The primary rule is that we will outlive them and chances are we will have to decide when their misery outweighs their happiness. My friend Martha once told me, “To them, we are God.”
I take her meaning. There is little more Godlike than the power of life and death. Every now and then a story comes into one of the dog rescue outfits we try to help that reminds me if humans are God to dogs, humans can also be Satan. There is neglect and, yes, it is awful. But neglect often runs with poverty or dementia — in the neglectful human, that is.
There is usually nothing Satanic about neglect, but purposeful abuse is different. When I was an active judge, I carried — by choice because somebody had to do it — a substantial family violence docket. It was handling that docket that taught me cruelty to humans is often joined at the hip with cruelty to animals.
In retirement, I decided to resign my judgeship and put my law license on inactive status when the Satanic Mr. Cancer came calling. It was not possible to put my memories on inactive status because some cases were not inked into my brain — they were branded.
There was the “father” who decided to discipline his young daughter by flinging her kitten off a third-floor stair into a concrete parking lot, proving that cats do not always land on their feet and even judges sometimes have the urge to administer barbaric punishments. I could not escape the thought of doing to him what he did to the kitten, never mind what it did to his daughter to watch it and be told it was her fault. Of course, the rational part of my thinking that remains tells me it was unlikely he was born that cruel, and he was merely passing on the intergenerational cruelty that somebody had passed to him.
There was the “husband” who decided to “discipline” his wife by heaving her fish tank to the floor hard enough to break it and restraining her so she had to watch all those colorful creatures flop around until they died. Yes, I know fish are not warm and fuzzy like kittens. I also must admit I eat fish. Still, if that woman had been my daughter I would have advised her to run — not walk — to divorce court. Wanton cruelty to animals tends to bleed over to humans, and the bleed is often literal.
The last dog rescue duty I pulled in Bloomington, after I had retired from Indiana University but needed to stay until the end of December because I promised, began with a phone call in the middle of one of those Indiana snowstorms that are so beautiful to watch through the living room window but quickly lose their allure when you have to go outside.
The call was for my wife, who had done a lot of fostering and transporting of rescued bichon frises for Small Paws Rescue of Tulsa. I am a country boy who grew up valorizing “gun dogs,” and I took one look at my first bichon frise and put it in the mental category “foo foo dogs,” decorative but not useful.
I was wrong. I’ve interacted with probably more than a hundred bichons now, and I am here to tell you those dogs should appear in the dictionary to illustrate the phrase “sweet temperament.” They have the stuff to make excellent therapy dogs. I’ve been prone to clinical depression, and I’ve gotten more relief from bichons than from drugs.
I answered my wife’s call from Small Paws because Tracy had gone ahead to Texas to decorate our retirement digs. I’m guessing she had not gotten around to informing Small Paws because they don’t get that many calls in the boonies of southern Indiana. This was Tracy’s gig and I did not have to accept the assignment but I could tell time was of the essence and the vehicle left for me was a Nissan X-Terra, with four-wheel drive. The snow was falling on top of yesterday’s snow, which was on top of a layer of ice caused by a hard freeze after a soft rain.
Small Paws needed transportation quickly in spite of the road conditions before a very shaky deal fell apart. The bichon who needed a lift was a young dog named Jimmy, who had been bashed in the head with a hammer. The vet opined that the dent in his skull would be permanent but he was likely to survive after some treatment to keep the swelling down.
The dog belonged to a woman whose “husband” set out to “discipline” her by taking a hammer to her dog, but the dog was still living when the police arrived because he was too drunk for a very effective pursuit. The time problem was that the woman was short of bail money and so was trying to get the perpetrator out of jail by dismissing the charges. She told the prosecutor she would testify that she got her injuries running into a door jamb and she did not see how Jimmy got the dent in his little white skull.
At that point, the prosecutor was dead in the water, because it was office policy not to coerce family violence victims to testify. The prosecutor was out of law but not out of bullshit. Late on a Thursday afternoon, the prosecutor knew that the boss had no plans to fight the ice to get to work on Friday. There were no trials scheduled, anyway.
