Culture: Stories & Lit
Searching for mountain lions.
Jadzia’s barks wake us in the dead of night.
Not happy ones or play ones, but her all-business barks. I leap from bed thinking a bear must be prowling outside. The trailer’s screens can’t keep out mosquitoes, much less a grizzly. But Jadzia is not looking out a window. Instead, I find her in the middle of the gear room, barking at the closet door.
“What’s your problem?”
She ignores me. Hey, you in there! Come out and fight!
I sigh and open the door.“There’s nothing in there, ya moron.” Jadzia lunges for the top shelf. Then I see it—a radio collar that, until yesterday, was worn by a mountain lion. It’s wrapped in three layers of plastic bags. Jadzia paws at it. “You weren’t so brave when we found it,” I tell her.
It is Labor Day. My wedding anniversary. Three times a week since May, my wife Misty and I have taken turns squeezing into the passenger seat of a Cessna 185 to fly over the southern Selkirk Mountains, tracking radio-collared lions for my graduate research. Our trailer is next to the grass runway on the end of Sullivan Lake in northeastern Washington. Although a dozen other small planes landed here over the holiday weekend, Jadzia’s tail hadn’t begun wagging this morning until she heard the faint drone of the one Misty was on. Jadzia ran for the airstrip, then whined and pranced while the plane circled the lake, floated down over the water to the end of the runway, then bounced and rolled to a stop. She ran to the plane and greeted Misty and the pilot, Dave, with enthusiastic kisses. Misty reported that they’d detected a radio collar that hadn’t moved in two days. A dead lion or a slipped collar.Anniversary or not, we had to investigate.
To get to the ridge the radio collar was on, across the border in British Columbia, we had to walk through a pasture. Perhaps the cows were bored, or maybe they thought we had something better than Canadian grass to eat, but we soon had a Pied Piper thing going. Jadzia, the third member of our field crew, immediately started dishing smack to the cows. She’s part Rhodesian Ridgeback, so the fur from her shoulders to her rump rose in a canine Mohawk. She thinks it’s tough, but it really looks ridiculous. The cows were unimpressed, too.
“Leave it!” I told her.
Jadzia snorted. Just doing my job.
“Leave it anyway.”
She moped after us into the forest at the base of the ridge, where we broke out our radio gear to track the collar. It was spooky work. Somewhere above us was either a dead lion, which might have attracted another predator like a grizzly bear, or a live, uncollared one. An hour later we found the radio collar in the thick brush.We didn’t find the lion—it had slipped its collar and could be miles away. Or, only feet. “Let’s get out of here,” I said. Misty was ready to go, but Jadzia—chuffing and pacing around a pile of leaves and branches—wasn’t. I shifted some vegetation and saw a deer carcass cached beneath it, leftovers from the lion’s last meal. A recent one, judging by the kill’s bloody condition.Misty and I must have walked by it a dozen times while searching for the collar. Usually Jadzia cannot resist picking up bones or rubbing her ruff in decaying goo, but she wanted no part of this dead animal. She sat off to one side, tail tucked between her legs, the antithesis of her normal dominant behavior. Ironically, Rhodesians were bred to hunt African lions. We were a long way from Africa, though, and Misty and I were the only pack-mates around to watch Jadzia’s back if a big cat wanted to mix it up. Jadzia sniffed the air.
“Uh-oh,” I said, “vertical fur factor.” Jadzia’s back hairs were standing straight up again. She looked part Stegosaurus.Misty rolled her eyes. Did I mention this was our anniversary? “Good find,” I said, and patted Jadzia, trying to smooth down her fur, as though that would eliminate the cause of her unease. Locating lion kills was an important part of my predation study, but hanging around a half-eaten meal with an uncollared lion nearby was a really bad idea.
We flagged the site and headed down the ridge. As each step added to the distance between us and the lion’s kill, Jadzia’s tail and usual cockiness re-emerged. By the time we reached the pasture, she was ready to take on the Canadian cows again.
Investigating predation sites is not as glamorous as it sounds. There are thick woods to thrash through and steep slopes to slip on.Usually the kills are weeks old, with little left but a scatter of bones.Helping us locate these bones is one of Jadzia’s jobs.After finding the collar dropped by the mountain lion, I decided we should work a nearby site, where the same lion had killed a mule deer a month ago. Bouncing down dusty logging roads to get to a specific area was time-consuming, so it seemed logical to me to do this now rather than return another day, even though it was our anniversary.
After only a few minutes at the site, Jadzia emerged grinning from the shrubs. I expected to see a bone in her mouth, but instead, the whipping tail of a field mouse protruded from her lips.
“Drop it!” Misty said.
Jadzia’s brow furrowed and her big brown eyes grew sad. Are you KIDDING, Mom? Don’t you know how hard this thing was to catch?
Jadzia opened her mouth and the soggy mouse plopped to the ground. It looked around wildly, then scurried away.
Part of my predation study involved measuring vegetation to determine differences between sites where lions made kills and sites where they did not. As I walked out laying a transect sample line, I slipped and fell, but didn’t hit the ground, hanging instead in the thick shrubs like a fly in a spider’s web. I heard the brush rattle. It was not a spider, but Jadzia. What are you doing, Dad? A few face-licks and she moved on. Dad’s okay—he’s just a little weird.
Watching Jadzia leap over logs and thread through dense thickets with ease and grace, I could picture a mountain lion working the same terrain, using its stealth and agility to stalk an unsuspecting deer. Like me, Jadzia is part couch potato.Yet in the forest, her wild ancestors seemed less distant than mine, providing me with another, non-human perspective into the natural world. Away from their heated homes and kibble dinners, few companion animals are wild enough to survive on their own, yet most are more connected to the natural world than are their human friends.
Another one of Jadzia’s roles on the crew was beast of burden. When I regained my feet and reached the end of my transect line, I realized I didn’t have the clinometer—a device for measuring tree heights. “Where’s the clinometer?” I shouted to Misty.
“Don’t you have it?” she shouted back.
A few moments later, Jadzia appeared next to me, clinometer tucked under her collar. She was laughing dog-style, tongue lolling from her gaping mouth, eyes bright with glee. Forgot something AGAIN, didn’t you?
“Who asked you?” I replied. “Let’s not forget who makes your dinner.”
Jadzia snorted.We both knew who’s really in charge here. She turned and raced back toward Misty. A moment later, I heard my wife cry out. I sprang to my feet and thrashed back through the morass of shrubs, fearing lions and carnage. I found Misty at the bottom of a small rise, kneeling, her back to me. Between her shoulder blades was a muddy paw print—a dog’s.
“She just jumped over me!”Misty said.
By the time we finished our work, Jadzia had covered 10 times as much ground as the two of us combined.When we got back to the trailer, she collapsed in the yard. We had to wake her up for her Popsicle, then hold it while she raised her head and licked the cold treat.
Although a vital member of the field crew, Jadzia is not a working dog. She’s a pet. The state ofWashington had a policy against dogs riding in state trucks, and we compromised by strapping Jadzia’s crate in the bed. I thought Jadzia would balk at riding back there, but every morning she would be in the crate before I came out with my coffee. Come on, Dad! Let’s go!!
I turn the triple-bagged radio collar over in my hands.“What was she barking at?”Misty calls from the bedroom.
Unlike jadzia, who was the crew’s dog-of-all trades, specially trained hounds were used to catch the lions. I remember standing knee-deep in powder snow above Stony Creek, in the rugged region called the Forgotten Corner of northeastern Washington.
Up there, the cold air was silent except for the baying of the Black and Tan Coon Hounds— Boomer, Sooner and Maggie—in the valley bottom far below.
“Must have a cat treed,” said the houndsman, Tom.He meant a mountain lion.He was a short man of few words.His favorite story was the time my lunch sack came open on the back of my snowmobile, leaving a trail of food for him to follow. There was a bit of hound in him.
Washington voters banned hound hunting in 1996, yet it remained a contentious issue, with as many opinions as there were people in the state. The dogs’ hard-wagging tails and eager barks when setting out on a fresh trail left no doubt as to what they thought about the subject. The lions, if the dogs managed to tree them, disdained opinions, simply watching both humans and dogs below. If they had a middle finger, no question about what direction it would be pointing. But we were not out there to shoot a lion.We were hoping to radio collar one. Since the ban, Tom and his hounds had continued to work by helping state game wardens remove lions who ventured too close to someone’s back yard and assisting research projects like mine. The population of caribou in the southern Selkirk Mountains, which stretch north from Washington and Idaho to Kootenay Lake in British Columbia, had been in rapid decline for decades. Lion predation was the suspected cause. My job was to find out if that was true. The Black and Tans were the specialists of my field crew, trained by Tom from pups to do a single, dangerous job—tree big cats.
We unloaded all the gear needed to safely anesthetize and lower a 200-pound animal from 20 feet up a pine tree. But before we could strap on our snowshoes to head down the steep slope, the hounds’ baying changed from quick, constant barks to sporadic, frustrated howls. “Cat’s bailed,” Tom said. “He’s on the run again.”With all our gear, we had no hope of keeping up with the animals. Tom headed down alone with just a radio, a knife and a Snickers bar.He also had a pistol for protection, but I’d never seen him take it out of the truck.My job was to wait for his call and try to keep from freezing. The lion, hounds, and houndsman zigzagged across the valley all day without the dogs getting close enough to run the cat up another tree.As night closed in, Tom called the hounds off the trail.We packed up our gear and headed home. It took two weeks—dozens of hours snowmobiling backcountry roads looking for lion tracks—before we treed the cat again and collared it.
Jadzia won’t stop barking at the bagged collar. Finally, I take it outside and put it in the cab of the truck.When I come back in, she follows me into the bedroom, climbs up on the bed and snuggles down between us. She sighs and tucks herself into a furry ball. Soon her feet start twitching as she dreams—perhaps of chasing rabbits. If it’s a good dream, she’ll catch one.
