of envy.
The Assisi property came with a flock of sheep, which were still in their winter coats. While she was there, neighbors arrived with shears and got to work. They also brought a big feast and set out tables and napkins. Everyone sat under the stars, with lanterns hung from the trees. The magical experience imprinted on Marion an entirely new vision of what was possible.
At Avalon, the dogs lived in small social groups, and had large grassy fields to run in, contained by eight-foot-tall fences because there would always be those extra-talented Greyhounds who could jump a six-foot fence. Inside the main building, each pack had its own large room, much like a den. Wothke passionately opposed putting any dog alone in a cage or a pen.
I was peering into one of those rooms now. It seemed like a revolutionary design. Rather than four walls and a floor, the layout was a system of steppedup ledges wrapped around the room, except that each ledge was three or four feet deep and covered in earth-colored tile. If you stood in the middle of the floor, you were encircled by dogs, each in its own soft bedding on the ledges stacked halfway up the walls. Above the ledges, the walls were painted a soft yellow, and a hand-stenciled frieze of Greyhounds circled the room near the ceiling. It was more like a home than a dog kennel.
I stepped inside with Noreen as my escort. She was a strong-boned woman of middle age who inspired confidence, and yet, when the door closed the behind me, a wave of fear rose in my chest. Noreen stood in the corner and watched.
“I have to be very careful about introducing any new dog to a pack,” she said. “If one attacks another, then they all will. And they’ll kill a dog very quickly, you know.”
Six dogs circled round and began jumping on me. One managed to put its paws on my shoulders. The others nearly knocked me off my feet. They were exuberantly curious about me, sniffing my body and licking my hands. There was a wildness to them. They had never been tamed and had astonishing strength. As a pack, they were unified and powerful—and slightly terrifying. I sat down on a ledge, thinking it might calm them down, but this only gave them more access. Noses in my ears. A mouth around my hand. Tongues licking my cheeks, noses sniffing. One took my pocketbook and carried it to its bed. Across the room, three dogs remained in their spaces on the ledge—not interested. But the six around me could not have been more intrigued. My heart pounded fast.
Shortly after I came home from Ireland, I had a dream that Lily got out of the house and ran away. The last time I’d seen her was at a neighbor’s maple tree, and from there she’d vanished. I kept returning to that tree, looking for her, but she was never there. When I finally realized that she was gone and not coming back, I was overcome with the most excruciating grief—the kind of grief you live in fear of.
It was bottomless.
The next day, I was still rattled and felt a shadow over my brain. I told a friend about the dream.
“You do realize that you were dreaming about Gabriel,” she said. “Don’t you?”
Excerpt from The Dogs of Avalon: The Race to Save Animals in Peril by Laura Schenone. Copyright © 2017 by Laura Schenone. Reprinted with permission of W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.
Culture: Stories & Lit
During the mid-1970s, I directed one part of a multi-agency study of the responses of elk to logging in the northern Rockies. My study involved an area in western Montana on which we mapped site-specific annual levels of elk use by counting pellet groups on contour transects. I was always accompanied—and often surprised—by my Norwegian Elkhound, Tigre, who was inclined to herd anything on four legs.
His technique with elk would always start with a sniffing exhibition. He would rise up on his hind legs to get his nose well above the surrounding undergrowth and walk along that way for 10 to 15 feet. Once he was sure of his quarry, he would take off running, but very quietly. At that point, I had no more than five minutes to find a big tree to stand behind. I needed the big tree because the consistency of Tigre’s work was simply outstanding. At the end of his silent run, he would suddenly explode into an army of barking dogs, and shortly thereafter, a herd of elk would come stampeding toward me.
This was not a random occurrence; it happened at least once every year that we did the pellet counts. I cannot imagine how you would ever train a dog to do this. It has to be natural and instinctive, and even that explanation seems a little farfetched unless you’ve seen it happen.
The talent, however, was not confined to elk. One morning, a colleague, Freddy Hartkorn, and I were walking through a field in Lupine Creek to the start points of a couple of transects. Tigre started barking, and I knew right away what it was (you could tell by the tone of the bark what he was herding). I told Freddy, “That’s a bear bark.” We had just come even with a large maple shrub when a big black bear bustled down the hill and turned left.
Imagine the scene, arranged within three corners of an equilateral triangle. The maple is in the middle, Tigre is at the apex, and the two basal angles are occupied on one end by Freddy and me, on the other by a very perplexed bear. After skidding to a halt, he just sat there and looked at us. The expression on his face was absolutely priceless. Tigre was also sitting quietly, although you could almost hear him thinking, There he is, boss. All yours.
The third corner was the one that reacted, or at least Freddy did. He started yelling and waving his arms and carrying on something fierce. Dumb me, I didn’t join in; I was too busy looking at that poor bear’s face and trying to keep from laughing. (It was one of those “you had to be there” moments.) When he finally figured it out, the bear turned around and ran off. Forever after, Freddy was willing to tell anybody who would listen, “That damn dog of Jack’s is really dangerous. He’s going to get somebody killed.”
As it happens, Freddy’s prediction didn’t come true, and Tigre and I had other adventures that also turned out well.
One morning on a pellet route in Burdette Creek, we saw bears on the other side of the drainage, too far away for Tigre to notice. So, later that day, when I was sitting down writing notes and heard an animal stirring around downhill from us, I figured it was another bear. Unusually, Tigre seemed more interested in sitting right next to me rather than chasing it. This behavior aroused my curiosity, so I stood up to have a look. Lucky I did, too. The mountain lion was almost as surprised as I was—I’m sure he thought Tigre’s bobbing white tail belonged to a great big bunny.
Culture: Stories & Lit
Walter Joe shows how a dog can be adoptable but not “shelterable.”
Sheila D’Arpino was the first in the country to complete a one-of a-kind program: a three-year postgraduate combined study of shelter medicine and animal behavior at the University of California–Davis’s well-regarded veterinary school. She had wanted to be a veterinarian since she was a child, but once the California native became one, she found it wasn’t enough.
With so many shelter dogs euthanized for their behavior, Sheila believed that to truly help those animals she had to treat their minds as well as their bodies. At UC Davis she became the equivalent of a psychiatrist. She studied shelter dog behavior and learned how to treat their problems with training or, in some cases, with drugs. The biggest lesson she learned in the end, however, was philosophical: Every dog is an individual. There is no one kind of fearful dog, for example. Behind the crouches and tail tucks, a unique personality exists. That’s a long way from the thinking of the seventeenth century French philosopher René Descartes, which stymied our understanding of animals for more than three centuries and still holds sway in some quarters. Descartes argued that animals were not only soulless but lacked any kind of reasoning. They had no more intelligence or interior life, he believed, than that of a well-oiled clock. He called animals “beast machines.” Even in the seventeenth century, many pet owners must have disagreed.