So the young prosecutor dug into his bucket of bullshit and told the victim that he would refuse to dismiss the two cases — hers and the dog’s — unless she signed custody of the dog over to a rescue group. The only person who could countermand that order would not be available until Monday, which would leave her darling husband in durance vile over the weekend and maybe longer if the snowstorm did not abate.
She signed Jimmy over to the local shelter and the shelter immediately called Small Paws. I am not informed if she was also influenced by the size of the vet bill that was owing.
I’ve practiced law long enough to know that foundations of bullshit are not very sturdy, so I told Small Paws I would do the transport. They called back and gave me a time and a place to hand off the dog — a shopping mall parking lot in Indianapolis.
Saturday morning, the snow was still coming down and visibility was not all that great, but I fired up the truck and headed out for a town even smaller than Bloomington located off the main highway in the next county. My elderly mother invited herself along, and I wondered if she had second thoughts when we took the exit and discovered that the county snow plow had not gotten around to the road we needed.
That’s what four-wheel drive is for, so I shifted it into four and tooled off across snow deep enough to half bury my tires and lacking in tracks from other folks who probably had better sense. When I got to the address I had for the shelter, the bad news was that it was substantially lower than the road and the driveway had a pretty steep angle. The good news was I could see tire tracks coming from the other direction and going down the driveway and a couple of vehicles in the parking lot. They looked to both be Jeeps, a Wrangler and a Cherokee.
I turned into the shelter driveway and did some panicky steering as I slid to the bottom. When I was able to stop and look around, I saw a car that had not made the slide without falling off. It was an ordinary Toyota sedan and it looked pretty hopelessly stuck. There were foot tracks from the car to the door of the shelter.
Leaving my mother in the X-Terra with the heater running, I went inside and stated my business. The woman at the front counter opened a door behind her and shouted, “Hey guys! Jimmy’s ride is here.”
It was then I noticed a very young bichon curled up in a new dog bed near the front counter. We did the paperwork and, when I was ready to leave, they wanted to give me the new dog bed for Jimmy. I had to explain that, in my experience, as soon as a vet cleared him to fly, Jimmy would be off on one of the airlines that offered hefty discounts to Small Paws. He would be in a crate into which the dog bed would not fit.
The woman behind the counter bent down and came up with a cushion, brand new with the tag still on it, and persuaded me to take Jimmy on the cushion and covered by a soft blanket. Then, in a display, I have not seen before or since all the shelter workers lined up at the door to say goodby to Jimmy. They could not pat his wounded head, but they petted him everywhere else. In addition to the cushion and the blanket, I got out of there with a bag of dog treats and several toys.
I put Jimmy on my mother’s lap and shifted into the lowest gear I had. It took two runs at it, but the four-wheel-drive got me up that driveway. When I was in cruising gear and following my incoming tracks before the snow-filled them up, I looked over at the dog. Jimmy was riding quietly, licking my mother’s hand.
When I got back to the main highway, the state snowplows had been working and I was able to cruise all the way to Indianapolis at the double-nickel. We got to the rendezvous point a little early and I had time to get better acquainted with Jimmy. This dog had been damn near killed by a human he knew, and he was lying there wagging his tail and licking the hands of humans he did not know. The Small Paws volunteer who showed up to disappear him into the doggie underground railroad had been told he was injured, but she was surprised that the injured dog came with a bunch of dog paraphernalia.
The last tail in this series of wags is red, and it belongs to Max the Magnificent.
When my wife Tracy determined to get one more Irish Setter in memory of the legendary O’Toole (who I never met but heard about many times over our 24 years of marriage), I did not think it was a good idea. We are getting too old for big dogs or energetic dogs, and the one Irish Setter I came to know well from dog-sitting her, name of Brandy, was both. Also, by the rules of our subdivision, we were all dogged up at two, Tippy (rescued from a puppy mill by Small Paws) and Sunny (rescued from a shelter by us as a companion for Tippy when we lost our rescued poodle). Tracy assured me that the head of the Sun City Pet Club told her fosters did not count and we could take an elder dog as a “permanent foster.” She insisted we could deal with my worry about keeping up with the dog.