Culture: Stories & Lit
Their bedraggled faces peered at me from the adoption website Petfinder.com. Lucky Dog, a 3-year-old Bichon Frise, and French Fry, a 2-yearold Bichon/Poodle mix, had been rescued from a puppy mill that kept dogs under appalling conditions and bred them until they died. Lucky looked like a tough guy and the protector of Frenchy, his pitiful sidekick. Together, they called to mind woeful street orphans from a hundredyear- old daguerreotype. They came as a duo — no separate adoptions allowed. I wasn’t a prospective adopter; I was just looking. And looking. I kept going back to the site and staring at those two hurt creatures.
Lucky looked just like Goody, my son’s 12-year-old Bichon, who had died the night before I had surgery to remove a three-and-a-half-pound cancerous tumor from my colon. The tumor weighed exactly what my son, Jesse, had weighed at birth. He had died two years earlier, suddenly, in his sleep at age 17. After the surgery, I was the semi-walking wounded, recovering on my daybed, watching reality shows to see if they bore any relation to my current reality, which seemed more like a particularly disturbing episode of The Twilight Zone.
Goody had been a prince among dogs. He had arrived on my son’s bed Christmas morning, after a spoken request to Santa Claus. The request had carried weight: Jesse was quadriplegic, nonverbal and, at the time, seven years old. Little-boy longing had pushed the word “dog” out of his mouth, and there was no question that heartfelt wish would be granted.
I showed Lucky and Frenchy’s picture to my husband. Chris was noncommittal, but there was no mistaking that softening around his eyes. We became prospective adopters. Three recommendations and a home visit were required. We passed, even though we were convinced nerves made us seem shifty. After signing impressive-looking contracts (how would they enforce them?) and promising to never kennel them, we drove to Connecticut for the pick-up. It was a June day, four months after Goody had died, four months after the surgery, 30 months since our son had died.
On the first day, I took stock: They weren’t housebroken; they didn’t know their names; they shrank from us, so no leash was possible. To interest them in following me to our unfenced yard, I had to summon my inner canine. What if they bolted? I pictured the formidable interview lady checking up on us, only to find we had allowed Lucky and Frenchy to be crushed by a school bus on their first day of freedom.
They ran behind me, tottering like elderly little men on walkers, their legs stiff from a life encaged. I blinked back tears and herded them into our enclosed pool area. Their true dog selves emerged; they began cavorting and chasing each other. Lucky careened around a corner and fell into the pool. Chris heard me scream and stood on the deck above the pool, highly amused, as he watched me haul myself out of the water, hampered by clothes that now weighed a ton. Lucky pranced off, ungrateful for my lifesaving heroics. Chris brought me a towel, still laughing. A lot. Our laughter was creaky from disuse, like Lucky and Frenchy’s legs.
It’s a year later. They’ve commandeered the comfy chair. They’re housebroken, they know their names and they walk on leash (Lucky bites his). Frenchy nudges my leg, asking for caresses. Lucky still runs away if I even glance at him, and he sleeps with one wary eye open. He’s my favorite, because he’s both dauntless and terrified, and he reminds me of me. In bursts of bravery, he’ll stretch himself forward, quickly lick my hand, then bolt. I stalk and capture him to put him in my lap and pet him.
“You heal me, and I’ll heal you,” I whisper.
Culture: Stories & Lit
Looking for love—and a meal.
He lay in the shelter of the cantilevered deck of a large house perched on top of a dune and watched the pelting rain pockmark the sand. With a practiced paw, he scratched at the fleas who had made his shabby coat their home this past week —the week that found him alone and hungry. The beach was deserted, as were most of the houses along this strip of golden coast. He remembered a time when he had all the food he could eat and a bed next to a fireplace whose dying embers gave him warmth. Someone had always combed his fur, which made him ripple with pleasure. A strange-smelling collar, gently fitted around his neck with love, seemed to him both protection and a sign that he belonged.
He rose stiffly and tried to shake the unwanted tenants from his yellow coat as he yawned mightily. A gnawing in the pit of his stomach drove him to seek sustenance. Two houses away, the tiny woman sometimes gave him leftovers if he moaned piteously by the back door; it was worth a try, but today that tactic failed. The place had been sealed for the winter. His sometime-benefactor was gone.
He trekked the long empty road to town and searched for alleys with overflowing trash cans in which he could forage for something to eat. That was a last resort, for, as he had found, other dogs had laid claim to the garbage and he had learned not to mess with them. They traveled in packs, slinking around corners in the darkened streets and showing him their sharp teeth when they found him in their territory. One of them, the leader, Whippet-thin and short-haired, as they all were, had chased him from his domain, snapping at his tail as he ran. At a safe distance, he turned his head and saw them in a tight cluster—sentinels of scraps, who made sure he had gotten the message before they turned their attention to the remnants of gourmet meals on which they subsisted.
When the rain let up, he trotted to the narrow blacktop road, stopping at a pothole to slake his thirst in a rainwater puddle. His eyes then moved to the distant highway where he watched the occasional car speed by. Wearily, he moved ahead, head hanging low.
A squat, boxy station wagon pulled into a nearby driveway. He crept along the tall, untrimmed hedge, lay down, and watched as four people emerged and pulled boxes and suitcases from the back of the vehicle. The faint smell of food drifted from the boxes they carried to the house and made him salivate.
A small boy spotted him hiding near the hedge and bent down, regarding him solemnly. Shaking his coat once again, he stood and wagged his tail to show he was friendly. The boy reached out a tentative hand and he licked the fingers ever so gently. The child’s face crinkled with delight. He ran to the man and tugged at his sleeve. The dog watched the man turn, frown at him and shake his head. The child pleaded and was soon joined by the little girl, who clapped her hands and made cooing noises. Both ran to the woman, who smiled at the dog and touched the man’s arm. She nodded, and he snapped his fingers. Obediently, the dog trotted forward, sat and waited.
His coat was now raked with little fingers, which brought back memories of other scratchings, warm beds and food. Suddenly, the man once again shook his head. The dog heard the people talking,words he could not understand, but he had a bad feeling about this. The children started to cry and the woman whispered something to the man; he shrugged, picked up a box and walked toward the house. The dog waited. The woman squatted, looked into the dog’s eyes and ran a cool hand over his rough golden coat. She clicked her fingers and he followed her to the back door, where she pointed to a fiber doormat, upon which he lay down.
The woman entered the house and returned moments later with a bowl of water that she placed by his head. She said something in a pleasing tone and re-entered the house.
All afternoon, the children played with the dog. They led him to the beach and he showed them his prowess in retrieving a thrown stick, wading far out into the surf to return with the object clamped in his mouth.He deposited it at the foot of one child, then the other, giving each equal time. Barking with delight, he did this over and over until the children grew tired of the game. He ignored the rumbling in his stomach; surely food would be his payment for all his hard work.
Finally, when the sky grew darker, the family gathered at the house, and the dog followed. He sat on his mat and waited. The man lit a barbeque on the deck and the woman brought great platters of meat and vegetables. As the aroma of charred beef rose in the air, the dog fought to control himself. In a little while, a plate was placed next to him and, although he was so hungry he could easily have eaten a shoe, he showed great restraint by gently nibbling at the food while the woman watched. She smiled and moved away. Before she had returned to the table, the dog’s reserve had disappeared, as had the meat. He licked the dish so vigorously, it moved from the side of the mat some three feet on the grass.When nothing else could be gleaned from the empty plate, he lapped at his water and stretched out on his mat. A nap was called for on this wondrous day.
Exhausted, the dog closed his eyes but remained wary. It felt good to be with people again, to belong. Sleep was out of the question, for if he dozed off, the people might not be here when he woke up.
Culture: Stories & Lit
Part V: Springer Has Sprung
Like many people with rescued dogs, i do not know the exact age or birth date of my French Spaniel mix, Chloe. When I adopted her in the fall of 2004, I was told she was between six months and one year old — which is a wide margin, considering how much a dog grows in that first year. And while part of me wanted to believe she was at least a year old (because she weighed 55 pounds at the time and I doubted that I could physically handle anything beyond that), I decided to give Chloe a March birthday.
Why was this important? Because I wanted to throw Chloe a birthday party, of course. We always welcome a reason to celebrate our new shelter dogs, and what better day to celebrate than March 20 — the first day of spring.
Spring in New York City is particularly glorious, in part because we New Yorkers have to endure such harsh and miserable winters. One could argue that New York dog people are exposed to more than our fair share of the harshness in winter, because we have to take our dogs outside at least four times a day. This is not to say that having to walk our dogs is anything to complain about at any time of year, because we love, love, love our dogs. But, to be perfectly honest, walking a dog through ankle-deep slush in the freezing rain (rain that somehow manages to rain sideways) is not fun. I can’t say I unequivocally enjoy it. Just don’t tell my dog I said that. (But sometimes, not even she enjoys walking in the sideways-sleet. So there.)
Anyway, winter is behind us now, and signs of spring in New York City are everywhere. On the sidewalks, you’ll pass dozens of mini-gardens planted in the city’s tree beds and protected by low iron fences. Because volunteers or townhouse owners or neighborhood associations take charge of these mini-gardens, each one is different and beautiful in its own unique way. Beneath one tree you might see clusters of purple hyacinth mixed with white dwarf daffodils; the next flower bed will contain clusters of colorful primroses arranged within tight tangles of ivy; next: a riot of eye-popping tulips in pink, orange and red. It’s wonderful to see so much color after so many months of gray. We start walking our dogs almost 10 times a day because we just want to be outside, soaking up all that beauty.
Often you’ll see little signs posted at the base of these tree beds, with the message: Please do not let your dog urinate on the flowers, and we dog people always respect that request, because spring in New York City is a time of happiness and renewed hope. Every New Yorker is in love with the world in spring, so we are kinder to one another, and more considerate. We smile and make eye contact. We take time along the way to smell the flowers, as they say. Thus, no one messes with the flowers. Plus, as I always tell the dog, there are plenty of other places to pee in New York.
But getting back to Chloe’s birthday. Many people scoff at the idea of throwing a dog a birthday party, but those people are usually not dog people. They might not understand our belief that each of our dogs deserves his or her own “special day” just as we all deserve one. Or two or three or three hundred and sixty-five. One could argue that with shelter dogs, the desire to create a special day is even stronger, because these dogs may have suffered cruelty or neglect. These dogs may have spent months in cages, without being treated as “special” at all.
