Family, Home

Good Stay

It’s our first day back at work and the neighbors are complaining. Out on the balcony, the lady from next door smokes as she watches the snow. She greets me with a friendly “Good morning.”

Then, “Oh, by the way…”

First comes an excruciating description of the 8-hour howling marathon. Then her recommendations: bitter apple, a towel with my scent, a plastic crate, a muzzle. She and her husband work from home. They listened to it all day, she tells me. ALL DAY. “Hours,” she says. “We could hear her all the way outside. She didn’t stop.”

I apologize and thank her. Then I stand there listening. I need to stay on her good side, if that’s even possible. Nodding, agreeing, I’m not sure what to say. Finally, I tell her I just don’t want to give Noodle up, which is the same as giving up on her.

Most of the neighborhood has heard about Noodle’s history. What we know is bad enough. What we don’t know is probably worse. From initial snatching by the smugglers through her arrival in our home, she’s endured at least six separations. Those are just the ones we can count. Add a measure of abuse followed by an overseas migration, and anxiety is a given. Aggression would not be a surprise. Even so, after all she’s been through, this tormented creature has managed to hold on to all the traits that most endear dogs to humans: groveling, nuzzling, cuddling, sitting. She gazes through glimmering eyes when we read on the couch and quivers with joy when we return from the store. She has not so much as nipped at Bug despite the horseplay he requires of her (“Mom, look! Conga, conga, conGA!”)

The codes run deep. They work. Bug is madly in love with her.

Also, she has crippling anxiety.

My finances are limited, and what little I have comes from a job at an office. I had foolishly assumed that the two-week winter break would be a sufficient adjustment period. Unlike my work-from-home neighbors, I can’t stay all day to train this pooch through months of desensitization. I live in a condominium instead of the country cottage, so ignoring the problem isn’t an option.

As ever, life is generous with its opportunities for growth. This is yet another reminder that I’m not all alone in a world on the brink of crashing down around me. The neighbors are, thanks to all things holy, dog lovers. Also, my superhero mother has offered to stop in for a mid-day walk. Being a member of Noodle’s pack, her presence is a comfort and a godsend for one hour of the day.

Even so, it doesn’t erase the four hours of howling on either side of her visit. I’m no fool. Neighbor-dog-love has its limits. Somehow I’ve got to hold down my job, take care of my son, and placate the neighbors all while keeping this dog from impaling herself on the busted bars of her crate.

I’m trying hard to La-La-La plug my ears against the little voice telling me this one of the the top five worst decisions of my life.

Is there a convincing argument for putting so much at risk and for this neurotic, sweet girl?

Why does anyone make these sacrifices? No one gives out awards for adopting abused dogs. Accolades are similarly nonexistent for all other do-gooders, from library volunteers to vegetarians. Maybe some folks trust the promise of delayed rewards. While the Flying Spaghetti Monster may be reserving a place at the head table for me, faith is generally missing from my list of motivators. Beyond that, altruism is irrational at best. It rarely leads to financial payoff, professional success, fame, leisure, an advanced degree or a smaller dress size. In fact, of the many ways to squander personal resources for some greater good, dog ownership is a guaranteed drain. The costs of food and care are just the beginning. Sleep takes a hit. Those extra hours at work needed to get ahead? Lost, along with evening classes and weekend conferences. And forget about tagging along for happy hour.

So why do it?

Because ___________________. Pick your platitude. Because you care. Because if you don’t, who will? Maybe because maybe you want to add to the sum total of kindness in the world, or because you hope someone would do the same for you.

Because duty. Because love.

Maybe all altruism is selfish. Being good feels good. A little hit of dopamine accompanies an action in sync with a value, especially when it leads to some small improvement. Or a big, sloppy kiss.

In my rather cold calculation, sticking by this dog is service to my son. After all, his status as an only child confers benefits and costs that a pet can complement and correct, respectively. My boy is king of the castle here. He chooses a great many of our activities and habits. His preferences certainly aren’t equal to mine, otherwise there would be no school, broccoli, or bedtime. That said, his vote counts more than it might if a sibling or second parent weighed in. This superior position may seem grand, but it costs him in social skills. My son has a long way to go to master compassion and consideration. A dog — especially one with a troubled history — is a good teacher. No quantity of playdates comes close to the humbling experience of sharing a home with a fellow being. Having a dog means more than sharing the back seat when running errands. It means waking every day to the awareness of someone else who matters.

Bug’s elevated rank also leaves him as his own and only best companion. At eight years old, he still tells me he’d rather live at his other house because there, he shares a room with his dad. He doesn’t like sleeping alone. On those mellow weekends when we spend more time at home than running all over creation, Bug sometimes wanders aimlessly, at a loss for how to entertain himself. He’s tired of Mama but he wants to engage with someone or something. This kind of quiet, TV-free existence is good for him, true. It’s on-the-job training in resourcefulness, creativity, and the innovative potential of boredom.

Also, it makes loneliness routine.

Not so great a norm to set for a kid who’s been handed two genetic suitcases packed with depression.