Now canines are the darlings of scientific cognition studies, and “every dog is an individual” has become the buzz phrase of the shelter world. It is, however, one of those simple proclamations that are easy to agree with but surprisingly difficult to apply, especially in an institutional setting, where labels and generalities come easily. It is especially hard to apply to growling, biting dogs such as Walter, who are often dubbed inherently “bad” or “dangerous” and are put down as a public service, as one shoots a marauding grizzly bear. Granted, a dog such as Walter, who behaved like a Terrier from hell his first day at the ARL, poses a practical problem: If no one could handle him, there was no safe way to keep him in the shelter. Luckily, a veterinarian with special training and an enlightened outlook happened to work for the shelter just then. Even more luckily, D’Arpino had a yard and an enclosure where Walter would, she hoped, calm down. Only then would she see who this dog was behind the flashing teeth and growling, if he was, in fact, a “dangerous” dog or one who snapped when he was scared out of his wits. Slowly she got some answers. Once Walter moved into her house, he kept his distance for about a month. Then he began to follow Sheila around. He would playfully run around on his short, squat legs, mouth open in a smile, his long, narrow tongue flapping. Then he climbed into her lap.
When Walter sees D’Arpino, he leaps off the dryer and runs to her. When she sits cross-legged on our hallway floor, he plops into her lap. He puts his front paws on her chest so he can look into her eyes while she strokes his back. His glassy eyes brighten. He doesn’t flinch when she clicks on his collar. We glimpse who a happy, relaxed Walter might be. I sink to the hallway floor next to her, hoping that some of her charm will wear off on me. After about ten minutes of chitchatting with Scott and me while she pets Walter, she has to go home to her family and her multiple dogs. I hold Walter’s reattached leash so he won’t follow his only friend in the world as D’Arpino leaves.
“Sorry, Walter,” I say as I close the door.
The night returns to normal, kind of. I have to pull Walter down our front steps in the chill of a wintry evening to go for an overdue walk. He shivers as we head up and down the icy sidewalks. I wish I could put a jacket on him. Back inside, he hurries down our long hallway to the safety and warmth of the dryer. Then, for some reason, maybe because we’re tired, Scott and I do something we never do. We lie down on the floor to watch TV. Not long after we have stretched out on our sides and arranged throw pillows just so, we notice Walter’s small silhouette in the hallway. He pads tentatively toward us and then stops. He lets his head droop.
“Look,” we whisper to each other, meaning “Look out of the corner of your eye.”
Walter takes a few more steps toward us. When he has almost reached the living room’s light, he pauses again. He seems to be thinking. Maybe he’s thinking he’ll have to make do with the two knuckleheads on the floor. Maybe he’s thinking about the nice massage he just got from his only friend in the world. A look of resolve comes over his pointed face. He suddenly races at Scott and snuggles up against my husband’s chest. We quietly raise our eyebrows at each other.
Walter slept with us from that night on, often putting his head on our pillows or worming his way under the blankets. He hopped into our laps whenever we sat down. He began to play, dashing up and down our long hallway while we yelled, “Mad dog, mad dog!” Walter was so crazy to ride in the car that we had to spell the word to each other, otherwise he’d bolt for the front door and start squeaking pathetically. He shadowed me, even sat in the bathroom while I took a shower. He also followed Penny Jane, who, in her aloof way, seemed to like him.
Eventually we could take the Terrier’s leash off and put it on, and then his collar. He did nip me once, as I tried to brush road salt off a back foot. I knew I shouldn’t have, but he was limping. Luckily I had a thick glove on, and he only bruised my hand. He had become a pet dog again, though one whose feet you’d best leave alone.
We sent him to the shelter with a good report card: loving, housebroken, funny. The dog who’d once been a gnashing mongoose clearly had a future as a family pet. Yet almost the moment the kennel door closed behind him, his eyes went black and glassy again. He growled at staffers when they looked into his kennel. For fear he would nip someone, only D’Arpino or I took him out. When he saw either of us, he exploded with happiness. When we left, he shut back down. I got word that the shelter was thinking of putting him down. How could they put a dog up for adoption whom they couldn’t handle? I had never wanted a Terrier, especially a Jack Russell. I had never wanted a male dog, or a little dog.
When we brought Walter home for good we goofed up his name some to put our official stamp on him. He became Walter Joe Jr. We started calling him Waltie-Bear or Joey or Junior or Dub-yuh or Mister or Champ or Bubbles—all names he learned. Though he showed no signs of it in the shelter, he was completely capable of living in a home, not to mention riding in canoes, staying in hotels, and lounging on the beach. He was, as they say, “homeable” but not “shelterable.” To be the former, as it turns out, does not mean a dog can be the latter.
These dogs are such conundrums. Shelter staff have to decide if a dog can be safely adopted based on his behavior in a stressful environment that in no way resembles a home. The equivalent would be judging a person while he is in the hospital, bedridden, stuck with IVs, anxious, bored, and with no family to comfort him. Would you see that person’s true character? Or would you see the equivalent of Walter in the shelter? Luckily I haven’t seen many Walters since I began volunteering. Most dogs manage okay enough in the enervating tedium, at least at first. Some even improve with regular meals and walks. But even the dogs who seem to thrive can, over weeks, months, appear to deteriorate. They bark more, jump more, maybe start to lunge at strangers or other dogs. They become obsessed with balls, as happened with Gwen Stefani. These dogs can begin to seem less and less adoptable, which makes it harder to find them a home, which means they stay in the shelter longer and longer. A vicious cycle begins. It’s not always enough to find a dog a home. You have to find one quickly.
Excerpted from Rescuing Penny Jane by Amy Sutherland. Copyright © 2017 by HarperCollins. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Culture: Stories & Lit
Caring for two loves
I am not responsible for much. I do not have children who have to get to school on time and wear matching shoes and be taught the difference between right and wrong. I do not have a job in which the well being of a company or the safety of the nation or the health of anyone at all is resting on my shoulders. I have a couple of plants I must remember to water. I make a point of paying my taxes on time. I take care of myself, but that’s not worth mentioning. I pitch in and help all sorts of people when I can, but they are people who could find the same help elsewhere if I went on vacation. When I think of who I am responsible for, truly responsible for, the list whittles down to my dog and my grandmother, and it just so happens that last week they were both sick.
Rose is white with ginger ears and an extremely alert tail. She weighs 17 pounds even though she should probably weigh 16. She had some angry-looking lesions on her pink belly that made me take her to the vet two months ago. I gave her the assigned antibiotics wrapped in cream cheese or peanut butter, depending on what was around. But the inflammation lingered and then flared, exacerbated by Rose’s very focused licking, and I decided we should go back and try again. I had heard there was a dog dermatologist in town with a three-month waiting list, but decided to give my regular vet another try. I’m quite certain I wouldn’t go to the dermatologist if I had pimples on my stomach and so I don’t see why I should make my dog go either.
