Saturday, February 21, 2009

Dr. Stronglove: or, how I learned to stop worrying and love my dogs

submitted by Cathrine

Pets were forbidden where I grew up, so almost the first thing I did when I moved out was get a cat. Cats are small, self-cleaning, and they purr. Besides, I was afraid of dogs: large, noisy, sloppy and demanding. I had a scar on my nose where an old border collie had nipped me when I tried to be friends.

Thus it was, and thus might it ever have been, but my True Love moved us to Srbija. Before I got over my jet lag, someone grilled me about my interests: I mentioned volunteer work with cats at the Humane Society.

Somehow, I found myself walking very large dogs from a filthy, overcrowded azil. It was, I learned to my horror, one of the better shelters trying to save what it could from the diseased and threatened street animal population that exploded during the dissolution of Yugoslavia.

How could one look at those mangy and mangled animals and do nothing? Soon the Official Residence had 30+ dogs outside, 20+ cats inside, an alliance with the most conscientious adoption group, a running tab at the vets, a weekly obedience trainer, and two kennel staff. In three years, we found homes for 600 animals.

But not all animals are adoptable. When it was time to go, we had 12 dogs without homes. The Animal Rescue Center took the adoptables.

That left two. Magic was born behind a gas station. She had seen her mother and siblings die horribly before our vet rescued her. From the start, she was neurotically aggressive toward men. As she grew, it became clear this aggression extended to males of all species: at one year, Magic was permanent Alpha in our ever-shifting pack.

Magic at 4 months

Jimmy was in a batch rescue from the killing pound. He was two months old, so terrified of the world that he hid day and night and would not come out to eat or poop. He had multiple skin infections, and mange.

Jimmy at 6 months

Magic had already decided she was my dog. We had miraculously found her a home with a woman outside Belgrade, but she ran away, and was hit by a car as she tried to cross the Pancevo Bridge to come 'home'. When we got her back (microchipping is IMPORTANT!) she stuck so close to me that everyone got the message. To make it very clear, she began attacking anyone that came near me!

My heart sank: I am a cat person! What will I do with an aggressive dog who thinks cats are breakfast?

Jimmy never fully recovered from his terror, or his mange. He lost his tail to a necrotic infection that moved so fast we had to amputate to save his life. He cringed before strangers and screamed if they touched him. There was no way he could be placed in a home or shelter: he would die of fear or disease within a month.

But Jimmy adored Magic. And Magic, for reasons never fully understood, defended him, even from me if need be. So I had a dog, and my dog had a dog. It was either euthanasia, or....

I left Srbija with two cats in the cabin, two dogs in luggage, and a troubled conscience. I did not like my dogs. I had a moral obligation to them because I had taught them to trust and rely on me. But they hated my beloved cats, distrusted my True Love, needed constant attention and care, and were dangerous to strangers.

Things did not greatly improve in our next home, a rock bottom poor country more famous for elite corruption than for the entrepreneurial spirit of its hardworking masses. In short order we discovered that Jimmy could not eat the food or drink the water, Magic did not like the security guards, who were terrified of her, both found the constant noise unnerving and barked at every strange, new or odd thing, that there were only two vets in the whole country who knew anything about dogs or cats, and neither had a reliable supply of even the most basic medications.

Magic bit a guard. Jimmy had so many intestinal infections I began to worry about antibiotic resistance. The vet threatened to move in with us, a threat I knew was idle only because even he was terrified of Magic.

But my moral responsibilities learned in one day not to use the house for their business. They loved being inside: Magic would bounce from sofa to sofa in joy, and Jimmy would do a happy dance around the room. Okay, they hate the houseman and the cats have to be locked away while they are indoors, but there was something infectious in their delight at being housedogs!

And how many neurotic adult dogs do you know who are smart enough to understand in one lesson that elimination is outside and being inside is a privilege?

We managed to get an anti-bark collar sent from home, and a pair of soft muzzles. Magic got the collar. Magic figured out the collar in three days. On the fourth day, she went out, tilted her head back as far as it would go and barked until the citrine reservoir was empty. Jimmy found that if he rubbed the muzzle hard against the ground, eventually it would either wear out or come off.

