When We Rescue a Dog, Who's Saving Whom?

Skull of a dumped dog in a part of Dallas depicted in Amy Martyn's story last September, where stray dogs roam and abandoned pets go to die.
Skull of a dumped dog in a part of Dallas depicted in Amy Martyn's story last September, where stray dogs roam and abandoned pets go to die.
Dylan Hollingsworth

This is about the price of dogs. Mary (not her real name) inherited Barcelona (not her real name) from her daughter Anna (not her real name). Mary and Anna are friends of mine. Barcelona is the dog.

Barcelona had been Anna’s dog at college, but Anna was moving far away from Dallas for graduate school, and Barcelona was not at all in the plan. Mary and her husband, Bill (you guessed it), had given Barcelona to Anna as a gift. The whole family has sort of a taste for fashion, so Barcelona was, of course, a fancy high-end thoroughbred dog that cost a lot of money.

Fancy or not, Mary said, Barcelona was not coming in the house. She would be strictly a backyard dog — bowl of greasy water and a bone, maybe some tick spray in the summer — but that dog was not moving into Mary’s Park Cities home. That lasted 24 hours. After that, Barcelona was sleeping between Bill and Mary on their bed, head on a pillow.

Very hard times followed — a business failure, the sale of their beloved home, illness, a year or more knocking around among various apartments and rent houses before Bill found a beautiful old place to buy in a small town. During those long months Barcelona was Mary’s rock, her laughing place, the one thing that never changed, a loving, loyal friend who never even noticed their reduced circumstances as long as she got to put her head on the pillow.

But she died. It was right before they found the new house. It had to happen. Barcelona was old. Dogs get old too fast. In fact it came at one of their worst moments: Mary and Bill had to stop what they were doing, put aside their own worries and pressures and take Barcelona to the vet to be put down. They wept.

Everyone told Mary to get another dog. She searched online for one of the same breed, but now the prices were way above their heads. And then she found the perfect dog, still a puppy, on a rescue site for the breed. When she examined the ad more closely, she realized the owner was someone she knew from the Park Cities.

But the price was still too high. She told the woman to keep her name anyway, in case no one else took the puppy, but she hung up glumly, knowing that was a fat chance.

A few hours later the woman called back. She was sort of beside herself. She said she had been thinking and thinking of all the kindness and generosity Mary had extended to her over the years. “I don’t know what I was thinking,” she said. “Come and get the dog. She’s yours.”

They named the new dog Pamplona (sorry, still a fake name). Even though she was still immature, Pamplona was a gorgeous exemplar of her breed. She pranced through their new home, filling it with goofy youth and hope, a symbol of their hard-earned new start in life.

Pamplona reached the age when she needed to be spayed, since they did not intend to breed her. But Bill was worried about big vet bills. Against Mary’s wishes, he carried her to a “spay and neuter” clinic where the operation was much cheaper.

For a few days afterward Pamplona grew successively more listless, finding her way tentatively to water, then collapsing. They took her to a vet. He couldn’t tell what was wrong. They took her home. She died.

The spay clinic had done a bad job sewing her up. Slowly over a period of days she had bled to death internally. Mary and Bill were devastated. Anna, now home again, was determined to do something for them.

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Mary’s impulse — I think from habit, because she really wasn’t a dog person, because all she knew of dogs was from these two — was to return to the same fancy breed and try to find a clone of Barcelona and Pamplona. Anna was insistent that this would be a mistake. What her mother needed, she said, was to reach out and save a dog the way her two pets had saved her.

I can only imagine that it was not an easy sell. I said to myself, “Oh, yeah, Mary’s going to accept some beat-up rescue dog like she’s going to start wearing other people’s used sneakers.” But as usual in matters of the heart, I was entirely wrong.

How much of human behavior toward animals will be changed by laws, and how much more may be altered by fundamental changes in the human heart and soul?
How much of human behavior toward animals will be changed by laws, and how much more may be altered by fundamental changes in the human heart and soul?
Dylan Hollingsworth

After days of searching, Mary found a dog, and, yes, he had been a fancy breed when he started out in life. But now he was the physical antithesis of Barcelona and Pamplona.

This dog’s history was known, for some reason. He had been a pet, but he got ditched at some point. Maybe when his owner took off for grad school, the owner’s mother kicked him out or simply failed to keep track of him properly.

Whatever happened, his face looked like an old boot somebody had been using for target practice. Out on his own without any street sense, he had been repeatedly attacked by stray dogs and was barely alive when rescuers found him. His face is the nightmare any good pet owner fears when a beloved pet goes stray. How will they fare? Badly.

I can’t make up a name for him, because I don’t know yet what his real name is. But I already know this: Whatever those first two dogs meant to Mary and Bill, this dog will mean more. The first two rescued them. They will rescue this dog. That’s where their own final healing will be — not in receiving but in giving.

Last September Amy Martyn wrote a truly heartrending story here about people who abandon and dump dogs in Dallas and the heroes who go out to rescue those animals. The human brutality, cruelty and stupid irresponsibility portrayed in her story made me angry, of course. It made me yearn for some kind of law to punish people like that.

But how much human behavior gets changed by threat of punishment versus the change that can be brought about by peer pressure, by true and deep changes in our shared values as human beings? I always think of smoking. Obviously the vast changes there in my own lifetime have had a lot to do with lung cancer. But I think it may have had even more to do with social values. We could argue that one, I suppose.

But as animals come deeper into our lives and deeper into our hearts and caring, the value we assign to their lives must necessarily ascend. In the long run that will be the answer to the abuses reported in Martyn’s story. We will respect people who respect the lives of animals, and we will despise those who don’t. Over time, that’s what will make the difference.

I changed their names, even the names of their dogs, because I really don’t want you to know who they are. Sorry. It’s private. But their story is the story of us all. Animals offer all of us love and loyalty. Our responsibility for their welfare — all of them, all of their welfare — is the right price to pay for their presence in our lives.


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