My grandmother is 94, a mere 13 in dog years. She lives in an assisted-living facility three miles from my house and four blocks from my vet. Sometimes I take her with us to the vet, even though it is a lot to navigate a scared dog and a mostly blind, very confused grandmother into the waiting room. Still, she likes the excitement of barking, the snuffling dogs, the chance to comfort Rose, who is inevitably trembling with her head pressed beneath my grandmother’s arm. Rose doesn’t like the vet, which would be a point too obvious to include were it not for the fact that my mother’s cat worships his trips to doctor. They are his 15 minutes of fame. He purrs for hours after coming home at the mere thought of having received so much attention.
“It’s okay,” my grandmother tells Rose and rubs her ears. “Nobody’s going to eat you.”
But Rose, for all her incalculable wisdom, is still a dog and we cannot reassure her that something really hideous isn’t about to happen. Maybe she does think that an enormous and drooling animal is waiting to chew her up behind the door of examining room number three. She vibrates in her fear, tucking her head down and her hindquarters in until she is the size of a grapefruit. How can I explain that this was all for the good, that I would never leave her here, that I would protect her with the same passion with which she protects me from the UPS and FedEx trucks? We have such a language between us, Rose and I, but in this case it fails us and all I can do is pet and pet.
My grandmother has said her leg was sore all week. There was a bruise behind her knee, a funny place for a bump, and so my mother and I kept an eye on it. As soon as my mother flew off for her vacation, I received a phone call from the assisted-living nurse. My grandmother needed to go to the doctor, immediately.
“Are we going to your house?” my grandmother said, once I had wrestled her and her suddenly useless, painful leg into my car.
“We’re going to the hospital,” I told her. “The doctor needs to see your leg.”
“My leg is fine,” she said.
“It’s fine because you’re sitting down. Do you remember it hurting before?”
“My leg doesn’t hurt,” she said.
Her leg is blowing up like a summer storm, dark as an eggplant now across the back and getting green in the front. Her skin feels tight and hot. How did it get so bad so fast? The doctor said her blood was too thin. She’s had a bleed into her leg, which is better than a clot, and was admitted to the hospital.
If twenty minutes in the vet’s office can turn my bounding, snarling, terrier mutt into a cowering grapefruit, three days in the hospital would cast my sweetly confused grandmother down into the bottom circles of dementia.
“Where are we?’ she asked.
“In the hospital.”
“Are you sick?”
“No,” I said, leaning over to lightly tap her leg. “You have a sore leg.”
“I’ve been here before.”
“A long time ago.”
“There weren’t all these pots and pans then,” she said. “Not so many red squirrels.”
“That’s true,” I said.
“Where are we now?”
“Still in the hospital.”
“Do you feel sick?”
And so we went on in our circle, hour after hour. We had stepped outside of the routine we knew and found ourselves in a place where language was utterly useless. Still, we could not stop talking, the same way I talked to Rose while we waited for the vet. “It’s okay. I’m right here. You’re a beautiful dog. There was never such a good and beautiful dog as you.” I whisper to her over and over again while I pet.
I could not call Rose and tell her I was at the hospital, and I could not leave. IVs can get pulled out much quicker than they can be put back in; I had already found this out. Every five minutes my grandmother swung her feet to the floor. “Let’s go now.”
I picked them up and put them back in her bed. “You aren’t supposed to walk.”
“Where are we?” she asked.
Is it wrong to tell a story about your grandmother and your dog in which their characters become interchangeable? My sense of protectiveness for the two of them is fierce. They love me, and because their love is all they have to give, it seems especially pure. I love them too, but my love manifests itself in food, medical care, rides in the car, grooming. On Saturdays, I bring my grandmother home and give her lunch, and she always claims to be too full to finish her sandwich so that she can give half of it to Rose, who does not get sandwiches at other times, especially not straight from the table. I look the other way when my grandmother whispers to my dog, “Don’t worry. She doesn’t see us.”
My grandmother longs to have the ability to spoil someone again. My dog is the one mammal left who is unconditionally thrilled by her company. I wash my grandmother’s hair in the kitchen sink after the dishes are done and Rose sits in her lap while I blow it dry and pin it up in a twist. Sometimes, when I’ve finished with my grandmother’s hair, I’ll wash Rose in the sink and use the same damp towel to rub her dry. Then they lie down on the couch together and fall asleep, exhausted by so much cleanliness.
Back in the hospital, I cover my grandmother up with a white blanket.
“Your little dog sure did give me the cold shoulder,” she said, her voice full of hurt.
“She didn’t even come over and say hello.”
“Rose isn’t here,” I told her. “We’re in the hospital.”
My grandmother’s eyes move slowly from the window to the door, then back again. “Oh,” she said, glad to know she was wrong. She takes the white blanket up in her hands.
Three days later, my grandmother went home, her leg still sore but stable. I have told her she was in the hospital, but she doesn’t believe me.
Rose, on the other hand, remembers her antibiotic. After dinner she sits in front of the counter where the bottle is kept, wagging her tail. She thinks only of the cream cheese, not the medicine, because she knows that part of it is my responsibility.
Culture: Stories & Lit
I could not bring myself to take pictures of any of it, to take anything, although I did for a moment consider grabbing my camera to ensure that later on I’d have an image, some tangible visual record of the process of losing you. Maybe that momentary impulse came from fear that the emotional weight of participating in your last days as flesh-and-blood would eventually outweigh or alter the straight facts that photographs might hold. Fear that visuals so fresh right then, as I sat on one of the two plush green leather couches of the crematorium waiting room, would reshuffle themselves and gently blend together as merely tolerable sentimental recollection. It wouldn’t have been right, though, to shoot what only you and I should know. The camera stayed in the truck.
The kind man in charge of the ovens had just gone out into the noon blast of July in the San Fernando Valley to check on the progress of your burning. I’d followed but stopped thirty feet back as he’d asked me to.
“You don’t really want to see—it’s something you probably wouldn’t want to see… The. … uh …,” he’d mumbled, faltering in a way that had won me over instantly.
“You mean if she isn’t done yet?” I’d said, completing the thought for him.
“Yes, exactly. The, uh… sometimes they’re not completely …” He’d paused, looking as pained as if he’d known you the way I had.
“Yes,” he’d blurted out with a slight squeak in his voice. “It isn’t pretty.”
“No. I can imagine it wouldn’t be,” I’d said.
“Not at all pretty.”
He had stood there, putting on his fire-retardant gloves and his sunglasses, still looking at me as if needing to say something more. And I had waited. It’d already been a hell of a long morning, so I hadn’t been in any big hurry at that point.
