“There is an open house tonight at the Pet Refuge in Mishawaka,” my 12-year-old daughter, Alexandra, tells me enthusiastically. “I found it on the computer. They invite people to Adopt-a-Dog night . . . and we are invited!”
I like dogs, but I just don’t want one now. We have recently moved to South Bend after eight years living in Santiago, Chile, and feel we don’t need the complications of having a dog in the mix. Not to mention the heartache of losing another one.
“Dad, I know we’re not ready to get a dog,” Alexandra says reassuringly. “This is just getting to know the options. They won’t let you take home a dog even if you want. The Pet Refuge has a 48-hour waiting period.” Alexandra is a master of reading the fine print.
Reluctantly, my wife, Chris, and I agree to take our three kids to Pet Refuge, with the explicit condition that we are not getting a dog at this time.
Driving to an Adopt-a-Dog evening to “just look,” you know, pretty confidently, that the battle has been already lost.
Bears, oh, my
Ironically, Alexandra, who is leading the charge to get a dog, was once so mortally afraid of dogs that it was difficult for her even to go near a house that had one. As a little girl, her hierarchy of fears of things that moved, crawled or slithered was topped by dogs and bears.
“Call them,” 5-year old Alexandra repeats, weeping. “You have to call them tonight before I can go to bed.” She gets so upset she can hardly breathe.
“Okay,” I say with resignation.
“Is this the Belmont police?” I ask into the telephone receiver. The dial tone hums. Alexandra looks on anxiously.
“Mr. Policeman, have you seen any grizzly bears in Belmont?” I shake my head negatively to Alexandra.
“Okay, you have never spotted a grizzly bear in Belmont, Massachusetts, never ever. Good. Thanks a lot. We won’t worry anymore.” I hang up the phone, hoping this is the end.
“Even if there isn’t a bear right now in Belmont, a bear might get a ride in someone’s truck and come here,” Alexandra says, making it clear that this reprieve is only temporary.
On another occasion, throughout one long, particularly anxiety-prone afternoon, Alexandra clung to my wife Chris’ leg for fear of a bear attack. Chris had tried unsuccessfully to convince Alexandra there were no bears in the greater Boston area.
“We know that there are no bears here, but if a bear ever came to the house,” an exhausted Chris tells Alexandra, “I would protect you from the bear with my life.”“How would you protect me?” Alexandra asks suspiciously. “A bear would eat you, too!”
“You know, in the kitchen, there are those big knives,” Chris says. “If a bear ever came near to you, I would take the biggest knife and protect you. I promise the bear would never hurt you.”
“How do you know that the bear wouldn’t get to the knife first?” Alexandra asks.
Chris can only laugh. “Honey, bears don’t have hands with opposable thumbs, and so a bear could never hold on to the knife.”
“But what, what if,” Alexandra says, “what if the bear took both its paws and put the knife in between his paws and did it like this,” she demonstrates, putting her two palms together and bringing them down in a single slashing motion. Chris can only hug Alexandra tighter, stroking her hair.
The bears in Belmont may be imaginary, but dogs are not. Alexandra starts fretting at the first indication that we might visit friends who have a dog, no matter how small the canine. She won’t leave the car until someone has made sure the dog is caged or locked in the basement. She then clings to the legs of either her mother or father during the entire visit.
In attempts to ward off bear or dog attacks, we make star catchers, sprinkle holy water, pray to Saint Francis and go to a hypnotist. This mixture of remedies seems to provide some relief. However, some months later, in mid-2002 as we prepare to move from Boston to Santiago, where I had taken a job, Alexandra becomes anxious again. We try to reassure her that there have never been any grizzly bears in Chile in all of recorded history. Eventually we think we have successfully convinced her that Chile is a bear-free zone.
“But what happens,” Alexandra asks, “if when we put all our furniture in a big container on a boat to Chile that a bear climbs inside the container, too?”
