The Dog Rescuer04 Oct 2010, Posted by in
It’s May 2007 and I’m driving from Los Angeles, California to Chimayo, New Mexico in a beat-up truck packed floor-to-ceiling with the detritus of my life and too many dogs. The detritus isn’t worth mentioning, the dogs are another story. Eighteen months ago, I fell in love with a woman named Joy. Eight weeks ago, I moved in with her. Four weeks later, I was moving out again. We both were. Our landlord had dropped the hammer and our house was being sold. The problem wasn’t that we couldn’t rent another one, the problem was the dogs.
Joy is a dog rescuer. Some six to eight million animals enter the shelter system each year in the US. More than half end up euthanized. Rescuers spend their days trying to even those odds, plucking dogs off death row in the hope of eventually finding them homes. Most of these animals arrive in pretty poor shape. Rehab takes months of hard work. It often costs thousands in medical care – much of which comes out of the rescuer’s pocket. Occasionally, after all that, some of these dogs end up too sick or too difficult to be adoptable. Dog rescuers call these “lifers” – and Joy had seven of them. When you added in Ahab, my longtime companion, we totaled eight – a problem as Los Angeles’s by-laws specify that three dogs are the legal limit. It had taken Joy almost two years to find a landlord willing to bend those rules in the first place; trying to find another one in the three weeks we had to vacate the premises was never going to happen.
A decision was made. Was it a big decision? It didn’t feel like one at the time. Joy had long dreamed of leaving the city and moving to the country and opening a dog sanctuary. She wanted to help the worst of the worst – those dogs that didn’t stand a chance otherwise. I didn’t share her ambition, but I was curious – or curious enough – and that’s where it started.
Some of my curiosity was about animals. Almost without realizing it, I’d spent much of my journalistic career trying to write stories that would allow me to hang out with animals and hang out with people who hung out with animals. It didn’t matter if it was herpetologists studying alligators in the Florida Everglades or primatologists studying lemurs in the jungles of Madagascar, I’ve gone considerably out of my way for zoological experiences. But lately I’ve been coming home dissatisfied. I was tired of playing tourist. I’d begun craving intimacy – longing for deep, meaningful relationships with animals. Why? No clue. What would those relationships look like? Ditto. But dog rescue seemed one way to find out.
More of my curiosity was about altruism. I’ve always been drawn to a certain type of philosophical question: less “What is the meaning of life?”; more “Is there a better way to live?” Most of the world’s religions claim altruism the better way to live. I had my doubts. I thought life’s point was more likely artistic: living with passion, purpose and, you know, other words that begin with the letter P. But I also had doubts about my doubts. I’m a writer, so wasn’t my argument a little self-serving? Plus, Joy’s also a writer – with two books to her name and more success than had ever come my way. She had lived the art and preferred the altruism and until I’d done the same, in her opinion, my opinion was suspect.
Two days after our landlord broke the bad news, I realized there was a way to settle this debate. I could combine my curiosity with Joy’s passion and take them both out for a test drive. We could open a dog sanctuary as an “experiment”. All it would take was all the money we had in the world and years of our lives. Seriously, how hard could it be?
Long story short: harder than expected.
What I hadn’t counted on was – well, I hadn’t counted on a lot of things – but we’ll start with empathy. Journalism is a game of detachment. A writer needs enough compassion to get the story, not too much to obscure its telling. After two decades of this work, I’ve gotten rather good at this game. Perhaps too good. Either way, when I was driving my truck down the highway to New Mexico, I thought my fortress impregnable.
It took a little while to realize the scale of my error. In the beginning, I was just trying to keep up. Part of this was how quickly we ramped up our operation. By the end of May we had 10 dogs. By June, it was 16. Sixteen was dizzying. Meal time required 45 minutes of canine geometry; nap time required calculus. By early July, “How many dogs do you have this week?” became funny to my friends. By early August, it was 21 and no longer funny.
There was a growing disconnect between our lives and those of almost everyone we knew. Our day-to-day experiences no longer translated. Their concerns were of the “two kids, two cars and God-damn I want that promotion” variety. Ours were: “Holy crap, Otis and Hugo got mauled by a bobcat.”
I was raised in a household with a fondness for debate and a normal speaking volume somewhere between Metallica and Motorhead. But Joy had made good on her promise to help the worst of the worst: Damien was a hunchback with a heart problem. Chow was blind, deaf and obese. Foghat was blind, deaf and emaciated. Ariel was lame. Bucket was a burns victim. Gidget had mange and epilepsy. Otis had epilepsy. Salty had heartworm. Buddy has only one nostril and a tooth growing out of that nostril. This list goes on. Beyond the physical maladies, most of our dogs also had abusive pasts. Loud noises terrified them. Shouting petrified them. One day, I was on the phone with a friend and got a little too excited about nothing in particular. My shouting sent Gidget into a seizure.
So, at 40 years of age, I learned to speak differently, sleep differently (with 20 dogs in the bed), eat differently (meal-sharing with 20 dogs), walk differently (doing the “don’t trample a dog shuffle”) and – the hardest part – not resent the dogs while I did so. This was tricky enough, but our healing methodology – which was really Joy’s healing methodology, which took her 20 years to develop and consistently produced spectacular results – didn’t make it any easier.