“I do this all the time, but I couldn’t personally, you know, do this.”
I’d thought I understood more or less what he meant.
“My uncle’s dog,” he’d continued, “I had to do that one, and it was very difficult. I could never do it again.”
“I understand,” I’d said.
“Yes, I’m sure.”
He’d started backing sideways toward the oven. It was one of the three on the back lot that seemed to be in operation, as evidenced by the grey smoke rising from their steel-pipe smokestacks into the smoggy haze above us. As inappropriate as the thought might have been, I somehow couldn’t help but think of the much larger indoor ones I’d once seen in the Dachau concentration camp memorial. I’d felt a momentary urge to ask if these ovens had been manufactured in Europe, but it had passed.
“Please stay back here while I check and see how she’s doing,” he’d then said.
“OK,” I’d said. “And how do you check?”
He’d stopped side stepping toward the oven. “I open the door and look.”
“She might not be done. She might not be ready.”
“Yeah. OK. I’ll wait… ”
“Plus, it’s real hot. About 1,500 degrees.”
“I’ll wait here then.”
“I’m so sorry,” he’d said, tugging down the bill of his navy-blue ball cap and turning toward the oven. He’d said “sorry” several times since I’d arrived, and he seemed to mean it. “Sorry for your loss. I am truly sorry.”
After a minute spent carefully peeking through the slightly opened oven door, he’d closed it and walked back to me. “I’m sorry. She’s not done yet. Another ten or fifteen minutes.”
“Should I go back inside to the waiting room, then?”
“Yes. If you don’t mind. Sorry. I’ll let you know just before I get her so you can come and watch me do everything. Check, you know, to see if… see that… ”
“Yeah, good. OK, thanks.”
A tall, well-groomed black poodle named Paris, as I’d overheard her being called when I’d first arrived at the crematorium office, had been staring at me for a while. From her position under a sort of anaemic-looking potted ficus by the doorway to the office, she was able to monitor all comings and goings. Suddenly, she rose and bolted straight for me, jumping up on the couch right next to me, barking excitedly. Her breath smelled like boiled carrots. Sort of sweet and not altogether unpleasant, but not something I craved at that moment. The receptionist called Paris, no doubt trying to keep the dog from further upsetting me, the grieving customer. Paris was not bothering me at all. I understood that she had been barking for attention, not out of aggression—probably bored out of her mind in this place where all other dogs were dead and burning or about to be. She hadn’t even barked that loudly, really, and her company was comforting in a life-goes-on-and-there-are-lots-of-nice-dogs-in-the-world-sort of way. Paris gave me one more quieter bark right in my left ear, licked my face and left me to see what the receptionist wanted.
“I’m very sorry,” the receptionist said, as she led Paris into the back of the office area.
“That’s OK,” I said. “She wasn’t bothering me. Female, right?”
“Yes, she certainly is. I am sorry for your loss.”
I know she meant it as well. Expressions of sympathy for the customer would to some degree have probably been obligatory for the crematorium personnel, but everyone did seem to be personally and genuinely concerned. People doing their utmost to run a decent family-owned business with kindness and compassion. The compulsion to record all of this got the better of me, finally, and I went out to the truck to look for my notebook. After a quick scramble through the papers, books, cameras and other assorted commuter debris on the back seat, I found the notebook. Although I had not had the time to take many pictures or to sit down and write much of anything lately, a camera and something to write in are always in the car, or in whatever bag I carry, just in case a moment special to me presents itself to be stolen. Resisting once more the temptation to take the camera, I grabbed the notebook and a pen and returned to the waiting room to begin writing this.
Kind strangers have given me a few handsomely bound journals and notebooks over the years. Some, like this one, are bound in beautifully tanned and tooled leather. This one’s cover has a giant oak tree cut into it, with other old oaks on a distant ridge beyond it. The big pewter button used for tying the notebook closed with a leather thong is cast with an oak leaf and acorn detail. I am not much good at keeping a diary, or diligent about any sort of regular journal entries. My way to remember has usually been to write stories, poems or more often than not, to make photographs or drawings. I felt a little rusty and awkward writing in the waiting room under the quietly watchful eyes of the receptionist and Paris. Maybe it didn’t seem at all odd to them, my scribbling away. Probably what bothered me was my own sense of guilt over being inclined to record the events surrounding the processing of your body. Just a short time earlier I had been openly weeping while crossing the city in morning rush-hour traffic. I suppose we humans can be resilient—nearly as resilient as you were, Brigit—and as accepting of life’s unpredictably rough patches as most animals seem to be. Whatever the reason, I found I could not write fast enough in my attempt to describe the events of the day.
“Do you want to come out while I clean this out?” the kind voice of the oven-minder asked softly, interrupting me in mid-sentence. I looked up and nodded.
“Yes, please. I’ll … let me … let me just finish this sentence—this paragraph. I’ll be right there.”
“Do you write a lot?” he asked, as I followed him outside.
“Nice-looking book you got there.”
“Thanks. Yes, it is.”
I closed it, marking my place with the pen, just as he stopped and turned to me. I was standing on the same spot I had been asked to watch from earlier. “Please stay right here. I’ll shut her down and get everything. You’ll be able to see everything happening, but it is very hot now, and also …”
“Yes, ok I’ll wait here.”
As I stood still in the by-now withering heat and watched him switch off the oven and open it, I suddenly realised that there had been no muzak, no music of any kind playing in the waiting room. That was a pleasant surprise and seemed remarkable to me. The tact involved in such a choice on their part told me that they really must care.
The ovens were out behind the small, one-story building that holds the tidy crematorium office, some oversize freezers and the very pleasant air-conditioned waiting room. The property was surrounded by twenty-foot-high stacks of automobile carcasses, entire auto bodies and an enormous variety of neatly sorted bits and pieces—fenders, doors, hoods, seats, side mirrors, steering mechanisms, engine parts, dashboards, roofs, etc., arranged in row after row—apparently according to year, make and model. The sprawling salvage yard dwarfed the crematorium and its modest parking lot. Although there was no vegetation in sight, the colourful, encroaching heaps and rows of rendered vehicles almost looked like exotic organic growth, a sort of postmortem environment that seemed to me to perfectly complement the pet-burning business. The thick, lightly buzzing strands of heavy-duty power lines drooping as they crossed some thirty feet above us from one massive steel support to another only added to this entirely man-made, and remade, end-of-nature garden. Its perfume was a blend of acrid and oily-sweet, of melting rubber and asphalt, of taffy-thick black engine grease, of yellowing plastic and peeling paint sluggishly wafting upward and blending with the constant dead-fish reek of Los Angeles smog.