So bring on the marching band because we’re having a party.
Now, New Yorkers are known for going over the top when it comes to parties. I know people who have spent hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars for doggie birthday parties and doggie weddings. There are bakeries that make chicken-andoatmeal birthday cakes frosted with chocolate-brown liver pâté. There are doggie daycare centers that rent out party rooms for more money than you’d pay for your own wedding reception. There’s even a boutique that sells tiny rhinestone “Happy Birthday” tiaras for lap dogs to wear to parties on the Upper East Side. I am not judging any of this. I celebrate any occasion at which a bunch of dogs get to play and have fun.
But, being a writer, I was on a limited budget; therefore, Chloe was not going to have artisanal foie gras “pupcakes” at her party; nor was I going to rent a 3,000-square-foot space and hire an agility instructor to teach all the dog guests to leap over hurdles and shimmy through plastic tunnels and hoops (bummer). Also, I don’t cook, which meant there wasn’t anyone in my household who was going to spend four days constructing shepherd’s pie cupcakes from organic buffalo meat, vegetable terrine and mashed fingerling potatoes. No, I was going to keep this party simple.
Plus, I reasoned, dog people — when you get down to it — are easy to please. Know what I mean? We’re more down to earth, in a way, because our dogs constantly ground us and teach us to focus on the simple pleasures of life: nature, exercise, food, play, sleep. So who needs fripperies when the guest of honor is perfectly content with a dirty old tug-arope, a couple of dog pals to steal it from, a gingersnap and some praise?
I decided to hold the party at our local dog run, which happened to be one of Chloe’s favorite places in the world. The invitations consisted of a handwritten notice posted on the community board inside the run and a quick announcement on NYCDog’s Manhattan Dog Chat site. I requested “No presents, please” and encouraged well-wishers to make a small donation to Animal Haven instead.
March 20 happened to be on a Friday that year, which was great, because on Friday evenings, we held our weekly Yappy Hour at the run. We’d bring wine and music (and our dogs, of course) and spend a few extra hours socializing while the dogs tore around. Technically, we were not supposed to bring any food to the dog run because the presence of food can instigate food fights (among the dogs), so our rule for Yappy Hour was that you could bring snacks that would have no appeal to a canine: tapenade, tofu (raw, not fried), garlic pickles, seaweed salad, hot green salsa and so forth. None of these things paired very well with red or white wine, but that was part of the fun. Sometimes someone would sneak in a baguette or a bag of chips to accommodate the tapenade and the salsa, and that person had to stand on top of the picnic table, doling out slices of bread or some chips to the humans, one at a time. The things we do for our dogs ...
On the morning of Chloe’s assigned “birthday,” I fed her a special breakfast of lamb chunks (which she loved) and presented her with a pretty new collar. This collar was quite chintzy — a pink faux-velour band with fake pink crystals and rhinestones and embroidered flowers. But that is why I liked it. It looked like spring — something a six-year-old girl would wear as a belt to an Easter parade. And no, I did not spend hundreds of dollars on this collar: it came from Target and cost 12 bucks.
Chloe looked very pretty with her new collar, and I also had her groomed for the occasion, so her white-and-brown coat was sparkly and fluffy. At the party that evening, friends noticed the coat and new collar, and everyone went out of their way to praise Chloe and scratch her belly and tell her happy birthday. Chloe seemed to enjoy all the extra attention she was getting. It’s always nice to be told one is pretty. It’s always nice to be told one is a “good dog” and a “special girl.” Her tail wagged nonstop for hours.
People brought the usual assortment of sour, bitter and pickled foods to the party, plus a few bottles of wine — all of them from dog-themed wineries such as Mutt Lynch and Faithful Hound. Many of my dog-run friends cheated on the no-presents rule and brought presents for Chloe — toys and small packages of treats — and one friend actually made a little birthday cake (peanut-butter-flavored, with yogurt icing). I asked this dear woman to hide the cake until the party was over. Chloe, it must be said, had been the instigator of many a food fight, and I just didn’t trust her anymore. Not even on her own special day.
There is a famous line from the movie Casablanca, in which one of the male characters is described as “like any other man, only more so.” I guess we could say that, to a dog, a birthday is “like any other day, only more so” as well. At her party, Chloe played with her usual pack of friends: Greyhound mixes and Jack Russells and Lab mixes and Pit Bulls. They chased one another around the perimeter of the one-acre run, rolled in the dirt (or rather, mud, given that this was spring) and played tug-of-war and keep away. Their joy was a celebration of play itself.
After a few bottles of wine, we humans sang a rousing and slightly off-key rendition of “Happy Birthday” to Chloe, trying to coax some of the hounds to join in. Barley the Bassett obliged, adding a singular high note to the finale. Then we brought out birthday hats — those little cone hats with those elastic strings that wraps under the chin. We managed to get the hats on several dogs, including Chloe, and we watched as they each tried to shake them off. Some might have considered this game mean (why torture the poor dogs?), but we laughed at their cute, comic struggles. After about 10 seconds, the hats became play things as one by one, the dogs got them off, took them in their mouths, tossed them in the air and/or ran off. Soon, the run was littered with mushy piles of chewed-up cardboard and string.
Chloe’s pretty new collar was also ruined within seconds, because her dog friends kept tackling her and biting her on the neck. And whose idea was it to groom a white dog two hours before taking her to a muddy dog run? Consider it a birthday splurge — much less costly than hiring a marching band. At the end of the day, I found bits of rhinestone and pink thread all over the run. “Made in China,” one of my gay friends said, with a smile and a shrug. “You get what you pay for.”
Eventually the wine ran out and the dogs got tired. Chloe returned to my side, panting, with bright eyes and a smile on her face as if to say, This is fun! I put one last birthday hat on her head and watched her run away and try to shake it off. She did so with a grunt and then stepped on the hat, looking up proudly, like a conqueror. This seemed to signal the end of the party, and we all gathered up our bags and leashes and dogs and said goodbye.
Once Chloe and I passed through the exit gate, my friend handed Chloe’s birthday cake over the fence, making sure that the other dogs did not see. It was packaged in a little pastry box tied with string, and as I carried it to the car, Chloe kept leaping up and twisting in the air — because somehow she knew this was her birthday cake. For me! her leaps seemed to be saying. Cake for me!
I always enjoy watching her leap like this — with such joy — because she spent much of her early life in a shelter. As she continued to bark and spin, I thought of all those shelter dogs, still waiting for homes. I hope that each one will have the chance to celebrate — and be celebrated — in such a way: with fun and sun and glorious weather, with trips to the dog runs to play with friends, with long walks in the park amidst the spring flowers, then lamb chops for dinner and a wellearned nap. A life like any other, only more so.
When we got home, Chloe wanted to snarf down the entire cake in one gulp, of course, but it was big enough for three meals, so we split it into thirds. As I put the two extra slices into the refrigerator, she looked at me rather forlornly, as if she had been betrayed somehow. She seemed to know (being a smart dog) that it was still her birthday and would remain so until 11:59. “Oh, all right,” I said, and gave her another spoonful. And then two more. The rest, I decided, we’d give to a neighbor — an elderly woman who was constantly bringing home abandoned Pit Bulls from the streets. “Is that okay?” I asked Chloe. “Do you approve?” She thumped her tail a few times, which seemed like a yes. Those poor Pit Bulls deserved a special treat to celebrate their new lives too.
The postscript to this story is that my 55-pound dog soon blossomed into an 80-pound dog. This had nothing to do with birthday cake. My French Spaniel mix now had the long and wide-ribbed body of a Labrador Retriever. This also meant that Chloe probably was born around March after all. She was a spring baby, as welcome as a new flower. Which is always a cause to celebrate.
Wellness: Health Care
Healing maladies holistically.
In my office, an aging golden retriever named jasper sits by my fax machine and waits for his latest ultrasound report. But I already know the results from a gentle wag of his tail and his rejuvenated appetite: the cancer is in remission. Unlike an oncologist, I don’t treat cancer. I focus instead on healing the patient’s failing immune system; Jasper’s gave rise to two large liver tumors. I worried that Jasper would succumb to one of his bleed-outs, or pass away after a severe reaction to a pain patch. But in each instance, a force rallied inside him, a spirit that science cannot yet quantify, and he beat the odds.
People generally assume that there is just one acceptable way to treat cancer — with conventional medicine, chemotherapy, radiation and surgery. Many oncologists today advocate not using any holistic medicine while a pet is under their care. They believe that herbal supplements and antioxidants are not well characterized and can have unforeseen and negative interactions with chemotherapy drugs. They also typically state that special diets are not necessary. While their approach may successfully treat some types of cancer, the risks can often outweigh the benefits, especially in older, compromised animals.
Contrary to their opinions, I believe that dietary therapy is critical in the treatment of cancer. For years, I used the energetics of food to treat many forms of disease. If a disease caused heat or inflammation, I’d prescribe organic, homemade, finely ground diets including cold-water fish, pork and green leafy vegetables to cool the inflammation. I might also prescribe raw diets, which are cooling to the body. On the other hand, if a patient had a cold imbalance, his ears cool to the touch, I might prescribe cooked lamb or chicken, and warming vegetables like steamed rutabagas, turnips, parsnips and a tiny piece of fresh ginger. For either constitution, the introduction of live-plant antioxidants, vitamins and minerals would be beneficial, especially since these ingredients are often unavailable in commercial diets. If herbs and homemade diets could help Jasper, I thought, why not try them?
To my surprise and relief, Jasper survived the week on this regimen. Now, according to [his person], Wendy, he was having a few good days, time seemingly stolen back from his cancer, giving us a remote hope that we had suspended a downward spiral. I saw him for his second appointment on a sunny Monday afternoon. As he entered my office, rather than dragging his back toes, he walked in fairly normally, lifted his head occasionally and proceeded to sniff all four corners of the room. Rather than the deep brick red it had been the week before, his tongue color was now lavender pink, suggesting that his overall circulation and body temperature had improved.