Noodle is Bug’s guide. She is also his buddy. Bug adores and curses her in much the same way a sibling might. He plays with her, gets irritated with her, wants her close, wants her gone. He always comes back to her though, learning all the while to temper his reactions and be a good companion. He’ll screw up (as will I), but she’ll probably survive. Noodle nudges Bug — and me, if I’m honest — up and out of ourselves. More than just waking us to the world, she engages us in a lasting and full relationship with a fellow earthling.

I’m sure the crazy dog people will skin me alive when they find out my motives for adopting are anything other than pure love. Alas, I’ve never been known for purity except in contrast, so Noodle and all her champions will just have to put up with my labyrinthine rationale.

Anyway, she’s home now. She can make do with this imperfect family.

Tomorrow, I’ll move the crate to my bedroom and shut all the doors, hoping the extra layer of drywall will muffle her cries. I’ll give the bitter apple and towel a try. I’m not sold on the muzzle. If we’re lucky, the neighbors will indulge us as Noodle’s little brain works out that there’s nothing on the other side of that door she needs.

This is it. She’s not going anywhere.

Neither are we.

 

Family, Home

Make Room

pooch curled
One question concerns me: Was she was someone’s family pet before the smugglers took her? It’s likely. She climbs up onto any willing lap and folds her flanks into the knobs of her knees, tucking her nose under her tail. She burrows like a deer into this nest of her own bristle and bone. She stays, riding the chop even when the lap belongs to a shouting Pictionary player who is trying in vain to sketch a triceratops before the timer runs out.

My office is powered down for two full weeks. Bug is with his dad’s clan up north for half of winter break. This would have been a perfect time to go get a haircut. Assemble those shelves in the utility closet. Catch up with faraway friends. Sleep.

Our lives have no room for this. I can barely keep a philodendron alive. Nevertheless, Bug reminds me about the promise I made a few months after our pooch passed away last spring. “We can start thinking about it in September.”

In September, he asked, “When can we start talking about it?” I told him Thanksgiving.

At Thanksgiving, he asked, “When can we start looking?”

I don’t head into Petco’s December adoption event with the intention of adopting. I’m just checking things out, just starting a process that might take months. But there she is. She lays with her paws crossed and ears up, keeping a polite distance from the shrieking tumble of puppy-ness.

They tell me she is from Thailand. A rescue. Undoubtedly a dog of rough beginnings. Undoubtedly full of needs and fears and miswired circuitry that might make her a heap of trouble. The little boy from her foster family says she follows him around and curls up with him every time he sits down. He doesn’t seem to grasp what a nightmare she might be. He chatters on about what a cuddler she is, and how gentle, and what a good friend.

In the days after I submit an application (just an application, not a commitment), I learn more than I want to know. She slips free from her foster family and disappears into the sprawling suburbs. She is prone to flight. This is not surprising, given how she’s learned to survive. The illegal meat trade is a brutal teacher. In Thailand, smugglers lure both pets and strays off the streets and stuff them into crowded crates. They tear off to slaughterhouses in Vietnam or China to sell their wares.

Animal protection laws are lax at best. When merchants are caught, they may not even pay a fine. Rescued dogs land in safe but spartan shelters with hundreds if not thousands of other disoriented creatures. Inadequate funding and sparse veterinary care leave many of these dogs with grim futures. In Thailand, pet adoption is exceedingly rare.

A few organizations from around the world fly volunteers out to select one or two to ferry across the ocean to new homes.

She’s come this far only to make a break for it the first chance she gets. She has no idea that anything good — anyone good — is on the other side of trust. During the uncertain week when she is missing, they tell me she unlikely to make it back.

What they don’t know is that this little girl was born under a lucky star. Maybe a whole constellation.

With the help of professional trackers and an army of volunteers, someone finds her hiding in brambles on a side street in Chantilly. The vice president of the rescue organization decides to hold onto her for the time being. They call me up to tell me we can bring her home.

Home?

There’s no way we’re ready for this.

Of course, neither was that family in Thailand. More to the point, neither was she.

It isn’t possible to send them word. She has no records except the ones written in an unfamiliar alphabet and cobbled together before she boarded her flight. Even if we were certain she’d had a home, if we could find a town, a street, someone to ask, who would translate our inquiries?

Would a photo would be enough?

It is for Bug.

He loves her at one glance. “Look at those cute little eyes!” He fawns over her tiny snapshot on the smartphone.

Thaya

Two days later, they meet in person. She whips her tail so hard she can barely keep her back legs on the floor. She tries to scale him to get to him face to lick lick lick. He squeals and laughs, petting her all the way down her wiry back.

Despite it all, she trusts him. Trusts us.

Foolish girl.

At home, she finds a lap. It’s far too small for her. No matter. She burrows in.

An earthquake, a tidal wave, a belly laugh. She isn’t going anywhere.

She claims her place.

We have no room for her.

Anyway, she stays.

  • Soi Dog is a Thai animal welfare organization that aims to end pet cruelty and homelessness in Thailand.
  • This CNN photo blog takes a hard look at the dog meat trade.