I had risen very early—or, rather, got out of bed early, as I hadn’t slept at all. Knowing it was today that I was scheduled to pick up your refrigerated corpse at our trustworthy local veterinary hospital and drive it out to this industrial hinterland for cremating had kept me from being able to rest. Probably I am able to write about this with a degree of detachment because your brother Henry and I have already gone through the worst of your final decay and death process together. We took you, our fifteen-year-old, completely lame and largely incontinent pal, to be “put down” three days ago. In the intervening time we had to wait for a slot at the crematorium to open up. I have been able to largely digest and assimilate the stronger surface emotions of your final morning. As much as I am and will continue to be haunted by your sweet, departing gaze when the brain-stopping serum was administered, time and the responsibilities resulting from your passing have more or less carried me away from that heartbreaking scene. I will always see your eyes slowly lose their gleam as I gently lay your head down. Will always remember your final generous gesture of rolling halfway over to let us rub your belly one last time before the doctor gave you the sedative.
I’d arrived at the back door of the vet’s office feeling like I was complicit in some sort of underworld transaction. As had been the case all week, the morning sky was overcast, and the clammy grey marine layer had only added to the death business I was now part of. Two men in overalls had come out with what looked enough like a curled-up “you” shape inside a light-blue trash bag. As I had taken the thawing bundle and carefully laid it on the towel-covered passenger seat of the pickup truck, I had looked at the older of the two men. He’d nodded, seeming a bit uncomfortable, and then had turned and followed his colleague back inside the building without a backward glance or farewell. I had been very tired, a bit teary-eyed, and had not said a word myself. Probably not the most pleasant person for them to be around. I had gotten in the car and begun making my way to the 405 freeway. Moving slowly, stuck in the usual massive commuter caravan headed north toward the Sepulveda Pass, it had occurred to me that tomorrow would mark the 60th anniversary of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bomb drops. Then I had thought, not for the first time when passing the Sunset Boulevard exit, about O.J. Simpson’s bizarre televised journey in the famous white Ford Bronco. I had continued in that vein for a while, my mind becoming cluttered with a dizzying assortment of images involving unforgivable murders and other perversions of justice. The ideals of compassion had seemed distant, insignificant. I’d felt resigned, passively understanding that life moves forward just as traffic eventually does. Suddenly, the cars in front of me had slowed abruptly and I had braked hard, glad to see cars in my rear-view mirror doing the same.
The bagged corpse had slid off the seat and onto the floor, and I’d tried to pull it back up with my right hand. It had been quite heavy, and I’d realised it would be a difficult and dangerous task to accomplish while driving, so I had made my way across two lanes of traffic and off onto the side of the freeway. As I had come round the front of the truck and opened the passenger-side door, I had decided I’d have a look at you to see if you were intact. I had straightened out the towel on the seat and lifted the bundle back onto it, then poked a hole in the plastic bag, now wet with condensation, where I could feel one of your frozen paws. Long black hair, long black nails. Not much like any of your paws. I had quickly felt for the body’s head, finding a stiff tongue projecting beyond clenched teeth, and then a collar around the neck. We had taken your collar off when you’d expired at the vet’s, and I knew that Henry was wearing it wrapped twice around his wrist as a bracelet today. This dog was not you. The absurdity of it all had hit me immediately as I had stood up and stared at the mass of moving cars through the poisonous-looking heat waves. The sadness of it had been suddenly overwhelming, as was the smell of initial decomposition, which I had not been aware of until that moment, like that of a dead deer that’s been hanging for a few hours from a tree.
I had never really wanted to live in Los Angeles. Here I was, on yet another ridiculous errand, feeling vaguely like I was being punished for some past transgression, marking time and forced to make sense of an oddly evolving riddle. I had secured the corpse and made sure the towel was placed so as to keep the dead stranger from touching the seat or any part of the truck’s interior. Eventually, I’d got myself turned around and headed back to the vet’s, feeling sorry for this poor dog I did not know, and for its unwitting owner. En route, I had called the crematorium and informed them that I would be late for our oven appointment because I’d been given the wrong dog. They’d been very kind, had said I should get there when I could, and that they were very sorry.
Now the crematorium is about two miles behind me as I sit listlessly sipping coffee at a Mexican restaurant. This is as far as I have got, with my new cedar box containing your remaining bone fragments and ashes. I had asked the oven-minder to please not crush your bones if that was what he’d planned on doing.
“Yes, normally we do very gently break down the bone matter so that it fits comfortably in the box or urn as the case might be. If you prefer, though … ”
“…we can also not do it and just try and place her, the bone matter—the bag, that is—in the cedar box for you. If they’ll fit—if it will fit—that is.”
“That’s ok, I can do it.”
Earlier, out by the ovens, I had been allowed to scoop up all your burnt bits from the metal tray that the man had scraped the cooling, fragile ghost-shape of your skeleton onto. I had stopped several times to carefully examine some of your more distinguishable pieces. Vertebrae, hip parts and most beautiful of all, the rounded piece of bone that I instantly recognized as the top of your skull. We have petted that part of you so often. I can feel its shape even now, in memory, feel the bone through your smooth fur, feel your warmth and your happiness. All of it had gone into the plastic bag he now held.
“Ok, sir. As you prefer.”
I proceeded to gently rearrange the bag and its contents inside the box, and then placed your crematorium nametag and the receipt for services provided on top of your remains before closing the lid with its little brass clasp.
“We would like you to consider the cedar box a gift from us due to the unfortunate mistake that was made this morning. We are very sorry about that.”
“Oh. Well … thank you …”
A woman who seemed to be the oven-minder’s boss, and perhaps the owner of the establishment, stood up and came around her desk to address me. “We are very sorry that … Brigit?… that Brigit got confused this morning.”
I almost pointed out that you had not been confused at all, being quite dead, but I resisted the temptation, knowing what she meant.
“It is very unusual that something unheard of like that would happen,” she continued. “Very unusual, and we are extremely sorry. If you prefer a larger box or don’t like cedar as a wood type… maybe an urn would be more to your liking?”
I was truly moved by her words and the generous offer.
“Is it Western red cedar?” I asked, for some reason unknown to me now—perhaps being at a loss for anything better to say by way of response.
“You know, I am not real sure about that,” she replied, a bit thrown off by my question. “I certainly can try and find out for you, if you like?”
“No, thanks. I was just wondering. Just curious, I guess.”
“Would you like to replace the cedar?”
“Replace? No. I like cedar. Smells good, looks good. Thank you.” I now felt like a complete idiot. “You don’t have to give me the box, though. Don’t have to give it… I’m happy to pay for it.”
“We insist. It’s something we want to do for you.”
“Thank you very much. Very kind of you.”
“If Brigit doesn’t fit comfortably, not being completely dust and all… ”
(“Comfortably?” Never mind… ) “No, that’s fine. She fits. I got her in there ok. And it’s a beautiful box. Thank you.”
“Me podría traer un poco de arroz con frijoles, por favor?”