Alexandra’s older sister, Natasha, and younger brother, Luke, make the adjustment relatively well to our new life in Chile. Alexandra has more challenges. In some ways she soars. She has an incredible facility for language, and after some weeks is already correcting her parents’ Spanish pronunciation. One of her biggest achievements: after two months of really tough goodbyes at her new school, separation no longer means we have to physically peel her off our bodies as she screams, “Don’t aabaandoon me!”
How did this happen? She decided that two orange Tic Tac mints placed in the palm of her hand, just before her parents left the classroom, was all she needed. Our own little magic bullets. After some months she admits that she even likes school. And she has nice, fresh-smelling breath.
Over time, we seem to persuade Alexandra that there are no bears in Chile. The same cannot be said for dogs.
Stray dogs are on every Santiago street corner, often in packs of three or four. They run around the schoolyard and hang out in front of, and sometimes inside of, restaurants. One particularly mangy mutt regularly wanders into church for the 10 a.m. Sunday Mass.
I have to admit that walking with a weeping, 5-year-old Alexandra clinging to your leg, as she tries to flee from dogs that seem to come from every side, does put a little damper on the nice family outing to get to know the city.
So I decide to take the bull by the horns, so to speak, and, unannounced to the kids, bring home a dog. The decision is less a response to Natasha and Luke’s regular pleas for one than an attempt to address Alexandra’s paralyzing fear of them.
At the local Santiago pound I find a friendly 9-month-old cocker spaniel named Chico (“little” in Spanish). At the pound, Chico shares his cage with two enormous, drooling, guarding-the-gates-of-Hades types. Chico could not have been more enthusiastic to come home with me.
Unfortunately, my strategy did not work as planned. When released in our back yard, Chico immediately digs up an entire section of the garden of our Spanish colonial-style house. We decide that Chico needs to live in the fenced-in front yard.
This means Chico stands between Alexandra and the outside world.
Each day, Alexandra leaves the house to go to school with a mad, screaming dash. Chico, sure Alexandra wants to play, follows in enthusiastic pursuit. So the mere thought of both leaving the house and coming home again brings Alexandra new bouts of anxiety. Instead of helping manage the fears, I seem to be creating more.
During the first days of Chico’s stay, Alexandra regularly reminds us that there is a 10-day grace period to return him to the pound. At night, she prays that Chico might find a good home, pointedly a home that is not our house.
But then Chico gets sick, coughing and shaking so badly that he cannot run or chase anyone. He is diagnosed with distemper, a degenerative neurological disease that will likely leave him paralyzed. If we want to try to save him, our veterinarian tells us, we will need to give a complicated drug treatment.
We decide to try. For a couple of weeks, Chico lies whimpering on his mat on the front porch next to his doghouse. Eight-year-old Natasha spends her free time taking care of Chico.
And then something unexpected happens. Alexandra begins to sit outside on a bench in front of the house, first at a significant distance from Chico, then closer. One day I come home from work and see Alexandra sitting on Chico’s mat with his head resting in her lap.
“Love casts out fear,” writes Dorothy Day, who spent her life dedicated to the homeless and downtrodden, “but we have to get over the fear in order to get close enough to love them.”
Over dinner, we all pray that Chico will get better. Remarkably, he does. He finishes his medicine and begins to improve, and then to bound to greet each of us at the front gate. Alexandra manages that transition and begins to play with him, until she spends more time with Chico than anyone else. In a strange way, Chico’s illness is something of a blessing — his recovery doubly so.
Chico lived with us happily and healthily for another year and a half. He would sometimes get out of the front gate and run around the neighborhood, but he would always come home. Then one day he didn’t return. We talked to the neighbors and wandered the streets calling his name. The kids made posters with Chico’s picture and our phone number. There were no calls. Days, then weeks passed. No sign of Chico.
Families sometimes create their own version of history. This is ours: Chico had gotten out of the front gate, fully intending to come home, but something happened. Maybe he was hit by a car, but given that no one ever found his body, we agreed he was probably just hurt and not killed. Given he was such a beautiful and wonderful dog, he was certainly taken in by another family and nursed back to health, just as we had done when he had distemper. Now, even though Chico still loves us, he has decided to stay with the new family.