Even with these signs of improvement, though, Jasper was still extremely underweight and very weak. His eyes remained dull, and the nominal amount of weight he had gained was a result of accumulating abdominal fluid produced by his leaking tumors.
Attempting to remove the fluid presented multiple problems and would only give him short-term relief. Again, we were left with few possible medical treatments, which reminded me of climbing a steep slope above the tree line and grabbing small twigs only to have them rip out of the ground; so few medical options, so few big trees left to hold on to.
“I hope he improves a little more this week,” Wendy said, her eyes puffy and tired. “We enrolled him in a nosework class when we learned he had cancer.”
She read my puzzled look. “After the diagnosis, we enrolled Jasper in a training program for nosework. We hoped it might help him stay mentally and physically stimulated.” The idea was to encourage and develop a dog’s natural scenting abilities and innate desire to hunt a target odor. In the process, the dogs have fun, building confidence and focus while burning mental and physical energy. It was not normally the place you’d find a dog with such a serious health condition.
But Jasper had spent his life as a natural seeker. The Millers often took Jasper with them on kayak trips. When they paddled to shore, the dog would bound from his bucket seat onto the beach. Immediately, he’d begin to dig, pawing so aggressively at the sand that it flew out behind him. After an hour, he would proudly lie in the middle of a 20-foot-long trench, happily gnawing on a stick to celebrate his masterpiece of excavation.
All of my medical training told me that Jasper should be inside a bubble, isolated from infectious disease and confined to the house to prevent the rupture of his tumors. Sick dogs, I had learned, should be quietly resting at home. But then, rules were meant to be broken. I remember reading Temple Grandin’s book Animals Make Us Human. She highlighted the importance of seeking: looking forward to an activity or object. When an animal’s attention is in a playful, seeking mode, he or she cannot simultaneously feel fear. Seeking is a necessary emotion that is often [missing] in many animals’ lives, especially after a grave diagnosis. Jasper’s nosework class would provide him with a new form of seeking, and instead of obsessing over his tumors, the Millers could let his new focus alleviate their own fear as well. I imagined Jasper barking and wagging his tail when he picked up the scent of birch oil in a little metal box hidden in the backyard. Jasper’s seeking behavior would be just as important to his overall health as any herbal therapy. When I was young, I unknowingly implemented this idea of seeking with my own dog, Julietta. Just after we adopted her from a litter of sick puppies at the shelter, she broke with bloody diarrhea. As we waited for the veterinarian, I held her in my lap, upside down in a blue blanket as though she were a doll.
I looked around the waiting room and noticed other people staring off into space: a slumping old man, a young woman in plaid jeans and a wool scarf, a couple holding a baby carrier on one side and a Beagle on the other. Their pets were quietly protesting from within carriers or crouching fearfully under chairs. Julietta and I looked at one another. She was weak, and her eyes gazed up at me for a clue to her destiny. Three black eyebrow whiskers followed my every move. Owing to my mother’s amazing ability to work despite almost any disturbance, she sat next to us reading and correcting students’ final exams, making big swirls with her red pen.
Thinking back to that veterinary clinic, I can still remember the exam room, the perky technicians and the doctor’s white lab coat and grim face as he reported Julietta’s poor prognosis. Parvovirus had struck her small, malformed, Basset-like body, and her only beautiful feature, the darkened liner around her brown eyes, now drooped as she hung her head on the steel exam table. “The smell,” the veterinarian said, “is unmistakable.” His eyes shifted to the clock when a cat howled in a back room.
My mother was speechless at the diagnosis, not because she loved the puppy even an eighth as much as I did, but because we were facing the death of an immediate family member for the first time, and were completely unprepared for it. The veterinarian suggested putting Julietta to sleep, no doubt because he correctly assumed that we could not afford hospitalization, and even if we could, her future looked bleak.
It was then that my 12-week-old puppy looked up at me pleadingly, giving a last tiny wag of her tail. My mother looked up from her pile of ungraded exams and silently nodded her tacit semi-approval. Even she noticed the puppy’s hint of hope. Right or wrong, this decision would be left to me, even though I may have been too young to make it. “Doctor,” I said with a small voice and a lump in my throat, “I’d like to try to save her at home.”
The veterinarian looked at my mother’s face for a more sensible decision, but when none came, he said, “Okay, young lady, you’ve got to work hard at this, and even then, she might not make it.”
Although 30 years later, Julietta’s veterinarian might have been sued for giving so many pills to a nine-yearold, back then, he thought nothing of handing me the plastic prescription bottles and showing me how to pinch the puppy’s skin to check for dehydration. With no fanfare, I tucked Julietta back under her towel, and carried her out to our dented blue car while my mother paid the bill. I didn’t know it then, but she had cashed in some family heirlooms and old coins to pay for this unforeseen expense.
Before and after school, I treated the small puppy. Sometimes I felt the hopelessness in it, while other times my determination took over. Every day I’d race home to find her waiting for me. I’d clean up the bloody diarrhea on the newspaper-lined kitchen floor that we walled off especially for her. Then I’d give her canned food and water through a large syringe as her pale tongue lapped it up. Afterward, I’d gently pry open her mouth to slide a huge blue pill as far down her throat as possible. After a few days of no improvement and minimal appetite, she hung her head as though the force of gravity weighed heavier on her than on anyone else. I asked my mother to let Julietta sleep with me, imagining that if I could hold her cold body close to me, I’d be able to warm her up. Naturally, with the putrid nature of Julietta’s stools, Mom resisted my request for a while, but I explained that there was a medical point to it.
Even with medication and round-the-clock nursing care, Julietta was still unwilling to eat on her own. I decided to try a new technique to stimulate her appetite, hiding small pieces of chicken in various places throughout my room. At first, she appeared uninterested, but gradually, her nose began twitching with the allure of appetizing scents lurking under the covers, behind the bed and in an old pair of dress shoes. Each day, I added larger pieces to our new seeking game. And over the next few days, Julietta’s appetite slowly returned. Within a month, she had rounded a corner, gradually returning to her normal, playful self.
I thought of Julietta’s remarkable recovery from parvovirus as I sat contemplating Jasper’s precarious health. “Wendy, maybe you’re onto something with this nosework,” I said. “But, if possible, try to keep Jasper from jumping around too much.” I worried that, among other concerns, any heavy exertion could cause the tumors to bleed. Wendy promised that all his initial training would be done on flat terrain. I continued, “Just in case, let’s add another Chinese patent herb, yunnan paiyao, to his herbal regime. It aids in blood clotting and might help keep his tumors from bleeding.”
As I inserted acupuncture needles into important liver-strengthening points, Wendy shared her trick of combining all Jasper’s powdered herbs and vitamins in a turkey baster and then briskly rubbing him down with a towel to get him excited about taking the gruel. “If I use the towel to fluff up and down his back, he gets so excited and happy, he barely realizes he’s taking any medicine at all!”
With the needles in place, I sat back and watched him relax into his acupuncture treatment. I asked myself what else I could do to strengthen his immune system. The answer to my question was an herb first introduced to me one summer in the Cascade Mountains by my herbal teacher, Madsu, a thin, gray-haired man reminiscent of an elf. With a wildcrafter’s permit — a guarantee that no plant would be over-harvested — Madsu had silently walked through the forest carrying a heavy burlap sack slung over his left shoulder. As I followed him, I had to look up occasionally to be sure I had not veered off his path, sucked accidentally into a patch of salal.
We climbed over huge logs covered with green sheets of elk moss and usnea lichen. Dirt built up and caked onto our knees as we knelt in front of some rattlesnake plantain, investigating its vibrant white center vein. The air was damp and cold. Droplets fell when I exhaled, and each breath made me feel more alive.
Madsu stopped abruptly to admire and bless his favorite plant, ocean spray, a large bush also known as ironwood because bows and arrows were made from its sturdy pith. I watched him place sacred red willow bark beside its base. To him, the bush represented the survival of his people, and indeed, it was a shrub worthy of notice. With a collection of small, energetic white flowers extending proudly into the sky, it resembled the spray of the sea crashing against a rocky shoreline. Each of its leaves was decorated with fine ridges in circular fan-like patterns, the leaf margin as wavy as water, reminding me of the thrill of a storm at sea.
Pieces of cedar crumbled into our hair as we ducked under a large rotten stump to find turkey-tail mushrooms, a shelved cluster of woody fantails, brown- and orange-tinted with a white underbelly. When one hikes with a mushroom expert and herbalist, every rotten log becomes a subject worthy of special treatment, full of hidden clues. Unlike plants, mushrooms are only present for a few days, sometimes only a few hours, so you have to leave your worries, your lists and your disagreements with others behind and focus on that bounty of mushrooms. Known as an immune modulator, turkey tail is one of many medicinal mushrooms that help the immune system recognize and kill cancer cells.
Madsu sought wild herbs by day and made medicine by night. We spent hours gathering reishi and turkey tail, chiseling at the mushrooms and then slinging the wood-like fungus into our burlap sacks. Our other sacks contained sheets of f luffy, light green usnea rolled on long sticks like cotton candy, and chunks of precious red root, an herb whose potency increases as its environment becomes more hostile. When we returned to our camp on a hillside outside Twisp, the moon gave us just enough light to layer some of our herbs onto thin racks and place them into a large dryer. Then we began crushing the mushrooms, tincturing them immediately and then pouring the liquid into large amber bottles to retain their medicinal potency.
Madsu learned how to gather medicine and process it from his mother, who traced her native roots to a Spokane woman named Teshwintichina. From her, he also learned how to make cakes from camas, bitterroot and black tree lichen. [The] camas bulb needed to be baked long enough to release the sweet inulin; an hour too early and it would still be bitter; an hour too late and it would turn to mush. The black lichen was packed into cakes when it was still a warm, sticky substance that could be molded easily. His family would cook the camas on warm summer nights when song and fire could pass the hours. They could smell when their camas had cooked long enough to convert the inulin. They could smell when [the] medicine was ready.