“Would you like anything else with that?” the waitress replied, in heavily Spanish-accented English.
“Gracias, pero la verdad es que no tengo mucho hambre.”
She looked at me calmly, and said “I’ll bring it right out. Warm up your coffee for you?”
“Fijese: ahora que lo pienso creo que sí me gustaría una pequeña ensalada de lechuga y tomate… y cebolla, si hay.”
“Ok,” she continued in English, “and will you like some dressing—vinaigrette, ranch, French, blue cheese, or oil and vinegar—for that?”
Doesn’t happen often, but once in a while my gringo looks or perhaps my Argentine accent seem to be held against me like that. She glances at the cedar box resting on the table to the right of my place setting. I wonder if she has seen this sort of box before. The crematorium isn’t far, and maybe other people stop here now and then as I have, unable or unwilling to drive any further. Maybe they sometimes come here and get a little drunk, become indiscreet and open their boxes to look at what’s left of their animal friends. Maybe they cry and have to be consoled. I do not look at my box, just hold the waitress’ gaze when it returns to me. I’ve taken an initial dislike to her because she seems to refuse to speak Spanish with me, so I’m certainly not going to give her any more clues now.
“Will that be all, sir?” she asks dryly.
“Sí… y si me puede traer la cuenta con la comida—y un poco más de café—se lo agradecería.”
She looks at me for a moment longer, then reluctantly mutters “Por supuesto, señor,” as she turns to go place my order.
Culture: Stories & Lit
We each have our own particular way of grieving the loss of a beloved pet. Some go straight to the shelter and adopt a new friend right away, continuing the cycle of unconditional love that life with a dog perpetuates. Some vow to never, ever take in another animal again, believing that the pain of another loss—or even the joy of a new, huge love—would be too much to bear.
And some hover in the middle, craving a dog’s love and presence, knowing deep in their hearts that another adoption is inevitable, but wary of forming a new bond. I call this the “in-between-dogs” state. Not now, those of us in the inbetween state tell ourselves. Not yet. Wait until the moment is right.
My beloved Spaniel mix Chloe has been gone for almost two years, and I’m still in the in-between state. Our relationship was deep and transformative and profound—and occasionally challenging—and losing her caused me to unravel a bit. Especially in those first few months.
There were also—and still are—moments of beauty and joy amidst the grief, moments in which I experienced what I now call “the continuum of Chloe” and was able to witness the essence of my beloved friend in her non-physical form. But mostly, there was unraveling.
Unraveling: it’s the perfect word. To live intimately with a dog is to knit every aspect of your life into the life of the Other. When your Other is gone, you have to gather up all those loose threads; you once more have to figure what makes you whole. This can be a complicated process.
For 10 intense years, it was just me and Chloe, alone and together. Ours was a tightly woven sweater. I won’t say web, because a web is something you get caught in, whereas a sweater is something that keeps you warm and snug. Is it any wonder that her sudden departure left me cold?
The reweaving phase—accepting, adjusting—is in itself a tender time, and bittersweet, but it’s more open, too. Those of us in the reweaving phase are open to joy, open to possibility, amenable to allowing ourselves to be surprised.
My friend summed it up quite nicely. “It’s that phase where you transition from specifically missing your dog to missing having a dog in general.” The missing is still there, and the yearning, but instead of yearning for what we had in the past (our Best Dog Ever), we also miss what we currently don’t have: a dog. Who will, of course, become the next Best Dog Ever. Reaching this phase, my friend pointed out, is usually a clear sign that you’re ready to get another dog.
For me, however, it indicated that I was ready to start volunteering at my local animal shelter. This is, hands-down, the best thing I did to help ease myself through the grieving process.
I’m embarrassed to admit that I never volunteered at this shelter when I actually had a dog. In fact, I rarely visited the shelter at all. Sure, I supported it with financial contributions, and occasionally I stopped by the front office to drop off blankets, food and toys, but I never actually went inside. Meaning, I did not venture into the back kennel rooms where the dogs were kept.
My first lame excuse is that, when Chloe was alive, most— if not all—of my spare time went into caring for her. I actually told myself I would be “betraying” Chloe if I spent time with other, more needy dogs. My second lame excuse was that I worried that the experience would be depressing. I know I’m not alone in having this fear, or rather, this misconception.
I recently took a casual poll and was surprised, yet not surprised, to discover that an alarmingly large majority of my animal-loving friends actually avoid animal shelters. They’re—we’re—afraid we’re going to be traumatized by the horrors we have convinced ourselves we’ll witness there: rows and rows of caged animals, catatonic with fear, showing signs of physical and emotional abuse, staring at us, begging us to save them all.
Yes, this is a worst-case scenario and a stereotype, but it’s a stereotype that also, unfortunately, can be true. Witnessing suffering (and human cruelty) can change us forever. Certain images can sear themselves into our minds and implant a new pain. And, let’s be honest. Who is brave enough to carry yet more pain?
The answer is: all of us. We just need to be willing to take the first step. Thus, one morning, I found myself driving to my local shelter, prepared to volunteer. It turned out that my fears about the worst-case scenario at this shelter were totally unfounded. In fact, I discovered that not only is my local shelter not depressing, it’s inspiring. (To find out why, see “Reiki Creates a Healing Space,” Bark, Winter 2014.)
As soon as I walked into the reception area, I could feel it: a vibration of peace, of balance, of promise. The receptionist, who was speaking with an applicant, smiled and said she’d be with me shortly. I sat next to a family of potential adopters who were interacting with a loudly purring tabby. Other staff members and volunteers moved through the spacious room briskly and efficiently, busy but not harried.
Meanwhile, another adoptable cat— black, with silvery markings that looked like rippling water—wandered into the area, snaking his way through the legs of people and chairs. His relaxed movements gave the room an aura of both stillness and momentum: the moment after chaos, in which real and important changes take place.
When it was my turn, I told the receptionist I had come to inquire about volunteering. She gave me an application and I filled it out on the spot. Physical limitations ruled out walking dogs, but I could certainly help out as a dog socializer, a position that would include lots of kissing, cuddling, playing and handling.
The role of socializer is to keep the animals happy, stimulated and comfortable, and to help fearful dogs grow accustomed to the presence of a kind human being. It sounded like a dream job.
After I submitted my application, I asked if I could visit the dogs. “I need some dog love,” I confessed, “and I’m sure they could use some human love.” Fortunately, this is the kind of shelter where such a request is welcome. The receptionist pressed a pager button and requested someone to lead a “dog tour.”
Within minutes, I was greeted by the kennel manager—a calm, cool, clear-eyed woman who gave off a vibe of competence and trustworthiness. We shook hands and made introductions and soon, I was being led toward the back room.