A dog named Fly
The five of us pull into the Pet Refuge parking lot, which hugs a low-slung concrete building in a residential neighborhood in Mishawaka, about a mile from our new house in South Bend. Everyone at the Pet Refuge is a volunteer, but one quickly realizes, as a “no kill” animal shelter, this is serious business.
Those considering an adoption must complete a multipage application which requires lots of information and the listing of two recommenders and a commitment in writing that you have sufficient space inside where a dog can live during the harsh South Bend winters.
While I am learning the administrative details of dog adoptions, the kids are falling in love with dogs.
Our 14-year-old daughter, Natasha, runs into the small-dog section and immediately finds a particularly fat and unattractive snout-nosed boxer.
“He’s adorable. I think we should get this one!” she shouts. “We’ll call him Mr. Pickles!”
Alexandra meets a brown-and-white Jack Russell-Chihuahua mix named Lady. Her “foster mom,” Linda, explains that Lady had survived a stressful experience when the elderly woman Lady was living with suddenly died. Nervous at first, Lady enthusiastically warms up to the kids.
“I think she needs us,” Alexandra says.
Ten-year-old Luke has found his way to the large-dog room and fallen for a chocolate Labrador named Henry, whose wagging body rocks his entire cage. Luke instinctively places his face next to Henry’s and allows Henry to lick him through the bars.
“Dad, can we take him home? Mom, please, let’s take him home, please!” Luke beseeches.
“Lady needs us,” Alexandra says. “She needs us.”
“I want Mr. Pickles!” Natasha shouts.
In a fashion of which I am not completely proud, I think, “Well if they can’t decide on one dog, at least it will give us some more time and we can push this decision off for a while.”
A couple cages down from the Lab is an emaciated border collie named Fly, by far the smallest dog in the large-dog section. A volunteer from Germany describes Fly’s saga.
“There is a puppy mill in Tennessee,” Anna begins. She pronounces it “meel,” and I think she is using a German word, but later I learn this is what people call it — “puppy mill,” a place where dogs are kept in cages for the sole purpose of breeding.
“They don’t treat the puppies badly, as they need puppies to be clean and healthy so to sell them in pet shops in the malls. But the dog parents, they live in cages in filth,” she says.
Anna shows us a picture of one of the Tennessee puppy mill dogs standing on the roof of a small dog house inside a cage. It might even be Fly. The cement floor is covered in a couple of inches of urine and feces. The puppy mill was so bad that the Tennessee health department shut it down.
The local Humane Society in Tennessee could not receive so many animals and put out a national call to find homes for 21 adult dogs. The Pet Refuge in South Bend, Indiana, agreed to take them. The dogs — muddy, malnourished and covered with ticks — arrived in October. It is now March, and Fly is one of only a handful of dogs that have not been adopted.
Anna tells us that everyone at Pet Refuge loves Fly, but he has issues with other dogs and cats. When foster families have tried to take him, he always has a problem and cannot stay.
“Fly is probably about 8 years old,” she says. “Yes, I must tell you that he also has a heart murmur and a little arthritis. I fear his chances of getting adopted are not so good, but we are all hopeful.” She smiles at all of us.
Fly also had to have a number of rotten teeth pulled when he arrived, and now his mouth is more gums than teeth. Anna pulls up his jowls and shows us the odd dip in his lip. Yes, he has a cleft palate, too.
“You mean he doesn’t have a foster family like most of the other dogs?” Alexandra asks.
“I think he has lived his whole life in a cage,” Anna says. None of my kids say anything for a while as they take in all the information.
“I think Fly is the dog that needs us the most of all,” Alexandra says.
“Is he housebroken?” I ask tentatively.
“I am not sure. As I said, he has only lived in a cage, but he´s really smart, and I am confident that he will learn really quickly,” Anna suggests.
“Sit,” she says, and Fly sits. “Not many dogs learn tricks when they are older, like Fly.”
“Shake,” Anna says, and Fly tentatively extends his paw, looking at us with a milky haze over his brown eyes. He probably has cataracts as well. It feels like what Fly really needs is hospice care.
