Saturday, October 8, 2011

Our Refugee Puppy

Photo by Jeff Allen

The gray has begun its slow, inevitable creep across her muzzle as she approaches nine years old, but the gray brings me comfort.  It means she has lived long past her execution date, the day I heard the awful scream that brought her into my life.  None of it was planned or expected.

  I was on a trip with my Dad, who was researching a motorcycle travel story in a Harley-Davidson side-car rig for a magazine.   We were on our way back home after spending several days driving up and down the baja peninsula, he on the motorcycle and I in a trailing van with a photographer and a writer.  Until that point, I had always been a dog lover, but a chain of events brought a little puppy we came to name Bella, into my life and left an indelible impression on me and changed the way I understand and experience all dogs.

  We first noticed her as we were sitting around the hotel Pinta hotel in San Ignacio, Mexico. The two nights we spent there were the most at any location during the week.  The hotel looked like an old mission, but with clean sheets, hot running water and a passable restaurant.  The main courtyard had a large pool, giving the place the feel of an oasis in the hot dry Baja desert. 

  As all feral dogs in Baja, she looked like a mix of several breeds.  The most obvious characteristics were that of a German Shepherd and Doberman.  Her hair was short, but had the same black and tan markings of a Shephard.  Her feet had the high toes of a Doberman with the same posture and deep chest.  Sometimes when she panted, her forehead wrinkled, making her look like a Sharpei, or a Bull Terrier.  Here ears were perhaps the most prominent feature, floppy and two sizes two big.

  She was with her mother and brother, and all lived under the front porch.  It was obvious they were still nursing, not more than 6-8 weeks old.  Bella and her brother were lively and rambunctious, the mother very reserved and a bit haggard. The tourists, including our group, took advantage of the opportunity to feed them table scraps, to steal an intimate moment to give them a little affection, and for a moment, imagine another life for these dogs. Surely this small pack belonged to someone associated with the hotel, so the fleeting moment passed and we went about our business.

  Early on our last morning there, packing to leave, we heard a horrible scream that even now rings crystal clear in my mind.  My first thought was that one of the dogs had been hit by a car.  Her mother was pacing nervously, knowing her baby was in danger.  As we approached the sound, we found that Bella had been tied in a potato sack and tossed into the back of a rusty old pickup. Her first ride was going to be her last.  My dad and I walked purposefully to the truck and the driver to try and make sense of the situation.

 It was obvious that the driver had been given instructions to toss this innocent life in the river. Quickly the conversation turned threatening, and the shouting started.

 Though I was livid at the time, I realize now it was a practical solution for controlling the overwhelming feral dog population among people with few means.  It was surprising her mother had lived long enough to have puppies. We were told the males are typically spared, though we have no way of knowing what happened to her brother.

  The result of the exchange between we and the pickup driver was that I owned a new puppy. At the time I had no idea of the implications, but I was adamant that this little girl wouldn’t die today.

  Before we packed her in the van, my dad got on his knee,  held Bella’s face to her mother’s and whispered, “Say goodbye to your baby, she’s going to America and a better life”.  Perhaps it’s foolish, or anthropomorphic, but in my mind her mother understood the exchange and, though sad, gave us her blessing.

  The first few hours of our little traveler with us in the van she sat in a in a bucket.  She smelled like fish and vomited out the effluvium of a fish carcass, a taco wrapper, chewing gum wrapper, and a mouse skull.  I cleaned her up that first night in the hotel shower and wrapped her in the comforter on the bed.  She clearly felt content, safe, and warm because she barely stirred all night.

  The next day we stopped in Maneadero and got her vaccinations taken care of, preparing for the border crossing.  Finding a veterinarian on the main street was easy, but describing what I wanted was very intimidating because I had to explain in Spanish Bella’s story and what I was doing.  Fortunately, I had learned enough Spanish to make this conversation possible, although it was slow going.

  The staff in the office was very helpful and the Veterinarian was understanding and appreciated what we were doing.  He saw us immediately and we were out within an hour vaccination papers in hand. Our stowaway was legal with her first set of papers.

 Approaching the border we tried enclosing her in the motorcycle side car luggage compartment. No way, and she let us hear her scream again.  We believed there was a real chance she could be confiscated and we might never see her again.  I was surprised I could feel such panic over a dog I had known for less than 36 hours.  The deep bond was already intact.

  After considering many complicated schemes, we decided a small hiding place under the seat and a “nothing to declare” were the best option to get her to America.

  With my dad driving, I sat in the back seat, with Bella gently pushed back behind my legs on the floor and covered with leathers and photography equipment. I was praying she wouldn’t make a sound, and not squirm out and initiate a conversation of her own with the guards.  In that moment I knew what it felt like to be a drug dealer, a smuggler, a criminal.  I was terrified and electrified at the same time.  A new life was at stake, a beating heart that needed me to be calm so she could experience life in a truly magical place called America.