As she pushed open the door, I mentally prepared myself, but the area was wonderful. A row of spacious indoor/outdoor dog kennels lined the long hallway; everything was clean, organized and quiet. Shelves were well stocked with food and treats; labeled leashes hung neatly on walls; and a cheerfully illustrated dry-erase board listed the adoptable dogs, their histories, their quirks and needs.
As we walked past each kennel, I was pleased to see that the dogs had plenty of space to move around, as well as huge comfy beds. And I mean huge. One dog I met that day— a gorgeous Husky/St. Bernard mix named Max—was stretched out on a fluffy pad the size of a twin mattress. Max rolled languidly onto his back when we stopped at his kennel to say hello, presenting his sizable belly for a scratch.
As we continued on, I was also struck by how quiet it was. One of the worst things about the worst-case-scenario shelter environment can be the noise: the sound of multiple dogs barking, whining or howling in pain or despair. But the only sound I heard was the pleasing, comic squeak of a chew toy being enjoyed by a young Retriever mix a few kennels down.
That sound, unexpectedly, brought tears to my eyes. My reaction was a mixture of grief—missing Chloe, who also enjoyed playing with toys by herself—and joy for this puppy, who was situated in such comfort that she was relaxed enough to play. Then I realized: the good vibration I sensed at this shelter was hope. All of these animals stood a good— no, an excellent—chance of being adopted, and they knew it. That’s why they were so calm.
I felt a full-force sob of gratitude coming on, and smiled awkwardly at my tour leader. The woman, clearly a master at managing shelter emotions, asked if there were any dogs in particular I wanted to visit today.
“Who needs it most?” I asked.
“Promise,” she said without hesitation.
And so I met Promise, a sweet, blind, emaciated, diabetic Pit Bull with silvery fur and a heart-breakingly gentle nature who had come into the shelter as a stray. To me, she looked as thin as a skeleton recently unearthed, but I was told that she had been even thinner when she arrived. As I entered her kennel, Promise whined and shivered and pressed herself against my legs, seeming to cry for things that could not be delivered: mainly sight. And an explanation of why she was there.
For a moment, I felt a sense of helplessness. What kind of comfort could I offer such a dog? Then my mind shifted to blame and anger: What kind of person would starve and abandon a blind dog? These thoughts led to larger thoughts of nihilism: What kind of world is this? How quickly our minds can lead us into despair.
But if there’s anything years of yoga and meditation practice have taught me, it’s this: in the midst of great suffering, the only thing that makes sense is compassion. And gratitude. Back when I was grieving intensely over the loss of Chloe, a friend advised me to continually “return to gratitude.” Gratitude that I was able to connect with Chloe in this lifetime. Gratitude that I was granted the privilege of taking care of her. Gratitude that because of her—and Wallace before her—I learned more ways to become a better human. And thus, as a better human, to help more dogs.
Now I lowered myself to the concrete floor, sat next to Promise’s bed, and waited for her to initiate contact.
Promise, still shivering, slowly positioned herself so that her flank touched my leg. I closed my eyes and tried to put myself into her point of view. Together, we listened to the sound of the nearby puppy with the squeaky toy, the conversation of other staff and volunteers, the thunderous roll-and-clack of the old washer/dryer (constantly in motion in this busy place). I listened to her breath and she, perhaps, listened to mine.
I tried not to think of one of my last images of Chloe: Chloe, no longer breathing, lying lifeless in the back of my minivan outside the vet’s office. I tried not to think about the fact that Chloe didn’t die in my arms because I was the one who had to drive her to the vet.
Think in terms of gratitude, I reminded myself. Gratitude that, at least, Chloe had passed quickly without too much suffering. That, even though she had not been in my arms, she had been with me, in our car, and the last sounds she heard were of me singing a mantra for her, to her: Om mani peme hum.
I now sang that mantra to Promise, and felt such gratitude that I had the opportunity to sing to a dog who was on her way back into this world, rather than on her way out. Promise stopped shivering and curled onto my lap.
Culture: Stories & Lit
When God made the sea,
— Connie Hills
Life with Dogs
A good dog’s journey:
Culture: Stories & Lit
A Boxer’s greeting is a joy to behold. They jump into the air in such a jubilee of delight, it’s as if your return to hearth and home were the most noteworthy event of the century when all you’ve done, say, is walk to the mailbox and back. Return after an hour or more and you’ll get backflips, trumpets and a procession of drum-beating pageantry befitting a king.
But this last time, my Shelby outdid herself with the circus greeting, and a few moments later, her hind legs began to falter. As she tried to recover, her front legs failed, too. She staggered about the house slamming into furniture and walls, wagging her tail all the while. Was she having a seizure? Had her heart failed to pump enough blood to her hindquarters? Or had the cancer already spread to her brain?
She was eleven years old, this big brindle beauty to whom I was not going to get too attached. I was certainly not going to let myself love her the way I’d loved the one before her. When my previous Boxer died in my arms at age fifteen, I felt as if a part of myself had died too. I emerged from the vet’s office into a black-and-white world, a world literally devoid of all color. An hour went by before my color vision returned. I vowed right then and there: Never again.
But dogs have a way of finding the people who need them, filling an emptiness we don’t even know we have. So it was for Shelby, who took all of five minutes to stake her claim to my bruised heart. At nine months, she was big and bold, bright and brash, the daughter of two champions. My wife didn’t want another dog, and my daughter, then seven, was wary of this bumptious intruder. They held out only slightly longer than I had before they, too, were summarily seduced.
As canine crimes go, Shelby’s were all misdemeanors: she had three accidents, chewed one shoe, and swallowed a single bar of bath soap. That was her entire rap sheet. At the first light of day, with an exuberance she never outgrew, she’d come bounding into my bedroom to play. My friends and associates dare not wake me before noon (“I don’t care if it’s nuclear war, don’t ever call me in the morning!”) Yet I understood the natural world and couldn’t blame my little angel for her uncontainable high spirits at the first rays of dawn. It took me more than sunbeams to get on with my day, but when I’d finally consumed enough coffee to come back to life, Shelby and I shared our invariable breakfast: a can of King Oscar sardines. She got the three biggest. Next up: Quaker oatmeal. I served Shelby hers on a plastic Ronald McDonald plate that I set just outside the back door.
On cool days, she would run fifteen miles with me. She shredded three cotton ropes a month playing tug of war. She ran down Frisbees; she wrestled and boxed with me. In hot weather, she could dive and retrieve in depths that exceeded six feet. Like me, she was at home in the water. On a visit to my mother’s summer cottage in Wisconsin, I heard a child say, “Daddy, look at that duck.” It was Shelby, of course, a quarter-mile out on the lake, swimming after a mother duck and her flock. One large, square head surrounded by little round ones; a sort of Loch Ness Boxer, I guess you could say.