It is amazing how quickly the pleas for Lady, Mr. Pickles and Henry fade.
“We have to take Fly home,” Natasha says. Luke and Alexandra immediately agree.
“Dad, I will take care of Fly,” Alexandra says emphatically. “I will feed him every day. You know I will. I can even help clean up the poop.”
I had hoped to not commit to a dog at all. I certainly hadn’t imagined we’d be considering an elderly, arthritic border collie, with a heart murmur, cataracts and cleft palate, who probably isn’t housebroken.
Driving home in the dark car, knowing what likely will come next, I can only think that I am incredibly proud of my children.
“If you want others to be happy, practice compassion,” the Dalai Lama writes. “If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”
We drop off the paperwork. The next day we are informed that we are approved to adopt a dog. On Saturday morning, we return to Pet Refuge.
“We’re hoping to take home Fly,” I tell the woman at the front desk. A woman in a light blue sweater with ruddy cheeks hustles over and, without a word, gives me a big hug.
“I am Bonnie, and I came in this morning just to meet you,” she says. “I was so hopeful a nice family would adopt Fly.”
“I tried to keep Fly at my house, but I have a dog and a cat, and it just didn’t work. Fly does not like cats. Around dogs, well, he really wants to be this alpha male, even though he is so skinny and frail. He tries to puff up his bony chest and gets all snarly and everything. It’s kind of funny, but it’s also a little sad, too.” She has tears in her eyes as she talks, and, slightly embarrassed, I feel them coming on too.
“We’ve never seen him wag his tail nor has he ever kissed anyone,” Bonnie adds. “But I am convinced that if he lives with a good family with no other pets, he will be a wonderful dog.”
Karen Armstrong, the expert on world religions, says that the single element that connects all the world’s major religions is compassion. Compassion is the authentic sign of any true religion. Compassion opens one’s heart and changes one’s world.
We sign the adoption papers, and Fly comes home with us.
Once inside our house, Fly smells around the family room, walks over to one corner, lifts his leg and pees.
“No, Fly,” I say sternly. He pulls his tail between his legs and cowers as if I am going to hit him.
“Outside,” I say, as instructed by someone at the Pet Refuge skilled at potty training. Clarity is the key, I am told. “Outside,” I repeat. We take him out to the back yard.
He noses around a couple of trees in the yard and, miracle of miracles, urinates outside. Although he doesn’t have a perfect track record, he learns quickly that this is what he is meant to do. Maybe you can teach an old dog a new trick after all.
A week later we take Fly to the vet. I tell her that we have been told that Fly is about 8 years old.
“Looking at his teeth and all,” she says, “let’s just say that assessment is youthfully optimistic, or maybe it’s just that Fly has had such a really hard life. You’ll probably never know for sure.”
We learn that among Fly’s other ailments he also has hookworm and an ear infection. We treat him for both, and within days he starts looking better.
We mark the days with Fly’s new achievements. He goes a whole week without an accident in the house.
“He licked me!” Luke exclaims one afternoon. “He licked me first! I was just sitting in the beanbag chair, and he came over and licked my face!”
Then one day, we see Fly wag his tail for the first time. Initially it feels like a sly little smirk, but over the next few days his tail moves ever more vigorously until the swishing seems to be the equivalent of a full-mouthed grin.
Fly starts to put on a little weight from Alexandra’s morning and evening feedings, and after a while you can’t feel his ribs sticking out quite so much. She also puts vitamin E in his food as someone at the Pet Refuge told her it would make for a shinier coat.
Even though there is now a little more bounce to Fly’s arthritic shuffle, we don’t anticipate that Fly will be with us all that long.
But Fly, just like Chico before him, is this unexpected blessing in our lives, helping draw ever larger lessons about compassion and how love can overcome fear.
Steve Reifenberg arrived in February, 2010, as the new executive director of Notre Dame’s Kellogg Institute for International Studies. He is the author of Santiago’s Children: What I Learned About Life at an Orphanage in Chile, a memoir on his work as a volunteer in Santiago in the early 1980s.