Dogs evolved to live in large packs, and to live with other humans. Until the advent of agriculture, humans did not view themselves as a superior species. We were equal to animals and treated them accordingly. This was the “emotional environment” that fostered our co-evolution with canids and it’s the same environment we tried to cultivate. The reasoning is simple: create an environment that’s similar to the one that dogs evolved in and the dogs will feel safer. More safety means less stress and less stress means faster healing and better long-term health outcomes.
To live as equals with dogs requires treating them, for lack of a better phrase, like human beings. To say that this idea runs contrary to the advice of experts would be understating the case. In truth, it contradicts everyone from Cesar Millan, TV’s Dog Whisperer, to whoever wrote the part about man having dominion over the beasts in the book of Genesis. But if you work with ailing and abused animals, at least in my experience, it’s the bedrock of what the job requires.
Take Salty – a Chihuahua with a heart condition and a mortal fear of thunder. Summer in New Mexico is known as monsoon season for the fierce storms that roll in almost every afternoon. Because of how far we lived from just about anything, if we wanted to go out to dinner, a minimum two-hour window was required. But if a thunderstorm rolled in halfway through our meal and Salty did what he normally did – dive under the couch and begin to tremble – then with his severely weakened heart, wildly accelerated pulse and neither of us nearby to supply comfort, there was a pretty good chance that he’d be dead by the time we got back. Since Salty only let the two of us near him, getting a dog-sitter wasn’t even an option. Our choices were risk his life or stop going to dinner, which may not sound like much of a sacrifice, but try doing it for years at a stretch. Our goal was always the happiness of the dog. If I thought Salty less worthy of the same type of compassion and respect that I would extend another human being, then Salty’s happiness would have been sacrificed for a snack and what kind of altruist would I be then?
And Salty was easy in comparison to some of the other issues that started to creep up. By the start of our first winter, no one was hiring writers. The economy was falling apart; our bank account wasn’t far behind. If I felt superior to the dogs – if I valued my own happiness more than theirs – then how to justify the £300 I was spending each month on dog food? Or, more specifically, how not to freak out and start acting like a 10-year-old in the checkout line at Petco the first time I realized I was about to spend hundreds of pounds on dog food?
There were a lot of days when I couldn’t justify it. I felt superior, angry, guilty, resentful, terrified, guilty again, blamed Joy, blamed the gods, stomped my feet, felt like an imposter, felt far more eccentric than I ever intended. Look, Ma, I’ve become unhinged. Oh yeah, my vaunted detachment was holding up exactly as advertised.
Suddenly, however, I found myself unable to not worry about the dogs. In line at the grocery store, out riding my bike, in bed at night — scenarios would form in my mind. Flash floods, pandemics, nuclear wars. Worse, I knew exactly what was happening to me. I had seen this before, in other rescuers and, well, my own mother. I was turning into an overprotective mess. This was Jewish Mother Syndrome gone doggie-style.
Interestingly, once I started really caring for the dogs, the dogs began returning the favor. There was a day I went out for a bike ride and came back with a broken finger, a few bruised ribs and an absolute terror the dogs would jump on me when I got home. But they knew, and they knew immediately. No one jumped, no one barked. Instead, the entire pack calmly escorted me to the couch, where they took careful turns licking the side of my face and resting their heads on my shoulder. Turns out that the other side of detachment was the very intimacy I had come looking to find.
Once I realized this – realized that detachment was not only impossible, but also detrimental – I started making progress. I became a better dog rescuer, more patient, more empathetic. Empathy was the real doorway into wonder. Once I started feeling for the dogs, I also started really noticing their behavior. It was something to see.
During our second year, behaviors began to show up in our pack that do not show up in the scientific literature. I won’t go into much detail – you probably won’t believe me anyhow – but I will say that very few researchers have studied large packs of dogs living together with humans (despite the fact that this was how our species co-evolved) and proof of that is on frequent display in my living room.
In the end, though, it’s the dog’s recoveries that have become my great joy. When dogs arrive in our care their state of affairs is often severe shell-shock. It usually takes them a few weeks to sleep it off, a few more to integrate into the pack. Afterwards, when they start feeling vaguely normal again, there’s a point when the new arrival realizes this is not actually a hallucination: they really do get to romp through our fields and sleep on the couch and these humans keep on feeding them. Their eyes get big and they run wild laps around the yard and dance and bark and sing and literally fall in love with life again or – as is the case with many of the dogs in our care – they fall in love with life for the very first time. Let’s just say this too, it’s something to see.
These days, when I think back to the guy I was driving down that highway – honestly, it’s hard to remember much about him. I know he should buckle his seat belt and tug down his hat because he’s in for a bumpy ride. I know that in the next two years, everything he believes he knows about love, compassion, devotion, responsibility and everything else is headed out the window. I also can’t really explain what will replace them. Reality requires a baseline, a grounds for comparison. But I don’t live in that part of the world anymore. I’m no longer a tourist. My passport says Doglandia, where there really are no grounds for comparison.