To me, many of Madsu’s herbal and food preparation practices seemed witch-like, entrenched in fire-born ritual. But I later discovered that some of the plants’ active ingredients, so important for immune modulation, disappeared quickly without immediate preparation. They were also more bioactive in the beginning of the autumn when the leaves of the alder tree start to turn gold. The ability to know when to harvest one plant based on the life cycle of another made sense when one lived in community with the plants, truly understanding their annual rhythms.
Jasper understood annual rhythms, too. In the summer, he hunted for moles in the fields. As fall approached, he sniffed out and ate blackberries. As Christmas approached, he dutifully protected the house, bravely fending off evil deliverytruck drivers.
Back at the clinic, I left Wendy and Jasper in the exam room while I reached up in my herbal pharmacy for a bottle of turkey tail and reishi made by Madsu that September night five years prior. I thought of how the field we’d chosen to make medicines smelled of sweet tarragon after a moist evening, and how Madsu blessed the medicine, completely present with his full attention on healing. The stars had beamed over our makeshift laboratory on a deeply nourishing night, and the nearly full moon floated overhead as we worked on counters of cut logs, swirling jars of herbal menstruum.
“Let’s start him on this mushroom blend,” I suggested, handing Wendy an amber bottle, just as herbalists have done for generations. As they got up to leave at the end of the appointment, I saw the tip of Jasper’s dry, cracked nose sniff at a liver treat I had cradled in my palm. At that point, I could see a trace of his inner life force, not through a brightness in his eyes, but through a twitch of his nose.
Culture: Stories & Lit
Spirit Dog Leads to Hope in Costa Rica.
In the year 2000, I lived in Costa Rica for six months and fell in love with the dogs. There were many visitors to the farm during my stay there, and everyone knew about me and my love for Duque, who, like most dogs in Central America, didn’t really belong to anyone.
Dogs don’t last long in Costa Rica, particularly in the countryside, where, even if they are owned, they are allowed to run free, down the unpaved winding rock roads and into the villages, where they hang out on corners waiting for food. In Ciudad Colón, at the one restaurant in town, they would wander in and sit in groups around each table, or, if I was there, climb directly into my lap.Duque lived at the top of the hill, on the farm where I stayed in a small apartment, and he joined me every day for an afternoon nap and then returned each evening to guard my door. Sometimes we would play tug of war with a sock and then race one another up the damp, mossy, tiled road to the very top of the mountain.When it was time to leave, I made plans to take Duque with me, but the airline refused to transport animals, so I left him behind with a group of villagers who had made it clear that they thought he belonged with them.
I knew he wouldn’t be there when I returned, and that probably had something to do with the length of time it took me to go back.
When I finally did return six years later, I promised myself that I wouldn’t expect to see him running up the tiled drive, or burying dog biscuits beneath the bamboo outside my door. And I knew not to ask after him with any of the locals who might still remember me—I knew not to ask, because I didn’t want to know and because I didn’t want to reveal to them that I was still thinking about a dog that I had only known for a few months, six years ago. A lifetime, in dog years.
Within a few hours of my return, the truth was revealed: He had been shot and killed. I had rehearsed for this moment often enough and managed to just nod, as though I had already known. I didn’t ask when it had happened, but assumed it was sufficiently long ago that the emotion of the events had receded into history for the people who lived there. For me, all of this information was new.
“He bit someone,” one person said. “No, he bit a dog,” another suggested.
Duque was intact and sometimes got into trouble pursuing the female dogs in town. But when I’d known him, he was fed, and people played with him. There was no telling what had happened to him after I was gone.
Grief and guilt are necessary but often useless emotions. That is, unless they can be channeled into something more. I had returned to Costa Rica to relax and to write, but once again, Duque was leading me somewhere unexpected.
Among many other changes, the farm was now wired for Internet access, so I sat in my bed and began googling: “Costa Rica dog shelter,” “Costa Rica animal welfare,” and so forth. I found two listings within my range: an organization called the McKee Foundation, and the story of a woman named Patricia Artimana, who was running an animal shelter just outside of Ciudad Colón, the Asociation Arca de Noé. Earlier in the year, the municipality had intervened when neighbors complained about the barking of the more than 100 dogs who lived on her property.
In the news story, which was now several months old, Patricia said that if she could not find homes for the dogs, she would set them free again before she allowed the government to do anything with them. In my short time back, I had already noticed that there were far fewer dogs roaming the village. Now, I understood why.
I emailed the McKee Project and arranged to meet Carla Ferraro, the project’s program director, at the Multiplaza, one of the biggest shopping centers in Central America. The last time I had been to the Multiplaza, I had watched from the bus as motorists swerved to avoid a bull strolling casually down the middle of the eight lanes.
The locals were used to it—stray livestock on the highway is fairly common. The bull turned and wandered into the parking lot. It was Christmas, and I amused myself by imagining that he was doing some last-minute holiday shopping.
“We don’t believe in sheltering animals,” Carla said as we shared a pastry. There are too many, she said, and too few places for them to find homes. You end up with overcrowded shelters, and the problem of strays continues in the streets. The philosophy is that the cost of longterm care would be better spent neutering the stray populations.
“But I heard that there is a shelter. Somewhere near Ciudad Colón?” I asked. She seemed cautious in answering this query. “Yes, I know the woman you are talking about.” She paged through a copy of Pets y Más, a bilingual animal care magazine that is distributed throughout the country. “Here she is,” she said, pointing to a story.“And here is her phone number. It might be interesting for you to visit. She uses the dog waste to make methane.”
I thought perhaps I was mishearing something, but chose not to question it.
Carla continued explaining the McKee Project’s mission: They had been training vets across the country to perform spayand- neuter surgeries using a tiny incision. The surgery can be done in as little as 10 minutes, allowing one vet to alter dozens of animals in a single day. The animals’ recovery time is quick as well. After providing this free training, the project then encourages the vets to offer the surgery for free in their villages on a designated day each month. The training is made possible through the support of the North Shore Animal League and Spay USA.
“Some vets were reluctant at first,”Carla said. “But then they found that people who had never brought their pets in for treatment before came back again for other services. So it was good for business.”
As I listened, I once again wondered if I was misunderstanding something. If it was possible to spay and neuter animals so quickly, why had I never heard of the process before? When my own Sula was spayed, it required overnight observation and cost an arm and a leg.Why wouldn’t this new procedure be just as valuable in the U.S.? But these were not questions Carla could answer for me.
“So, you spay and neuter and then put them back on the streets?”
“Yes,” she answered, aware that this idea would seem truly foreign to me. Part of the problem is the definition of “stray.” Studies suggest that only 5 percent of the Costa Rican dog population is truly stray; the rest, though they have feeders, owners and places to stay at night, run free throughout the day. Only 25 percent are sterilized, all of which was accomplished in just the past six years. As Carla noted, “If we can get to 70 percent of the population, then we will have the overpopulation under control.” Previously, the government’s solution was to poison animals in the street. McKee has worked to make that practice illegal.
Carla’s manner was sharp and efficient. She didn’t let her emotions get in the way, even when I finally told her what it was that had inspired me to contact her—the story of Duque and the way he was killed.
I first met patricia artimana in a small bakery across from the church in Ciudad Colón. It was raining outside, the typical evening deluge of the rainy season, and we were sitting with a typical view of the typical town square. She told me about the municipality intervening earlier in the year,when she had had more than 100 dogs.“I had too many,” she said, and I wondered if she really believed that, or was simply repeating what she had been told.
“How many do you have now?”I asked. She thought for a while and then made a number using the fingers on her hands. Eighteen.
In the morning, a cabbie friend of hers arrived to drive me to her home: a mountain called Piedras Negras. On a map, it seemed to be just outside of town, but maps don’t take into account the steep terrain and the winding roads.More than an hour later, we arrived at her house. I had no idea where we were. And, of course, I had fantasies of finding Duque frolicking among the other dogs when we arrived. I knew that this wouldn’t happen, but I couldn’t expel the image from my mind.
Just a dozen or so dogs appeared immediately at the gate, yet I could see there were more.Patricia eventually joined them and began to awkwardly balance her two tasks: managing the dogs and showing me around. The property was set up using a series of corrals, with different groups of dogs in each area; some were allowed to run completely free.
At the top of the property was a stall with several horses; an ox; a flock of geese; and a small, indigenous tree animal hibernating in his coop who wouldn’t come out to see me. In order to get to the house, I needed to enter the corral, but the dogs weren’t going to let me. At each gate, the dogs would gather, jumping and barking at me, anticipating my visit. Finally she pointed to another entrance.“Would you mind coming through here?” she asked.
It was a dog door, but it appeared to be the only door in which the dogs had no interest. I ducked down and crawled through.
On the kitchen table, three dogs sat, wagging their tails. They were not small dogs—each weighed at least 40 or 50 pounds. On the stove, two large pots of dog food were being slow-cooked over a gas flame. A plastic tube ran from the back of the stove through the wall and across part of the lawn, to a plastic fermentation tent. She was, indeed, turning the dog poop into gas for the stove.
“How many dogs do you have?” I asked. She thought about it again.“Fifty-five.” Patricia wiped down the table and pulled out a chair for me to sit on.Then she went to the stove to make coffee. I scanned the shelves of an open cupboard, lined with various medicines and treatments that I assumed were for the dogs.While the coffee brewed, she introduced me to more dogs. They each had names, but it was more than I could do to keep up with them. A small brown dog made her way through the pack to greet Patricia, then settled at her feet, looking up at her with stubborn longing.
“Oh, Julie,” Patricia said. “Poor Julie.” She turned to me. “This is a special dog. This is a dog that I found myself. I kept an eye on her. Brought her food. Eventually she let me take her home.” Julie climbed into Patricia’s lap, and stayed there as the other dogs voiced their disapproval. Eventually, Patricia put her down again with the rest of the dogs.
Patricia continued to introduce me to the dogs, and my fantasy that Duque would appear there, miraculously alive, continued to dwindle.As we walked onto a patio area, a huge, longhaired, rust-colored dog bounded toward me and rose on his back legs to butt his chest—his brisket—against mine. He came back to me several times during my visit.“He likes you,” Patricia said.“Maybe you can take him home.”