I love my wife, so we packed up Tippy and Sunny and took the drive up to meet Glenna and Jim and the pack of rescues sharing their home. A rather large pack, as it turned out.
I was interested in this one black dog, because I had never seen a black Irish Setter but the features were similar even if the color was off. Perhaps a crossbreed, but a very fine dog.
As I was trying to interact with the black dog, one of the red ones kept inserting himself, and that is how I met Max. Turned out, Max had already won over Tracy and it took him no time to nail me…..sorry, black dog.
Max had come into Rescue as a neglect case. Not neglect on purpose. His human died, and when it became obvious that caring for Max required more than dropping some kibble in the back yard every couple of days, his human’s heirs signed him over to Irish Setter Rescue of North Texas.
Tippy and Sunny were fine with Max, so that was not an issue. But Glenna laid it on us that we were not the only ones who had applied for Max.
As we went out the front door, Max walked with us…and seemed terribly disappointed when we left him. Glenna told us not to look at fostering Max as a competition with the other applicants.
We talked all the way back to Georgetown, and it WAS a competition with the other applicants because Max had picked us without even a home visit.
It was not terribly long when Glenna made the drive in reverse with Max to do the home visit. They both inspected our fenced back yard and when Max came back inside, he parked himself on the sofa as if he had lived in this house forever.
As it happened, Max did live in this house forever in dog years. I knew he was a grey muzzle when we got him and his legs were giving out. I’ve turned grey and my legs are giving out.
Max and I were pals. It turned out the head of the pet club was wrong and fosters did count. Our next door neighbor complained about Max woofing. We took many steps to keep the woofing to a minimum but the complaint was there and I dusted off my dormant law license and set about the time-honored tactic called the Lawyer Stall. I was confident I could make that complaint live longer than Max.
Were we pals? When Max got to the point where we had to hold his rear in a sling so he could get around, I would use the sling to bring him into the bedroom and put him in the big dog bed we got when he could no longer manage the leap into a people bed.
The next morning, I would find that Max had drug himself across the floor and gone to sleep on the hard tile next to the head of my bed. I could reach down and pet him right after he woofed me awake to take him outside. I put a rug next to the spot Max had picked so he would not have to sleep on the tile. The dog bed was too big to fit.
I bought a long ramp to cover the back steps so we could walk him down at a gentle angle with the sling.
Money can’t solve all problems or even most. You don’t want to know how many years it took me to learn that after being raised in poverty. The time finally came. When Max started making messes in the house, we were OK just cleaning it up, but he was humiliated every time and the downward spiral of his happiness would take another dip.
At one point, I was trying to walk Max with a leash and a sling. I got the leash tangled up and we both went down. Luckily, in the front yard. I had to lie there for 20 or 30 minutes before somebody came by to help me up, Max looking concerned and licking my hand the whole time. It was not his fault, but he took it that way and apparently thought he had hurt me.
When it got to the point where Max’s misery outweighed his pleasure, we called the vet. We pay extra for house calls, so our animals do not have to die in a strange and scary place. On his last day, Max got two of his favorite things: a car ride and a hamburger party.
It was so hard. I loved that dog even though I did not start out wanting a dog.
Without Irish Setter Rescue of North Texas, this story would not have happened and I would not have been graced in my elder years with the presence of Max. He was only with us a little over a year, but it seemed like he had been with us forever.
The rule about dogs is reversed now for me, so I can never adopt another puppy, and it will be a while before I’ll be emotionally prepared to take on another grey muzzle. I’ll be following Max relatively soon, and I am reminded of the words of my favorite Cherokee, Will Rogers:
If there are no dogs in heaven, then when I die I want to go where they went.
Previously published on Medium.com.
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