But Magic also licked my face every time she came through the door. I knew from reading what that meant. At night, when I told them it was time for mesto -- Srbijan for 'place', the command for crating -- they both immediately obeyed. When the vet told us to try bones for Jimmy's terrible teeth, we found the one thing that he would defend even against Magic. He would, of course, back down in the end, but he growled and grumbled all the way. Magic would do whatever it took to sneak the food from Jimmy's bowl, even though it was exactly the same as the food in her bowl.

My two moral obligations began to emerge as personalities, no, as persons. And they were both pretty smart, rather sweet persons. I found that, despite their intense special needs, I was beginning to like them. We decided to stop crating at night: instead, they would get privilege time on the bed with us and then go to a room of their own (away from the increasingly traumatized cats) for the night. We got some toys sent from Canada.

And we found a couple with an African dog. They had a driver who loved dogs and knew a place where there was a lake and wild land in which they could run free. Three afternoons a week, he would ferry me and my obligations to the lake: we would remove muzzles and leashes and spend 60-90 minutes just trying to keep up with the warp speed dust cloud that told us where the dogs were.

Magic at full tilt

Something in their unalloyed joy at the lake reached me. I began to care how they felt, not just how they behaved. I began to want to see them happy. Even if it was not entirely convenient to me to make it so.

Jimmy in the lake

We got old army blankets for the sofas. I started spending more time with them, inside. I studied the local language, they bounced from sofa to sofa and ran around the main floor until they dropped in a panting heap. One night, while I was studying, they decided to flake on the sofa with me, one on each side. A couple of nights later, Jimmy put his head, ever so carefully, on my lap.

Magic bit his nose. Then she took his place. I just sat, suddenly aware of the meaning of this tiny domestic scene, not to me, but to them.

These are my dogs. They live together, they love the driver, but they worship me. I am the one thing that really, really matters to them. It goes way, way beyond moral responsibility. How could I ever have been so petty as to think that my convenience, my little worries, my opinions meant even a fraction of what their love means? Without thinking, I sat in awe, one hand on each head, scratching behind an ear.

Simultaneously, both dogs heaved deep sighs of contentment and promptly fell asleep, pinning me where I sat.

There we stayed until my husband came home, provoking instant defensive clamour probably heard on two continents. Magic tried to nip his heels, and I had to whack her butt and scream to restore a modicum of order.

But something had changed, and we all know it. Even my husband could tell, the same night. "You aren't a dog person? You sure love those two!"

Yes! Yes, I AM a dog person! And a cat person! I adore my three fruitbats -- yes, there are three, because we accidentally drove past a so-called pet market one day -- but I love my Magic and my Jimmers to distraction. These are my dogs, and woe betide anyone who dares so much as look at them cross-eyed!

Bruno Bettleheim once observed of parenting that "love is not enough" to raise healthy, emotionally stable children. It's not enough for dogs or cats, either. But it is the sine qua non, that without which there is no possibility of physical or emotional well-being.

Either for them, or for me. We have just under three years to get these devoted, damaged creatures ready to live in our much stricter and more regulated capital city. They have to learn to wear muzzles in public and not to bark at everything that approaches or makes a noise going by. They have to learn to live with cats, even if kept strictly apart by doors yet to be installed. They have to learn that other dogs have the same right to be in a dog park as they do, at least, if they ever want to run free in a dog park.

But they will, no matter what it takes, no matter how much time and/or money I have to spend to make sure it happens. Because for me there is no possible life that does not include these dogs.

My dogs.


onequarterdal said...

This is such a beautiful and inspring story.

borderjack said...

This post is an inspiration, especially given where it takes place. My own background is eastern european, and no generation in my family had pets. I wasn't allowed to have them as a kid, either. As soon as I moved on my own, I adopted my first cat from the toronto humane society. He's still with me, followed by three more cats and two dogs, all from shelters. My mother is now so in love with them it warms my heart, because she's their "sitter" when I'm at work. But there are still many in my family who persist with old-world attitudes, who think animals don't belong inside and who won't even pet my dogs, which is heart breaking. God bless you for saving those dogs (and your whole crew) in the face of what I can only imagine were some serious challenges.

Barb said...

What a wonderful story!! And as I'm sitting here with tears in my eyes I'm ashamed that -not 10 minutes ago - I was feeling a bit put out because the two foster dogs we've got now are causing some inconveniences. Not even big inconveniences, they're both good dogs and don't have any major issues - but it's 2 more big dogs in our small house and it feels crowded.
The pity party stops NOW - you've just brought things back into perspective, and thank you for that!