I thought about what Carla had said —that sheltering dogs was a waste of resources, that it simply displaced the problem, while few animals actually found homes.
“Will any of these dogs be adopted?” I asked. Patricia shook her head no.
“They are too old. We have others that are young dogs that can find homes. They don’t stay here.”
A fewdays after my visit to piedras Negras, as I stood waiting for the bus, I spotted a woman sitting on the opposite corner in front of the new aquarium shop, with several dogs in crates on display. Arca de Noé was having an adoption fair.
I crossed the street and bent down to greet an awkward, brindle-striped puppy. He looked just like my Brando had, six years earlier, when I spotted him in the BARC shelter in Brooklyn in the weeks after leaving Duque behind.
“I have one just like this,” I told the woman.
And two days later, I was home.
Culture: Stories & Lit
Lab with a wise old soul helps family navigate loss.
There was little discussion of who would keep Tag, my brother’s young black Labrador Retriever, after John’s death. Tag was a living connection to John, and though a grief greater than my own was unfathomable, I knew my mother needed him most. She had lost her broad-shouldered, broad-grinned son. She needed Tag, if only to curl up with when death’s demons haunted. Tag and my mother mourned together. During their first year, a solid rap on the door would send Tag into the fullbody wagging frenzy he reserved for his master’s return. In the seconds before rationality reigned, Mom, too, hoped my brother was about to bound into the house. She had hung John’s Carhartt jacket and ratty baseball cap on a hook above his cowboy boots in her mudroom. It deluded her into thinking that he would be coming back from Colorado for Christmas vacation, with another semester of veterinary school under his belt, on the days when denial was her only method of survival.
John and I had often booked the same flight from Denver to Chicago to descend on Mom in unison for the holidays. On this winter morning I sat alone, squeezed between strangers. I dreaded Christmas without John.Uncovering the ornament he had made in first grade or his knit stocking, stretched out from our tradition of flooding each other with gag gifts, promised to reignite anguish that would feel new and raw all over again. At least I had Tag to look forward to. I couldn’t wait to see that dog.
I was approaching our prearranged meeting place outside O’Hare when I saw them—the unmistakable combination of my stylish mother behind the wheel and a slobbering, yet regal, Tag, straining out the back-seat window.My mom and I greeted each other cautiously, not out of animosity, but restraint. We instinctively knew that if we held each other’s gaze, the sorrow of another holiday without John would overwhelm our weak levee.
“I’ll sit in back with Tag,” I said in a desperate attempt to throw sandbags between our grief.“How’s my boy?” I asked into his eyes while ruffling his ears and scratching him under the collar, where he liked it best. As we pulled away from the airport, Tag straddled my lap to resume his position at the window.Breathing his freshly shampooed scent, I rested my head on his side and hid my burning eyes from Mom’s glances in the rearview mirror.
Despite the lapses between visits to my mother’s house, Tag and I were inseparable when we were under the same roof. He slept at the foot of my bed, trotted down the stairs after my slippered feet, waited as I fixed my coffee, and even crowded into the bathroom as I showered and blew my hair dry.What made this unusual was that Tag was generally aloof. While my mom adored her dog, she complained that he wasn’t cuddly, that he’d always give her his rump to scratch instead of his muzzle. I couldn’t help remembering that John was the same way.As the only male in our household for many years, John would often put the brakes on touchy-feely stuff. He told my mom he would give her backrubs— he on the couch, she sitting in front of him on the floor—only if she refrained from pleasurable noises. An “ooh, that feels good,” and his hands were in the air.“I’m outta here,” he would say and be off the couch, heading to the kitchen to pour himself a Coke. My practical self attributed Tag’s uncharacteristic affection to my resemblance to John. Like me, John had been fair-skinned with honey-colored hair; perhaps we even had a smell or pheromone in common. But my spiritual self believed it was more than that—that part of John’s soul was with Tag, and when Tag and I were together, John and I were too in some way.
In fact, until this trip home for the holidays, I had sometimes wondered if I should have inherited Tag. Tag’s adjustment would have been less jarring if he had stayed with me in Colorado and had an owner who was closer to John’s age and lifestyle.Yet, I knew my motivations were primarily selfish, and now I was witnessing how beautifully Mom and Tag were piecing their lives together. Mom had resumed her work as a photographer, and Tag now chased waterbirds along the shores of Lake Michigan rather than the chickens John kept on his property near the Rocky Mountains. Tag now heeled alongside Mom, though to her right side, the way my left-handed brother had purposely trained him so that he’d be away from the rifle on their occasional hunting trips. Tag’s stellar behavior evoked a pride in Mom, not only in Tag but also in her son’s fine ability with animals. Mom glimpsed John through Tag the way one sees a deceased loved one in a child who bears her likeness. As Mom and I sipped coffee in front of the Christmas tree on my first morning home, she invited me to witness a petassisted therapy program that she and Tag had become involved with over the last year. She was introduced to the program by a stranger who had remarked how well-trained Tag was.
“Yes, he is wonderful, but that credit really goes to my son,” Mom had explained. During the brief conversation that followed, the man said he volunteered with a group that helped others through the use of dogs. Then and there, Mom had resolved to sign up.
The next day, however, she’d questioned whether she had the emotional strength to work with people who had disabilities.We were grateful John’s departure from this world had been quick and peaceful. His girlfriend had smiled between sobs as she recounted that she and my brother had been goofing off on the mountain just moments before John, an expert skier, inexplicably collided with a tree, rupturing his aorta. John had, at least, not suffered—unlike those whom my mother would train Tag to assist. Despite her hesitations, Mom summoned the courage to contact the organization. “Chenny Troupe,” a cheerful woman answered. Chenny, Mom later learned, was the name of the pioneer dog of the program.
“My name is Mary Ann Alexander, and I have my son’s dog. Well, he’s my dog now,” she began.
The compassionate voice interrupted. “I know about your son,Mary Ann.My husband works with John’s father. I was at the funeral.My name is Carole Hunt.” This was an almost eerie coincidence in a city the size of Chicago. My mother’s resolve to train Tag in pet-assisted therapy was restored. Tag was hers for a reason. Maybe this was it.
When Mom received the Chenny Troupe brochure in the mail a few days later, she settled on the rug beside Tag to read it. The literature emphasized that, more than providing companionship, these therapy dogs helped with the rehabilitation of patients. The dogs needed to be not only well-trained but also gentle enough to work with children and energetic enough to engage a person with a disability. They must be patient and unbothered by wheelchairs, walkers, back braces or helmets as well as the awkward movements and vocalizations of some of the patients. Few dogs pass the rigorous obedience screening on the first try. The test date was only two weeks away. “You’ll do it, Tag,”Mom said, as she slid onto her side to lock eyes with her best friend. In a rare but increasingly frequent show of affection, Tag covered her face with kisses.
When the time came,Tag obeyed every instruction with an attentiveness that would have made John proud. Tag and my mother were invited into the program. Now, sitting in Mom’s kitchen a year later, I saw no trace of the initial butterflies she’d had, as she saddled Tag with his official work vest in preparation for tonight’s session. I, however, was nervous, even in my limited role as an observer. Then I remembered Mom commenting that Tag’s omniscient look had allayed her fears.When I saw the pure intention in his eyes, I felt my internal compass needle, haywire for over a year, regain its bearings.
Tag looked handsome, even cocky, as he leaped into the back seat to be driven to the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago (RIC). From the front seat I turned to tell him, “You know John wants you to do this, don’t you, smart boy?” Mom’s eyes smiled—the sandbags between us long gone—as we pulled onto Lakeshore Drive. The RIC elevator door opened to a large recreation room milling with patients, therapy dogs and their owners.Mom’s preeminence in the program showed as she was swallowed by the group to answer last-minute questions before the therapy began. Eventually, all the dogs and volunteers, paired with their patients, were spread throughout the room. In one corner, a young man negotiated trading his walker for a leash, while a teenage girl pressed her dormant vocal cords into service to command a dog to sit.
For Mom and Tag, this was the last night of a six-week partnership with a seven-year-old girl named Samantha. In an automobile accident on Christmas Eve, Samantha had lost her little sister and been partially paralyzed on her right side. She was in a wheelchair and had lost much of her speech. An older sister and both parents, who had survived the wreck with minor injuries, were there to cheer Samantha on.
Sam had fallen in love with Tag the first night they worked together. Initially, Sam would pet Tag only with her left hand, until my mother, remembering her training, urged Sam to pet him with her right hand. As Sam fought to communicate with her right side, Tag nudged her hand with his wet nose. Tag’s touch made Sam giggle, evoking a gasp from her mother, who hadn’t heard her laugh since before the accident. Slowly, Sam’s hand obeyed her brain’s signal. She extended her clenched fist enough to knock on Tag’s shoulder. It was a tremendous achievement. Every Tuesday night for six weeks, Tag helped Samantha overcome her paralysis. Sam learned to uncurl her fist to accept a tennis ball and then to throw it to Tag, who retrieved it and begged for more.
Their favorite game involved Sam balancing a dog biscuit on Tag’s nose while he waited for the command to nod his head and catch the biscuit. Now, Sam’s actions with Tag were almost fluid, and she said his name clearly.
Samantha’s mother, Julie, told us that every time they got into the car, the little girl would ask,“Tag?”—hoping they were on their way to the RIC. I listened as my mother shared with Julie her story of losing her son.My mother hadn’t wanted to burden Julie with our loss. Tonight, though, as Julie presented my mother with a bouquet of flowers for all she had done, it seemed appropriate.Upon hearing about John, Julie commented, “Your son was going to be a veterinarian so he could heal animals, but now his animal heals people.”
With Christmas behind me, I boarded my flight back to Denver. As I buckled my seat belt, I noticed Tag’s straight black hairs covering my beige corduroy pants, and smiled. Brushing the hairs from my lap, I thought how Tag was with me in more ways than just his shedding coat. Tag had taught me,my mother and even Samantha’s mom Julie that there is hope after tragedy.