  The guard approached the window and took a painfully slow look around the interior of the van.  When was Bella going to appear?  Did she just cry? I tried to give him my lazy, bored and tired Yankee look, but I knew he could read the guilt on my face and would ask me to step out of the vehicle. After several agonizing seconds he pulled his head out of the van and inquired about my dad’s travel humidor full of cigars. “Cubano,” he asked smiling.  “Nope, not from Cuba”, me Dad replied. “ Dominican Republic.”   With that, the guard waved us through.  I resisted the impulse to shout out in triumph for Bella, for us, and for getting away with it. I had a new puppy…but now what?

  Before driving back home, I had to make a stop at my dad’s house in Costa Mesa, California to pick up my truck before heading home to Sacramento.  His career and mine brought us both to California from Denver, Colorado, where I spent my childhood.  The motorcycle industry lured my Dad to Southern California, while the Air Force brought me to Sacramento.

  We stayed for a while at my Dad’s place and while there, Bella briefly met Maggie, my childhood Irish Setter who was now twelve. All of our dogs growing up were Irish Setters. I had forgotten how tall she was.  Her legs were very long, bringing her shoulders  to my waist.  Her hair was still brilliant red in most places, though her face was nearly all gray.  She moved much slower and calculated now, but I could still see the athlete’s grace and power in her body. She gently nudged me and cried when she first saw me.  Although it had been several years, she remembered me. The loyalty never wavers.

   The two dogs played a bit, but Maggie soon tired of the new puppy and quickly put her in her place.  The short meeting between the two insured “the chain” remained intact.  Maggie is gone now, but every dog since my childhood has had contact with the next, from Sara to Kelly to Maggie to Bella currently.

  While driving the eigh hours home, I tried to figure a way to introduce our new package of boundless energy to my wife, Nikki, who had no idea what was coming.  Growing up, Nikki was never able to have dogs despite the fact she desperately wanted one.  A month after we were married we picked up our Cocker Spaniel named Maty, who immediately became the focus of all our attention.

  Shortly thereafter, we got her her a companion and found our second love, Mariah, an extremely talkative Samoyed.  Life was a bit frantic at first, but we settled into our routine and Maty and Mariah quickly became strong packmates.  Although Nikki and I had talked about adding a third dog from time to time, we had never quite come to an agreement.  I hoped we could agree now.

  Desperate husbands have a way of introducing dicey surprises, and I’m no exception. I figured since it was February, Bella would become a little Valentine. And she’s the greatest Valentine’s gift I have ever given.

  After hastily parking the car in the garage, I walked into the house and handed my wife a card.  It briefly explained Bella’s situation and told her to go to the truck to see the “package” (she later told me she thought I had adopted a Mexican child).   Nikki met Bella with the same excitement and trepidation I experienced.  Here was a cute, needy new puppy that had to be integrated into our established two dog household, and my wife’s heart melted.

  With a few scheduling adjustments, the transition into the house was fairly easy at first, though it certainly had its rough spots later on as Bella attempted to become the alpha female. Her survival insinct was very strong. This never sat will with Maty who was definitely the toughest of the three.

  Over several years, they had some nasty confrontations and Bella still has the scars around her face to prove it.  But now that Maty is gone, the household has settled into a certain calm, Mariah and Bella each understanding their role and social status. Age has a way of doing that, whether human or canine.  When I look at Bella and my wife now, I can see a deeper appreciation between them, a genuine closeness that has developed over time.

  Reflecting on the experience of adopting Bella, I’m convinced her behavior is a lifelong thank you to humans.  She is extremely sweet, loving, and gentle.  There is a bond between her and I that I’ve not experienced with other dogs. She tells me daily with her expressive eyes that she knows how lucky she is.   When I look at Bella, I can’t help but think of the thousands of dogs that face the same fate she did so many years ago.  The number of dogs is so overwhelming, but there are a few organizations dedicated to helping dogs like her, and it gives me hope.  If you are looking for a new family dog, take some time to research and consider one of these orphans. You won’t regret your choice. Every day you will know you made a difference. 

  I often think of Bella’s Family and wonder whether they made it or not.  Usually the thoughts come when I’m letting Bella run in a nearby field.  Her euphoria brings me an inner peace, because I know exactly what her fate was nine years ago.  Sometimes when she’s running she’ll stop abruptly and look back at me, smiling.  When that happens, I let the moment burn into my mind.  I look around, take it in, and remind myself that we gave her more time, the most precious gift of all. 

  Bella won’t be with us forever and I’m okay with that. Because we both know, she and I, that far away in a dusty Mexican town, among the hundreds of stray dogs, that I took a chance and saved her life.  It reaffirms that her life meant something, and it reminds me that I did something noble when it was inconvenient.

  When she’s asleep, or when she’s at play, I can look at her and know that it mattered to that one. That’s enough.

  It mattered to that one.

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