When I became diabetic, and had to walk off high blood sugar readings in all kinds of weather (mostly rain), Shelby splashed through the puddles beside me, nearly pulling my arm out of its socket. Our neighbors referred to us as “the two thugs.” That was outdoor Shelby.
Indoors, she was delicate as a cat, taking great care around my young daughter. She calibrated her strength according to each customer, sensing precisely how much each could endure. We had similar tastes in people. Friendly but discriminating, Shelby liked the same visitors I liked, but merely tolerated the people I only pretended to like.
Fun and games are all well and good, but like most dogs, Shelby liked to work, too. To stave off boredom and enhance her self-esteem, I devised various duties for her, appointing her chief of security. It wasn’t until later that I would realize she’d already taken on the job of looking after me. The fact that I’m still here is a testament to how well she did it, despite all those dog IQ ratings that only place Boxers somewhere in mid-range.
I’ve read that fifty percent of all dogs can smell epilepsy and warn their owners of impending seizures. I have simple partial seizures—twitches and jerks that come on toward the end of the day. Before I switched medications and got them under control, Shelby would throw her shoulder against the back of my legs, as if to say, “Hey, pay attention!” Sure enough, within minutes, the seizures would start.
Shelby was still a young dog when, as a writer with a hot book, I got a call from ABC’s “20/20.” The producer asked me to appear on the show. He was under the impression that I had grand mal epilepsy and wondered how long it would take after I quit my medication to have a fit in front of a camera crew. Seizure dogs are trained to sit near their masters to protect them in the event of grand mal seizures. The well-intentioned producer pointed out that millions of people watch the show, and suggested I could sell lots of books. I politely declined in light of the stigma attached to epilepsy, to say nothing of the fact that I had a personal life. Besides, I was just having twitches, which I doubted would make for thrilling TV.
I was teaching in Iowa City at the time, and had just written a Village Voice piece. Having eaten a fairly small breakfast, I drove downtown to fax them a revision. The forecast called for heavy snow that day, so instead of going straight home, I stopped at the market to stock up. By the time I unloaded my groceries, I had a vague sense of my blood sugar dropping, and realized I needed to eat. It was my last conscious thought before I hit the floor in what proved to be a diabetic coma.
I’d always assumed that a coma was akin to sleep. It is not. Soaked in sweat, my teeth chattering like joke-store choppers, I was essentially paralyzed. I felt as if I were being strangled. Meanwhile, the insulin pump attached to my body was delivering drop after drop of insulin, putting me in deeper trouble. I needed sugar and each succeeding drop of insulin became a kind of poison.
As I lay there immobilized on the kitchen floor, I became aware of Shelby licking my face and bumping me with her snout, then leaping onto the couch and sounding her deep bass alarm out the window, then coming back and licking me some more. A neighbor heard her barking and looked inside, saw me lying there, and called the paramedics. Saved by my boisterous four-legged nurse, the one with the mid-range IQ.
When we left our subdivision for a house in the country, Shelby took on expanded duties. She was never happier than when she was chasing deer from our clover field. She also kept close watch on the horses next door. I was standing in the kitchen eating a sour apple one day when I spotted one of them back by the fence. I fed him my apple and after he’d eaten it, I got another one out of the fridge. It must have been mighty sour; the horse took a bite, then spit it out. Shelby, who had been standing there taking this in, suddenly took off for the gate like a brown cruise missile. She was soon a mere BB on the horizon. I watched in amazement as she crawled through the gate. She was soon standing on the other side of the fence wolfing down the sour apple. From then on, I waited till my jealous darling was asleep before venturing out to feed the horses their treats.
My life—the writing life—has its fair share of perks. It’s a stay-at-home job, for one thing. It allows me to sleep until noon, for another. And given that I like to write—at least some days—I haven’t had to “work” for a living for more than a decade. Shelby was at my side for most of those years. She watched me write countless stories, lending moral support. She rode shotgun in the passenger seat of my Saab or my daughter’s Checker whenever I drove to the video store, or made a library run. We lived our lives side-by-side, me and this singular dog to whom I was not going to get too attached.
I used to travel the world at the drop of a hat, but that, too, changed when I acquired Shelby. Book tours, visits to relatives—any trip that involved breaking out a suitcase, induced separation anxiety in us both. It got worse as she aged; the older dogs get, the more they seem to like their routine. I put Shelby on Sinequin, an antidepressant. There were times when I took it myself. It helped us both some, but it wasn’t until I walked through the front door that her sense of well-being was fully restored.
A few weeks ago, as the long, rainy, Washington winter gave way to a rare sunny day, Shelby and I drove downtown to the park. We took a leisurely stroll, then sat on a bench for a while soaking up sun. I couldn’t help but think back to the days when our “walks” had been runs. We were both slowing down. At the same time, however, we were still in sync, keeping the same, steady pace, stride for stride.
An old dog has a beauty and dignity all her own, with her graying muzzle and soft, knowing eye. Her silliness gives way to serenity; more time is now spent in sleep than in play. In a perfect world, we would die, man and dog, as we lived: sideby- side, simultaneously. No one who’s given his heart to a dog should have to walk in the door to this deafening silence. Or come upon a faded Ronald McDonald oatmeal plate. Or a chair whose cushions are forever imprinted with the shape of the slumbering dog.
But the world isn’t perfect. And so, the end came—much too soon, the way it always does. She did not succumb to her lymphoma, an incurable cancer that led to four surgeries over her final six months. Shelby’s faltering legs turned out to be a sign of low blood sugar, caused by a tumor on her pancreas. While I’ve long heard it said that dogs come to resemble their owners, I never knew it could happen to such a degree. The condition that led to my Boxer’s demise was in fact the mirror image of my own.
I am still in the early stages of grieving, still disoriented, still easily brought to tears. She is gone, but somehow, she’s still with me, her invisible presence watching my every move. I can’t open the door, or a can of sardines, without feeling her like some phantom limb—severed but still part of me, always here. As she will be for as long as I live.
Culture: Stories & Lit
Our child was wee
Scared of the dark
Moved to the desert
Where scorpions lay in wait
Sophie came to us from the pound
A big beast and ferocious
Gentle she was not
Loyal to a fault
Her tail was strong
Her tongue always ready
To share in happiness
Or just uplift spirits
Sleepovers with little girls, Ringlets and pajamas
She was in the middle of the bed
Her stocky frame occupying the bed
For she was one of the "girls"
She has seen us through crazy mornings
Breakfast and homework and teenage meltdowns
Heartbreak and joy
Sophie was there rock solid, tail wagging, tongue lolling
A faithful companion
Stood beside us she did, as we bid our child goodbye
As she entered adulthood
With tears in her eyes, her tail down
Now she is old and lame
Bleary eyed, dribble in sight
But she remains the love of my life
What will I do Sophie when you leave me alone?
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