In the days after John’s death, I had fearfully asked Mom,“Will we ever be okay again?” She responded that she did not know how we ever could be. Yet, we are okay—due in large part to a huge-hearted black Lab with a wise old soul.
Now it is summer and its long, warm days have arrived, we hope to catch up on our reading. To encourage you to do the same, we’ve compiled a roster of some of our favorites from the classic shelves, as well as some newer ones.
THE SCIENCE OF DOG
Man Meets Dog was first published fifty years ago, becoming a classic that every dog lover should read‹a slim, witty volume by the Nobel Prize-winning scientist, Konrad Lorenz. It was the first to delve into the canine mind and also launched the debate to what extend do its wolf ancestors affect modern dog behavior.
The Hidden Life of Dogs is a book made famous for the number of miles that Elizabeth Marshall Thomas clocked while tracking a Husky on his daily forays in her anthropological quest to answer, “What do dogs really want?” It is an enthralling account that brings a fresh understanding to the emotional lives of dogs.
Somewhere along the path of evolution two distinct animal species made the choice to “cooperate not to compete.” In The Animal Attraction Dr. Jonica Newby, an Australian veterinarian, poses the more fascinating question "If we didn¹t link up with dogs, where would we be today?" Her answers about our co-evolution are both surprising and wildly entertaining.
In Dog Sense, animal behaviorist John Bradshaw outlines what we can expect from our co-pilots as well as what they need to live harmoniously with us. Ultimately, this is what makes the book so appealing. He does more than simply lay out interesting theories; he uses science to advocate for a better life for companion dogs.
Inside of a Dog by Alexandra Horowitz is a fascinating journey into the dog’s rich sensory world, providing valuable insights into what it’s like to be a dog. If you think you know your dog, think again. Horowitz peels away the layers of pre-conceived notions and gets to the core of canine-ness to reveal that Canis familiaris is anything but familiar.
Dog’s Best Friend by Mark Derr who writes about the “culture of the dog” like no one else‹he goes well beyond the in’s and out’s of breeding and training examining all aspects about what makes our relationship to dogs tick.
MEMOIRS & LITERATURE
Scent of the Missing by Susannah Charleson. A fascinating memoir of the adventures of a Search and Rescue pup and how both she and her human partner mastered the course together.
In Dog Years, poet Mark Doty recounts how two dogs rescued and supported him during a time of deep grief. A tender, amusing and insightful reflection on the bond with have with animals.
The Proof is in the Poodle by Donna Kelleher, a holistic vet who has written a thoughtful and sensitive exploration of the ways we help out animals heal—physically, emotionally and spiritually. (2012,Two Harbors Press)
Garth Stein’s novel, The Art of Racing in the Rain, is a beautifully crafted tale of the wonders and absurdities of human life as only a dog could describe them.
Rick Bass’s Colter: The True Story of the Best Dog I Ever Had is a gorgeously written memoir about a remarkable “brown” dog who possessed a genius for the hunt. It is also a powerful contemplation about the natural world and how a dog can unveil its secrets to us, if only we are wise enough to watch and listen.
Donald McCaig’s Eminent Dogs: Dangerous Men is a book about the fascinating world of sheepherding and Border Collies and how the history of these dogs is infused by character of the people who admire then and who “partner” with them. Part memoir, travelogue, and part investigation into one of the oldest alliances mankind has struck with canines.
Dog Walks Man, a collection of humorous and absorbing essays by John Zeaman, conveys how the routine act of dog-walking can connect us to the joys of the nature.
Pack of Two: The Intricate Bond Between People and Dogs by Carolyn Knapp is the seminal book about, as its subtitle proclaims, the bond between people and dogs. A must read for all dog people—affirming that we aren’t alone in our dog-centricity. Knapp explored why dogs matter to us and concludes that we love them for themselves—for their very otherness and dogginess.
My Dog Tulip by J.R. Ackerley. This book is a lovely, unsentimental and very moving biography of a dog, an Alsatian female named Tulip. Ackerley is charmed and fascinated by her and his descriptions about her behavior and habits are among the more tender “love” stories ever.
Lee Harrington’s Rex in the City is the modern day story about how a young couple learned about the challenges of adopting an abused, untrained dog and bringing him up in a small NYC apartment. The author shares both her pains and her joys of their life with a troubled dog. But readers will be reminded—in a delightful way—that love does indeed conquer all.
Patricia McConnell, PhD, CAAB, has written a shelf-load of books in which she decodes the mysteries of canine behavior. Two we particularly like are The Other End of the Leash, which focuses on why we behave as we do around our dogs and how it affects them, and (with Karen London, PhD), Love Has No Age Limit, a much-needed primer on adopting an adult dog.
If you’ve wondered vets do day-to-day, read veterinary surgeon Nick Trout’s Tell Me Where It Hurts and Love Is the Best Medicine and get clued in.
WHO DONE IT?
David Rosenfelt’s Andy Carpenter is a reluctant attorney whose real passions are dog rescue and his Golden Retriever, Tara. One Dog Night is the most recent entry.
In Spencer Quinn’s “Chet and Bernie” mysteries, narrated by Chet the dog, comments on the way dogs see the world ring true (and will make you smile). The fifth book, A Fist Full of Collars, is due out in September.
Our long-time favorite, Susan Conant, released a new “Holly Winter” mystery earlier this year, thank goodness; Brute Strength is number 19 in the series featuring the Malamute-loving dog writer and, of course, her favorite dogs.
Culture: Stories & Lit
I never had a dog. I grew up in a cat household, with a mother who disliked dogs for their digging and mess and noise. I can’t blame her, as we were five kids who had lizards, hamsters, parakeets, fish, and always, two or three cats.
But I wanted a dog so badly! I wanted a red Cocker Spaniel like Rusty, the fictional dog featured in novels I read again and again. I dreamed of a brave dog like Rusty, who swam into choppy ocean waves to rescue a boy, who sensed that a train was about to crash, who bounded into fields to find a lost girl. His coat was shiny and his eyes alert, and he was a hero.
At 12, I brought home a stray while my parents were on vacation, knowing our elderly babysitter wouldn’t notice. She didn’t. My mother did, on her return, and so the dog went to live at my friend’s house three streets away. I visited, but it wasn’t the same.
When I married my childhood sweetheart, I knew he didn’t want a dog, as he’d been raised with a black Cockapoo who hated everyone under twenty, and demonstrated it by biting them. We bought a house on a busy four-lane avenue, a former farmhouse with a big yard, and we had three kids.
Our first daughter was not a dog lover, as she'd been nipped on the hand by a boisterous Old English Sheepdog when she was two, and shortly afterward nipped on the face by an ill-tempered Sheltie down the block. Gaila likes rabbits. Our second daughter was not a dog lover, because she is obsessed with insects and wants to be an entomologist. Delphine collects bugs.
But our third daughter, Rosette, said Dog before she said Daddy. She is a kindred spirit, as they say. Our neighbor, who babysat her twice a week when I went to work, got a yellow Labrador puppy named Chelsea days after Rosette was born, and they slept together on the bed, Rosette with her fist curled around Chelsea’s felt-soft ear and her thumb in her mouth.
Her father and I divorced when she was only one, and Rosette began asking for a dog as soon as she could form sentences. When she was two, we took a trip to New York, just me and Rosette, and she met every dog in Gramercy Park, where we staying. By the second day she was calling them by name, those city dogs out on their walks, and we had to eat in restaurants with sidewalk tables so we could visit her canine friends, who truly seemed to recognize the smell of her chubby crumb-laden hand.
I tried to prepare: I bought books about puppies and their care, about puppies walking through meadows and cavorting with other baby animals. Rosette had other ideas: “Yellow Labrador, Irish Setter, Border Collie, Basset Hound, Beagle.” She got a dog breed book and we had to study their physical characteristics and temperaments. She was three then. In Prescott, Arizona, she identified King Charles Spaniels after an owner explained how rare the breed was, and she has remembered them since.
Having a child who loved dogs with this kind of passion was fascinating, but also intimidating. I knew we couldn’t get a puppy, as people had warned that work and school would take us away for too long. Having cried for hours over lost or stray dogs on our avenue, Rosette wanted to adopt someone from the Humane Society. So in November of that year, we walked the gauntlet of cages and barking, and wary or pleading eyes.
Rosette went immediately to the shaggy black Spaniel named Teddy, who looked so depressed he barely ambled out to the chain link. The big test was whether a dog could handle us as a family, so I’d brought all my girls and two of their small friends, along with one of our caged rabbits. The shelter assistant brought Teddy to us in the meeting area. He walked over to Rosette, licked her face, and sat beside her. He looked at the other girls as if to say, “Yeah, I see you.” He looked at the rabbit as if to say, “Yeah, you’re in a cage.”
Teddy had been found in a neighboring city, with a slight limp and bruised hip that indicated someone had been kicking him. He’d already been adopted once, but returned by the childless couple who’d kept him in an apartment for up to ten hours as a time, because he urinated inside.
He peed once inside our house, the first day, but never again. He waited patiently for Rosette to let him outside, where she fed him, picked up his poop, and brushed him. Solemnly, she repeated to me, “I made a promise and I am keeping it.”
Teddy is a classic shelter dog, in that he will never have had enough to eat. That first week, he ate a cake, plastic wrap and all, that had been left on the coffee table, and gobbled up a dropped Advil and a Flintstones multivitamin when I cleaned out my backpack. We stayed with him for hours, worried, while he waited for us to drop something else.
He wasn’t a Cocker Spaniel, Rosette assured me, paging through one of her dog breed books until she found him. Teddy had shorter, ragged ears, a taller build, a longer nose. He was a Field Spaniel, Rosette said.
I studied him those first months, wondering about his bravery and nobility. Would he have the chance to save someone, like Rusty, my heroic red Cocker? When I lifted Rosette into the air and twirled her, he ran over and put a paw on her leg to make me put her down. If I tickled her, he wedged his head between us, never growling, but looking sternly at me, as if to say I should know better. Soon, when older sisters or friends were playing rough, Rosette would call, “Teddy!” and with applications of his stinky breath and head butts, he would make them leave her alone. Once, as an experiment, I tackled Gaila, who is my size, and tickled her. Teddy just watched, slightly bored.
Teddy’s job was to save Rosette’s spirit. She has dog love threading through her veins from some ancestor, dog love wound tightly around her heart like the branching arteries displayed in her encyclopedia. Unlike her sisters, she never really had a father who lived in our house. Teddy was hers alone. She slept in his dog bed, and he slept on her small fold-out couch in the living room. He walked her to preschool with me every day, and her class, The Cute Kittens, mobbed him. He never barked or growled or even moved away. In his second week with us, Teddy sat in the middle of a circle of them, 13 three-year-olds, and Rosette talked about him. Then he ate 13 dog biscuits, to please everyone, and didn’t throw up. He submitted to inspections and hard head pats and screaming. His eyes never left Rosette. I realized the extent of Teddy's nobility, and I was willing to accept his neediness.
Because now, four years later, he is a needy dog. He has no other dog friends, though we’ve tried repeatedly. Not even Chelsea, who he attacks along with her sister Hannah, another yellow Lab. Teddy will never accept another canine, even on the sidewalk for casual conversation, and he’s injured himself repeatedly because his version of bravery makes him guard our fenced yard with blind ferocity. He has been bitten on the nose, while barking through the fence, by neighbors' dogs, and hurt his leg chasing Chows and even Pit Bulls. Nearly every house in our neighborhood has at least two dogs, but Teddy will not even wag at them. Two dogs in my brother’s tough pack, which runs in a nearby orange grove, like to visit us: We tried to acclimate Teddy to Soot and Charcoal on the front porch, which was fine until Rosette came banging out of the screen door to see them. Teddy promptly tried to take a chunk out of Soot’s back leg.
Last summer, he destroyed a rear anterior cruciate ligament, chasing down passing dogs like an aging football player. I spent a thousand dollars on your good leg, I told him, when we took him for surgery. Two days in the animal hospital, along with anesthesia, left him altered, so anxious that he has never been the same since. His new ligament works fine, but he won’t let me leave a room, blocking the doorway or the back of my chair with his body, in case he’s abandoned again. His marked resemblance to Richard Nixon on an unhappy day has deepened. Teddy stares at me in the morning, jowly and melancholic because it’s hot, or cold, or windy, or because I was asleep.
He hates it when we leave, and can't be left alone for even five minutes without trying to dig out or jump the fence. What with school and sports and errands, by the time we are done for the day he is beside himself. And that’s just when I usually have six or seven girls here for homework or basketball: Teddy sits under the basket, or sits on their papers, or tries to lie on my feet while I am at the stove, not a happy camper myself by that point in the afternoon.
I wanted a brave independent dog who would keep out the marauding cats trying to kill the rabbits, who would bark at strange men, rather than inspecting them for Del Taco burritos and hot sauce. I realize we are not drowning in the ocean or lost in a field, but some Rusty-like nobility of demeanor would help, rather than the baleful and incredulous eyes that say to me, “You’re trying to get to the cupboard for macaroni and cheese again, and I find that incredibly irritating when I am trying to get comfortable on your instep.” When we tell him to go lie down, Teddy moves five inches, and his look combines glare and guilt in a way that's so presidential that I have to laugh.
A neighbor takes care of him when we go to work or on vacation, since Teddy is terminally anxious now. This summer Rosette turned seven, and on an East Coast trip she brought her dog breed book to identify new friends. She learned the intricacies of Sheltie breeding, studying the double merle; she walked a Jack Russell Terrier, and worried about the breathing of a black Lab with a lung tumor. But the only time she cried was when she missed Teddy. Not her father, or grandparents, or friends. Only her dog.
I have watched her, all these years. No one else feeds or walks Teddy, or picks up his poop, unless Rosette is sick. She doesn’t always remember her homework, and plays no sports, preferring to amble around with her dog. I have had to learn patience from both of them, since Rosette is known as my Velcro child for her clinginess, and Teddy is called “the neediest dog on the planet” by our bemused neighbors, with their rough independent German Shepherds and Rottweilers. But I realize, looking around at my house with its pack of girls, all female animals with hierarchies and assigned spaces and conflicting personalities, that Teddy picked the right place.
He stares at me now, while I write, daring me to move a muscle, draped across the doorway. I am not ashamed to admit that I am used to chaos and company, and when my kids are gone, I need someone else in the house. It helps that I’m accustomed to company that regards me censoriously if I am not doing something useful, like laundry, dishes, walking, dropping crumbs or retrieving dog biscuits. This is the home of needy short animals, and Teddy fits in perfectly, bravely licking up stray puddles of toxic-blue Otter Pops, surviving the inexpert eye-pokes associated with brushing by school friends who have never had a dog, and lying with one eye open under the mulberry tree where Rosette reads, waiting for her to come down so he can rescue her with his patience and devotion.
Culture: Stories & Lit
Doing Double Duty as a Therapy Dog
The day I brought my puppy home to Manhattan, a giant article appeared in The New York Times reducing him to a fashion accessory. Headline news: Boston Terriers, dogs for the hipper-than-thou. But I didn’t get my little guy to lift my social status. I got him to lift my father’s spirits—and add quality to the time he had left.
A note to my husband Geoff and me lay on the nightstand in our spare bedroom, where my father slept on chemo days.
Of course he cared.
He wanted a grandchild, but he didn’t have nine months, and he knew it. The postscript on the note revealed another truth of my father’s heart: Second to grandchildren, puppies are the greatest gift.
My husband lobbied for a Husky. Taxis don’t belong in the mountains, I told him, and sled dogs don’t belong in the city.
“Then a German Shepherd,” he said. “German Shepherds will take a bullet for you.”
Clearly, we had different priorities in the dog department. He was thinking work dog. He was thinking guard dog. I was thinking lap dog.
In the end, we agreed on a breed by marital compromise.
The fairest approach was to go with my father’s preference. He kept a weathered photograph of a Boxer in his wallet, the pet of his Brooklyn boyhood who fetched lost baseballs from under the stoop and ate the broccoli his mother thought he’d finished.
“Boxers fart,” Geoff said.
At least we were talking about something other than cancer.
The dog talk let us be ourselves again.
We settled on Boston Terriers because they resembled Boxers—barrel-chested stance, erect ears and short shiny coat. And apropos of my father’s nature, Boston Terriers epitomized the all-American spirit of the people. That’s what the dog book said.
Picking out a puppy is like house hunting or wedding-dress shopping. You know in your gut when you’ve found the right one. The rescues at The Queens Animal Shelter didn’t warm up to us. At the kennel in New Jersey, the litter had worms. Then a listing on the Internet caught my eye. The breeder lived upstate, near Buffalo. I convinced Geoff to make the trek.
“I called the woman. Her name is Glenda. She has the bitch. Her daughter has the sire. Guess what her daughter’s name is? Jo-lene. Nine hundred people live in their town. Glenda’s husband Harry fixes machine parts.”
Geoff didn’t see why any of this mattered.
“These are the kind of people who have a boat on the lawn,” I said, “the kind of people who know from dogs.”
We met Glenda Hartman at the dirt road that led to her house. A fallen tree blocked the drive path, so we parked and followed Glenda on foot, up the hill. “That’s my son, sawing the branch,” she told us, and a brawny boy of about 19 tipped his baseball cap in our direction.
“You and Harry have how many children?” I asked, trying to get her to like me.
“Six kids and 16 Boston Terriers,” she said. “Harry will tell you about the pups. He’s out back taking the tarp off the boat.”
I winked at Geoff.
Harry washed down the boat and a six-pack of Michelob. One pup bolted out the screen door to greet Geoff and me. “Only fair I knock $100 off his asking price,” Harry said.
We couldn’t imagine why.
Harry Hartman explained as only Harry Hartman could: “One of his little gonads didn’t come down yet.”
Geoff named our puppy “Iverson,” after Allen Iverson, the point guard on the Philadelphia 76ers, because he’s black with one white sleeve like the basketball player in his signature armband.
“Iverson’s a champion,” I say, when he poops on the newspaper.
Geoff beams. “We don’t call him Iverson for nothing.” The NBA’s Iverson was an MVP.
When I’m working from home, the puppy jockeys for space on my desk chair. His wide-set eyes and the white blaze between them give him a quizzical expression. How can you be sad, he seems to wonder, looking up at me. Then he plunks his chin on my knee and lets out a sigh.
If I try to crawl back into bed, he woos me with impish charm. He runs around the living room with the handle of my hairbrush in his mouth. For the love of liver treats, he learns “roll over.” Since my father’s diagnosis, I’ve been trying to make everything okay and thanks to my Boston Terrier, sometimes it is.
My father recently spent an entire month in the hospital. He’d exhausted all treatment options. He couldn’t walk, was fed through a tube, spoke in a whisper. I arrived early one morning to visit him, the two of us alone in the stark room.
“Get me out of here,” he said.
I readied the wheelchair for a trip to the recreation pavilion.
“That’s where we’ll tell the nurses we’re going,” my father schemed and pulled out his intravenous lines. “Wheel me out the side door. Hail us a cab to your apartment.”
An untenable plan, I told him. He’d been prone to falls. His painkillers might wear off. The hospital could refuse to treat him over a stunt like this. “No way, Dad. I love you,” I said, “but there’s too much at stake.”
My father, a meatpacker, a Marine, macho personified, wept into his handkerchief. “I’ve been dreaming for weeks,” he gasped, “of playing with the puppy on a big bed.”
I did what a compassionate daughter ought to do. I helped him into his shoes.
“Do you know who this is?” my father said when I put Iverson in his arms. “This is my grand-dog.” He scratched the black diamond on Iverson’s belly. He bundled Iverson in a blanket and watched him tunnel out. Iverson licked his cheeks wet with kisses. The puppy didn’t see a sick man. He saw a smiling face. And I saw a Boston Terrier keeping my father from fading away.
My dog is no trendy trapping of urban swank. He’s way too cool for that.
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